You are currently browsing the monthly archive for July 2008.

Gmail is refusing to sign me in, claiming that I don’t have cookies enabled, despite the fact that I clearly do. I’m wondering if the “beta” warning that I’ve been cheerfully ignoring for the last four years has finally proved accurate, or if this is a problem on my end of the wire. Anybody else use Gmail? I don’t want to be reduced to communicating solely via myspace like some fucking deadbeat.

On a related note, iTunes is crashing before it even opens. I suspect I’ve unearthed the edge of some vaster conspiracy.

edit: OK, I figured it out. It had something to do with the fact that I’d been fucking around with my computer clock and had set the year to 2099. Jesus.

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Everybody has an age they are most comfortable in. Some people are always going act like kids, while others have maturity beyond their years.

I’m an old man, I think. Cynical, prone to complaining, reads a lot, writes letters to the paper, and enjoys trains. I’m not a fanatic or anything. I’m bewildered by the obsession some people (invariably British) have with railway gauges and such. I just really like riding on them.

some guy on flickr

The Trans-Siberian Express is the longest railway in the world, cutting across more than nine thousand kilometres of plains, taiga, farmland, mountains and rivers, a journey that takes several days and spans eight time zones. It was constructed in the 1890s as the Kremlin’s response to the bitter whining of eastern peasants about how isolated they were, and remains in operation today as one of the world’s greatest train journeys, its name second only in dashing intrigue to “the Orient Express.” My own nation’s “Indian Pacific” can’t even compete.

There are routes running into Mongolia, China and North Korea, and it’s the Mongolian one I’m interested in, since Mongolia is high on the destination list. We then have to get across to Europe/Africa somehow, and the world’s longest train journey seems the most appealing option. Moscow in itself would be a mildly interesting destination, and then it’s a much shorter flight to Paris or Istanbul or Cairo or wherever the hell we decide to go.

Apparently Russian visas are very difficult to get a hold of, more so than Chinese visas, which I found surprising. Failing a trip across the Siberian plains, I suppose we could fly straight to Nepal and then across to either Turkey or Egypt. It’ll sort itself out. Ah, daydreaming about travel and making blog posts while waiting for a goddamn phone call. What a wretched rainy afternoon this is.

32. The Torrents of Spring by Ernest Hemingway (1925) 79 p.

that was quick

Prior to this, the only piece of Hemingway’s work I’d ever read was his short story The Killers, which was pretty good. The Torrents of Spring was his first novel (or novella, since it’s only 79 pages long) and thus seemed a good place to start with the rest of his works. I have to admit I’m not quite sure what to make of it. The first half was strange and bizarre, while the second half was peppered with “author’s notes,” and I couldn’t for the life of me decide whether they were supposed to be facetious or not. The foreword indicates that this is apparently meant to be a satirical novel poking fun at somebody called Sherwood Anderson, while the Wikipedia article leads me to believe that I may have been reading the wrong book after mentioning that one of the characters takes mescaline and hallucinates that he is the President of Mexico, which never happened. Either Wikipedia is not the factual stalwart I hold it to be, or my edition of the book was published during a time of stern censorship.

Whatever. I’m sick of working my way through an endless catalogue of literature and having to judge every book based upon what everybody else thinks, usually because I end up being bored by it and feeling inadequate, as though I’ve missed something (i.e. The Sheltering Sky). Well, I like Hemingway’s writing style. It’s simple and uncluttered, which is great, even if I do personally prefer the extravagent visual descriptions from the Michael Chabon school of prose. I’m not sure if I liked The Torrents of Spring all that much, though; it’s a puzzling book, and for a good proportion of it I thought Hemingway was trying to portray one of the main characters as mildly retarded, with passages like this:

“The engineer wore goggles. His face was lit up by the light from the open door of the engine. He was the engineer.”

Turns out the character in question is actually quite an academic.

