December 31, 2011

Stand on Zanzibar (#94)

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner.

What I said then:

Classic sci-fi that, according to the blurb at least, seems strangely prescient.

What I say now:

Oh. What a fool I am.

After my disastrous experience reading Jane Eyre over the Christmas period last year, when this December rolled around I thought 'How 'bout a sci-fi classic this time? How dense and difficult could it possibly be? It's probably an action-packed romp!'

I picked the wrong God-damn sci-fi classic. I was hoping for something as fun and exhilarating as The Stars My Destination, and I didn't get it.

Written in the late sixties but set in 2010, Brunner's world is grossly overpopulated. In the west, Eugenics Boards give licenses to bear children only to those with clean genes. Post-colonial Africa can't feed itself. Nobody knows what China's up to, as it has closed its borders. Psychologically unable to deal with the crowding in the cities, people frequently snap and run amok (becoming 'mukkers'), killing, starting riots, and generally going off the deep end. The plot of the book, such as it is, centres on two room-mates: Norman, an African-American, heads a giant American corporation's plan to basically buy an entire African country; and Donald, who is plucked from his indolent lifestyle and transformed into an assassin and spy, then sent to abduct a third-world geneticist who's made a startling discovery.

I say "the plot of this book, such as it is" because Brunner has a pretty unique approach to narrative: the whole thing is made up of hundreds of miniscule chapters, many of which have no connection (or very little connection) to anything else that's happening elsewhere in the novel. Often the various narratives stop dead so we can be treated to an avalanche of snippets from TV shows, or conversations on the street, or advertisements, or the collected works of an obnoxious social theorist named Chad C. Mulligan, all offered in a context-less blitz on the senses. This is a very deliberate tactic on Brunner's part: as well as allowing him to give a wide-ranging view of his imagined world, its disorientating effect is deliberately supposed to provoke a feeling of 'information overload' in the reader. There exists in the novel a super-computer named Shalmaneser which processes vast quantities of information from all over the world, looking for patterns. The layout of the novel forces us, the reader, to attempt to do the same. I guarantee you won't know who everybody is all the time, but that's okay, you're not really supposed to.

Unfortunately, that made it pretty much the worst possible book for me to read in the midst of the Christmas Retail Insanity I've been living through for the last few weeks. If I'd been a bit more alert and attentive I might have made more connections, understood it better, and liked it more. As I was reading, twisting the strands of the different stories together, I kept hoping that all this information would ultimately cohere into a satisfying novel.

Not much, however, could have made me satisfied with the way that Norman and Donald's twin narratives both petered out with endings that were not remotely satisfying. Norman's tale, in particular, had a 'Seriously?!?!?' ending, that made me feel that slogging through 650 pages (maybe 150 of which featured Chad Fucking Mulligan) to get there. Very briefly: the African nation Beninia that Norman's company wants to both exploit and help (for a pretty cynical book, the corporation's motives are strangely un-arsehole-ish), has a history of non-violence that is remarkable --- despite grinding poverty and multiple warring tribal groups spilling over the borders, there hasn't been a single murder in fifteen years --- and which needs an explanation. And the explanation sucked big time.

While certainly interesting, I could only recommend this one to big sci-fi fans who are willing to find pleasure in the incidental details of an imaginary world. Brunner's setting is really very convincing, well thought through and imaginative. The way he applies that setting to the telling of a story is less convincing.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Ghostwritten by David Mitchell
books to go: 93

December 22, 2011

My Year of Regrets

Sorry about the silence on here recently. I don't have any other excuse other than to say that it's December, and I work in retail. If you've gone into a shop of any kind in the last two weeks, you'll know what I'm talking about.

On a happier note, that whole 'Death of the Book' thing that people have been going on about doesn't seem to actually be a thing that's happening. At all. At least, not if the store I work in is any sort of a guide. (Shameless plug: Avenue Bookstore in Albert Park, Melbourne. Come see us sometime.) You can't really give an e-book as a gift, can you? Even if it's only because of Christmas, the ink-and-paper kind of book will still be around for a long, long time.

Anyway, it's December, and I'm fucking exhausted (see picture). Hence, no blogs recently.

Starting today, though, you'll be getting a positive avalanche of year-end round-up type posts. Rather than the usual 'I liked/didn't like X, Y and Z,' I thought I'd begin with something slightly different.

This whole 'reading the stuff I already own' project is hard on two levels: one, there's a bunch of stuff I own that I figured I'd never read, ever (*cough* Proust *cough* Homer *cough* shitloads of others as well *cough*) and ploughing through them all will, at times, be a massive chore. But second, and by my reckoning even harder, is the fact that there are heaps of awesome-looking books being released all the time. And, working in a bookstore, I'm aware of every single bloody one of them. And they're always sitting there, right in the corners of my eyes, taunting me. So this first 2011 summation is not about books I've read, it's about books that have come out that I've really wanted to read, and haven't. These are my 'Regrets of the Year.'

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips.

Arthur Phillips is the main character of his own novel, and the first part of the book details his youth, travelling the country with his itinerant, conman father and Shakespeare-obsessed sister. When his father, in jail for life, bequeaths the adult Arthur Phillips a complete 'lost' Shakespeare play called, funnily enough, The Tragedy of Arthur, he has no idea if it's genuine, or if it's his dad's last great sting. Sharing a similar structure to Nabokov's Pale Fire, the main text of the novel is the fictional Arthur Phillips' introduction to the also-fictional Shakespeare play, which is then reproduced in its full five-act glory at the end of the book.

