A Fine Vintage: Roots by Alex Haley

on Friday, July 30, 2010
It never occurred to me while packing up the old family home that so many of the books on my parents' bookshelves were from 1976. I guess it makes sense. Mum could not possibly have had anything better to do with her time while baby me was puking and shitting on her furniture. Boys From Brazil was there (on the shelf, not the furniture); I remember stuffing it in a box thinking I'd never have cause to read it. So was a ragged paperback copy of Roots, which now also lies squished inside a musty cardboard box at the back of a warehouse. For the thirty-odd years it sat there staring me in the face (the bookshelf was above the TV), I had been tempted to pick it up and give it a go, knowing what a major cultural milestone it was supposed to be. But I had an aversion to fictionalised historical family memoirs. Still do, despite spending the past five years working on one of my own. Daniel Mendelsohn sealed the deal for me. All the fuss surrounding his mammoth tome The Lost got me momentarily excited about the genre but, well, despite pretty much everyone naming it the best book of 2006 I thought it was kind of crap. Just more of the typical lapsed Jew waxing lyrical about traditions and religious observances that anyone with half a clue would not only take as patronising but also realise was often ill-informed.

Point is, I was in two-minds when it came to reading Alex Haley's equally gigantic classic for this month's A Fine Vintage challenge. On one shoulder, the good angel (I'm picturing Oprah) was saying in a soft, gentle voice to approach with an open mind. On the other, the evil angel (clearly Mendelsohn or, now I think about, also maybe Oprah) was warning me away at the top of his brimstone-filled lungs. A deal is a deal, says I, and so putting on a pair of fuzzy earmuffs to block out the cacophony I settled on my couch with a spankin' new copy of Roots.

Forget the fact that Alex Haley plagiarised a bunch of stuff in the book and had to settle out-of-court with some other fellow. Forget about its accuracy as an historical document. Roots, whatever the hell technical category it might slot into, is a damn good read. That said, it is let down by the way in which it seems to have been made palatable for a mass American market. The story of Kunta Kinte and the seven generations that followed him until the birth of the author is gorgeous, painful and, at times, harrowing. Haley portrays the slaves with a dignity, intelligence and rich cultural tradition that, I imagine until this book was published, had generally been denied them. All the ugly stuff we associate with the slave trade is there to be seen, although its impact is softened in the telling. I'm sure I will be strung up by my toes for suggesting this, but I wish Haley had been a little more brutal in relating the slave experience. Either Kinte's descendants were the luckiest slaves this side of the Mason Dixon line (the brutality and degradations visited upon them were contextually minor), or Haley felt that he had to dumb down their experience lest his greater message be silenced by unwilling publishers. Don't get me wrong, I really admire Alex Haley and think Roots is a great book. It does, however, have some serious shortfalls that might be understandable for various reasons but cannot be altogether dismissed.

Well, dear Bookworms, that brings another month's challenge to an end. I reckon '76 really was a fine vintage after all. Stay tuned now for August where I will take on a completely non-self indulgent theme of truly epic proportions. And one-up my clumsy dalliances in haiku...

A Fine Vintage: The Boys From Brazil by Ira Levin

on Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Nothing scares the bejesus out of a nice Jewish boy (yes, yes, I know... Jesus was a nice Jewish boy) quite like a room full of Hitler clones; even ones who are just starting to grow enough pubes over that one ball to cut off and paste on their top lip (the clones that is, not the nice Jewish boys). Having grown up in the immediate shadow of the Holocaust, Ira Levin must have been well aware of this genre fiction goldmine. So while Frederick Forsyth was busy freaking people out with the ODESSA group, making my parents believe there were ex-Nazi war criminals living next door (to be fair, there was one a few houses up, but that's a whole other story), Levin played the paranoia trump card by hijacking the Mengele mythos to create the ultimate neo-Nazi conspiracy: A genetic clone of Hitler who would usher in the Fourth Reich and take over the world. Stuff that, he went one step further in The Boys From Brazil - he made a whole gaggle of them!

It's been a long time since I read an old fashioned thriller (not counting the dross I suffered through in February's Books I Swore I'd Never Read challenge), so The Boys From Brazil came as a refreshing change. It is a slave to its genre and is populated by wafer-thin caricatures (the Simon Wiesenthal clone is particularly silly) but heck, it brings on the fiendish conspiracy theorising and graphic cartoon violence in spades. That's not to say that a lot of it isn't hilariously absurd. Levin was no geneticist, and he sort of avoided any discussion of the plausibility of his entire plot device. It is, therefore, kind of ironic that now, in a post-Dolly world, what seemed as plausible as intergalactic travel in 1976 might just be doable. Yep, Little Adolf may just turn out to be more than the sci-fi scaremongering of a horror writer's imagination. That is, of course, if they can find a scraping from the original's one nut...

