Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Last Post for 2009.

After today I’ll be away from my computer until after the New Year holiday.

My attempt to become more disciplined in my reading has been reasonably successful, but Wuthering Heights remains on my “currently reading” list because I haven’t picked it up for a few weeks. Eventually I’ll finish it off but I think it will be more of a chore than a pleasure.

I also added Zadie Smith’s White Teeth to my current reading list, even though it’s a book I started many months ago and put aside. I have read a few more chapters but it hasn’t really maintained my interest.

Since I started this blog I’ve tried to write short “reviews” of books as I complete them, but maybe “review” isn’t an accurate description. I’ve merely tried to record some personal impressions of each book including (when possible) my reasons for reading it and how the book came to my attention: (i.e. why THIS book and not one of the countless others that I could have purchased and read?).

There seems to be so little time to read and far too many books that I would like to read. Prioritising my time is never easy with so many other things demanding attention. With a week or so off from work over Christmas I might be able to find a little more reading time and hopefully another book or two will be ready to be transferred from my reading list to the completed list before the end of year.

One title that will soon be added to those I’m currently reading will be The Time Traveller’s Wife – a Christmas present (but shhh I’m not supposed to know that yet!)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Talking to Animals, Creating Myth & Returning to Reality

As a child I loved Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle books and read all of those held by my local library. When I recently found the first book in a nearby second hand bookshop I couldn’t resist it.

Reading it again more than 40 years later I can understand the appeal the books had, but I wondered whether such a book could remain in print today considering some of its very politically incorrect portrayals of black Africans. However, a quick look at the website of a major seller has shown me that The Story of Doctor Dolittle is still being sold.
Now I wonder whether it has been modified in anyway to remove references to “Darkies” “Niggers” and “Coons”. I also wonder about an incident in the book where a black African prince dislikes his colour and turns to John Dolittle to change his face white.

Otherwise, the story is a simple adventure of animals (both domestic and exotic) and encounters with pirates.

Another favourite revisited was Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock. I found a hardcover copy in the same second hand shop mentioned above a few weeks ago and looked forward to rediscovering why I enjoyed it so much when I first read it. Not long after I bought the book I found out that the author had very recently died .

This book is the first of a series. None of the subsequent books is a true sequel, they merely explored different aspects of the world introduced in the first. However only a month or two before Holdstock’s death Avilion was released and that book apparently returns to the characters of the first novel to continue their story.

The main “character” throughout the series of books is Ryhope Forest, one of the last remaining wild woodlands in Britain in which man’s deepest mythological memories are brought to life. The Mythago’s of the title are the people and places originating in the wood that have been formed out of the racial memories of the humans venturing near or into the forest.
As someone who has always had a love of British legend and mythology this book offered a mature exploration of a doorway between our “real” world and the world of myth. Instead of children finding a way to Narnia through a wardrobe (as in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe), Mythago Wood presents darker more brutal reality behind the stories that became legend and its world is entered along hidden trackways into and through the forest. Take the wrong path and you merely find yourself back at your starting point. Take a correct path and you enter deeper into the forest and its mysteries.
If the book has a weakness it is its lack of sustained emotional engagement. The characters are stoic ex-servicemen who don’t let their guard down.
The exception to this comes through the early relationship between Stephen Huxley and a female Mythago, Guiwenneth. Only during their deepening relationship is there a genuine sense of emotion involvement between reader and characters. It is this relationship that provides the motivation for Stephen to enter the forest and seek the paths to its heart.

A Patchwork Planet
was something new that I hadn’t previously read. I had seen that its author Anne Tyler is a favourite of both Nick Hornby and Roddy Doyle, two of my own favourite writers.
I don’t know how this particular book fits within her overall work, whether it is one of her best or one of her lesser novels, but I enjoyed it enough to something else she has written.
Unlike the fantasy and adventure of the two books mentioned above, A Patchwork Planet deals with very realistic characters facing very real situations and at times gives a very moving account of relationship issues that most (if not all) of us face at some times in our lives. The emotional complexities of maintaining relationships in a broken family where a child has little contact with one parent. The effects of old age, in which physical and mental decline can strike suddenly to significantly change a person’s relationship with those around them. The way emotional blackmail can be utilised to create and maintain dependency of one person upon another.
It is a simple book exploring complex matters of relationship without any sense of exploiting or manipulating the reader emotionally.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Who Killed Dave?