Having the balls to write an entire play in Shakespearian language is one thing, pulling it off to such an extent that critics are raving is quite another. And, now that somebody's thought of it, who doesn't want to read a Shakespeare-type play dealing with Arthurian legend? A number of my colleagues have been going mental about this Tragedy of Arthur, and I really want to join in.

The Submission by Amy Waldman.

After the destruction of the World Trade Center, a competition is held for architects to design the memorial. To ensure the contest's fairness, it's conducted 'blind' --- nobody knows who designed which entry. The jury, which includes survivors and relatives of victims, finally come to a decision, open the envelope containing the winner's name ... and discover that they've chosen a design by an American Muslim. Cue political and emotional fallout.

There hasn't been an enormous amount of serious fiction dealing with the events of 9/11, and what there has been (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer and Falling Man by Don DeLillo are the two that immediately come to mind), I haven't read. This rather simple concept strikes me as an elegant way of tackling the issues that arose in the aftermath of the attacks. In particular, it raises the question of 'Where Islam stands in relation to the West?' in a more nuanced way than is usual, and it explores the notion that an inclusive multi-culturalism is necessary for the success of pluralist democracies, and more necessary now than ever.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu.

Trying to summarise this insanely-confusing-sounding book without having actually read it is probably the ultimate in foolish attempts at summation. Here goes anyway: our main character, Charles Yu, is a time-travel repairman who lives in his time machine so that time doesn't have to actually move forward. His dad invented time travel, then went missing. While trying to find the one day in the future where he and his father get to meet, Charles winds up stuck in a loop where he's both reading and writing a book called 'How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.' After that, I've no idea what the hell happens.

That's as much as I've been able to piece together from blurbs, reviews, and talking to a regular at the store who's read it and loved it. With this and Tragedy of Arthur (and Crash), I obviously have a thing for meta-fiction in which the author uses himself as the main character. I do love sci-fi, but a lot of what's coming out these days seems stuck in a bit of a rut, and this one caught my eye because it felt new and different and, bravest of all, fun.

The Toaster Project by Thomas Thwaites.

The only non-fiction on this list, The Toaster Project details Thwaites' attempt to build a toaster from scratch. That sounds reasonably simple, doesn't it? But what if I tell you that the simplest electric toaster he can find has 407 distinct parts? And that when he says 'from scratch,' he really means it? As in, he begins by visiting mines in Wales and digging metals out of the ground. There ain't no 'heading to the hardware store' here, he learns to smelt (I'm not even sure what smelting is), and he makes his own plastic ... pretty badly, if the picture on the cover is anything to go by.

Post industrial revolution, the vast majority of us are so disconnected from the fruits of our labour that the concept of making something with our bare hands is ridiculous. Right now I'm typing on a keyboard, looking at a monitor, and posting on the internet, but I have no clue how any of those things work, or what processes are needed to call them into existence. Thwaites' quest might be a little silly (what good quest isn't?), but I suspect that what this book has to say about the products we use so unthinkingly, and where they come from, might just be fascinating. 

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.

The other four books on this little list are by authors I've never read before. This one's a bit different. Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex is one of the great books of this shiny new millenium, a beautiful novel that links the life story of a transgendered person with the history of the twentieth century, and uses the juxtaposition to shine new light on both. It's really stunning, and if you haven't read it, you damn well should.

So as soon as I heard that Eugenides had a new book coming, The Marriage Plot jumped to the top of my 'read that when I get a chance' pile. Everybody at the store was just as excited as me. We badgered the publisher's rep to get us advance copies. We chose it as the monthly read for our in-store bookclub. We were pumped.

Then it arrived, and people started reading it, and word trickled back to me. 'It's ... okay,' was the verdict. 'But it's no Middlesex.' And then I started reading the reviews. If I had to sum up the literary world's reaction to The Marriage Plot in one word, it would be 'disappointing.' My regret with this one is more to do with timing: I should have struck when the iron was hot, reading it when my expectation was peaking. Now it's no longer at the head of the queue of must-reads, and it'll probably be years, rather than months, before I bother. To feel this letdown by a book I haven't even read yet is probably stupid, but there it is.

So those are my top five regrets from 2011. When I get around to reading them, who knows whether I'll like them or not ... but until then I can still convince myself that they're five instant classics of indescribable beauty. (Not like Proust or Homer. That shit will never last ...)

Anybody got any recommendations for more good 2011 reads? Taunt me by sharing them in the comments. Please describe what's great about them in excruciating detail. I love it.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
books to go: 94

November 18, 2011

Revolutionary Road (#95)

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

What I said then: 

The absolute favourite book of one of my colleagues, I’m not letting myself watch the movie until I read it.

What I say now:

A large part of me was dreading reading Revolutionary Road, because it's the kind of book I tend to be pretty dismissive about: a high-minded, capital L 'Literary', examination of white, middle-class suburban life. I'm not saying a book like that can't be good (Revolutionary Road, as I'm about to tell you, is very God-damn good indeed), they're just not really my thing. I find them dull. In fact, I tend to find them just as dull as I'd find their characters, if I ever met them in real life. Yes, I'm looking at you, Jonathan Franzen. And Richard Ford. And the second, way-less-interesting, half of White Teeth. And I could go on and on.

