Saturday 30 September 2006

A coup!I arrived at the 2MBS FM book and record bazaar just after nine o'clock this morning. The trip to Gosford took about an hour and a half through the grey-green bush and pink-and-tan sandstone cuttings.

The Gosford Public School is located just opposite the local cop shop. The water is just across the main drag of Dane Drive and there's plenty of grass for the kids to play on. Once inside the room at the back of the single-storey building, I saw that the tables were already beset by eager browsers, the majority of whom were concentrating on the records and CDs. I made a bee-line for the poetry section at the back of the room and did some rapid scrounging before espying the fiction table over on the right-hand side.

I went through the fiction stuff thoroughly. There were many Virago Modern Classics that my New York correspondent would be very interested in. But I left them and managed to fill my rucksack to the brim with other goodies. I got 35 books for $112:

Letters to Olga, Vaclav Havel (1990)
Lantana Lane, Eleanor Dark (1959)
Exiles at Home: Australian Women Writers 1925 - 1945, Drusilla Modjeska (1981)
Looking for Estrellita, Brian Castro (1999)
Oevres poetiques, Francois Villon, (1965)
Eight Essayists, A. S. Cairncross ed. (1964)
Boyhood and Youth, Leo Tolstoy (1921)
Alternating Current, Octavio Paz (1974)
The Pelican History of the Church, 2: Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, R. W. Southern (1970)
The Biographer's Tale, A. S. Byatt (2000)
The Honey Flow, Kylie Tennant (1956)
The Sound of the Mountain, Yasunari Kawabata (1970)
Selected Poems 1963 - 1983, Robert Gray (1985)
Poppy, Drusilla Modjeska (1990)
The Simpleton, The Six, and The Millionairess, Bernard Shaw (1936)
Contemporary American & Australian Poetry, Thomas Shapcott ed. (1976)
Exotic Pleasures, Peter Carey (1980)
Six Plays, August Strindberg (1955)
Selected Poems, Robert Lowell (1965)
Flame into Being: The Life and Work of D. H. Lawrence, Anthony Burgess (1985)
The Custodians, Nicholas Jose (1997)
The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe (1988)
One Crowded Hour: Neil Davis, Combat Cameraman 1934 - 1985, Tim Bowden (1987)
Arrow in the Blue: An Autobiography, Arthur Koestler (1952)
The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House, Bob Woodward (1994)
Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier (1997)
The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon (2004)
Lives of the Poets: A Novella and Six Stories, E. L. Doctorow (1985)
Light and Darkness, Natsume Soseki (1971)
Lunar Follies, Gilbert Sorrentino (2005)
What the Butler Saw, Joe Orton (1969)
Selected Poems, T. S. Eliot (1948)
Fire and Shadow: HEAT 1, Ivor Indyk ed. (2001)
The Vintage Quarterly: No. 1/Autumn 1999
The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, Walter Pater (1873)

Friday 29 September 2006

Mooched again today. I was in the middle of entering all the purchases I'd made at the Co-op Bookshop sale this afternoon — 14 books for $134 — in LibraryThing when I checked my Gmail and saw the request for Michael Moorcock's The Final Programme. So I stopped what I was doing and, because the post office was still open, charged up the street with the book under my arm.

I made it to the counter before it closed, and paid just over eight dollars air mail to send the book to Arkansas. Mooching is fun!

The books I bought this afternoon are:

The Ern Malley Affair Michael Heyward (1993)
A Little History of the World, E. H. Gombrich (2005)
Love: A Novel, Toni Morrison (2003)
Tar Baby, Toni Morrison (1981)
Capote: A Biography, Gerald Clarke (1988) — thanks for the recommendation, Meredith!
Dress Your family in Corduroy and Denim, David Sedaris (2004)
About a Boy, Nick Hornby (1998)
Lyrical and Critical Essays, Albert Camus
Murder in Byzantium: A Novel, Julia Kristeva (2006)
The World from Islam: A journey of discovery through the Muslim heartland, George Negus (2003)
Goya: A Life in Letters, Francisco Goya (2004)
The World of El Cid: Chronicles of the Spanish Reconquest, selected sources translated and annotated by Simon Barton and Richard Fletcher (2000)
A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz (2003) — I've been eyeing this one off for months, yippee!
1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World, Frank McLynn (2004)
How honest are you?

Yesterday at the newsagents I picked up a copy of The New Yorker, the two daily broadsheets and a plastic folder for my references. I gave the cashier twenty dollars. The amount owing came to just over sixteen dollars. In change she gave me back eighteen dollars and some cents. As I was talking to her about subscribing to the newspapers — I buy them almost every day from the same place and she knows my face — I looked at the change in my hand, before putting it into my open wallet. Guilt? Not much. I guess these little windfalls don't come very often. But now that I think about it it reminds me of the time in Japan that I found three thousand yen on the pavement. Of course I picked them up and put them away in my wallet. My wallet is a different one now, but my evil tendencies are the same.

What would you have done?

Wednesday 27 September 2006

The Unexpected Elements of Love bookcover, VikingReview: The Unexpected Elements of Love, Kate Legge (2006)

Legge says in an ABC interview that the ‘larrikin’ boys are “overrepresented now in all the problem statistics” and that she also wanted to talk about what she calls the ‘Sandwich Generation’. But in addition to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Alzheimers, Legge has also included in her debut novel the strangeness of out-of-control weather.

The story is set in the near-future. Reminiscent of the odd little stories that Peter Carey published in the late nineteen seventies, The Unexpected Elements of Love treats the weather as a character. Like Harry, Janet’s son, the weather misbehaves. Torrential storms beat, enormous hail stones pound, and fierce winds lash the country. The Sydney suburb where the story takes place is located near the harbour shore and the evenings can quickly turn sticky and pungent. Harry fears the weather, and manifests his fear by anxiously chewing his collar when there’s rain.

Janet is a TV weather announcer and her best friend, the unwed, 40-something psychologist Dale, has a mother who suffers badly from arthritis and a sculptor father who begins to manifest signs of dementia. These two parents are treated honourably by Legge. They have interests, passions and crises in a way that doesn’t demean them. The frail elderly are fairly treated by this impressive author.

But the narrative flags slightly as Janet and Harry travel to Darwin to visit Janet’s tearaway sister, Carrie, and to do a story on the extreme weather events — immense lightning storms — that keep the tourists entertained in the Top End.

Apparently Peter Costello launched the book in late July. Costello would enjoy this book. Prime Minister John Howard would probably be put off by the leftie sentiments it traffics in, but Costello would enjoy the presence of all those children! After all, ‘one for mum, one for dad, and one for the country,’ is his mantra.

For my part, I purchased this book because it deals with Alzheimers. My father has been a bit scatty lately and I also borrowed from the university library a book titled Is it Dementia or just old age? by Dr John Stevens (2005).

Legge deals with the subject in greater depth and with more memorable insights. Her turn of phrase etches itself into your memory:

She worried that his absent-mindedness was like the first spray of loose stones announcing a landslide.

Dale's parents, Roy and Beth, visit Canberra to discuss a government commission for a sculpture. They meet with the architects of the new building. While talking to them, Roy looks in his bag for some drawings but finds instead a scrapbook his host, an old friend, had given him the night before. Panicking, he heads out the door, suggesting he’ll be back in a few minutes. Fifteen minutes later, they begin to get worried:

  ‘What do you think’s happened to our artist?’
  ‘His bag’s still here,’ Joanna says. ‘You don’t suppose he’s had a heart attack?’
  They run through the possibilities, canvassing the prospect of Roy slumped in the toilet after suffering a stroke or bent double behind the wheel of his car. They wait forty-five minutes before raising the alarm.

