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With regards to The Dark Tower Volume VII:

You may be infatuated with how people in Maine pronounce words, but nobody else is. So kindly SHUT THE FUCK UP ABOUT IT.

Best regards,
A weary reader

Chris and I went to the travel medical centre on Mill Street today, since the world overseas is a seething cesspit of hideous tropical maladies. Also because I’m a total pussy who hasn’t had a single vaccination since they were mandatory in primary school, so I’m not really safe to live here in Perth either. I thought I was being so clever when I wriggled my way out of hepatitis and meningitis vaccinations in high school. Now I want to go back in time and punch that kid in the face.

In any case, the last shot I had (tetanus, 2000) left me pale and sickly for hours afterwards, and I think I threw up when I got my measles shot the previous year, so I wasn’t looking forward to getting an estimated ten or eleven vaccinations for travelling. While we were sitting in the doctor’s office discussing exactly what we’d need I started to feel increasingly queasy and had to splash some water on my face. I am a creampuff.

Getting the shots themselves wasn’t too bad, though, so I guess my body has manned up since I was 12 years old even if my mind hasn’t. Today I got a new diptheria/tetanus shot, polio, the first of my Hepatitis B shots and the first of my rabies shots (those two both require a three-week course). In the coming weeks we also need to get typhoid and yellow fever, and decide which anti-malarials we’re going to take, since each type comes with a different set of fun side effects. Diseases sure do suck, although I guess they suck worse for the people living in the third world who actually have to get them.

Including consultancy it cost $270 for that session alone. Medicare doesn’t cover travel vaccinations. I went to the doctor for something unrelated the other day, and paid $70 out of pocket for a five-minute consultation. Isn’t Australia supposed to have free healthcare? I’ve often said that the fact that America doesn’t have free healthcare is absolutely mind-boggling, but somehow I’ve managed to become an adult with my own Medicare card without really learning how our system works at all.

I’m sort of bummed out about money in general, because these vaccinations are going to cost way more than I thought they would, and yesterday I found out that my hours at Coles have been slashed so I’m going to be earning less than $400 a week. I’ve rung up my other job three times since returning from Collie, and my boss has been “unavailable” every time. I always got the distinct impression I was just a Christmas casual, but I assumed a small business owner would be professional enough to tell me that rather than avoid me.

I’m sitting on just over $13,000, so I should easily reach $15,000 by April, but that was always the absolute minimum. I’d be a lot happier with $17,000 or $18,000. Incidentally, what is it with travel blogs and being coy about how much you spend? I find it very frustrating when reading about other travellers and trying to gauge how much our own trip might cost. It’s not the 1950’s anymore. Grow up.

Did some more planning for the first leg of the trip. The biggest hurdle is still the Russian visa/Trans-Siberian clusterfuck, or “chaos snail” as we have christened it. Getting a Russian visa requires an invitation and confirmation and you need an exit visa and all this tiresome bureaucratic claptrap. I don’t think it’s been updated since the Soviet era, and it’s going to be our single biggest headache. I couldn’t even pin down the street address of the Russian embassy in Beijing. Chinese embassy in Bangkok, Australian embassy in Beijing, Mongolian embassy in Beijing, no problems. As soon as I try to find the Russian embassy Google Maps takes me to Moscow and all the websites are five years out of date or run by third-party companies trying to sell me a visa invitation.

Speaking of unscrupulous sales, I scalped my Big Day Out ticket for sixty bucks more than it cost me, and I’m trying to figure out how much I could sell my car for. A Hyundai Excel that hasn’t been serviced in eight years, has a huge dent in the side and takes quite a few revs to get started might fetch as much as $400! Email me if you’re interested!

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) 285 p.

It’s always nice to read a classic, revered work of literature and find that you agree with the consensus. To Kill A Mockingbird is a fantastic piece of writing, and its message is nearly as important today as it was when written.

