The stars have aliigned

Three writers that I enjoy, admittedly some more in the past, have consecutive daytime sessions on at the Melbourne Writers Festival this year. I will be in the last week of my annual leave, freshly returned from caravanning to Woolgoolga and am going to enjoy a solo matinee of sorts. And should be able to beat those pesky comuters home on PT too.

Brown books about history

I took a photo of my reads for the past 6 months (missed a couple though), and perhaps it’s books from the early 20th century, or maybe it’s just history books, but boy do they LOOK dull. I’ve loved them all regardless, but they hardly bring the excitement factor.

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Jonathan Raban – Coasting (1986)- I was worried I might have fallen out of love for this writer since not reading him for 15-odd years, but his book about circumnavigating Britain delivered (yet again). My favourite travel writer I think. 4 stars.

Nicholson Baker – House of Holes (2011) – Delightfully pervy and erotic with a lot of imagination. I thought this was his best book of all. 4 stars.

Arnold Fellows – The Wayfarer’s Companion (1937) – I learnt a lot about the architecture of cathedrals and monasteries in Britain, amongst other things. 3 stars.

Julien Gracq – The Shape of a City (1985) – Magnificent tribute to his home city of Nantes, France in the early 1900’s. Almost unbearably nostalgic. 4 stars.

Maurice Ashley – Louis XIV and the Greatness of France (1946) – A shortish summary of his life and legacy. A great read. 3.5 stars.

A.R.Burn – Agricola and Roman Britain (1953) – Another short summary of this well documented Roman born AD40 just before the conquer of Britain. Loved it. 4 stars.

E.S. Turner – Amazing Grace (1975) – A bit of an embarrassing admission of mine to read about all the silly and eccentric Dukes of England. 3 stars.

Arthur Hayden – Chats on Old Furniture (1905) – Some nice old pics and strong words about the merits of  Jacobean, Stuart and French furniture. They all seem to love Chippendale too. Some of the pieces are ghastly! 3 stars.

Robert McFarlane – The Old Ways (2012) – It’s won many accolades however the best stories are in the first half, and it gets a little dull and repetitive beyond that. What’s with 68 pages of Glossary, Bibliography and Notes at the rear? 3.5 stars.

A.H.M Jones – Constantine and the Conversion of Europe (1948) – The first of the Teach Yourself History series that I had to slog through, possibly since the author seemingly had many reservations about this not very intelligent, and easily angered Holy Roman Emperor, but also because the road to Christian unity was littered with squabble after squabble with purist offshoots who all sounded similar after awhile. 2 stars.

On the 100th anniversary to the day

That Marcel Proust’s first volume of “In Search of Lost Time” was published, I decided I would start on it, as there was a good chance it would stay unread otherwise. There was never any question that I would finish the full 3000 pages of the 7 book work, but the first, “Swann’s Way” seemed achievable.

proust

In many ways I was quite charmed by the book and it’s famously long sentences. I immediately recognised it as something Gerald Murnane must have been heavily influenced by, though when I Google the two names now, I discover more crossover between Samuel Beckett than the Frenchman. Apart from mild irritations about a boy’s obsessive wish for nightly kisses from his mother, and the overly long and repetitive jealous episodes of Swann when seeking to know the whereabouts of Odette, it was really quite a good read. The parts about small town French life, the eccentricities of Aunt Leonie, maid Francoise and the social life of the Verdurins were such fun. 4 stars.

 

Hot on the heels of this I found a charming little volume at Alice’s Bookshop recently. My version, published in 1929, “A Short History of Hampton Court” by Ernest Law (which I now see is an e-book if you’re into them) was a quick read with many quaint drawings of the rooms, the cupolas, the Great Hall and the many splendorous windows. Surprisingly, the history started with Cardinal Wolsey’s occupation at around 1514, with only a line or two about its former use by the Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem. It seems odd to me how quickly the info drops off before the late 1400’s, since the value of a nationwide census was shown with the Domesday Book of 1086. I guess religious orders are boring.

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If you didn’t know English History, you’d be frustrated by this book, as it really only deals with who stayed at Hampton and what happened there – the masques / plays – Shakespeare’s visits, and numerous stories of haunted rooms. The sheer size and opulence of the Palace was just staggering, and it was considered the finest in all Europe at the time – 1200 rooms, kitchen fireplaces that were 7 foot tall by 18 foot long, capable of roasting entire bulls within. All throughout is made mention of Wolsey’s exquisite taste in furnishings, artwork and precious stones and how he lived in finer splendour than Henry VIII, which may have even brought about his downfall . I’d just love to visit it next time I go to London.

More books – quite a mixed bag

They’ve been on my desk for months awaiting a fair hearing, or a night when I could be arsed, and now that I’m getting DC’d playing WoW, the time has come for the shortest of summaries.