After this crisis, Beth starts to realise the inevitable:

Like a child plucking daisy petals, Beth oscillates. He’ll hold together. He’ll fall apart. He’ll hold together. He’ll fall apart.

While the boys fall apart, the women hold everything together:

Roy could live another ten years, wearing a tread in the carpet around the dementia wing. He could spend his afternoons watching television repeats, trapped in the land of ga-ga. Beth knows that she can’t repel the imposter inhabiting his body or the plaque cannibalising his brain. Intellectual incontinence musn’t claim him, not if she can help it.

Beth has made contingency plans with the help of an unusual doctor. But Legge has other plans, and the story, delineated with quick, impressionistic strokes, accelerates to its denouement.

A great read. Recommended.

Tuesday 26 September 2006

The 2MBS book and record bazaar is on again this Saturday. The location is the Gosford Public School and the address is Dane Drive or Mann Street, Gosford. Here's a map:

Parking for 60 cars

I plan to drive up to Pennant Hills Road (Cumberland Highway) and onto the Sydney-Newcastle Freeway. The doors open at 9:00 a.m. and stay that way until 6:00 p.m. It's open until Tuesday.

Monday 25 September 2006

New New Journalism book cover, Vintage BooksReview: The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft, Robert S. Boynton (2005)

Covering a swag of nineteen writers born between 1932 and 1963, three of them women (Jane Kramer, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Susan Orlean), this is a useful reference work as well as a genuine source of inspiration. It covers a lot of ground that is familiar to a journalism student.

It’s a veritable font of interesting facts about how literary journalists work. Detailed information about their habits and the approaches they take to their craft helps the reader assess, in a new light, his or her own work practices.

Two of the writers — Gay Talese and Susan Orlean — are well-known outside the United States but the rest are new acquaintances for me. I quickly found one of the books talked about, in BookMooch, and mooched it from a woman in the U.S. who cheekily asked me, before she would agree to send it all the way to Australia, why I wanted it (“I WILL consider it if you twist my arm a little and tell me why you want to read it”). Eventually she agreed to post it (“Thanks for indulging me.”), and I look forward to becoming much better acquainted with Richard Ben Cramer when it arrives.

His book, titled What It Takes: The Way to the White House (1992), Boynton describes as “an epic chronicle of the 1988 [U.S. federal] election, a group portrait of presidential candidates (George Bush, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart, and Richard Gephardt) as multidimensional people, rather than as ‘personalities’ or stand-ins for various ideologies or policies.”

As you can see from the dates shown for that book, it took some time to put together. This is a constant among those interviewed. They practise something that might best be described as ‘saturation journalism’, where they turn into the proverbial fly-on-the-wall, digging and delving for more facts, more detail, more that will be of interest to the reader. “How do you know when you’ve found a genuine story?” Boynton asks Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (born 1963):

I know I’ve found a good story when I’m absorbed by it almost to the point of obsession.

And when asked what kinds of people he likes writing about, Gay Talese says:

People with whom I have an emotional affiliation. We spend so much time together that we have a kind of affair. I get so close to them that I can write about them as I would write about my kin or my spouse, or a long-lost lover.

In Australia, the best-known exponent of literary journalism would have to be Helen Garner, born in Geelong in 1942. I recently read and reviewed her 2004 non-fiction work Joe Cinque’s Consolation, which she worked on for four years: from 1999 to 2003. And now my esteemed colleague has lent me her copy of Garner’s 1995 book, The First Stone, which I will read and review anon.

Boynton’s book touches frequently on method and practice. Questions such as ‘Where do you like to write?’, ‘Do you use outlines?’, ‘Where do you most like interviewing?’, ‘Do you use a tape recorder or take notes?’ lead us on a journey toward a place where we can glimpse the environment in which the writers work every day. We peek over their shoulders, sample with them the first coffee of the morning, tut-tut at their tendency to procrastinate, sympathise with their efforts to get the best possible information from their sources.

Cramer, born in 1950, for example, doesn’t like interviewing his subjects in living rooms. “People don’t talk well in living rooms. The living room is the place where you sit with your hands folded in your lap.” He prefers the more relaxed setting of the kitchen.

He managed to get access to George Bush through George W. Bush:

My researcher and I went to see Lee Atwater, who was the campaign manager. And because we tell him we want to know about Bush’s personal/family side, Atwater shows us into George Jr.’s office. George is on the phone with his cowboy boots up on the desk, and a plug of tobacco tucked in his lip. Atwater introduces us, says, “Boys, just don’t fuck me over,” and leaves. George looks us over slowly. We looked pretty raggedy and I had a lot more hair. And he says, “Well, you certainly don’t look like a bunch of young Republicans.” And we all have a laugh.
  He and I got off on the right foot. Junior just took me in. So every time I found myself in Washington and didn‘t have anything scheduled, I’d stroll over to Junior’s office and sit around. It was the only place you could smoke cigars, so we’d smoke together.

Another common question refers to precedents and the words the writers use to describe what they do. Typical is Cramer’s response to the question “Do you consider yourself a ‘literary journalist’?”:

No, I’m a smith. I occupy the position in our society that a good wheelwright would have occupied in his. Making wheels is a highly specialized skill. I don’t consider myself to be an artist, I consider myself to be a skilled workman.

And Ron Rosenbaum, who was born in 1946, says:

I have some problems with the term. It sounds self-consciously highfalutin. And it is misleading because it suggests that literary journalism is about rhetorical flourishes and elevated wordplay. That it requires a consciously elevated style.
  A better way to put it is that literary journalism is journalism that asks the same questions that literature asks. Questions about God and man, fate, human nature, etc. And these questions don’t have to be asked in a particularly ornate style.

Susan Orlean thinks it’s “a good time” for literary journalism:

We’ve passed through this spasm of people feeling that print is dead. The curiosity about the world, and the appetite for books that explore it in a literary way, is stronger than ever. If you look at the books that have sold well in the last five years, a remarkable number of them have been works of literary nonfiction.

Lawrence Weschler sounds interesting. I just ordered three of his books via Abebooks. Weschler calls the tradition ‘writerly nonfiction’ and is pessimistic. He says the prospects of this kind of writing are:

Not good. I tell my students, “Nothing in this class will be of the slightest practical value to you. It’s over. And it’s worse than that because by the time I finish with you this is all you’ll want to do. But it’s over.” And they laugh, and I say, “You’re laughing now, but I guarantee that before the semester finishes four or five of you will be in my office crying hot tears because this is all you want to do.”
  Having said that, I am still trying to “save civilization,” twelve people at a time.

Sunday 24 September 2006

Entry ticket to Juan Davila exhibition, MCA, The RocksEvent: Juan Davila exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, The Rocks, 9 September to 12 November

John McDonald tells his version of Juan Davila in the Spectrum supplement of the weekend edition of The Sydney Morning Herald:

For the past 20 years, Davila has perfected an uncompromising stance. He has broken with a succession of dealers, refused to give interviews or participate in shows that don’t meet his ideological expectations. He puts high prices on his works that our institutions are happy to meet, while he denounces the art market, the museums and the unholy marriage of art and money. This avowed enemy of the sacred cow is himself a textbook example of the breed.

And more:

Davila left Chile at a time when General Pinochet had just staged his military coup and a program of murder and oppression had begun. He arrived in a country that has allowed him to state his views — no matter how outrageous — with an extraordinary degree of freedom. He has the financial security to strike poses that most other artists — struggling to sell a picture or get a work hung in an art prize — could not afford. Now he is being celebrated by two of the major art institutions in Sydney and Melbourne (at the National Gallery of Victoria), who greet his posturings as acts of profundity.

When I read this piece by the paper’s regular art critic, I felt that he had a bee in his bonnet. I thought: tall poppy syndrome. But Davila has always brought out the worst — and the best — in people.