(There's an element to this dislike which I'll probably go into with my therapist one day, to whit: I'm not interested in books about ... well ... me. White, middle-class people have all sorts of psychological weirdness going on beneath their seemingly calm exteriors? Yeah, no shit, I already know that because I've been paying attention to myself all this time. Come on, novelists, I want you to tell me something I don't already know.)

So ... I approached Rev Road with trepidation. And I finished it completely blown away. This is truly one of the great novels of the 20th century.

For those that, like me, haven't seen the movie, the fairly simple plot runs as follows: It's the late 50's and Frank and April Wheeler live in a neat suburban home. Frank takes the train into New York every morning for work, while April stays home with their two small children. And Frank and April hate their lives. It's much more complicated than that, obviously, but at heart the novel is about the couple's distaste for the pristine prison they've constructed for themselves, and the self-loathing caused by their failed attempts to escape it. There's nothing particularly new or exciting about the plot of Revolutionary Road. It's in the execution that it's electrifying.

When they write, nearly every author (and definitely every author working in 'realist fiction') is attempting to do something that ought to be impossible. They're trying to combine scratches of ink on paper in such a way that they can conjure up some kind of emotional truth, some kind of imaginary reality. And they're trying to do it so well that you, the reader, forget about the ink and the paper and buy into the emotion of things that never happened. The best way to make us forget the ink and paper is to write with clarity, never giving our brains that jolt that makes us look away from the page, that makes us remember that it's all imaginary.

Yates writes with a clarity that borders on perfection. Because Revolutionary Road exists, I kind of feel like I should never bother reading another realist novel, and that nobody should ever bother trying to write one, because it's simply not possible that it'll ever be done this well again. With brutal, forensic precision, Yates is able to delve right inside the heads of his characters and bring their psyches, kicking and screaming, into the light. Each word is the right word. Each sentence perfectly captures a single idea. Each line of dialogue they speak, each decision they make, each regret they harbour, adds its own little piece to our understanding of Frank and April.

To give give just one small example: several times throughout the novel, Frank changes his mind about things within the scene that we're reading. At the start of the scene, he's convinced of one thing, and by the end he's convinced himself of its exact opposite. In a lot of novels that might seem muddled or unclear to the reader, but it's because of Yates' clarity that he gets away with it. We understand Frank perfectly at both ends of the spectrum, and we've understood him at every single moment as he's slowly changed his views. Even though Frank himself is confused by his own addled thoughts, we readers never are.

If I had one small criticism, it would be that in the second half of the novel Yates begins to broaden his story out beyond Frank and April, letting other characters have their turns under his knife. It's not that those sections were weaker, it's just that part of me wishes that we'd stayed trapped with Frank and April through to the bitter end. Though, to be fair, that might have made it too harrowing to finish.

Anyway, read it. It's not a book that will entertain you, really (it took me a long time to read because I had to take a break after each chapter and think about it for a while), but it is a book that will astonish you.

(Oh, and as for the movie? I don't think I'll even bother now. The thing Revolutionary Road does so magnificently is the one thing that books will always be able to do better than movies; that is, get inside a character's head. Honestly, I can't even really fathom why you'd even try to adapt it, or how.) 

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
books to go: 94

October 18, 2011

Bluebeard (#96)

Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut

What I said then: 

Vonnegut’s a huge favourite of mine, to the point that I’ve had to ration his books out so that I don’t find myself with fifty years left to live but no new Vonnegut to read.

What I say now:

Of course, there's always a chance that I'll be hit by a car tomorrow. And as I lie on the road my last thought will surely be: Consarn it, now I wish I'd read every last Kurt Vonnegut novel as soon as I fell in love with the guy.

But at least I'll have read Bluebeard.

After Drood I figured I'd treat myself to one of the 'sure things' that's still on my shelves, to perk me up a bit, and Bluebeard didn't disappoint. If you haven't read Vonnegut before, his tone of voice is difficult to describe: he's like the perfect uncle you wish you had, both wise-cracking and wise. Honestly, his writing is a mess of contradictions, managing to be simultaneously hilarious and tragic, serious and silly, and best of all, sane and insane at the same time. And for as long as you're reading a Vonnegut book, that feels like the only possible way to respond to this mad, beautiful, cruel world we live in. He's a magician.

Rabo Karabekian, an Armenian-American Abstract Expressionist painter, has a cameo in Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions (his scene in that book is a favourite of mine), and is placed centre stage here. After the particular brand of paint he used for his art turns out to fall off the canvas after a while, he has become a laughing stock and is living out the last years of his life in relative seclusion. His comfortable decline is interrupted when a bossy know-it-all widow named Circe Berman shows up on his private beach and cajoles him into writing his autobiography. Bluebeard is that book, and it swings between Karabekian describing his ill-starred youth and relating the philosophical disagreements that arise between himself and Berman, who becomes his house-guest.

Spicing the book with occasional historical figures (Jackson Pollock figures prominently), Vonnegut gives us a potted history of the beginning of the Abstract Expressionist movement. However, it's the running commentary provided by the arguing Karabekian and Berman (she can't stand his collection of paintings, he can't satisfactorily explain them) which is the most fun. Their relationship --- snarky and adversarial, but still needy --- is a delight.