Anyway, I once again find myself beset by the feeling that the entire point of a literary classic has swooped right over my head. Still, Hemingway is clearly a gifted writer (doyyyyyy) and I’ll continue to read through his works.

Books: 32/50
Pages: 9729

31. Down Under by Bill Bryson (2000) 315 p.

STEREOTYPE STEREOTYPE STEREOTYPE

Bill Bryson is a very readable man. I read Notes From a Small Island for my first semester of Year 12 English (thank you, slipping standards of Western Australian public education) and quite enjoyed it. I also flicked through some of the early chapters of A Walk In The Woods in my university library. For somebody approaching the golden years he has a great sense of humour, and a knack for weaving random bits of fact and trivia into otherwise sequential travel narratives.

In Down Under (also published as In A Sunburnt Country) Bryson travels across a decent cross-section of Australia, taking in Sydney, Melbourne, the Queensland coast, the Northern Territory and some good chunks of WA. He is a middle-aged academic, mind you, and therefore his tours are generally geared towards the museum side of things; for example, he visits Shark Bay nor for its whale sharks or beautiful ocean or breathtaking landscape, but rather for its stromatolites, which are essentially living fossils and not exactly exhilarating. He also has a tendency to include a large amount of anectodes from motels, roadside stops and the like. While this can often be quite amusing…

“And how did you enjoy your stay, sir?” he asked smoothly.
“It was singularly execrable,” I replied.
“Oh, excellent,” he purred, taking my card.
“In fact, I would go so far as to say that the principal value of a stay in this establishment is that it is bound to make all subsequent service-related experiences seem, in comparison, refreshing.”
“Well, we hope you’ll come again.”
“I would sooner have bowel surgery in the woods with a stick.”

…it also bogs down the pacing, involving you in the tedious minutae of travel, and gives a frustrating sense of wasting time. On the same page that Bryson breathlessly tells you there’s so much to see in Australia, he complains about his inability to find a decent restaurant in a fly-speck town on the side of a highway.

Bryson is at his strongest when recounting Australian history, throwing in odd bits and pieces whenever appropriate, providing a quick guide to basic facts with plenty of wit and humour. (“Apart from founding Sydney, [Arthur Philip] had one other notable achievement. In 1814 he managed to die by falling from a wheelchair and out of an upstairs window.”) Somebody with absolutely no knowledge of Australia could read this book (and it’s an easy, entertaining read) and come away with a fairly decent understanding of Australia’s place in the world and what we are essentially like. I do enjoy reading what foreigners have to say about us, mostly because it’s always positive, and Bryson seems to have the correct impression. One of the major points he reiterates throughout the book is that Australia is curiously ignored on a global scale, of which we’re well aware, half-proud of and half-annoyed by.

Minor irritants include Bryson’s insistence on perpetuating the myth that Australia is crawling with deadly creatures, and his occassional lack of fact-checking. Well, the only thing I noticed regarding that was his Aum Shinrikyo nuke story in the early pages, in which he claims that the Japanese doomsday cult responsible for the Tokyo subway attacks also tested the world’s first non-governmental nuclear bomb in the Australian outback. This is patently untrue. I don’t know whether he just made it up or fell for a bartender’s tall tale or what, but jeez, do a little background research.

These are small annoyances, however, and on the whole I enjoyed this book quite a lot. Down Under is a reccomended read for anyone with a passing interest in learning more about my perennially overlooked nation.

Books: 31/50
Pages: 9650

Heath Ledger was from my hometown, so when he expired from TOO MUCH DRUGS back in January I was subject to a cacophony of wailing tributes and memorials about what a great guy/Australian/actor/etc he was, became extremely fed up with it, and stuck firm to my opinion that any father of a three-year old daughter who dies from a drug overdose cannot possibly be a good person.

But a went and saw the Dark Knight today and holy fucking shit. I no longer find it at all difficult to believe that playing such a demented, twisted character contributed to his death somehow. That’s the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in the can right there.

