Posted on Feb 05, 2020
This months book is Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr.
Grab a copy and get reading.
Posted on Dec 04, 2019
This review will be up shortly.
Posted on Nov 06, 2019
[The Soul] exists, it has a reality, it is produced permanently around, on, within the body by the functioning of a power that is exercised on those punished - and, in a more general way, on those one supervises, trains and corrects, over madmen, children at home and at school, the colonized, over those who are stuck at a machine and supervised for the rest of their lives. This is the historical reality of this soul, which, unlike the soul represented by Christian theology, is not born in sin and subject to punishment, but is born rather out of methods of punishment, supervision and constraint. - Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison
‘Iggy Pop looks right at me as he sings the line: 'America takes drugs in psychic defence'; only he changes 'America' to 'Scatlin', and defines us mair accurately in a single sentence than all the others have ever done.”
Trainspotting is a collection of interconnected stories that, to put banally, deals with group of heroin addicts in Edinburgh. But to summarise the novel in such vanilla tones is like saying Iggy Pop is a singer, I mean, he is, but he is so much more than that. He’s got soul.
For me, the novel is as much about heroin as it is about politics, Scotland, class, power, identity, football, soul. The novel’s, and subsequently the movie’s, slogan, ‘choose life’ has been plastered on student poster walls around the world and contains the tragic irony that permeates Welsh’s characters. None of them really have a decent choice. And so the prison that is heroin addiction is juxtaposed with the prison of the banal life they should lead: ‘mortgage payments…washing machines…cars…rotting away.’ That’s the soul crushing tragedy in this novel. Choice. Renton’s heroin has a debatable extent of control over him but so does the trauma, dysfunction and sectarianism that cling to him throughout the novel; so do his existential fear of ‘a short disappointing life.’
Welsh’s non-linear collection of interconnected stories primarily take place in the port town of Leith to the North of Edinburgh, but the stories venture all over the city really (with a couple of notable forays to London) and Edinburgh is itself as much a character as the Skag Boys.
My own experience with Edinburgh would be as part of what Sick boy would call ‘a collection of zit-encrusted, squeaky-voiced wankers playing oot a miserable pretension tae the arts.’ I visited Edinburgh almost exclusively during/as part of the fringe, except once for a buck’s party, and never quite made it to Leith (from my own fallible memory). It is so important that Edinburgh (not Glasgow), home of the artsy, pretentions of the Fringe and the genteel traditions of the castle, is the setting for this heroin epic.
Edinburgh works because of this juxtaposition.
The architecture of Edinburgh itself is a metaphor for the layers of entrapment in the novel. It is a city built on top of itself, literally building over itself and bricking up those with disease in the 17th Century and becoming, in Welsh’s own words the ‘successful model for all UK cities in terms of so-called regeneration. Push the working classes out to the edges, camera-up the city centre and fill it with posh students, the ultra-wealthy and tourists.’ And so the Welsh’s novel reveals, and celebrates the subterranean elements of Edinburgh. The novel embraces Edinburgh’s origin as a ‘working class city’ and laments the lack of choice neoliberalism/progress/life, whatever you want to call it, has given them.
Under the grey stones and the castle amid the countless boozers, hills and alleyways, where Edinburgh meets the sea, stands Leith. Once the greatest port in Scotland, home to the disused shipyard and Trainspotting’s backdrop is the familiar one of a declined industry and a forgotten people. Ships, trains, industry and the jobs that came with that have gone and what all that’s left to replace it is frustration, rage and boredom. But that’s not the Edinburgh on the postcards; that’s not the Edinburgh that privileged, spotty drama students see; that’s not Welsh’s Edinburgh.
Trainspotting (the hobby) is a somewhat kooky, by reputation, amateur interest in railways and railroads. Trains are the symbol of progression, industry and progress; of the industrial revolution. Trains take you places; give you a choice (although somewhat limited) and a path. The train station in Leith is disused, abandoned, home only to their drunk, homeless fathers. Trainspotters are passionate about something, whereas the only trainspotting the Skag Boys are doing is for the stops on their own veins. The docks have closed down, the spotty university students patronise them and women in the park treat them like ‘vermin.’
And in their specific branch of Trainspotting, in the rejection of the docility and enslavement of ‘choose life’ we see this essence of punk rock and the soul of the novel.
Trapped in Edinburgh’s socio-political catacombs, Rents chooses heroin, but that’s killing off all around him, through AIDS and overdose and this is his punk rebellion. The power exercised on him, punished through his birth, is a meaningless existence or a swift death. In resistance to this power we find a novel that, like a topless Iggy Pop pogoing and snarling Lust for Life, has soul.
Henry Bishop (Gold Coast Chapter)
Posted on Oct 12, 2019
It’s no easy thing to write simply yet evocatively. Hemingway aspired to do it and yet often, I would argue, failed, The Old Man and the Sea being the clearest exception. Others, like Tim Winton, have gotten better at it over time, straying in their early work into overcooked themes and prose but coming in later books like Dirt Music to a perfect balance.
Between new writers worldwide, though, there’s been a movement in the last few decades towards the perfection of this balance. And as far as the Australian contingent is concerned, Rohan Wilson is one who gets the balance right.
To Name Those Lost is Wilson’s second book. Like his first, The Roving Party, it is set in Tasmania, at a time when the hold of the colonial state over new immigrants was weak, varied and contested, and the violent, systematic extermination of the vast majority of the Aboriginal Australian owners has already occurred.
In the midst of this setting, we pick up with two men: Thomas Toosey, a veteran of the ‘Black War’, in possession of stolen loot and searching for his son; and Fitheal Flynn, an Irish immigrant to Tasmania in pursuit of Toosey for this robbery—and some other unspeakable wrong that motivates him like the devil.
The plot, then, is somewhat straightforward: it’s a chase. And yet, at each turn, in each scene, as these two men approach and evade one another in the bushlands of Tasmania, closing rapidly in on the city of Launceston, the themes and conflicts evoked and alluded to are profound and compelling.
First and foremost, this is a book about what those who struggle—rightly or wrongly, wronging others or seeking satisfaction for wrongs done to them—leave to their children.
There is a complicated, contradictory beauty in carving out a place for one’s progeny when it comes violently at the cost of others. It’s not deserving of easy redemption, and this book acknowledges and engages with this complexity, admiring and simultaneously mourning the loss of the humanity of the men who become haunted by this undertaking.
‘In making a man of himself,’ writes Wilson of Thomas Toosey, ‘he’d given up all other mantles. Other futures. But see his boy safe and well and that history was rethreaded through a new eyelet, to be pulled as he saw fit.’
This kind of thinking, in the hands of a lesser writer, might not be subjected to the scrutiny that it deserves. But Wilson balances Toosey’s imaginings with allusions to intergenerational trauma and the (at the time incipient but ever-expanding) difficulty of retaining one’s freedom under an ever-expanding and entwining set of corporate and political interests.
So this is also a bracingly political book in its crisp, novel rejoinder to the extremely contemporary issue of corporate-political corruption and violence. Fitheal Flynn, whose political beliefs are never expressly labelled, resists any attempt by authorities to impose their will on him, citing the French Revolution and the Battle of Ballingarry as core texts in his belief system.
‘Withdraw your consent,’ Flynn tells a young woman, ‘and they cannot control you. … Civilisation is a lie. The grand lie. Told by masters to servants.’
Again, writing in this vein, about ideas so grand they might almost seem out of time, is beautifully tempered by Wilson’s capacity to ground you in the reality of his characters and setting. An exchange between Flynn and a local constable, wherein Flynn persuades the constable to leave him alone for the simple reason that they are equals, is one of the most compelling bits of political-philosophical praxis I’ve read.
Meanwhile, around both these men and their children, Tasmania is erupting in a revolt against onerous taxation visited upon the people by a distant government. How they, their children and this ruction will out is a matter of historical fact. But how we interpret these moments remains pertinent, hence Wilson’s return to this time.
As readable as it is thinkable, To Name Those Lost is tough in all the right ways.
Ashley Thomson (Canberra Chapter)
Posted on Oct 02, 2019
I promised to write a review of this before starting, and maybe I shouldn’t have. I found it impossible to get far through the book, and discussion with my fellow (more dedicated) Hobart goons reassured me that I didn’t miss that much.
Why did I find it so hard to engage with what, on the surface, should be a very interesting book? I think it was because it quickly became apparent that Thompson was willing to give the bikies a free ride, if you will, and I wasn’t. He was ‘embedded’, and (I felt) far too ready to give them the benefit of the doubt, make excuses for them and portray them as diamonds-in-the-rough.
He casually dismisses the mass rape at the beach party by saying that the charges were dropped. To the modern reader it leaves a bitter taste. Even today, how likely is it that two teenagers would be able to proceed through a rape trial against a whole host of intimidating gang members? But Thompson acts as if the accusations were just an unfair smear against the bikies.
Thompson is all too ready to believe that they are a bunch of loveable misfits, more bluster and show than actual danger. Maybe he’s right. But is bluster and show so harmless? Anyone without physical power knows that the threat of violence is traumatic too. All it takes is occasional follow-through to keep the threat real. Thompson seems amused by the ‘squares’ shaking in fear as the Hell’s Angels roar down their streets. Don’t worry, he laughs, they won’t bite. But Hunter, they do bite sometimes, so the fear is deserved. Your buddies might be mostly hot exhaust, but that still has real effects on people who don’t deserve to be made afraid.
Even so, I have enjoyed reading about other unpleasant groups, many much nastier than the Angels. Crime and violence, rebellion and toxic masculinity — all can be horribly fascinating. But Thompson’s sympathy for the bikies and lack of empathy for the regular folks around them just alienated me. Perhaps I missed a deeper and more reflective treatment by not reading further into the book. But after the first few chapters, I decided that I was prepared to take the risk of missing it.
Paul Graveson (Hobart Chapter)
Posted on Sep 04, 2019
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, the thirteenth novel of acclaimed Polish author Olga Tokarczuk, follows Duszejko (emphatically not to be called by her given name), as she interprets the suspicious deaths of various men from her remote village through the lens of astrology, animal rights, and the writings of William Blake.
Loosely structured as a noir murder mystery, Drive Your Plow mostly puts aside the whodunit plotline to focus on a deep exploration of the inner life of Duszejko and her interactions with other idiosyncratic village residents. These characters are expertly drawn, with their rich weirdness unfolding from the peculiar logic at their cores. For example, once Duszejko’s fixation on horoscopes and the horror of hunting is established, her rants and theories and disruptive behaviour make perfect sense (as an aside, I can relate - I have the Sun in opposition to Uranus and in trine with Mars, which is in turn in the tenth house).
Duszejko is an unreliable narrator, but Tokarczuk doesn't rely on lazy tropes about age and infirmity. Time and those things we do to stave it off are among the themes here, but Duszejko tramps through the snow and fixes gutters and dismantles snares with dogged determination. Duszejko is certainly an outsider, but this is not because she is out of touch or impaired. Rather, the narrative illustrates how society excludes and minimises those who hold strong counter-cultural ethical stances. See for example the pathetic grovelling of the hunt chaplain's sermon as contrasted to the righteous anger of Duszejko's retort.
The narrative flirts with magical realism, helped by a defamiliarised setting which I greatly enjoyed (I do have Jupiter in Scorpio after all). The town, which is so liminal that it's about to be literally undermined by a quarry, feels like it hasn't changed in centuries. Indeed, it's so close to the border that the patchy mobile phone reception is as likely to connect to the emergency operator in the wrong country as the right one.
Because I have Mercury in the tenth house, I pay particular attention to the use to language. Tokarczuk's prose is fantastic, with Duszejko playing with words, moving in and out of high register, and capitalising important nouns in the manner of Blake himself. Elements of black and absurd humour are also sprinkled throughout, for example where Duszejko is helping to dress a body and becomes fixated on the hairy and prehensile toes, or her neighbour Oddball’s deadpan explanation of the tongs he owns specifically for removing cling film when it sticks to the roller.
The prose is particularly impressive given that this is a translation from the Polish. For example, in one scene two characters are attempting to translate Blake into Polish, and come up with four possible translations for a single stanza. Antonia Lloyd-Jones has masterfully translated these back into English, capturing the particular quirks of each version.
As a Solar Gemini with Leo ascendant I have a short attention span, but Drive Your Plow kept me glued to the page. It's funny, clever, and thought-provoking, and it may well be my TGBC book of the year.
Jonathan McGuire (Sydney Chapter)
Posted on Aug 07, 2019
In “A Visit To The Goon Squad” Jennifer Egan, over the space of thirteen chapters, gives us thirteen different viewpoints with sometimes only most tenuous of links between characters to achieve a darkly funny, often traumatic and wholly rewarding novel.
Each chapter plays out independent of each other with telling stories of a kleptomaniac, a record label boss, a struggling PR woman forced to work for despotic leader, a convicted criminal writing an article about his crimes from jail, all intertwining and leaving us with the questions what are the scars or marks we leave on each other? How do we cope with our past as time devours us?
Egan has written a novel without a streamlined plot, it’s jumps time period, perspective and style from chapter to chapter. These style changes are what make this novel so powerful. The most brutal being the penultimate chapter written wholly in from the perspective of a young girl written entirely in a PowerPoint presentation.
Very few books in my life have ever made me want to turn back to the first page and read again straight away. Instantly I wanted to see what I missed. Sad, satirical, hilarious. Take the time if you already haven’t.
Will Drummond (Brunsiwck Chapter)
Posted on Jul 03, 2019
I am a big fan of Hemingway’s writing - the man not so much. His ability to evoke a particular time and place is what has drawn me to his work. The Sun Also Rises, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and A Movable Feast are all examples of immersive story telling where I can taste the cheap but drinkable wine, smell the dew covered pine needles and feel the spring Spanish sun on my face. When I travel I look for these little moments - I think this is why I enjoy reading Hemingway.
While I have been a fan of Hemingway’s writing for some time, For Whom the Bell Tolls is one that I have managed to miss until reading it for Book Club. The story is formed around Hemingway’s own experiences during the Spanish Civil War- a mostly overlooked but deeply interesting period of 20th Century history. Over a period of a few days, the novel’s protagonist Robert Jordan is tasked with the assignment of blowing up a bridge in the hope that this will prevent reprisal attacks from fascist forces. While successful, the mission itself ultimately feels insignificant as the superior military force of the fascists ultimately swept to power in Spain.
One of the novel’s strongest aspects is its willingness to dispense with a black and white portrayal of war. Participants on both sides are guilty of brutal crimes, none more viscerally depicted than a scene when an enraged mob throw their own townsfolk off a cliff to their death, due in large part to political and religious differences. It was not so long ago when conflict was written purely in terms of good and bad. Hemingway’s generation of writers broke from this in order to present us with a more nuanced depiction of war. To the detriment of all of us, it feels like the pendulum has already swung back to black and white narratives, particularly with regard to social and political commentary.
Whenever I give my thoughts on a book I always attempt to cover some of its weaker points. For Whom the Bell Tolls, like much of Hemingway’s work, suffers from his inability to write believable and moving romance. These scenes often come across as saccharine and are not in keeping with the novel’s attempt at a more realistic retelling of war.
Overall I am glad that I was asked to read For Whom the Bell Tolls as it was a book that I am ashamed to say may have passed me by. It served as the basis for a lively discussion amongst those at the Castlemaine chapter. It even prompted me onto further reading about the Spanish Civil War, which is a fascinating period of history. I can thoroughly recommend George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia if you are interested in reading more on the topic.
I think Ernest would want me to finish by saying keep reading and writing, keep eating and drinking, keep laughing and loving and keep enjoying the little moments in life. We can probably do without the bull fighting though.
Benjamin Todd (Castlemaine Chapter)
Posted on Jun 05, 2019
“Praise” is essentially a fairly dark romp through the early twenties life of Gordon, a young man who has left the family farm in regional Queensland for a non-life in Brisbane. That is, Gordon is almost defined by his lack of ambition, his ambivalence over most matters and his failure or disinterest to pick up on sexual cues from women.
If anything influences how he spends his day it is finding the path of least resistance to his comfort zone, which usually involves endless smoking, beer or cask wine drinking, lounging around and avoiding work.
Readers are introduced to Gordon as he makes a decision to quit hotel work and go on the dole. He is called up by Cynthia, a co-worker and invited over for the inevitable drinks and stays for a week. We get some insight into Gordon’s indifference to sex which is diametrically opposed to Cynthia who is demonstrably sexually voracious, in fact most of the time. Just how this odd match works itself out is very central to the story.
Cynthia moves in to Gordon’s boarding house flat which is cheap, grungy and houses misfits, drunkards, drug addicts, DV victims and perpetrators. So it is an inner city shelter of sorts, with an array of social dysfunction, as well as offering lighter moments and camaraderie. Seems to suit Gordon quite well and forms part of the backdrop of his drop-out lifestyle.
Much of what we are told illustrates how Gordon chooses to spend his time and there is an almost repetitive “formula” of sleeping in, getting food , meeting friends to commence a heavy drinking session and having sex (which is chiefly about going along with what Cynthia demands ) . What tends to vary as the story progresses is what supplementary drugs can be obtained (heroin, ecstasy or nitrous oxide), what venue is convenient and which other friends are involved. Much of the book follows this pattern.
So “Praise” is not so much about plot and events as an insight into a lifestyle (self-destructive to say the least) and dysfunctional relationships.
There are moments in the story where you sense there may be some trigger which propels Gordon out of his fairly bleak subsistence rut. For example there is a stage where it is clear he loves Cynthia ( it is reciprocated) and there is a sense that a relationship commitment may improve or resolve things but he deliberately rejects this ( and lets her leave for Darwin) . Also there is a point where his asthma and lung capacity are so bad that he is hospitalised, read the riot act and “cleaned up”. His brother even offers him a job at the same time.
I suspect I would not have been the only reader urging him on at this point to transform himself and shake off the self-destruction. Let’s just say this is not a lived happily ever after tale !
It is also clear that Gordon did not come from a socio-economically challenged or socially dysfunctional family. Indeed his siblings were quite successful in careers and relationships. So, something of a mystery, at least to me, as to why Gordon seemed so apathetic and content with a way of living based on elementary survival, escapism and avoiding any commitments.
In this sense, the extent to which “Praise” is semi-autobiographical is quite interesting, if not perplexing. Andrew McGahan was born in Dalby with the support of a large Catholic family, private schooling and partial university. He has lived in capital cities as a young adult. One might surmise he found country living stifling as a young person and needed a diverse urban life, perhaps. Other than this it is hard to draw parallels between an industrious and successful author like McGahan and young Gordon, who is nonplussed about everything and believes in nothing other than temporary self-gratification.
Overall “Praise” is well written, punchy and flows really convincingly. It was a good read, though somewhat bleak and depressing. If there was “dark humour”, it escaped me, but it certainly made me reflect on different values, lifestyle choices and mortality. Was this part of the author’s objective?
Neal Muller (Fortitude Valley Chapter)
Posted on May 01, 2019
It’s Harlem, it’s 1930-something, and it’s Johnny’s birthday. But there will be no celebration today. No candles and cake, soda and dancing. Rather, there will be blood, fire, darkness and righteousness. Why not? Because God is in the house.
The action of this incredible book takes place over the course of a single day, Johnny wakes up, walks through central park, goes to a movie, back home, and then he prays. In fact, he prays his absolute brains out. The bulk of the action takes place in a sort of hallucinatory trance that gives the reader a tour through all of the characters fractured and interwoven pasts. Culminating in a violent rebirth on a foggy dawn.
It’s great stuff. Gutsy, direct writing that asks you to get caught up in its violent sweep. Like the book of revelations in the way it kicks you back and forth. The genius of the structure alone is worth the effort of reading this book. The craft with which Mr. Baldwin exercises this narrative is unparalleled.
But the star of the book is the pure horror of revelation. The violence of prayer is the central theme. In prayer we get sexuality, violence, and death. Every single disgusting dimension of our fleshy lives is here.
If I take Mr. Baldwin rightly (and I think I do), then this 250-page tome might be the biggest indictment against religion I have ever read (sorry Mr. Dawkins). A generation out of slavery and our protagonists’ options in 1930s Harlem aren’t great. But this book seems to ask the question, is the obsession – and I mean obsession in its purest and most frightening sense – with religion any better from the past from which they are running? Has the spook that once enslaved just their bodies now enslaved their minds?
Unlike the god (note the small g thank you!) in that the characters worship, Baldwin doesn’t judge. The facts of the history are craved like the ten commandments. The rest is left up to our own empathy or lack thereof to decide what to make of this tragic slice of history, tragic slice of life. And like Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, it’s too horrible not to be true. This rattled me to my bones.
Declan Melia (Brunswick Chapter)
Posted on Apr 03, 2019
If I had been asked to recommend a book to begin exploring Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ or to come to grips with why he was such a popular writer, Small Gods would not have been the book I would have suggested. Instead I might have pointed at Guards Guards, The Witches Series, or perhaps one of the stand alone books such as Going Postal. Having issued this backhanded compliment to Small Gods I would has likewise not suggested you avoid it. It is fun. It provokes some thought. More importantly it does so whilst in and around the topic of faith without being overly judgmental or superior.
