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Top 13 Books – The other 6

February 24, 2010 Leave a comment

This is a continuation of my previous post, the first 7 of my Top 13, which you can find here.

Bram Stoker – Dracula

It’s been a long time since I’ve read and enjoyed something in either the vampire or fantasy genre of literature. My vampire reading dates back to late high school when I read a few of Anne Rice’s books and my fantasy reading dates back even further, to early high school when I was a fiend for David Eddings and Terry Pratchett. Since then it’s been all literature, politics and various other similar or interrelated things.

Dracula is of course literature also, a true classic that set an entire genre on fire and has seen movie adaptations, other inspired films, TV shows and many vampire novels in its wake. One could argue that it is the Twilight saga’s great great great grandfather (or something like that).

Call me a wanky purist but I can’t help but think that it’s Dracula FTW, the original and the best. The novel is written in the style of a journal from multiple viewpoints and its dark, gothic style and vivid descriptions of the Transylvanian countryside contribute to a general sense of foreboding as you read the book. Although it’s ending (SPOILER but really everyone knows the story of Dracula by now, surely) is what’s now seen as a typical Hollywood-style band of ‘good’ protagonists triumphs over evil antagonist that doesn’t detract from how enjoyable the book is and how it keeps you on your toes throughout. It was un-put-downable for me and I highly recommend it.

Albert Camus – The Plague

I’ve been a big fan of Camus for some years now, ever since I read The Outsider (The Stranger) and The Plague but my fanboy status of him has since been eclipsed by my newly minted adoration of JP Sartre. Although both are known to be of the French existentialist school of literature, their two writing styles are pretty different. What I like about Sartre is that he exposes the existentialist dilemmas in the hearts of men. His characters (and their development) are key to his fiction and key to exposing his worldview and philosophy as they stumble around key questions in their obviously meaningless lives. Camus is quite different, prone to the semi-heroic protagonist (Meursault, Dr. Rieux), in The Plague he uses a Kafkaesque allegory of a horror-stricken town as a symbol for the German invasion of France and his condemnation of the French people’s slow reaction to the invasion.

“… we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away…”

Camus also takes a swipe at religion, as embodied by the character of Paneloux, and weaves into the plot a situation where a child dies of the plague and the child’s innocence is placed in stark opposition to the church’s preaching that the plague is a punishment from God.

Parts of the book also generally lampoon the absurdity of society. Part of why Camus’ town of Oran makes for such a good symbol is because it’s also the average town, much like our towns, all of which could also be struck down by plague and invasion:

“… [in Oran] everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits. Our citizens work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich. Their chief interest is in commerce, and their chief aim in life is, as they call it, ‘doing business.'”

Jean-Paul Sartre – The Age of Reason

As I mentioned earlier, I was previously a Camus devotee and, although these things are not mutually exclusive, I now give my bromance over to Jean-Paul Sartre. The man is a genius, he somehow has the ability to encapsulate exactly how I think and interact with others in one book, The Age of Reason.

The plot of the book is focused on three days in the life of a philosophy teacher, Mathieu Delarue (I like his surname, ‘of the street’), and his efforts to procure an abortion for his mistress Marcelle. The plot is incidental to the thrust of the book, however, which is involved entirely in the development of its characters, their interactions, thoughts and meanderings in the big, uncaring world that was Bohemian Paris in the late 30s, still living the good life with World War and invasion approaching.

The book is the first part of Sartre’s “The Roads to Freedom” trilogy and the concept of freedom is central to Sartre’s existentialist thrust: that it is the ultimate aim of human existence. Through a variety of decisions and obstacles placed before the characters, Sartre shows what it means to be free in modern society and how difficult it can be.