For my own part, I recall with affection that Davila’s “posturings” illuminated my youth with a sharp righteousness. His canvases pleased me by their rugged elegance. He has always been a bit of a poseur, but there is definitely a place for poseurs in a settled, comfortable society like Australia. Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes come immediately to mind.

His investigations of sexuality and the context of sexual representation were an eye-opener when I first saw them: Lichtenstein meets De Kooning. And his skill and flair were refreshing. I certainly wish that I had purchased one of his works when they were still affordable. But what would I have done with them when I relocated overseas? And now I have an added anxiety: what will my regular picture-framer say when I bring a Davila print in to be done; what will they think of me: shock, horror!

So at 9:00 this morning I made my way up to the Campsie train station with my current book (The New New Journalism: Conversations with America‘s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft, Robert S. Boynton (2005)) in hand and travelled down to Circular Quay hoping to see something that I don’t normally see, and have a quick decca.

The exhibition was marvellous, covering over two decades of his work, from the carnivalesque postmodern triumphs of the eighties and nineties to the more purely figurative stuff he’s painting nowadays.

After leaving the rooms, I traipsed downstairs and purchased Juan Davila (2006), which is published in Melbourne by the Miegunyah Press and contains writings by Guy Brett, Roger Benjamin and Juan Davila himself. I look forward to reading it.

The MCA is the building on the left; the Harbour Bridge is in the backgroundBefore leaving The Rocks I got some hot chips and a bottle of Coke. Then I went up toward the State Library, crossed Macquarie Street and headed across the Domain to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I didn’t go to see the Giacometti exhibition which is currently on, but instead had a quick look at one of my favourite paintings there, the Cy Twombly in the foyer: Three studies from the Temeraire.

I bought a book in the shop and then wandered up toward the city, crossed Hyde Park and Elizabeth Street into Market Street, then up Pitt Street to Kinokuniya’s, where I bought two more books. Then back on the train, head in my book (I got through about 25 pages both ways) and home to Campsie.

Saturday 23 September 2006

John Szabo (pictured) is a carpenter from Bexley. I gave him a personal cheque today made out in the amount of $70 to pay for the additional shelves that he’s just added to the big pine bookcase located along my study wall, adjacent the balcony door.

I originally purchased the unit from a bloke living in Baulkham Hills, via the Trading Post, the weekly classifieds paper, just before moving to this apartment in December. On the day of the move, with my house-mates along to lift and carry, I drove there in a rented, three-tonne Thrifty truck, picked it up and loaded it onto the back. On arrival here in Campsie, I found that it fits exactly into the space allocated. It was a great buy for $385.

And I’ve just ordered — from Claphams Furniture & Antiques Pty Ltd in Lane Cove, who supplied my last two bookcase purchases — a new pine bookcase to sit against the opposite wall. The new unit has set me back $480: 140cm wide x 214cm tall, with a vertical support dividing two columns of seven shelves.

I’ve also ordered a new desk, costing $512. My current desk cost $50, purchased (again via the Trading Post) from a woman living in Double Bay, when I still called West Pennant Hills home. It’s of particle-board construction with a separate set of three drawers, all covered in black, faux-timber vinyl veneer. Damp has caused the particulate-wood structure to deteriorate so badly at the rear on the left-hand side that now it lists heavily, like a drunken football player after leaving the last nightclub of the evening. And the drawer fronts fall off when I pull the drawers out (like the false teeth of a retired football player when he goes to bed at night). I’m fed up with it altogether, and I reckon I deserve something better. After all, I spend a lot of time at my desk. It should be up to any task. And there‘s something else here: I hate football.

The new one will be made out of solid, light-stained pine timber, with four drawers on steel runners in a single pod on the left. I’ll post a photo when they make delivery.

Friday 22 September 2006

Received a mooched book today. But BookMooch is down — again — so I can't register the fact that I've received the book. They seem to go down all the time. I wonder what's wrong with their system.

The book I mooched is The Royal Family (2000) by William T. Vollmann. I've got one other Vollmann book in my library and I borrowed another from the Sydney University library some months ago. He's a wonderful writer. I can't wait to read this one.

It's a hard-back, and it was mailed from the U.S. In perfect condition.

Thursday 21 September 2006

The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain. About capital gain I have only one comment: it accrues to the wealthy more than to the poor. I am not wealthy, but I have made some gains, and paid the tax on them.

Despite my habitual parsimony — although I recently purchased a printer and a digital camera — it has of late been my intention to make some of that moolah fall somewhere where it may bear fruit: on the fertile groves of Academe. Students willing to submit to the restraints of cross-cultural study can compete for a prize.

Having swotted Italian at the University of Sydney — I graduated in 1984 with second-class honours — and having read deeply of literature in the English language in the interim, I wish that there was more investigation of the influences of the one culture on the other. In either direction, I assume, there will be found many examples worthy of report.

Naming the prize in honour of the writer I did my thesis on, Italo Svevo, would reflect my presence in the arrangement. It would also celebrate the friendship that existed between Svevo and writer James Joyce, who lived between 1907 and 1915 in the city of Trieste, working as an English teacher, and where he completed Dubliners and wrote part of Ulysses. It was also where Svevo lived and worked.

A Jew of German ancestry, Svevo was active in an industrial manufacturing company for most of his life. He also wrote very good books including those of his youth: A Life (1892) and Senility (1898).

The company he married into made maritime anti-fouling coatings, and he became a senior executive of it, travelling extensively and being forever anxious about his wife’s fidelity. He was loud and well-educated, and was taught English by Joyce. He died in an automobile accident before reaching old age. He smoked cigarettes until the end of his life and, in La Coscienza di Zeno (1923), humorously delved into the quandary of a committed smoker unable to quit the habit.

I have always had a peculiar affinity with Svevo. Now is my chance to make a difference.

Wednesday 20 September 2006

Nobody wants to offend. In my case there may be ways of phrasing that would sidestep the deep disappointment that I feel. Having read a lot of the journalism — specifically profiles — of this particular writer, and also having read half of a memoir and a few pages of a novel, both by the same author, I feel disappointed. The writing in these last two works is wooden, opaque, self-conscious and uninspiring. The profiles, on the other hand, are interesting, witty, brisk and satisfying.

For my final assignment this semester I'm going to write about a piece by this author. To get more info, I plan to contact her at some point to talk about her work, how she got started in journalism — she's been at it since her late teens — and how she feels about writing profiles.

So I want to avoid mentioning the works I can't stand: the memoir and the novel, because they are truly dreadful. It's amazing that they emanate from the same pen that drafted the profiles. You wouldn't pick it in a million years.

Avoiding this topic is my aim. But what if it comes up?

Tuesday 19 September 2006

Review: The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, The Novel as History, Norman Mailer (1968)

This book is cultural commentary of the most interesting kind. Through the lens of an anti-Vietnam War protest held at the Pentagon in 1967, Mailer discusses the spiritual malaise afflicting his country.

The book is replete with humour, as the author makes himself the principal character and makes wry observations about his colleagues and muses on the nature of America. Opportunities for irony abound in this scenario. And although the book deals with historical events far removed from us, now, the action and humour never flag.

Especially the first part, where Mailer finds himself conscripted, partly against his will, in an undertaking he is wary of. But having just published, in 1967, Why Are We in Vietnam (a novel this time), he feels obliged to support the cause. Having become involved, he injects himself vigorously into the flow of events, making speeches, swearing, drinking, ruminating on the failings and strengths of the other luminaries involved (including the poet Robert Lowell and the linguist and activist Noam Chomsky), getting arrested, passing time in gaol, thinking about his beloved family. The scenes in the bus that is to carry the arrested demonstrators to gaol is unsurpassed.