No Prizes For Guessing The Booker Longlist

Well, silly season is officially upon us with the announcement today of the Booker Prize longlist. Suffice to say it isn't the most daring bunch of books which, if the prize is not to continue its ascent up its own literary rectum, is actually a good thing. There are lots of familiar names, very little experimental fiction and, for me, a good few weeks' worth of reading.

If you haven't seen it yet:

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey
Room by Emma Donoghue
The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore
In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
The Long Song by Andrea Levy
C by Tom McCarthy
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
February by Lisa Moore
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
Trespass by Rose Tremain
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner

Safe money would have to be on David Mitchell who many people thought was robbed when he didn't win for Cloud Atlas. Booker judging panels are in the habit of giving consolation prizes to the novel after the one that ought to have won (I'm talking about you Ian McEwan). Peter Carey could be the first writer to bag the hatrick, which would make sense given that he was the first to score a second with The True History of The Kelly Gang. And then there's Andrea Levy who won the Orange Prize for Small Island. I heard her read from The Long Song recently and, if the rest of the book is anything like the few passages she read, I'd be quite chuffed if she won. In fact, this is the first year I remember liking more than half of the list. It'd be a great coup for hip young writers if Tom McCarthy won. He is the Commonwealth's answer to Dave Eggers, a one man creative cultural machine. Then there's Paul Murray's Skippy Dies which has been the unexpected hit of the past six months. It'd have to be in with a good chance. And, as you might expect it, there is a little parochial villager in me gunning for Christos Tsiolkas (who, if he was ever going to win it, probably should have for the fabulous Dead Europe), though said villager has to fight it out with my shtetl dwelling alter ego who has a soft spot for Howard Jacobson.

I'm glad to say I've only read one of the books on the list so far (Damon Galgut's not-really-fictional In A Strange Room). I have another four on my bedside table and another already on order at ShAmazon. The rest will be snapped up forthwith. It's clear the judging panel have harked back to the golden age of the novel, a time when well-told stories mattered more than spectacular stylistic contortions. I'm sure the stuffy literati will slam them for their cowardice but I for one, as a simple reader and lover of a good tall tale, am quietly thankful. Now I'm going to lock myself in a room and plough through them. The sign is up. Do Not Disturb!

A Fine Vintage: Kiss of the Spiderwoman by Manuel Puig

on Monday, July 26, 2010
Many years ago, there was an Aussie TV ad with two shipwrecked sailors on a rickety raft, describing lavish meals to one another to abate their hunger. I still have no idea what it was for (meat? lamb? veal? some other dead non-human child?) but I do know it was the first time I heard of marsala. The punchline was great too - the doomedsome twosome lay back on the raft with one saying, "I couldn't fit another thing in". This ad, in less than two minutes, pretty much sums up Manuel Puig's 1976 classic Kiss Of The Spider Woman.

The title has been rattling around the back of my head for as long as I can remember. For some strange reason I had always assumed the book was a tacky South American noir. Or soft porn. Which is why I have never been all that interested in reading it (I only dig the hard stuff). Turns out it is more an amalgam of two of my great favourites, Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman and This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun. Almost entirely written in dialogue (going by this and JR, it was all the rage in '76), Kiss of The Spider Woman is essentially the recurring fantasies of two men languishing in a grimy prison in Buenos Aires in the mid-70's. Valentin is a political agitator, a (perhaps) major player in a militant rebel group. Molina, an effeminate window-dresser, is in prison for 'corruption of a minor'. The first chunk of the book is taken up by Molina talking Valentin through the plots of various movies, some that he has seen, others that he makes up as he goes along, in an attempt to help Valentin overcome the pain of the torture to which he has recently been subjected. Just when it threatens to become pointless and repetitive, we learn that Molina is actually a plant, bartering his own freedom for extracting Valentin's confession. Peppered throughout, in a tiered form very similar to Coetzee's Diary of A Bad Year (or perhaps Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest), is a footnoted countertext filled with psycho-babblish ruminations on homosexuality.