Even aside from Ledger’s performance the movie is brilliant, being not only the best superhero movie ever made but also the best movie of 2008 so far (and I saw There Will Be Blood this year). I dislike the idea of superheroes. If you grow up with them and therefore reserve a soft and tender spot of your heart for your childhood heroes, you may find it difficult to judge them without bias. They’re fundamentally silly. I’m sorry, but that’s all there is to it.

But The Dark Knight is more of an action/thriller film than a superhero movie, with scenes reminiscent of Heat or The Departed, dealing with corruption in the police force, desperate hostage scenarios, and disturbing themes. There’s some excellent cinematography, a great soundtrack… really everything a jaded cynic like myself could ask for. I was thoroughly impressed and more than a little pissed off at Ledger for getting himself killed and thus depriving us of the Joker’s presence in another Batman movie.

While on the topic of superhero films, I also learned that a trailer had been released for Watchmen. If you hadn’t heard, it’s halfway through production and slated for an ’09 release date. The word that comes to mind is “ill-advised.” Particularly when the director is Zack Snyder, whose most notable only accomplishments are Dawn of the Dead and 300.

The trailer was somewhat painful to watch, especially because it made me realise that this wouldn’t actually be a bad movie if a better director was at the helm. Watchmen does not, of course, need to be a movie – it’s a story about comic book heroes that’s successful because it’s a comic book – but it could be a damn good one if it was done properly. It’s just highly unlikely that Snyder is capable of doing that. The trailer goes to great lengths to portray the heroes as total awesome badasses when the entire point of Watchmen was that they’re not. I could use the phrase “the entire point of” to give you another dozen examples of why this movie will be an embarassment to everyone involved in its production, but I won’t, because right now I’m still riding that Dark Knight buzz.

If you haven’t already seen it go do so, and every ten minutes imagine what it would be like if they’d kept the original Batman theme.

30. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (2000) 636 p.

THE EMPIRE STATE

The second Pulitzer Prize winner I’ve read this year, the second Chabon novel, and the second story about an Eastern European immigrant coming to live in New York with his cousin, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is over 600 pages long; a daunting read. But it was brilliant enough that I breezed through it in only ten days. For most of that time, the novel was engaged in a vicious struggle with Life of Pi for the position of my second-favourite book of the year (Watchmen is unassailable). Somewhere around page 450 Life of Pi was sent down the ladder licking its wounds to sulk in third place.

As a set-up, I’m going to let the blurb speak for itself, partly because it’s one of the only blurbs I’ve ever noticed to be at least decently written.

One night in 1939, Josef Kavalier shuffles into his cousin Sam Clay’s cramped New York bedroom, his arduous, nerve-wracking escape from Prague finally achieved. So begins the friendship and partnership that will create The Escapist, a comic strip about a Nazi-busting saviour who liberates the oppressed around the world. It makes their fortune and their name but Joe can think of only one thing: how can he effect a real-life escape for his family from the tyranny of Hitler?

Mostly, however, because I hesitate to give any further description than that. This is the kind of book where you want to discover everything for yourself. Suffice to say that it is a vast epic, spanning a large amount of time with a heavily nostalgic feel for a long-vanished era, from the stately mansions and streetlamps of Prague to the steamy streets of New York City to a frigid military base in a desolate land. I’d immediately identified Chabon as a grandmaster of the English language when reading Gentlemen of the Road, and Kavalier & Clay further reinforced this belief. The sense and feeling of New York City at the brink of World War II, in a vanished era of airships and newsreels and the rise of comic books, is perfectly captured by Chabon’s vivid descriptions and elegant prose. As the duo venture through a tangled spiderweb of bildungsroman, the book leaves behind an impression in the mind of certain places, people and events that are so beautifully described they almost feel like actual memories: the fog-bound Murnau River at night, the bohemian mess of an artist’s studio in Greenwich Village, or the bold, impregnable grandeur of the mighty Empire State Building that dominates the most critical junctures of the story.