Sorry, this is a pretty crap review. I don't really know how to explain the appeal of Kurt Vonnegut to me. I've loved every one of his books that I've read. Reading the last third of Bluebeard on the train back from Wangaratta I laughed out loud on several occasions, and had to wipe tears from my eyes on several more. But for the life of me I can't dissect how he does it. Or maybe I don't want to dissect it.

So ... look. Go to a bookshop. Pick up a copy of Slaughterhouse Five. (That was the first book of his that I ever read, and it blew my mind apart. In a good way.) Stand in the store and read it until you come to the words "It ends like this: Poo-tee-weet?" In my edition, that's sixteen pages in. If, at that point, you haven't fallen head over heels for Kurt Vonnegut the way that I did (and still do), then I feel sorry for you. You won't know what you're missing.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Revolutionary Road by Kurt Vonnegut
books to go: 95

October 11, 2011

Drood (#97)

Drood by Dan Simmons

What I said then: 

A Victorian mystery which has Dickens and Wilkie Collins as its protagonists

What I say now:

It's possible that I did this book a major disservice by reading it immediately after I had read Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone. Simmons' book is told in the first person, from Wilkie Collins' point of view, and the fact that I was juxtaposing real Wilkie Collins with fake Wilkie Collins made the fake version nigh-on unbearable. Every time Simmons got the voice wrong (which was often) it jolted me out of the story. Maybe with a bit more time and space in between them, all of Simmons' infelicities of style wouldn't have been so noticeable, or bothered me so much. As it is, his effort at literary ventriloquism struck me as a complete and utter failure.

Even more unfortunately, the story was annoying as hell. Charles Dickens, returning from a trip to France with his mistress (and ... the mother of his mistress?!), is involved in a horrific train crash. As he helps to pull people from the wreckage, he encounters a mysterious apparition: a disquieting man in a long black opera cape, with no nose and severed fingers, who has a lisping hiss of a voice and is named Drood. Drood, may or may not be an Egyptian hypnotist, a master criminal, a serial killer, or a figment of Dickens' and his protege Wilkie Collins' imaginations, or all of the above. Over the next five years, the last of Dickens' life, Drood haunts, beguiles and terrifies the famous author, and casts an even greater shadow over the grasping, peevish, Collins who narrates our tale.

Drood is 800 pages long, and is stuffed with incident, but it was all so haphazardly thrown together that I'd struggle to elongate that brief summary. Soooo much happened, but it was all soooo meaningless. Not once, but several times, there would come some extraordinary revelation that should have changed everything about the relationship between Dickens and Collins, only when next they met, everything would go on exactly as before. Sometimes no reason was given for this break from cause & effect storytelling, and sometimes Simmons fell back on the excuse of hypnotism (mesmerism, he calls it) to explain why events have no seeming consequence. I couldn't tell you which annoyed me more. There's even one moment, I shit you not, when an entire chapter is explained away with the old 'Then I woke up and it was all a dream' chestnut. Doesn't everybody in the world know that trope is dramatic death? Doesn't everybody know never to use it?

Collins --- jealous, drug-addicted, psychopathic, possibly mad and possibly hypnotised --- is an unreliable narrator, but his unreliability is never utilised for any purpose. The best unreliable narrator stories will still, at their close, offer satisfaction to the reader because they'll explain how, why, and in what way their narrator was concealing the truth. When Simmons closes Drood he leaves us still completely in the dark as to how much of the preceding 800 pages was madness, how much was hypnotism, how much was exaggeration and how much was true. At that point it's not clever, it's just frustrating.

My other beef was with Simmons' insistence on cramming in every damn bit of research he could find, regardless of whether it served his story or not. So much of this novel (not half of the total word count, maybe, but probably a third) consisted of tidbits about Dickens, or about Collins, or about the time they lived in, that simply had no need to be there. There'd be entire chapters in which the story would stop dead in its tracks while we were treated to a lovingly detailed description of what Dickens and Collins got up to in February of 1861. Okay, okay, I'm over-stating the case there ... but I'm overstating it by less than you might think.

All in all, this was a crushing disappointment. I've got Hyperion, another Dan Simmons novel on my shelf. It might be a very long while before I pull that one down and give it a go.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut
books to go: 96

October 4, 2011

'First and Last Thoughts' --- short story

'Sup everybody. Drood is continuing to be boring as hell. I just checked the dates and holy shit, in three days I'll have been reading it for a whole frickin' month. Ugh. I've got Thursday off, so if I really plow through the ending maybe I can beat the one-month deadline.

Anyways, given the relative silence recently I thought I'd throw up an old story from one of the writing groups I used to be a part of. I dropped out of them earlier this year because I was embarking on a big writing project which has taken up a heap of my time and energy. I'll have more details on that 'big writing project' reasonably soon. Hopefully. (Ooo, mysterious!)

So this particular story was for the --- how can I put this? --- vastly sillier of the two writing groups, and the theme was Trashy Vampire Fiction. It may or may not be the funniest thing I've ever written, but it's certainly the dopiest. But before we begin, here's a little something to get you in the mood:

Remember, if you think the story sucks, you can always scroll back up and gaze into R-Pattz's horrifyingly dead eyes. On that note, enjoy!