The second part of the book, The Novel as History, although less compelling than the first, still refuses to be easily outmoded by the temporal differential separating us. And it is not quite certain, anyway, how this part of the book differs from the first in tone. In scope, it draws back from the character ‘Norman Mailer’ to watch the protest from a higher vantage point. We see the planning of the march, the various groups involved, their antics, the brutality of the U.S. Marshals and soldiers, the waning of the torch, and the last gasp of outrage.

This very important addition to the canon of the New Journalism is very much worth reading, if only for the power of Mailer’s doughty prose and his great capacity for cogent observation.

Sunday 17 September 2006

In Cold Blood Penguin edition book coverReview: In Cold Blood, Truman Capote (1966)

As a pioneer of the New Journalism, Capote really did his homework on this book. But while it was both a critical and commercial success, it eventually attracted criticism.

Capote apparently “never took notes during interviews for the book. He claimed he could memorize what people said and recall it with 95 percent accuracy, something he said he had trained himself to do by memorizing names in phone books and passages of books.”

If written today, "In Cold Blood" would not be published without significant changes, [Madeleine] Blais, from the University of Massachusetts, said.

Yet it is a thrilling read.

Nevertheless, the detailed recounting of the journey that the two killers make across the U.S. beggars belief. Many memorable passages, such as when the murderers, Perry and Dick, are on the lam and pick up two down-and-out hitchhikers in Texas, one of whom shows them how to collect recyclable bottles from the highway shoulder, are recounted in such style and with such verve and fictional intimacy that we feel as though we are on the scene. Words, sights, feelings are available to the reader in a way that they generally are in a novel. This ‘nonfiction novel’ was a serious attempt by Capote to forge new ties between fiction and journalism.

"It seemed to me that journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form: the ‘nonfiction novel,' as I thought of it ... Journalism is the most underestimated, the least explored of literary mediums," Capote said in a 1966 interview with The New York Times.

You can feel his intense interest in his subject at every stage of the book:

Among Garden City’s animals are two grey tomcats who are always together — thin, dirty strays with strange and clever habits. The chief ceremony of their day is performed at twilight. First they trot the length of Main Street, stopping to scrutinise the engine grilles of parked automobiles, particularly those stationed in front of the two hotels, the Windsor and Warren, for these cars, usually the property of travellers from afar, often yield what the bony, methodical creatures are hunting: slaughtered birds — crows, chickadees, and sparrows foolhardy enough to have flown into the path of oncoming motorists. Using their paws as though they were surgical instruments, the cats extract from the grilles every feathery particle.

In a similar way, Capote picks the eyes out of the experiences of the inhabitants of the Kansas towns where the action takes place.

According to the Wikipedia:

Capote learned of the quadruple slaying from a news article in The New York Times. He decided to go to Kansas and write about the murders, even before the killers, Richard "Dick" Hickock and Perry Smith, were captured.

The following represents the thoughts of Bobby Rupp, boyfriend of victim Nancy Clutter, who in his bereavement is fondly and sadly remembering more congenial times:

Once Nancy had said to him, 'One summer, when we were in Colorado, I saw where the Arkansas begins. The exact place. You wouldn’t believe it, though. That it was our river. It’s not the same colour. But pure as drinking water. And fast. And full of rocks. Whirlpools. Daddy caught a trout.’ It had stayed with Bobby, her memory of the river’s source, and since her death … Well, he couldn’t explain it, but whenever he looked at the Arkansas, it was for an instant transformed, and what he saw was not a muddy stream meandering across the Kansas plains, but what Nancy had described — a Colorado torrent, a chilly, crystal trout river speeding down a mountain valley. That was how Nancy had been: like a young river — energetic, joyous.

Capote’s success would spur others to emulation. In 1979 Norman Mailer published The Executioner’s Song, about the crimes, arrest and execution of Gary Gilmore, which book he asked his editors to label ‘A True Life Novel’. Critics were ebullient following publication in October 1979. A Pulitzer Prize was awarded on 14 April 1980. Howard Kaminsky of Warner Books recalled: “Norman came in and handed me four black looseleaf binders, each one containing five hundred pages of manuscript triple-spaced. I brought it home that night with great trepidation and started reading. Within half an hour all the weight of anxiety lifted off me and I knew we were home.”

“So you thought of Gilmore at least initially as a commercial property?” asked the critic John W. Aldridge in a 1980 interview. “Well, as I said, yes, I think of commercial possibilities,” replied Mailer. “But obviously, it’s important not to take a book on just because it promises money.”

That’s a bit disingenuous.

But in the same interview he talks about the empathy generated by reading the book. “So I was left at the end of the book with a sense of ambiguity about Gilmore that you can only feel about someone you know very well. … Gilmore was fond of saying that he was a very bad guy, and he was in a lot of ways. He had a lot of very bad, dull habits.” But it is in the detailed imagining of these habits that we get close enough to start to come to terms with Gilmore.

And the same alchemy is evident in In Cold Blood.
My desk showing the HP Officejet 5610 and the HP Pavilion computer with 17-inch flat-panel displayThe new HP Officejet 5610 is now officially configured and ready to go. But I don't know what to call it. Primarily, I purchased this piece of equipment to function as a printer. In addition to printing, however, it also provides scanning, fax and photocopying. All for less than $200. When I spoke with dad yesterday he recalled that he had purchased his fax machine in the late nineties for $170. Down goes the cost of technology. Up goes our level of satisfaction.

And I'm well satisfied. Generally trepidacious when confronting new IT bits and pieces, I got the thing rolling in about an hour's time. I painlessly configured it yesterday morning.

But some questions remain. I've set the fax to receive after four rings — the default setting is five — but I wonder what happens if I pick up the phone and find that someone is trying to send me a fax. Do I just hang up? In that case, the fax won't get through. I wish there were some way to divert the call from my handset to the fax.

It was a surprise to be able to set the new piece of equipment up so easily. Everything was in the box. I inserted the CD and followed the instructions, and voila! I'm online. So when I went to buy the broadsheets yesterday morning, I also picked up a ream of A4 paper. They didn't tell me that, actually, you need to have some A4 paper on hand when you set up the machine, but I muddled through by using some old sheets that already had some printing on them. I wondered if this would hurt the new machine, but evidently it doesn't, because it's working fine now.

I just printed the assignment of a classmate. The deal is this: each week the people in my advanced writing class who have been assigned to have their feature articles workshopped must e-mail their assignment to all the other class members by Sunday at 2:00 p.m. It just happened that, this week, the girl who was due to be workshopped sent hers out on Saturday instead. That's fine: earlier is better.

But I find it easier to read things on paper. So I printed it out.

The cost of replacement ink cartridges is also a bit of a worry. They're such tiny things, these cartridges. At Officeworks they are worth $62 a pair, but they are being offered on eBay at $50 the pair. I wonder what I'll do. It's a bit of a risk purchasing from an eBay vendor but, then again, saving ten dollars is always nice if you can do it.

The printer (or whatever you want to call it) is tiny. If I lay down the two dictionaries I keep on my desk (a Macquarie and a Nuovo Ragazzini English-Italian one) they together take up as much room as the printer. It's lovely.

Anyway, I programmed (in a trice!) my parents' fax number into the new machine as a quick-dial button.

Saturday 16 September 2006

Got mooched again today, this time for Peter Ackroyd's London: A Biography. I'm actually a big fan of Ackroyd, but there was something about this book that didn't agree with me, although it's brilliant, well-researched and encyclopedic, as his work usually is. It's a big, heavy tome. The moocher is located in New Jersey, so I've got to decide which postal option to use. "If this is too costly to send from Aus to the US, feel free to cancel," she said. "Otherwise, you can send it economy mail -- or whatever your slow boat option is." Which is probably what I'll do.

