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If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino (1979) 259 p.

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller is a metatextual novel about a reader attempting to read a book of the same title. At each turn he is frustrated by incomplete volumes, forced to seek out the next only to find that it is an entirely different book, and so the novel consists of an ongoing march of interrupted stories. It was a primary inspiration for David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which is my favourite book of all time.

I hated this book. Hated it. I originally had it on my pile because it was the inspiration for Cloud Atlas, but shuffled it up the rank after reading this retrospective piece by Mitchell himself. Although finding his opinion on it had changed since he was a younger man, he still found it to be an excellent and important novel.

I’ll be blunt. The problem with If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller is that Calvino’s writing style is ponderously complex and tedious. It shits me to tears. Here is a random sample paragraph for you to enjoy.

Reading is a discontinuous and fragmentary operation. Or, rather, the object of reading is a punctiform and pulviscular material. In the spreading expanse of the writing, the reader’s attention isolates some minimal segments, juxtapositions of words, metaphors, syntactic nexuses, logical passages, lexical pecularities that prove to possess an extremely concentrated density of meaning. They are like elemental particles making up the work’s nucleus, around which all the rest revolves.

It goes on and on like that. I can’t be bothered transcribing any more. Suffice to say that not since Haruki Murakami’s Kafka On The Shore (another author Mitchell admires, oddly enough) have I actually told a book, out loud, to shut up.

Mitchell claims, in his reflection, that the book features “twelve manuscripts written in the style of a Bogart movie, Chekhov, a spaghetti western, Mishima, and so on.” I didn’t see it. Unlike Mitchell, who has a breathtakingly brilliant mastery of different styles, genres and narrative voices, I didn’t see any change in Calvino’s style at all – just one long slog through a frustratingly boring landscape of metatextual postmodern bullshit. The word that would usually come to mind is “pretentious” (or, to be less polite, “wanky”) but I have little doubt that Calvino actually understands and enjoys all the abstract concepts he endlessly blathers about. I’m not ashamed to say that I don’t.

I hated this novel. It’s a perfect example of a book that I disliked reading so much I was reluctant to pick it up, thus stretching out the time it took to finish it and prolonging my misery. I found it quite surprising that David Mitchell – a writer who is so wonderfully complex yet enjoyably readable – loved it. I suppose there’s no accounting for taste. (Somebody who loves Calvino and can’t stand Mitchell is reading this and rolling their eyes.)

The U.S. President recently visited Australia and was greeted with gushing adulation from almost every part of our society. This came not just from the people one expects it from, like our lapdog politicians or lazy media, but also from ordinary people, even those who are generally quite politically aware. I was particularly disappointed by Senator Bob Brown, who rightly heckled George Bush in 2003, but who shook Barack Obama’s hand and gushed about it on Twitter later. Australians apparently don’t pay enough attention to foreign politics to realise that it isn’t November 2008 anymore, and rather than being the reincarnation of Martin Luther King, the anti-Bush, the answer to the evil of the last decade, Obama has instead turned out to be a disgrace to his office and a traitor to his country – for all the same reasons Bush was.

A quick recap of why Obama is a terrible President and a bad person:

1. Failure to prosecute Bush Administration officials for what were clearly war crimes. (The usual cop-out argument appears to be “it would tear the country apart/it was a time of war and bad decisions were made/it’s an outrageous Radical Left-Wing idea. Apparently the President is above the law. I see why America went to the trouble of deposing the monarchy.)

2. Engaging in his own war crimes, such as kidnapping people and throwing them into prison for years on end without trial. (Astute readers will note that this is a continued Mao Stalin Bush policy.)

3. Slaughtering Pakistani civilians by the bucketload with flying robots, which will breed a new generation of terrorists more efficiently than anything else I can think of. (This was a policy that began under Bush and was honed and cultivated to successful new levels under Obama.)

4. Assassinating anybody, anywhere in the world, at any time, with no independent judicial oversight, including American citizens. And their children. (Even Bush never dared do this.)

5. An unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers who expose government waste, wrongdoing or criminal acts.

6. Total subserviance to the reckless plutocrats who obliterated the U.S. economy and ruined millions of lives.

I was genuinely excited in November 2008, when Obama was elected President. I have long since accepted his betrayal, and come to the realisation that no matter who sits in the White House, the U.S. government will always be the U.S. government. What I now have to accept is that intelligent, progressive, left-wing politicians like Bob Brown are either too ignorant to realise or to shallow to care that Obama is just as much of a murderer, bully and tyrant as George Bush.

