Being a survey of printed matter that has commanded my attention in recent times.
Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose – Flannery O’Connor
I borrowed this from the library in order to reader Flannery O’Connor’s essay on peacocks, “The King of the Birds”. I’m a fan of things like “occasional prose” or “incidental writing” or “juvenilia”, although I understand it is irritating as a writer to be told by some enthusiastic fan that their favourite thing of yours is the first thing you ever did…
This story, like her fiction, is populated by characters who spring to life after just one line of dialogue. How did she do this? My guess is that she truly loved people, in all their strangeness and goodness and nastiness. It is obvious that she also truly loved peacocks, for they are described in the kind of detail that at first makes you think – will I really read a whole essay about peacocks? Then, when you’re at the end of it, you wish it wasn’t.
The Diamond Age – Neal Stephenson
Last night on the radio there was a crushingly boring interview with a man who had written a science fiction novel, heavily influenced by steampunk. Everything the man said made Simon a bit angrier as he moved the dirty dishes around our small kitchen. The reason for his anger was that the best steampunk novels were written decades ago. Most people, however think it’s something new, and that it’s all about wearing those goggles and welding bits of metal and vacuum cleaner hoses together to make contraptions.
I was one of the ignorant, and so a few months ago Simon gave me “The Diamond Age”, published in 1995, to read. I almost didn’t progress beyond the first few pages, which introduces us to a particularly unpleasant character who is having a “skull gun” installed. I certainly didn’t want to read about this gentleman for 500 pages. I didn’t have to, the main character in the story is actually a little girl who comes into the possession of a magic book, which teaches her how to survive anything the world (and this is no normal world – it’s a future Shanghai which is part terrifying badlands, part neo-Victorian enclave) throws at her.
The story is far too complex for me to summarise, especially given my amateur reading status in the world of science fiction. I will just say this – while I was reading it, it all seemed real. It was both comforting and disappointing to have to come back to the world of kitchens and radio and crushing bores.
Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace
I found this book in a box by the side of the street in Glebe. I also picked up a VHS copy of Blow Up from the same box. There were also various literature classics, like Hunger by Knut Hamsun, but in French, so a cut above what one usually finds in boxes on the street.
I took my discovery as a sign that I should attempt to read Infinite Jest again. It is a book that people become evangelical over. I’m not shy of tacking difficult books, and when I read, in the Dave Eggers introduction, that I would become a better person after reading it, I started straight away.
Unfortunately, the same thing happened as happened the first time I attempted to read this book: I found it incredibly boring. My suspicion is that I must not have the right kind of brain for this novel. I read about fifty pages, skimmed a bit, read some more further on, saw that the chapter titles were frequently YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT and I felt the same distance I remember from my first attempt. This was not my kind of story.
Jesus’ Son – Denis Johnson
It is probably not surprising I have trouble with that bull mastiff of a book (Infinite Jest) when one of my favourite works of fiction is a whippet of a book, this one, Jesus’ Son.
I noticed it in Peter’s office and when I said I’d seen the movie, he held up his hand and said “don’t see the movie”, and loaned me the book. He was right about the movie – which isn’t bad – it can’t capture the most exciting thing about these stories, which is the way that words almost seem to squirm around on the page, they are that full of weird energy.
Reading this book, I felt better about life, which is perhaps a curious thing when people are getting shot, drinking themselves silly and ripping each other off, but I think it was because I saw in these stories the possibility of choice in how you view the situations in which you find yourself. I felt like there was beauty everywhere.
Zoo Station – Ian Walker
I am still reading this book, which I picked up in a secondhand bookshop in Christchurch. Seemingly one of the few bookstores not earthquake damaged, the shop had one window devoted to books and another devoted to pottery. The paperback copy of this book had the corner of its cover missing, and when I went up to the counter, the man fished around for a while and then retrieved this corner and sticky taped it back on. I was so excited by this that even he smiled (and he was a rather expressionless fellow).
I bought this book because I’m interested in Berlin, but I’ve found that the voice of the writer is so charming as he describes his adventures on both sides of the Berlin wall (this was written in the 80s), that I was curious to find out more about him. He writes in a beguiling, honest way about the people that he meets, the trashy Kreuzberg characters that he lives amongst, his own fears and prejudices, and I feel I almost know this man, as he rides along hungover on his bicycle, singing. It’s a surprising book because it has a lot of rambling personal detail, which I love but can be a difficult thing to pull off. The reader has to care about the writer enough to find their life interesting.
So when I read, in a blog post, that Ian Walker had died in 1990, I felt shocked, like hearing of the death of a friend of a friend, the kind of person who I might have met once or twice and liked.
For now, as I read this book though, he’s still alive, at least in my imagination.
That Girl #11 – Kelli Callis
Not a book, but a long personal zine, from 2001. I bought it from the Cherry Bomb comics stall at the Wellington Zinefest, which I went to in November. It was my favourite zine that I bought on the day, which makes me feel rather traitorous, as it is almost ten years old and from the US. Nevertheless, I love zines that are text heavy, made up of stories from people’s lives.
Like the previous book, this zine has a strong sense of character, I imagine myself into the life of Kelli, the author, and her friends and enemies. I like to disappear into other people’s lives.
In the introduction, she describes how at a zine fair she watched which zines people were attracted to “They liked one-of-a-kind zines, which hand stitched covers, stencilled, silkscreened, tied with a bow, title attached to cardboard with a safety pin”, and they didn’t go for her most recent zine, which was printed on newsprint. This was interesting for me to read, as I notice the same thing when I have tables at zine fairs. If you want people to notice your zine, all you need to do is put some kind of bird on the front, preferably using a gocco print, or a linoprint, or something equally as laborious. Many people will open my zines, see writing inside, and close them again. It makes me wonder if they just don’t like words. People want zines to look a certain way – and so do I, of course, in that they have to look like zines – but I feel cynical when I know people want something that fits their aesthetic ideals, like the content doesn’t matter. The zine cover becomes like a t-shirt, or an advertisement.
Anyway, I loved reading these stories of long ago adventures in San Francisco, and I hope that Kelli Callis is still around, unlike poor Ian, above.
What Do You Want From Me? – Doris Dörrie
When I am bookshopping, which tends to happen a lot, the type of book I get most pleasure in finding is slim books of short stories. This is one such book, which I found in Canty’s Bookshop in Fyshwick.
These stories are translated from German, they make emptiness and distance seem seductive. Very short, often only a few pages, I feel like I read them holding my breath. I felt like I too could write short stories that made people feel like they understood something new at the end of them.
In my Where are they now quest, I discovered that Doris Dörrie is now a screenwriter. I wish the world were such that people could continue writing books of short stories for people like me, but that is not the kind of world that we live in.
What have you been reading?