I knew the book followed a white lawyer representing a black man in a racist Southern town; what I didn’t know was that it’s narrated by the lawyer’s young daughter. Scout Finch is as naive as you’d expect a six or seven year-old girl to be, but she’s intelligent. She asks questions that challenge the 1930’s status quo, making people re-examine their fundamental beliefs in the way that only a child’s honest question can. Her father Atticus Finch – who is clearly, even from the very opening pages, a Great Man – does his best to raise her and her brother Jem in the absence of their mother, to conduct himself well as a father, a person and a lawyer, and to teach her about the world as best he can.

The novel could have been quite depressing. It’s about a black man accused of rape on circumstantial evidence, an innocent man who suffers greatly because of the prejudices and stupidity of the white community. Yet there’s a warmth to the book, a great sense of kindness, a call to be fair and courageous and a good human being. Atticus Finch may have gained fame for his personification of Justice, for his selfless defence of an innocent black man, but I found his most beautiful and touching character trait to be his determination to instill these values in his children.

Lee tells her story simply. There’s no great visual language or metaphor or particular skill with prose. This creates an appropriate comfortable sense to the book, as though it’s being related by the fireplace in that homely Southern house. And behind the seemingly simple words are an ocean’s worth of symbolism and thematic depth. This is not just a book about racism; it’s about prejudice in general, about how ignorant and bigoted humans can be, and for that it has a timeless resonance. I read A Passage To India last year, about an Indian man unjustly accused of raping a British woman in the 1920’s, and I didn’t review it – partly because I read a lot of books while camping and didn’t want to face a stack of reviews upon return, and partly because I wasn’t sure how to approach it. It’s a great novel, but it rests largely upon its social commentary about the disparity of the British and the Indians, a disparity that history resolved more than sixty years ago.

Has America’s racial problem been solved since 1960? Many people said, following Obama’s election, that the US had moved “beyond race.” The outpouring of xenophobia and hatred towards Obama (slotting in neatly with American Islamophobia, despite the fact that he’s not Muslim) promptly exposed that as wishful thinking. Things may be better than in 1960, but the US is a long way from perfect racial harmony.

Even if it were, To Kill A Mockingbird would still be an important book, not just for historical reasons but because of prejudice and ignorance in general. I noted that several times throughout the book, Atticus tells Scout that you should never judge somebody until you’ve walked in their shoes or put yourself in their skin – you may not agree with them, or like what they’re doing, but it’s vital to try to understand their motives. Even if America was a racial paradise, I’m sure the government would still be peddling the notion that Islamic terrorists attack the US simply because “they hate us.”

Courage, compassion, respect, honour, dignity, honesty, integrity and love in less than 300 pages. What a great book.

To Kill A Mockingbird at The Book Depository

Chris and I were doing some trip-planning last night when I noticed a link to an article on Lonely Planet titled “Learning to love Seoul.” I thought “lol that’s a HARD LESSON!” and clicked on it, and was quite surprised to see myself quoted in it:

And yet on this website recently one reader hazed Seoul for being an ‘appallingly repetitive sprawl of freeways and Soviet-style concrete apartment buildings, horribly polluted, with no heart or spirit to it.’ What gives?

They cut off the most important part, though: “So oppressively bland that the populace is driven to alcoholism.”

Now, we all know that my loathsome job harshly influenced my perception of Korea, but I do think Lonely Planet has the tendency to make pretty much any location on Earth sound fantastic. It sells guidebooks, after all.

The Dark Tower Volume VI: Song of Susannah by Stephen King (2003) 544 p.

I did not have high hopes for this one. It’s about Susannah’s demon baby, it largely takes place in Earth, and it’s the one where the characters come face to face with Stephen King. How the mighty have fallen. Now, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but that’s not quite the same as being good.