A Web of Air by Philip Reeve (2010) 281 p.

Two years have passed since the events of Fever Crumb, and Fever is still travelling aboard the actor’s land-barge in which she fled London, raising the children of the deceased Kit Solent. The actor’s troupe has arrived in the Portuguese city of Mayda, and Fever’s scientific interests are piqued by the rumours of a young man attempting to build a flying machine.

Like Fever Crumb, A Web of Air dispenses with the high-flying, globetrotting, swashbuckling adventures of the Mortal Engines series in favour of a slower-paced story confined to a single location. This is something of a shame, since swashbuckling adventure was part of what I enjoyed most about the Mortal Engines series. Combined with the fact that I’m now an older reader, plus the fact that nostalgia is doubtless a significant factor in my love of the first series, and I continue to find the Fever Crumb series significantly less compelling. (Although judging from other reviews I’m not the only one, so perhaps nostalgia isn’t a very big factor after all.)

Nonetheless, A Web of Air is somewhat better novel than Fever Crumb. It just seems slightly more interesting, a bit tighter, and has more creativity and visual description and less stupid jokes (although they’re still there – what the hell was with the barbershop quartet mafia?) Although it doesn’t have anything that quite compares with the final moment Kit Solent sees his children in Fever Crumb, that was a) the only great moment in Fever Crumb and b) piggybacking on readers’ established love of a character from the Mortal Engines series. The emotional, character-driven moments in A Web of Air stand on their own, and there’s more than one, even if they are merely good rather than great.

Overall, the Fever Crumb series continues to lag a significant distance behind the Mortal Engines series, and I’m reading it more out of obligation than genuine desire. But I’ll see it through, and hopefully it will pick up. It’s still better than most of the young adult steampunk dreck that lines the shelves these days.

Maus by Art Spiegelman (1991) 296 p.

Alongside Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Art Spiegelman’s Maus is one of the most renowned graphic novels of all time, and one of the first examples usually cited when people say the genre is capable of being Real Literature. Subtitled “A Survivor’s Tale,” Maus is a true account of Spiegelman’s father’s experience as a Polish Jew sent to Auschwitz during the Holocaust. The book’s only unrealistic quirk is to portray the various races and nationalities as animals – Jews are mice, Germans are cats, Poles are pigs and so on.

Given the amount of acclaim the book has receieved – it won the Pulitzer Prize, the only comic book ever to have done so – I knew I’d read it eventually, but was reluctant to do so. The reason for this is because I’m sort of burned out on the Holocaust. I know it was a terrible, awful thing, and that we must never forget it, but I’m at a point in my life where I’m not really interested in hearing any more about it.

I found Maus to be an excellent book nonetheless, not because of how it deals with the Holocaust, or even because I like graphic novels, but rather because of the way Spiegelman chose to present the story. It is not a simple, straightforward account of his father’s experience. Rather, it’s presented as a meta-narrative, with a mouse-version of the author visiting his father in Queens, interviewing him about his experiences. It also deals with the results of the book’s success, since it was originally serialised – in the second half we see a world-weary Spiegelman sitting at his drawing board, which is teetering atop a pile of Jewish corpses.

The most important effect of this story-within-a-story is that we see Spiegelman’s father from his own eyes, presented as the man he truly is. And that man is, despite being a Holocaust survivor, an asshole. He treats his wife like a slave, rarely gives his son any respect or recognition, is an almost perfect caricature of a stingy Jew, and – ironically – is racist towards blacks. Spiegelman clearly has little patience with him, finds him difficult to deal with, and tries to avoid spending time with him apart from interviewing him for the book. He feels guilty about it, and guilty about having an easy life after what his parents went through, but none of that guilt is enough to cancel out the generally negative feelings he has towards his father.

This is the crux of the book – a Holocaust survivor’s story does not end with liberation by American troops. It’s something they carry with them for the rest of their lives, and something that goes on to affect everyone around them. Some of Vladek Spiegelman’s flaws are doubtless a result of his time in the camps – his stinginess, for example, and his obsession with never letting food go to waste, stem from a time when he had to fight for every tiny thing he had. At one point he draws his son a diagram of the hiding place they constructed in Poland in the early years of the war, saying “It’s good to know exacty how was it… just in case.” His son seems to take this as being for the comic, but I got the heartbreaking impression that perhaps, in the back of his mind, Vladek never felt wholly safe again after the war.

