The Literary Bungy: Tolstoy in One Week

on Monday, January 31, 2011
Call me what you will; a sucker for punishment, an hopeless addict, a complete bore - but having just knocked over Anna Karenina in less than five days I suddenly have it in my head that I should attempt to dash through War and Peace in a week. It's not that I loved the tortuous melodrama of Tolstoy's 'greatest love story ever told'. It was okay. There was the odd moment of greatness. And there were only a few times that I felt a strong urge to slap that bunch of "worried-well" aristocratic prats and champagne socialists with a cold trout. But hey, to paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson, it's Anna F*$#n Karenina! They're allowed to be soap opera archetypes.

To be honest though, I kind of failed to see what all the fuss is about. If Tolstoy was writing today he'd be storyline director in the scripting department of whatever conglomerate of monkeys pens Days Of Our Lives. And no wonder he went totally nuts. Imagine having to read over drafts of this treacle for months or years on end. Ploughing through it once has a tangible effect on one's sanity. Multiple attempts is sure to melt grey cells en masse. This isn't a rant against the Russian greats. I get the Dostoevsky obsession - his moral clarity and narrative verve is unquestionable and his books, for the most part, are damn great to read. But Tolstoy? Well, he's just... kind of alright.

And yet, dear friends, my slightly-addled brain seems intent on doing the War and Peace thang in the near future. For a while I couldn't work out why. Maybe it's like getting a tattoo. Sure, it hurts like all buggery while it's being done but pretty soon the adrenaline rush kicks in, you look down at your latest ink and against all better judgement you want more. Or perhaps, it is the thrill of the challenge. Yes, reading the mega-epic classics is the extreme sports of the literary world. War and Peace is like bungy jumping off Niagara Falls. Giving yourself one week in which to do it is like taking the plunge without measuring the chord or correcting for weight. Now we all know what an absolute coward I am when it comes to risking my bodily welfare so I ain't ever strapping a rubber band to my ankles. But my brain, heck yes I'm willing to risk that. Who needs sanity anyway? I have a few books I really want to read first but I think sometime in February or maybe March I'm finally going to do it. What is a week spent reading the greatest, longest, potentially most boring book of all time when doing so will earn me both accolades and an express ticket to the loony bin? It worked for Leo and it is darn well gonna work for me!

Hype Hype (But No Hooray)

on Friday, January 28, 2011
Be careful what you wish for. Two entries after starting this blog I bemoaned not having read Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City. I crowned it the "Book I'm Sure Would Have Made the List Had I Gotten Around to Reading It". Critics had been raving. Fellow bookworms had been raving. Jonathan Lethem was raving. Yeah yeah. Turns out they were all wrong. I read it in January and was decidedly indifferent towards it. Sure, it was alright, but what was all the fuss about? Reading Chronic City, I said, was like watching fireworks. Particularly, the fireworks during the handover of Hong Kong to China back in 1997. On that night I sat in a restaurant atop one of the city's great skyscrapers and prepared for the visual feast of a lifetime. It was spectacular for about five minutes, but then the massive cloud of smoke blanketed the city and all we saw were faint flashes, like lightning hidden in stormclouds. Big, expensive whoop-de-doo!

I should have learnt my lesson the first time. When it came to compiling my 2010 lists, I gave the big "I-didn't-read-it-but-woulda-loved-it-I'm-sure" rave to Paolo Bacigalupi's The Wind-Up Girl. Folk around booktown were talking as if Philip K. Dick himself had been resurrected, had furious sex with William Gibson and (this is sci-fi ladies and gentlefriends) produced a new Bible. You see, in the future men can give birth to inanimate objects. But I digress. Set in a futuristic Thailand, the only country to have survived some great cataclysmic meltdown and come out the better for it, The Wind-Up Girl tells the tale of some bloke who peddles genetically modified crap and his liaison with, and perhaps love for, a cyborg-like service robot chick. It's super hot. Until she starts killing people. Now, I realise I'm making this sound awfully exciting but be warned. it is not. In fact, it is shit boring. Sure, the world is brilliantly realised but newsflash sci-fi writers: It is not enough to create a great, believable world if you don't do anything interesting in it. You don't get to pat yourself on the back and rest on your laurels. That is the equivalent of jerking off into a cup, raising a toast to yourself and then drinking it. You ain't producing anything of worth and, if I might hazard a guess, it leaves a pretty average aftertaste!

With that ordeal behind me, I'm taking one final ride on the hype-train. I've set myself the task of reading Anna Karenina, one of the most-hyped books of all time, in five days. If it too leaves me as indifferent as those other two mega-hyped piles of blah then like Anna I shall throw myself in front of its tracks. Run me over indeed, but at least put me out of my misery!

Bronx Cheers For Old Age

on Monday, January 24, 2011
Today is my birthday and I intend to spend a good chunk of it reading whilst awaiting the onset of old man maladies. Conventional wisdom amongst my friends has it that it is a bad idea to get me a book as a present. Chances are I've either read it, already own it or, if neither of the above, am simply not interested in having it pollute my bookshelf. Thankfully my friends aren't conventionally wise and I got a haul of excellent books that I wouldn't have ever thought to get myself. Sometimes chutzpah pays off in spades.