Busy day today. I'll be at Pennant Hills at 8:30 a.m. to get my car serviced. Then I'll go to the post office to send this book away. After that I'm going to drop by my old house-mates' place to have lunch. Finally, while I'm up in that part of the world, I'll drop by to see my uncle, who is living in a dementia-specific care unit at the Anglican Retirement Village in Castle Hill. He's suffering from Stage 2 Alzheimer's Disease, but he still recognises me when I visit.

It's a bit of a worry, his condition, as a South-Australian aunt on the other side of the family tree also had Alzheimer's when she died. Family predisposition is a major factor in early-onset Alzeimer's, so it's likely that I, too, will suffer from the disease at some stage, possibly before the age of 70. Hopefully, keeping my mind active through reading will work against it.

Thursday 14 September 2006

My second assignment was due today but my references still needed some work. I hadn’t noted down references for all the citations I’d made prior to returning the relevant books to the library. Damn. So today I went there at lunchtime to find the two books I needed and complete the references before handing it in. Then I forgot to check one reference and returned just before class to make sure it was right. It was.

Last Monday I got back my first assignment with a mark and many comments. The mark was lower than I expected: a credit. This is a bit of a disappointment, and quite serious, as there are only two assignments for this unit of study this semester. It means I’ll have to do really well in the final one to maintain my distinction average for the year.

Wednesday 13 September 2006

Yesterday was a bit of a disaster. Arriving home from work, I found that the electricity had gone off. The land-line telephone, an electric model, didn't work. My mobile had run out of juice during the day. I went around to all eight units in my block: nobody home. Not a one. I was expecting a carpenter to arrive at 5:30. He was to measure up the big bookcase in my study with the aim of installing another shelf for my growing collection (currently, the shelves are quite far apart and I gauged there's room for another).

So I went next door and started knocking on doors over there, trying to find a telephone. Number three bore fruit: they were home. A bunch of Indian students. The guy who opened the door, named Hiresh, said he had a land-line in his apartment but that he was waiting for his flatmate to return home. In the end they found a working mobile and I could use that to call the electricity company, EnergyAustralia. No blackouts in my area, the operator said, but she offered to dispatch an electrician: $88 call-out fee plus hourly rates. I asked the operator to call my electrician (John Moses) for me, but she demurred.

I returned to my flat and located my address book, then stepped onto the footpath to await the carpenter: it was already 5:30. He didn't appear. Then I went back to Hiresh. At first he said he couldn't let me use the land line, but then, apparently changing his mind, he called me back, asked me to sit on the couch, and plugged the telephone cord into the back of a sticky-looking telephone, which he then placed, at my disposal, on the coffee table. I called John Moses.

I waited on the balcony of my apartment, expecting either the carpenter or the electrician to arrive at any minute. At 6:30 the latter pulled up in his truck. We were getting somewhere.

The problem will require another visit from John to fix. He got it working again and I immediately called John Szabo, the carpenter, who apologised, saying he'd completely forgotten about our appointment. He was just then at a nursing home and would come over immediately.

The bookshelf job is not a big one. When he arrived he took the measurements and we calculated the distance that there would be between shelves after adding a new one: 28.6 centimeters. He told me his charges and had me remove one of the shelves so that he could match the stain colour on the new shelf. He'll return on Sunday — if he doesn't forget.

Tuesday 12 September 2006

I was mooched again yesterday and so I visited the post office during lunch with the aim of sending away the volume: to Perth this time. I also mailed off a photocopy of the Australian Literary Review to someone I met through LibraryThing. She lives in New York and it cost just on $11. She's interested in Australian women authors from the first half of the twentieth century. September's ALR didn't contain a story of that nature, but I think it highly beneficial to encourage such interest in our literature. Hence my largesse.

On the way back to my desk, I dropped in at the Chancellor's Committee Bookfest. Tuesday is a special day: you can gather up a box full of books and pay only ten dollars. So that's what I did. And it was all good stuff, too. Including my Saturday haul, that's 48 books for $54: just over a dollar per volume.

My New York correspondent also suggested I contact the Italian Institute of Culture in Sydney, which is the cultural office of the Consulate General of Italy. Her friend Danilo Sidari, who works there, could help me, she thought, to identify good Italian writers. Having studied Italian at university, I can read the language, but being absent from that milieu for a good twenty years, I'm ignorant of the quality material now being published in that country. He suggested these:

Marilù Manzini
Francesca Mazzucato
Paola Mastrocola
Dacia Maraini
Elena Stancanelli
Susanna Tamaro

Aldo Nove
Sandro Veronesi
Stefano Benni
Pino Roveredo
Domenico Starnone
Raffaele Nigro
Paolo Nori
Andrea Camilleri

Monday 11 September 2006

Edward Champion reviews Haruki Murakami's Blind Woman, Sleeping Woman in The Philadelphia Enquirer.

He's not completely blown away, concluding the article with:

There is no doubt that Murakami has talent and a keen imaginative voice, but panning for gilt in this murky collection yields more fool's gold than the effort is worth.

And earlier:

It doesn't help that many of these stories, as Murakami admits, are templates for other novels and that many were written very fast.

I don't know if I agree with him. I found the collection superb. Many memorable images stick in my brain and that, as they say, is surely the main thing.

It seems as though the short story gets short shrift, again. The novel, despite the surge in popularity for non-fiction works, remains the dominant genre. Of course, Murakami's novels are so superb that it is easy to be disappointed in the face of these brief, volatile, little works. As Ed himself says:

Where the novel permits Murakami to add layer upon layer of narrative intrigue, the short story's taut format often results in disappointing draftsmanship.

I'm still not convinced. It's annoying to find oneself thrown back into the belligerent stance of the follower loyal unto death. Maybe I should just re-read the collection and make up my mind again.

Saturday 9 September 2006

I arrived at the Chancellor’s Committee Bookfest at around 8:10 a.m. this morning. It was raining, as it would continue through the morning. I was the fourth person in line.

Half an hour or so later a chap drove up in his car and told us that the entrance would be around the back this year. So we all trooped over to the clock tower, where we could stand sheltered from the rain. We chatted amiably — I didn’t have the opportunity or inclination to read the magazines I’d brought for company.

When the doors finally opened at 10:00 there was a rush, but it was quite orderly. Wet floors made a dangerous setting for our excursions along the tables laden with books. I made it to the check-out by 10:30.

I found 24 books, which cost me $44.50, and which I think is a pretty good bargain all round. They take my LibraryThing total up to 897 books.

The Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer (1968)
The Moor’s Last Sigh, Salman Rushdie (1995)
The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe (1979)
Night and Day, Virginia Woolf (1919)
The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford (1915)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote (1958)
Cat & Mouse, Gunther Grass (1963)
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1926)
Academia Nuts, Michael Wilding (2002)
The Game, A. S. Byatt (1967)
The Unconsoled, Kazuo Ishiguro (1995)
Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981 - 1991, Salman Rushdie (1991)
Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust (1922)
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera (1980)
Tent of Miracles, Jorge Amado (1971)
Criticism in Society: Interviews, Imre Salusinszky (1987)
Arrow of God, Chinua Achebe (1964)
Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, Geraldine Brooks (1995)
Somebody Save Me: War, Peace, Nudity and the End of the Twentieth Century, David Leser (2002)
An Anthology of Australian Verse, edited by Bertram Stevens (1906)
Selected Poems, A. D. Hope (1973)
English Verse Volume I: The Early Lyrics to Shakespeare, chosen and arranged by W. Peacock (Oxford Univ. Press, 1928)
Selected Poems, John Tranter (1982)
John Betjeman’s Collected Poems (1958)
Review: Australian Literary Review, 6 September 2006

The ALR’s launch issue is auspicious. On page three, Richard Nile contemplates “communities of ageing free radicals popping up all over the place”. With a large number of professional intellectuals set to retire, he posits, the outlook is good for Australia’s cultural life.