If you have not read any Pratchett before would be a good idea to prepare yourself. Many have commented his writing style is singular. Others would say it is unintelligible or very difficult to penetrate. His earlier books, of which Small Gods could be classed as, have a patter or rhythm to them with is referential and riddled with asides, jokes and footnotes. This style has been much copied but if you are not used to it the overall affect is at best distracting and at worst annoying. To help with this it is best to find an interview with Terry Pratchett or a recording of him reciting from one of his books. Once you hear how he talks you realise this is also how he writes. Once you have the author’s voice in your head his books take on a whimsical and comedic perspective which is distinctive and entertaining.
Having prepared the reader for the Pratchett experience the book discussion may now commence. It’s about a turtle who thinks it is a god... or it’s about a god who thinks it is a turtle... who has one believer... who doesn’t believe he is hearing the voice of his god... turtle.. you get the picture. Such is the way with Terry Pratchett’s earlier narratives. He uses the arrogance of the fallen god and the gormless neophyte to set up any number of gags and commentary on the nature of faith and its power to make smart people to really stupid things. The story is a meandering series of misadventures which look random but are necessary to bring together a series of scenes which would not work unless those things were put in place. The overall experience has been better executed by him but it is still worth reading and comes to a satisfying conclusion.
Some of Pratchett’s best comments about his books have come when he has been challenged or criticised in person. An appropriate paraphrasing of one of his comments would be when he was asked about his use of narrative rules to which he replied: If there is a one million to one chance of something happening at the climax of a book then that thing will happen... unless it is funnier if it doesn’t.
Dave Murphy (Canberra Chapter)
Posted on Mar 06, 2019
WARNING: BE ADVISED THE FOLLOWING NOVEL STONER FEATURES NEITHER HABITUAL MARIJUANA USERS, NOR REFERENCES TO CANNABIS OF ANY KIND.
First published in 1965, ‘Stoner’ is author John Williams’ second novel. Garnering poor sales upon its release, it received a generally positive critical reception. It was then out of print for 33 years until 1998 making it something of a lost classic.
The opening passages of Stoner speak of the lasting impression and legacy left behind by the books main character, the titular William Stoner, as viewed by his colleagues at the University of Missouri.
It outlines a decidedly unremarkable life of mediocre achievement and little worth, with those that new him thinking of him very little, if at all. What follows is a novel that breathes beauty and meaning into this ‘unremarkable’ life.
Set predominantly in the first half of the 20th century, Stoner covers the commonplace events of William Stoner’s life such as his career as a university lecturer, his marriage, friendships, and academic pursuits and gives them the weight and importance of an epic spanning several decades, 2 World Wars, and the Great Depression.
Stoner explores what it means to live a successful or full life, be that through success at work, love, friendships or knowledge and asks, how do we measure that success?
One of the main themes of the novel is Stoners love of literature and the pursuit of knowledge. Literature holds a transcendent, almost spiritual power over the character, it is his first true love and the only constant in his life.
Stoner devotes himself to expanding his appreciation of the written word without ego or interest in personal gain, and it is this purity of intent regardless of outcome that is central to the character of Stoner and the novel.
As a teacher Stoner may devote himself to passing his love of literature onto his students, but never really feels he manages to translate that passion into his classes. As a husband he is devoted and attentive, but estranged from his wife almost from the beginning and has a loveless marriage, but perhaps it is simply in living with passion that success is measured.
Stoner could be viewed almost as a love letter to life itself, creating a portrait of a humble and hardworking man with a seemingly failed life, that was none the less, full.
As Stoner himself muses on his life in old age ‘it was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, it’s specific substance. To a woman or to a poem, it said simply: Look! I am alive.’
There is an undeniable irony in the fact that a novel that deals so heavily with the joys of working for the love of it regardless of outcome, could be largely overlooked during its authors lifetime, Stoner did not come out of print until 4 years after John Williams’ death. Viewed through a contemporary lens, in an age of selfies and social media ‘likes’, Stoners message of humble dedication to work, both in life and love is a breath of fresh air.
Beautifully written and at times heartbreaking it is a rallying cry for any reader who feels that their life is without achievement. You don’t need to set the world on fire to burn bright.
Adam Volkmer (Collingwood Chapter)
The life of William Stoner is a touching look at a man whose life long love of English Literature, defined him. He came up 'dirt-poor', the only son of struggling Missouri farmers. Stoner worked his whole life; - nothing was ever handed to him. Starting an agricultural degree, he had an epiphany in a literature class & decided instead to study English Literature.
Stoner is a competent teacher in his university job, with a love of imparting knowledge. He is not ambitious and often too honest and principled for his own good. His marriage to a 'flawed female', who was highly strung and psychotic, is a train wreck. Yet, Stoner is stoic and loyal to her, apart from one dalliance in their 40 year marriage.
What is alluded to, is that Stoner's wife, "Edith", could have been molested as a child by her father. This could have been the cause of the erratic and erroneously nasty behaviour to Stoner, during their life together.
Stoner & Edith have one child, - Grace. Edith uses Grace as a weapon against Stoner, ultimately ruining her life as well. The book starts at just after the turn of the 20th Century, travels through 1st World War, prohibition, the depression, the 2nd World War & finally through to Stoner's demise by cancer in his early sixties.
His battles with his department head, Hollis Lomax, is a memorable one. As they say, "Friends come and go, but a good enemy can last a whole lifetime". This was certainly true of Lomax, who gave Stoner the worst teaching roster for a number of years. Stoner endured & finally won through. It is the sensitivity and care that Williams imbues Stoner, that makes him likeable. His doggedly plodding and methodical nature shows in his responsibility to work, family and his love of literature.
An ordinary life, filled with personal hardships & small triumphs.
Peter Mills (Perth Chapter)
Posted on Feb 06, 2019
Ask the Dust opens with a brief introduction by Charles Bukowski who describes John Fante’s 1939 novel as “my first discovery of the magic.” If you, like me, discovered the magic from Bukowski’s 1971 novel Post Office then you are in for a real down-and-out, gritty, poor decision filled treat of literary realism.
Ask the Dust is a semi-autobiographical story about Arturo Bandini an aspiring author in depression era Los Angeles. With a singular published short story under his belt Arturo grapples with life, relationships, poverty, and his ability to translate these experiences into his writing. We find a man with a curious relationship with money who oscillates between subsisting on sacks of oranges with scant pennies to his name to immediately blowing through any cash that comes his way. In my mind I keep returning to the word manic to describe the personality of Bandini who can view himself in one moment as being in the lowest pits of human existence struggling to survive and in the next moment a well-timed check from his mother or publisher sends him into the highest reaches of emotional ecstasy. A similar theme plays out in relationships throughout the book with people quickly moving from dear friend to hated enemy and back again all within a single paragraph.
The novel plays with several themes around the nature of love and relationships. Bandini and Camilla circle around a manic relationship filled with passion, disgust, racism, rejection, and constantly shifting power dynamics. Bandini insults his way into Camilla’s curiosity where, despite being unable to afford a cup of coffee, he rains down upon her with criticism of her ethnic background, shabby sandals, and dirty apron. His behavior is absolutely abhorrent and curiously reflects an almost grade school like understand of relationships. You could almost imagine Bandini as the stereotypical school boy pulling on the pig tails of the girl he likes. Not quite so innocent an image when adults are involved but you can almost see the missing developmental links in Bandini’s understanding of human relationships.
It soon becomes apparent that Camilla holds the real power in this relationship. As Bandini flees from a sexually charged encounter he finds himself questioning his own masculinity and fully caught in Camilla’s orbit. We soon learn that she is in fact in love with Sammy, the bartender. Her rejection sends Bandini oscillating between mad love and hatred of a force he is powerless to control. Much of the novel focuses on this dynamic as Bandini attempts to win his way into Camilla’s heart by any means necessary. He often appears uncaring to her own desires and somewhat oblivious to her own disintegrating mental state.
Ask the Dust is an immediately relatable story about a 20-something attempting to find his way through the world. It is about place and power, transience, and an attempt to establish purpose in a largely uncaring universe. This message is clearly laid out at the conclusion of chapter fourteen when Camilla asked Arturo to read and critique her lover Sammy’s writing, whom we learn is dying. Arturo sees an opportunity to cut down Sammy with a devastating criticism and maybe even win back the love of Camilla through his superior literary prowess. Arturo feverishly pours over the manuscript and pens a scathing criticism which he immediately runs out to post at 3am. As he stands before the mailbox letter in hand under the stars and utterly quiet streets we get a profound moment of introspection where Bandini muses on the relationship between nature and man. “Here was the desert beneath these streets…waiting for the city to die…waiting for men to die, for civilizations to flicker and pass into the darkness.” Counting himself now amongst the brave men who fight back the inevitable tide of death he decides to rewrite his letter to Sammy offering genuine criticism as a fellow writer. A breakneck handful of paragraphs ending with Bandini’s own assessment of himself as “a great, soft-spoken, gentle man, a lover of all things, men and beast alike.” It was a fascinating bit of introspection and a powerful moment to see someone discover empathy.
I found Ask the Dust forced me to reflect back upon my own missteps with relationships, money, and formulating ideas about my place in the universe. I struggle to put it more simply than Charles Bukowski who described John Fante as “a man who was not afraid of emotion” whose writing had “humour and pain intermixed with a superb simplicity.” Few books leave me so fully appreciative of getting a glimpse into someone’s true self even if we don’t enjoy what we find.
Stephen Deutsch (Ballarat South Chapter)
Posted on Dec 05, 2018
Rastas in space – who wouldn’t love a book that features dreadlocked Rastafarians flying space tugs.
I must admit this came as a surprise in a novel about a dystopian future and the efforts of an AI to break free of the shackles imposed by the hard core Turing Police on the limits to its intelligence but I thought that the Rasta named Maelcum was the tough guy in the book.
He did what the Elders of Zion told him to without asking questions and lead the way into the final showdown with Riviera without a clue as to why.
Neuromancer is a gritty, sci fi read about Case, a no hoper, ex junkie (who desperately wants to still be a junkie) who is manipulated into helping an AI free itself to become all seeing and all knowing.
Case isn’t very likable and without razor fingered Molly saving his arse more than once along the way he wouldn’t have got to the end of the book. Reading Neuromancer, I found it easy to see the futuristic Tokyo as a believable future – the poor living in slums struggling to stay alive and the rich living in a purpose-built paradise orbiting the Earth.
As Case mused the slum of Night City “wasn’t there for the inhabitants, but as a deliberately unsupervised playground for technology itself”. The poor as guinea pigs for technology that only benefits the rich.
It’s a rollicking adventure around the globe before ending up on Freeside, the Los Vegas of future Earth and the playground of the rich and famous where the novel comes to it’s conclusion.
You can’t talk about Neuromancer without highlighting the effect William Gibson had on the sci fi genre. He coined new terms like the matrix and cyberspace which have had far reaching effects on the genre.
He changed the sci fi novel for ever and for that we should all thank him.
Darren Saffin (Brunswick Chapter)
Posted on Nov 07, 2018
Rightly lauded as being among the most important literary narratives concerned with representing – and reflecting upon – the experience and legacy of America’s Vietnam War, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990) is a self-described “work of fiction” that is, nevertheless, a clear and openly autobiographical series of interlinked stories drawing names, places, events and emotional impact from the author’s own memories, both of the war and its aftermath.
This apparent contradiction between O’Brien’s description of the work as being “imaginary” save “for a few details regarding the author’s own life” and its simultaneous dedication to “the men of Alpha company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa” (all names of both the book’s characters and, we are invited to assume, real world individuals the author served with) is not merely incidental. Indeed, O’Brien’s narrative is quite directly concerned throughout with questions about the ambiguous lines between truth and fiction, between the different kinds of truth we tell about the world and, most of all, with the ways that storytelling is inextricably bound up with our own sense of self.
Hence, for example, we are told several times about the particular way Rat Kiley has of recounting his war stories, as in ‘Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong’ when the narrator tells us that “Rat had a reputation for exaggeration and overstatement, a compulsion to rev up the facts … It wasn’t a question of deceit. Just the opposite: he wanted to heat up the truth, to make it burn so hot that you would feel exactly what he felt.” What this gets at is a kind of metaphorical truth, what literary scholar Timothy Dow Adams means when he writes that “autobiography is the story of an attempt to resolve one's life with one's self and is not, therefore, meant to be taken as historically accurate but as metaphorically authentic” (Telling Lies in Modern American Autobiography). O’Brien writes: “You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end” – and The Things They Carried seems to circle endlessly around precisely this desire to resolve one’s life and self, to make sense of the distance between what one has been through, been weighted down by or done and who one is, in some other, bigger and more enduring sense.
Part of the answer, of course, is that our stories can become (or perhaps, cannot help becoming) our selves. For a writer, more so than anyone else, this is a potential source of redemptive power, a way to live with inevitable loss. As in the final story, ‘The Lives of the Dead’ when O’Brien describes the death of his childhood love, Linda from a brain tumour: “She died, of course. Nine years old and she died … But in a story I can steal her soul. I can revive, at least briefly, that which is absolute and unchanging. It’s not the surface that matters, it’s the identity that lives inside. In a story, miracles can happen.” In the end, we are led to wonder, is the self perhaps nothing more than metaphorical truth, a sense of singularity and wholeness braced against the assaults and invasions of an inchoate world outside – the experience of soldiers moving through a messy, morally ambiguous war in which “the things they carried were largely determined by necessity”; the knowledge that even nine year old girls sometimes get sick and “don’t ever get better.”
But even that would be to miss a part of the burden we carry, the responsibility of choice we cannot escape. Part of the great power in O’Brien’s narrative is that it combines a tragic evocation of the ways that men and women (in a way similar to how Linda’s death is described, we are told how Mary Anne in ‘Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong’ eventually “walked off into the mountains and did not come back”) are acted upon by forces outside their control and shaped by the world – without ever letting go of the sense that they remain, also, autonomous selves with the simultaneous capacity for compassion and cruelty, courage and cowardice.
This is arguably where O’Brien’s authorial voice becomes most effectively moving, being that of “a quiet, thoughtful sort of person, a college grad” who meets the realisation that “after seven months in the bush … those high, civilised trappings had somehow been crushed under the weight of the simple daily realities. I’d turned mean inside. Even a little cruel at times. For all my education, all my fine liberal values, I now felt a deep coldness inside me, something dark and beyond reason.” We are presented with few easy or simple ways to be good, O’Brien suggests, but that gives little respite from the weight of confronting our failures nonetheless.
But for all the undeniable complexities of place and circumstance, time and memory on which O’Brien reflects, that he turns over and examines in these stories of war and self, there remain moments of simple, if often cutting, moral clarity that stand out all the more so by comparison. Sometimes, the starkness of a simple observation inverted from what society has told us to believe, from how the world has demanded we act, shoots out from O’Brien’s narrative and hits the reader with both its obvious truth and sprawling implications. Such a moment comes at the end of ‘On the Rainy River’ in which O’Brien recounts the few days he spent staying at a remote lodge on the river border between Minnesota and Canada, contemplating whether or not to flee north and escape being “drafted to fight a war I hated.” While he initially outlines a variety of reasonable, high-minded and civilised objections to America’s war in Vietnam (“blood was being shed for uncertain reasons. I saw no unity of purpose, no consensus on matters of philosophy or history or law. The very facts were shrouded in uncertainty”) the story ends with a simpler motivation for the choice of whether or not to fight. At the moment of truth, willing himself to jump from a small aluminium boat and swim to shore on the Canadian side, O’Brien’s narrator cannot:
“All those eyes on me – the town, the whole universe – and I couldn’t risk the embarrassment. It was if there was an audience to my life, that swirl of faces along the river, and in my head I could hear people screaming at me. Traitor! They yelled. Turncoat! Pussy! I felt myself blush. I couldn’t tolerate it. I couldn’t endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule. Even in my imagination, the shore just twenty yards away, I couldn’t make myself be brave. It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that’s all it was.”
At moments like this, O’Brien’s stories touch on the recurring importance of understanding how we can all be moved to act, to do one thing or another, not because of what our minds or morality tell us, but instead because of something we sense, for good or bad, in the gut. “A true war story makes the stomach believe.”
‘On the Rainy River’ ends with a remembrance and confession: “The day was cloudy. I passed through towns with familiar names, through the pine forests and down to the prairie, and then to Vietnam, where I was a soldier, and then home again. I survived, but it’s not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war.” We move along, often, as if through bland normalcy or insignificant moments when in fact, we are shaping the stories of not just ourselves, but the world around us. And they are what remain.
Ben Adams (Adeliade Chapter)
Posted on Oct 03, 2018
Men without women is a collection of short stories the common thread being the title of the book. However it’s almost without saying that each story revolves around women or more to the point a woman and their relationship (or lack thereof) to the central character.
It’s hard to do a review of multiple stories especially of ones with so many layers, so I’ll give a general one and then a short review of each story.
Right away you get thrown into each story at a point in time. Murakami is a master of the observational and the natural conversation and even stream of thought. Using these, he describes the world around the central character and his relationship to the People, place and things. You go in blind to each story and he begins with such normality yet so descriptive that it just “settles you in” ready for the story to unwind. Point in case, the way he describes the Saab in the first story. It’s so detailed yet seemingly unimportant that it pulls you in to the world, relaxed and un-judgemental.
As you make your way through the story you quickly develop a sort of comradery or understanding of the character. Each story leaves you with so many questions and that’s obviously the point. Men Without Women has a very philosophical tone to it, existential even, and even bordering on the paranormal (like in Kino). Each story wants you to unpack levels of very complicated ideas, by this I mean there is usually a situation which seems pretty black and white on the surface, but he throws you in a very personable and situational standpoint to make you question your own feelings of thoughts on the matter. This can be seen again and again. Drive by car – Cheating wife. Yesterday – What can be/could have been? An Independent organ- love sick suicide. Scheherazade-Crime. Kino - retreating from life. Samsa in love - inappropriate behaviour. Men Without Women – having feelings for another woman. With his thorough observation and wry humour Murakami masterfully puts you at such ease and empathy with character you don’t judge him instead you begin to question the events and what they mean.
Okay- Rapid fire reviewISH of each story.
Drive by car:
Powerful opener. Is there a sexual tension between Kafuku and Watari? (Still not sure, but not really that important.) Did you notice the parallel between his blind spot in life and the blind spot he had with his wife? (I almost missed it) A real taste of things to come. An unpacking of a situation and stories with no real “finishing point” made to really question their existence while getting to core of the character.
This story was hilarious. It threw two “ordinary” people into contact with an “odd ball”. Kitaru was such an interesting character, a real “free thinker”. I felt like he was kinda the main character in this story.
This whole situation is awkward and it sort of explores the concept of having feelings for your friend’s girlfriend while also skirting the fact of missed opportunities.
Murakami’s description of Erika’s dream was very philosophical and you can draw so much from this dream e.g. long journey- since childhood, small cabin, only see through a porthole - not much room to move in the relationship while not really be able to look into the future. Kitaru is not really in one place like the moon he’s sort of in-between places.
I really like the huge jump forward in time at the end.
(I’m not quite sure if I’m reading this right but do they sometimes hang out with him just in the bath?)
An Independent organ:
Another one where (I think) the main character is the one being observed.
Dr Tokai has it all, wealth, a satisfying job, a Batchelor’s life with plentiful women who come to him and even an assistant who helps him along his way. Until he, against his own will, falls in love with a girl. Who this girl is unimportant. The main point of this story “Who am I?”. Dr Tokai goes full existential crises on this, so much so, that he just gives up on life.
I think this story really looks at (more so than the others) your own self-identity as it relates to the woman you love and what happens when that love isn’t reciprocated.
(The story which comes the closest to having a women) As the majority of the story is the main character listing to another story from his lover. Again where the main character is sorta this woman.
I think the main point of this story is that you can be as physically close as you can be to a woman but you can also be without her as well. Highlighting the difference between physical and spirt/mental.
I also think it does a really nice job of using fetishes as a driving point of the story without it being a “point” in the story.
This story had sooo many un-answered questions that I believe you are encouraged to draw your own conclusions. Like who was Kamita? Was Kino mentally stable i.e. was he seeing stuff that wasn’t there? There is an argument that Kino didn’t take infidelity of his wife well and he just retreated so much so that he became mad. OR you could argue that Kino was never really “involved” with life and because his spirt was weak, he was susceptible to spiritual bulling/attacks even with a guardian angel. What do think?
I just want to point attention to the fact there were cigarette burns on her and neither party smoked – and that mystery stayed as a mystery. I liked that. I also, on this note, want to point out the concept of sleeping with a girl who is sort of dangerous. Very obviously a person you’re not quite sure of, your gut says “stay away”, but you sleep with her anyway. A very relatable but such a nuanced situation. I would imagine a very difficult thing to put into words. I felt this one was more of a “tale” than a story.
Samsa In Love-
My favourite story. The marvellous unfolding of the story. It really highlighted the basic needs of the human body and how that, in itself, can be a central part to your own personality. The juxtaposition (it’s a book report, I think it’s the law to use that word at least once) between his situation and what he cares for is hilarious. What was the war going on? Why does he have amnesia? Is it from malnutrition or because he just woke up from a coma? Why the lock? Was his family keeping him as a prisoner or were they looking after him because his memory never holds? But he doesn’t care / really oblivious to those questions. He cares about what is in front of him, stairs, food, clothes and then the girl that comes to fix the lock. (did he even get her name?)
