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.

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