writing of readerly reviews of writings

Month: September, 2012

Review: Michael Welland’s “Sand”

A geologist’s most lyrical tale of his obsession of choice: sand. The book was quite interesting, and adequately written, although I always find the triumphalism, determination and narcissism of Western science irksome. Look how much we’ve clevered out! We must know everything because we just have to! Look how valuable it is for humans! I’d be happy for Welland et al to stick to “Look how fascinating and ineffable [sand] is”. Various amazing facts and images, though, don’t be put off by my 25-words-or-less critique of Western thought.

Where it came from: Library
Time and manner of reading: One long but nap-interspersed train extravaganza
Where it went: Home
Reminds me of: As per Eels review, but also a little of Daniel Boorstin’s remarkable The Discoverers
Who I’d recommend it to: More for science nerds than just generally curious thinkers, methinks
Also reading: Rabbit #4 (sorry, it’s been #4 all along)


Review: Richard Yates’ “Revolutionary Road”

A tightly written catalogue of disappointment and soul-hollowing accommodations to modern (1950s) life. Frank and April Wheeler consider themselves the beautiful, intellectual, up-and-comers of their Connecticut suburb, but 1955 saw the disintegration of their sprawling complacency and empty marriage. “Fine” writing, as they burble in the intro, and a perceptive dissection of pre-60s zeitgeist and its representative characters, but I had thought it would pack more of a contemporary punch. Good enough, though.

Where it came from: KAM’s Bookshelf
Time and manner of reading: Parenthetic wedding reads and a train finale, somewhat bleakly and moderately absorbed
Where it went: Home
Reminds me of: The terrible honesty required to live well, and the importance of safe, legal abortions
Who I’d recommend it to: It’s well-written enough, but it’s so relentlessly, commonplace-ly dark I’m not sure who would actively *want* to read it – perhaps masochists who’d hope to feel superior because their lives are, of course, better and richer than the Wheelers’.
Also reading: Rabbit #5

Review: Beryl Markham’s “West with the Night”

Beryl Markham was a Kenyan contemporary of Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa), a Jockey Club registered horse trainer at 18, inventor of elephant hunting from the air, and the first pilot to fly from England to the Americas. This is a ripping memoir of her life between about  1910 and 1940, full of yarns, philosophy and adventures.It was just what I needed to contrast with the trapped women of the last diaries I read, both delightful and fascinating. I concurred with Martha Gellhorn (as she tells in her introduction) when she regrets that she was so glib and judgemental on her one meeting with BM, instead of learning more about her. A great read, increasingly gripping.

Where it came from: Opshop
Time and manner of reading: Big train-read and some solid couch-reads
Where it went: MOD
Reminds me of: Other tales of women’s historical derring-do, Isabella Bird, Catalina de Erauso, etc.
Who I’d recommend it to: Seekers of literary adventures
Also reading: Rabbit #5

Review: “The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister”, edited by Helena Whitbread

Miss Anne Lister was alive and (sexually)* active in the first few decades of the 19th century, a lover of the fairer sex who kept her diaries in a “crypthand” whenever she wanted to write about seductions or laundry (I’m totally serious). Whitbread was the latest to locate and transcribe her diaries, and publishes the highlights of 1816-1824 here as part of her ongoing Lister obsession. It later became an apparently watchable TV show/series, according to the one punter I carefully sought out and interviewed for the benefit of this review.

I had this book pegged as read of the week – how could I go wrong with Austenian England, secret code, hidden diaries and voracious lady-chasers? – but really, anyone’s diary (including and especially one’s own) is just terribly, terribly boring. We’re all worried about not having enough [guineas] to go round, whether people gossip [that we dress like men] or whether we’ll die alone [and get eaten by an Alsatian]. Sigh. Human evolution has come so far. Please consider this post my will and testament to the effect that ALL my diaries and unpublished writings are to be burned and buried upon my final demise.

Anyway, the sociology of day-to-day life was moderately interesting, what with clothing repairs, VD and carriage purchases, and it’s always happy-making to read of dyke-sisters doing it for themselves in historically unfriendly times, but My God, these middle-class women had NOTHING to do with their lives except pay visits, try hard to be bluestockings to entertain themselves, seduce each other occasionally, and worry about their millinery. Abandoned to move on to funner things.

*  Sorry, couldn’t resist. After all, would we give a damn about her secret diary had she not been a seducer of respectable womenfolk?

Where it came from: Library
Time and manner of reading: A few armchair-, bed- and incidental-reads
Where it went: Home
Reminds me of: How unremarkable people’s diaries are (well, except for Anne Frank, hers is splendid of course)
Who I’d recommend it to: Hmm… Dykes after a bit of history
Also reading: Rabbit #5

Review: Gail Jones’ “Sorry”

Perdita is ten years old, and lives in a shack in the Kimberley filled with books, current WWII press cuttings, a tryhard British anthropologist father (Nicholas) and a crackpot mother (Stella) who recites Shakespeare at the drop of a powdered wig. She also has an Aboriginal sister, Mary, stolen from her mother and convent-trained in Perth for a life of servitude. Nicholas is stabbed, and bleeds his last on the shack floor. Mary is taken to a reformatory. Perdita is struck stammered. The two meet again in Perth and lo, the truth will out.