Men Without Women:
A story which takes place almost entirely in thought. These the phone call with minimal conversation, and when he goes back to bed his wife asks him about the call.
Murakami catches beautifully the sort of dream like state in which you interact and have thoughts when you’ve just been woken up.
I think this story really sums up well common themes in the other stories.
-Moment in time -Ordinary event(s) while also a significant event(s) -Existential questioning -Questioning the meanings and relations of things -Being without a woman.
This is one of the best books I’ve read in TGBC. Murakami pulls you in to each characters world with his wry humour, relatable melancholy and ordinary yet meticulous observation.
Ralf Beever (Collingwood Chapter)
Posted on Sep 30, 2018
‘A mirage of landscape, memory, love, and literature itself’- Murray Bail, author of Eucalyptus
As I kayaked up the Wye river, blissfully enjoying the smooth paddling stylings of my partner, the silence was broken by a shout from a fast approaching canoe: “Hey, aren’t you the guy who loved the camp book???” It seemed as though I was in the minority.
Murnane’s book The Plains, first published in 1982, documents the story of an Australia I have never known. From the landowners who met at the local hotel in town, to the wide-open plains and the lavish homes reminiscent of cotton-picking plantations from the old south of the USA, there was little I read that brought a sense of recognition. You see, I grew up (for a few years at least) in the northern parts of South Australia. There, landowners fought - and fight, still - for survival in the unforgiving plains above Goyder’s line. There was no talk of art or symbolism, tapestries or crests, or wars between tribes. There was only talk of rain, or the lack of it; animals, feed, and the local rodeo. There were no signet rings that glistened in the sunlight, and certainly no artists kept in residence for years on the dime of the landowner. Twenty years ago, when I first arrived on the plains, I kept my eyes open. I looked for anything in the landscape that seemed to hint at some elaborate meaning behind appearances. My journey to the plains was much less arduous than I afterwards described it. And I cannot even say that at a certain hour I knew I had left Australia. But I recall clearly a succession of days when the flat land around me seemed more and more a place that only I could interpret.
As I read deeper into the book, I realised the story was more than a work of fiction. Murnane paints an allegorical picture of an Australia that has never existed; or maybe, somewhere deep underneath our surface sweat and dirt, it does.
The book centres around a young filmmaker, desperate to go to the plains seeking sponsorship for his idea. He wants to write and make a film about the plains of Australia, to give insight into this area that only he is uniquely equipped to do. He, like so many dreamers before him, comes to pitch his idea to the landowners; a pitch opportunity that takes a day to eventuate, and is over in the bulldust of the late afternoon light.
There comes a point in books like this when realisation can sweep over the reader – that is, if they stick at it long enough. Mine came at page 69, where the landowners are deep in monologue. The fifth landowner talks of a man who concentrated on documenting a small part of his land in exquisite detail, inviting anyone to come and do the same. When the two descriptions were compared, the differences would reveal the distinctive qualities of each man: the only qualities that he could claim as his own. It was at this point the book clicked for me, and I truly appreciate the complexity and enormity of what Murnane, similar in some respects to Neville Shute in books such as In The Wet, was attempting to achieve through the documentation of an Australia that doesn’t necessarily exist.
As I grew up, my learning of Australia was being told stories of Captain Cook, the bold explorer; stumbling across terra nullis, seeing its potential as the perfect penal colony. Then, the first fleet battling away, throwing the sail-cloth clad dead overboard as they made that epic one-way journey, all to create the first inkling of ‘our’ Australia. I wasn’t taught of the enslavement and massacre of Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples. I was never taught their truths.
This is relevant to Murnane’s writing because, let’s face it, what is it that we truly know of Australia? What is the truth in history? There is the old saw that history is dictated and written by those who win. In the Howard era, historical ‘truth’ was pushed as facts. As numbers. As events with key dates, not the stories that were told. Now, we hear a much nuanced ‘truth’ with opinions and points of view from more than one side of the story. From the tribes and ancestors of those that were brutally murdered. We hear of the sites where massacres took place.
The ‘truths’ of history are somewhere intertwined between those who lost the wars, and those who survived to write it down. It could be said that the same applies to Murnane’s fiction; that his truths are a combination of reality and a yearning for what never was, but what he wishes could be.
Murnane’s writing style isn’t easy. There is barely a plot, let alone real character development; yet he is recognised globally as arguably one of the best writers to come out of Australia. He has a peculiar style, and has himself admitted the things he doesn’t do illustrate as much about him as the things he does. He types a single character at a time, eschewing modern technology (he only just got a smartphone): In 1979 I taught myself to type using the index finger of my right hand alone. Since then, I have composed all my fiction and other writing using the finger just mentioned, and one or another of my three manual typewriters.
So if through the narrative in The Plains, Murnane is creating is his version of the truth, a truth that like all others, doesn’t exist as a stand-alone - what is the essence of the story? In some ways you could view this book as the tale of a nation creating its own narrative. In other ways, the titular plains are the great Australian outback; the towns the capital cities. For some readers, Australia will be the plains, and other countries, founded in centuries of history, the towns.
The truth for me, like any real and complex truth, in reading this book, is different from the truth you uncover. And that’s part of its beauty and its strangeness. Once you read it, let’s talk of our differences and discover the qualities that we can each claim as our own.
Adrian Morgan (Footscray Chapter)
A fantastical ‘Inner Australia’ consists entirely of plains. Its parochial landed gentry find diversion in a sycophantic pitch from a film-maker from ‘Outer Australia’. Once commissioned in this cushy gig as film-maker in residence, he of course makes no films, but reads, writes and obsesses on the arcane lore of the plainsmen.
A scene from Part One is representative of the whole.
The patron’s daughter takes her regular afternoon walk in the garden, and the film-maker has the habit of observing her while obscured behind the windowpanes of his upstairs library. He muses that she appears timeless, of indeterminate age, and unconnected to her setting on the plains. ‘Her figure was never quite distinct from the shadowy after-images of whatever I had been reading.’
One day, the daughter observes back. ‘I could not account for her looking up as she did, for the first time, at my window.’ This particular arrangement of perspective inspires the film-maker. He mentally composes a scene to form part of his unfinished film. After the daughter leaves, he ventures into the garden to look back toward the house from the perspective she had. ‘The window, enclosing only a sort of twilight, showed nothing of the room behind it.’ By experiment the film-maker learns that, from this angle, his gaze can penetrate a little into his cloistered room, and so as she watched, the daughter may or may not have seen his face, unless it were obscured by an image of the reflected sky, mottled by cloud.
From this prosaic account of a non-interaction, Murnane obliquely approaches his themes. You see, views are framed. You see, there are shadows. You see, perspective is everything. Nothing is certain; indeed, while an observer views one thing, his mind’s eye conjures another idealised scene. Now the observer, now the observed. In this way, whole pages of rumination drift by. Murnane describes a featureless plain with infinite gradations of detail. When certainty threatens to emerge, haze descends.
Why do I dislike Murnane’s writing? By leaving a lot unsaid, doesn’t it resemble Hemingway’s celebrated style, and his ‘iceberg theory’, where the master needs only to capture what appears on the surface in order to show the reader the stately mass beneath? Hemingway’s stories are elegant, pared-down sketches of vivid, visceral scenes. By contrast, ‘The Plains’ is a long negation, labouring the point that people project themselves onto blank canvasses.
Hemingway offers readers a window into human nature. ‘The Plains’ invites you to place your kernels of truth into a mirror tunnel, and then revel as they are reflected back multiplied.
In it I found no insights, but the failure is not my own. Move along folks. Nothing to see here.
Simon Reader (Hobart Chapter)
Posted on Sep 06, 2018
Bleak, pointless, dull, brutal, frustrating. These words summarise the world of espionage and counter-intelligence depicted in John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
It’s difficult to leave the book feeling hopeful or bright. This tale of moves and counter moves is timeless and as relevant today as it was in 1965. The novel tells a compelling story grounded in a grim reality. It’s the subtleties, the bureaucracy, and the mundane world Alec Leamas navigates through that connect the reader to an authentic journey. Where other spy novels of its era depart from reality and depict fantastical adventures, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold feels more a reflection of reality. It is little wonder the public refused to believe the author’s insistence that it is a work of fiction.
It’s difficult to walk away from this book without feeling disillusioned with the world. Human beings are traded as commodities in this novel. If there is a key take-away it is that the machinery of government may be unstoppable. Human life stands little chance of slowing it down. The characters either turn the cogs or are crushed by them.
Whilst the sacrifices within the novel are great, it does provide some valuable representations of masculinity. Duty, responsibility, moral culpability: these are traits exhibited by some of the key players in the story. The human beings depicted within are trained to be devoid of emotion and empathy, yet it feels like le Carré refuses to let them turn their backs on human nature. Whilst their duties change, their perceptions shift, they all still seem honour-bound to fulfil their unique roles. Our club discussed at length the key themes of the book, possibly the biggest looming question being, “do the ends justify the means?” Some members felt that yes, whilst horrific acts of violence may be carried out in the shadows, it is these spooks and faceless ghosts that keep us safe and sleeping soundly at night. Others were not so at ease with the idea of a benevolent yet unfeeling government agency doing away with civil liberties and human rights in the name of “public safety” or the greater good.
In the end, this novel doesn’t feel like it is trying to push an agenda or a train of thought, it instead presents to you the facts as Alec Leamas perceives them. It leaves you to decide whether you can accept the actions undertaken by the “good guys” or if you walk away disgusted by the brutality exhibited by those acting with complete disregard for human life.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is a timeless classic, a definitive entry in the genre. While some of the concepts may seem quaint today, the relatable themes and realistic picture of counter-intelligence in the novel means it will linger long on reader’s minds. If you aren’t looking for blinking headlights in the distance yet, or secret messages in the newspaper, you will be after reading this novel.
James Barry (West End Chapter)
Posted on Aug 01, 2018
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
A book that’s reputation certainly precedes it. I think my preconceptions made me anticipate that this book was more “important” than it was “great”. But I was totally wrong. Sure, it is historically significant; they call it the first third-world classic, and for that alone it should be revered. But – all of that significance aside – it’s a fantastic story, well told.
Okonkwo is one tough motherfucker. Haunted by the weakness of his drunken father he worships strength and abhors weakness in equal measure. It’s a philosophy that’s working for him, he’s the most respected man in the village, successful on the battlefield and in the bedroom. As long as things stay the same, he seems to have a good handle on things. But who are these pale strangers who preach peace and are welcoming to the meek and pathetic? If their ideology of servitude to a god of piety and submission catches on, then Okonkwo’s society – and his entire worldview – is set to be turned upside down.
This has something of the Greek tragedy about it. The ending is there in the title (also, I think it’s my favourite title of anything ever). We know things aren’t going to end up well, but there’s something so sadly satisfying about watching it happen. This helps explain the books unusual narrative structure (the first two thirds of the story are tensely forthright), every event is a potential portent of cataclysm. The reader watches with morbid fascination as everything starts to come undone.
It also dilutes the simplicity if the post-colonial narrative status-quo. Okonkwo’s society is far from idyllic, it’s brutally violent, but how could anything be worse than what was to come? How is the reader supposed to feel when terrible things happen to people we perceive as terrible? Now reconsider that question on a level of societies.
A book haunted by the twentieth century. Just excellent.
Declan Melia (Brunswick Chapter)
Posted on Jul 04, 2018
First published in 1927, Men Without Women is a collection of short stories by Ernest Hemingway. This collection offers vignettes of life, snippets fleetingly seen as though we were travelling through the scenes of the stories.
This was my first time reading Hemingway, I had always wanted to but had been put off by the reputation of this literary great. I was surprised at how accessible his writing was. Almost brutishly simple yet evocative with an underlying sensitivity and sympathy for his protagonists and the scenes he describes. This writing style disarmed me, unexpected but immediately likeable. Here, I believe, he explores the themes that dominated much of his life, what defines a man? Still relevant today. Hemingway’s definition may be out of date – brutish and toxic –¬ but it does offer us a starting point to ask ourselves the same questions. Every story allows us to peer into the male psyche and question.
Duty and honour are explored in stories such as ‘Fifty Grand’ where the aging boxer is torn between what he sees as his duty as a father and husband and his honour as a successful boxer. In ‘The Undefeated’, the bullfighter Manuel Garcia’s honour spurs him to fight in a doomed arena which, in an almost Kafka moment, sees the bull and the fighter reflected in each other. The straight backed ‘Signor Maggiore’ of ‘In Another Country’ shows us how the constraints of living up to the expectations of being a man, carry their own weight. His many medals cannot stop the inevitable feeling of loss, weakness and despair, he is ashamed of these non-masculine feelings. Even though they are just as much of being a man as are his medals for bravery. I’m not sure he would understand. The expectations of society are just as weighty; the American lady in ‘A Canary for One’ gleefully claims American men to be paragons among men for the loyalty, duty and honour they display, making them perfect husbands. Meanwhile the American man listening to her knows full well that he would not pass her stringent standards. Being a man does not come down to nationality. A perverse honour and duty also plays a part in the story of ‘The Killers’, seemingly pure Tarantino. Not finding their quarry they leave the traumatised innocents to themselves. Is this honour to do the ‘right’ thing or duty to the client who hired them? Are they real men for their ‘profession’ or for their actions? Or neither? What defines our actions? What makes us what we are?
The stories seem to have no beginning nor end, we are dropped into the action, a silent party to all that unfolds. I liked this slice of life storytelling. Unlike the troupe in ‘Che Ti Dice La Patria’ who claimed to have had “...no opportunity to see how things were…”, we have the space and opportunity to reflect, ask ourselves the questions and learn.
I found this collection very readable and enjoyable. Hemingway’s style of writing suits the short story format allowing us to get to the point without much to distract. I understand that Hemingway may not be to everyone’s liking but this may be a good introduction.
Chris Capetanakis (Melbourne City Chapter)
Young Papa Hem (he was only twenty-seven!) gives us fourteen short stories. With only two clocking in at over eight pages, short and sharp is an understatement. The finesse with which some of them are executed is always impressive and sometimes damn near breathtaking. It’s far from my favourite style of literature but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. If there was much more of this it would be a case of easy to admire hard to love, but this collection doesn’t outstay its welcome. Not very much is just enough.
Thematically we’re in familiar territory. You could probably lose the second two words in this collection's title. Men – nearly all of them past their prime – negotiating a world that seems to have lost its familiarity. They're out looking for the raw guts of life at an impossible price. Are they self-aware? Nope. Are they happy? Not even close. But, hey, they’re MEN, so they do what they have to do. I don’t think it’s particularly clever or insightful to apply a twenty-first century understanding of gender roles to works like this. It's so obviously wrong and should be treated as a document. It’s not an ideology, it’s a portrait. Did Hem believe it? I think he probably did, but, like Conrad in Heart of Darkness, I think he’s still criticising it from within. How anyone could finish this book actively admiring any of these fellows? They’re all trapped in a role, playing a part with such intensity they can’t help beginning to believe it.
Still, I enjoyed this one. It’s hardly an undertaking, and for all his brevity, Hem paints a transportive picture. One morning in bed I’m sweltering under the Spanish sun, that afternoon on the tram I’m in alpine Switzerland. Even if it’s only for five minutes, I couldn’t say it’s unenjoyable. Certainly, if you were looking for some sort of insight or profundity in these stories you’d be left wanting, but, like the blokes in the stories, if you take it for what it is, you might just find yourself enjoying it. A nice place to visit, glad I don’t have to live there.
Of course, there’s the (in)famous writing style; gruff, terse, shaved down to its essence. It’s a great example of the writing style paired to match the subject matter. Masculinity written about in the most masculine way. It can be a little eye-rolling once you become too aware of it, as if you’re reading a Hemingway parody. Still, there’s no one quite like Hem, what he does and what that did for fiction is undeniable, and the worst I think you can say about it is ‘it’s not for me’. I wouldn’t say its overly profound, the lessons about the world that it moves to convey are all pretty familiar – dangerously so perhaps – to us all now. Hey, my life wasn’t changed, but I enjoyed this from cover to cover.
Declan Melia (Brunwick Chapter)
Posted on Jun 06, 2018
If someone was to ask me if I wished to read a story about the cycle of domestic violence through the eyes of a young family member further stigmatised by a developmental disability, I would have probably retreated to my current comfort zone of Scandi thrillers. This is what I like about TGBC… I read literature I otherwise would not. And am richer for it.
Sofie Laguna’s “ the Eye of the Sheep” is a disturbing tale of a family from Altona (outer Melbourne suburbs) mired in the dysfunction and deceipt of wife-beating and trapped in a low income cycle dictated by the father’s life long job at the local refinery.
It is told through the eyes of six year old Jimmy, whom I sense may be at the high end of the autism spectrum. To its credit, the book does not give his disability any label but it is clear his intellectual development is out of step with the mainstream and he has many social idiosyncrasies which make him a challenge to his parents, brother and teachers. He can get obsessive and manic, particularly when over-excited or stressed. Though he also has surprising insights and some quirky ways which are comic and endearing.
The story hinges around an unfolding tragedy of a mother trying to maintain some semblance of normality and protect both sons from the reality of periodically erupting violence “Gav, not in front of the children “. Ultimately this implodes and her health and grip on reality collapse in a fatal downward spiral and Jimmy has to then fathom the ways of foster care survival.
As a story it is well written, flows easily for the reader and is quite entertaining in passages. The fact there is some humour and levity in this is in sharp contrast to the ultimately bleak and harrowing circumstances of Jimmy and most of his family (his older brother escapes the dysfunction by taking a job on a freighter)
What sets this book apart for me was its character development. I found this to be quite authentic and well nuanced , with each person quite believable.
Gavin, the father, is a product of his own family’s brutal paternal violence and when he gets depressed (or loses his job) the self-pity, heavy drinking, blame disbursal, violence and contrition cycle are played out in varying scenes . However we see another side of him when he takes Jimmy away for a holiday at Uncle Rodney’s island home. It is as if he can suspend his damaged and troubled persona and revert to what he may have been had he better survived his own childhood.
Despite her obvious decency and selflessness, readers also get a sense of the over-protective ways of Paula towards her son and how this inadvertently acts as a barrier in her own marriage. When Paula ultimately resists Gavin physically and he leaves, we see another dimension to her as she allows Jimmy to continually stay away from school and regresses in her shell.
Given the story is revealed through the Jimmy’s take on events, one quickly builds a picture of the unique way he sees the world (including the fascination with appliance manuals and the similar “networks” he sees in the bodies of people, cars, and refineries) . Jimmy has to cope with huge trauma in his young life, the demise of his mother, departure of brother, abandonment and continued rejection by his father and the cruelty of other foster care children. So it is hard not to be very moved by his pain and isolation.
I became quickly emotionally invested in this book and could see that any reader could sink into a quagmire of despair in this story. However, through Jimmy, the author takes you on this journey in a way that at least mitigates some of this misery. Perhaps this is down to the naivety of Jimmy or his habit of grabbing on to some-one else’s phrase ( “ the last fucking time” ) in a matter of fact or humorous way that does not reflect the gravity or pathos of the situation ?
The Eye of the Sheep deserves the Miles Franklin Award for successfully tackling a subject that has been taboo for some time and presenting it in a way that may resonate for readers who would usually steer clear of this area. Anti-Domestic Violence advocate, Rosie Batty was awarded Australian of the Year in the same year as this literary award (2015). At a minimum Australians are giving this subject far greater attention and respect .
Neal Muller (Fortitude Valley chapter )
Winner of the 2015 Miles Franklyn literary award, Sophie Laguna’s 2014 novel The Eye of the Sheep tells the story of the Flick family living in Melbourne’s inner western suburbs. Parents Gavin and Paula have been married a number of years. The good times are long gone and they are held together by family dependencies and a sometime affection as they battle a lower socio-economic lifestyle with all its challenges.
Gavin grew up in an abusive family environment and works as an unskilled labourer at the local oil refinery. He is prone to outbursts of violence and abuse and regularly retreats to the sanctuary of his shed or, in tougher times, the top cupboard and a bottle of Cutty Sark which he shares with tunes from Merle Haggard. Paula suffers from asthma and appears prone to bouts of depression. She is the main carer of the couple’s children and also works at a local aged care centre as she struggles to maintain the family home. Agatha Christie, Doris Day, and the cakes she brings home from the centre provide her with solace from the trials she faces, including Gavin’s physical assaults.
The couple have two sons – Robby and Jimmy.
Robby provides support for Paula and Jimmy. He is into sports and is popular outside the family but his character is not developed as it might have been through the story.
Jimmy, younger by six years, is the central figure in the book and contributes innocently but significantly to the stress and pressure the family endure as he has undefined special needs that places him outside society’s intellectual and social norm at a time when no support systems are available to help him and his family manage this.
He sees things in a way those within the norm couldn’t imagine. He reads household and electrical appliance manuals and his fascination with mechanics gives him an insight that sees life connected though pipes and lines and strings and currents and valves. He can feel his mental and his cells and his tendons and his internal organs and feels himself ticking like a clock that has been wound too many times.