Indeed, sexuality and its influence on power relations seems to be the novel's main concern. As it progressed, I was made increasingly uncomfortable by Puig's apparent Lombrosian leanings. Molina is Valentin's only source of comfort, and eventually he succumbs to his sexual advances. The ending is extremely confusing too - Molina is released after his betrayal appears to yield some success, but he is killed soon after in the crossfire between police and Valentin's rebel group. It is unclear whether it is an act of self-sacrifice, whether his love for Valentin was true and that he would rather die than compromise the pact he had made with his cellmate, or if karma just plain up and got him. Either way, poor Valentin is still rottin in prison, being subjected to ever more horrific torture, and babbling in some dream state, casting himself in Molina's imaginary films. It is an intriguing, if morally ambivalent, work. My head hurts. As a great adman once wrote, "I couldn't possibly fit another thing in".

e-Read Therefore e-Am

on Sunday, July 25, 2010
Hark, the dark angels are singing, for the dawn of the Bookocalypse is upon us. Jeff Bezos, CEO of ShAmazon.com and arch nemesis to independent booksellers worldwide, hath just announced that e-books have outsold hardcover books for the first time in the evil empire's history. I guess it was bound to happen. Last month, when I flew to London and back, a quick stroll down the sticky carpet of the Thai Airways aisles was all it took to ram the reality down my gagging throat. I was veritably assailed by e-readers. Shamazon's Kindle clearly had the stranglehold, but iPads were holding their own (for those who actually used them to read rather than play Angry Birds for hours on end) and even the humble iPhone was making a fair showing.

So much for my theory on e-reading. Although not for me, I theoretically have no problem with the idea of those more technologically minded reading from some call-it-what-you-will, new-fangled computer screen. But I had assumed that it could never affect the sales of the hardcover. See, the way I saw it, e-readers would separate those who love books as objects from those who see them as functional vehicles for the delivery of entertainment. In other words, while the airport novel was in real danger, the beautiful hardcover was safe as houses (before the subprime crisis, that is). Turns out I was mistaken. People do care about their hip pocket when it comes to books. Apparently he or she who dies with the biggest library no longer wins.

Oh well, as Daffy Duck once said, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. I have long pontificated about the evils of e-reading but, like many other things about which I loudly voice my opinion (like split infinitives, for instance), I really had nothing to go on. Sure, the idea of reading from a piece of machinery boiled my blood but really, there had to be something to it. How could a school (to be read in the same collective manner as sardines) of Thai Airways passengers be wrong? Thankfully, my brother got a Kindle for his birthday in February so I didn't have to buy one for myself, nor did I have to embarrass myself by putting a call out on some social networking site. I should point out that, in the five months since he got it, my brother hasn't actually used his Kindle. That ought to have spoken volumes. When I asked if I could borrow it he said I could keep it for as long as I needed. Another light bulb. And when I did take it to my place, the battery was totally dead. You get my point.

After a good few hours charging, I fired the little white tablet up and downloaded The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway. I had always meant to read it and wanted a short book in case the Kindle experience was as horrible as I had anticipated. Two birds, one clunky white stone. I started to read... I felt dirty, like I was cheating on the most beautiful girl in the world with a second-hand blow-up doll. Then, and maybe it was habituation, the feeling sort of subsided. I was getting into it. The Kindle was pretty easy to read. That magic ink technology is kind of okay. I'm sitting on the fence here, but having now read a book on the thing, I'm willing to say it isn't total junk. Of course, I'm not going to get in the habit of reading from it, but at least I won't pathologically hate anyone I see using one anymore. Plus, I get that it can be handy when travelling, rather than lugging around a backpack full of hardcovers plus an extra suitcase for the ones that don't fit in the backpack.

A piece of fancy plastic or metal and glass won't ever replace the tactile warmth of paper and board, but it has its place. Let's just hope those e-book outlets don't keep using it as an excuse to bend authors over barrels.

My Inner Dan Brown...

on Saturday, July 17, 2010
Get out your chequebooks folks. Apparently I write like Dan Brown. Or at least that's what the writing analysis website I Write Like (iwl.me) seems to think. As if there weren't enough ways to waste your time on the internet (reading blogs, for instance) there is now even something to amuse the technophobic literary wannabes like myself. All you have to do is paste in a chunk of your writing, click the button and presto - your literary twin is revealed. Based on an algorithm I could not possibly begin to understand (sounds too much like maths for my poor brain), the site claims to "analyze (sic) your word choice and writing style and compare them with those of the famous writers". Leaving aside the fact that analysing the webmaster's writing would reveal a syphilitic monkey as their twin, the site rates pretty highly on my schtick meter.