I received Linda Cockburn’s book Who Killed Dave as a review copy under the condition that I would read it and write a review for my blog within 8 weeks. The book arrived in the mail on a Friday and by the next evening I’d finished reading it. I didn’t even get the chance to enter it on my blog as “currently reading”; it went straight to my completed books list.

In an earlier book, Living the Good Life, Cockburn recorded her family’s attempt at genuine self sufficiency, trying to live for six months without spending money.
Coburn regularly contributes to the ABC’s Organic Gardening magazine in which she writes about the environmentally friendly property her family are developing in Tasmania. This is also the main topic of her blog.

It is clear she and her family are people who act on their convictions, not taking shortcuts for the sake of convenience.

The method of publishing of Who Killed Dave is an example of living out those convictions. The author writes a little about the publishing process here:

I make a point of highlighting this because I have to address this book in a way that would maintain the integrity of MY convictions.

Firstly, as a recipient of the book I am obliged to keep to the terms of the book being given, and that is to write a review for this blog.
Secondly I want to be fair to the book, its author and any potential readers.
But taking into account those two factors I can not compromise myself or my Christian beliefs.

There is no denying that Who Killed Dave is entertaining and very readable. As I’ve said previously on this blog it’s often the case that I don’t even finish the books I start, so it’s very rare that I start and finish a book in less than a day.

The Dave of the title is a very unpopular resident in the aptly named Kaos Court, and when he is found dead there is no shortage of suspects. Everyone in the street had a motive and community interest into the investigation of his death turns the crime scene into a media circus with almost constant TV coverage being broadcast.
Robyn Miller finds herself at the centre of everything. Accident prone and voted as the prime suspect by the viewing public, her relationships are in turmoil, finding herself involved with men with surnames inappropriate for long term commitment

“Our love life, well, it’s an oxymoron really. Besides, with my first name Robyn and his last name, Banks, we were doomed from the start”.

Her luck doesn’t improve when she starts to lust after Detective Mark Hood one of the policemen investigating Dave’s death.

And lust is a major factor through much of the book with all kinds of sexual experiences being thrown into the mix (real, imagined, fantasised and “psychic”) from a ménage a trois, and phone sex to an incubus-like experience.

Coarse language is also a big factor. The main character herself confessing she has: “never sworn so much in my life. For some reason I equate swearing with assertiveness. Perhaps I could start my own workshops and have circles of people sitting in yoga positions loudly mouthing as many satisfying expletives as possible”.

Those two aspects of the book, being used so frequently, would normally have stopped me from finishing it. But having agreed to reading and reviewing the book I didn’t have that option. Clearly those who have no problem with the language and that type of sexual content won’t have the same concerns.

A third issue I have with Who Killed Dave is the positive view it presents of psychic experience, while giving a more negative view of the Christian characters in the book. The Christian as raving loony has become an accepted and much overused cliché in the world of popular fiction, however in this case the Christian has not been singled out – EVERYONE in the street has their particular problems with normality.

The positive portrayal of psychic experience includes a scene in which a psychic sexually engages Robyn during a phone conversation. Although the man is not physically present, Robyn’s experience is described graphically enough to leave no doubt that she encounters physical, sexual contact. Later it is revealed that someone observed the event and saw her and a partner performing oral sex.
When she finds out who her “sexual” partner had been Robyn expresses her disgust, indicating to me a lack of informed consent. However, towards the end of the book an event that in other circumstances would be considered sexual assault is given a positive spin.

While humour is a central part of the book, I found the most effective sections were those in which Robyn found herself empathising with characters that previously had been the focus of hostility. Revelations of Dave’s life make her realise why he had been so obnoxious to everyone and she feels a little remorse for the way she had felt about him before his death. These brief scenes late in the book give a little breathing space after Robyn’s constant stream of unfortunate experiences.
Other breaks from the humour that definitely don’t give breathing space are a couple of scenes of effective horror. The first occurs when members of the neighbourhood discover the crime scene. The sight, not surprisingly, results in Robyn relieving her stomach of its contents.

Ultimately the reader wants to find out who did kill Dave. My suspicions continually changed – from the obvious to the highly unlikely, trying to outguess the author. While the resolution didn’t disappoint (all of my guesses had been wrong) I had difficulties wrapping my head around the practical aspects of his killing. When all was revealed it seemed very impractical, if not impossible that it could have been carried out in the way depicted.