First and Last Thoughts

Doctor Isabelle Lee’s first thought was that the girl was terrified.  Her second thought was that the boy’s hairstyle was ridiculous.  It swept upwards in artfully asymmetrical swoops and swirls, like a disaster of post-modern architecture, or like a half-melted soft-serve cone from McDonalds.  Her third thought was that, despite the hair, he was smoking hot.

It was nearing four a.m., and nearing the end of her shift in the E.R.  It had been a relatively quiet evening: most of the drug-related gunshot wounds and stabbings had had the good grace to be D.O.A., and she’d even been able to snatch moments of sleep in between signing off on them and sending them down to the morgue.

All her tiredness disappeared, however, as she gazed into the calm young man’s limpid green eyes.  She put his age at about sixteen, but his eyes seemed older somehow.  His skin was white, the pure white of a blank sheet of paper, as though there was no blood beneath the surface to stain it pink.  His lips, however, were brilliant red, and the contrast with his skin was dazzling.  They were like juicy fresh-picked strawberries perched atop a dollop of thick, luscious cream.

Isabelle became suddenly aware of her own skin, and began to feel hot underneath her scrubs.  For a brief moment, everything was forgotten—the hospital, the injured girl, her boyfriend Lorenzo waiting at home in their cramped apartment—everything was lost, except for him, and her.  Isabelle’s heart beat a tattoo against her ribs.

The boy smiled, a perfect dimple cleaving his hard, masculine chin.  ‘My girlfriend caught her tongue on something,’ he said.  ‘Could you take a look at it?’

His voice was unusually deep, and it shook through Isabelle like the bass in a nightclub.  It took her a moment to register what he’d actually said.

‘What?’  The world—the cruel grey world—came flooding back.  ‘Oh, yes, of course.  So, uhh, what seems to be the trouble?’

Turning to the girl, Isabelle again saw in an instant that something was scaring her out of her wits.

‘Mppffhhmm,’ she mumbled, refusing to open her mouth.  Isabelle pulled up a stool in front of her and laid her hand on the girl’s knee.

‘It’s okay.  You’re safe here.  What happened?’

In answer, the girl opened her mouth, revealing that her tongue had been shredded to ribbons.  She was a beautiful girl, Isabelle reflected.  Or, more accurately, she would be beautiful if her mascara hadn’t dripped to form black tear-streaks on her cheeks, and if her hair wasn’t in disarray, and if her clothes weren’t torn …

‘We were making out …’  The boy was stealthy; he had crept up behind Isabelle without a sound, and his deep voice purred into her ear.  Just hearing him say the words ‘making out’ in his Barry White-esque timbre made her lose herself.  A shiver ran down her spine and she shifted on her stool.  She grew damp, and not with sweat.

Staring blankly into the girl’s open mouth, at the half-cooked bolognese that was all that was left of her tongue, Isabelle surrendered to the boy’s lustrous voice.  She let out a whimper.

‘… and I grazed her tongue with my fangs …’

As he spoke, the boy hooked a finger underneath Isabelle’s pony-tail and draped it over one shoulder, exposing the back of her neck.  The faint whisper of his breath on her skin made her arch her back in delight.

‘… and I tasted her blood …’

He stroked Isabelle’s tight pink flesh.  His fingers were icy cold, like frozen sausages left to thaw in the kitchen sink of her burning skin.  She shuddered at his touch, closed her eyes and leaned back, biting her lip to keep from groaning out loud.

‘… and it tasted good.  Once a vampire tastes blood, his thirst is almost unquenchable, he can’t be stopped …’

Wait … fangs?  Vampire?  Huh?  Isabelle opened her eyes and the boy’s pale unearthly face was mere inches from hers.  His skin was smooth as marble, and just as cold.  But his eyes, despite their agelessness, were warm.  She was overwhelmed by his beauty, by the sheer perfection of his astonishing face—he was like a perfect meld of Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Zac Efron and all three Jonas Brothers.  She felt a monstrous heat growing inside her, a heat that Lorenzo had failed to make her feel in years.

‘… but I love my Lydia …’

The girl, her fear replaced by something close to joy, stroked the boy’s pale hand.

‘… so stop I did.  It almost killed me …’

He smiled.  Even the sight of his snow-white fangs couldn’t mar his angelic beauty.  Isabelle gasped and writhed in delight, intoxicated by his very presence.  The heat inside her was building to a crashing crescendo.

‘… and now I’m sooooo hungry,’ the boy crooned.

As the two pin-pricks of his fangs sank into her neck, as her life drained away, as her orgasm sent great rolling waves of hot pleasure that wracked her body like a lifeboat in a storm, the last thing that Doctor Isabelle Lee ever thought was: it was worth it.

And then she died.