On page four David Burchell contemplates the divide between the communities of the Blue Mountains and that of Lithgow, “Australia’s first mining town”. He then segues into an analysis of “the culture wars” via “those who rejected the morality of the herd, and strove to better themselves through culture and self-cultivation”. This brief snapshot of the “chardonnay set” allows Burchell to look at a few new books by public intellectuals. “There’s a lot of listening to be done,” he opines, near the end of the piece.

Each article is closed, rather facetiously, by an oversized asterisk, as if there were a single footnote to the whole story.

Ian McCalman’s piece, which starts on page seven: “In 1995, American author Dava Sobel had a seismic impact on the nonfiction publishing business.” “Now, more than a decade later,” he continues, “the market for popular history has become saturated.” It is significant that Longitude was also chosen as a subject for this month’s First Tuesday Book Club. It seems to have long legs. McCalman proceeds, however, to detail the value of each of Sobel’s more recent works. Galileo’s Daughter (2000), for example, is:

… a fine piece of revisionist history that counters anachronistic accounts of Galileo as a heroic professional scientist defying the bigoted irrationalism of the church.

This is very fine criticism — encapsulating the essence of the work in a few words.

Sobel was a guest at the Melbourne Book Festival and the subject of the next piece, on page eight, novelist Lionel Shriver, is a guest at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival — by Nike Bourke. Again, the longer narrative of the piece provides the writer, as in McCalman’s case, with a freedom often absent in the shorter reviews found in the supplements of the weekend broadsheets:

This is the mind of a woman who, perhaps under the awful impress of persistent, untreated postnatal psychosis, rationalises her own abuse by imputing her victim’s complicity, his willingness to be abused. His pleasure in it.

Page 10 brings us a book review by Genevieve Tucker, measuring half a page. The other half of the page is given over to an ad for one of ALR‘s sponsors: the Australia Council for the Arts.

More reviewing on page 11, with a lovely illustration of a flower the name of which I wish I knew. The drooping blossoms next to the rampant ones nicely set off the content of the piece, which is: sex.

Page 12 looks at a recent success story, but with a twist. “Has Australian author Geraldine Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize in the US for a bit of monumental fibbing?” she asks. Later she says: “The plot is Hollywood.” Stella Clarke goes on to beckon to the attendant waiting in the wings: the herald of the History Wars Part II: the novel as a purveyor of palliative potions in the face of the dark forces that once stalked the land. She highlights the value of opprobrium heaped on the heads of novelists, like Kate Grenville, who was (apparently: I haven’t read The Secret River) “coy around 18th-century Aboriginal and settler violence”. The past is, indeed, another country.

On page 13 Jennifer Kloester reviews Kate Legge’s novel The Unexpected Elements of Love. I should read this book, as it deals with dementia, and I fear my father is tending that way.

Deborrah Hope tackles The Ballad of Desmond Kale in a longer review on page 14.

[McDonald’s] attitude is measured, abstract, completely divorced from my heritage-linked histrionics [she is an ancestor of Samuel Marsden] and the immoderately passionate debate over the writing of historical fiction that blew up like a hurricane last year.

On page 16 the essay deals with the Beaconsfield Mine disaster, Pro Hart, and our attitudes toward mining. This is a two-page piece, and starts auspiciously. A compendious effort.

Dwelling on the ordinary has made the efforts of working-class artists and miners shine. It is easy for city-dwellers to imagine that these stories and places are familiar and intimate parts of their lives, but it is clear that it is our literature and art, rather than the actual places and people, that have made them part of our identities.


The modernist period into which Hart, Drysdale and Williams were born is a fading memory and rapidly becoming an interesting historical period only.

Friday 8 September 2006

Up late with Australian Literary Review last night, luckily. Boy did it rain! Around 12:30 a.m. I noticed a strange sound emanating from the balcony off my living room: the sound of water splashing onto water.

Sensing somehow exactly what the problem was, I got a kitchen knife out of the drawer and fetched my umbrella from my bag. After slipping on my shoes, I unlocked the balcony door, opened it, and released my umbrella against the downpour. A quick glance up at the eaves told me what I needed to know: the guttering is breached. The hole was letting a thick stream flow onto the balcony floor, which was submerged under two inches of water.

After fumbling around I located the drain-hole. Using the knife to clear away the accumulated leaves and debris, I freed the small lake, which promptly gushed down the drain-pipe onto the driveway that passes down the side of the building.

Had I gone to bed early, prior to the rain starting, my living room would have been a mess. My carpet would be ruined and possibly many books damaged.

Thank god for the Australian Literary Review. I made it about half-way through and will post later today about what I found.

Thursday 7 September 2006

Sydney University is holding its annual Chancellor's Committee Bookfest this Saturday through Wednesday. Georg at Stack intimates that it’s good to get there early. The Great Hall opens for business at 10:00 a.m. But, warns Georg: “Got there about 9.35 and there were already about a hundred people waiting in the queue.”

So, I plan to leave the house at about 8:00 a.m. to arrive by, say, 8:30. I’ll take along some magazines to keep myself entertained while I wait in line outside the big, wooden doors of the hall and the yellow, sandstone towers of the Quadrangle that houses it. Hopefully it won’t rain: it‘s started to rain tonight.

At 10 the doors were opened and the queue starting moving. For perhaps one of the least athletic groups of people I have ever seen the movement was swift. Everyone maintained their manners until the last moment when some old well-dressed bloke decided he couldn’t wait any longer and was trying to force his way past those ahead of him. He tried to act like he had somewhere important to be and the rest of us were holding him up. The problem was, that’s how we all felt.

The last book sales I went to were the 2MBS Book and Record Bazaars in July in Chatswood and June in Balmain where I spent about $50 each time. And I got there at the crack of, on both occasions.

I’ll have to drop by the bank on Friday to ensure I have enough of the ready for the purpose.

I wonder where the money goes, when it’s all collected at the end of the day? And I also wonder where the books come from. From excess library inventory? Donations? (I’ve heard nothing about it myself.)

Wednesday 6 September 2006

I was mooched today, and it was good.

BookMooch is an online book-swapping portal. When somebody requests that you send a book that is listed in your inventory, that’s called “mooching”.

He wanted my copy of Raymond Chandler's The Lady in the Lake and so I e-mailed him to say that, fine, I would send it. I also brought to his attention the fact that I had two other Chandlers in my inventory. By the time I got to work, he had mooched those as well. Being mooched by an overseas person (he’s in Boston) gets you three points per book. Because he mooched three books, I get nine points to use to mooch other peoples’ books.

It costs two points to mooch a book from a person in another country and one point if they’re in the same country as you. But because most of the inventoried books belong to U.S. residents, I will need to use up two points per book. Unless I’m lucky.

On top of that, however, is the issue of the country-specific inventories being out of service. By clicking on a link, you were previously able to see all books listed for your country. But they were having problems with it and when I e-mailed them they responded saying it would be out of service for another four weeks, as their developer would be on vacation.

So I looked through the list under the topic of ‘Literary’ (currently has 2926 listed books) and located a number of titles I’m interested in, including Oe, Yoshimoto, Vollmann and Kertesz. Once I’ve sent the current crop of mooched books to Boston, I’ll mooch a few of my own. And then when I recieve the books I'll add them to my LibraryThing catalog.
Event: First Tuesday Book Club, ABC TV, 10:00 p.m.

The books featured:

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón (1st pub. 2001, trans. 2004)
Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Dava Sobel (1995)

Originally, Helen Garner’s controversial non-fiction account The First Stone was slated to be discussed, and Susan Wyndham tells us in The Sydney Morning Herald’s weekend edition that the author of Longitude, Dava Sobel, was originally to be on the show. “But Sobel had to drop out,” she writes, “and The First Stone gave way to Longitude …” because … well, it’s not clear from what she writes. However, according to Jennifer Byrne, the host of the show: “We will do The First Stone later this year or next year.” We look forward to that.