Overall I was entertained by the book, but for reasons mentioned earlier, if a sequel were written it wouldn’t be something I’d add to my reading pile.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Three Faces of Politics: Peak Oil, Local Food and the Fall of the Iron Curtain

Last weekend I finished three books that I’ve been reading for a while. Two of them turned out to be very long reading projects, being read over several months. The third took only a matter of weeks.

Choosing Eden tells the story of a middle aged couple whose concern about “peak oil” led them to a radical life-style change. Realising that the world’s oil reserves were less than secure and that the days of “cheap” oil are well and truly over, the couple bought a farm near Coffs Harbour, intending to prepare for the time when oil can no longer be relied upon. Considering that our western lifestyles are totally reliant upon oil, not only for fuel but as an ingredient for medicines, fertilisers, man made materials, toiletry products and countless other essentials, the oil crisis that can not be avoided will have a devastating impact.

The couple in question featured a while ago on an Australian TV series “The Real Seachange” in which their move from city to country was observed.

My copy of the book came as a freebie with the purchase of an issue of Gardening Australia magazine; a free offer that seems to have been restricted to purchases of the magazine from Woolworths. As a subscriber to GA I missed out on the book and had to purchase another copy of an issue I already owned so I could get my hands on the “free” book.

I have a particular interest in this kind of book because I started a similar journey myself three years ago when I moved from Sydney to a country town 4 hours to the west. My ambitions are on a much smaller scale, choosing to wrestle with an average sized garden instead of a farm of many acres.

In the end I was disappointed with the book. I felt there was too much emphasis on “peak oil” and not enough on the actual experience of two city folk becoming farmers. It got to the stage where the term “peak oil” was becoming extremely irritating. However it was THEIR story told as THEY felt it needed to be told and I cannot expect a book to be written to satisfy what I would like to read about. Instead of having that attitude I should have read a different book that DID look more at practical solutions rather than continually point out problems.

Fortunately I found the book taking the approach I prefered: Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle.

Kingsolver’s book was one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in a very long time. It is a witty and informative look at a year in her family’s life during which they chose to rely on food grown in their local area instead of following the extravagant but common practice of eating unseasonal produce shipped from around the world to our supermarkets.

The book follows the family’s year as “locavores” and includes many recipes utilising seasonal food. While Barbara Kingsolver takes care of most of the book’s content, her daughter provides the recipes and her husband interjects occasionally to address some of the technical and political issues affecting food production and marketing. As a new inductee to the world of gardening and backyard food production, I could identify with a lot of the experiences shared in the book. In particular I can understand why a community that is still secure enough to leave doors of cars and houses unlocked for most of the year needs to change that practice during zucchini season (read the book to find the answer).

The third is the only fictional book. Snowleg by Nicholas Shakespeare has its setting in East and West Germany, both before and after the fall of the iron curtain. It follows a young man’s life after he finds out that the man he grew up knowing as his dad was not in fact his father. Instead he was the son of an East German man with whom his mother had a brief affair prior to meeting her husband. From that point onwards, Peter tries to identify more with his German roots.
After finishing school he starts medical studies at a German University. When the opportunity arises for him to visit East Germany, he hopes to make tentative investigations into the fate of his father. In the process Peter himself becomes involved with an East German who he only knows by his anglicising of her family nickname: “Snowleg”.

The rest of the book is about Peter trying to deal with the memory and consequences of his brief relationship with “Snowleg” until the reunification of the two Germanys makes it possible for him to (eventually) try to find her again.

Overall I found the book disappointing. The potential for an intriguing story was definitely there, but to me it didn’t fulfil that potential. The author did a good job of setting up his story, and he knew where he wanted it to lead – but he didn’t seem to know what to do with the middle bit. To me it seemed like a lot of padding with some low credible sex scenes thrown in to try to maintain the reader’s attention. Maybe I live in different circles, but Peter seemed to find far too many women who were willing to get intimate with him as soon as they met him. Was it a case of an author vicariously satisfying his own fantasies?

Another problem I had was the books predictability. I saw some of what was ahead long before it was purposely revealed by the author. And Steven, despite being a medical student (and later a doctor) which I would assume demands an above average intelligence, didn’t seem able to take the simplest logical action when required. For example, immediately after his return to the west he tried to re-establish contact with Snowleg by writing to her. But he addressed the letters to a place that offered very little hope of reaching her; a University to which she had hoped to be admitted but she had told him, due to political issues, had been denied entry. Why didn’t he address them to the place where he first saw her, a place he knew she regularly frequented?