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Koch’s “The Dinner” first captivated me with it’s Lobster cover, and then infuriated me with it’s ending. A provocative and calculated attempt to goad anyone with a sense of justice, and like The Slap, provide fodder for lacklustre dinner party conversations, if anyone has them anymore. I couldn’t believe how angry this book made me, so 4.5 stars for trolling me so comprehensively.

voss

Next up, the book that cemented Australian Patrick White’s Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978, “Voss”, which won the Miles Franklin and a book whose enigmatic title I’d long wondered about. Probably the 4th White book I’ve read, but one of the best. An imaginative remake of the failed 1849 cross-Australia trek by Ludwig Leichhardt, the utterly impenetrable Voss, driving further and further into the desolate interior, his mind awash in a cool, spiritual relationship with a tortured Sydney schoolmistress. It was a great contrast between their circumstances and in White’s sparse hand, it was a memorable exchange. 4 stars.

map

Last up, a populist map book by Simon Garfield “On the Map”, full of pics and oddities and chapters that explored everything from Ptolemy to Harry Beck’s London Underground map and Sat Nav. systems. Extremely readable, and had me searching Ebay and Abebooks.co.uk for a nice fresh 1908 copy of Baedeker’s “London and its Environs”, where I’ve since unfolded it’s delicate maps and read all about the beheadings in and around The Tower. 3.5 stars and great fun.

 

Books I managed to read when not playing on my phone recently

I am back to my usual self and habits now, so that means sneaking in a beer whenever I can (ha, that sounds so furtive), and to procrastinating with my reading by playing on my Samsung Note 2 at all times of the day and night. There’s just no way a book can hope to compete, so after I’ve checked Tour de France live comments on the Skoda Tracker, and browsed Twitter, RSS feeds and my guild website, the book gets about 5 mins of attention before I crash. On the way to work I play Ingress – that’s another post I suppose.

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So, it’s no surprise that the most recent books read all get a lacklustre rating from me – they barely stood a chance. The Emigrants by Sebald was what I call “my sickness book” as it tainted my growing interest in history to the point where the association with nausea meant I thought I would have to throw it away. I felt physically ill looking at the cover. Remarkable! Although the critics would disagree (it won the Berlin literature prize) I thought it was his worst. 3 stars – and mainly for the Ambros Adelwarth story. I hope a dud Gall Bladder hasn’t ruined Sebald for me forever.

After that, history and war books lost their appeal, so I sought the ribald sensibilities of Mario Vargas Llosa’s “The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto” which was just what I needed. The Peruvian has quite an intellect and imagination, but read superficially the book is still quite an erotic blast, and I got an education about the works of Egon Schiele in the process. 4 stars.

Last was The Voyage by Australian Murray Bail, which I found both frustrating and contrived but continued to turn pages nonetheless. I have since read a very favourable review by John Banville who pointed out the uniqueness of the writing and the unpredictable elements, but I’m not convinced. 3 stars.

The Rings of Saturn

No, this not an Asimov book review, but a curiously titled book from the mysterious and deceased German expatriate W.G Sebald. He is one of the few writers that when reading I find myself subconsciously slowing down to make it last longer. It surprises me that he is so popular in the literary world since he writes quite simply, includes plenty of photos in his books and is translated from his native German, something in my experience often adds a dry quality to the work….not that I am any expert. His books combine some of my favourite themes over the last few years…history, travel and memory, all of which are woven into an anthology of strikingly diverse topics. You really don’t know what you’re about to discover next. I sometimes think he Sebald is the person I would like to become when I retire from work one day. What he shame he died so tragically of a car accident in 2001 at the age of only 57.

 

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This time around he walks south through Suffolk (UK) exploring its history and forgotten places, visiting an enviable series of colleagues. I found myself getting out an old Readers Digest A3 sized Atlas and charting his course in East Anglia. It seems I like each of his books more than the last, enjoying the photos which breathe mystery and mood into the text. Can’t wait for his next one already – going to try The Immigrants this time. The Times review on the cover calls him a 21st century Joyce which I found surprising since the 50 pages of Ulysses I struggled through were baffling and because he died 1 year into the 21st century. Guess I should give Joyce another shot. 4.5 stars.

Romulus

 

Romulus

 

I don’t know what inspired me to pick up this book; it certainly wasn’t the title, but what an amazing recollection it is. In other hands this story could have been portrayed completely differently;  the unbearably simple puritan values of Romulus derided and his stubborn eccentricities blamed for all the misery that seems the surround the family and their friends. But amazingly his son Raimond seeks to write an overwhelmingly accepting novel, completely engrossing and able to be read in a single sitting.