The novel jumps across space and time, written occasionally in the manner of a textbook studying the rise of the comic industry, with regular footnotes about the fate of this artifact or that character. In Chabon’s hands this technique works wonderfully, and most readers would never even notice the frequent shifts in narratorial voice, which jumps from inside a character’s mind to the voice of a comic book narrator to the notes of a scholarly researcher. Many sections, especially some of the early chapters, could stand as excellent short stories in their own right. The fourth part of the book, entitled “Radioman,” lasts only sixty odd pages and yet was one of the greatest passages of fiction I have ever read. If I can ever write something as good as that I will die a happy man.

This book succeeds on every level. Characters, plot, pacing, style, everything. It’s like the exact opposite of the last book I read. I feel like I’m not saying enough but, again, it’s better to just read it without any knowledge. By far one of the best books I’ve ever read and recommended to absolutely everyone.

Books: 30/50
Pages: 9335

I went up to the Pulp Fiction book exchange today to trade in some second-hand books, mostly old children’s series and mid-90s Stephen King, and ended up with a measly six dollars of credit to spend.  I found a vintage copy of Gulliver’s Travel’s for only six dollars, but needed something else to make up the cash percentage every book exchange requires for any trade-in. Something small, about another six dollars’ worth. I hunted up and down the shelves before stumbling upon this book, for exactly six dollars:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(wait for it)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(can you guess?)

 

 

 

 

YOU HAVE GOT TO BE SHITTING ME

 

 

God hates me.

The fact that I am happy about just buying petrol for $1.53 a litre is really depressing. I know that most of Europe is paying about $3.00 a litre, so I shouldn’t complain, but at least they have sleek, efficient public transport systems, whereas I live in a sprawling suburban city so dependent on the automobile that even Los Angeles would shudder.

And while it would be very easy to glare at the Americans for their low prices of $1.10 per litre, the Saudis are paying only 12 cents per litre.

I also noticed that the petrol station I filled up at has introduced a prepay system, the second one I’ve seen now, due to higher rates of fuel theft. Probably not long to go till crunch time now. 2012, maybe?

“We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial, about to face cold turkey. And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we’re hooked on.”
– Kurt Vonnegut, May 2004

29. The Magic Labyrinth by Philip Jose Farmer (1980) 400 p.

GOD CURSE YOU AND YOUR CHILDREN AND YOUR CHILDREN'S CHILDREN, PHILIP JOSE FARMER

I am one of those sad, sorry souls who simply has to finish what he starts. Regardless of how hard a series sucks, I must see it all the way through. If the remainder of the series is large enough to choke a hippo, I make an exception; Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Tedium series, for example, will remain half-read on my bookshelf while my corpse rots away in its cold, cold grave. But I had only one book left of Philip Jose Farmer’s staggeringly awful Riverworld series left to complete, and so I had no other option but to engage. Onward, Christian soldier.

I knew this was going to be bad. I gritted my teeth and power-read my way through it anyway. If you haven’t read my previous reviews on the series, let me summarise it for you: all of humanity is resurrected on a planet which has been terraformed to comprise of one very long river-valley, with all their needs taken care of, in ageless 25-year old bodies, with no hunger or illness or woes. The purpose of the resurrection and the identity of their benefactor/s is shrouded in mystery. While most people are content to live their lives as usual, fighting and fucking, several more curious riverdwellers take it upon themselves to find out why they have been resurrected and set off towards the head of the river, where it is rumoured the mysterious creators of the Riverworld have their base.

This is one of the most original and intriguing ideas I have read in science fiction, but Farmer takes a perverse glee in systematically destroying it. Dry characterisation, horrific pacing, over-simplification of the world itself (of course everyone would speak Esperanto!), and just plain bad writing all unite to create a four-book epic of unrelenting shit. Minor irritant: every time a character is introduced (and 95% of the time, they’re a historical figure) Farmer dumps their full biography on you whether you want to read it or not.