Story notes:
  • In all honesty, this barely qualifies as a story. It's more like a Trashy Vampire Anecdote, or something. Even the wizard one, which is shorter, at least has a beginning, middle and end. This is too slight. It's just kind of a run of gags.
  • A shout out to my good friend Kerls, whose series of Bad Fiction Friday Arvos over on his blog A Totally Irrelevant Title made me more willing to throw up something that's deeply terrible.
  • I still giggle at the frozen sausages metaphor. I do wish that sentence was phrased a bit more elegantly though. Ah well, can't win 'em all. 
  • I hope you laughed at least once. If you didn't, I'm not as good a writer as I think I am. 
  • I genuinely have no idea what the Jonas Brothers look like.
Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Drood by Dan Simmons
books to go: 97

September 18, 2011

My favourites: Crash by J.G. Ballard

A long time ago I had a plan that I'd do a bunch of reviews of my all-time favourite books whenever I didn't have anything else to write about. Which is pretty much code for "whenever I'm really struggling to get through the book I'm reading." Which is what's happening now. For whatever reason, Drood just ain't really doing it for me, but more on that in another post or two. For now, let's talk Ballard.

Pretty much any time I read anything by J.G. Ballard, the main thing that strikes me is how unique his imagination is. If his novels and stories are any guide, he seems to think differently to every other member of the human race. I really believe that nobody else on earth would have been able to write the fictions that Ballard did ... and I find the experience of reading them thrilling, exhilerating, exhausting, and completely fucking mind-exploding. His Complete Short Stories, more than 1,000 pages long and covering more than forty years of writing, is like my own personal bible.

(His best known work, the semi-autobiographical Empire of the Sun, is by far the most 'normal' thing of his I've ever read, and stands out like a sore thumb within his body of work. Having read it for Year 11 English when I was at school, when I stumbled on Crash a few years later it actually took me a while to realise that they were written by the same guy.) 

Crash is narrated by a television producer named Ballard, and the book opens with a brief moment of violence as Ballard's car runs out of control and he spears into an oncoming sedan. Immobilised by crushed metal, Ballard is forced to look at the scene that confronts him, that he has caused. The other car carried two people: the male driver is dead, his body lying shattered on Ballard's own hood; the female passenger, Helen Rimington, is beautiful and barely injured. The frankness of her gaze as they wait, locked together, for rescue workers to cut them loose, reminds Ballard of the intimacy of sex. From that moment, sex, death and traffic collisions become linked in his mind.

Once in hospital, Ballard is discovered by Vaughan, a paranoid TV-scientist who is obsessed with the sexual possibilities of car accidents and is gathering together a group of crash survivors who feel the same. Together they fiercely explore their bizarre hope for an intersection of concrete, glass, steel, blood and semen. They plan accidents, then carry them out. They sneak into wrecker's yards to fuck in the twisted, mis-shapen seats of smashed cars. Ballard tracks down Helen Rimington and involves her in the group, opening up her scars and treating them like a vagina. Vaughan plans the perfect accident, in which he hopes to kill himself and Elizabeth Taylor (who's shooting a movie at a nearby studio).

Just in case my little summary hasn't given the game away, I'm gonna come out and say it: Crash is fucking fucked up. Essentially it's about the fusion of humanity and technology, which is a fairly common science-fiction trope (Ballard began as a pure sci-fi writer, before evolving into something much deeper, and stranger). The genius of Crash, though, is twofold: Ballard brings this idea out of the realm of the fantastical and sets it in the real world and, having done that, he makes it perfectly literal. The metaphor at work in Crash is infinitely more powerful than any of its sci-fi equivalents because it's so grounded in reality, yet at the same time so alien. Vaughan actually wants to mate with his car, to integrate the most perfect technology of his time into his own body. In the novel this involves being pierced by steering columns and leaking blood and semen onto dashboards; in the forty-odd years since Crash was published it has involved the invention of computers, walkmans, the internet and iPhones, and the subordination of our daily lives to increasingly elaborate technologies.

When thinking about this book it's hard not to picture that guy on the tram chatting into the glowing blue headset-phone-thingy and freak out a bit about how on the money Ballard was all along. I mean, fuck, I'm blogging right now.

The writing in Crash is deliberately quite cold and mechanical, Ballard describing acts of savage sexual violence with repetitive language more suited to a technical manual. I know a number of people who find it nigh-on unreadable. (It actually has a hell of a lot in common with another of my favourite books, American Psycho --- the same collision of sex and violence, and a similar bludgeoning repetitive style. What does it say about me that I love them both? Probably nothing good ...)

If you're able to lock into its tone and read it on its own terms, I believe Crash has as much to tell you about humankind in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries as any piece of art I've ever come across. I honestly can't think of any higher praise than that --- it's a remarkable book.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Drood by Dan Simmons
books to go: 97

September 7, 2011

The Moonstone (#98)

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

What I said then:

A classic Victorian novel ... but I hate Victorian novels. Most of them, anyway.

What I say now:

Yikes, I actually finished this nearly a week ago, but with the packing/moving/unpacking/"hey-where-did-I-put-that-really-important-thingy?" madness that's been going on in my life, I haven't had a chance to sit down and yarn about it. (I live in Port Melbourne now, in a rather lovely Edwardian terrace house, and my books have made the journey safely. I was tempted to 'lose' one or two of the things I'm most dreading having to read --- *cough* D.H. Lawrence *cough* --- but it would've felt too much like cheating.)

So: The Moonstone. No less an authority than T.S. Eliot described it as 'the first, the longest, and the best of all English detective novels' ... though, is a modernist poet really an authority on thrillers? In brief, a dying scoundrel bequeathes his niece, Miss Rachel Verinder, a ransacked Indian jewel on her eighteenth birthday, which goes missing that very night. Among the suspects are her two suitors, a reformed thief now working in the house as a servant, and three mysterious Indians who turned up in the town just as the stone did.