The story of the Flick family is told by Jimmy in a first-person narrative that gives a fascinating, humorous, and disturbing insight into what he sees and thinks and feels – sometimes all at once.
His narrative is not effective in capturing the thoughts and feelings of his parents and his brother however and this makes it hard to establish a relationship with them as the story unfolds. This lack of emotional connection is disappointing and leaves questions open when, in different circumstances, Jimmy and then Gavin leave the family home, and when Paula retreats from and then appears to give up on life, leaving Jimmy isolated and vulnerable in harrowing but compelling circumstances.
Jimmy’s journey from this point becomes increasingly traumatic and bleak but as his fortunes take turn after turn for the worse, an improbable plan is hatched to unite him with his father, which even more improbably succeeds.
While this provides hope that Jimmy will have a more positive future it almost seems contrived to allow the story to finish on a feel-good note rather than in hopelessness and tragedy as always seemed inevitable.
Paul Roughead (Ballarat Chapter)
Posted on May 02, 2018
An over the top, ridiculous, million mile an hour adventure with surprising glimpses of deep philosophical musings on the profound and the everyday. The first installation in Douglas Adams Trilogy of Five, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy sets the scene and tantalises the taste buds whilst holding its own as a stand alone novel.
Douglas Adams keeps it simple with a handful of well-crafted characters. The adventure begins with Arthur Dent, the Earthman, who struggles to overcome the loss of his house and planet within the first few chapters. Dent is the quintessential Brit, an everyman. Someone who doesn’t want to deal with the absurd and superfluous. Someone who just wants a cup of tea. A proper cup of tea.
Dent’s life is turned upside down when his friend, Ford Prefect reveals that he is from another galaxy. Ford Prefect is an alien from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse and journalist for the Guide. Prefect and Dent hitchhike off Earth at the last minute, stumbling into the clutches of the hyper-bureaucratic Vogons, before narrowly escaping a fate worse than death – Vogon poetry. Improbably so, they are picked up by the Heart of Gold with President Zaphod Beeblebrox – Prefect’s semi cousin and ego extraordinaire, paranoid android Marvin and fellow Earther Trillian – a woman Arthur once met at a party. This motley crew adventure through space behind the confused and unwitting guidance of Zaphod Beeblebrox in search of Magrathea, a mythical planet full of riches. On Magrathea they meet Slartibartfast, a planet designer responsible for the beautiful fjords of Norway. They are informed of a computer named Deep Thought which calculated the answer to the Ultimate Question to Life, the Universe, and Everything. When the answer is revealed as 42, the quest must recalibrate and refocus in order to find out what exactly the Question is…
Throughout the story, Dent grapples with the loss of his home(s). Holding on to its memory and relishing in the sadness of loss, while those around him dismiss its destruction and his sadness as a minor inconvenience. An idea which could lead one to think of the place of impermanence in our vast universe and our human desires to own and possess things, an idea which the human race has struggled to deal with.
Adams has a deceptive way with words which allows for simple statements to hold great power, to hold humour and wisdom which force you to pause and gather your thoughts. Case in point... “It’s unpleasantly like being drunk,” “What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?” “You ask a glass of water,”
Within this easily accessible and enjoyable romp through ridiculous space, are nuggets of profound wisdom, deep philosophical thought and beautifully crafted descriptions. Of course, the profound wisdom and deep philosophical thought can be completely ignored for the sake of a good time, which this book definitely is but...you know, they’re there if you want them. It’s humorous, absurd and a bloody good laugh.
Jon Parrott (Kingston Chapter)
Whilst on backpacking holiday in Europe in the early 1970’s, a young Douglas Adams gazed up at the stars one evening in Innsbruck, Austria and pondered how convenient it would be to have a guide to hitch-hiking around the galaxy. You know, a sort of a ‘Hitchhikers guide to the Galaxy’, as it were. This rather abstract -but nonetheless poignant- revelation of Adams’ is in many ways a personification for what his book goes on to become; a bold, hilarious, darkly meaningful and yet startlingly accurate treatise of human aspiration – and also its subsequent failure.
A close friend of mine pointed out to me that good science fiction (if The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy were to be relegated to but only one genre) is about holding up a warped mirror to humanity. After he had told me this, I began re-reading the story and started to realise how important this is. And much in the way that far more serious pieces of literature like George Orwell’s 1984 make us look at ourselves and reflect on how dysfunctional we as a species have become, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy also highlights and how absurd, fantastical and sometimes horrendously purposeless our many quirks, rituals and traditions are.
The story begins with our protagonist, Arthur Dent, facing the demolition of his nice little cottage in the English countryside. The purpose of this demolition is to make way for a new freeway – and yet despite this tumultuous upheaval in his life, Dent remains startlingly ambivalent toward this inauspicious milestone, choosing instead to retreat into denial until suddenly he comes to terms with the gravity of the situation, and commences a non-violent protest with the council members who appear to be waiting with a very British sense of beleaguered apathy. Dent commences trying to reason with the polite but slow-witted council foreman, when suddenly he is whisked off to the pub by his friend Ford Prefect who in turn unveils some rather distressing and tumultuous news of his own that significantly overshadows that of Dent’s domicile destruction. And it is here that we catch our first glimpse of the narrative that Adams’ is trying to tell us, because it seems that not only is Dent’s house in danger, but the entire planet as well, which it appears has been scheduled for demolition to make way for an intergalactic hyperspace bypass.
Here, Adam’s creates a delicious sense of symmetrical irony, we are introduced to the Vogons, an interplanetary race of bureaucrats sent to destroy the earth and everyone on it, who are remarkably similar to, and perhaps even a personification of, the humble English council workers there to destroy Dents house – slow, lazy and the very embodiment of bureaucracy. It is in these parts of the story that we are first introduced to one of Adam’s most unique signature literary devices, his unique blend of the simile and the metaphor (what I like to call the “Adam’s smetaphor”) when he inexplicably describes the way the Vogon’s ships hung in the sky prior to the Earth’s destruction - “In much the same way that bricks don’t.”
Fortunately for Arthur Dent, his old friend Ford Prefect wasn’t actually human, but in fact an interstellar being himself, a correspondent in fact for the most popular book in all the galaxy ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’. Using Ford Prefect’s intergalactic street-smarts, they are whisked off the planet before earth’s ultimate destruction. This is the catalyst that commences a crazy, fast paced and side-splittingly hilarious journey around the galaxy with a somewhat bemused Arthur Dent in tow.
Having been tossed by the Vogons into the endless vacuum of space, Dent and Ford Prefect are picked up (somewhat improbably) by the most eagerly anticipated and technically lauded ship ever devised, the Heart of Gold, which is powered by the newly invented improbability drive. This amazing ship is in fact being captained by none other than the President of the galaxy himself – the enigmatic, effervescent and super charismatic Zaphod Beeblebrox. Oddly though he had stolen the ship, and was being pursued with rigour throughout the galaxy by various agencies to ensure the ship’s safe return. There is an interesting and disturbing parallel that may resonate with many in present day, in that Beeblebrox is only a front, a cover, an avatar of power in the galaxy. His purpose isn’t actually to rule, but to give others the impression of leadership, whilst others rule in the background. He is in fact a social butterfly, floating from engagement to engagement to act merely as a figurehead to the government. And interestingly enough, the true powerbrokers of the galaxy don’t care whether his rule is competent or not because he is only a distraction to allow true power to rule in the shadows, is it a stretch to say that never before has this been more relevant than today?
Having been picked up by the Heart of Gold on their Hitchhiking adventures, but now being ruthlessly pursued by the authorities who have been tasked with apprehending Beeblebrox, on board they also meet Trillion (a fellow earthling who, improbably, is in fact an acquaintance of Dent) and Marvin, the morose and depressing robot servant who happens to have one of the most morbid outlooks on life, the universe and everything.
They set course for the mystical planet of Magrathea, but along the way become entangled in a series of adventures, which lead them to become privy to the most surprising revelation – the Earth was in fact a part of an elaborate experiment which began tens of millions of years prior by two pan-dimensional beings hell bent on trying to determine the answer to ‘the ultimate question’ - the ‘Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything.’ These beings commission the development of a supercomputer aptly named ‘Deep Thought’ to resolve this question. The computer - after ten million years of calculation and deliberation- comes up with the innocuous response of… 42, which in reality has now emerged in popular culture and modern society as being answer to the with the meaning of life. Not being satisfied with such a startling bland and parochial response, a new computer is built to solve this equation more elaborately, which takes the form of the greatest social experiment ever devised, the planet Earth itself. However just before the Earth finishes its program and it about to unveil its secret to the universe, it is destroyed by the Vogons.
A temporary hope for Dent and Trillion and the restoration of the Earth presents itself the form of planetary engineer Slartibartfast who is commissioned to build all-new ‘Earth II’, just the same as before. Sadly this is thwarted by an influential psychiatrist who becomes concerned that Earth II would serve out its purpose to answer the ultimate question - and to be able to answer such an omnipresent a ubiquitous question would spell the doom of his profession, and Slartibartfast is offered an opportunity to go skiing to the Scandinavian Fjords, right before being asked to dismantle them.
Whilst the story arc itself is relatively simple, the richness of The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy manifests itself subliminally in your mind. The richness of the humour, the dryness of the dialogue and the ever present story microcosms provide the reader with a feast for the mind. When I first read the book 20 years ago, I was much younger, and remember passages like a falling bunch of petunias (who somehow have their own bafflingly poignant thoughts immediately before their demise) and also the brilliantly famous double-negative when Dent experiences a beverage in space that is something in a plastic cup ‘filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea’. Having re-read it again, with a broader worldly outlook I see now the symbolism between the Vogons and the Council workers, the political power plays in the galaxy that are not dissimilar to our own, but perhaps most alarming, is the sense of overwhelming hopelessness that pervades it all. We see that, perhaps, there isn’t actually a meaningful Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything, but in fact there might be nothing more than just an abstract calculation. We see that throughout the universe, people from dissimilar worlds face nonetheless identical challenges, we see how when blessed with emotions and feelings like Marvin the robot, we have the tendency to drift toward despair rather than using this tremendous gift for the purpose of expressing and feeling beauty and joy. And always, despite where we are in the galaxy, we yearn for someone to answer that questions that –quite possibly- cannot be answered so that we can make sense and meaning out of all of it.
But I think therein lies the core of The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy. The ultimate question as to why we exist, and straining in the vain hope that it might be revealed to us is in fact a fool’s errand, or that the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything is in fact nothing more than 42. This in itself presents many of us with an overall sense of worthlessness – but in fact, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Adam’s darkly comical treatise is full of loops, pointless red herrings and immense orchestrations driven by simplistic ideals that are brought down by immense stupidity, which makes us realise that perhaps there doesn’t need to be more in it than that, and that we are in fact a product of chaos and not of intelligent design or meaningful destiny. And I think that is personified in the words written boldly in non-threatening letters on the back of any copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy - “Don’t Panic.” After all, on face value, the meaninglessness of it all could be quite overwhelming. So why bother fretting about it?
Nick Mason (Ballarat Chapter)
Posted on Apr 04, 2018
Noongar writer Kim Scott conjures an unwritten history. Set in the years following white settlement in Western Australia, our narrator Bobby Wabalanginy nails it when he realises of his new colonial cohabiters; ‘we all learned your stories, but you were never interested in learning ours’. Indeed, the voices of the Noongar people are lost to history in the purest sense, so Mr. Scott wants to take us back there and show us what it would have been like, but, like a memory we can only see it through a cloudy gauze, like staring through smoke.
This is an important story and it’s an important story to tell correctly. The task Mr. Scott has set himself is ambitious; to tell the story of Australian colonisation with a First Nation voice, the kind of task that takes an incredible amount of subtlety and finesse, the kind of task many writers have failed to pull off elegantly. There is perhaps a parallel to be made between the lyrical, almost whimsical, writing Scott uses and the book's incredible setting of South West Australia in the first half of the 19th C, both are mythic and unreal, fluid and insubstantial as a memory.
The narrative is impressionistic rather than linear, a style that I have read is supposed to mirror the story telling of Scott's ancestors. The subtlety of the writing is also matched by the subtlety of the narrative. There is no evil, only ignorance and badly executed good intentions, the ripple effect of actions in a distant memory scar the present and the future. The story of colonial devastation is not a new pasture for fiction, but it has perhaps never been told with such subtlety, and herein lies my gripes. Is it possible to tell a story with too much subtlety? There were a few times in this story when I began to wonder if what I was reading was part of a narrative or just writing. This isn't necessarily a problem, lyrical, poetic writing is some of my favourite (see my undying love for Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian) but I need it to be anchored to some sort of scaffold, I need a reason to keep turning the pages. In fact, at times I found this book completely joyless, the subtly of the technique came to feel a bit measured and lacking in any literary spontaneity. Of course, in a book about such complex subject matter one should hardly expect a thrill ride, but there must be a richer middle ground than this. I would say that this is a uniquely Australian problem, I found this book very similar to Thea Astley's The Multiple Effect Of Rain-shadow, a kind of spooky, dreamlike writing spearheaded by Tim Winton and that may capture something unique about the Australian landscape but I just don't find enjoyable to read.
Declan Melia (Brusnwick Chapter)
Posted on Mar 08, 2018
As I Lay Dying – Southern Gothic or Hillbilly Vaudeville?
I loved this book! My chapter (Williamstown) discussed it at length, but it wasn’t till I reread it at home in preparation for this review that I discovered how much I had missed the first reading.
The main questions about this book that need answering are: -
- Is it a comedy? or
- Is it a sort of satire of Hillbilly culture? or
- Is it a work of total pathos?
The answer is, I think, that it ticks all three boxes.
I was struck by the burlesque nature of this book when I first read it. On the second reading I found it even funnier. The story is told mostly (but not exclusively) through the voices of the Bundren family members. Although there is the odd ironic joke in their telling of the story, they play a straight bat, as they tell of their lives and their interpretation of the realities around them. It is an Odyssey of death, flooding rains, raging rivers, drowned mule teams, unbalanced coffins, burning barns, broken limbs mended with casts of cement, an attempted abortion, circling buzzards, an increasing miasma of rotting flesh, a new set of teeth, and finally a new wife for Anse, who I think is his sister or perhaps more charitably, his cousin.
This heroic epic takes place over about 15 days. Firstly, Addie takes ten days to die. During this time Cash, who has ‘carpenter notions’ builds her coffin. Every plank is held up to the window for Addie’s approval before being nailed in. Then the whole family set off with the coffin for Jefferson which is 40 miles distant. It is during this journey of about 5 days, that the trials mentioned above, plague them.
This is a rich and meaty book, and rather than give an inadequate overview I am going to home in on just two chapters. The first one is Anse’s chapter which in my edition is p30-33. You would go a long way in literature to find four pages more hilarious than these.
Anse is your classic lazy, feckless whinger. In this chapter he blames the road for everything. The road brings every bad luck to his door and he has been charged taxes to build the thing. The road brings the doctor to Addie and ‘making me pay for it’. Anse, who hasn’t been to town for 15 years, reckons that the good Lord made man to be upright so that he could stay put and not be ‘a moving and going somewhere else’ like his sons are being tempted to do so that his free labour is in danger of being ‘threatened out of him’. As the flooding rain sets in, Anse blames the road for directing the rain up to his farm house and then settling there ‘like there ere wasn’t another house to rain on’. These four pages are a treasure trove of comedic one liners. I have a theory that Al Capp was inspired to create Pappy Yokum in L’il Abner by Faulkner’s Anse Bundren.
Now let us move on to Addie’s chapter p157-165. This is the part where burlesque ceases and the guts of the book are revealed. Addie moves to hillbilly central to teach school. She quickly discovers that she has no aptitude for the profession, in fact she hates kids. Then to escape, she marries Anse and it is in this relationship that she discovers that words like fear, pride, love, sin, salvation and love are abstractions, like mathematical symbols.
It wasn’t till Cash was born that she realised that ‘motherhood’ was a word invented by people who didn’t have children, because the ones who have children didn’t care whether there was a word for it or not. The same can be said of the word ‘love’ which is just a ‘shape to fill a lack’ by people who have never known it. Nevertheless, Addie is a deeply unhappy person and admits to loving only two of her five children. Cash and Jewell are enveloped within her love, the rest belong to Anse.
I have just read ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ by JD Vance. This memoir was published in 2016. Vance is of the white Appalachian poor class known as ‘hillbillies’ so what he has to say has the authority of experience. This memoir details the movement of hillbillies out of the South into the steel and manufacturing belt of Ohio in the 40’s and 50’s.
This is the region now known as the ‘Rust Belt’. Although through a combination of good luck, hard work and good mentoring Vance is living the American Dream, most of his class are not. Vance details an almost universal ‘its not my fault’ malaise. What I would call the Anse Bundren syndrome, where every misfortune is blamed on someone or something else. There is almost total cognitive dissonance and no thought is given to the personal decisions that every one of us, hillbilly or not, must acknowledge as leading to our current situation.
When Anse says to Addie ‘it wasn’t any luck living on a road when it come by here’ she says, ‘Get up and move then’. The metaphor goes right over Anse’s head. He derides her reply as ‘just like a woman’. I think ‘As I Lay Dying’ is as much about decision making and the intended and unintended consequences as any great book in literature.
John Spencer (Williamstown Chapter)
Posted on Feb 07, 2018
The trouble is… it isn’t very good.
Really? But it’s immensely famous! A classic! What sacrilege is this? What was the problem?
Was there something wrong with the story, the plot? Not at all. Each chapter formed a well-crafted little crime drama, complete with creative little twists and turns. Perhaps they became a bit too formulaic by the end, predictable even. But plot is not the problem.
Was the writing awkward or clunky? Was it just plain hard to read? Not at all. Doyle’s prose reads very elegantly. His descriptions are crisp and he moves the narrative forward with a remarkable economy of words.
Was the subject matter unpleasant? Please. The subject matter is every bit as proper as its protagonist. I would not have any reservation handing “The Adventures” to my eleven year old (but ymmv).
Then where lies its flaw? Elementary: I wasn’t drawn to any of the characters. And it’s not that they weren’t pleasant; most of them were. Watson came across as quite an affable fellow. Holmes a little less so. Watson’s own description of Holmes is apt: “I was repelled by the egotism which I had more than once observed to be a strong factor in my friend’s singular character.” Several of the supporting characters were intriguing, even downright funny.
But pleasant or not, they didn’t grow (nor deteriorate), didn’t develop. And—for that reason, I think—none of them gripped me. There was no grand narrative to their lives. At no point did they embark on a quest in search of their better-selves. Watson simply gave up when he couldn’t anticipate Holmes’ train of thought. Holmes never properly wrestled with his own arrogance—what a different book it would have been if he had! Minor characters were similarly two dimensional. It came to feel like the entire architecture of each short story existed merely to showcase Holmes’ deductive reasoning, instead of being built to showcase Holmes’ humanity (or ours for that matter).
Read this book for its compact whodunnit dramas—they really are elegant. Read it as an adventure back in time. But if you’re looking for more… keep looking.
Bernard Cane (Kingston Beach Chapter)
Posted on Dec 06, 2017
It is without doubt that John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is a daunting novel to undertake simply due to its sheer size. Weighing in at just over 700 pages, Steinbeck’s 1952 work details the interwoven stories of two families as they grapple with life's greatest ambiguities including morality, sacrifice, love, acceptance, forgiveness, pride and mortality. Steinbeck underpins these with biblical references from the Book of Genesis, specifically the story of Cain and Abel, both alluded to and direct.
However, the novels bulk quickly surrenders to its comfortable pace and the picturesque scenes of California’s Salinas Valley and the rural farmlands of pre-WWI Connecticut. Ignoring America’s heartland, this coast-to-coast story follows the heroic highs and abominable lows experienced by the Trask and the Hamilton families across generations of farmland and fortune seeking. Giving credit to his ability to delicately pack in the details of the natural world, Steinbeck lifts the reader into each environment and willingly immerses the senses. It has been said by some critics that the roles of soil and water within East of Eden are integral enough to be considered a character in and of themselves.
With his world secure, Steinbeck moves on to weave an intricate balance of morality across the plot and into each of his characters. From the ethereal darkness emitted by Cathy to the fortress like solitude of Lee, readers are given the chance to explore and evaluate their personal values and choices against the actions of this motley cast. Yet, Steinbeck, nor the stories narrator, makes a concentrated effort to establish a “true north” for many of the difficult, and often divisive, choices and actions required throughout the story. It is with this exploration of the relationships between parents and children, between brothers, between families, and between people, history and place, that East of Eden remains as relevant today as it was for it’s original post WWII audience.
And in the end, with one seemingly innocuous word to the uninitiated, Steinbeck's self-proclaimed magnum opus slams closed with a coup de gras of linguistic wizardry. Simultaneously impressing a vast and timeless meaning upon the consciousness of the reader while doing so with graceful simplicity.
It is not without intent that this review aimed to capture the essence of Steinbeck's novel without breaking open the plot and dissecting its intricacies. By doing so, I’ve hoped to encourage any who have made it this far to seek out a copy of East of Eden and immerse themselves in the tale of the Trask’s and the Hamilton’s. All the while being open to your own perceptions, values and understanding of the choices we make.
