You are currently browsing the monthly archive for April 2008.
20. Watership Down by Richard Adams (1972) 478 p.
I don’t know why it took me so long to get through this one, because it wasn’t bad. Maybe I’ve just been busier than usual lately.
I’ve known about Watership Down for a while – it tends to get mentioned a lot in other popular culture, like Lost and The Stand – so it was expecting it to be pretty good. It tells the tale of a group of rabbits fleeing the destruction of their home warren and attempting to start over somewhere else, on the titular Watership Down. Rabbit culture is intensely developed throughout the book; they have their own language, stories, poetry and legends. Adams builds up enough of a vocabulary that in the final chapters, when one rabbit says “Silflay hraka, u embleer rah,” the astute reader knows exactly what it means. There are several intervals at which the rabbits tell each other tales of El-ahrairah, a rabbit folk hero, which was interesting at first but later grew annoying as it interrupted the flow of the story.
By far the best part of the book was early on, when the fleeing rabbits, exhausted and hungry, limp into a warren of strangers. These rabbits are healthy and well-fed, and there is no scent of predators around, yet they have a sad quality to them, “like trees in November.” The gradual sense of eerie foreboding that builds up to the revelation of the truth was brilliantly executed.
The rest of the book is mostly good, but not great, a fairly generic adventure story. I’m sure the idea of using animals as characters was pretty fresh at the time, but I grew up in the 90’s with Redwall and The Animals of Farthing Wood, so it’s not quite as exciting for me. Actually, come to think of it, Peter Rabbit and the Wind in the Willows probably beat Adams to the punch anyway.
Overall, thumbs up, but not quite living up to the legendary reputation I’d built up for it in my own mind.
Watership Down at The Book Depository
I have to give a 10 minute presentation in less than forty-eight hours about “story structure, and what some long fiction writers think about when planning a work and making of decisions about form, plot and structure.”
I’ve managed to get about 30 seconds of material out of Stephen King’s ubiquitous seed metaphor that he tells to every passerby, but tracking down the opinions of other published authors on the specific matter of “story structure” is proving difficult. If you happen to know what any other authors think about the subject, be a dear and leave me a comment.
Yay! Lost is back!
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
– Holy motherfuck, they totally shot Alex dead
– Ben waking up in the desert was one of the coolest scenes in the show’s history
– Ben opening up a can of whoopass on the two Bedouin, both of whom could probably take a shit that would weigh more than him, was also way cool
– Generally speaking, Ben is a great character and Michael Emerson is a great actor, this show would be nowhere near as good as it is without him
– It was nice to see some background extras in Locketonia; shame they got brutally gunned down seconds later
– I demand to know whether Danielle and Carl are dead or not
– The dramatic music leading up to Daniel admitting the freighters weren’t there to rescue them was hilarious, because WE ALREADY KNEW THAT DIPSHITS
– Widmore puzzlingly had an Australian accent in the final scene (which was also way awesome)
– Are the freighters lying about Ray? Or does the time difference mean that on the ship, he really is fine?
Overall this was a pretty solid return that advanced the story more than the usual episode. I’m as happy as a clam.
The next episode of Lost’s fourth season, which was unexplainably put on hold halfway through, is less than a week away. Americans have already seen it, of course, but if anybody posts spoilers I swear to God I will hunt them down and murder their fucking family.
(Oh, by the by, this tiny post will probably contain a few spoilers of its own, so if you’ve never watched Lost, go rent all the seasons from your local video store, watch them, then come back and read this, completing the purpose God put you on this Earth for.)
I’m not sure how much I like this season so far. I think every season of Lost has improved on the last, and the third confirmed my suspicion that it was definitely the best show on TV. One of the greatest shows of all time, in fact: ambitious, thematic, suspenseful, and beautifully realised. I’m aware that there are probably non-comedic* TV shows that are objectively better; 24 comes to mind, at least up until the narrative trainwreck that was Day 6. But Lost is so perfectly aimed at viewers like myself – inquisitive people who love stories that try something original, who love speculating about things and coming up with their own theories – that it well and firmly takes the prize as my favourite dramatic show ever. I feel sorry for the impatient, unimaginative people who have given up on Lost.