The idea that Matthieu has to fund an abortion is a good concept to debate freedom around, an abortion is clearly a politically and morally loaded action to undertake, particularly in late 1930s France. It was, of course, possible to procure one, but not without difficulty. One example of an interaction that occurs as a result of it is Matthieu’s conversation with his brother. Matthieu needs 4,000 francs for the abortion and his wealthy brother, an example of a man who has ‘made it’ in a socially approved way, offers him 10,000 francs to achieve ‘the age of reason’, to grow up, accept society and his responsibility as a member of it and marry Marcelle. Matthieu refuses because it (marriage) goes against his concept of freedom.

There is too much in the back for me to quote and analyse so I won’t bother. All I’m saying is, read it. It’s now definitely one of my favourite books of all time and one that had a lot of impact on me, definitely one to take to a deserted island.

Rohinton Mistry – Such A Long Journey

Rohinton Mistry is also one of my favourite authors, and one of the best at recreating the whole post-colonial India vibe that has gotten pretty popular of late (and one several major literary prizes). Such A Long Journey is based in Mistry’s hometown of Bombay, as are many of his novels. Politically important also, set in the year 1971, the book goes into some detail about the problems experienced by Indians living under the Indira Gandhi regime. Mistry has been critical of Indira Gandhi before, in his book A Fine Balance, and I love this kind of political criticism via fiction.

I prefer to read Mistry than some of his contemporaries, such as Salman Rushdie, because I find Mistry’s writing to be honest, emotional and direct. Not overly clever like Rushdie’s, not overly flowery like Arundhati Roy’s, but just good honest character development that really gets you to the heart of his characters and his plots. His ability to paint a picture through the characters is a testament to India’s humanity and Mistry is one of its greatest exponents. In this case, it’s the Parsi colony that Mistry recreates for us through its vividly depicted characters, particularly the long-suffering protagonist Gustad Noble and the trials and tribulations of living a life where the factors that impact us are often chaotic and outside of our control.

Mistry’s novels are for and about people, their real emotions and lives, and the tragedy and joy that go along with them, and Such A Long Journey is a wonderful example and one of his best works.

Hunter S. Thompson – Hell’s Angels

I’ve long thought about making journalism my profession, part of the reason why I maintain my political blog The Zeitgeist Politics and get so involved in Middle Eastern issues. If journalism was a way, one of my heroes would definitely be Hunter S. Thompson. Famous for his ‘gonzo’ style of journalism (the word ‘gonzo’ is apparently derived from South Boston Irish slang referring to the last man standing after an all night drinking marathon). Gonzo journalism is when the writer gets as close as possible to his subjects, not ditching editorial objectivity and distance entirely but at least ditching it for a little while in order to create real emotion and connection. The writing itself is also highly stylised and has often been accused of favouring style over substance. This may be true in some cases, accuracy is put on the backburner a little bit, but if Thompson’s writing is interesting to read, keeps the reader engaged, doesn’t straight up lie but just fails to include some key details then I don’t see anything wrong with that.

To use Hell’s Angels as an example, the book is incredibly engaging, very interesting, gives a first-person account of everything that went on and includes much of Thompson’s own opinions and a few embellishments. In that way it’s similar to a book-length editorial that doesn’t shirk taboo topics, doesn’t have any particular agenda or editorial line, and still allows the reader to make up their own mind. Considering the danger that Thompson went through to write the book, the beating that he did eventually receive, and his commitment to the story, I would say his work is laudable and he deserves his success.

But the style of his writing is what draws me in, here’s one choice excerpt. Guaranteed, it should make you want to read the whole damn book:

Filthy Huns Breeding like rats in California and spreading east. Listen for the roar of the Harleys. You will hear it in the distance like thunder. And then, wafting in on the breeze, will come the scent of dried blood, semen and human grease … the noise will grow louder and they will appear, on the west horizon, eyes bugged and bloodshot, foam on the lips, chewing some rooty essence smuggled in from a foreign jungle … they will ravish your women, loot your liquor stores and humiliate your mayor on a bench on the village square …