But other flaws of Vladek’s are certainly just a part of his nature, and serve as an example that just as not all Germans were bad, not all Holocaust victims were good, either. “It wasn’t the best who survived, nor did the best ones dies,” Spiegelman’s shrink (a fellow Holocaust survivor) tells him. “It was random!” At another point, a reporter asks Spiegelman to “tell our viewers what message you want them to get from your book?” Spiegelman replies, “A message? I dunno… I never thought of trying to reduce it to a message. I mean, I wasn’t trying to convince anybody of anything.”

The scenes in Maus between Spiegelman and his father were, for my money, the best parts of the book. The Holocaust scenes mostly failed to move me, as most Holocaust scenes do. I think I’ve been desensitised. Is it perhaps wise to tell young children about it? I recall it being part of the curriculum in primary school. They showed us photos of mass graves and everything. I don’t think it’s too intense for young minds to handle – quite the opposite, in fact. I couldn’t quite grasp the seriousness of it at that age, and then it’s part of so many books and films that you just sort of grow up with it, and now I’m 23 years old and perfectly aware of what happened… and yet it’s such an immoveable fixture of the 20th century, such a solid part of history, that it fails to move me to the extent it should. I don’t believe that I’ve ever sat down and thought about it and been horrified that it happened – and I don’t believe I’m capable of doing so, either. (What does disturb me is something that only occurred to me recently, while I was actually in Germany, or perhaps when I watched “The Reader” – the fact that a whole nation willingly and consciously allowed it to happen.)

This feeling is also touched upon in Maus, actually. Spiegelman’s shrink says “Look at how many books have already been written about the Holocaust. What’s the point? People haven’t changed… maybe they need a newer, bigger Holocaust.”

Spiegelman, when writing Maus, didn’t just set out to re-tell his father’s story. Doing so was irrevocably wound up with the story about his own relationship with his father. Maus is largely a book about the Holocaust, but it’s also a story about living with a difficult father, about being greatly impacted by something one never experienced, about guilt and anger and love and how they can mix up with each other. Maus is a much, much stronger book than it would have been if Spiegelman had made it purely about his father’s experiences – but then, I doubt that was even an option.

I’m not going to compare it to Watchmen, because I’ve never seen a clearer example of apples and oranges. But suffice to say that, like Watchmen Maus is absolute proof that comics can be great literature.

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (1955) 187 p.

Of Wyndham’s four great novels, The Chrysalids is the one I remember the least, since I originally read an abridged version sometime in primary school. The novel takes place in a post-apocalyptic Labrador (a region of Canada), perhaps a few thousand years in the future, after what is clearly implied to have been a nuclear war. The people of Labrador are deeply religious, a defence mechanism developed against the heavy rate of radioactive mutations they suffer. Humans who are found to deviate in any way from the “norm” are either killed or harried out to the Fringes, where they eke out a miserable living at the edge of the radioactive wastelands.

The Chrysalids is a coming of age story about how the narrator, David – whose father is a priest ruling the local district with an iron fist – comes to realise that he is himself a mutant, with the ability to communicate telepathically with seven or eight other children in Labrador. The novel follows his slow realisation that if others were to ever discover their secret, they would be killed. Eventually they are discovered, and are forced to flee to the Fringes.

The novel largely deals with themes of intolerance, bigotry and xenophobia; the awful things people are capable of when frightened or brainwashed. But towards the end of the book, Wyndham’s more familiar theme of two intelligences pitted against each other comes into play. David and his fellow telepaths are more than just mutant deviations with an extra finger or hand, like the others exiled to the Fringes – they have an ability which makes them the next step in human evolution, and the people of Labrador are arguably justified in fearing them. (Incidentally, is usually quite a good website, but I found it hilarious that an intelligent person capable of writing an articulate review like this could so badly miss the point of the book.)

The Chrysalids is often considered one of Wyndham’s best works, but of the Big Four, I think it’s probably my least favourite. Which isn’t to say that it’s not a great book – just that it falls short of The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes and The Midwich Cuckoos. It’s certainly a simple book, compared to his others, and a bit repetitive in parts. One of the more interesting sections involves David speaking to his Uncle Axel (Wyndham’s staple wise man, like Coker, Dr. Bocker or Zellaby) about his adventures as a sailor, and what lies in lands beyond Labrador. But The Chrysalids is largely an allegorical novel, dealing with the plight of David and his friends in a dangerous world. Unfortunately this is also a basic world, which means a lot of farms and Fringes, and not as many hints about the past or the rest of the world as I would have liked – as you find, for example, in Cloud Atlas, where the chapter “Sloosha’s Crossin” was partly inspired by The Chrysalids.