(*The Simpsons, of course, has been such an integral part of my entire life that it is impossible to compare it to anything else.)
About the only thing I dislike about the fourth season so far is the sidelining of the Others in favour of the Freighters, carrying on a theme from the third season in which the Others lost much of the initial mystery about them, which was what made them such effective antagonists in the first place. They’ve transformed from a supernatural menace (whispers in the jungle, muddy bare feet, leaving no tracks) to a group of people who are just normal humans, merely part of some larger worldwide organisation with an unrevealed purpose and a lot of resources behind it. Season 3 occasionally reminded us of their bizarre nature, with glimpses of things like Room 23, Colleen’s weird funeral, Jacob, and the disturbing conversion of Cindy and the kids. (For my money, the best moment of the season, and perhaps the show, was the ending of “Par Avion.”) But while the Others may have lost some of their sparkle, they are still far more intriguing than the Freighters, who are regular people from the outside world and therefore somewhat mundane.
Still, I’m quite happy to see the return of Lost, in the way that only an irredeemable nerd can be. In fact I’m going to isoHunt right now.
P.S. The next lazy writer who makes a HILARIOUS crack about “the viewers are Lost too!!!!1” should be immediately stripped of their rights as a human being and handcuffed to the blades of a combine harvester.
Something about Anzac Day rubs me the wrong way, and I’m not sure what it is. A niggling voice tells me to just shut up, respect my elders and join in the jingo-fest, but as usual I’m going to poke the bear.
I think the fundamental problem I have is that Anzac Day places Gallipoli combatants on a higher level than the rest of our veterans. What, precisely, was so great about the ANZACs? Contrary to popular belief, it was not the first time Australians went to war. We served in the Boer War, the Sudan and the Boxer Rebellion, not to mention dispatching our scant military to help the Kiwis wipe out the Maoris (I guess we had some spare time after wreaking genocide on our own indigenous population). Even if it were, there is no glory in “baptism by fire.” What exactly is so honourable and noble about signing your life away to defend the interests of the British Empire, which proceeded to literally treat you like cannon fodder?
There is a lot of talk about how the ANZACs “defended our freedom.” Rubbish. No Australian freedom was being threatened on the beaches of Turkey and we all know it. If you want to talk about defending the freedom of the Europeans – defending the French and Belgians against the German war machine – that’s another matter entirely. And the Gallipoli assault was part of a larger campaign to stop that. But I just find it very hard to equate the nobility and honour of saving the innocent with the sheer dumbfuck battle tactics on display at Gallipoli, especially when it gets warped and twisted into some kind of ideal Australian value, soaked in blood. Nor when it is abused and exploited by politicians to justify our modern day wars, our blind support of the United States, our contribution to ill-planned and destructive invasions.
There’s just a bad taste to it. A subtle glorification of war. Every Australian seems to be lock-step in worshipping a generation of young men who were unfortunate enough to be brought up with an ideology where fighting in a war was still considered awesome, yet juuuuust after the mounted machinegun was widely implemented. They threw their lives away for nothing and our country applauds them for it. That’s not courageous. It’s tragic and foolish. The ANZACs made no sacrifice towards us and we owe them no debt. Perhaps the descendants of the villagers around Ypres and the Somme do, but the time of Australians would be better spent focusing on the soldiers of the Kokoda Trail and the sailors of the Coral Sea.
Ultimately, World War I is a damned stupid thing to revolve our national ideology around. It was a global tragedy caused by outdated modes of thinking and macho bullshit, taking tens of thousands of Australian lives for no purpose other than obeying the British Empire in their deep involvement in the fucked-up web of European political alliances. It was not noble, it was not honourable, and it most definitely was not Australian.
A final note: at my work, Australian flags have been hung up on all the windows. (Interestingly, this was not done for Australia Day). I rhetorically asked why we weren’t hanging up the New Zealand flag as well, and met with some blank stares.
As Chris pointed out, I was stunningly negative in my last post, especially considering that I was talking about a location that I travel to for at least two weeks a year and spend the rest of the year thinking about. I feel I have done it a great disservice.
So I’m going to tell you about my happy place.