The final disappointment was the book’s conclusion. After slowly building up a little tension, the potential is hurriedly snuffed out within a couple of concluding sentences, failing to give the payoff required from such a build up.

Clearly I felt the book could have been much better, but I DID get to the end, and at the moment that is a very important factor.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Reflection on the present

This blog was started to give me a springboard which will hopefully reinvigorate my interest in literature as both a reader and a writer. I started my "Fictional Autobiography" to see if recalling the past might help me rediscover the joyful aspect of reading that has been lost. In following this process I am wondering what most specifically led to the loss of enjoyment I used to get from a book.

At one time I enjoyed popular fiction and I’ve tended to blame my University studies for spoiling my enjoyment of some of those books. Exposure to more literary works has made me more critical and discerning about the kind of books that I want to spend time with. But then, so many of the literary works don’t spark that desire to keep reading page after page, chapter after chapter. If a book is going to maintain my interest for a few hundred pages, it needs much more than clever sentence structure and poetic imagery. While I can relish a well constructed paragraph with exquisite and vivid language, that paragraph has to lead me on to the next paragraph and the one after that. Unfortunately, the craftsmanship of the author can get in the way and I find myself stuck in place, admiring the beauty of that individual part forgetting that there is supposed to be a greater story to which that individual part is leading.

Initial evidence seems to indicate that I’ve lost my love for books, that I have changed and no longer have that strong desire to spend time in someone else’s stories. My inability to persevere with a book is therefore due to something different within me. Throughout life we all find that our tastes and interests change – and maybe that is what has happened, and it’s not a matter of trying to rediscover or renew a past love, but perhaps its time to move on; recognise the truth and start to pursue other interests that do maintain my attention.

But if that is the case, why am I continually drawn to books? Why do I spend so much time in bookshops? Why am I so interested in what others are reading? When I visit the home of a new friend, why do I head for their bookshelves to see what kind of books they put on display (I should not assume they read them)? Why do I keep buying books that through experience I know will probably remain unread? Why do I still hope to find that book which will take me by surprise and be one that I don’t want to put down?
I don’t want my reading experience to be an act of endurance, with the main pleasure being a sense of achievement attained by the fact that I actually finished the book. I want one of those books that I don’t want to finish, where reaching the last page leaves me wanting more.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Robert Holdstock: 1948-2009

I’ve just found out that Robert Holdstock, author of one of my favourite novels, Mythago Wood, died in hospital on 29th November after contracting an E.coli infection.

I’m not sure what to say beyond that. Only two weeks ago I bought a hard cover copy of Mythago Wood from a local second-hand book shop (I already had it in paperback) and it was a high priority on my reading list. It has been many years since I last read it. I was hoping to write about the book in the near future.
He was only 10 years older than me.

RIP Rob Holdstock

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

My Fictional Autobiography (part 3): The Alien Years.

I recall writing to Arthur Shuttlewood in the 1980s. He was a one time journalist who became a kind of UFO guru. He had written several books about his home town’s relationship with UFOs, starting with The Warminster Mystery. Over many years Shuttlewood claimed that Warminster in southern England was an important hot spot for UFO activity.
I had been fascinated by UFO stories since the mid 1960s when England became the focus of a UFO “flap”. As an 8 or 9 year old during the time of the space race, the idea of alien visitation inspired a lot of excitement. I read many books from that time onwards including a few of Shuttlewood’s. Since I came across this topic at such an early age I can’t blame myself for maintaining a degree of gullibility for many years after. I lapped up the wildest claims with barely a degree of scepticism and a lot of my reading leaned towards things unexplained.

There was a strange tension in my life from trying to live with contradictory beliefs. In the late 70s I became a Christian, and yet I still tried to hold onto the interest in visiting aliens. To some extent I was able to do this by redefining the UFO phenomenon, moving from aliens visiting earth to an understanding that the whole thing was a demonic delusion. This view was not merely an idea permeating fundamentalist circles; some of the most popular and respected UFO writers were saying the same thing. The most well known that come to mind were John Keel (Operation Trojan Horse) and Jacques Vallee (Passport to Magonia). While these writers did not necessarily hold to the Christian interpretation of “demonic”, they raised the possibility that entities that had once been viewed as “demons” in some cultures were now being interpreted in terms applicable to the space age. Vallee saw the possibility that they were “Inter-dimensional” rather than Extra-terrestrial.