Don't get too carried away though. Analyse too many chunks and you might be in for a rude shock. Rather than paste in any selections of my real writing, I just chose random bits from this blog. Initially I was compared to Kurt Vonnegut. Score! Next up was H. P. Lovecraft. Sure, I get how reading this crap could induce nightmares. Third time it was Vladimir Nobokov (I really should have hung up my hat and rested on my laurels at this point). But then I had to go and blow it all. Dan Kill-Me-Now Brown.

This revelation has, of course, led to something of an existential crisis for me. I am at a loss to explain why my blog doesn't get Brown-like numbers, or why they have yet to make a film of Bait For Bookworms. Is Tom Hanks too good to play me? In a last ditch effort to save face, I just copied and pasted the two paragraphs above into the analysis box and... presto! Back to Kurt Vonnegut. I think if I can manage to go full circle without ever having been accused of writing like Stephenie Meyer there is still hope. Crisis averted.

A Fine Vintage: JR by William Gaddis

on Friday, July 16, 2010
I struggle to understand the American literary world at the best of times, but their idiocy seems to have reached a peak in 1976. Just when I thought Bellow's twin accolades verged on the ridiculous I had another think coming with this monstrously weighty tome. In JR, William Gaddis elevated verbal diarrhoea to the level of art. Mind numbing, self-indulgent art. Yep, Gaddis splattered his inky guts on the faces of the gullible American literati and not only got away with it but was given the National Book Award for his efforts. The guff on the back calls JR 'the American Ulysses', but frankly this impenetrable stream of verbiage makes Joyce's masterpiece look like... well... a walk around the block.

One hundred pages in I had no idea what was going on. Something about a wannabe writer. Two hundred pages later, I still had no idea. Something about some dodgy corporate stock dealings. At page five hundred I began to suspect the book was one big practical joke because, you guessed it, I still didn't have the slightest clue what was happening. Oh, right, there was some massive conglomerate flogging ridiculous concepts and products like ads for pharmaceutical companies in kids' school books or funeral plan booths at nursing homes. Tres droll.

Scanning the back cover I was told that this great tour de fraud is about an eleven year old kid who single handedly skewers the American dream. Sure, but I didn't really see that in the book itself. Seven hundred and twenty one pages of almost unbroken dialogue and I never really got a feel for what this thing was about. And before you say I just didn't get it, I did. I'm just calling shenanigans on it. There is nothing heretical in suggesting that people in 1976 either could not see past their LSD-induced hazes or were too scared to admit this was a monkey puking on a typewriter. It wasn't all for nought, though. As I waded ever deeper into this swamp of white noise I realised its only purpose, insofar as I was concerned, was practising my speed reading skills. I hit one hundred and forty pages an hour, a personal best by some thirty odd pages. Go me.

A Fine Vintage: Saville by David Storey

on Thursday, July 15, 2010
For the past seven or so years I have made a habit of reading the entire Booker Prize long list. Before that, since about 1998, I limited myself to as much of the shortlist as possible and, if I hadn't already read it come announcement time, the winner. Occasionally I will go so far as to place a little wager on the outcome although I have yet to hit paydirt (thanks a lot Anne Enright). Point is, I know my Booker Prize. Indeed, I often suffer for the Booker Prize. And yet when I got to compiling my list for this month's challenge, I was a little surprised to find that I'd never heard of the 1976 winner, Saville by David Storey. It has long been out of print, and probably only saw the light of day again thanks to the strange Booker renaissance brought about by the prize's 40th anniversary last year. I therefore didn't have to search for it on Abebooks as I expected I would, but rather was able to waltz into Waterstones in Piccadilly and grab a fresh new copy. It was big. And grey. Not a promising start. From the blurb I gathered it was a working class epic of the wholly British variety. Oy vey. Well, a promise is a promise, even when made to oneself and so I reluctantly sat myself down and started to read.

Now those who know me would agree that I very rarely admit that I'm wrong, but when it comes to this book I was wrong. Spectacularly so. The Booker panels have made many a crap call over the years but this certainly was not one of them. The story of Colin Saville, the son of a coal miner who struggles to rise above his class disadvantage is one of the best books I've read in the last few years. Its emotional power is staggering, yet it never goes for the easy tug on the heartstring. Storey manages to weave the tale with an air of quiet dignity, which washes over and gives a kind grace to the book despite the mounting injustices visited upon young Colin. From his parents' touching attempts to maintain their pride and instil in their son a sense of worth to Colin's own can-do optimism in the face of many a slap in the face (mostly dished out unwittingly by the well-to-do Nigel Stafford who is Colin's friend and means him no harm), Saville quite simply made me feel good about the world. Storey, who was also a celebrated playwright, had a seductively simple style - a poet of the everyday writing a story of the everyman - and in Colin Saville found the perfect vehicle to get across a message of basic, yet universal, humaneness. Put simply, Saville is Dickens for the post-War slump.