Stockton Lake is an institution of my childhood. I have been camping there, along with an assorted oddball crew of friends, family and relatives, for literally as long as I can remember. It was there that I had my first kiss, learned to ride a motorbike, and overcame my fear of water – which, for an Aussie, was truly crippling.
Several kilometres outside the coal-mining town of Collie, deep in the verdant forests of Australia’s quiet south-west corner, Stockton began life as an open-cut mine in the 1960s. After pillaging the landscape as much as they deemed economic, the local companies shut down the mine, and some benevolent power – public or private, I don’t know – had it filled in with water to serve as fifteen hectares of aquatic playground. Although the trees have long since grown back, the marks of the mining era are still visible: black coal strewn across the shoreline, steep cliffs surrounding most of the edge, and a nearby slagheap (dubbed “Quartz Mountain” in antiquity, and seeming to grow smaller with every passing year) peeking over the treetops to the south. Signs warn that we shouldn’t go in the water for too long, since “due to previous mining activity Stockton Lake is highly acidic”, and the university academics concur, but we spend the fortnight in bathers and wetsuits and have noticed no ill effects yet. My uncles Lindsay and Tony, old Stockton hands who have marked their territory here since the early ’80s, once scuba dived to the lake bottom. At least sixty metres, straight down, into a dim world of knee-deep silt and rusting bulldozers. The place is popular among locals, other campers from towns in the south-west, and the nearby “city” (snort of laughter) of Bunbury, but as far as we know we are the only regular Perthites.
We are a jumble of friends and family, a collection of tribes and clans with old bonds of friendship, who together make an annual pilgrimage to a dusty grey campsite next to an unremarkable lake. The Hills have always been the backbone of the community; Lindsay, his devoted wife Liz, and their three children Terri-Ann, Michael and Dennis. I recall one distant trip, when I would have been about eleven or twelve, when the Hills were called back into the city for a family emergency, leaving the rest of us rudderless, lonely and depressed for the final week of the trip. As a child that was unimaginable, and terrible. Now it seems to happen every year; Terri has left university, and rarely comes anymore; Michael, too, is moving on in the world, with work and travel commitments. Other families are also important – the Robbins, the Muirs, the Gullottis, the Schneiders – but as time has gone by, people have faded away, and sometimes entire surnames have disappeared altogether. My own family, the Edgeworths, has begun to rise as the largest clan following the recession of the Hills. My father, my sister, myself and my close friend Chris, who was absorbed into my family not only in Collie but practically in Perth as well. With the various friends my sister hauls down added to the mix, along with my father’s new girlfriend, our sheer size means we shall soon reign as the new god-emperors of this tiny patch of land.
Traditionally we all go down in January, about a week after New Year’s, taking the south-west highway out of Perth, a three hour drive through Pinjarra and Mundijong and dozens of other tiny towns with unpronounceable Aboriginal names. We roll into that muddy grey clearing with grins on our faces and happiness in our hearts. This is our annual respite from the real world: sixteen days of camping.
The lake is the drawcard. Originally only the Hills had a speedboat, an orange 1970s model that we spent many happy hours being towed behind, endless counter-clockwise circuits, listening to rock bands older than the lake itself rattle from the tinny speakers. When I say we, I mean the other kids; my aforementioned fear of water meant that I didn’t even dare try anything until I was thirteen or fourteen years old. As a result I was usually asked to be the obby, sitting at Lindsay’s right hand and watching the other kids get thrown around in the biscuits with riotous screams of laughter, trained to immediately bark out a name if somebody fell off, so the boat could whip around and retrieve them. After the ride, we would all gather round the campfire for warmth, me fully clothed, them dripping wet and wrapped in towels, talking excitedly about all the fun they’d just had. As one might imagine, this eventually spawned a feeling of exclusion inside me, and I was forced to overcome my fears and join them. It was probably one of the best decisions I ever made.