Alex Garland – The Beach

You could consider this a departure from the rest of my Top 13 as it barely qualifies as ‘literature’. It isn’t particularly well written and doesn’t necessarily deal with heavy philosphical or political topics but by golly is it a rollicking read. Everybody loves a page-turner and The Beach totally is one. You might remember the film adaptation with Leonardo Dicaprio? Well the book is way better. I’m not going to wax on about it because there isn’t really much to say but the basic gist is: every backpacker’s dream, find a secluded place away from the tourist circuit and just chill away from the world. But what if that dream turns into a Lord of the Flies-style nightmare? Alex Garland will tell you what happens and he will keep you reading to find out until the very last page.

Top 13 books for 2009: First 7

February 10, 2010 3 comments

I usually do a Top 10 books post for the year but last year I managed to read 80 books, many of them were awesome so it’s pretty damn hard condensing them into a Top 10. Never having been a stickler for rules, I’ve decided to allow myself 13 books instead. In no particular order (well actually in order of having read them) here are the first 7:

Aravind Adiga – The White Tiger

Adiga came from nowhere to win the Booker Prize in 2008 with his debut novel, The White Tiger. It was a somewhat controversial choice, many considered the book to be inferior to some of the other shortlisted work, many were sick of what they felt was a strong obsession among the Booker judges with post-colonial (particularly South Indian) works. I can’t say whether the book was a deserving winner as I hadn’t read the rest of the shortlist but it was definitely a great read.

The book is written in a somewhat unconventional style, as a series of letters written by the first-person protagonist Balram Halwai addressed to Wen Jiabao, The Premier of China. In Balram, Adiga has managed to create a well-developed, interesting character that readers can’t help but like. Aussie readers especially will identify with Balram’s underdog status.

“As Balram’s education expands, he grows more corrupt. Yet the reader’s sympathy for the former teaboy never flags. In creating a character who is both witty and psychopathic, Mr Adiga has produced a hero almost as memorable as Pip, proving himself the Charles Dickens of the call-centre generation.” – [The Economist]

The book provides more great literary insight into post-colonial India and all its contradictions, in the same satirical vein as Salman Rushdie (but without the magic realism). It’s an easy read and I recommend it to those that like the work of Rushdie, Manto, Shantaram and other popular novels set in the Sub-Continent.

Jonathan Safran Foer – Everything Is Illuminated

Another young writer who seemingly came from nowhere, upon publication of his first novel Jonathan Safran Foer was only 24 when the book was published in 2002. The book polarised readers, critics and writers alike, heralded as a work of genius when it was released but later criticised for being gimmicky and pretentious in its use of almost all the modernist literary devices one can think of.

I think some of the praise was overly hyperbolic and seemed to anoint Safran Foer as the second coming of James Joyce, comparisons were also made to Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange for the novel’s innovative style of language (which is difficult to follow at first and a little annoying but gets easier towards the end).

I didn’t find the book as uproariously funny as some of the reviews I’ve read, amusing maybe but definitely not to the point of laughing out loud. It was much more of an emotional book for me, a powerful read that sucked me in with every few pages as it jumped between two separate narratives that, of course, came together in the end. It’s a complex book in some ways and a simple one in others. It tackles complex themes with a complex narrative strategy but, in the end, it’s a human book, onethat allows the reader to connect simply to the characters and to experience the emotion that comes along with its tragedy.

In fact, he’s got his sights on higher — much higher — things than mere laughs, on a whole series of themes so weighty that any one of them would be enough to give considerable heft to an ordinary novel. A partial list of the book’s concerns includes: the importance of myths and names, the frailty of memory, the necessity of remembrance, the nature of love, the dangers of secrecy, the legacy of the Holocaust, the value of friendship, what it means to be loyal and good and to practice what Jonathan has taught Alex to call ”common decencies.” And I’m not even mentioning a whole host of subthemes, including the confusions and collisions between American and post-Soviet culture. Perhaps the most beautifully orchestrated comic set piece in the book involves the Russians’ appalled response to ”the hero’s” vegetarianism — and a dropped potato. [New York Times]

Ken Kesey – One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

Working the graveyard shift at a mental asylum and being on lots of drugs is apparently a sure-fire recipe for a great book. It was for Ken Kesey anyways, apparently the man ate a whole bunch of peyote before writing One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and it worked out pretty well for him.