I had intended to make a clean birthday break - there is a lot to be said for the books one reads on one's birthday. But, alas, I am only half way through Arnold Zable's Jewels and Ashes (didn't manage to finish it, what with the ridiculous spring clean we undertook on the weekend) and so I shall be spending the day in the comforting arms of Australia's greatest old-school fabulist. I'm loving it so far so I'm not about to complain, but it won't really count as the first book I will have read at the big three five. Tolstoy looks to have that one in the bag. As of later today, or perhaps tomorrow, I am challenging myself to knock over Anna Karenina in less than ten days. Actually, I'd like to have it done by the end of January. What can I say? It seems old age has taken a toll on my ability to think rationally. Well, that's my excuse and hey, it's my birthday. Indulge me!

E=RxA/LB: A Literary Theory of Relativity

on Thursday, January 13, 2011
Einstein, as the people of Tasmania have always attested, was right. Everything is relative. I thought I'd follow my incredible first book of the year up with another highly-lauded work, Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy. I absolutely love McCarthy. Nobody can write a villain like he can. He doesn't pander to trends. Every word he writes is a big "fuck you" to the literati. And he is the only author that can get me interested in reading Westerns (previously, my experience in the Wild West was limited to a computer game called The Wild Bunch that I played incessantly as a kid in the mid-1980's with my late, great friend David Horowitz). A couple of years ago, another friend, Ariel (who also recommended The Brothers Ashkenazi) bought me The Border Trilogy for my birthday. It still contains the best inscription ever: "I couldn't find you Brokeback Mountain so this was the next best thing."

Since then, the book has sat languishing on my bookshelf waiting for me to build up the courage to tackle its 1000 pages of rolling plains and tobacco-chewing men on horses. Ariel kept assuring me it was a classic. That I'd love it. Convinced that after Ashkenazi he could do no wrong I decided I'd keep going with his suggestions. Hitting that imposing brick would also serve a few other purposes. Firstly, I 'aspired' at New Year to read a book cycle in its entirety and figured this would be about as good a series as I was likely to find. Secondly, I've read everything else McCarthy has written and don't think I can wait for the three books he is supposedly working on at the moment. And finally, it is considered an American classic so counts towards another of my New Year's aspirations.

So, with gleeful anticipation, I jumped in and, five days later, had ripped through all three like, well, a rider on a storm. I liked them all, each more than the next. In true McCarthy style they were bleak and brutal, but also had a peculiar country warmth that he rarely lets into his other books (probably the polar opposite to Blood Meridian). All The Pretty Horses was a great, classic cowboy story that lulled me into a false sense of comfort before shocking me with that jail sequence. The Crossing was the coldest of the three, the most conventionally McCarthy (and I mean that in a good way). Cities Of The Plain was, for me, the most enjoyable even though I'm not quite certain how Billy and John ended up meeting, nor can I work out why the simplest narrative with lashing of schmultz won me over so comprehensively. And so props where they are due, well done to Ariel for another great recommendation.

But, and this is a big but (I cannot lie), I didn't love The Border Trilogy as much as I had hoped. It is clearly great but I just didn't have that visceral, drooling adulation for it like I did for The Brothers Ashkenazi. Which leads me to believe that it is a bad idea to read a supposedly great book straight after you have read something you truly loved. It simply cannot stack up. Nor will you give it its full dues. Our literary compass is re-calibrated with each book we read. Some books we love might simply be our reaction to a good book drought, while others we found disappointing might only have been so in the context of our heightened lit-pulse. I don't know, I've never been good with maths or physics, but I get the feeling relativity really does play a big part in what we think of the books we read. We will always compare that which we hold in our hands with everything that came before, whether it be our all time favourites or the one that came immediately before. Hence my formula, E=RxA/LBR (Enjoyment = Reputation x Actuality / Last Book Read). Which kind of explains why I liked Cities Of The Plain the most when, in theory, I ought to have liked it least. It basically was the furthest removed from The Brothers Askenazi. Time and space y'all. Time and space. And so I put The Border Trilogy out to pasture, a noble steed that served me well but didn't quite reach the lofty heights the stud farm promised (and yes, I've now got all the awful Western puns out of my system)

As for me, I'm off to relive my glory days on vast plains of the American west. I just found an emulator for the ZX Spectrum and yep, it has The Wild Bunch. Check it out at and scroll down to 1984. Be seein' ya'll there.

A Pox On My Dignity (I Gone Done Joined Tweetah)

on Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Just a quick note to say that i have sacrificed my dignity once again on the alter of modernity and joined Twitter. You can follow my random curmudgeonly musings and occasional niceties at bait4bookworms. I really need to spend more time reading and less time looking for ways to procrastinate!

The Best Book of 2011!

on Saturday, January 8, 2011
Fantastic. We're just one week into January and I've already read the best book I am going to read this year. Stuff that. It's one of the best books I'm ever going to read. Right now it's sitting comfortably at number four, trumped only by The Trial, I Am The Cheese and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. And, if I disregard the time-and-place aspect of the Cormier and Chabon, it probably ranks at number two. Holy crap.