The water is, in the high-thirties heat of an inland summer, blissful. Combined with the sheer fun of being dragged around at high speed on an inflatable tube, or plastic kneeboard, or wooden disc, or whatever you could really think of, it becomes paradise. My father bought a speedboat of his own several years ago, a slick 90s model with dazzling paint and an inboard motor. Subconsciously I interpreted it as another challenge to the throne; though I really should note that I do so for my own entertainment, and no such rivalry actually exists. The greatest thing about it was the fact that an inboard motor’s wake leaves a much higher ridge for jumping.
Experiments with jumping on biscuits dates back to 2004. The boat throttles along the water in a snake-like pattern, constantly dragging the riders back and forth across the wake. As you approach the wake, you simply hunker down on all fours, grab the handles and jump. Once the technique is perfected, impressive amounts of altitude can be reached. In the years since we learned this, we have mastered not only the jump, but the jump-entirely-over-another-person, the barrel-roll, and the barrel-roll-over-another-person. Exhaustive searches of Google and Flickr leave me convinced that we are the only people in the world who do this. In photographic terms, I could easily fill an entire album with images that make me sneer at other people’s wretched attempts to have fun on a biscuit/donut/tube, and have therefore done so.
But biscuits are not the only thing we spend time on behind the boat. There are other ridiculous inflatable devices…
…good old traditional kneeboards…
…wooden discs, which float against all expectations…
…and skis, which I personally find to be quite dull.
On particularly hot days a few of us will take the windsurfer board out, minus the sail, and paddle to the white cliffs on the other side of the lake. There’s a spot where erosion and water run-off have formed gullies leading up to the clifftops, so one can climb up and promptly jump back in again, from a variety of heights. Occasionally the rest of the camp will see what we’re doing, pile into the speedboats, and roar across the water to join us. Liz and Kerryn, ever mindful of posterity, take photographs while we jump and dive and backflip into the void.
But the lake is not all there is to Stockton. Although the practice has waned as we have grown and matured, in years long gone we would spend hours out in the bush. We would cross Quartz Mountain, ford mosquito-infested wetlands, discover stagnant lakes and build forts out of branches, paperbark, stones, and tyres filched from the motocross track that borders the western edge of the lake. Wars would be fought between the children of rival clans; the conflict between the Schneider-Muir Pact and the Edgeworth-Hill-Robbins alliance was particularly fierce around the turn of the century, with the battle lines sometimes splitting families in two, brother against sister. Territories would be claimed, and when the unseasonal rainstorm would keep us confined to our tents, we would draw maps and form battle plans.
Traditionally, caravans were the favoured form of shelter for the elders of the family, with the children relegated to dome tents that clustered around the main camp like the distant suburbs of a city. In past years this has been replaced by a trend of camper vans, half-tent, half-caravan, dilettantes who cannot decide what they are. Not for my gruff, ambitious father. He bought an old bus second-hand from a Muslim girl’s school, painted it, touched it up, ripped the seats out and replaced them with beds and cabinets. A vehicle and a home in one – ingeniously groundbreaking! Just inside the sliding door, under the shade of the passenger seat, a mound of keys and wallets and phones and sunglasses accumulates with every passing day, blocking out a faded sticker detailing safety instructions in curly Arabic. Dad barks at us for going inside it to get changed with damp wetsuits, leaving footprints on the linoleum floor, but never takes any firmer action to stop us.
Deep in the bush is Devil’s Gate, an old stone archway leading into a mine that has long since collapsed. One year we arrived to find that it had been painted white and retouched by the local council, who obviously do not understand the allure of a ruin. Our response was to sling mud all over it.
Graduating from the pre-teen school of child warfare came the era of off-road vehicles, which dominated the middle years of the decade. The Hills had always had a tiny Honda Zed, but when they bought an XR-80, things snowballed. The Gullottis purchased a dirtbike, as did the Robbins, and my father made do with a dune buggy called a Honda Odyssey, which in retrospect was adorably insufficient. Nobody except the fathers had the strength to pull the Odyssey’s ripcord to start it, and so we were confined to the dusty grey area around camp, for if we ventured too far and the engine cut out we’d have a long, embarrassing hike back. We were quite happy with that, driving back and forth, doing doughnuts and kicking up dust, until eventually the Odyssey’s engine troubles overcame it and it finally died (though not before Chris had a chance to plough it at seventy k’s an hour into a tree on an unrelated trip up north, with a crack that sounded like a gunshot). As a replacement, Dad bought a quadbike, which was cherished.
