December 24, 2010

He's Making a List ...

One of the curiousities of this ridiculous challenge I've set for myself is that I (almost) never read new books. Going back through everything I've read this year I wasn't surprised to discover that I haven't cracked open a single book that was published in 2010. So my 'Best Books of 2010' list has a very personal flavour: these aren't books from 2010, they're books from my 2010. I hope that's okay ...

My best books of 2010 are:

10. The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

Fast, brutal, funny and thought-provoking ... all that good science fiction should be.

A lot of 'classic sci-fi' turns out to be kind of crap, because, well, those guys were churning out stuff to make a buck and had, for the most part, turned to sci-fi because they weren't capable of writing anything else. Not Bester. He can write. Gully Foyle, his protagonist, is bitter, obsessed, thoroughly unlikable and utterly magnetic. He starts out seeking revenge on those who left him stranded in space to die, and ends up a fully-fledged revolutionary fighting to overthrow the whole damn system. It's awesome.

9. Columbine by Dave Cullen

I went through a phase between the ages of about ten and thirteen when I read a lot of (pretty sensationalised) true crime books. Man, they don't make 'em like they used to. Cullen's book was ten years in the writing and astutely examines the Columbine high school shooting from every conceivable angle: from the tales of the victims and survivors to the ensuing media frenzy, to a painstaking reconstruction of the events themselves. All of this journalistic work circles around a horrifying vortex: the portrait he paints of the killers themselves, and their motivations. With access to huge amounts of documentation they left behind (notebooks, videos, etc.) that have hitherto been seen only by police, Cullen is able to offer some explanation for an event that, until I read this book, seemed utterly inexplicable. Not pleasant reading, but pretty amazing nonetheless.

8. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

 Two sisters live with their feeble old uncle in a decaying mansion just outside a small town. Something terrible happened in the past and the girls, left entirely to their own devices, have constructed an elaborate make-believe mythology to rule over their every waking moment. The younger sister, Merricat, buries charms and totems around the property to ward off change, but when their cousin Charles arrives wanting to get into their safe, her delicate world crumbles in sublimely spooky fashion. An itty-bitty masterpiece, I have to thank my friend Hannah for putting me on to it.
7. The System of the World by Neal Stephenson

This is the third and final volume in Stephenson's 2500-page Baroque Cycle, and he saved the best for last. It's fiction on a staggering scale. Basically, the novels together (roughly) cover the years from 1650 to 1720 in Europe. Stephenson weaves together the earliest beginnings of modern scientific thought (Isaac Newton is a pivotal character), the beginnings of modern politics (religious views --- Catholic or Protestant? --- were slowly solidifying into political views --- Whig or Tory?), and the beginnings of modern finance (the great change when lumps of precious metals turned into standardised coins, which led to paper money, which led to stocks and bonds) ... in a nutshell, the template for our modern lives was being written in those times. And Stephenson jumbles all that amazing history together with a rip-snorting adventure story. With pirates. It's extraordinary.

6. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

In my Year 12 Literature class we studied Dickens' David Copperfield, and I hated it, and never finished it. So I was dreading reading Great Expectations ... it ended up on my shelves as one of those 'I really should read that one day ...' books, that I never thought I actually would read, and which could stay on my shelves and make me look smart until judgement day. Until I was foolish enough to take on this stupid challenge ... and I'm so glad I did. Because Great Expectations is wonderful. Dickens writes with such warmth, such wit, such sympathy. Pip, a young man who imagines himself above his station, is suddenly removed from that station and brought up as a 'gentleman'. What follows explores all the faultlines in traditional notions of class with a curious mixture of savagery and tact, that no writer of today could ever hope to ape. Some classics are over-rated. Not this one.

5. The Corner by David Simon and Ed Burns

I've already sung the praises of this book on my blog. Check out my review here.

4. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

Hee hee, I've already waxed lyrical about this one as well. Next years 'Best of' Blog will be so easy to write ... nothing but links!

3. Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

Anyone interested in stories should, at some point, read the original Brothers Grimm fairytales. They're dark, funny, archetypal, and hint at a centuries-old tradition of oral story-telling that is the skeleton of every (western) fiction ever written (I'm not knowledgeable enough to comment on non-western story-telling traditions). What the Grimms are missing, however, is complex characterisations ... there's only so much nuance you can get into the stepmother, the woodcutter and the wicked witch. Lanagan, an Australian author, re-tells a Grimm fairytale but populates it with credible, complicated, real people. It's a startling imaginative feat, and what she's ended up with is rare and beautiful: an entire novel that glows with the tender simplicity of a fable. It's a dark book, about how to live with the knowledge that darkness exists, and that your children will one day know it too. A wondrous book. More of these, please, Australian publishers!

2. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

And here's the book Dickens would have written if not for those pesky social mores that meant he couldn't really tell it like it was. Crimson Petal is a Victorian novel in everything but sensibility: it's sprawling, it covers a range of social classes, some of its characters have humourously onomatopoeic names ... but it's honest. Early on, Faber recounts in exquisite, unflinching, horrifying detail just what Sugar, his prostitute heroine, has to do to keep herself from getting pregnant, and you know you're in for something out of the ordinary. It's difficult to define what's great about this book: the research into the reality of day-to-day Victorian lives is one thing, but it's the way it's presented that makes the book spectacular. Faber's writing treads the fine line of pastiche with consumate skill, and is never less than enthralling. I couldn't put the damn thing down, and Faber is close to making the very short list of writers of whom I will, before I die, read everything they've ever written. It's that good.

1. The Complete Short Stories by J.G. Ballard

The first spot on my 'writers-who-I'm-going-to-read-everything-of-before-I-die' list belongs to J.G. Ballard. He is my favourite author in the world, and reading this enormous collection (1200 pages long, spanning more than 35 years) is as near as little ol' agnostic me will ever come to reading a religious text. So many brilliant ideas! The man's imagination was frightening. At their best (Billenium, The Drowned Giant, The Ultimate City) these stories have as much to tell us about the world as any art I've ever come across. I can't think of any higher praise than that.

I should stress that Ballard is not for everyone, though. Start with his novel Crash ... if you like that tale of people who get sexual release from deliberately crashing their cars, then maybe he's for you.

And that was my year. Oh, the worst books I read? I hated Devices and Desires by K.J. Parker, it was everything that was bad about contemporary fantasy: turgidly written and ludicrously plotted. And, heresy of heresies, I read The Picture of Dorian Gray and simply cannot understand why it is so beloved. It's not witty, its characters are dull dull dull, and it criminally squanders a great concept. Please, if you're a fan, enlighten me: why?

Merry Christmas! JC

currently reading: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
books to go: 116

December 9, 2010

The Woman in the Dunes (#117)

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe

What I said then:

"A bonkers-looking Japanese book about a man who gets taken hostage in a desert."

What I say now:

As a fan of all things Japanese and bonkers (in my estimation, 'bonkers' is high praise indeed), I was really looking forward to this, but it didn't quite live up to expectations.

An amateur entymologist, who remains unnamed for nearly the entire length of the book, travels to a tiny beach-side village to look for insects in the sand dunes. He notices that the village is arranged curiously: each house sits at the bottom of a deep hollow in the sand, almost as if the dunes are crashing over the village like waves. Having missed the last bus, he accepts the villagers' hospitality, climbing down a rope ladder to share a woman's house at the bottom of a sand-pit ... but when he wakes up, the ladder is gone. The sand is too steep to climb or dig out, and he finds himself a prisoner. The villagers force him to work, shovelling sand all night lest the house be buried, and the bulk of the plot is concerned with his attempts to escape and his curious relationship with the woman who's stuck down there with him.

This book swings wildly between being pretty great and pretty dull. Once the man is in the hole, it works best when it concentrates on being a micro-drama of man versus nature, as the man tries to figure out a way to escape with the extremely limited tools available to him. As Abe methodically takes his character through different stages of anger and depression and hysteria, and lets him try scheme after scheme to make his escape, the book is strangely exciting.

Unfortunately, it's marred by a couple of things. One is Abe's insistence on philosophising about the meaning of the man's predicament, and about the meaning of sand itself. I've never been a big fan of jamming non-fiction essay-type writing into the middle of a story (eg. the annoying section in 1984 where Winston Smith sits down and reads a book about how his world works), and either Abe or his translator does it without a whole lot of elegance. Supposedly it's a classic of existentialist literature, but for a brilliant example of a novel that contains philosophical themes without being weighed down by them, check out The Plague by Albert Camus, one of my very favourite books --- yes, I am a wanker, but at least I didn't say The Outsider.

There's also a large-ish section in the middle of the book where the character has a mental and physical breakdown and, for a time, the book stops making any sense at all.

Take those sections out and it's probably not long enough to call itself a novel, but it would have been a much better story. Oh well.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
books to go: 116

December 7, 2010

'A Bachelor's Fridge' --- short story

I had another 20 Melbourne Writers meeting last night. The image/challenge for this month was simply: "The Fridge," which I found lovely and vague and really difficult to write about. The story I ended up with works as a kind of companion piece to 'The Piggery', my last 20mw piece, but this time showing everything from the point of view of one of the horrible guys.