In any case, a good novel and an important part of 20th century science fiction.

Homage To Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) 232 p.

Homage To Catalonia is the last of Orwell’s non-fiction books, an account of the time he spent as a volunteer soldier fighting for the Socialists in the Spanish Civil War. I naturally expected it to be his greatest book, partly because it was his last non-fiction one and partly because fighting in the Spanish Civil War is a much more romantic and exciting thing to do than living in poverty in Paris and London or examining industrial living conditions in northern England.

The Spanish Civil War was a hugely complex, messy and above all political conflict, and is little known in the English-speaking world. All I really knew about it was the vague idea that it was a sort of dress rehearsal for World War II, and what I’d picked up from Hemongway’s vaguely boring novel For Whom The Bell Tolls. (By the way, I think it’s ironic that Hemingway cultivated an image of himself as a burly he-man but was a mere journalist in the war, while Orwell is considered to have been a nerdy journalist but actually fought in it.) Orwell examines the conflict in some depth, but does so from a personal perspective and – since he was writing for the audience of his time – assumes some pre-knowledge about the war. It’s primarily a private account with political commentary, rather than an examination of the war as a whole.

Orwell originally went to Spain as a foreign correspondent, but witnessing his beloved Socialism fighting aginst Fascism, he felt compelled to sign up to the militia and risk his life for something he believed in. Whatever your thoughts on socialism (and as always, Orwell will dispel many myths and over-simplified beliefs Western readers have about communism) I’m sure everybody will agree that this is a brave and noble thing to do. Along with his honesty and unparalleled writing ability, it’s one of the reasons he’s almost universally admired in all wings of politics.

The socialist forces, at the time, were a rag-tag group of various political parties, unions and militias which had joined together to fight the Fascist dictator Franco, whom I believe had overthrown the monarchy (again, Orwell assumes some existing knowledge of the war, so I may be wrong.) He joined a socialist party called the P.O.U.M, and was dispatched the front lines in the Catalonian mountains. Orwell gives an excellent account of the unadventurous realities of trench warfare, in which the outdated equipment of both sides meant that there were few battles, and most of the soldiers’ time was spent trying to keep warm.

While on leave in Barcelona he had the bad fortune (or good fortune, from a reader’s perspective) to be present for the outbreak of street fighting in Barcelona, where various factions on the socialist side turned on each other – a civil war within a civil war, if you will. This did much to disillusion Orwell about the cause he was fighting for, but he remained in Spain nonetheless, operating under the “lesser of two evils” mantra. Shortly after returning to the frontlines he was shot in the throat by a sniper – an event he describes with uncharacteristic emotion – and returned to the cities to find the mood ever darker. The P.O.U.M. was being unfairly blamed for the Barcelona fighting, and militia members were being demonised and marginalised. Shortly afterwards the government began to arrest them, and Orwell was forced to flee the country. This final quarter of the book, as his friends are thrown in prison and he fears for his life and eventually has to return to England with bittersweet memories, is the strongest section of Homage To Catalonia.

The weakest section is the chapters detailing the political rivalry between the internal factions of the socialists. They were doubtless important at the time, given the level of misinformation and propaganda Orwell had to dispel, and Orwell himself even admits that they can be tedious and dull to follow, “like the names of generals in a Chinese war.” I once felt that Orwell could write about almost anything and make it readable, but now I’m not so sure, and I felt my attention waning during the chapters were Orwell was speaking about leaders and organisations and governments that have long since been consigned to history.

And Homage To Catalonia, while excellent, fell short of my (probably unreasonable) expectations. There are a few brilliant moments in the book – Orwell’s memories of his first spell of trench warfare, his experience of being shot, and the sadness and anger he feels after being forced to leave Spain, when the things he had passionately believed in were swept away by dirty politics. I probably prefer Down And Out In Paris And London. But Homage To Catalonia is nonetheless an excellent, readable and important book, like all of his non-fiction it’s required reading for… well, pretty much anyone who reads.

The whole period stays by me with curious vividness. In my memory I live over incidents that might seem too petty to be worth recalling. I am in the dug-out at Monte Pocero again, on the ledge of limestone that serves as a bed, and young Ramon is snoring with his nose flattened between my shoulder-blades. I am stumbling up the mucky trench, through the mist that swirls round me like cold steam. I am halfway up a crack in the mountain-side, struggling to keep my balance and to tug a root of wild rosemary out of the ground. High overhead some meaningless bullets are singing.

– From “Homage To Catalonia,” by George Orwell

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November 2011