The dirtbikes ushered in a new era of exploration. Like the Iberian sailors of the 15th century, new technologies opened up new vistas of discovery for us. No longer confined to our feet or our rusty pushbikes, we were free to travel as far and as fast as we could, ranging from the distant bush trails and sinkholes beyond Devil’s Gate to the edges of the railroad track on the other side of the lake. A new tradition was formed – whenever we heard or saw a train approaching, we’d drop whatever we were doing, scramble to our motorbikes, fire up the engines and race around the eastern edge (gravel roads, bridges, gullies) to the train tracks, where an ugly yellow locomotive would be hauling thirty carriages laden with coal. We’d ride alongside it for a few minutes, signalling for the driver to honk his horn, before eventually giving up chase as the train entered mining land with an ominous NO TRESPASSING sign. These were happy years, but unfortunately they came to an end when the local branch of the Department of Conservation and Land Management employed a particularly uptight ranger who stuck firmly to the rules about offroad vehicles on CALM land (i.e. they are not allowed). Curiously, this only applied to us, and not to the local hooligans who’d roar up and down the nearby road on four-wheelers every night at 3 AM. We shall forever curse the name of Bev Gardner.
Other locations are scattered round the edges of the map, each one a firm fingerprint in my mind – sights, sounds, smells and memories associated with it. The Zip is an old chalk quarry with a pond in one corner where we used to delight in splashing through the reeds and catching frogs. The pine plantation is an eerily quiet forest Chris and I discovered in ’02, where we would walk around regaling each other with spooky tales of Mothman, the Bloop and the Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter. The water pipeline is a long, concrete line running straight as an arrow, and down over the hills, which once sprang a violent leak that we happily poured detergent into in order to have a bubble fight. The sandpit is a bare expanse of dirt and dead trees where we used to take our bikes and the quad; now it is the windswept domain of Chris’ four-wheel drive alone, with an old couch in a rusted silo that is perfect for photo ops.
There was once a pine tree on the edge of the cliffs that leaned out at a steep angle, one of those ubiquitous examples of how stubborn the plant kingdom can be. I would climb up it despite the protests of my sister and girlfriend, shaking the branches around and watching pine needles tumble down into the water, confident that it was completely secure. After all, it had been there for as long as I could remember, and if it could hold on for that long it wasn’t going anywhere soon. In 2008 we found it at the bottom of the cliff edge, a dead brown colour, rotting to nothing in the water.
People have gone too, over the years. Our friend Leigh slipped away as gradually as he did in Perth. The Gullottis rarely make an appearance anymore; Tony and his son Brett are the only really committed ones. The Muirs disappeared entirely. There are few permanent newcomers. But the old guard are still faithful, still determined to keep coming with every passing year.
And so that is Stockton. We get away for long weekends whenever we can, but the true beacon of hope is the two weeks every year in January. Two weeks of jumping and barrel rolling biscuits, being flung headfirst into the water as soon as you strike a bad ripple or lean too far to one side. Two weeks of lying in the sunlit hammock reading; I have a tendency to flick through the latest Terry Pratchett I am obligated to receive for Christmas, while Dennis Hill will devour entire fantasy cycles. Two weeks of playing chess on Dad’s old magnetic set he got for five bucks at a pawnbroker, eating lunch with the other hand, Chris inexplicably kicking my ass every game without fail. Two weeks of Liz and Kerryn and Sheryl cooking up a roast dinner for the entire camp, burying their cast-iron cooking pots in the embers of the campfire, and lining up the plastic tables in a row so that we feel as though we’re in a medieval feasting hall. Two weeks of watching Dad set up fireworks by the water’s edge, lighting the fuse with his cigarette and then turning to run, a comical figure with a beer in one hand, his thongs flapping and scraping while the sky blossoms green and red. Two weeks of driving out into the bush to collect logs for firewood, with the kids (yet we are now eighteen, nineteen, twenty) riding on the boat trailer as tradition demands, screeching as Lindsay takes the car right through a puddle and splashes us with mud. Two weeks of standing around camp during the gaps between boat activity, with our wetsuits peeled down to our waists, reading the paper or cooking lunch or discussing the year to come. Two weeks of lying on our backs at night and spotting as many satellites drifting overhead as we can, easy to see in the sky so clear and sharp compared to the light-polluted air above Perth. Two weeks of taking the entire population of the camp on four-wheel drive trips out to the nearby mine, marvelling at the torn-up expanses of yellow and brown earth, at the trucks so large they have staircases up the grille. Two weeks of riding my bike around to the concrete toilet block on the east side of the lake, then emerging to find that Michael and Brett have inflicted some hilarious practical joke on it – covering the seat with detergent, removing the front wheel and taking it back to camp, or (impressively) placing it upside down on the roof of the toilets. Two weeks of reading in our tents by torchlight until well after midnight, sleeping in as late as we please in the morning. Two weeks of bacon and eggs sizzling on the barbecue for breakfast, and Subway or Chinese food from Collie when we can’t be bothered cooking dinner. Two weeks in a place that would seem odious to most, but is heaven to us. Two weeks of perfection.