I mentioned in my review for Wolves of the Calla that what I hate about the Dark Tower series (and what King loves) is all the numerology/comosology/fate/destiny/hallucinations/mystic bullshit. That’s present in Song of Susannah in spades, along with the series’ other huge problems: bloat, and the impression that King is making it up as he goes. There is waaaaay too much detail in his prose. Early on in the chapter, as Roland’s gang prepares to give chase to Mia through the magical doorway in the Calla, there are endless pages describing the local Manni cult setting up all their mystic pendulums and starting the ritual. Who gives a shit? Get to the point.

Later on, we have a gunfight between Roland and Eddie and the same mafia goons they killed in The Drawing of the Three – because apparently they’re in the real world now, but weren’t before. We also see Eddie getting shocked when he finds out that “in this world” Co-Op City is in the Bronx, not Brooklyn, because King fucked that up back in ’87 and decided to integrate it into the story. We also find out that Susannah’s baby is not a demon’s, but Roland’s, because Roland fucked the same demon in The Gunslinger and it took his seed and passed it to her… and it’s also the Crimson King’s baby, somehow. And I still don’t get what the fuck Mia is – first she was meant to be one of Susannah’s many alternate personalities, always tiring to read about, but now she’s some kind of demon that was turned into a human by the low men in a scientific outpost? Who can somehow possess Susannah’s body and make her grow legs? I don’t know what the fuck’s going on anymore, Steve. That’s what happens when you have a mortality crisis after a car accident and scramble to write three books in two years.

There’s also a bizarrely racist section where Susannah stumbles through a hotel full of Japanese tourists, overflowing with Asian stereotypes and phoentic Engrish. I don’t know what the fuck that was about.

Having said that, the part where Roland and Eddie meet Stephen King wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. He’s not in control of them: he’s confused and terrified and totally out of his element. Ideally he never would have taken the characters back into the real world at all, let alone put himself in the story, but if it had to happen this is probably the best way to go about it. Song of Susannah is easily the lowest point of the series so far, but it’s not (quite) terrible. I think it just emphasises the worst aspects of the Dark Tower series and features none of its good aspects.

Something I noticed, incidentally, was that I couldn’t stand the chapters set in Maine (where King goes about his typical New England wankfest – we’re a long way from cyborg bears, people) and the chapters set in New York City, because to me New York City is as mystical and fantastic as Roland’s world. This gave rise to another thought: other than his fantasy and sci-fi stuff that’s not set on Earth at all, has King ever written so much as a single scene set outside the continental United States?

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009) 650 p.

The entire time I was reading this I was trying to think of which book it reminded me of, a piece of literary fiction featuring both impenetrable prose and extreme tedium. It wasn’t until the home stretch that I realised Wolf Hall is strongly reminiscent of The General In His Labyrinth. Both books are historical fiction novels with an unconventional take on a historical figure, both are written by literary heavyweights (Marquez has a Nobel Prize and Wolf Hall won the ’09 Booker) and both were tiresome and difficult to follow, books that I forced myself through and remembered very little of upon completion.

Wolf Hall is a fictionalised account of the life of Thomas Cromwell, an English statesman in the 16th century (not to be confused with his great-great nephew Oliver Cromwell, also a prominent statesman one hundred years later). He was a close advisor to Henry VIII, whom I was somewhat more familiar with for having six wives, one (or more?) of whom he beheaded. That’s about the limit of it. I have a solid understanding of Australian and American history, but Britain has too many goddamn centuries under its belt.

In any case, the story of Thomas Cromwell is a promising one: a blacksmith’s son, born into relative poverty, who rose up through the British class system on nothing but his wits. That has potential. Unfortunately, I didn’t care for Mantel’s writing style in the slightest: foggy and murky, prose clinging to the random thought paths of various characters, and the novel rarely making concessions to a reader who is already having a difficult time keeping up with the story, since he has no prior knowledge of the period and the characters are all named either Thomas, Henry, Anne or Mary.

Looking back over my review of The General In His Labyrinth, I began it with the sentence: “This is one of those difficult books that was objectively good, and I know it was objectively good, and yet I didn’t like it.”