Although it slightly grosses me out to think of it, I am glad my parents thought the Autumn of 1975 was a good time to get frisky, if only so thirty four years later I could be directed to reading a true forgotten classic that I would otherwise never have discovered. Please, I implore you to find and read this book.

A Fine Vintage: Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow

on Wednesday, July 14, 2010
Saul Bellow... Nobel laureate. Prose stylist extraordinaire. Dapper literary scenester. Hoarder of awards. And, yep I'm gonna call it, massive fraud! Look, sorry, I have tried to like him. I want to like him. I have read a fair few of his books - Dangling Man, The Victim, Ravelstein, Herzog, The Actual, Seize The Day. And yet, every time I go there I find myself bored senseless. Sure, the writing is always impeccable. His sentences stun me. But brush aside the smoke and mirrors and there isn't a great deal to be found. Just my luck, then, that 1976 was Bellow's year. He won both the Nobel and Pulitzer. If my birth was a big practical joke on the world, then Bellow's accolades that year were a big practical joke on me because, all these years later, I find myself forced to revisit this shyster one more excruciating time thanks to my penchant for self-indulgence. A Fine Vintage indeed... At least the book in question was his supposed comic masterpiece Humboldt's Gift. I was hesitantly excited, though I should have realised I would be in for more of the same given that the hagiographic introduction was penned by Martin Amis, the great master of disappearing up his own arse. To be fair Humboldt's Gift started off well enough. The tale of a successful writer's tumultuous relationship with his far less successful hero, the book had me laughing out loud a few times early on. But then, slowly, the good ol' Bellow I know and don't love worked his way back up through the wisecracks and I began to wish one of the smart-talkin' mafioso types who kept hijacking Charlie Citrine's life would step out of the book and shoot me. At least, for once in a Saul Bellow novel, a lot happens but the greater message is overshadowed by the far-too-present ghost of its author. I know it is supposed to be loosely autobiographical but I just wish Bellow could have set his characters free. Even just a little bit. But no, he had to go postal with his heavy-handed, mundane-malletted sledgehammer. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the misanthropy. I enjoyed the bumbling rollercoaster that is Charlie Citrine's personal life. I just don't enjoy Saul Bellow. Go on, crucify me! Bah, Humboldt!

The July Challenge: A Fine Vintage...

on Saturday, July 3, 2010
Thus far, Bait For Bookworms has served as a catalog of my literary indulgences. Sure, I've spent a fair amount of time debasing myself for your entertainment but, at the end of a day it is a blog and, as such, by definition a forum for wanky pontification. This month will be no different, as I raise a cloth-bound glass to the year of my birth. I like to think 1976 was a pretty special year. The Ramones released their first album, setting in motion a movement that would ultimately see me running around the world screaming at people in funny languages while smearing myself with hummus. The first Concorde took flight (which, for me, is interesting because I was on the one before the one that crashed, thus ending the supersonic jet's commercial life... The crash, I mean, not me...). Emma "Baby Spice" Bunton, who once tried to hit on me at Wimbledon (long story, I didn't realise until my brother pointed it out to me that night, so nothing came of it) was born three days before me. Son of Sam David Berkowitz started his murder spree. Of course, there was the great Entebbe plane hijacking which would end up giving Chuck Norris a special place in my heart. And East Timor was annexed and proclaimed a province of Indonesia (something I would play a tiny part in reversing many years later when I would camp out in front of the Indonesian Embassy as part of the Timorese Independence movement). Oh, and some asshole shot Bob Marley and, ironically, his deputy (well, his manager).

1976 was also a pretty good year in books. The great (though for me terminally boring) Saul Bellow won both the Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes, the latter for Humboldt's Gift. William Gaddis won the National Book Award for his 'great American novel' JR. David Storey won the Booker for Saville. And it was the year in which some of the great novels that have left indelible marks on our collective cultural consciousnesses first made their appearance - Roots by Alex Haley, Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig and The Boys From Brazil by Ira Levin. Oddly, I have read none of these books. Given how self-centred I am, I figure it's high time I rectified that. So here's to my arrogance, both literary and general. As my people are wont to say, til 2096!