Went camping over the weekend. Cold and rainy, excessively so, even for autumn. Spent most of time feeding damp wood and wet leaves into a smoky campfire. Tent now drying in sunlight on side gate.
19. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986) 416 p.
I didn’t intend to include a graphic novel (read: comic book) on my list of 50 books, because it’s not really my kind of thing, but Watchmen is no ordinary comic book. It is widely regarded as a masterpiece, hands-down the most critically acclaimed comic book ever made, and was listed on Time Magazine’s 100 greatest novels since 1923.
Watchmen is set in New York City in the 1980s of an alternate world, in which masked “superheroes” are real and have altered society and politics in some very thought-provoking ways. It follows the trials of a group of mostly-retired superheroes who are drawn back into a noirish world of crime, conspiracy and danger after the murder of one of their former colleagues.
Like all good storytellers, Moore and Gibbons do not spoonfeed the reader. Many small details about this intriguing world are minor images hidden in the background. In the first chapter alone, the astute reader will note that Vietnam has become the 51st state, Richard Nixon is still the President, the USA is building missile silos on the moon and the doomsday clock (a recurring motif in a book overflowing with them) stands at five minutes to midnight.
Watchmen is about superheroes in the same way that No Country For Old Men is about cops and drug dealers. It deconstructs one of the most iconic images of America, developing flawed heroes with complex psychological profiles. All but one lack superpowers, they all have deep problems, and some have nagging doubts about the ultimate purpose of fighting petty crime in a world threatened by nuclear annihilation.
This is the overall vibe emanated by Watchmen, a Cold War text down to its very bones. I’ve always found superheroes to be a laughable, childish, outdated element of pop culture, but Watchmen treats them realistically and examines the effects they would have on society: the police strikes, the swaying public opinion, the inculpability of vigilantes and the aforementioned failure to address society’s real problems. Early in the novel, in a flashback to the 1960s, we see a USMC-lieutenant turned crimefighter discussing the problems America faces, among which he includes “student protests” and “black unrest.” The very awesome character Rorschach, dressed in 1920s tweed pants and overcoat, executes both a serial rapist and the average mugger without remorse, while his diary reveals the workings of a disturbingly warped mind. A major character who is employed by the government and held in high regard by the people of America also has a history of sexual assault. The world of Watchmen is like our own: everything is uncertain and relative, and morality is hard to pin down.
Flipping through it at the bookstore, I found Dave Gibbons’ artwork to be relatively bland and generic, the typical American comic book style familiar even to someone who never reads comic books. When I started actually reading it, I discovered that there were much deeper layers to it than I thought. Apart from the minor details found in every frame, the way the frames themselves move is beautiful, resembling film techniques in the way they segue into a flashback, create ironic contrasts or suggest deeper symbolism to images in nearly every panel. I did not even realise until after finishing it that the chapter entitled “Fearful Symmetry” is itself perfectly symmetrical through its dark and light coloured panels. Just as the story redefines the traditions of the comic book narrative, the artwork redefines the traditions of comic book illustration, with a particularly welcome relief from motion lines and transcribed sound effects. (I would have loved to link to a YouTube video of the Simpsons episode featuring a campy Radioactive Man beating villains up to colourful splashes of “SNUH,” “BORT” and “MINT,” but the Fox Corporation is excessively rabid about its copyright. The fuckers.)