The book is an authentic representation in many ways of the inner workings of a 1950s mental asylum in the US, many of the observations came about as a result of Kesey’s interviews with the inmates at his place of employment (and enhanced by the peyote, I’m sure). The book is clearly an allegory on government, particularly the totalitarian leanings of a society that does not tolerate people who step outside boundaries or think outside the box, or, as the the original 1962 Time review calls it, “a roar of protest against middlebrow society’s Rules and the invisible Rulers who enforce them.” This is why the book was considered a seminal work of counter-culture and resonated deeply with 1960s and 70s America, a country in cultural upheaval.

Some of the themes I found most interesting are summed up succinctly here by wikipedia;

The novel’s critique of the mental ward as an instrument of oppression comparable to the prison mirrored many of the claims that French intellectual Michel Foucault was making at the same time. Similarly, Foucault argued that invisible forms of discipline oppressed individuals on a broad societal scale, encouraging them to censoraspects of themselves and their actions. The novel also critiques the emasculation of men in society, particularly in the character of Billy Bibbit, the stuttering acute who is domineered by both Nurse Ratched and his mother.

The book appears in Time’s 100 best English language novels from 1923 – 2005, and deservingly so.

Don Watson – American Journeys

I’ve been a fan of Don Watson since his amazing biography of Paul Keating (another man I admire) “Recollections of a Bleeding Heart”. Unlike the Keating biography, American Journeys is not a political book, though politics features at certain points, not something you can avoid when a deeply political man travels in a deeply political country.

Although Watson attempts to encapsulate America in this book, he fails, and since it was a Herculean task to begin with, perhaps it’s not one we should expect. What makes the book enjoyable is Watson’s quality as a writer. Crisp, elegant prose, witty observations, de Tocqueville and Twain quotes weaved in and out seamlessly along with current affairs. His chosen mode of travel, the dilapidated and forgotten Amtrak train system, is certainly unorthodox but makes for a very different perspective on the country:

Train travel gives Watson’s narrative a reflective pace, as he takes in the nuances of the landscapes and towns he eases in and out of – while digesting Amtrak’s woeful food. “When you’ve eaten it,” he observes of a microwaved bagel with cream cheese, “you have to sit quite still for an hour, like a cormorant after swallowing a salmon and let the thing dissolve inside you.” [SMH]

Watson is probably my favourite Australian writer and this book, as a travelogue and a cultural/political journal of observations is certainly worth a read.

Alain de Botton – The Art of Travel

If I had to choose which book of 2009 was my favourite, it would be between this one and Sartre (will be covered in the next post). This wasn’t my first time reading de Botton, I had read Consolations of Philosophy and Essays in Love and thoroughly enjoyed both. De Botton has a knack for making me relate swiftly and easily to his ruminations, like my version of Oprah but drawing more on the philosophers of the ages and less on corporate product promotion. The two earlier books were also fantastic in this way, Consolations was amazing at exploring the little troubles of life and Essays in Love was wonderful distillation of modern day relationships and how they really work.

Art of Travel though is, for me at least, his tour de force. I enjoy travel a great deal (hey who doesn’t these days) and do a fair bit of it but the beauty of this book lies not in his discussions of travel itself, but what travel reveals about individuals and their psyche. His chapter on Flaubert that talked about the French writer’s distaste for his native bourgeoise and his longing for the exoticism of the Orient resonated strongly with me. While my personal views on the East are, I hope, less Orientalist and condescending than old Gustave, my distaste for the Aussie bourgeoise (ah Cashed Up Bogans) is very similar.