Finally back in print after far too long an absence, The Brothers Ashkenazi by I. J. Singer has reduced me to a semi-coherent mess of sycophantic dithering. For those not in the know, I. J. was the elder brother of Nobel laureate, short story master and dodgy misogynist Isaac Bashevis Singer. And however good I. B. was at the short form, I. J. is even better at the epic. The Brothers Ashkenazi is the sort of thing Dostoevsky would have written had he lived in Lodz and synthesised (by way of osmosis) with Dickens all the while subjecting himself to an ascetic lifestyle and a prolonged hunger strike. Owing more to the grand Russian tradition than its Yiddish brethren, The Brothers Ashkenazi eschews both sly humour and shtetl fabulism for cold, harsh realism, continually punching the reader in the face with home truths. I.J. was clearly a bitter man. As the friend who recommended it to me pointed out, he had lived through and been burnt by numerous regime changes as well as political upheavals and religious tumult. His message, therefore, is simple. Politics is shit. Religion is shit. Humanity, when you strip away the posturing, is shit. Forget your happy endings, I. J. tells it like it really is.

Simcha Meir (Max) and Jacob Bunim Ashkenazi are two very different twins on a similar trajectory toward wealth and power in turn-of-the-century Lodz. Max is lauded from an early age as a genius, but his business acumen hardens his heart. He is willing to crush whoever stands in the way of his success whether it be his parents, friends, wife or even his brother. Jacob Bunim, on the other hand, is slow witted and lazy, but a real mensch. He relishes all that is decadent, and people flock to him for his outgoing, ebullient ways. Whereas Max hunts success like a predator stalking its prey, success falls on Jacob in spite of himself. As the years roll on, the two find themselves locked in an often cruel game of one-upmanship, each vying for the position of Industrial king of Lodz. It is ugly and tragic, but utterly compelling.

Bubbling under the surface throughout, until it explodes in spectacularly horrible fashion, is a deep vein of political and religious unrest. Pogroms, strikes, revolutions (both Russian Revolutions get a look in, as does the tail end of the Industrial Revolution) and national capitulations pepper the saga, increasing both in frequency and brutality as the tale progresses. Singer is not afraid to depict it all in graphic detail which makes for some truly harrowing and uncomfortable moments. Yet, none of the historical details feel laboured or preachy. They always serve a purpose, not just in the background, but at the forefront of the narrative action.

I don't want to give away too much of this incredible novel. Nothing I tell you about it could possibly do it justice. Instead, I am begging you to read it. Each and every one of you. Personally. I will, however, just say this. Much is made of Kafka's prophetic powers. But if you want to find true prescience, a book that could clearly see what was to come, this 1937 classic towers above anything else you are ever likely to read.

A Missive From The (Maybe) Future

on Saturday, January 1, 2011
Given that I can never work out what timezone Blogspot is set to, I may well be writing this from the future. Here in Oz it's New Year's Day but I'm going to take a punt and guess that I can get in one last post for the year.

Now, I'm not usually one to succumb to the whole New Year's resolution thing. If I added all the weight I've promised to lose each January 1 I would actually exist as a vacuum or black hole. But given that writing this blog was the first resolution I've ever kept, I figure I should at least jot down a couple of aspirations for 2010 just in case. With complete awareness that history has shown that I am hardly likely to follow any of this claptrap, here are the things I hope to achieve.

Read One Great Classic Per Month. I do read them from time to time, but I really want to make a concerted effort to tackle the books that any self-respecting lit-lover should have read with a particular focus on the fat Russians, somewhat leaner Germans, Charles Dickens and Henry James.

Read One Debut Novel Per Month. While some of the big names disappointed in 2010, first novels proved a boon. This year I want to expand my horizons by finding exciting, new writers onto whom I can hitch my wagon.

Read Outside My Comfort Zone. When it comes to reading I am well and truly a creature of habit. Literary fiction all the way! Anything else feels like work. But with Patti Smith landing in my Top 10 of 2010, I think it's time I let down my guard a little and ventured into alternative worlds. I am particularly intrigued by the idea of dabbling in graphic fiction, genre fiction and some less conventional non-fiction.

Read More, Buy Less. Umberto Eco once said that a person's anti-library (the shelves of books one owns but has yet to read) is just as important as their library. Even with a reading rate of 150 or so books a year, my anti-library has grown out of control. Scanning my shelves I see so many books that I would love to read but had resigned myself to never pulling down. This year I want to buy fewer books and try to clear a little of the backlog. The prospect of a mortgage probably helps a fair bit!

Read one Series In Its Entirety. I sat through all nine Police Academy flicks. I didn't abandon Star Wars after the Phantom Menace. I listened to Bat Out Of Hell 1 and 2. But for some reason I don't do literary serials. So whether it's Harry Potter (which it won't be) or something a little more high brow (and no, it will not be Proust's In Search of Lost Time either), in 2011 I want to knock over one whole sequence.

The space/time continuum is closing its wormhole now... Signal fading... Peace out!