This book is splendid. Immaculately written, weighted with a plumb-bob, and carefully – so carefully wrought and wringing – to talk of family and silence and exclusion and whitefella/blackfella love and debt. Amazing book. I had tears in my eyes for the last forty pages. Hollowness inside. Amazing. Read it. I’ll read everything of hers I can get my hands on.

*** Some version of this review, conceivably bearing nothing in common except the same title, will soon appear in the October/November edition of the Terania Times.***

Where it came from: Library via Bookclub
Time and manner of reading: Two good armchair-reads
Where it went: Home
Reminds me of: All those things whitefellas don’t want to be reminded of
Who I’d recommend it to: Any human
Also reading: Rabbit #5; The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister edited by Helena Whitbread

Review: James Prosek’s “Eels”

James P. loves fishing. He likes to write about fishing. He writes like a privileged white American man. He has clearly listened to too many of the naffer episodes of This American Life. He became obsessed by eels. He travelled to Japan and New Zealand and Micronesia and Europe and wildest New York State and got down with the local people who got down with the eels. They, like, shared their stories with him. He felt, like, like a cosmic bond. He stayed obsessed for eleven years and wrote this book. It’s a shame there was so much of James P. in it ‘cos some of the culture was quite interesting. Not especially recommended (sorry, Dr. S!).

Where it came from: SG+SV’s Bookshelf
Time and manner of reading: Various sneaky reads to distract from ginormous book below
Where it went: Home
Reminds me of: Those “biography of a thing” books that were big in the late 1990s, e.g. Colour, Salt, Cod, etc., all three of which I really enjoyed
Who I’d recommend it to: Hmm… Someone willing to wade through the pretention to get to the kulcha
Also reading: Rabbit #5

Review: David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest”

Thank God I’ve finished this. Borrowed from the library with a fourth week of loan wangled, the pressure was on to get this one done and dusted – three solid weeks of reading (almost) nothing but. Infinite Jest clocks at 1079pp (any rumours that it was 1207 pages were entirely my sense of intimidation speaking), and has almost 900pp of 9-point font then about 200pp of 7-point font for footnotes that are crucial to plot development and no margins to speak of. Undoubtedly the fattest book I have ever read. Well done me.

To attempt a summary…

Themes: drugs, obsession, recovery, grammar, suicide, junior tennis, secessionist movements, cartridge entertainments, 12 steps on the stairway to heaven. Doesn’t help you imagine it, does it?

Characters: Too many to list, many of whom have their own chapters/voices/rants – and do so brilliantly.

Style: Speculative, philosophical fiction.

Vocabulary: Far, *far* bigger than mine, which is always exciting.

Structure: So mindbogglingly complex that it took me over 200pp to begin to think I knew where to start working out what the hell was going on to whom with which sporting implement. The 59-word blurb tells you more than you can definitively put together in the first 500-600pp.

It was hard work, and it was complex. You have to work out what the hell the O.N.A.N. is and why there’s a Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment and what it means to get “demapped” or to “promote” something or to get the “howling fantods” (a phrase I plan to use often). It was like accepting a blindfold to walk into a labyrinth designed by someone three times as intelligent as you are on your smartest day ever, and entrusting yourself into those capable and warped and dazzling hands. It’s not the for faint-hearted, but it was ambitious, and witty, and scathing, and dark, and the lacuna between the last page and the first was sloe-black and unsettling and powerful and made me (almost) want to reread it to understand it better. I did reread the first chapter, and may have to do so again before it goes home to the library… just to make sure.

Gird your loincloths, folks, and give it a read, although possibly not with the constraints of a library copy. Methinks you need a book you can read in spurts and doses, for his world is somewhat darkening. And to get some DFW context, you could check out this article on his self-help bookshelf, which a friend happened to link to this week. I’ve read his short stories before and found them too horrifying and unsettling, but I am impatient to get into more of his sublime non-fiction offerings.

PS And just to get this rant in: if I were a writer of the stature and creativity and gargantuan brain of DFW, it would give me the seething fantods that an I’m-so-casual-and-disingenuous prat like Dave Eggers was contracted to write the buymenow preface of a book I’m willing to bet he never read. Tosser. So there.

Where it came from: Library
Time and manner of reading: Every bloody opportunity I could find, sometimes engrossed and sometimes bewildered and quickly sleepy
Where it went: Home
Reminds me of:
Who I’d recommend it to: Those after a good, fat intellectual and emotional challenge
Also reading: Eels by James Prosek; Rabbit #5