One of the best things about de Botton’s writing is that he doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel. He writes on topics that have been written about for centuries by many before him but adapts them to today, to modernity. Well read and well researched, his useful asides about various pieces of art and borrowings from such writers as the aforementioned Flaubert, TS Elliot, Ruskin, Baudelaire and Nietzche give his books the backbone of history, written in language that is simple enough to understand but beautiful enough to enjoy. This is why he’s such a trendy writer among us Generation Yers. Many have called Michael Moore the “Chomsky for children”, perhaps De Botton is Hegel for hipsters… or Nietzche for n00bs. Plenty more alltierative analogies on famous philosophers are possible.

The Art of Travel seems to have a simple enough theme. What we seek by travelling may in fact be something we lack at home. De Botton is not the first to point this out, and he quotes many famous travellers who have discovered the pitfalls of seeking refuge, like Baudelaire, “Anywhere! Anywhere! So long as it is out of the world!” All too often the traveller who escapes desperately may find himself equally bored in an exotic location, something de Botton discovered on a painfully ill- advised trip to Barbados. He is not a writer who revels in the opportunity to impart a romanticised sense of the tropics, being far more successful when he evokes the misery of a cheap hotel room in Madrid, the view from an airport car park or the fluorescent glare of a motorway service station. [guardian]

De Botton can be found on twitter (@alaindebotton) and on his website.

Fyodor Dostoevsky – White Nights

The disclaimer here is that I read this novella in Russian and I’m not entirely sure how Dostoevsky’s wonderful prose translates into English because I’ve never read him translated. Nevertheless, I’ve seen White Nights around as part of Penguin edition short story collections by Dostoevsky and I thoroughly recommend you hunt it down and read it if you haven’t already.

The protagonist, like many of Dostoevsky’s is a loner and a social outcast of sorts. A dreamer who wanders the streets of St. Petersburg romanticising the city and its inhabitants, his loneliness consuming him day by day. The story is a short and simple one, a boy-meets-girl tale with startling emotional depth, it’s almost a fantastical representation of anyone who has ever dreamt about falling in love with a beautiful stranger. The nameless narrator falls for a girl called Nastenka, a girl he describes as ordinary, but one who happens to be distressed and pursued by an assailant while he passes her on one of his many walks. The story follows the brief friendship-cum-unrequited-love until its end. Sad, beautifully written and insightful from Dostoevsky as usual – all bundled together as an anlogy on the day-night cycle:

“My nights came to an end with a morning. The weather was dreadful. It was pouring, and the rain kept beating dismally against my windowpanes.”

As an aside, interestingly, despite this not being one of Dostoevsky’s well-known works, it’s been adapted for film eight times (including Russian, Italian, Hindi, French, Tamil and American versions, more information on the wiki).

Aldous Huxley – Island

If Huxley’s more famous work Brave New World was his vision of a dystopian future then Island is his utopia. The last book he ever had published (in 1962), Island is the culmination of Huxley’s mostly liberal humanist philosophies with a deep Eastern influence, primarily Buddhist. In that sense, Huxley was part of the 50s and 60s literary movement of authors looking to Eastern philosophies for inspiration (including Hermann Hesse, the Beats and Robert M. Pirsig).

The book is not subtle, Huxley pretty much hits you over the head sledgehammer-style with his observations and criticisms. Unlike other utopian literature, the book is not wistful, it’s more an extension of Brave New World in that sense, a cynical lampooning of our society’s many problems, partly thanks to the cynical our-world narrator Will Farnaby.

One of Huxley’s main criticisms of the West (as this is largely what the book is essentially critical of, the West and the work it’s done via colonialism and neo-colonialism in creating copies of itself in non-Western cultures) is the over industrialisation, the breakneck development and the seeming lack of regard for the quality and purpose of life itself. The fictional island of Pala where the novel is set is an example of restrained development, and Huxley contrasts this with with the inferior and ‘insane’ neighbouring island of Rendang, which is ineviatbly going to attack Pala with its sophisticated weaponry and steal its natural resources. This war for natural resources is characterised as insane by Farnaby while he praises the restraint of the Palinese.

