Saturday, 22 December 2007

Reading 2007 Pt. 2

White Noise
Don DeLillo

This, along with The Crying of Lot 49, was required reading for my Literary Theory unit this year. Both books were used as examples of postmodern writing, and I enjoyed both immensely. DeLillo makes use of the collapse of artistic hierarchies that postmodernism affords and, not without a hint of irony, celebrates the absurdities inherent in human life. One has to admire a writer who makes an 'Airborne Toxic Event' as ordinary as ordering Chinese take away and watching movies with the family. The ending concludes the book almost as a black comedy, with Jack, having lived through the Toxic Event, having visited The Most Photographed Barn in America, and having dealt with his wife's infidelity, still yearns for something to make him feel alive, an adventure, if you will, that he can call his own.

The War of the Worlds
H.G. Wells

I like these Modern Library editions. They have much snazzier covers than the Penguin or Oxford range of classics and look a lot nicer on the bookshelf. However, their introductions are a little slim and tend towards the effusive, and can hardly be compared to the scholarly detail of their Penguin or Oxford counterparts, which is a shame, because Modern Library get some substantial names to pen these introductions (Arthur C. Clarke, in this case). This particular story is, of course, a genuine classic, since it depicts one of the earliest and best examples of an alien invasion of Earth. Its other notable strength is its broad scope: not only is it science fiction, but it also falls within the realm of invasion literature; novels written prior to the First World War that depict an invasion of England by a foreign power. It was a branch of fiction that tapped into the prevailing pessimism and fears of the time, in much the same way that a sizeable portion of SF written in the 1950s tended to play on fears about the Red Menace. The 1953 film version updated the novel to this post-war setting and remains highly watchable, while Spielberg's 2005 film is about as exciting as repeats of Friends. Neither film, though, seems to capture the desperation or visual imagery which makes Well's novel so particularly striking.

A Scanner Darkly
Philip K. Dick

This is rightly considered one of Dick's best, if only because it is so obviously born out of personal experiences. The notion of Fred/Bob keeping tabs on himself is classic Dick, and works wonderfully when further compounded with Bob's (or is that Fred's?) growing addiction to Substance D. I don't think much of drug use, but when I read the dedication that closes this book, I was moved. It elevates A Scanner Darkly into the realm of tragedy, which is perhaps what makes the novel distinguishable amongst the vast variety of Dick's output. Richard Linklater's 2006 film, which was not actually released until 2007 in Australia, is one of my films of the year. Many reviews have already talked about how it is arguably the first film adaptation of a Dick novel to actually stick to the text, and it's all the better for it. Plus, the rotoscoping just looks so cool!

Doctor No
Ian Fleming

What an utterly terrible book! This is one of those few instances were I could unequivocally say that the film was superior to the source material. Even when ignoring the sexism and racism inherent in Fleming's work, Doctor No is just poorly written. I find it laughable that Fleming genuinely believed he was writing for an "'A' readership" (Bennett, 'The Bond Phenomenon', 1983), and even more so that "evidence from reviews in the literary weeklies of the period suggest that this is precisely how they were regarded and read initially." How can an author write about giant man-eating squids wrapping their toothy tentacles around the leg of our hapless hero and go on to write "one might have thought that the sophistication of the background and detail would be outside their ['B' and 'C' class readers] experience and in part incomprehensible"? So, Jamaica is too sophisticated for working and middle class readers? Or a spy who does more running around than actual spying is incomprehensible? Fleming clarifies that in hard cover, his books are designed to appeal to an 'A' readership, but are "equally readable" to all classes in paperback, a strange distinction that I put down to a combination of economics (hard covers are too expensive for working class readers) and class snobbery (he still feels his books might be too sophisticated for them). At least Sean Connery had a go at some detective work before running off to woo Honey Rider, and her ludicrous back story of living in an abandoned house full of animals and creepy crawlies is thankfully dropped.

Battle Order 204
Christobel Mattingley

An unoffensive, easy to read biography of David Mattingley, an Australian who piloted Lancasters during the Second World War. It's written with a view to appealing to younger readers, and offers some interesting insights into the life of a pilot and his crew during the war. The titular battle order was for a bombing run over the Ruhr, dubbed 'Happy Valley' by the airmen, and during which Mattingley was seriously injured. As a result, he saw the remainder of the war out while convalescing. His story will never be mythologised like that of the Memphis Belle or Dambusters, but its good to be reminded of these little stories that make up the bigger picture.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Reading 2007 Pt. 1

The Darkness That Comes Before
R. Scott Bakker

A fellow bookstore employee once told me that he couldn't get into this book because it's all politics and was about some 'Crusader crap'. He preferred his fantasy more clear-cut and, you know, heroic, and I was subjected to yet another diatribe on the pros and... well, pros of David Gemmell. I quickly picked myself up a copy of Darkness, and Bakker didn't disappoint. An intricately plotted story that examines a Crusades-style clash of cultures, Darkness does an exemplary job at making sure it doesn't devolve into just another brainless heroic epic fantasy. This is due in no small part to the wonderfully refreshing integration of politics and philosophy into what are, admittedly, some familiar scenarios. It is relatively straightforward to trace the links between the various cultures of Eärwa and their real-world influences, but this is probably just as well as it allows the reader to devote his or her full attention to the wicked interplay on display. I have the book two sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read, and I'm not expecting it to disappoint.

Deadhouse Gates
Steven Erikson

I bought the next three novels in this series based solely on the strength of the first volume Gardens of the Moon, a book which I thoroughly enjoyed for its dangerously bizarre and gritty nature. Erikson maintains those same qualities here, but ups the tension with the Chain of Dogs exodus and its bitter ending. I've done the wrong thing by this series by reading them haphazardly - they really deserve to be read one after the other to truly get a grip on the everything that's going on.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Philip K. Dick

I don't know which is more well known these day - Blade Runner, or the book that film is based on. It's not so clear cut as other book-to-film adaptations as to which is the 'better'. Usually the book wins out, but in this case, Ridley Scott's film is something truly wonderful to behold. Dick's religious themes add a dimension missing from the film, but then his book lacks the prescient, multicultural nightmare of Scott's film. Blade Runner also pre-figures the likes of Neuromancer in this sense as well. If there's one thing that makes Dick's novel worth reading, though, it's the image of all those artificial animals inhabiting the rooftops of rundown apartment blocks.

The Crying of Lot 49
Thomas Pynchon

My first encounter with Pynchon, this was a fantastic book. It was witty, biting, and displayed a delightfully anarchic approach to language that still feels fresh reading it today. Pynchon has fun playing with Baudrillard's notion of the simulacra, where we treat the copy as the original, in this case, the way we consider History to be truthful and accurate despite only having the word of a copy of a copy of a copy to go on.

The Forever War
Joe Haldeman

I wasn't sure how much I'd enjoy this one, but gave it a go anyway. I think I was expecting a strong 'war is bad' message, because I knew it was based in part on Haldeman's Vietnam experiences, but this wasn't necessarily the case. In fact, I'd go so far as to argue that the actual battle scenes are the most lifeless part of the whole book. Instead, it is the loneliness and isolation of Mandella and the other veterans, born obviously out of Haldeman's own experiences of returning home from the war, that really rang true. Mandella returns to a home and a mother that should be familiar but instead feels more like intruding on a stranger's life, and his subsequent attempts to fit back in lead to a dislocation with society that forces him to return to the only thing he knows - fighting.