Matt Shaw (Melbourne City Chapter)
Posted on Nov 01, 2017
**A sprawling riverside elegy
Full disclosure: I am a Queensland expatriate.**
Like most expats abroad I exhibit the tell-tale signs: bad news from home is met with a contemptuous snort and accompanied by mutterings about a banana republic; and any good news or persons of note are heralded to all within earshot. It seems ironic that only after taking up residence in Footscray and falling in love with the landmarks and the stories that occupy them, I am reminded of my own hometown’s history. While Melbourne enviably claims Paul Kelly as their local bard, David Malouf reclaims Brisbane in his inaugural novel Johnno (1975).
Johnno is equal parts divine comedy and autobiography, a requiem for a childhood friend interspersed with Malouf’s memories of Brisbane. From a chance encounter with the wildly uncouth Johnno on the beaches of Moreton Bay, the story is told through the eyes of an unnamed narrator whom the eponymous character irreverently nicknames ‘Dante’ after discovering his poetry in a school magazine. Johnno’s life is a gesture of defiance; his boyhood pretence as a no-hoper when in fact he is alarmingly bright, his Scottish character he creates whilst teaching in France, and his chronic alcoholism – are all signs of a person struggling to find their place in the world.
The relationship between Johnno and Dante is never straightforward, it changes like the city around them. The surviving landmarks from their wartime childhood and the memory of others having made way for newer structures. Both characters search for acceptance, intially with Dante awkwardly seeking Johnno’s childhood friendship. However, as they grow into men the relationship is inverted with Johnno reaching out to an isolated and emotionally distant Dante. As they enter university their paths cross infrequently, Johnno’s wildness having evolved into bouts of public intoxication and a voracious appetite for classical literature, albeit while studying geology. Dante meanwhile withdraws into his study of Latin prose and observes the peccadilloes of his friend and the evolving city around him.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that moniker of ‘Dante’ is adopted by the author. Drafting Johnno while living in Florence, cynics may accuse Mr Malouf of projecting his Tuscan surroundings upon Brisbane. However there are similarities can be drawn between Johnno and The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Both stories are cyclical in nature, reflecting upon a life beginning and ending with Dante rediscovering Johnno while packing up his deceased father’s house. Along with both narrator’s being guided poets through their respective journeys: Virgil through the Underworld and his unruly Queensland equivalent, Johnno, guiding Dante to adventure.
Described as his most autobiographical work, which also includes the memoir 12 Edmondstone Street (1985); Mr Malouf brings the reader into Brisbane’s past in an inspired way. Taking delight in portraying the humid northern capital as being “… sleepy, so slatternly, so sprawlingly unlovely… the most ordinary place in the world”; yet recalling his shady Edmondstone Street home, the summer storms and the ever-present Brisbane River with a lovingness expected from his character’s Italian namesake.
James Barry (Footscray Chapter)
Posted on Oct 04, 2017
Ham on Rye, a semi-autobiographical account of Charles Bukowski’s coming of age, begins with his earliest memory. Under a table staring at the legs of adults in Germany in 1922. It continues with his migration to Los Angeles. His difficult childhood living under an abusive father and nonchalant mother. His often problematic school years. And his alcoholic entry into adulthood. Told under the moniker of Henry Chinaski, Ham on Rye is unrelenting in detailing the setbacks. The heartaches. The feeling of having the whole world against you. And the eventual feeling of indifference to it all.
Rather than sequentially listing the events that happened in the novel, I will focus on the novel’s dedication, as its simplicity and underlying meaning stuck with me:
for all the fathers
Why “for all the fathers”? Why did Bukowski choose to single out the fathers in his dedication? I ask because Chinaski’s father is a flat-out bastard. At no point does he provide words of encouragement, words of reassurance, or words of love to his son. His father is consumed with the idea and use of power in his household. Living through the Great Depression, where outside the confines of his home he had no power, and for much of the novel no job, he was brutal in the use and abuse of power within the home. Even during Chinaski’s most trying times, having to deal with difficult classmates, difficult schools, and a soul-destroying problem with acne, his father provided no comfort. Perhaps “for all the fathers” is meant as a reminder to all fathers that they should not neglect their sons? Or that fathers are capable of cruelty. Bukowski was just probably being ironic.
Like the title Ham on Rye. Ham on Rye? Why Ham on Rye? I was waiting with bated breath throughout the novel for some reference to the eponymous sandwich. I read that it may be a play on Catcher on the Rye. At any rate, I bought some good quality ham from the deli and a loaf of rye sourdough after I finished the novel. Ham on Rye ain’t bad! (Add a bit of organic aioli for a 2017 touch).
At first sight, Ham on Rye may seem similar to other tales of growing up. Being shunned. Being an outcast. It reminds me of The Jesus Man, or Death of a River Guide, or even Stephen King’s horror classic Carrie. What sets Ham on Rye apart is its easy readability. The matter-of-factness of its storytelling. Bukowski tells his story in a brutally simple style. In short blunt sentences. This makes the novel highly appealing, and a great introduction into the world of the Tough Guy Book Club mind.
One of the rare moments of light in the novel is Chinaski’s retreats to the public library. There he finds the pleasure in reading. Books do not talk back. Books do not bully. Books do not make you feel less than. Rather, books are an escape. Chinaski’s forays into novel-reading read like the back catalogue (or future catalogue) of the Tough Guy Book Club reading list. Huxley, Sinclair, DH Lawrence, Turgenev, Gorky, Dos Passos. Bukowski’s love of Hemingway is echoed in this wonderful extract from p. 183:
“…And then along came Hemingway. What a thrill! He knew how to lay down a line. It was a joy. Words weren’t dull, words were things that could make your mind hum. If you read them and let yourself feel the magic, you could live without pain, with hope, no matter what happened to you.”
It is with this sentiment that Tough Guys continue to come back to Tough Guy Book Club month after month.
Angelito Santana (Sydney Chapter)
Posted on Sep 30, 2017
Camp Book 2017
Posted on Sep 06, 2017
"Those who write on Heaven’s walls should mold their shit in little balls. And those who read these lines of wit Should eat these little balls of shit."
Kurt Vonnegut. A name that is almost onomatopoeic. The Gs, the Ks and the Vs gets stuck in your throat. You have to hock them up and spit them out into a congealed golly
I Vonnegut’s novel God Bless You Mr Rosewater is just like that congealed golly.
It is dense, spongy and full of yuckiness.
At the same time, however, satisfying and grotesquely engaging.
You can't help but stare and you might be tempted to poke it with a stick.
The story follows Elliot Rosewater - the questionably sane and undeserved heir of the Rosewater family millions.
Elliot is a benevolent drunk. As useless as tits on a bull but caring, kind and non judgemental.
A returned serviceman himself, when greeted with a ‘Heil Hitler’ by an eccentric old man, he politely responds “a heil Hitler to you too”, as if it is the most logical and polite way to respond.
Through philanthropy, to some he is a god and to others he is a cash cow.
Naked and surrounded by the artefacts of a life unkempt, he answers the phone day or night driven by paternalistic purpose to the down and out townsfolk.
The characters of Vonnegut’s novel are built on snippets of dialogue and warts and all anecdotes.
The porn peddler, the public exposer, the murderer are painted in a way that is both human and matter of fact.
Vonnegut paints a surreal and comical image of the often bleak realities of life. Suicide, greed, trauma, abuse and more; these are the horribly realities that afforded no sympathy or restraint by Vonnegut.
These sordid details are not handled with cotton wool, gingerly alluded or skirted around.
They are thrust under the nose of the reader and balanced with grotesque and comical character observations that add to the complexity.
Fast paced and conversational , the dialogue unwraps itself and adds to the layered patchwork of the Rosewater family - those in Rhode Island and those in Indiana and even one in the Senate.
The novel plays with ideas of judgement, deservedness, poverty, capitalism and voyeurism.
One of the delights of Vonnegut’s novel are his vividly painted little snippets of physicality.
For example, in one scene a town drunk approaches the Rosewater foundation. He is being encouraged to act like a dog, and then as he pulls himself upright he sings a little ditty: “I’ve got the clap and the blue balls too, the clap don’t hurt but the blue balls do.”
In another, we have Elliot himself stark naked, on the phone playing with his pubic hair in front of the judgemental eyes of his father - Senator Rosewater.
The book is tangled and often follows a tangent.
This may be frustrating for some as the plot moves slowly.
However, the words evoke images more than they tell stories and for this reason the plot is more of a long play.
It is only when reading a book like this where so much pleasure is derived from the phrasing itself do we realise how little we celebrate our own language.
We read for purpose rather than for sake, and this book reminds us of this.
I leave you with a little snippet of internet beauty.
A youtube comment on the audio book by a man with a Kanye West avatar: “Only here cuz of my bitch English teacher. Fuck this book”.
Now, where do I meet this English teacher?
Baz Ruddick (Canberra Chapter)
Posted on Aug 02, 2017
'Science fiction' is a much maligned term. Hearing those two words coupled summons images of treckies squeezed offensively into orange skivvies and weathered paperbacks in bargain bins featuring wide chested blondes shooting giant insects with laser beams. But science fiction at its best is so much more than this. Its a thought experiment. It says 'this is the way reality is at the moment, but what if we changed a few rules and it was like this, what could those changes in reality tell us about our own world. Under this definition, John Lennon's 'Imagine' is a work of science fiction. 'The Dispossessed' is just such a novel.
Shevek lives on the desert moon of Anarres, a century or so after an idealistic revolution on the central world of Urras resulted in the exile of he and his fellow dreamers. What was the dream? A world without possessions (Dispossessed get it?). A world where even the pronoun 'my' becomes meaningless (near the start of the novel we learn that the locals of Anarres wouldn't even say 'my mother' but instead 'the mother'). Without possessions everything gets freed up, you can do and go wherever you like. Food, resources, labour, sexuality, everything is shared. We're all in this together, so why don't we help each other out? Sounds perfect? Don't be so sure...
Perhaps as a result of being too cynical or too enlightened Shevek starts to perceive some problems with his world. He wonders why some of his ideas relating to physics are being under-recognised, why is his friends satirical play being pilloried, just what is the danger with communicating with their fellow humans on the world back in Urras? This is where some of the novels really pertinent questions start to raise their heads; Is it possible to be absolutely free? Can a society exist without a government? If you make a a rule that there are no rules, isn't that, in itself a rule?
At the start of the novel, Shevek is making his way back to Urras, the first Annarian to do so in living memory. He's welcomed as an honoured guest and is simultaneously amazed and surprised at the way the people of Urras are living. It is, to use a term that readers of earth will find familiar, a capitalist consumer society, and some of what Shevek sees begins to appall him. Brilliantly, because the reader is seeing Urras through Shevek's eyes it starts to appall you too. What's shocking about this is that Urras is so familiar to us. In fact it really resembles earth.
This is what makes this book so brilliant. It takes a though experiment like twin worlds of Annares and Urras for us to see our world through eyes anew. It holds a mirror up to the way we live, and we might not like what we see back. Le Guin doesn't give us any easy answers here, we're not led to condemn either society or either philosophy but she does get us asking questions about both that have uncomfortable answers. How can we have liberty at the expense of inequality? Does human nature make utopia impossible? Why do certain societies feel so threatened by certain ideas?
Le Guin is a master novelist. I thought this book was a bit slow to start (maybe the first twenty pages or so don't hold much promise for just how good the book becomes) but after that initial hurdle I just swallowed it up. As a writer she's very technical, she spells out very complex ideas dispassionately and methodically and then sits back and lets you make your own conclusions. The story line isn't exactly thrill a minute but there are thrills to be had. Still, it must be said that this is a book most people will probably enjoy thinking about more than the actual act of reading. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
Reading some other reviews of this book and a critic asked his own question: 'Why is the Dispossessed by Ursual Le Guin not an American classic? Is it because of that sticky, corny two word genre Science Fiction or is it possible that the questions it asks us about the biggest capitalist nation in the world have problematic answers. That's a question I can't answer but here a a couple that I can. Is Ursula Le Guin a master of the Science Fiction genre? Is this one of the most thought provoking books I can remember reading? Is The Dispossessed a book I'd recommend you pick up and read right now? The answer to all of them is yes. (*sings...'You may say, I'm a dreamer....')
Declan Melia (Brunswick Chapter)
Posted on Jul 05, 2017
In Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago’s search for The Big Fish is a means for turning his luck and reputation around. More than just a mere fish, the marlin of his dreams is an elusive phantasm, a possibility to focus on, an ideal concept to draw strength from and a glimmering beacon of hope to follow through what is otherwise a harsh and basic existence.
The Old Man and The Sea is a story of an immense psychological stand off. It’s a tale of a world-weary man who’s caught between being a figure of strength to a boy, and a man who would rather chase living treasures of the ocean by day and figments of his dreams by night.
Hemmingway presents Santiago as a resolute and purposeful fisherman who is the product of his knowledge. However, as the sea has done to many a man, isolation, the necessary quest for sustenance, and a heightened awareness of the oceanic world that surrounds him deeply changes his views.
What follows is a duel with a silvery foe that he both hates and admires. Increasingly convinced of his own insignificance in the oceanic world, every minute detail becomes a major factor in Santiago’s situation. His is a mind-bendingly long, increasingly desperate and humbling struggle with the fish of his highest imaginings as well as the notion of his very own being.
To catch a fish of this magnitude is to test ones mortality, to face internal truths, to willingly pit oneself against the perils of mother nature as well as tap into successive realizations of the energy that sustains it all.
The Old Man and The Sea is the tale of a man’s encounter with the sublime.
Justin Andrews (Castlemaine Chapter)
Posted on Jun 08, 2017
The character tropes of the noir genre are: the anti-hero, the dirty cop, the femme fatale and the snarky deadpan one. ‘The Big Nowhere’ has them all. Set after Ellroy’s first LA novel ‘The Black Dahlia’, this novel follows the story of Sheriff’s Deputy Danny Upshaw, a young law enforcer who is driven to solve a case of brutal sexualised murders of gay men; LAPD lieutenant Mal Considine, a seasoned vet with Commies and a fracturing family on his mind; and Buzz Meeks, ex-cop, bag man and associate of scumbags. Interestingly, the story begins as three tales which become interwoven as the characters are drawn together on a case that involves the movie studios, the communists, the mob and the unions.
James Ellroy paints LA as a simmering pot of tension where no one can be trusted. The Sleepy Lagoon murder and the Zoot Suit Riots are mentioned frequently to show that it is a city where residents are scared and glamour associated with Hollywood is only a very thin veneer. Crime is rampant, many cops are dirty and the only thing rifer is the racial tensions.
Ellroy paints a convincing historical canvas for the novel with historical figures and locations set alongside the protagonists seamlessly. The language is taken from the time and can be confronting, but leave the reader in no confusion as to the opinions of the cast. The characters are presented as deeply flawed individuals with their demons that haunt them as much as the cases they are investigating. Within the novel, each man floats around the sinkhole, struggling to stay afloat.
‘The Big Nowhere’ exemplifies the noir genre beyond the tropes – it reads as a gritty whodunit with questionable characters and a deep sense of 50s Hollywood.
Gavin Baumer (Redlands Chapter)
Posted on May 03, 2017
In the 2012 novel Home, Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison again returns to the themes that have dominated her literary career: race and identity. These are certainly substantive themes to take on, and while this is one of Morrison’s shortest novels, it is also one that does not let its modest size temper these ambitions. With Home, Morrison seeks to highlight the racial injustices of 1950s America and how these are tied to the African American identity. Highlight is the key term here as what this novel ultimately amounts to is a brief—but no less profound—glimpse into these injustices.
The America presented in Home is undoubtedly a white America. The narrative may be conveyed entirely through an African American perspective (be it Frank Money or his sister Cee), but it is largely set in a world in which this population has little agency. This America, while being on the cusp on the civil rights movement, is still one in which the black identity is marginalised. The novel is constantly beset by episodes of racial injustice that emphasise this point, from Frank constantly coming into conflict with the authorities to Cee being the subject of exploitation by the figures who wield this authority. These authority figures (naturally being white) are seldom given faces or even names, they simply exist as personifications of this state system and the deep-seated prejudice that permeated all throughout American culture in this period. It is fitting that many of the characters of Home are less individual personalities than invocative caricatures. This is not the product of weak prose, but the intention to have these characters encapsulate broader historical identities. Frank Money, a Korean War veteran, is cast as the protagonist of this novel and it is largely through his eyes that the plot unfolds. His personal journey, from a disenfranchised Southern black, to traumatised veteran and finally, to a figure seeking answers, is a journey that was made by thousands of other black men in this period. The Vietnam conflict is usually associated with the emergence of the ‘black consciousness’ in mainstream American culture but Morrison correctly implicates the role of African Americans in the earlier Korean War. This was a war fought by black men for a country that refused to acknowledge them, and this theme is at the very heart of this novel.
To the immense credit of this novel, Morrison is an author who does not need to spell things out for the reader. Her prose is sparse yet economic, having an almost fable-like quality to it. Events unfold throughout the novel in relative quick succession, interspaced with short intimate passages drawn from Frank’s traumatic experiences in Korea, or vignettes from his childhood. This is a narrative that keeps its characters constantly in motion. Furthermore, meaning is not usually supplied directly in Home, rather, it is there for those prepared to read a little deeper. For instance, rarely is the race of any character specified, yet it is all too apparent who these characters are and, more significantly, what the colour of their skin is. We do not need to be explicitly told this as—through the perspective of the characters—we experience the realities of this prejudice. Morrison’s ability to place us in this reality, to bring us down to the level of her characters, is certainly one of the most powerful elements of this novel.
It is the notion of home, both metaphorical and literal, that anchors all the central themes of this novel. Lotus, a desolate township in the deep South and the childhood home of Frank and Cee, emerges as a type of temporal space throughout Home. At times, it is a symbol of the injustices committed against the African American community in this period, while also existing as the destination in which the characters of Home return to when searching for meaning. The town of Lotus is indeed bleak, and carries its own traumatic history, but it is also an accurate reflection of what the African American population experienced. Through the depiction of Lotus, Morrison asserts that ones’ identity is inherently tied to their personal conception of home, and that answers can be found in even the direst of situations. Home is a novel that does not shirk away from the horrors experienced and committed against the African American population in this period. Indeed, Morrison clearly illustrates that these injustices are very much part of the black experience, having shaped the individual identities of men and women for generations. As seen primarily through the eyes of Frank Money, Home depicts an America that the black population struggles to reconcile with, an America which still does not accept them. Home may well be a novel too ambitious for its own good, but if there was any author up to this challenge, it would be Toni Morrison.
Brendan Walsh (Fortitude Valley Chapter)
What is the difference between a home and a house?
Is the difference something as simple as who you live with, or what you can look forward to coming back to after a day’s hard work?
Toni Morrison’s book Home takes this idea a step further and examines how one’s thoughts, dreams, and aspirations can change one’s outlook on their home. The dichotomy of Frank’s narrative of a past filled with regrets is weaved in between Cees aspirations and where her big dreams take her, as they both reflect upon the places they have stayed. The common thread between them was growing up in Lotus, where the freedom from leaving their childhood house was both liberating and regretful, as an endless cycle of questioning follows them throughout the whole book. Similarly, while this book is great as it is a short read, the questioning it leaves to the reader will last long after the final page has been reached.
Chris Newton (Monash Clayton Chapter)
Posted on Apr 05, 2017
How important is a sense of belonging to the health of a man's psyche? And what happens to a man when he cannot "belong" no matter what he does? Rejection by society, and the soul-crushing, dehumanizing damage done by the resulting isolation, is a central theme of Christos Tsiolkas' "The Jesus Man".
Dom, Tommy and Lou are brothers. Sons of a Greek immigrant mother and an Australian father of Italian/Greek descent, they have grown up as "Australian" in a country that does not fully recognize them as true members of society--their immigrant roots forever tainting their full acceptance. All three brothers suffer from the shame of their own proclivities and share the knowledge of a family secret that haunts them. Unable to communicate honestly with anyone about their deep despondency, guilt and malaise, each brother descends into self-destructive behavior--with Tommy reaching a level of horrifying psychosis and violence.
Raw descriptions of sexual acts and violence are juxtaposed against the backdrop of political upheaval in 1990's Australia. The boys' mother is fully engrossed in politics and displays an unwavering devotion to social justice. She has expectations of her sons' behavior that have little or nothing to do with the reality of their situation, character or humanity. She sets herself apart as innately superior, which helps create an irrevocable state of isolation for Dom, Tommy and Lou. The boys' father projects the kind of stoic manliness that limits communication about feelings, which adds to the perfect storm of disaffection and disconnection.
After losing his job (a life-changing event that has proven to be destructive to a man's psyche more than any other), Tommy's life spins out of control. He rejects his already fragile ties to reality--girlfriend, family, friends--and descends into a nightmare fantasy world of his own making; a lonely world filled with pornography, violence and television. Constantly reminded that he doesn't really belong, that he is irretrievably flawed, that he is worthless to society, Tommy finds a way to ultimately redeem himself. In one brutal, misguided, tragic act, Tommy's redemption devastates his entire family.