Huxley’s disdain for Western society often spills over into sharp but decidedly unrestrained prose, here’s an example of the acerbic attacks you can expect in this book:

“And always, everywhere, there would be the yelling or quietly authoritative hypnotists; and in the train of the ruling suggestion givers, always everywhere, the tribes of buffoons and hucksters, the professional liars, the purveyors of entertaining irrelevances. Conditioned from the cradle, unceasingly distracted, mesmerized systematically, their uniformed victims would go on obediently marching and countermarching, go on, always and everywhere, killing and dying with the perfect docility of trained poodles. And yet in spite of the entirely justified refusal to take yes for an answer, the fact remained and would remain always, remain everywhere — the fact that there was this capacity even in a paranoiac for intelligence, even in a devil worshipper for love; the fact that the ground of all being could be totally manifest in a flowering shrub, a human face; the fact that there was a light and that this light was also compassion”

“History is the record of what human beings have been impelled to do by their ignorance and the enormous bumptiousness that makes them canonize their ignorance as a political or religious dogma.”

For a utopian work, Island is not a novel that will leave you feeling happy, light and fluffy when you finish it. It will make you feel bitter and jaded about the world, but it is a valuable meditation on where our civilisation is and where it’s headed, and the 48 years that have passed since its publication have only served to make those views more pertinent.

Kickstart with Steppenwolf

September 14, 2009 Leave a comment

Time to kick-start this baby again after having shifted over to my dedicated Politics (with a middle eastern focus) blog at Zeitgeist Politics (check it out if you haven’t already).

To be fair, I’ve been doing considerable amounts of interesting stuff lately including the Don’t Ban The Can Festival on Saturday, street art spotting, interesting book reading, gigs, movies, new cafes, shopping, etc. There’s also been lots of cool stuff on the net lately that I’ve discovered. Bah I need an outlet for these things, especially since my license was suspended starting from Sunday last (thank you Victoria Police) so I’ll be… having more free time on my hands to blog I suppose.

So yeah:

Upon reading Steppenwolf (note the delectable popular penguins copy I have… sigh), a multitude of thoughts came to mind. Am I the Steppenwolf? I certainly share Harry Haller’s disdain for bourgeios society (though not to the same degree, i still enjoy many of the things he loathes and mix with the bourgeois on a regular basis) and have a tendency to get depressed at the pointlessness of it all (though no suicidal tendencies, thank God)… I have that lone wolf thing in me and I also have the intellectual superiority complex going on a lot of the time. So what of it?

It appears the book was met initially with disdain for its liberal attitude to random sex and recreational drug use, and then later embraced as part of the ‘free love and drugs’ movement of the 60s. It is also seen as a damning indictment of the bourgeois, though I don’t really personally see how. In fact, it does little condemning of the bourgeois and seems to be a broader condemnation of intellectuals and the Western ego-centric point of view, far more steeped in Eastern philosophy and far more lamenting the Steppenwolf’s (and there are many among us) inability to derive pleasure from life, always concerned with inevitable things like war, death and self:

Of course, there will be another war. One doesn’t need to read the papers to know that. And of course one can be sad about it, but it isn’t any use. It’s just the same as when a man is sad to think that one day, in spite of his utmost efforts to prevent it, he will inevitably die. The war against death, dear Harry, is always a beautiful, noble and wonderful and glorious thing, and so, it follows, is the war against war. But it is always hopeless and quixotic too.

Hesse’s use of duality and multiple aspects of personality and consciousness were fascinating, as well as what could be called an early dose of magic realism, surrealism and dream sequences. It’s a book concerned with the psyche, the human condition and the myriad possibilities that yet remain unexplored to most of us. Certainly worth reading.