Collins tells the story in a succession of first-person narratives as several different people describe their relation to the jewel and the hunt for it, and the shifting points-of-view are probably the greatest strength of the book. Each narrator has a distinctive voice, which Collins nails, but even more than that, each has a distinctive take on the crime, on life, and on the other people involved. Facts us readers thought we could rely on are subsequently thrown into doubt, and the initial portrayals of certain characters are shown to be wildly inaccurate. The way Collins uses his multiple narrators to toy with our perceptions is brilliant sleight-of-hand, and has been much copied since (I'm sure it was done before Collins, too ... if you're better read than me and know by whom, leave me a note in the comments).

The case of the lost jewel is intriguing, but Collins goes one better by successfully linking the search for the truth about the theft with the search for the truth about Miss Verinder's love-life. The book ends up being as much about her attempts to find happiness as it is about any ginormous diamond, and is all the better for it. While being utterly central to the plot, she is not one of our narrators, so her actions --- both to do with the lost diamond and her two suitors --- are left unexplained until the last moments of the novel.

If there's one weakness, it's the ending. In order to fit everything together, Collins resorts to a device which, to a modern reader, comes across as slightly fantastical. After the rigorous realism of the first three quarters of the book, it felt like a let-down to me, and even a bit of a cheat. Which, seeings as this is a mystery novel, should probably kind of ruin it. I had so much fun up to that point though (the first narrator, a cantankerous old servant who's obsessed with Robinson Crusoe, is hilarious), that I'm willing to forgive.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Drood by Dan Simmons (which is narrated by none other than a fictionalised Wilkie Collins. Coincidence? I think not!)
books to go: 97

August 20, 2011

The Three Musketeers (#99)

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas.

What I said then:

I have ridiculously fond memories of the early 90's Kiefer Sutherland/Charlie Sheen/Oliver Platt/Chris O'Donnell/Tim Curry film version. I doubt it was faithful though.

What I say now:

Okay, the plot is completely different, but in terms of the tone that colourful Disney film actually kinda nails it. It's bright and silly and fun (Oliver Platt as the venal braggart Porthos is a particular delight), just the same as the novel.

In a nutshell: D'Artagnan, a fiery Gascon, travels to Paris, where he meets and offends the titular Musketeers --- Athos, Porthos and Aramis --- and is challenged by them to three consecutive duels. Before the fighting can begin, some of Cardinal Richelieu's guards show up and try to arrest them: duelling is against the law. Forgetting their differences, the duellists turn on the guards and, victorious, become firm friends. Together they have several madcap adventures, most of them bound up with the competing political schemes of Richelieu and the Duke of Buckingham. They gain and lose money in bizarre ways, seemingly without a care. They pull their swords out at even the merest hint of an insult. And, memorably, they make an implacable enemy in Milady de Winter, a spy/assassin/stone-hearted-demon-bitch-from-hell who is in the Cardinal's employ.

There's not a massive amount to say about this one, because it's pretty much exactly what you'd expect. It's a chaotic riot of derring-do, dark plots, impossible escapes, and bloody demises. Buckles get swashed all over the place. Heck, one chapter even begins with the phrase "It was a dark and stormy night" ... oh, how the translator must have laughed when he got to that one! Hilariously, most of the characters' behaviour swings between the scrupulously lordly and the utterly insane: Buckingham, having fallen in love with the French Queen and been sent away to avoid a scandal, decides that England will wage an entire war on France just so he can see her face one more time ... and nobody bats an eye at his motivation.

The real highlight, though, is Milady de Winter. For most of the novel you think that Richelieu is the villain, but he at least has some sort of moral code to him. As the novel approaches its climax, though, it's Milady who becomes the main antagonist. A sociopath, pure and simple, her cold-blooded evil makes her one of the most entertaining characters you'll ever read. While D'Artagnan, Porthos and Aramis are all a bit one note, Milady and Athos, and their mysterious past, are by far the best thing about the book.

Not really knowing anything about Dumas at all before I read this, one point of interest for me was to learn that Three Musketeers is a historical novel: Dumas was writing more than 200 years after the time when his story is set. Not knowing any better, I'd always just figured he was a 17th century novelist writing about his contemporary times. In fact one of the main sources of humour comes from the prim 19th century narrator bemoaning the loose morals of the Musketeers' times, while simultaneously relating their adventures with near-indecent relish.

Seeing as it's exactly what you expect, if you think you'll enjoy The Three Musketeers, you probably will. I sure did.

(As an aside, just a few days ago I saw the trailer for the forthcoming mega-budget Three Musketeers 3D, and god it looks awful. If you want to make an effects-laden science fiction film, why would you choose Three Musketeers as your source material? It just makes no friggin' sense at all. Although, when I put that question to a friend of mine, his answer was "Because people have already heard of it," which is probably pretty close to the truth. 'Brand recognition' and all that. Ugh, Hollywood.)

