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Reading Down Under

March 14, 2010

Brother Baba Budan, Lt Bourke Street, Melbourne

To the southern hemisphere — one of the best hemispheres in the world! — for five glorious weeks of revisiting old places, discovering new ones, catching up with old friends, drinking immoderate quantities of coffee, lurching haphazardly from glorious lunches to glorious dinners, walking familiar streets, photographing things that are significant to me but would be meaningless to other people, etc. An enjoyably packed schedule left comparatively little time for reading, but here’s the Asia-Australia reading list anyway…

Smile or Die by Barbara Ehrenreich (Granta) — Always readable and likeable, Ehrenreich here rails against the culture of ‘positive thinking’, suggesting the peddlers of such airy-fairy thinking are actually attempting to silence and repress intelligent skepticism and the spirit of enquiry. Starting from her own diagnosis with breast cancer and the infantilising ephemera that she encounters in medical and social contexts thereafter — notably baseless theories that ‘positive thinking’ and a sunny outlook can beat cancer into remission — she goes on to topics as diverse as the economic crash (at the outset of which people tried to delude themselves and one another into believing that nothing, literally, could go wrong) and the jawdroppingly dumb ‘self-help’ book The Secret which tells feckless readers that to simply ask ‘the universe’ for something will guarantee they receive it, this is a gem, albeit slightly scattershot in its approach.

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius by Graham Farmelo (Faber) — One of three outstanding biographies I’ve read this quarter (the others being lives of Muriel Spark and John Cheever, which I intend to write about in future). Dirac was undeniably strange, a borderline-autistic fellow with a colossal brain but negligible social skills. Farmelo carefully guides the lay reader through sometimes head-hurtingly difficult physics: I came away with the peculiar sense that quantum physics is easier to understand than, as it were, lifesize physics, for which I have to give Farmelo’s explanations full credit. As a biographer he is both fascinated and exasperated by his subject; the reader likewise. My favourite moment: Dirac, never noted for his sense of playfulness, sends friends a parcel containing an infant alligator, which promptly bites the recipient’s hand. Suddenly the reader doubts that even four hundred pages will be enough to explore the life of such a man. This is wholeheartedly recommended.

Uncle Silas by J Sheridan Le Fanu (Penguin Classics) — Great old gothic nightmare. Malevolent uncles, orphans wandering round creaky old houses, vicious governesses and stolen inheritances make for surprisingly good beach reading.

The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt (Mariner Books [US]) — A slick, sometimes rather too slick, fictive account of the life of Nikola Tesla. The writing is beautiful, albeit at times a little too ‘workshopped’, and the characters — notably inquisitive hotel chambermaid Louisa, who improbably bonds with the inventor over a shared fondness for pigeons of all things — well-drawn. At times this veers alarmingly close to self-parody, or even parody of that particular type of contemporary novel which seems to start with a historical figure and work outwards.  A peculiar subplot about a time-machine, while inventive and clever, hits every ‘beat’ one might expect, including a thoroughly predictable ambiguity about whether it actually works or not. The same could be said for the novel. (The UK edition of this book is saddled with a terrible illustration featuring a cherub holding a crudely photoshopped and improbably healthy-looking pigeon which, given general attitudes towards pigeons, may prove something of a marketing error.)

The Library, Koh Samui

The Mayor’s Tongue by Nathaniel Rich (Vintage UK) — This first novel starts winningly, with researcher Eugene Brentani investigating the life of reclusive author Constance Eakins (a male, confoundingly). Rich has a lot of fun throwing out hints about the author’s life (variously we learn he has run a failed presidential election campaign, sunbathed with Jayne Mansfield, speared a leopard through the head) and embarking on proliferating, magical stories and fables that feed, or don’t, back into one of the two main narrative threads. By the time the titular Mayor appears, overseeing a town which spills over from the real to the fictional, or vice-versa, the novel has, regrettably, shown itself to be a shade too long and more than a shade too clever for its own good.

The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes (Harper Press) — Brilliantly written, with a strongly articulated central argument: scientists and poets of the Romantic era are customarily, lazily said to have been in opposition to one another, and Holmes draws equally on poetry and accounts of eighteenth-century scientific endeavour (astronomy, the first manned flights in hot-air balloons) to counter and explode this myth. It’s a combination of science history, cultural study, group biography and fireside chat, rich and memorable.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (Faber) — A largely very good novel based around Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Centre (also the subject of a highly likeable documentary film, Man on Wire). McCann posits Petit’s walk as an allegory of 9/11, with all Manhattaners’ eyes on the twin towers, this time for wondrous rather than terrible reasons. The cutaways to the fictive Petit’s exploits and his training are astoundingly good. The body of the book comprises a series of intersecting, multi-narrator vignettes, which range from the excellent to the slightly undernourished, but it’s an incredibly ambitious, extremely successful book.

Almost No Memory by Lydia Davis (Picador [US]) — Davis gets rave reviews whenever she is mentioned in print (a recent Guardian article anticipating the UK publication of some of her stories tipped me off to her). In this she resembles Amy Hempel, another somewhat ignored female author of very short, very mannered stories; an acquired taste, I think, especially when, as in this instance, one has the sense of someone setting down these microscopic, humourless setpieces and tight-lipped bits of wordplay with a sense that they are saying something incredibly profound. More of these episodes miss the mark than hit it, but sometimes the modulations of expression, the mutations that take place in front of the reader’s eye, are beguiling.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin (Macmillan [US]) — Eight linked stories, connected in neat and clever ways. The longer stories, which start to bring in the kinds of complexity and ambiguity one sees in Alice Munro’s stories, tend to be the best of the lot, and the opening ‘Nawabdin Electrician’, with echoes of RK Narayan, is especially good. In all I’m not quite sure this deserved all the adulation it got on publication: the writing is at times a little too finely-wrought, the stories a little too careful and considered, as if the collection had one redraft too many.