The 1980s was a boom-time for UFO books, aided by some highly questionable TV specials claiming Government collusion with extra terrestrials. I recall one that featured interviews with alleged CIA agents who described interaction with a captive alien (or “gray” as they came to be known). One of the major revelations provided was the flavour of ice-cream the entity preferred.

Books that were part of this trend included Above Top Secret by Tim Good and Communion by horror writer Whitley Strieber. The latter describing Strieber’s claimed abduction by “the visitors” was followed by several sequels such as Transformation and Breakthrough: the next Step. Strieber was another UFO writer who noted the similarities between his “visitors” and the demons of various religious traditions but his later books became more and more esoteric in content, making him seem more like a mystical guru than a serious contributor to UFO literature.

It was in the 90s that I woke up to my gullibility thanks to books by Jim Schnabel. Round in Circles examined the crop circle craze and Dark White looked at alien abductions. Rather than follow the tried and (not so) true path of examining countless witness reports, Schnabel turned the spotlight on the investigators who were presenting their own interpretation of the reports to the public. In my view he well and truly blew these phenomena apart, showing how much the investigators projected THEIR desires and expectations onto the evidence they claimed to have.

While the books and authors mentioned above would be classified as non-fiction, the borders between fact and fiction were clearly blurred by a lot of wishful thinking (both on the writer’s part and more significantly mine).

Hollywood returned to the UFO/Alien visitor arena starting with Spielberg’s Close Encounter’s of the Third Kind (in the 1970s) and later with his more popular ET.
Joe Dante’s Explorers starred very young River Phoenix and Ethan Hawke, while Cocoon directed by Ron Howard made an Oscar winner out of one of its aging stars (Don Ameche).

Starman one of John Carpenter’s less gruesome films was (like ET) part of the “alien as benign but threatened visitor” genre that contrasted significantly with the hostile aliens portrayed in many 50s SF films, when Hollywood had previously exploited an interest in things alien.

Some of the most popular films were converted into “novelisations”, of which I only recall reading Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I also owned the book version of Explorers but I don’t remember reading it.

Away from Hollywood’s exploitative inspiration, John Wyndham’s novels were favourites for a while, some of which had tenuous links to UFOs and/or alien visitors. The most significant being The Midwich Cuckoos, a story about a village that was temporarily cut off from the world by a mysterious force field (an idea that Stephen King has also used in his recent novel Under the Dome). In Wyndham’s book the temporary isolation is lifted and the entire female population of childbearing age are found to be pregnant. The story has been twice filmed under the name Village of the Damned. (Did I say I had moved away from Hollywood’s exploitation of the genre? Clearly that is not possible!)

One of the earlier and most well-known novels about alien visitors cannot be ignored. War of the Worlds has inspired films, radio plays and a musical extravaganza, and it was the latter that most closely followed H G Wells book. I read Wells’ novel many years ago and it’s one that I intend to read again when time and discipline permit. It is one of those science fiction stories that has taken on iconic status. A popular SF writer also wrote a sequel. Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine takes elements of War of the Worlds and another Wells novel The Time Machine and creates a story from a mix of the two ideas.

Perhaps the most cerebral book dealing with UFOs that I’ve read was Ian Watson’s Miracle Visitors, which dealt with the psychological nature of UFO encounters and gave a very ambiguous view of them. The cerebral approach to alien intelligence was also taken in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey created with Arthur C Clarke. I later read Clarke’s novel to see whether it would help me make sense of the film (which it did). In this story an alien presence has been alongside mankind from the very beginning of man’s development, following his progress and leaving clues of their existence that mankind will find at various stages of his technological journey.

Clarke was one of the most well known and admired science fiction writers and created various differing scenarios in which mankind came into contact with alien civilisations. Apart from 2001, the most memorable to me were Childhood’s End – which from memory gave an interesting spin to the alien as demon concept; and Rendezvous With Rama, a story dealing with the exploration and examination of a massive alien craft passing through our solar system. Rama was followed by a series of sequels.

I have only touched the surface of the ways in which human-alien contact has been explored in both fiction and “non fiction”, and all of it refers to aliens visiting US. There is probably far more about man visiting alien worlds stretching from early stories of men visiting the moon, through to Star Trek TV shows and movies and their various spin offs and imitations. The possibilities for stories about alien contact of various types are potentially limitless.

And here, on that cliched note, ends the latest part of my "fictional autobiography".