Cheers, JC.

about to read: The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
books to go: 98 

August 9, 2011

I Can't Stay MIFFed at You (part four)

Well, I nearly made it through the Film Festival without getting sick ... but not quite. In the end the lack of sleep and lack of vegetables got to me (when you're thinking of Nando's as 'the healthy option' you know you're in trouble ...) and I finally stumbled as I rounded the last bend. While I coughed and hacked my way through my sessions on Friday and Sunday (no doubt infecting many of my fellow film-goers --- sorry!), Saturday was a complete write-off and I had to skip the three movies I had booked. The silver lining was that I got to lie on my couch, under my quilt, with my heater on, watching the Demons ... get thumped. Hmmm, maybe it wasn't such a silver lining after all.

Maybe it's the illness talking, but my two Friday films, My Wedding and Other Secrets and Sleeping Sickness, were both pretty dreadful.

My Wedding and Other Secrets was a "wacky" New Zealand dramedy about a girl who keeps her wedding secret from her traditional Chinese parents. If anybody ever puts the word wacky in between quotation marks, you should start getting worried. The film was all over the shop, with every character having to behave in utterly ridiculous ways in order for the contrived plotline to lurch forward another step. Many of the performances were dire (I'll exempt Michelle Ang, the lead, who worked her arse off with tired, cliched material), the script was shallow as an evaporating puddle of piss, and the direction was clunky like my falling-apart couch. The nicest thing I can say about it was that it was better than The Silence of Joan.

Sleeping Sickness, on the other hand, was yet another of those 'Interesting Idea, Mis-handled' movies that have been the story of MIFF 2011 for me, though admittedly this one was more mis-handled than most. A German running a health program in Cameroon is nearing the end of his time in Africa. His daughter comes back from her European boarding school for a visit, his wife counts down the days until they're leaving, and a sleazy French friend (played by Hippolyte Girardot, who was also in Top Floor Left Wing) tries to convince him to stay, so the two of them can embark on some unspecified 'project.' Though meandering and slow, it's actually pretty good up until its halfway point, when it suddenly jumps forward a few years and we get introduced to a completely new protagonist. The tension is lost, all the questions we had about the German family are dropped completely, and the film never recovers, eventually petering out into a wilfully obtuse cop-out of an ending. It was a really annoying film.

On Sunday I had much better luck, seeing two films that ended up being among the highlights of my festival: Martha Marcy May Marlene and Another Earth.

Martha Marcy May Marlene tells the story of a girl being ensnared by a cult (albeit a cult of a pretty low-key variety), and then attempting to escape the stranglehold it has put on her psyche. The film begins with the girl (who has several names throughout --- hence the title) fleeing from the isolated farmhouse that is the cult's home, and from that point we move back and forth in time, witnessing her indoctrination at the farmhouse play out in parallel with her attempts to readjust to everyday life as a guest at her wealthy sister's holiday home. This back and forth structure is one of the film's key strengths: at certain points it is left deliberately ambiguous 'when' we are, highlighting the way that Martha's past is continually bleeding into, and altering her reactions to, her present. Physically escaping is one thing, but the psychological trauma cannot be left behind.

The cast are uniformly excellent, with particular props going to Elizabeth Olsen (Mary-Kate and Ashley's younger sister) for her curious mix of steel and vulnerability and John Hawkes for the low-key, sinuous charisma he brings to the leader of the cult. The film is gorgeous to look at, and director Sean Durkin keeps a firm grip on material that could easily have felt exploitative or simplistic. He's a name to watch.

Two more names to keep an eye out for are Mike Cahill and Brit Marling, who co-wrote Another Earth; he directed it, and she starred. A sci-fi concept plays out through the course of Another Earth: a planet appears in our solar system and begins to drift towards us. As it approaches, it becomes apparent that it is a perfect replica of Earth, right down to its inhabitants. Every person alive has an exact doppelganger up there on 'Earth Two.'

All of that happens in the background of the movie, though, and is touched on only briefly here and there (until the final act, anyway). The majority of the film concerns two people whose lives are brought together by a tragic accident, and who subsequently form an unlikely bond. I really liked Another Earth, though I've spoken to many who didn't. I thought the odd, tender little story that played out was  quite lovely, and though it took one too many unlikely turns, I thought the two leads were good enough to make it work. Newcomer Marling was very good, nearly good enough for me to buy her as a moody frump (when she's obviously beautiful). Playing opposite her was a guy named William Mapother, who's one of those actors that you've seen a bunch of times playing Henchman #3 type characters in big movies, but who here proves that he can actually act when he has to, and act pretty darn well.

I can understand why others didn't, but I liked it a lot. And heck, add half a star because it's got the most beautiful use of a musical saw in the history of cinema (Andy, you must see it, for that scene alone!).

And that, as they say in the classics, is that. MIFF is gone for another year, and I'll be resuming my usual round of multiplex mind-melters (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, anyone? Anyone?).

Given that I've seen less than 10% of the films playing at the festival, and given that I've been chatting to as many people as possible in the queues, I thought I'd leave you with a few recommendations for movies that I haven't seen. I've heard that these are great from several different sources, and maybe, just maybe, they'll sneak into cinemas sometime soon (or, failing that, they'll show on SBS2 at four in the morning in three years time): A Separation, an Iranian drama about a disentegrating marriage; Surviving Life, a mad Czech animation about psychoanalysis; How to Die in Oregon, a doco about euthanasia; and Michael, a harrowing Austrian drama about the bond between a man and the kidnapped child he has chained in his basement. In case my synopsis didn't give it away, that last one is not a comedy.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
books to go: 99