Was it, though? Just because something is held up to wide acclaim by the intelligentsia, does that make it “objectively good?” I’m not railing against literary fiction. There are plenty of prize-winning, highly regarded novels that I’ve read and loved (like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and Life of Pi). But those books were entertaining as well as having literary merit.

I think a book like Wolf Hall, that sits in the “literary merit” circle of the Venn Diagram of Fiction, well away from the overlap, is just as guilty of wasting my time as a book by Matthew Reilly or Clive Cussler, which would sit in the “entertaining” circle but be equally as far away from the overlap. There are so many great novels in that overlapping slice, so why should I force myself through something that is brimming with artistic credentials, but an absolute drag to read? Certainly, there are occasional flashes of beautiful clarity: the death of Cromwell’s wife and children, the downfall of his patron, the burning of a Lutheran… but the vast majority of Wolf Hall is an unpleasant slog through a dreary landscape.

I’ve made up my mind: just because a book is widely acclaimed does not neccesarily mean it is worthwhile. Last night I was trying to print off a list of every Pulitzer and Booker winner so I could blu-tac it to my bookshelf and cross them all off as I go, but my printer malfunctioned. Maybe that was a sign.

The Dark Tower Volume V: Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King (2003) 925 p.

There are a lot of things that are great about the Dark Tower series, and a lot of things that are not so great, and some things that are downright awful. One of the bad things is that King wrote it over a very long period of time, beginning in the 70’s and ending in 2004. It’s impossible for an iteration late in a series to be anything like an iteration early in a series, and it’s usually for the worse. Example: the first Die Hard movie and the fourth Die Hard movie, the first Indiana Jones movie and the fourth Indiana Jones movie, and so on. With Wolves of the Calla, I’m entering the stretch of the series that King wrote in a frenzy after a near-fatal car accident in 2001.

Fortunately it’s not as bad as it could have been, although it has its fair share of bullshit. The basic premise for the novel is excellent: Roland and his gunslingers come across a town called Calla Bryn Sturgis, located at the very edge of the world, near the roiling darkness of “Thunderclap,” where evil things reside. The Calla is also peculiar in that nearly every human birth is that of twins. Every generation or so, masked riders known as Wolves emerge from Thunderclap, ride into town wielding futuristic weapons that make them nigh invincible, and abduct one child from every set of twins below puberty age. A few days later the children are sent back across the desert from Thunderclap on flatbeds behind an unmanned train, crying and sunburnt, and rendered mental retards by whatever the Wolves did to them – they have become what the folks of the Calla call “roont.” As they age, they grow to a huge size, disfigured and in pain, and generally die young.

The way King gradually introduces this concept is intriguing, and while it leads to a fairly predictable story (the townsfolk recruit the gunslingers to protect them against an upcoming attack by the Wolves, and they obviously prevail) there’s enough interesting stuff along the way to make it enjoyable. As well as roont children and the mystery of the Wolves themselves, the robots of Roland’s world – always its most fascinating aspect – are represented in the Calla by Andy, a spindly metal robot whose North Central Positronics chest-plate reads “Design: Messenger (Many Other Functions).” Andy is a relic of more advanced times who acts as a sort of servant around the village:

He sang songs, passed on gossip and rumour from one end of the town to the other – a tireless walker was Andy the Messenger Robot – and seemed to enjoy the giving of horoscopes above all things, although there was general agreement that they meant little. He had one other function, however, and that meant much.

That other function is to warn the townsfolk a month in advance before each attack of the Wolves. He seems to be a cheerful and stupid thing to the townsfolk, and a convenient plot device for the author, but in actual fact he is much more than that, and is probably the novel’s strongest element – particularly his conversations and encounters with Eddie.