Monkey Grip by Helen Garner (Penguin Classics Australia) — This is brilliant, but comes with reservations: our central character, Nora, throws the I Ching and pays close attention to her dreams, and if one were to strip these divinations from the novel it’d be considerably shorter. Towards the end, too, as chapter after chapter finishes on an ambiguous note, I began to fear the ending would offer no greater closure, and wondered whether the book was rambling on rather. There is, ultimately, a kind of resolution — Nora, who has been engaged in an ambivalent relationship with heroin addict Javo, not the most responsible or reliable soul, has battled throughout to work out what the relationship means to both of them (“What is this, that we all do?” she wonders, observing her friends in similar dilemmas) and in the end finds some calm, realising that she has to accept the relationship for “what it is”, a resolution which could have occurred at really any point beforehand (or indeed subsequently). These are quibbles, though: this is a staggeringly good novel, beautifully written, rammed with descriptions of a dusty 1970s Melbourne that you still see seeping through the city in 2010, and demonstrating an ear for language that’s so finely tuned it’s breathtaking.

Best of the Best: Modern Australian Short Stories, edited by Barry Oakley (Five Mile Press [Australia]) — A compilation of highlights from an annual anthology series, including stories by David Malouf, Peter Carey and Tim Winton, among less familiar names. Each comes with an infuriatingly patronising introduction by editor Oakley, the banality and insight-free nature of which (at least one preface suggests he has entirely missed the point of the story it precedes) made me start to wonder who exactly this book was aimed at. There is something of the sense of the ‘set questions’ about these intros, making me feel it was meant perhaps for a teenage audience, though there’s no other indication this should be so. Regrettably, the best stories are by writers I was already familiar with (Malouf and Carey) and I came away rather disappointed I hadn’t accumulated a list of ‘new’ Australian authors to investigate.

I also read most of Vanity Fair (the Thackeray novel, not the magazine), and re-read the Monkey’s copy of Chatwin’s The Songlines (having bought him this in advance of our visit to the Red Centre).  This involved encountering one galvanising coincidence, drawing together Rilke and the Aboriginal Australians’ beliefs that their ancestors sang the world into existence, which made me drop the book in startlement, and made something in the last bit of the last bit of my novel fall into place. The Songlines is great for the first half — reportage, travelogue, memoir and discursive essay — and then sort of fitfully great in its latter half, whereupon the actual topic of the book vanishes and is replaced by Chatwin’s notes towards a never-completed book on the culture of nomadism. Then he goes off on a real tangent with his theory that prehistoric man was preyed upon by a long-extinct superpredator — dinofelis, a sabre-toothed cat, essentially, perhaps also the source of race-memory fears about devils and witches. This, more than the nomad stuff, coheres surprisingly well. I’ve mixed feelings about Chatwin; a massive intellect and considerable talent hampered by what seems, particularly here, a lack of discipline. Nicholas Shakespeare’s excellent biography tells us that Bruce lived his life as he wrote his books — messily — and somewhat undermined my liking for him of the books by detailing exhaustively how much of a git he was.

Also started re-reading Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, about which I can’t say too much without the disclaimer that I studied with Paul some years ago, before he published his first novel, An Evening of Long Goodbyes (disclaimer aside, one of the funniest books I have ever read). I’ve been waiting keenly for this second novel for what feels like a very long time. It doesn’t disappoint: it’s a novel about everything, it seems, without being at all undisciplined or baggy. Daniel ‘Skippy’ Juster is a boarder at Dublin’s Seabrook College for Boys; as the title suggests, his fate galvanises the plot, and the opening scene which describes his demise sets the scene for a book that covers transdimensional physics, the modernisation of Ireland (and the effect the credit crunch has), first love and fading love, juvenile delinquency, and above all the mystifying, horrendous business of being a teenager. Murray’s half-dozen, very likeable teenage protagonists are clearly individuated yet deeply familiar, their crises personal yet universal. This is a melancholy, autumnal novel, dealing with big issues, but written with humour and a lightness of touch that prevents it being depressing. (Furthermore, for the time being, the first print run comes in a beautiful three-volume slipcase, which makes contending with its 600+ pages rather easier, and is an aesthetic match for the book’s linguistic and narrative verve.)

Below: Paul reads from Skippy Dies at Bookslam x Five Dials at Wilton’s Music Hall, London, 26th February 2010


From → Books, Travel

  1. georginashenton permalink

    The concept of “Positive thinking” was introduced to me by the book The Secret…at first I didn’t believe that whatever the mind expects, it finds…if not for the depression I experienced some 2 yrs back, I wouldn’t realize how REAL “positive thinking” is! As I look back on my worst times, I wonder why was I so upset at that time cos now everything seems so trivial….
    I couldn’t thank the book enough for making a BIG difference in my life!

    Dream. Believe. Survive.


    • saintthefireshow permalink

      How nice to have a “global healthcare company” comment on my blog (amazing what googling a name will reveal)! Though presumably if everyone was able to overcome their illnesses by simply imagining themselves healthy, that would put you out of business?

  2. Skippy Dies is truly brilliant! Like you I was waiting for it for ages, as I had loved An Evening of Long Goodbyes so much, but unlike you I don’t know him! Am going to see him at the Dublin Writers Festival which I’m very much looking forward to.

    Also enjoyed Let The Great World Spin. I must check out your other recommenations as we seem to have similar taste.

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