A murder of crows periodically appears to remind the family of an ancient curse. Whether a literal curse in the true Old World fashion, or simply the generational, psychic scars that are passed on from parent to child makes little difference in this narrative. Men continue to repeat the mistakes of the past, mainly because it is taboo to communicate about them in any kind of deep, meaningful, healing way. Religion provides no solace. Indeed, the constraints of judgemental Christian convention only provide a conduit to more isolation and shame. Tommy's association with Neil, a religious fanatic, leads directly to the horrifying climax and his pitiful ruin.
Grim, violent and unapologetically gritty, "The Jesus Man" still offers some hope that destructive patterns can be broken. As young Lou forges ahead (What else can one do, except take Tommy's way out?) and strives to make a connection between his family's past, present and future, he manages to find some small bits of consolation and hope. The fact that the forgotten and forsaken Greek God Hephaestus was flawed, shunned and isolated from the Pantheon is a reminder that no one is perfect and no one should have that expectation--for themselves or anyone else.
Wolf Linderman (Portland Chapter)
Posted on Mar 01, 2017
‘Good Omens’ (or more precisely Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch) is often listed as one of the funniest books of all time – with good reason. Given the subject matter, this may be a bit of a surprise. The novel starts with the birth of the antichrist (a nod to the premise of ‘The Omen’) and instead of the child in question being delivered to an American ambassador is given to a regular family in England. The news of the birth of the antichrist has long been waited for adversaries from above and below. To watch over the development of the child are the angel, Aziraphale, and the demon, Crowley.
As these two children grow, it does become apparent that young Warlock is not the antichrist after all. There have been some strange phenomena occurring however that is a sign of the end of the world. Despite being charged with the mission of observing and advocating for their sides at the end of the world, it could be said that too much time on earth has turned Crowley and Aziraphale a little peculiar – they are actually quite friendly with each other and comfortable with their lives they have built on earth. They decide to try and intervene to stop the rise of the antichrist.
‘Good Omens’ is off-beat, extraordinarily English and entertaining as hell. With the combination of Terry Pratchett’s story-telling expertise and Neil Gaiman’s wildly fantastic ideas, it combines theology, fantasy and jokes that make you laugh embarrassingly on public transport when you are reading it. The novel looks at the argument of nature and nurture through a comedic lens and tries to evoke in its audience glorious memories of being a child.
Gavin Baumer (Redlands Chapter)
Posted on Feb 01, 2017
Kerouac hammered out this semi-autobiographical novel on a single scroll of paper in just three weeks, describing road trips he took between 1947 and 1950. This rapid approach comes through in the writing, which is loosely structured and informal, uses a lot of slang and describes events which would have been quite controversial in the 1950s – explaining why his publishers insisted he create characters rather than using real names. Crossing the continental US and the Mexican border (it was a bit easier in those pre-Trump Wall days) on buses, holding on for dear life in the back of trucks, catching rides with his good mate (and insurer’s nightmare) Dean Moriarty and hitchhiking with random strangers, Kerouac describes the excitement, the adventure and the boredom of being a young and aimless traveller in five parts:
Part One: It’s 1947 and our protagonist Sal is bored with life, so he heads out west in 1947 with $50 in his pocket. He gets to Denver where he meets Dean and drinks too much. Then San Francisco where he steals too much. Back on the road again, Sal meets a Mexican beauty and falls in love. But life off the road is hard work, so he leaves her and goes back to New York.
Part Two: Sal is celebrating Christmas 1948 when Dean rolls back into his life, and as usual, he’s full of piss and vinegar. As always with Dean, there are women, and stories about other women, and trouble brewing. There are trips up and down the country. New York, New Orleans, San Francisco. There is jazz. Did we mention it was the 1940s?
Part Three: Its 1949 and Sal’s depressed again so he decides to get back on the road. Denver, San Francisco. Dean’s trouble with women continues, which may be one reason he drives like a maniac. (Another other reason being speed cameras haven’t been invented yet). Detroit, New York, and a pregnancy.
Part Four: Up to 1950 now. It’s been a few months and the weather is warming up so Sal decides to get back on the road. Denver again, this time via Washington DC and St Louis. Dean comes back in the picture and it’s off to Mexico for fun and frolics the Mexican way. Sal feels the full brunt of Montezuma’s revenge and Dean decides to abandon him. Even Sal realises Dean’s “a rat” but what the hell – he’s a mate.
Part Five: Dean’s way with women continues, and he has so many options it’s hard to choose. How about Inez… on second thought, let’s stick with Camille – for now, anyway. Sal gets better, returns to New York and meets that special someone. But where would they be without third-wheel Dean? And Sal ends the book thinking of Dean, the ultimate bromance.
John Halligan (Melbourne City Chapter)
Posted on Dec 07, 2016
A brief history of seven killings doesn’t pull any punches. Right from start James throws you in to the deep end, trying to drown you in names, places and pages and pages of near indecipherable lingo. But that’s not to say it’s unwelcoming.
Centring the story on the shooting of Bob Marley’s house, and the consequent history of the gunmen that took part, it takes a winding path across times and places, disorienting at times and always bold, there is a feeling that you’re being submersed in something authentic. The wide range of characters invite you to see the world as they do, and through these multiple viewpoints a well-rounded view of 1976 Kingston is built filled with emotion, politics, violence and of course, music.
This story has a flow to it, a rhythm that pushes it forward to its inevitable conclusion. The way that the language worms its way into your head, and makes you feel like one of the locals is intoxicating and left me wanting to be there.
But this book certainly has its drawbacks. It is long by most standards and I, for one, faltered around the 1/3rd mark (I jumped across to read a short novel before coming back to wrap it up). The cast of characters serves to provide a multifaceted view of what’s happening, but I felt myself (especially at the beginning), spending a lot more time than I would like in the front of the book reading the cast page to try and figure out who the hell I was reading about, who they were allied to and what their deal was.
All in all I definitely liked the book, but it is not one I would recommend willy-nilly. It’s certainly not for everyone. I know that plenty of blokes didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I did, and some liked it a whole lot more but if you haven’t, think about giving it a go.
It’s a hell of a ride.
Pod Picking (Launceston Chapter)
Posted on Nov 02, 2016
Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West
An abattoir - Dying trout – A journey – The kid – Language barriers – Whisky and whores – Liquid prose - A blood bath – The vanquished – Chaos lurking
The bar is dimly lit in the fading spring light. The carcasses of butchered beasts long removed still chill the air where humming vats now stand. Foam lined glasses and sticky rings dissolve in to the darkness as the freshly slain trout lies gasping, red gills flapping and bright eyes clouding as if dripped with milk or cream. A journey to the West begins.
The kid has little but a decrepit mule when he joins us. He is travelling in the same direction, certain only that violence awaits in the bleak deserts. The promise of gold for scalps alluring for men lost to war and lost.
The villages we approach are barricaded with language foreign and familiar. No hablo español helps little to dissuade the people of their fate. Despite the opulence shown by the visitors, coin spent on whisky and whores has little value to the dead and scalpless.
We kill and die on the waves of sand and prose that stretch before us. Blood cascades onto the pages in torrents, the flood drenches those that push forward through the rusty, salty stench. Men, women, children, beasts are drowned beneath the cruel red sea, while the Judge bathes in the shallows.
At journeys end the days are long and sun still lights the bar. Many sit vanquished over dark glasses, defeated by gore or style. Those that set out were rewarded with vivid memories of harsh and beautiful settings, companions found and lost and chaos lurking behind the eyes of every man.
Sam Stops (Hobart Chapter)
Posted on Oct 05, 2016
We are still waiting on a reivew for this one.
Posted on Oct 01, 2016
Can the success of a work of fiction about the atrocities perpetrated on the aboriginal people by our early colonial forebears suggest we are coming of age in accepting that awful truth? Or might it simply be described as a “good read” and then put down?
These questions quickly form when reading the final words of Rohan Wilson’s award winning The Roving Party, an account of Government sanctioned attempts to put a stop to the so-called Black War in Tasmania’s late 1820s, thereby condoning the massacre of aboriginals in areas of the state that had been colonised over almost three previous decades.
Winning the Australian newspaper/Vogel literary award and NSW Premier’s literary award in 2012 The Roving Party heralded a succession of titles by professional historians, books which made the Black War their main focus. Notable among these are Henry Reynolds Forgotten War (published 2013), Nicholas Clements The Black War (2014) and Nicholas Brodie’s The Vandemonian War (2017).
Nicholas Clements says between 1825 and 1831 in Tasmania close to 200 Britons and 1000 Aborigines died in conflict with one another. Brodie quotes Governor Arthur who, citing attacks on ‘unoffending and defenceless woman and children’ and the insufficient powers afforded by common law to his magistrates, declared on November 1, 1828 “martial law is and shall continue to be in force against the black or aboriginal natives, within the settled districts of this island.”
As such Arthur sanctioned the formation of roving parties comprised of free men and convicts, the latter seeking a ticket of leave as a reward for their participation. The parties were proactive, scouring the Tasmanian bush in the hope of capturing or killing aboriginals.
Referencing real people, if not real events, Wilson blurs that line between fact and fiction. It is no surprise that the friction between history and fiction, which was the subject of Wilson’s thesis for his Master of Arts, was the catalyst for this, his first novel.
That friction is clearly evident in Wilson’s portrayal of John Batman, land holder in the Ben Lomond area east of Launceston, roving party leader and later someone who traded blankets and mirrors with people from the Yarra Yarra tribe to lay claim to land that would become the city of Melbourne.
Batman is presented as a complex person. Protesting his love of peace but acknowledging he had a contract with the government “and I intend to collect on it,” he is ruthless in his intended objective. His arms coated with the blood of a lamb whose head he had just severed, Batman welcomes four convict members to his roving party with the words “if you’ve no stomach for killing, say so now”.
Compared with his respect for the notorious bushranger Matthew Brady, whom Batman had captured some years earlier, there is an irony in how his sees his aboriginal quarry; as savages, fighting as they were a last ditch stand against white settlers. Roving party member Black Bill educated and bought up as a white man and living close by the Batman farm, escapes such a label.
Vandemonian Bill’s own quest against the historical aboriginal leader, Manalargena, weaves another thread into a raw narrative which is played out against the backdrop of the Tasmanian bush in all its moods and guises: from its harsh highland terrain through rain-soaked gullies to east coast landscapes and from clear, sharp winter days which can turn to snow and sleet in minutes or a summer-baked landscape when the sap in eucalypts threatens to explode and fell distorted limbs.
Writing in a sparse style Wilson employs English grammar and language that may reflect the spoken word of the period. He adds further veracity to the narrative by letting his native speakers use their own tongue, a dialect of Palawa, or Tasmanian language, which was last used in daily conversation at about this time. The author does not translate words and phrases, leaving the reader to feel and interpret what might have transpired between English speaker and Tasmanian aboriginals.
History provides the backdrop for much good writing and there can be no dispute that Wilson leverages the fact and the fiction of the Black War as both a good read and an awful truth.
Mike Vanderkelen (Geelong Chapter)
Posted on Sep 07, 2016
The TGBC Review of Trout Fishing in America assumed that the novel Trout Fishing in America would be about trout fishing in America, which is not neccessarily to say it isn’t. Trout Fishing in America is a bizarre and hallucinatory novel(?), that plays with ideas of language and meaning and reality, it is a work that defies description and it is a disservice to the work to attempt to do so; trout fishing in America is a pastime available to anyone who happens to be in America.
A recipe for trout:
Ingredients 2 x 300 g whole trout , from sustainable sources, ask your fishmonger, scaled, cleaned and gutted olive oil sea salt freshly ground black pepper 1 large bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley , leaves picked and chopped 2 lemons , 1 zested and sliced, 1 halved a few knobs butter
Method 1. Preheat your grill to full whack. Slash each trout with a knife, about ten times on each side. Each slash should be about 0.5cm/¼ inch deep. Rub the trout with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Stuff the cavities with plenty of chopped parsley and the lemon slices. Place the fish side by side on a baking rack over a roasting tray. 2. Put the lemon zest on top of the fish and place the lemon halves on the tray too. Dot the trout with the butter and place it 15cm/6 inches from the grill. Cook for around 6 minutes on each side until crispy and golden. 3. Squeeze the roasted lemon over the top of the fish and serve with a simple crunchy side salad.
It was just recently that the TGBC Review of Trout Fishing in America was taken by the urge to finish itself with the word mayonaise.
Patrick Jovaras (Collingwod Chapter)
Posted on Aug 03, 2016
Daniel Craig's James Bond was the first Bond I properly got to know. In my young mind James Bond was unreasonably handsome and effortlessly cool, but at his core was an action hero. He had more literary credibility and maturity than a John McClane, but the romantic, suave, gentlemanly James Bond of old wasn't the image I had until much later. The 2006 Casino Royale film wasn't even about poker to my young eyes: it was about explosions, car chases, machine guns with bottomless magazines, tailored suits and product placement for cars that would only look at home parked ostentatiously on a driveway at a summer house. Later I adopted the modern, rose-tinted lens through which most of us see James Bond but without having any contact with the franchise other than the Goldeneye Nintendo 64 game and Craig's movies. Picking up the Casino Royale book, I knew that this Bond would be very different to the Bond I knew, and I was correct.
The very first paragraph set a promising precedent for Fleming's first entry in what would become the James Bond juggernaut:
The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling - a compost and greed and fear and nervous tension - becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.
This immediately told me that Fleming could write well if he chose to. The word "soul-erosion" so perfectly described the feeling of hope fading and the imminent consequences of one's questionable actions. It gave the reader something they could relate to by reminding them of the feeling when they've gambled and lost - not just a memory, but a feeling. I was immediately emotionally invested in the book and wanted to go along for the ride.
Fleming went on to describe a familiar James Bond who noticed tiny details, including about people, security holes and exactly how they could be exploited. These descriptions would be familiar to anyone who has ever picked up a book or watched a movie influenced by the series. At the end of the first chapter I got the first clue that the book would not continue in the familiar vein of its modern adaptations:
Then he slept, and with the warmth and humour of his eyes extinguished, his features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal, and cold.
The description of the casino contrasts noticeably with the description of Bond as he falls asleep. In the former, Fleming used the word "and" in his lists to create a sense of movement so the reader feels a part of the scene. "Scent and smoke and sweat.... compost and greed and fear". When describing an emotional Bond revealing an ugly, empty side of himself, the lists used commas to slow down the reader and create a chilling atmosphere: "ironical, brutal, and cold."
This emotional Bond continued to rear his head and, until after the climax of the book, he continued to stifle it for the good of the job. This showed he was deeply conflicted but unfortunately he did not become as satisfyingly complex as even Craig's Bond. The Craig films add extra dimensions to Bond to mould a rich character and even something of an ageing hero. Just this level of depth outclasses Fleming's Bond, whose relationship with women is distasteful to modern palettes (a necessary evil in books of this time) and who harboured a fondness for cars and guns. This isn't to say that Fleming's Bond left a bad taste in my mouth after comparing him to Craig's Bond, but that I was expecting something more from a classic British novel like this.
To digress slightly, it was also interesting to me as an unapologetic car person that Fleming's Bond didn't drive an Aston Martin DB5 as he did in the old films. Bond's car was a Bentley, in which he participated in a car chase that is is more aptly referred to as a night drive: he drove along a country highway at slightly above modern highway speeds for a long time without seeing anyone, until he did, where the car chase ended without any Hollywood stunts.
Fleming's Bond was terrifically calm at all times, horribly antisocial, lucky, confident with himself and with others, and as was noted before, deeply conflicted. His internal conflict was properly explored in a good chapter, albeit one without subtlety or tact, towards the end of the book where the moral ambiguity of his position caused him to nearly end his career as a spy. This conflict would have been so much more satisfying to the reader if there was just one other human trait to find, but even his sexuality was hard to relate to. He finally did show a personal side, shortly after he decided he'd like to quit killing people, where he planned to marry his female companion Vesper Lynd. Even this accidental slip into normal, relatable humanity was tainted when, after learning of her heartbreaking position which led to her betrayal, he coldly reported to MI6: "The bitch is dead now."
When describing this book to your friends later, there are three things you're going to tell them. Number one is that the book is fantastically well written. The scene at the casino is terrifically tense and the prose is unique and full of character. I sometimes like to write in books to remember my thoughts for club meetings and my notes at the end of this chapter read:
One of the best written, thrilling, suspenseful pieces of prose I've ever read. Fantastic.
The second thing you're going to tell them is you didn't expect to be given a full introduction to the game of Baccarat. I had expected the casino section to be about poker and to be relatively short and irrelevant. I was wrong. About 20% or more of the book was dedicated to explaining the rules of Baccarat and to playing it. I actually liked that Fleming decided to do this: it gave the book so much more character than it would have otherwise had and set it strongly apart from the movies.
The third thing you're going to tell them is about the rape. Bond doesn't rape anyone - he's no less virtuous than the movie Bond - but a romantic passage about Lynd includes an eyebrow-raising comment that generated plenty of discussion at our club meeting:
... she was profoundly, excitingly sensual, but that the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would each time have the sweet tang of rape.
I like Craig's Bond. Craig's Bond is just relatable enough, just conflicted enough and just cool enough to seal his place among the great heroes of modern cinema. Fleming's Bond is awkward and crass like a teenager who doesn't realise his Facebook posts will pop up again in ten years for everyone to see and for that he can be forgiven. Casino Royale was always meant to be a book that was for entertainment rather than enlightenment and it should be read as such. I've been fairly harsh on Fleming's portrayal of Bond as a character, and that's partly because the modern Bond is such an important figure. Fleming's real strength, though, comes from his descriptions and prose, in creating suspense in scenes that are difficult to create suspense in, and in making the reader feel as though they are right there experiencing the story along with Bond. The icing is Fleming's own personal quirks which lend some character to a novel that the films will never be able to match. As the first in a series it should be enjoyed without looking through the lens of its future success. It's a fun book, entertaining and interesting in its own right, with some fantastically written scenes that it would be unfair not to include among those found in great classic literature. I just wish it didn't have James Bond.
Dylan Williamson (Fortitude Valley Chapter)
Posted on Jul 06, 2016
Published in 1929 Ernest Hemmingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” is a semi-autobiographical account of the tragic love affair between American ambulance driver Frederick Henry and British nurse Catherine Barkley set against the backdrop of war torn Italy. Hemmingway uses the short tight prose with which he became famous combined with longer poetic sentences to describe this love affair. Hemmingway’s stark tone allows the reader to visualise the world they are introduced to, while exploring key concepts of love, isolation and war.
While starting as a simple relationship the partnership between Henry and Catherine seems to develop as the two become more reliant on each other. Henry uses the love affair to isolate himself from the horrors of war, previously drowned out through military discipline and alcoholism; while Catherine uses the relationship to find strength following the death of her fiancé and to combat her situation. Both Henry and Catherine appear to be more in love with the idea of love as their relationship is quite a selfish one, where ultimately they both use love to escape and a sense of belonging.
The trials and tribulations of love during war are explored extensively throughout the book and love for Henry becomes another escape. “A Farewell to Arms” aptly explores the effects of war on the lives of the people affected by it in a unique way – humanising instead of glorifying war; a refreshing perspective and one that enables the concepts of love and isolation to be explored effectively.
“I love you darling”
“I love you too”
“Fix me brandy will you”
“I will darling but only if you tell me you love me, do you love me darling?”
“Do you really love me?”
“I love you”
Michael Lawless (Traralgon Chapter)
Posted on Jun 01, 2016
Set in the late 1980’s Boyd Oxlade’s novel Death in Brunswick is a claustrophobic, greasy, alcohol fueled trip back in time, to a place we at the Brunswick Chapter know well, Sydney Rd. Against a backdrop of grimey pubs, overfilled graveyards and suburban Australian city streets, this macabre black comedy follows anxiety ridden protagonist Carl as he negotiates the moral, ethical and practical dilemmas of unstable employment, workplace bullying, romance, murder, friendship and the maintenance of a pharmocological addiction. An entertaining read that will appeal especially to those who have worked in terrible kitchen jobs or felt stuck in a suburban rut.
Will de Silva (Brunswick Chapter)
Posted on May 04, 2016
“Remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. “Your father's right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . ”
To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the fictional small town of Maycomb, Alabama during the Depression and is told retrospectively, through the eyes of an innocent 8 year old southern girl (Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch). The story follows three years of life in this largely white southern town, where an American Negro (Tom Robinson) is unjustly accused by Bob Ewell of raping Mayella Ewell (his daughter). Subsequently, Tom Robinson is arrested and tied on the charge that he raped this white woman. With the town embroiled in social racism, Scout’s widowed father Atticus, a white middle aged lawyer, is assigned the role of defence council for Tom Robinson, resulting in life becoming tainted with gossip, speculation and racial disharmony. While Atticus believes in the American justice system, he is hampered by lies and deceit, borne of ignorance and prejudice from the community that he lives in.
Interwoven within this masterpiece, are the childhood exploits of Scout, her brother Jem and their visiting neighbourhood friend Dill. Their days are filled with innocent childhood intrigue, made even more mysterious by Arthur ‘Boo Radley’, a misunderstood neighbourhood recluse, who rarely leaves his house due to emotional and psychological trauma suffered as a child.