Both Sobel’s book and Garner’s were published in 1995, which makes both books seem quite old: over ten years old, in fact.

Sobel is an American author who was born in the late forties: on 28 October 2005 she was 58 years old, according to an interview she gave to

“Carlos Ruiz Zafón is a Spanish novelist. Born in Barcelona in 1964, he has lived in Los Angeles, United States, since 1994,” according to the Wikipedia.

Two of the panelists were the same as last month: Jason Steger (The Age’s books editor, who has just been at the Melbourne Book Festival: “It was a gruelling experience, but it was terrific,” he said) and Mirieke Hardy (“a screen writer and radio host and has carved out a degree of online notoriety as a blogger”).

But new to the panel this month were Pru Goward, federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner (“and also a journalist, a broadcaster, and author; maybe a future MP, and a very keen reader,” added host Jennifer Byrne. “Have you got a favourite?” “I‘ve got a favourite,” said Goward, “At the moment I think it‘s The Reader by Bernard Schlink. I think it’s an amazingly pared-down book with a number of layers, complexities.”), and John Safran, a TV personality (“given your interest in religion, do you read a lot of religious books?” asked Byrne. “I do. My favourite religious book is Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, which sounds like I’m trying to be a smart-arse … but it’s a fantastic book.” “Anything with Satan in it is cool. It has to be the biblical Satan, not some sort of lame-arsed, just some sort of, I don’t know, atheist Satan knocking some horns on. I don‘t like that.”).

Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind was first up for treatment: “A huge international success when it was first published a few years back,” began Byrne. “Now [it is] re-released in this smaller format. The story, of course, is precisely the same.” After the initial visual blurb, the conversation (and argument) started.

“So, it’s a thriller, a coming-of-age story, a romance. A page-turner, basically, with a plot as fast and twisty as a fair-ground ride. Jason, would you buy a ticket on that ride?” “I certainly would, it’s a most wonderful book,” replied Steger. “You get yourself completely lost in it. It’s a great, big, baggy novel that takes you to Barcelona. It’s full of atmosphere, it’s full of extraordinary characters, and I think they’re all really well portrayed. It’s a wonderful read.” “What about you, Marieke? Did you like it, from the get-go?”

“No,” replied Hardy. “Not at all. It took me a while and it made me question myself as a reader a little bit. Because I was quite foldy-armed cynical about it. And it was interesting [that] he’s written young adult fiction before. And I felt the beginning for me was very flavoured with wide-eyed, young-adult fiction. But by the time I was into it I was completely gripped, also. I was just swept away.” “It worked for you?” asked Byrne. “Absolutely.”

“Pru?” “Oh, a great page-turner, and I love stories about the coming of age of young people, I loved that. And I was engrossed by him, the central character.” “Daniel,” prompted Byrne. “Yeah. And I thought it was very Spanish. It reminded me very much of Marquez’ writing, that same sort of weird, supernatural-meets-gothic-meets-home-down-coarseness. And I thought it was a great read.” “There you go,” piped up Byrne. “We all agree. Or do we?” turning to Safran.

“Usually, you hate a book by about page ten. I knew I hated it from page one. It’s like: is there any worse combination than dumb and pretentious? … The first page, it’s so obsequious and pandering to its audience. It’s: ‘little Daniel, and no-one understands him, but he’s lost in the world of books,’ and we can sit there and go ‘oh, that’s just like me, no-one understands me but I’m lost in the world of books.’ The only way this book could pander to its audience more was if page one was like: ‘I’ve always thought that forty-something women who sit around on chairs and talk about books are the most beautiful women in the world.’ That is the only way it could have sucked up more.”

“I was not with you to that degree,” responded Hardy. “… obviously you are quite snooty about it.” Hardy liked the Fermin character, she said that “that, to me, was where the book came alive”. “He’s a really well fleshed-out character, all his dialogue is just impeccable,” she added. “I think he’s really colourful without being corny."

“I think there are so many characters in there,” went on Steger. “Not even the large characters, but tiny characters, who are just captured really, really well. I mean, there’s a description early on where he talks about anarchists, and he characterises anarchists as people who ride bikes and wear darned socks. I just thought that was brilliant.” “That makes me an anarchist,” he drolled.

“He’s thought up new ways of being a bad writer,” countered Safran. Groans from the others. “I’ll tell you what I mean. The narrator is a grown-up, but he’s kind of describing what he experienced as a fourteen-year-old boy. So, in the narration there’s this ridiculous conflation of how a fourteen-year old would look at something, with how a grown-up would look at something. Like when he meets a woman, right? When you’re fourteen, a sixteen-year-old is like another generation. An eighteen-year-old is, like, two generations away. And anyone who’s twenty might as well be thirty or forty, right? We’re meant to believe that when he’s fourteen, he sees this twenty-year-old woman and: ‘she looked young for a twenty-year-old.’ Then he meets this other twenty-year-old woman, no, sorry twenty eight. He goes: ‘she was twenty eight but she looked like she had about ten more years on her.”

“I don’t agree with you about the writing,” said Seger. “Because I think some of the descriptions of the characters are absolutely brilliant. And he does those… in very fine brush strokes. Yeah, at times, he lays it on with a shovel, I think.”

“But I think, while it is a very baggy plot, and I love that, and I know you mean that positively…” said Byrne. “You can really get into it,” said Steger. “I think the descriptions of the characters are really sharp.” She quotes from the book.

Some of the discussion was lost in the give-and-take.

“Is the test of a great book: does it play on your mind afterward, and do you come back to it seeking to resolve things?” asked Goward, who had been silent for most of the previous discussion. “It doesn’t do that, there’s too much. You can’t go back to it.” “Thank you,” said Safran.

“The greatest character, in lots of ways, is Barcelona,” said Byrne. “Did it work for you?" she asked Goward. “Yes, I love the gothic and I love the Spanish, and I could just see it as a movie, I could smell it.”

“It does seem a little too much,” she summarised. “I could have done with an extra couple of hundred pages,” said Steger. “But I still think that the whole of the atmosphere, the story, the characters, I think they actually overcome any flaws…” “Do you think though it was more gothic than gothic?” asked Byrne. “It reminded me a little bit of, you know, the albino monk in The Da Vinci Code. He was not only a giant and a monk, but he had thorns around his neck, and he was a killer…”

“I think the author was very pleased with himself,” said Safran. “So, in the middle of a chapter he’d drop some line where he’d go: ‘it was snowing, it was like God’s dandruff.’ And I’m kind of thinking: OK, passable, I’ll let that go, right? And then, he’s so pleased with himself he has to end the chapter with ‘and then I walked down the street under God’s dandruff’.”

“I couldn’t believe it was 512 pages. I went to my bookshelf and took out the New Testament. That’s 423 pages. This guy thinks he has more ideas than God.”

“I think, generally speaking we’re talking favourable except a very strong dispute from Mr Safran. And I just thought it was a little bit corny in places.” “I felt I had been wearing a dress or something after reading this. And then I had to go off and read Biggles or Boy’s Own Annual, to reclaim my masculinity.”

“Well the evidence is it’s sold over a million worldwide, and they couldn’t have all have been women,” said Byrne. “Nearly as popular as Friends,” countered Safran.

This discussion took just over 13 minutes to complete. Sigh. I’ll not reproduce the discussion over Longitude, as it’s getting very late now and it’s high time for me to post!