I will begrudgingly grant The Magic Labyrinth the concession of being slightly better than its predecessor, The Dark Design, because it at least dishes out some answers. Naturally this is done with a 50-page plot dump at the end of 350 pages of utterly useless “adventure,” with expository finesse that would make even George Lucas cringe, but it’s better than the screaming sense of frustration I felt at the end of The Dark Design.

Nonetheless, the majority of the book follows a petty, useless plot thread left over from previous novels: Mark Twain’s quest for revenge against John Lackland, attempting to chase down and kill him after John stole his fabulous riverboat. The final confrontation between the two men and their vessels is agonisingly drawn out over more than 100 pages, with pointless shock-value deaths and abysmal “action” scenes. Here is Farmer’s opinion on the best way of writing a tense, exhilarating sword fight:

They saluted and then assumed the classic epee on-guard positions, the left foot at right angles to the right foot and behind it, knees bent, the body turned sidewise to present as small a target as possible, the left arm raise with the upper arm parallel to the ground, the elbow bent so the lower arm was vertical and the hand wrist limp, the right arm lowered and the blade it held forming a straight extension of the arm. The round coquille, or bellguard, in this position, protected the forearm.

Reading that sentence was like watching somebody snap a kitten’s neck. Shit like that would have earned me a severe beating from some of my creative writing teachers.

After this EPIC BATTLE TO END ALL BATTLES, OH WHAT A MASTER OF PROSE YOU ARE MR. FARMER, things hardly improve. Farmer gets down to the business of solving the mystery of the Riverworld – y’know, the whole point of this stupid series in the first place – and applies to it his typical lack of any writing ability whatsoever, stylistic or structural. Several characters have already been killed off for no reason, and several more are killed on the journey upriver. Some simply disappear around the battle scene, their fates never resolved. The intrepid group of voyagers half-consists of entirely new characters the reader couldn’t care less about, and the remainder are so poorly defined that I often found myself with no idea who was present, and who had vanished into the ether. Farmer’s insufferable author surrogate, Peter Frigate, piped up about five chapters into the voyage and I was so surprised to see him that I flicked back to check if he had been mentioned during the exposition dump following the river battle. He hadn’t.

After all this, the voyagers reach the headwaters of the river and are treated to an excessively long-winded explanation from one of the “gods” of the Riverworld, presented with a problem I couldn’t have cared less about at this point, neatly solve it, and conclude the series with a lacklustre whimper.

Bravo.

As much as I already knew how swollen Farmer’s ego was, what with his insertion of himself into the story and bluntly obvious meta-references to how GREAT AN IDEA FOR A SCIENCE FICTION STORY THIS WOULD BE IF IT WAS REAL, EH, the opening preface to The Magic Labyrinth was something else:

The long-awaited publication of THE MAGIC LABYRINTH solves the greatest mystery in science fiction, completes a twenty-year project, and marks the triumphant conclusion to an epic quest unparalleled in literature.

Even if this is just the publisher’s marketing angle, the sheer amount of hyperbole in that sentence is enough to melt your face. That’s right, folks. The Odyssey was nothing. Shakespeare’s canon was nothing. The works of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Hemingway and all the rest were nothing. We can now confirm, with straight faces, that the entire colossal library of human literature is swept away by the OVERPOWERING BRILLIANCE THAT IS PHILIP JOSE FARMER’S RIVERWORLD SERIES, GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD

There’s actually another book after this, Gods of Riverworld, which is apparently a companion volume that is unnecessary to read. That’s as much of an excuse as I need. I’m fucking done. I’m done. I’m finished with you, Farmer. You didn’t beat me. I beat you. I finished your wretched series.

I TOLD YOU I’D FINISH YOU

I TOLD YOU I’D EAT YOU UP

Books: 29/50
Pages: 8699

Here’s a tip for the women out there. As far as I can tell, none of them are privy to this little bit of arcane law. Ready?

If you are under the age of 40, you look just as good without makeup as you do with it.

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