Boo Radley leaves small gifts for the children in a hollowed out tree which heightens the intrigue and the children become obsessed with their quest to lure Boo out into the open. At the same time, Scout and Jem become targets at school and within the neighbourhood, from children and adults alike, who slander and verbally attack them due to their father’s defence of Tom Robinson. In particular, Jem reacts and finds himself punished by Atticus for reacting and protecting his younger sister. In the last Summer of the three year period, Tom Robinson is tried and ultimately convicted of a crime that he did not commit. Atticus proves that Tom is innocent, yet the jury finds against him. The three children are bewildered by the jury’s decision and Atticus is forced into explaining that the jury’s decision was a foregone conclusion.
Shortly after the trial it is discovered that Tom Robinson has been killed, attempting to escape. Incensed and offended by Atticus’s accusations in court, Bob Ewell vows to get revenge on Atticus and starts making good on his threats. While walking home from a school Halloween pageant, the children are attacked in the dark and Jem has his arm broken in the melee. Scout just manages to see a stranger carrying Jem away in the dark.
In the conclusion of the book we see that Jem and Scout were attacked by Bob Ewell and that Boo Radley had saved them. In fact it is Boo Radley who takes Jem to safety. The Sheriff arrives shortly after and announces that Bob Ewell has been found dead under the tree where the children were attacked, having ‘fallen on his own knife’. Scout realises that Boo Radley saved them and killed Bob Ewell, however the Sheriff refuses to press charges. The book is full of wonderful observations seen through the eyes of Scout and draws the reader into the realm of her understanding. It is a poignant example of racism and prejudice and judgement of character.
"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it" – Harper Lee
Steve Bruce (Footscray Chapter)
Posted on Apr 06, 2016
A whiskey fueled conversation between James Barry and Alex Playsted about Rumble Fish by S. E. Hinton.
A: So, James, we read Rumble Fish. What did you think about the protagonist?
J: I hated him. He’s dull. He’s not willing to learn. He makes mistakes but he’s not willing to learn why. He hasn’t taken control of his life.
A: Why did you like him?
A: I didn’t, particularly.
How do you think he came to be like this?
J: Losing his mother. He has no femininity. He was raised by his father and hero worships his his brother. He doesn’t understand women. He really doesn’t.
Did you find any redeeming characters in the book?
A: Steve. He took a beating to protect his mate.
J: Was Steve the best of them?
J: Why was Steve the best?
He knew that him going out would result in him getting a beating, but he did it. Yet he did it. He did it for Rusty James (RJ). Rusty James is a train wreck. Steve really grew up. You remember Steve at the start and you just don’t know what he’s been through, yet it’s horrific.
What did you think of RJ as the leader of his gang?
A: I think it was entirely circumstantial. He fell into it but wasn’t prepared for it. He is not a leader in any capacity. He’s only perceived as tough. Perception is fucked. That’s why Trump has followers.
J: But like Trump, he’s adopting an aggressive approach under the impression that he’s living up to others’ expectations.
Do you think Motor Cycle Boy (MCB) can be held accountable for how RJ turned out?
A: No. MCB will always form a part pf RJ’s formative years as his elder brother, but if anyone can be more accountable for RJ’s life than himself, it’s his parents, and they weren’t present or in any way loving.
J: I tend to agree with that. He obviously had strong parents but they were by no means prepared to raise children like MCB and RJ.
A: What chance did RJ have if his parents had already spent their parental capabilities on MCB?
J: Yeah. It’s like they had their first son and they gave up on their first son completely.
Do you find RJ has learnt any lessons by the end?
A: No. He’s been given ample opportunities but has not developed mentally in such a way that he can recognise the opportunities and utilise them. Just like a kid in any classroom who has not met the developmental standards for his or her year level, RJ has likewise missed out on what he needs to know. He is essentially spinning his wheels rather than absorbing new skills and information and advancing forward.
J: There’s no meaning to MCB’s death. Is that a fair statement?
A: I don’t know. Maybe there’s a lot of meaning in it, but perhaps more for others than for MCB. I think MCB ran out of meaning, hence checking out, but we can all draw meaning from his story. I hope so anyway.
James Barry and Alex "Wash" Playsted (Footscray Chapter)
Posted on Mar 02, 2016
A booze-soaked Aussie horror yarn of misadventure and self-destruction.
Wake In Fright tells the story of John Grant; bound by financial handcuffs to the State Education Department, he serves as the schoolmaster in the blink-and-you-miss-it outback town of Tiboonda. Grant’s loathing of his surroundings is lessened by the knowledge that soon he will be spending his summer holiday laying on the beach in Sydney beside his unrequited love, Robyn. All he has to do is catch the Friday train from Tiboonda, stay overnight in Bundanyabba, and from there he is only a short flight away from the welcoming arms of civilisation. Enjoying a parting beer with Tiboonda’s miserly barman-cum-landlord, Grant successfully navigates the first leg of the journey, arriving in The Yabba (as the locals call it). Finding a drinking companion in local policeman Jock Crawford, our man is offered a throw of two-up, and an opportunity to make a quick buck. But Grant is new to The Yabba, and friendly faces and a game of chance have a way of separating a fool from his cash.
Waking the next morning hungover and destitute, Grant is unable to leave The Yabba and finds himself relying on the kindness of the locals to help him get by. First it’s Tim Hynes, one of the regulars at the bar, offering beer to drink and a place to stay awhile. Then there’s Dick and Joe, work mates of Hynes, offering more beer to drink and a seat in their car for a kangaroo hunt. Also joining Grant on his descent to the bottom of each glass is Doc Tydon, “a doctor of medicine, a tramp by temperament, and an alcoholic”. The Doc is another mate of Hynes, who resides in a shack and has an uncanny tendency to appear when the beer begins to flow. He peddles prescription medication and dubious counsel, advising Grant that as long as he fits in and is a good bloke he could sponge all his food and drink in The Yabba. Deciding that “fitting in” would be in his best interest, Grant spends another beer-fuelled night with the locals. He awakens with a feeling of dread to the sight of Doc Tydon asleep in his bed, leaving an indelible mark upon Grant and his psyche forever.
Authors who romanticise the outback often have not grown up there, and it is the exact inverse that inspired Wake In Fright. Drawing upon his experiences working for the Australian Broadcasting Commission in the remote town of Broken Hill, Cook offers a sinister view of outback towns within our sunburnt country. Issues left unspoken in towns like The Yabba: alcoholism, homelessness, depression and suicide; they linger in the amber, beneath the foamy head of mateship in “the lucky country”.
Wake In Fright is probably best read sober as it might leave you having second thoughts about that next beer.
James Barry (Footscray Chapter)
Posted on Feb 03, 2016
Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana adds to the masterly storyteller’s vivid depictions of nomadic and faithless urbanites. This time, we are introduced to Wormold, a dreamy vacuum cleaner salesman in search of secrecy as MI6’s man in Havana. This is a humorous satire of a man in a dream of luxuries including monetary savings, company shares and dividends yet, in reality is met with fanciful falsehoods, loathing and love.
Set in Havana predating the Cuban Missile Crisis during the Fulgenico Batista Regime, the reader is introduced to a divorced retailer, James Wormold. Aside from the implied mediocrity of Wormold’s life at present, he is also the father of a beautiful, devoutly Catholic yet grossly unscrupulous (and curiously scheming) daughter, Milly. Wormold meets Hawthorne, who asks him to work for the British secret service. Wormold is proverbially short of a quid and given his daughter’s partiality towards indulgences, Wormold accepts the part-time espionage gig. Perhaps due to excessive drinking, the secrecy of General Batista’s murders or, most likely, the fact that Wormold is an untrained agent, Wormold has no correspondence to send to London. By putting his imagination to work, he instead falsifies his reports using information gathered in media and creates a network of sources that are mostly falsehoods. His imagination reaches its apex when, at one point, he maniacally decides to send a report to London which depicts vacuum cleaner parts as a secret military apparatus.
Soon after London sends Wormold a secretary, Beatrice Severn, Wormold’s creations begin to blend with reality when Beatrice is ordered to contact Raúl, a pilot. Despite Wormold’s ostentatious plan, coincidentally a man whom shares the name as the elusive pilot dies in a car crash. An attempt to murder Wormold at a trade association gathering, followed by the death of the headwaiter’s sausage dog and the subsequent retaliation killing of Wormold’s friend, World War 1 veteran and confidant of sorts, Dr. Hasselbacher, Wormold confesses his confusions and creations to Beatrice, and is sent back to London.
This book is an amusing commentary on Greene’s views of intelligence services and their willingness to believe information passed on by local sources. I think some consideration of the book’s socio-historical context in important, especially given the proximity between the book’s publication date (1958) and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The unsuccessful poisoning of Wormold at the trade union meeting is also a reasonably unsubtle characterization of a Russian assailant during a period of simmering Cold War tensions. With this in mind, two questions surface: was Greene writing an anticipatory essay for the events of 1962; and who out of Ian Fleming and Graham Greene writes a better Cold War spy novel? This question needn’t demand an immediate answer. But if you find yourselves festering on this during TGBC meet at the pub, do it with a daiquiri and not a martini.
Ashley Starford (Footscray Chapter).
Posted on Dec 02, 2015
This book is not just about gods. This is also a story about what we choose to do with our gods.
Gaiman once again crafts a beautiful tale rich in menace and wonder. From brawling leprechauns to Egyptian undertakers you can feel the weight of centuries hanging off these characters as they struggle - and fail - to survive in a new and faithless world far from their birthplaces. Immigrants bring the gods of their homelands to America, where those gods — just like the people who brought them — change and adapt to their new culture. One example is when Czernobog, the god of darkness in Slavic mythology, who demanded sacrifices with a hammer in return for protection, channels his godly penchant for violence into a job at the American industrial meat factories.
Czernobog is not alone in having to find a place for himself in the new world. Throughout the book are interspersed side stories which fill out the pantheons of the old world and give a sense that there are forgotten gods in abundance all trying to make their way in a world that no longer cares about them.
American Gods is full of surreal settings, from an idyllic snowy Wisconsin mountain town hiding a dark secret to the aeons old home of a bison-god deep beneath the earth, each of them with its own recurring motifs, themes and personalities.
Some have found this book strange and thoughtful, others slow and uninteresting. I think I would put it somewhere in the middle. Gaiman takes a good premise and writes a good book, but I won’t be in a rush to read it again.
Pod Melia (Launceston Chapter)
Posted on Nov 02, 2015
First a confession or two: I wasn’t at the Book Club when we discussed Raymond Chandler’s first Philip Marlowe novel. I hadn’t joined the club yet. I read the book years before when I set myself a challenge to read the English versions of all the American authors translated into Japanese by Haruki Murakami (I had a lot of time on my hands). Through this I was introduced to Raymond Carver, JD Salinger, F Scott Fitzgerald, and of course Raymond Chandler. And through Raymond Chandler I was introduced to the world of crime fiction, noir, and Humphrey Bogart: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3t8H07c30io
“You know it just so happens I got a bottle of pretty good rye in my pocket; I’d a lot rather get wet in here.” Raymond Chandler didn’t write the screenplay for The Big Sleep - he wrote a few other screenplays (Double Indemnity and The Blue Dahlia saw him nominated for Academy Awards for their screenplays, and he also adapted Patricia Highsmith’s Stranger on a Train, directed by Alfred Hitchcock) but he was at least involved in the production. Legend has it that the director asked the screenwriter who shoots the driver in one of the movie’s final scenes, and the screenwriter didn’t know. So he goes and asks Chandler, the only problem is he doesn’t know either.
I looked down at the chessboard. The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn't a game for knights.
The convoluted plot with its missing killer brings me to my second confession; I don’t really remember what The Big Sleep is about. Sure I remember there’s the slick private detective Marlowe, star of seven and a half books by Raymond Chandler, a couple of revivals and even more movie adaptations. I remember the smut dealers and blackmailers, the big money, the corpses and the femmes fatale. But what I remember most is the effortless cool of the dialogue, the one-liners peppering every page, the style that you can’t write in now without it sounding ridiculous and derivative.
Whoever had done it had meant business. Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.
So now I’m rereading it, in the form of a 2011 BBC radio play. It’s as slick as I remember. Marlowe is a tough guy, the kind you don’t meet anymore, the kind who knows that being tough isn’t about pointing a gun at someone, but keeping your cool when a gun is pointed at you. He’s the kind of tough guy that knows the power of words, has been through the dark and has come out the other side. Sure he’s a loner, he treats women as no more than pairs of legs with blonde hair on top and not much in between, he drinks and smokes too much, and you’d never actually want to meet someone with his attitude, but on the page (and the screen) he shines with dazzling dark wit.
Such a nice escort, Mr Cobb. So attentive. You should see him sober. I should see him sober. Somebody should see him sober. I mean, just for the record. So it could become a part of history, that brief flashing moment, soon buried in time, but never forgotten - when Larry Cobb was sober.
Perhaps I can see now what I didn’t see ten years ago, that women in Raymond Chandler’s novel are always beautiful and always trouble, but never anything else. That race and sexuality are the butt of scathing one-liners, that the kind of man with a fedora on his head and whiskey in his coffee is not the kind of guy I want to meet. I understand this, but still I’m kicking myself that I missed the meeting when we discussed The Big Sleep.
Louis Bravos (Footscray Chapter)
Posted on Oct 02, 2015
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is genius and wonderfully entertaining. Ken Kesey crafts an extraordinarily compassionate story about the healing, unifying and empowering strength and potential of man and brotherhood.
McMurphy, the ultimate lovable larrikin and quick-witted gambler, is transferred from a prison work farm to an insane asylum, seemingly because the perks in the loony bin suit him better. His booming laughter rattles the disinfected hallways like never before, attracting the intrigue, admiration and respect of his fellow patients whilst earning the keen attention of the ex-army Head Nurse, Miss Ratched, and her submissive staff. The book presents McMurphy and Miss Ratched’s slow motion and calculated locking of horns as they fight over freedom - on many levels.
Although written in the early 60’s, Kesey’s insights into our approach towards the mentally ill is still relevant and frightening. He deals with it in such a way that the mentally ill are elevated to the level of vulnerable human while those in charge are deflated to the same, showing that all men possess strengths and weaknesses but are separated by agendas, external expectations, ideals or, sometimes, simply by the way their cards happened to be dealt. Regardless, McMurphy has the energy and constitution needed to wake everyone up and start to question their lot in life, something that is seldom possible through the fog of medication, shock therapy, fear and mind-numbing boredom.
In a story where the dominant characters are generally women, McMurphy goes on to also represent a return of men to their foundational masculine traits and strengths as they stand up to be counted. Ultimately, it’s not entirely clear whether Kesey is suggesting that femaleness or institutionalisation is the more overwhelming force responsible for reducing men to ‘rabbits’, but both are certainly explored and challenged. It can be an awkward dynamic to grasp at times, particularly at the story’s affecting conclusion. Considering Kesey’s concept of power and where he thinks it comes from is definitely food for thought.
One Flew Over is ripe with humour, rich language and dialogue and those lines that stop you in your tracks, leaving you wanting to reread and sit with them for a while. The writing gives a strong sense that Kesey is writing what he knows. His sentiment, a respect and belief in mankind’s ability to find its way with the right guidance, shines through in a very natural, unforced way. Everyone needs a little McMurphy in their lives. If you don’t know him already, you need to.
Alex "Wash" Playsted (Castelmaine Chapter)
Posted on Sep 01, 2015
The Sisters Brothers
I read this book some time ago
And was glad to read again
The first person views
Of gruesome tales
From a tough guy
Who needs a friend.
The Journey these brothers take
Is violence filled and cruel
With alcohol and jealousy
Our friend’s moral rift
The life he found
Takes its toll
His questioning in vain
The domineering Sisters
Bleeding every vein
Will our brother find his way?
Will he find his peace?
Or will the choices of his life
Send him to the Beast?
Sam Stops (Hobart Chapter)
Posted on Aug 05, 2015
Juan Gabriel Vásquez’ ‘The Sound of Things Falling’ is a masterful work that not only draws the reader through a gripping story of love, loss, drugs and crime spanning two generations living through Colombia’s tragic modern history, but also delivers a powerful commentary on fate and loss. It is a remarkably honest and humble representation of Colombia and it’s people and Vásquez’ passion, pride and, at times, pessimism about his nation seeps out at regular intervals throughout the novel.
The story begins in Bogotá, where apathetic professor Antonio Yammara witnesses a violent assassination of an acquaintance. The seemingly senseless murder haunts him and he embarks on journey of discovery that will lead him him to discover the stories, desires and struggles of those who lived through the tumultuous times that shaped modern Colombia.
As a work of prose, including the English translation which is excellent, Vásquez’ aptitude for penning vivid, and at times thrilling, descriptive passage are evident and thankfully applied with mature restraint. An ambitiously structured story that darts back and forth from the past to present day and deals with shifting protagonists could have easily fallen flat, yet Vásquez has managed to craft a seamless timeline, that leaves the reader engaged and involved at every turn.
Part thriller, part anthropological commentary and part existential discovery, The Sound of Things Falling is a stirring novel that resonates long after the final pages have been turned.
Alex Dobson (Sydney Chapter)
Posted on Jul 01, 2015
Hemingway was already a noted author but not yet the widely known, larger than life figure he went on to be. Fiesta took him to the next level of acclaim. I wasn’t part of TGBC when this was read. I read it while the club was reading ‘Men Without Women’ and I couldn’t lay my hands on a copy. I bought ‘Fiesta’ and reckoned I’d at least contribute on ol’ Papa’s style if not the plot, at the next meeting.
Supposedly based in part on Hemingway's time in Paris and the people in his circle at the time, it’s maybe a decade after WW1, and Paris is a-swinging. It’s a time of writers who, as foreign correspondents, seem to pen one article a month and spend the intervening times drinking, whoring and escorting bankrupt duchesses around jazz clubs and nightclubs in determined efforts to rid themselves of their money, health and mental stability.
I guess at 3 acts in this book: first up, the Paris setting and the moral vacuum of our friends, British and US ex-patriots all, that make up this part of the roaring 20’s cafe society.
The second takes act takes the road to Spain, where life is slower, simpler and set in romanticised countryside; all hills, streams and towns with idyllic village squares sprinkled with cafes. Here is Hemingway’s respect for toil and worthy recreation. With part of the party reaching Spain first, there is a fishing trip where everything; the journey, the act of fishing and the time not catching fish is all described in loving detail with colours, climate and landscape used to a the scene for the build up to the boisterous times to come.
The Fiesta begins and it’s crowded squares, late night carousing, handsome Spaniards and their wine, bread and music. Herein there is the bullfighting and Hemingway spends time to discern the fiesta goers; the sightseers from the aficion - those who love and are knowledgeable in the art of bullfighting, what makes a good bull and which toredors are gifted and who are merely performers. The masculine admiration comes through as paragraph after paragraph lay on vivid descriptions of bold, brutal swashbuckling.
For me, the third act begins here as, neck deep in the party and full of addled admiration of the visceral bullfights; cafe society begins to fall apart. While sometimes being revived (and ravished) by the sights and smells; petty grievance and contempt for each others failings - the impossibility of measuring up to being all of handsome, noble, a good time and Spanish - all serve to upend cafe tables and friendships. The aftermath as the Fiesta winds down sees some friends flee, some reflect gloomily and some resign themselves to a life of more of the same. All the friendships and the settings are now described with a tired, jaded air.
Apparently once known as the “Lost Generation" - considered to have been decadent and wasteful of the sacrifIce of WW1, Hemingway might be portraying them as resilient but while resilient in terms of their stamina, they are brought absolutely undone and are as flawed as any other generation that thinks it’s pretty to imagine themselves being better in different circumstances.
Bernie Foster (Yarraville Chapter)
Posted on Jun 04, 2015
I am Pilgrim pieces together a complex series of interwoven crimes and sinister plots, set to the modern theme of extremist Islamic terrorism.
Pilgrim is the man charged with tracking down the Saracen, thought to be untraceable and working alone, before he releases a vaccine resistant strain of smallpox, one with a 100% kill rate, into the Unites States. As far as terrorists go, the Saracen is unrivaled and extremely dangerous. Luckily for the rest of the world, Pilgrim is in the most secret of the US secret services. Those at the top who know him understand that he is the only man for the job, the best there is, second to none.
The strange thing is that our hero seems to know it as well, better than anyone. I tried to like him, really, and I read every page (I’m a patient person), but a lot of his self-congratulatory thoughts and lack of any endearing humour turned me off his character. What’s more, at every turn, either Pilgrim seemed to have the right answer for yet another impossible situation or he received yet more serendipitous assistance from the universe. Naturally, a spy/action thriller will contain its fair share of fortunate twists and turns, but the medium I expect this many in is the comic book or graphic novel, which this book would probably have been better suited to. It would be one, though, in which the hero is an odd combination of a cocky Superman and a smug Macgyver dressed in khaki chinos and a floral shirt.
To his credit, Hayes has created a pretty intriguing and elaborate plot. The fundamental story lines offer insights into multiple countries, murders, techniques and characters. There were solid chunks of book that had me turning pages. Hayes had obviously invested huge amounts of time into his research as he strove to bring as much authentic detail to a challenging diversity of topic areas as possible. This, however, is at the expense of the plot credibility and flow. Hayes establishes a few plates spinning and things feel good. A few more plates and things are getting interesting. Eventually, though, there are just too many damn plates spinning and it detracts from the quality of the narrative. Hayes doesn’t control them well enough. Some very tenuous and cliched ideas seem shoehorned in to help stitch the whole thing together.