The ending – which is foreshadowed like crazy, and which I was sure I had predicted – was both what I expected, and completely not what I expected. I like that.
Anyway, I could talk forever about this awesome story, but it’s difficult to do so without giving away a lot of plot details. Suffice to say that it’s a richly thematic masterpiece of symbolism, philosophy and humanity, with beautiful artwork, a great story and deeply memorable characters. It’s the best book I’ve read this year (granted, it had the unfair advantage of pictures) and the pinnacle of 20th century comics. It can be bought from the Book Depository for just over 20 bucks. Buy it.
It’s no secret that Westeners are, deep down inside, frightened of China. We see them as a foreign, devilish empire that expands physically, industrially and technologically with every passing year, and will one day – perhaps after a second Cold War – eclipse us as the most important and powerful part of the world. China is a seething, faceless mass of humanity that gives us the willies, and we prefer not to think about it.
Given this rather awkward situation, what do the Chinese do when the Olympics rolls up to Beijing, and all of a sudden we need to think about them? How do they ease our fears?
Smiling, friendly, laughing, delightful, loveable Jackie Chan. A man who has been on our movie screens and television sets for twenty-five years, enshrining a place in our hearts as firmly as Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson. It’s a masterful stroke of PR, and if there’s any justice in the world it will go down in history. I tip my hat to you, China. And Visa I guess. Well, whoever came up with it.
18. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (2002) 328 p.
One day something terrible is going to happen to me, when somebody that I deeply love dies. It will happen to everyone. It’s something that we deal with when we come to it, that we pray will happen at the end of a long and happy life, and that we would prefer not to think about.
The Lovely Bones tells the story of Susie Salmon, a 14-year old Pennsylvania girl who is brutally raped, murdered and dismembered by the neighbourhood pedophile in the first chapter of the book. She narrates the next ten years of her family’s life from her quiet, secular heaven, examining the effects of her murder on her family and friends.
Despite the narratorial gimmick, this is hardcore realist fiction, with some very poignant moments of horror and grief. The book is at its strongest in the early chapters, in the days immediately following Susie’s murder, as her family goes through the unimaginable trauma of knowing, deep down inside, that their daughter is dead – and yet not even having a body for closure (incidentally, this led me to make an early assumption about the book’s title which was later proven completely wrong). The tragedy strips her family members down to their bare selves, revealing their true characters. Her father is a strong person. Her mother is a weak person. The detective investigating her death hovers somewhere in between. One cannot help but imagine their own loved ones murdered, disappearing without a trace and leaving behind only blood and a grisly body part, and one cannot help but imagine how they would react in a similar situation. That is the time-honoured hook of a story about a believable tragedy.
But this cannot sustain the story for 300 pages, and the book decreases in quality as it progresses. I read the entire second half in a single day, but this was mostly because it was so bleak and depressing and I wanted it over and done with (also partly because I am very much anticipating the next book on my reading list). Being depressing doesn’t neccesarily make a book bad – indeed, it can sometimes make it truly excellent – but it is never going to be an enjoyable read. The final chapters of the book deepen the slippery slide, with a completely left-field, mystical experience, and an unsatisfying conclusion regarding Susie’s murderer, whom she watches as closely from heaven as she does her own family members. It felt as though Sebold knew exactly how she wanted to conclude the fate of the pedophile whom she has made the reader loathe so deeply, but realised that people would dislike it, and so settled for a half-and-half ending which is worse than either extreme.
And Susie’s heaven, the aspect of the book which sets it apart from others of the same genre, is frustratingly underdeveloped. It’s intriguing at first – there are suggestions of “other” heavens, hints that perhaps Susie is really in purgatory, and an overall feeling that it’s building up to something. But none of this ends up going anywhere, and the main story is grounded entirely on Earth.
Ultimately, The Lovely Bones is objectively a good book, but not my kind of story and not as good as it could have been.