A Bachelor's Fridge

Caitlin always did the cooking. I helped out a bit, cut up vegies or grated cheese or whatever, but she was the wizard in the kitchen. I’m not a misogynist or anything, I’m just hopeless. Left to my own devices I’ve still got the tastebuds of a twelve-year-old, and the skills to match. If I don’t eat out, or don’t have cash left to order in, I’ll usually end up having Doritos for dinner, or something like that. If I’m feeling really virtuous I might bung in a microwave pizza or something. That’s about as good as it gets.

When Marieke woke up this morning and checked out the fridge, she laughed her head off. There was nothing in there but a half-empty tub of Meadow Lea and some mayonnaise that’s about four years old. So we went out for breakfast instead.


I was at Toff last night with my mates Brendan and Phil. First Saturday night I’d gone out in a while. I was thinking of piking, but Phil knows me too well: he rocked up at my apartment with a bottle of Jameson’s and bullied me into getting ready. I was feeling a bit more up-for-it with a few shots in me.

The fucker even picked out my clothes for me, wouldn’t let me wear the nice black and purple shirt that Caitlin brought back from Holland for me. He said it made me look like a pussy. Then he played Xbox while I showered and shaved.

We got into the city about midnight. Normally a bunch of guys with no chicks would never get into Toff that late, but Brendan’s cousin Jenna came down with a couple of her friends and helped us past the bouncers. Once we were inside, Phil decided straight away that Jenna’s friends didn’t cut it, and dragged us away. ‘They’ll still be there at the end of the night,’ he said. ‘They can be the backup plan, for if we strike out.’

And that was all the action we got for about three hours. Phil tried to buy a drink for a cute little Asian chick, but she was the DJs girlfriend. Every girl that caught my eye had a boyfriend bag hanging from her arm. The only single chicks were the fucking eighteen-year-olds, wobbling about on the heels they don’t know how to wear yet, having three drinks and passing out. As Phil said, any one of them was probably a sure thing, but I’ve still got some standards.

‘What about that one?’ he asked, pointing to a redhead wearing a bad-fitting op-shop dress and a bright green cardigan.

‘I don’t want to go to jail,’ I replied. Just looking at her made me feel old. I’m not sure when it happened, but now I’m always one of the oldest people in the bars I go to. Next thing you know I’ll be having afternoon naps. Brendan and Phil’s master plan to make me feel better wasn’t exactly working.

Then the Germans arrived. Three of them for three of us, all of them skinny and blonde, it was perfect. In tatty denim skirts and t-shirts, they were obviously backpackers, and lining up for Cowboys the instant they arrived, they were obviously out for a good time.

It was hilarious, watching the attention of every unattached guy in the place zero in on them. Hell, even the boyfriends in the room were shooting glances at them. Elsa, the one with the long hair, leaned way over to tell the bartender a joke and the whole place stopped to stare at her arse. Course we did: it was a fucking good arse.

Now, there are times when having a mate like Phil is about as much fun as being shot out of a cannon into a net made of glass. But there are times when he’s a magician, and this was one of those times. ‘I’m not fussed, you guys pick your favourites,’ he said, then got up and strolled over to the laughing girls.

‘Is he … ?’ Brendan muttered under his breath. ‘Oh fuck, he is.’

Phil walked straight up to the long-haired one and pulled out his wallet and told her to put her money away. She looked him up and down. Phil’s not the best-looking bloke in the world, but he goes to the gym and that, and he dresses well, and he obviously passed the test. The girl smiled and laughed and leaned in to his ear to say something. Phil handed the bartender a fifty, and I doubt he got much change back from it.

Then he pointed us out to the girls. Brendan and me probably looked ridiculous, just gaping at them like slack-jawed morons. ‘You got a preference?’ Brendan said to me in an undertone as Phil herded the girls back to our table.

‘What? Nah, you choose,’ I said.

‘Leave it up to the gods then …’

I stood up and cajoled a chair away from the guys at the table next to us. They tried not to look jealous of our luck, but jesus, they failed miserably. I think they left pretty soon after that, with their tails between their legs.

Anyway, it’s way too loud in that kind of bar to have a group conversation, so the six of us just naturally turned into couples.

I was pretty happy: Marieke was the cutest of the three girls in my book. Smaller than the other two, who were total glamazons, Marieke had her hair cut short into a neat little bob, she was wearing glasses with thick black frames, and her t-shirt read ‘Weyland-Yutani Corp’ which got me on side straight away. She was stoked that I recognised it and we spent about half an hour debating which was better out of Alien and Aliens, and bitching about the crappy fourth one with Winona Ryder. And fuck me, we drank a lot. German girls can seriously party.

Phil pulled first. Of course. He escorted Elsa out to the balcony for a cigarette, even though he’s never smoked in his life, and they never came back. The four of us who were left all got texts at the same time. Phil’s message to me and Brendan read: “If we dont get a cab soon im fucking her in th street!!!” I dunno what Elsa wrote to her friends, but they fell off their chairs laughing at it.