It portrays the Australian migrant experience of a former time; of forced life in rural backwaters, and the brutality of isolation. The simplicity of the life described is a revelation and is a big part of the work’s effectiveness and emotional impact. How Raimond turned out ok is anyone’s guess! 5 stars.

Some more books done

I’ve have always felt underdone on the earlier Aussie authors, and maybe it’s just that point in life where I have the time and mood to fill out some literary gaps, but I’m starting to get through them, with some big names to come.. Last month it was David Ireland and this month it was reading David Marr’s massive Patrick White: A Life. I always knew White was our only Nobel prize winning author, and that he was difficult, but this biography really laid him bare. What a miserable, cruel prick he was! Most interesting for me was the way his politics changed quite radically over the years, the insistence on regular extended trips to Europe for real culture, and on his chronic asthmatic condition and hospitalisation over 50 years. Not a great deal was said about partner Manoly, however given White’s famous self-hatred and the uneasy dinner parties squabbles he seemed to relish, the man can only be regarded as a masochist for sticking around. He certainly didn’t have much of a voice in the book.

 

 

I thought it was fantastic that White refused to accept pretty much every prize or award offered him, except the Nobel prize, sending friend Sidney Nolan instead to Stockholm to accept it in his place. Other prizes sent to him, he binned. He could not abide other artists bathing in the intellectual or monetary glory of their fame, and would viciously cut them down for doing so. Also a surprise to me was his love of theatre, and the number of plays he would work on seemingly as ligh relief, as he found writing novels more torturous and became an even more difficult human being to be around during them. I thought it was a magnificent character study of White, if a little harsh, though White himself was said to be harsher on himself than anyone. He had literary agents buy back copies of his early works from shops and refused requests to reprint them as he considered them substandard. A long book which achieves it’s aim. 4.5 stars.

 

 

Out of curiousity I tried another from Halldor Laxness- Under the Glacier, and was again a little underwhelmed, You know you’re perhaps not quite on track when one reviewer labels it as the funniest book they’d read in a long time, and I’d barely done more than smirk occasionally. I was aware I was reading the book at quite a superficial level, but I ploughed on, and I’m not even sure what happened at the end really! 3 stars.

Also finished A Pint of Plain by American Bill Barich who had the luxury of spending years gallivanting around Ireland looking for authenticity in the local pubs, and getting fooled by old props and memorabilia. Still, it was hard to put down and made me want to meet some of the fiercely independent proprietors who, usually to their disadvantage, had held out against the blaring digital widescreen TVs and video-games invading other pubs. His quest for the real craic – gifted musicians drifting in to hotels and playing spontaneous tunes, or for the literary Ireland of Joyce and Yeats left me disinterested, but this was still a great read. 4 stars.

The Glass Canoe

There is something uncollectable about the design of last years Text Publishing “Classics” series of books. They don’t have the rich maroon grandeur or the humble olive green simplicity of the two Classics series by Vintage, and the paper quality is very poor, even for the price of 12.95. The font is also suspect (!) however, I couldn’t get David Irelands’ book from 1972 any other way, aside from a lucky find secondhand maybe.

The story itself was a series of vignettes based around events in a pub in southern Sydney in the rough and tumble 70s, so simply written but menacing in a Wake In Fright way (and more) and gloriously celebrates the working class drinker and his tribe. I was completely caught up in the mood of the pieces, gasping at the casual savagery shown to outsiders, the silent body language and hierarchy of the men, the ease with which the outrageous became acceptable. In my view it’s a bit of a masterpiece of seemingly simple writing that captures the time perfectly. 4.5 stars.

A Visit from the Goon Squad

I sometimes wonder whether I continue to read books because it’s what I’ve always done; the lovely simplicity and satisfaction of having stuck something out from the beginning, despite the distractions of television or the online world. As a teen, to be known as “a reader” seemed like such a noble thing to aspire to. Fact is that I seem to be reaching a turning point nowdays; fiction is not as magical and consuming as it once was. More and more I am looking back to older works, bored with the latest sensation. What worries me is that this time it happened with a Pulitzer Prize winner from 2011, no less.

I’m not going to say anything very original or positive about “A Visit fron the Goon Squad” – because I admit I skimmed it a little, annoyed by the snappy density; the disregard for the slower reader (hi Daz); the way it made me feel inadequate for not knowing the links between characters. The sheer American-ness of it!

Once I’d given up the possibility of enjoying it, I was further mystified and then enraged that 74 continuous pages of the book (a full fifth) was a series of cartoons which I deem a lazy contrivance. I don’t even remember how it ends now, a couple of books removed. Flicking back through it now a second reading would work wonders, but I am still angered by the cartoon bit. Starting to doubt my lifelong allegiance to the major prize winners now. Then again I remember feeling similarly about Vernon God Little a decade ago. Perhaps I am going through a bad patch..3 stars.