Monday 4 September 2006

Review: Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Helen Garner (2004)

Dewey Decimal Classification: 345.947 4

In this non-fiction narrative, Garner takes centre stage, describing, in detail, the events that she noted, armed with a notebook and pens, from 1999 to 2003. The murder — she’s convinced it was murder — of Joe Cinque occurred in 1997. The accused, Anu Singh — a flighty, manipulative and very beautiful girl of Indian extraction — gets four years’ incarceration. Madhavi Rao — a demure, passive, diminutive young woman — gets off scot-free.

Joe emerges, especially toward the end, as a wholly sympathetic character. It’s not surprising, since Singh won’t talk to Garner after her release from Silverwater Prison. Garner is thrown on the resources of Maria Cinque, a woman of towering passions and great dignity, who entertains the writer at her Newcastle home, invites her over to talk to Joe’s friends and family, and generally provides material that will serve to sway the reader’s sympathies.

The book grows on you. After an awkward start, when Garner describes how she started to study the case, the narrative picks up speed and the delineations of the case become clear.

Singh is obviously slightly demented and probably evil. Rao as an accomplice — why didn’t she inform the police when she knew that Singh wanted to kill Cinque? — is clearly remiss in her judgement. But she walks free. Joe’s parents are furious at the judgements.

The apple on the cover of the book is a reference to Joe, a sign of his presence, a promise not to let his memory be forgotten.

I longed to write a lament for Joe Cinque. But what would be the use of one more victim story? What fresh understanding could it bring?

Garner’s complaint is an indictment of the justice system, that allows criminals to earn lenient sentences due to diminished responsibility — Singh’s case. It also refers to the lack of accountability, of blame when a witness, someone close to the crime, doesn’t put out their hand to help — Rao’s case.

The finale is haunting and poignant, not overloaded with sentiment, but reserving its final plaint for the departed: a young man with so much promise cut down in the prime of his life.

Sunday 3 September 2006

World Vision is a Christian charity organisation that advertises its services on TV. Recently I saw an ad on the public multicultural broadcaster, SBS, and signed up to sponsor a child in Guatemala. It costs only $39 a month. Luis A is eight years old and doesn't go to school. His father is a peasant farmer and his mother looks after five children at home.

Today I employed World Vision's Web site to send a letter to Luis. They say that it can take up to three months to recieve a reply, so I'll just have to wait. I am very curious about him. My letter was quite amusing, I thought. I talked about emus and a bee that I found in my study. I also talked about a trip to the zoo when I was a boy. I hope he enjoys reading it (or having it read to him — he doesn't go to school, after all!).

World Vision's Guatemalan office receives and translates my letter and hand-delivers it to my sponsored child. My profile of Luis says that he speaks the Mam language. According to the Wikipedia, the Mam language "is spoken by the Mam people of the highlands of western Guatemala". So that tells me something about Luis that I didn't know before. He lives in Todos Santos Cuchumatan, a mountainous region in the Huehuetenango department.

So that I don't remain ignorant of Guatemala (a place about which I know virtually nothing) I looked up Guatemalan writers on Wikipedia. About 13 were listed. One of them, Augusto Monterroso, died in 2003. His complete works are available in a translation by Edith Grossman published in 1996 by the University of Texas Press. I telephoned Gleebooks — the independent bookseller here in Sydney that I use frequently — but they told me that it was out of print. So I ordered it on Amazon instead.

Saturday 2 September 2006

Alana, from a suburb in north-west Sydney, is nineteen. She’s a BookMooch member and I mooched In Cold Blood from her last Sunday.

The Australia Post delivery notice appeared in my letterbox on Wednesday (or Thursday; I can’t remember) and this morning I fronted up at the post office during my usual Saturday-morning grocery outing.

It’s so neat: inside the front cover of the book, after I’d opened the bubble-wrap package, I found a note. She’d gone to some considerable trouble to find relevant images. "I’ve printed out some pictures I found online of the real characters of this story," she wrote. "Very interesting. (And chilling.)"

It’s cool to find a note like this in a book you’ve just received free of charge. And one you’d wanted to read for some time. The only difference was that it was the Vintage edition that was advertised on the BookMooch Web site and what I received was the Penguin edition. No biggie.

Her orthography speaks volumes about her earnest and enterprising character. I’ll keep this note inside the book for future reference. Each of the pictures on the A4 sheet is captioned in her hand. There’s ‘The Clutter Family’: ‘Herb’, ‘Bonnie’, ‘Nancy’, and ‘Kenyon’. There’s also ‘The Clutter Farmhouse (Present Day)’. There’s also ‘Richard “Dick” Hickock’, ‘Perry Smith’, and ‘Dewey’.

I added In Cold Blood to my LibraryThing inventory and tagged it: ‘american’, ‘twentieth century’, ‘non-fiction’, ‘crime’, ‘new journalism’. It takes the total in my collection up to 870 books. Here’s my current tag cloud (although it will probably keep changing slightly: I work on it almost every day; refining, correcting).
Basement Books is located in the underground pedestrian concourse between Broadway and Central Station. After knocking off work yesterday afternoon, I took shank's pony down Broadway. A classmate told me on Thursday evening that a copy of The Best Australian Profiles, edited by Matthew Ricketson, could be found there for four dollars. So I jumped at the chance to secure a piece of Australian publishing history at a discount price.

Walking was not my first option but after deciding that no bus would arrive within two minutes that wouldn't take five minutes to load, and wouldn't be carrying less than 150 passengers, I opted for healthful locomotion over rapid transit.

But the book wasn't available: they sold the last copy on Thursday, I discovered when I asked the young man behind the counter for assistance.

Instead, I picked up four more books for about $30:

The Icarus Girl, Helen Oyeyemi (2005)
Joshua Reynolds: The Life and Times of the First President of the Royal Academy, Ian McIntyre (2003)
Martini: A Memoir, Frank Moorhouse (2005)
The Nehrus and the Ghandis: An Indian Dynasty, Tariq Ali (2005)

The reasoning behind my profligacy? The Oyeyemi I'd seen recommended on MetaxuCafe. The Moorhouse we'd read an excerpt from in preparation for class some weeks ago. The Reynolds book reflects my interest in the eighteenth century. And I'd recently started reading another book by Ali, which I'd enjoyed.

Friday 1 September 2006

Started on Joe Cinque’s Consolation by Helen Garner yesterday evening. Despite my study workload, I’m treating myself to this book, stretching my own patience with myself and indulging in the activity I enjoy the most: reading. I’m going to read more of it this afternoon – my ‘free-Friday’ as I’ve come to call it (two hours’ study leave a week approved by my employer).

From the outset, Garner places herself in the middle of the narrative. Her recent marital breakdown and subsequent depression, her experience with an earlier work of non-fiction, The First Stone, her conversations with the young journalists in the Canberra courtroom – all these aspects of her life come to the fore. Her reactions to the people involved in the murder and its aftermath, are visible to the reader. In fact, she uses them to increase the sense of drama in the narrative, unfolding her feelings in minute detail to show us how crime can affect a rational being.

I really should get back to studying up on the early eighteenth century – the period when Daniel Defoe was active – but I just felt too tired last night after class.

The class was interesting, as always. I can’t express adequately how much I’m enjoying this course. It’s truly wonderful to be able to mix it with these bright, young people and the wise old tutor (? He’s probably not much older than I am – sigh!). We discussed profiles yesterday. One of our readings was Gay Talese’s Frank Sinatra Has a Cold. Now, I’m just not a big fan of American crooners, but Talese’s work is superb. He drags himself back from the narrative and gives all the room to Sinatra, while jumping around in time, giving us the big picture. A wonderful article.

Another was Antonella Gambotto’s profile of the AFL footballer Warwick Capper and his wife Joanne. This I enjoyed immensely. Imagine a hybrid cross between Kath & Kim and Paris Hilton, with a dash of the Beckhams thrown in. Fab-o.