Just when I thought I’d read the underwhelming ending and could close the book, Hayes made me read about how Pilgrim would now singlehandedly helm an America’s Cup class yacht for pleasure as he made a life for himself outside of the services. I wondered, why not just sail an aircraft carrier, if you’re so bloody amazing?
Alex "Wash" Playsted (Footscray Chapter)
Posted on May 07, 2015
Poor Rabbit, his life was meant to be so good. Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrum was young, popular and the high school basketball star. But now, only a few years later, nothing has worked out the way he was so sure it would. With a young wife, a little boy and another child on the way Rabbit is trapped in a life of seeming mediocrity, the blame for which he lays squarely at the feet of the world, and he decides to get away, to run. But it turns out that it’s not so easy for Rabbit to get escape the only life he knows and we watch on in dismay as his own failure of imagination leads him in circles until he is forced to make a choice. Will he return to his family? Or will he run off again?
In the first of four Rabbit novels, Updike forensically dissects the tropes and trappings of a middle class suburban life in 60’s America with savage wit. But there is also warmth in Updike’s treatment of the desperate and sometimes despicable characters that populate this entertaining novel. The writing is elegant and vivid, describing the mundane with great care, Updike was an early practitioner of the hyper-realist style.
An intense study of family life and how the decisions we make affect those around us, the responsibilities of growing older, the lost dreams of youth and the learned pleasures of adult life. This is an engrossing novel.
Patrick Jovaras (Collingwood Chapter)
Posted on Apr 01, 2015
Our humble narrator in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ is Alex, Alex is 15, living with his not so strict, caring and hard working parents, he goes to school and has a passion for Beethoven’s 9th. Evenings he enjoys drinking Milk Plus, ‘milk with daggers in it’, to sharpen you up for a bit of ‘dirty twenty-to-one’, the ‘ultra-violence’ (bashings) and ‘the old in and out’ (rape) with his ‘Droogs’ (gang) of which he is the leader.
Written heavily in ‘Nasdat’ a teen speak, that demonstrates rebellion and a rejection of the governing society, one is taken into a not too distant future, sucked into a dystopian world, where violence reigns supreme, political parties seem to be all the same shade of grey and general ethics overlooked for the greater good. Alex recounts his exploits and experiences seemingly without any understanding of right and wrong, and it is through this twisted looking glass we explore themes of good and evil, punishment, rehabilitation and the place of free will in it all.
Still controversial 53 years after its initial publication, you will probably come to this book for the violence and leave with philosophical questions, and asking; is Alex redeemed through his journey?
Peter Irwin (Sydney Chapter)
A Clockwork Orange. Anthony Burgess brings us a story of dystopian struggle; both for freedom and for individuality amongst the monolithic. While this book is renowned for its ultra-violence and graphic scenes, Burgess writes with an hypnotic rhythm which lulls the reader into a Stockholm like trance; nearly but not quite deceiving us into the lie that is Alex’s ongoing social engineering project. The method of addressing the reader as ‘Brother’ and labelling the protagonist as ‘Your Humble Narrator’ serves to induce the reader into Alex’s schemes, giving a sense of ‘You are now one of us’, another droog.
A Clockwork Orange forces us to consider the structures around us. The massif that Burgess creates to demonstrate the State (inflexible, absolute) can be reflected onto our own lives, our own beings. Alex’s misadventures are the expression of a struggle against this monolith, his anger and apathy merely instruments to be utilised ultimately by the State.
Burgess asks us a very clear question with this book; is it better to choose to be evil, or forced to be good? And he answers just as clearly; it is better to choose. It is choice which brings the humanity back into the absolute structures we live in.
Daniel Williams (North Melbourne Chapter)
Posted on Mar 05, 2015
It is quite apt that in the month of promising to undertake this review, Graham Greene himself a member of the secret intelligence service whom worked under the infamous Kim Philby is also noted for aspiring John Le Carre, possibly even as his progeny, the author we are currently reading in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.
First published in 1938, Brighton Rock, and Greene’s ninth novel, follows on from his eight novel, A Gun for Sale, whereby a leading gang member in Brighton is murdered, with his throat slit by a switchblade, incidentally, pictured on the cover of Brighton Rock but also to play a part in the novel.
The first line of Brighton Rock begins with:
“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours that they meant to murder him.”
Retribution was in the air, and the scene setting of the first chapter being the linkage from the past novel to the present and the introduction of Fred Hale, soon to be deceased, his murderer introduced as The Boy, later to be known as Pinkie Brown, leader of his deceased boss’s motley crew of thugs. By chance, the soon to become detective, or woman spawned, Ida Arnold, is the other chess piece in this novel. The book starts as a regular whodunit except we already know most of the pieces including who the murderer is; what is interesting is the detail has been deliberately left out. We are also introduced to the term Brighton Rock, the meaning of which relates to the sugar candy sticks popular in Brighton.
And thus the remainder of the book is how these two chess pieces move about the board, one trying to evade conviction and removing any form of exposure, whilst the other, Ida, is trying to unravel why the murder of her “Fred Hale” is not called for what it is, with the ‘bogies”, a term of endearment for our police brethren, unaware of foul play.
A particularly interesting section depicts Race Day at Brighton, a major scuffle involving long handled switch blades and all the sleaziness of bookies, exploitation and gangs of the 1930’s.
And that is essentially that, all two hundred and sixty-nine pages worth, about the despicably unsavoury Pinkie Brown and his devilish exploits of evilness and evasion including an additional murder, bribery, corruption, deceitfulness, muscle and treachery. He even goes so far as to marry the sixteen-year-old Rose, whom was unfortunately mixed up in the treachery, to silence her.
Now Pinkie Brown is not your average villain, aged seventeen and wizened beyond his years, he doesn’t drink nor smoke, nor enjoy the salaciousness’ of the woman form, in fact he finds it all abhorrent. One could think of him as a tough guy, but he really needs to toughen up and live a little.
The book concludes with Pinkie being outplayed by a less formidable opponent in Ida Arnold, and we are no more the wiser as to how the murder occurred, so much so that some have speculated that “Brighton Rock” may have played a part. Thus, I will leave the audience guessing as to how candy cane may be used as a weapon of choice, and not leaving a trace of foul play. Overall, a well-constructed whodunit!
Jason Garrett (Hobart Chapter)
Posted on Feb 05, 2015
Henry Chinaski is a tough guy. He’s the invention of Charles Bukowski, a poet and writer who used to work with the post office. And this is where Chinaski works too. We follow him on what amounts to a story that’s pretty disjointed and full of some pretty sick goings-on. If you tried to graph it, it would probably look something like an ECG printout. There’s the monotony of work. There are the human glimpses of the characters being crushed by it. There’s the sudden euphorias and the mighty troughs of alcoholism, gambling, and the baffling absurdities of trying to deal with other people’s shit. Other men. Other women. People going in and out of your life.
And while there’s much to dislike and even despise Chinaski for, there’s a vein of tenderness that punches you in the guts. And it lives in how he responds to moments of genuine human gravity. The dying ex-girlfriend. The crushed life of an aging colleague.
And the kind of toughness Bukowski is offering us through Chinaski is of a fractured variety, sure. But he understands that too. He says, here, let’s take your complaints and your desires and your death-wishes, your worship of the rock-star, self-destruction model that you’re all kind of addicted to, in a way, and let’s give you a real glimpse of it. If you gave in, if you didn’t try—as his grave famously states—how could it end up? But it’s not like a moral from a fable he’s offering you, because he still includes the attractive stuff. He still plays off it. And that’s where it’s beautiful, and ugly at the same time.
Jeremy Davies (North Melbourne Chapter)
Posted on Jan 11, 2015
Catch-22 tells the story of Captain John Yossarian, a bombardier in the USAAF, leading bombing runs against Axis targets in Italy during World War II. The book chronicles his many attempts to avoid these increasingly-dangerous combat missions. In doing so, he uncovers a military regulation known as “Catch-22”.
This rule determines that if a member of a bomber crew is mentally unfit to undertake a combat mission, he can alert the proper military authority of his condition and be exempted from that mission. However, by being mentally fit enough to apply for this exemption, he is [through the horrible logic of Catch-22] automatically deemed sane enough to fight and must undertake his mission.
Yossarian’s own overarching objective to survive the war can probably be summed up by his desire to “live forever or die in the attempt”. His fellow-airmen take a similarly confusing/confused approach to how best outlive the war too, often with consequences for Yossarian himself that range from the tragic to the ludicrous.
Catch-22 – the rule and the story – bonds the rational and the irrational into a horrifying double-helix of twisted logic. This desperate, deformed “DNA” not only shapes characters and their experiences, but even mutates the ordering of events throughout the book – randomly describing a scenario, before overtaking it or doubling back for a second look.
The challenge of reading Catch-22 could easily be called its own reward. It (haphazardly) dismantles notions of bravery, heroism and the glamour of war and has the potential to open up a reader’s mind as much as it can will boggle it.
Rob O'Reilly (Collingwood Chapter)
Posted on Nov 05, 2014
Debut novels are difficult things. Often a writer has to take some time to find their voice, to get their legs, and of course to find a responsive readership. The Martian seems to have skipped all that. Weir’s novel tells a story of space exploration in the very near future, this is science fiction rooted very firmly in science fact. In particular it tells the story of space exploration that has become just slightly prosaic – the third manned mission to Mars was never really supposed to be much of a big deal.
So when Mark Watney wakes up abandoned and left for dead on the surface of Mars he uses his quick wits and training to work out exactly how and when he's going to die. He quickly realises he has no communication equipment and nowhere near enough food. What follows is mostly written as a series of logs detailing his adventures and derailing into discussion of The Dukes of Hazzard, Pirate Ninjas, a box of radiation and some poop, as he struggles to survive and stay sane as long as humanly possible, in the desperate hope that someone will help him.
Hilariously written and yet surprisingly scientifically minded, The Martian is an exceptional debut novel. It was originally self-published, storming Amazon’s ebook market and getting snapped up by a publisher. Its release was timed well, the same year as the fascinating Curiosity mission. It is now is in the process of being adapted for a motion picture, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. This is an unheard-of impact for a first novel.
The Martian is undoubtedly deserving of this attention, it is laugh-out-loud funny and a compelling read all through. The science is solid, and is not dumbed down despite being made entertaining. The book is largely about science and math, and celebrates them unapologetically. Science and math are the most valuable tools for Watney’s survival. He is alone, hundreds of thousands of miles from any threats human or animal, no need for spears or guns. The only way he can get out of trouble is with imagination, wit, and careful calculation.
Also duct tape. A lot of duct tape.
Matt Burgess (Brisbane Chapter)
Mark Watney is “The Martian”. Set sometime in the near future, we join him on the surface of Mars, just days into a mission to the planet with five other crew members. Watney is lost (presumed dead) after a catastrophic storm strikes the team’s base, forcing them to abandon the planet, the mission and their deceased comrade. By itself, this sad episode has all the makings of a very abrupt short story.
Instead, this gut-wrenching opening cues the start of a rollicking tale of suspense, endeavour and smart-assedness that induces laughter and hypertension in equal parts throughout. We soon discover Watney is in fact very much alive – and rather than succumb to the many, many odds stacked against him – he chooses to try and hold out for rescue in his cold, dusty, red home.
In parallel with the story of his (very resourceful) efforts to remain warm, fed, breathing and hopeful of not dying is the plot being hatched back on Earth to save Watney, after his official status as “deceased” is upgraded by NASA. These two strands are woven into a witty, enlightening story of hope, potatoes and seventies music that will appeal to science-fiction fans and general readers alike.
Robert O’ Reilly (Collingwood Chapter)
Posted on Oct 01, 2014
The Rum Diary. The lost and found again novel by the 20th Century's own Witch Doctor of Journalism, Hunter S. Thompson. No less irreverent, his tale of rum fueled hijinks in Puerto Rico and beyond set in the late 50’s is filled with the early signs and signifiers of his madcap persona to be, the first steps on a long and weird and winding road.
But that is not enough. There is more here. A kind of bewilderment that only exists in young men who know what they want but are not quite sure how to get it. A sadness that catches in the back of your throat , the kind that only happens when you find out you might not change the world in the way you originally thought. And that clear, bright, shining kind of rage that crackles around you like an invisible mantle of armor.
All these things are here, delivered in a familiar tone used for chatting with the locals at your favorite watering hole. You should read this. Read it because you want to see where an American icon took some of his first noble strides toward literary Rockstardom. Read this because you want to laugh and wish for a better time in your youth, filled with strong drink, and pretty girls and pissing off your boss. Read this because you want to feel a little lonely, but also to know that there are others out there. Others who have helped to pave the road you hope to tread.
Dane Botfeild (Portland Chapter)
Posted on Oct 01, 2014
The fight between two of the greatest heavyweight boxers. A champion who was a big, brutal fighter with an intimidating record of knock outs, known for his ability to hit harder than any other fighter. A challenger who had been the champion, brimming with confidence, self-belief and a pure tactical mind, returning to the ring after injury looking to reclaim the title.
For these facts alone, this fight would go down in history as one of the greatest sporting events in history, but there was more intrigue. Mohammed Ali challenged George Foreman in a bout that was billed as 'The Rumble In The Jungle'. The fight was moved from the States to Congo after Foreman sustained a cut over his eye and the anticipation of the battle brewed as the preparations took place.
Mailer portrays both athletes with their strengths and flaws in exquisite detail with beautiful prose but his love of Ali and his arrogance, athleticism and altruism is the centrepiece. If you hate boxing and can not understand why anyone would be interested in barbaric violence, read this love-infused prose about pugilism.
-Gavin Baumber (North Brisbane Chapter)
Posted on Sep 03, 2014
W. Somerset Maugham is rarely talked about in the same breath as other 20th century literary greats but at the time he worked he was one of the most popular writers in his home of Britain and also America. The Razor’s Edge was his last great novel and remains one of his most enduring. It’s diverse themes, including Eastern Mysticism, war-weariness, social responsibility and class battles resonated with post war audiences when it was published and they ring true today.
Larry Darrell is a young American pilot just returned from Word War I, the experience has left him injured and traumatized by the death of a close friend. When he returns Larry is expected marry his beautiful fiancée Isobel and take up a job in business as befits a man of his position in Chicago’s upper class.
Larry surprises everybody when he announces he has no intention of following the prescribed path, breaks up his engagement and begins a decade long journey that takes him from Paris’ underbelly to the Indian mountains looking for some kind of meaning in a world he struggles to understand after the trauma he endured during the war.
Maugham puts himself in the novel, claiming the story of Larry Darrell is a thinly veiled account of true happenings; as such the writer passes wry judgments on his characters throughout.
In The Razor’s Edge Maugham has captured the existential angst that humans suffer when meaning and purpose eludes them, and suggests an alternative to the prescribed way of life that espouses the ethos of the literature from the Beat Generation, prefiguring them by a decade. The tension between what we want and what is expected of us is deftly explored by Maugham as he wanders in and out of the characters lives. A story about the consequences of rejecting expectations and the perils of conforming to them.
-Patrick Jovaras (Collingwood Chapter)
Posted on Aug 06, 2014
Review of Call of the Wild, Jack London.
Got a dog? Is it pampered? Does it, for example, have perfectly portioned meals with carefully considered dietary requirements, balancing grain, protein and vegetables, perhaps even adding sardines and eggs to help with its magnificent shiny coat? Does it sit with you on the couch, cuddling into you while you stroke it and watch movies together? You probably know that spot on its belly that, when scratched, gets its leg going like it’s starting a motorbike. Maybe it even sleeps on the bed, especially during the colder months because you can’t imagine what it’d be like to be in that lonely old dog bed when it’s so bloody freezing. It’s probably walked, too, at least once every couple of days, maybe more, during which time you follow it along with tiny plastic bags to pick up its warm poo. It might chase a ball, never tiring of the mindless game of you trying to get rid of something and your dog miraculously retrieving it again for you. Good dog. There’s a good girl. Such a good dog. You deserve a treat. I have one conveniently prepared in my pocket.
How would your beloved pooch fare if it were stolen, beaten, starved and sent to pull heavy sleds in an arctic gold rush, where men live by the rule of fists and dollars and dogs by whip, club and fang?
London pulls us into the K9 world, encouraging us to empathise with dogs under the rule of man. Buck, a St Bernard X Scotch Shepherd, is thrust on a turbulent journey that forces his evolution in the name of his own survival. Among a host of thought provoking themes, his journey explores morality as a luxury afforded to those who are strong and free. He encounters different people and learns from them about loyalty, love and respect. He is pushed to his absolute limits, teaching him to adapt and become increasingly resilient. At possibly its deepest level, though, the book exposes a more mystical motif, muscling down into our very nature and the call and influence of our ancestors. Is there something powerful running through us, lying dormant in our blood line, that we are yet to ignite? Where does it come from and what does it give us?
‘Thus, as a token of what a puppet thing life is, the ancient song surged through him and he came into his own again’.
By Wash, Castlemaine Chapter.
Posted on Aug 06, 2014
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) is firmly nestled in the middle of a pile of literature concerned with European colonialism and its effects. The semi-autobiographical story is narrated by Charles Marlow, who describes his journey to the source of the Congo River in East Africa to bring a man called Mr. Kurtz back to ‘civilisation.’ Kurtz is an agent of an ivory company who has fallen ill. He is variously rumoured to be a brilliant company man, a malcontent, to have turned savage, to be venerated as a god by the ‘savages’ he lies among, or gone crazy. It’s no spoiler to say that the search opens a massive can of worms for which those looking for him aren’t prepared. They find Kurtz, but also face their implication in “the horror! The horror!” Marlow, spat out of the continent and back to the London, which, we’re led to wonder, is perhaps the real ‘heart of darkness,’ needs to explain to Kurtz’s waiting beloved that Kurtz did not make it back. In this sense, it’s an alternative odyssey: Ulysses does not return to Penelope. The epic is not complete.
Conrad, a multi-lingual literary genius, depicts some remarkable scenes: the opening one, of sailors on the Thames, is famous; the subjugation of African people by the British is cast in tortured tones, and contrasted with the fluid, ecstatic, and elusive energy of a free tribe peppering Marlow’s rust-bucket boat with arrows. It’s a short and intense book, dazzlingly ambiguous, and poetic in its ideology. That is to say, it asks more questions than it answers and exposes the myth of colonialism being some kind of sanctifying endgame. Conrad suggests it is, rather, a gross, monolithic, and dually ongoing and unsustainable process of power and domination. The idea of a heart of darkness has no correlation to ‘deepest, darkest Africa’; it lies within, and can be awakened from, the soul of every man.
“Droll thing life is -- that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself -- that comes too late -- a crop of inextinguishable regrets.”
Simon Eales (North Melbourne Chapter)
Posted on Jun 04, 2014
“For Whom the Bell Tolls” is the story of Robert Jordan, a college tutor from America, who has travelled to Spain to fight on the side of the Republicans in the civil war against Franco’s fascist forces. His speciality is demolition and he is charged with blowing a bridge that is critical to the success of a major military offensive about to be launched by the Republican side. Supporting Jordan’s efforts are a motley crew of peasant guerrillas that are at once loyal and treacherous, brave and cowardly, surviving and dying in this small, sad episode of the Spanish Civil War.
Death is the singular, over-riding theme explored at length in this book. Love, honour and sacrifice feature thematically too, but are tempered by graphic instances of hatred, betrayal and selfishness. Death though, ultimately prevails over all else. Whether delivered from above by Fascist bombers – or meted out at the bloody hands of a drunken village mob – death conquers all.
Arguably however, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” neither vaunts death and dying (especially violent death) nor trivialises it either. It is quite apparent though to have been written by someone who has himself witnessed death in abundance and who has spent much time questioning it. From his own real-life experience of war and its horrors, Hemingway was eminently qualified to question death. However in “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, he often rattles the reader by questioning them time and again across its bloody pages, “What would you do if you were in his boots?”
Facing up to this demand is a task any reader ultimately has the luxury of time to contemplate. It is sadly not so for a young college tutor, battling enemies, allies and conscience in the foothills of northern Spain.
-Rob O'Reilly (Collingwood Chapter)
Posted on May 07, 2014
Charles Neumann is a engineer working for the R&D department of a large corporation. After losing a leg in an industrial accident, he finds himself unsatisfied with the quality of his prosthetic leg and sets out to improve upon the design. However, when he ends up making a false leg that works better than his real one, he undertakes drastic action to improve his body.
A darkly comic read, Machine Man explores the possibilities of human augmentation and considers just how far is "too far" when it comes to making our bodies "better".
-Stirling Gill-Chambers (Collingwood Chapter)
Posted on Mar 05, 2014
“They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing - these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. They carried their reputations. They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to.”
“But Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried 34 rounds when he was shot and killed outside Than Khe, and he went down under an exceptional burden, more than 20 pounds of ammunition, plus the flack jacket and helmet and rations and water and toilet paper and tranquilizers and all the rest, plus the unweighed fear. He was dead weight. There was no twitching or flopping.”
“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behaviour, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and very terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”
Excerpts from the novel “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien
Chosen by Sam Stops (Hobart Chapter).