“Tell me about the Wolves,” Eddie said.
“What would you know, sai Eddie?”
“Where they come from, for a start. The place where they feel they can put their feet up and fart right out loud. Who they work for. Why they take the kids. And why the ones they take come back ruined.” Then another question struck him. Perhaps the most obvious. “Also, how do you know when they’re coming?”
Clicks from inside Andy. A lot of them this time; maybe a full minute’s worth…
“What’s your password, sai Eddie?”
“Huh?”
“Password. You have ten seconds. Nine… eight…seven…”
Eddie thought of spy movies he’d seen. “You mean I say something like “The roses are blooming in Cairo” and you say “Only in Mr. Wilson’s garden” and then I say-”
“Incorrect password, sai Eddie… two… one… zero.” From within Andy came a low thudding sound which Eddie found singularly unpleasant. It sounded like the blade of a sharp cleaver passing through meat and into the wood of the chopping block beneath.
“You may retry once,” said the cold voice. It bore a resemblance to the one that had asked Eddie if he would like his horoscope told, but that was the best you could call it – a resemblance. “Would you retry, Eddie of New York?”
Eddie thought fast. “No,” he said, “that’s all right. That info’s restricted, huh?”
Several clicks. Then: “Restricted: confined, kept within certain set limits, as information in a given document or q-disc; limited to those authorised to use that information; those authorised announce themselves by giving the password.” Another pause to think and then Andy said, “Yes, Eddie. That info’s restricted.”

Another enjoyable part of the book was the “Priest’s Tale” (deja vu), the story of Father Callahan, a character from King’s early novel Salem’s Lot (which I haven’t read) who has somehow found himself in Roland’s world. After a quick recap of his unfortunate experience with vampires in Salem’s Lot, Callahan regales the gunslingers with an extensive tale of what happened after he fled: his time killing vampires in New York, realising they were hunting him, discovering his ability to travel through alternate versions of America, being hunted by the “low men” and eventually the event that brought him to the Calla. It’s pretty good, and probably deserved its own novel rather than being shoehorned into Wolves of the Calla.

But now… the problems. What I love about the Dark Tower series is its fictional world: a post-apocalyptic land of ruined cities, ancient robots, machinery incongruously stamped with brands from our own world, demon circles and radioactive mutants and artificial intelligences run amok. It’s a great blend of science fiction and fantasy, and endlessly fascinating.

What Stephen King loves about the Dark Tower series is quite different: rambling cosmology, fate, destiny, signs and portents, visions and hallucinations, Susannah’s irritating split personalities, representations of chaos and order, good and evil, a whole bunch of stuff I couldn’t give a flying fuck about and find very irritating to read. There’s a section early in the book where the characters (always certain that the mystical force of ka is driving their quest) are discussing the importance of the number 19 in all the omens they’ve been seeing. King then expects us to get excited about the eeeerie fact that many of the supporting characters have names with exactly nineteen letters! Coincidence? Fate? Or the fact that King himself is the one naming the goddamn characters?

There’s also a few annoying interdimensional expeditions to New York City, where a rose that sits in a vacant lot – somehow representing or containing the Dark Tower – is under threat from developers, and Roland’s posse needs to protect it through exciting real estate acquisition adventure. This rose has pissed me off ever since it was introduced in The Waste Lands. Unfortunately, like most things about the Dark Tower series that piss me off, it’s apparently pivotal to the story and shows no sign of going away.

The last negative mark I want to jot down is the size of this book. King used to write very tight novels, like, say, The Gunslinger. These days they’re hundreds and hundreds of pages long, and the thing is, they don’t need to be. They’re not epic, just bloated. A good deal of Wolves of the Calla involves the characters sitting around testing weapons, talking to the townsfolk, and preparing for the attack itself (which is over in less than 50 pages). There’s a lot of redundancy, which Wizard and Glass suffered from quite a bit too. His writing style has gone from being sparse and concise, to dripping with detail and focusing on every character’s most inconsequential thoughts. It’s a real shame.