Well. Honestly, the night gets hazy after that. I remember that the last girl, the one whose name I never caught, ended up sitting on Brendan’s lap. I remember that I finally got drunk enough to get up and dance, Marieke leading me by the hand. I don’t remember making a dick of myself on the dancefloor, but that’s probably what happened.

Then I lost Phil and his chick, then I was pashing Marieke in a dark booth, then we were pashing in a cab, then I was outside my apartment fumbling for my keys. Somewhere in there I must have said the right thing, but I don’t know what it was.

The sex was pretty good, what I remember of it. She didn’t mind being on top; some girls hate it, I don’t know why. She was real different to Caitlin. Rougher, in a weird way. Her bony arse kept slamming down on me, I thought maybe I’d be bruised in the morning. Caitlin liked a slow build, the foreplay and all that – she liked me to undress her. Marieke didn’t even bother taking her clothes off, she was still wearing her skirt and her bra through the whole thing. And everyone’s sex noises are different, obviously, but it was still weird hearing Marieke choofing like a marathon runner when I was so used to Caitlin’s cute little high-pitched yelps.

Still, different can be good. Y’know?


We didn’t go out for breakfast the next day. I lied about that.

I’d gotten used to sleeping in an empty bed, so the heat of her body woke me up earlier than I would’ve liked. I couldn’t get comfortable, and eventually my tossing and turning woke her up as well.

We made out a little bit, in a lazy kind of a way, but we both had shocking breath from the night before, so it wasn’t sexy like it should be. I couldn’t really suggest we both brush our teeth then hop back in bed, could I? Anyway, Marieke didn’t really seem like she was into it.

She got up first, tracking down her clothes and pulling them on roughly. I’d managed to get her skirt off her eventually, but only right before we went to sleep. So she got dressed again, and that was when she went looking for some food.

‘Jesus,’ she called from the kitchen. ‘This is the saddest fridge I’ve ever seen. There’s nothing in here.’

‘Yeah, sorry,’ I yelled back.

‘And … you don’t even have anything stuck to the outside …’

I needed a piss, so I rolled out of bed and into the bathroom.

‘… It’s terrible,’ she was saying through the door. ‘You have all these little silly magnets, but they’re not holding anything up. Did there ever used to be anything?’

Well, fuck. I just wanted her to shut up. I finished pissing, but I didn’t go back out there. I couldn’t. I sat down on the dunny and put my head in my hands. I don’t know how it started, or why, but all of a sudden I was crying. Fucking sobbing actually. For the first time in … in years.

‘Are you okay?’ she asked softly. She’d come right up to the bathroom door. ‘Is it about last night? Don’t be sad, that happens sometimes to every guy, I didn’t mind …’

I wasn’t even really listening to her by then. I was thinking about my fridge. About my sour milk and ancient mayonnaise. And about the empty fridge door. Caitlin had taken all the photos when she left, and for the first time I realised how much I missed them.

Story notes:
  • Writing this story was like birthing a rhinoceros. Anyone who knows me at all well knows that this whole 'nightclubs/booze/random sex' milieu is just not my thing. I got about halfway through the story and found it really difficult to continue, probably because A) I didn't want to reward my narrator's neanderthal-ness by letting him actually pick up a cute German, and B) because I'd always planned that I'd try and win some sympathy for him in the final section, but I personally hate him and his meathead mates so much that I didn't especially want to. That's why (to me, at any rate), the ending where he starts crying and stuff feels really tacked on. I just wanted to end the damn thing.
  • His fridge is modelled on my own. I don't stick shit to the outside of my fridge and, because I only tend to buy food as I need it, there are times when it gets pretty darn empty. Any other similarities between me and him are purely coincidental, I promise.
  • Oh, except I have been known to have Doritos for dinner, on nights when I'm feeling particularly hopeless. (Oh God, I've ... I've revealed too much ... *begins sobbing*) 
  • The issue of my machine-gun approach to profanity raised its head again at the meeting last night. My excuse, of course, is that it's written in the first-person. When I write in the third-person I don't go dropping F-bombs like Slim Pickens. For this guy, though, I'm just trying to keep it real. If anything, I overwrote him: "I'm not a misogynist ..." isn't really a thought I'd consider him capable of having, let alone expressing.
  • I was experimenting with having an unreliable narrator, where what you can read between the lines is just as important as what's actually written. However, given the limits of the short story form, I'd say that's likely to be more successful in a novel, where you've got the room to build the audience's trust in the narrator's voice, then have the revelations of his unreliability come in a more subtle way.
Well, I hope that hasn't ruined anybody's day!

Cheers, JC 

currently reading: The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe
books to go: 116