Overall, Wolves of the Calla is appropriately representative of the Dark Tower series itself: it does a lot of things wrong, but there’s enough intriguing stuff to keep you reading. Unfortunately, I got the feeling towards the end of this book that the next installment will involve a lot more mystical destiny bullshit and a lot less of Roland’s awesome world. Including but not limited to an uber-meta meeting between Roland and Stephen King himself, which, if it really comes to pass, may cause me actual physical pain.

Hyperion by Dan Simmons (1988) 482 p.

I love reading good science fiction. It’s a shame that with genre fiction Sturgeon’s Law is closer to 99% than 90%, because I know I’ll have to read about twenty mediocre sci-fi books and five awful ones before reading another one I enjoyed as much as this. Hyperion is an excellent piece of writing, the only flaw being the shitty, frustrating non-ending.

The novel revolves around the world of Hyperion, a planet at the edge of mankind’s interstellar empire, where there dwells a creature called the Shrike: a three-metre tall bladed killing machine who is nigh-invincible. Fortunately it never ventures beyond a small series of structures called the “Time Tombs,” a tiny slice of the planet’s territory, and so the rest of the world has been settled.

The book opens on the eve of a war between the Hegemony of Man and the post-human Ousters who live beyond their reach. The Church of the Shrike (for there are those who worship it) has selected seven apparently unrelated non-believers to make a final pilgrimage to the Time Tombs and meet the Shrike, apparently in the hope of stopping the war. Ordered by the Hegemony government to obey, apparently as a last-ditch “what have we got to lose” effort, the reluctant pilgrims set off on their journey. Along the way they agree to tell each other their stories in order to learn more about why they have been sent and how they might survive meeting the Shrike.

And so the novel is modelled after Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: we have the Priest’s Tale, a creepy journal-style story of mystery and horror that had me hooked on the novel in the first 50 pages; the Soldier’s Tale, of epic sci-fi space battles; the Poet’s Tale, a disturbing story of the first settlement on Hyperion which made the mistake of establishing their first city too close to the Shrike’s territory; the Scholar’s Tale, a heartbreaking story about a father who loses his daughter Benjamin Button-style; the Starship Captain’s Tale, which doesn’t actually get told and left me quite annoyed; the Detective’s Tale, a hardboiled private eye story where the client is an AI; and the Consul’s Tale, a romance.

Nearly all of these stories are excellent on their own terms, but the story in between is fascinating too, even though it’s mostly journeying. The party lands in the largest city on Hyperion to find it swamped by refugees desperate to escape, because “the Shrike has begun ranging as far south as the Bridle Range…. at least twenty thousand dead or missing.” There is a sense not just of impending war, but impending Armageddon. As the pilgrims travel overland to reach the Time Tombs, they find chaos and disorder, ruined towns and deserted villages, and while they don’t actually encounter the Shrike itself (though some of them do in the stories they tell) it builds up a great amount of suspense.

And so, with all the tales told, as the pilgrims finally climb the last sand dune and see the Time Tombs laid out in the valley before them, bathed in the light of an orbital battle above their heads as the first Ousters reach the system, they descend into the valley to meet their fate… and the book ends.

I felt like throwing it in the fucking lake. It’s the equivalent of ending Star Wars just as they make the final run on the Death Star, or ending Watchmen just as they arrive in Antarctica. I know this is the first book in a series, but what I don’t know is whether the next book will deal with the same plots and characters or simply be set in the same universe.  I really hope Simmons wraps this story up properly, because apart from the lack of an ending this book is great.

Hey Mitch how was Collie this year?

Well, WE DID THE GREATEST THING THAT ANYONE HAS EVER DONE OR EVER WILL DO

10. In The Flowers by Animal Collective
9. Sleepyhead by Passion Pit
8. Surf Solar by Fuck Buttons
7. Blood by the Middle East
6. With This Ship by the Basics
5. Carol Brown by Flight of the Conchords
4. Love Like A Sunset by Phoenix
3. Counterpoint by Delphic
2. Summertime Clothes by Animal Collective
1. Hearing Damage by Thom Yorke

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