Saturday, 23 July 2016

Happiness Is Possible by Oleg Zaionchkovsky

Currently reading...

Monday, 18 July 2016

The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton

Awaiting review...

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The Baen Free Library

Free I tells ya, FREE!
It's not often you come across something for nothing these days, and as such, when I do, I spend so much time squinting my eyes and pursing my lips and looking for the catch, the catch, that I often lose sight of the wonderful generosity of the act, or indeed run out of time to take advantage of the opportunity. Much like MIT's OpenCourseWare through which you can access ALL the course material they produce, for every single subject taught - cynical bastards I thought, and now I'm entirely and unjustifiably prejudiced against them.

BUT BUT BUT BUT BUT etc., I was looking for something dumb and fun to throw about on the bed in my mind after exhausting myself with the effort of satisfying the metafiction of John Barth, when I came across a set of short stories from 2011, published, for free, gratuitously, by publishers Baen, and accessible, without cost, charge or remuneration, indeed for free through their website; that's right, you can download straight from their websiteFREE BOOKS, as Mobi or Nook files, or simple pdfs, to email to your ereader of choice. 

FOR NOTHING.

And yes, they're not all gems, some of them are stinkers, but if you want to indulge in a spot of guilty pleasure, then what's not to love?

Friday, 3 June 2016

The Development by John Barth

We'll each be presumed to have
survived the other, as the saying goes,
and neither of us'll be around to know it.
I have a great deal of respect for John Barth. Even casual readers of these pages might notice the regularity of his appearances, generously spaced as befits a writer whose words require some significant effort of his readers. His insouciant love of wordplay, of use of subtext, and the meta-meta-meta [ad infinitum]* nature of some of his fiction makes me giggle with delight.

But on with the story! Or nine stories to be exact, and each is a window into life at a fictional but easily identifiable tidewater settlement of retirees, in which those seeking towards-end-of-life sanctuary find themselves in an awkwardly contrived and flimsy community at the turn of the century and indeed the millennium. There's a peeping tom (or is there?), spouses die, children are killed, an octogenarian stabs himself before his friends gas themselves in the garage, and of course there are innumerable community meetings and dinners and toga parties. Over it all hovers the opaquely implied threat of Tidewater Inc., a faceless multinational seeking to tame nature one gated enclave at a time.

I get the distinct impression that Mr Barth is coming to terms with the rather terminal and definite concept of dying. Not unusual, you might imagine, for a man on the wrong side of 85 (or of 80 at the time of publishing). I also get the impression that he is very much still enjoying life and having a lot of fun with words. Even when he's talking about the shocking and sudden double suicide of two empty-nesters in the gated community in which this collection of inter-connected short stories is set, it's hard not to imagine a crooked smile peeking out from behind his scruffy white beard as he tilts his head so his impudently-angled beret lies flat as the horizon across your line of vision. Yup, he seems to like wearing berets. The book cover blurb reports his humour as mordant, but any acidity is tempered by what appears to be his natural instinct to poke fun at himself, without taming the ferocity of his attack. It's a perfect disguise for what is essentially a savage critique of a particular mindset of American retirees of a certain social and economic standing, one in which Barth no doubts finds himself–educated, affluent and isolated in pristine suburbia. 

But whatever the reasons Barth has written short stories about a gated community, the stories themselves are worth taking the time to savour, to enjoy, and to share, and I would heartily recommend you indulge in his special blend of wit and compassion.

*I'm struggling to find the proof, but I understand Barth might hold the record for the number of pairs of inverted commas around reported speech in published fiction–14 discrete reports of the original conversation!

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

To be the eyes and ears and 
conscience of the Creator of
the Universe, you fool.
In days gone by, when repeatedly pressed about what my favourite book might be, a banal question seeking an impossible and crude reductionist answer to which I was usually rude in response, I would offer Breakfast Of Champions as a pacifier. 

I first read it in University, and it has, to some degree, influenced how I think and feel about a lot of things. Strikingly, I've never wanted to re-read it. Perhaps I was afraid I'd find fault the second time around and wanted to uphold it as a paragon of meta-fiction. Perhaps, but then I'm a relentless consumer of fiction and was always on to the next consumable work, never having time or inclination to go back.

So in the spirit of a more considered and thoughtful phase of my life I decided I wanted to read something that once made me feel good.

I'd clearly not remembered it very well.

But before that, I'm amazed I've gone *mumbles* years without once mentioning Kilgore Trout in my reviews, even in passing. The same goes for The Simpsons, the repeated watching of which provided my frame of reference throughout a number of my formative years. I'm amazed because they have been prevalent throughout my life, and that they are connected.

In an episode of The Simpsons, Homer meant to be stealing Mo's car so he can claim the insurance, but is instead at a drive-in movie watching a film called 'Hail To The Chimp.' Observe:




Hail To The Chimp is a nod by the writers to one of the many Kilgore Trout précises* liberally littering the pages of BOC, thusly:
Trout couldn't tell one politician from another one. They were all formlessly enthusiastic chimpanzees to him. He wrote a story one time about an optimistic chimpanzee who became President of the United States. He called it "Hail to the Chief." The chimpanzee wore a little blue blazer with brass buttons, and with the seal of the President of the United States sewed to the breast pocket... Everywhere he went, bands would play "Hail to the Chief." The chimpanzee loved it. He would bounce up and down.
I'd entirely forgotten this connection. It came as a surprise  like a smack in the mouth. I'd also forgotten how black, bleak and acerbic Vonnegut could be, odd since I'd not long re-read Mother Night for similar reasons** and I ended up, as is often the case, mildly depressed. But at least I wasn't Dwayne Hoover.

Hoover, owner of a car showroom and a serial entrepreneur, is experiencing upset due to the imbalance of bad chemicals in his brain. He is considering suicide, constantly searching for a sense of meaning, and finally snaps after reading a copy of a Trout story called Now It Can Be Told, an epistolary novel wherein the Creator of the Universe informs his own Adam, The Man, that he is the only truly autonomous being on the planet, and that all others are automatons, simply programmed to do just what they do, in a great big experiment exploring free will. Dwayne reads this rather too literally, finding in it answers to questions like why his son Bunny was gay. It was because he was programmed to be gay. And so on.

Parallel to Dwayne's story is that of Trout himself, invited to the very same city by his biggest fan, a man whom Trout travels to confront because of the affront of his having invited Trout there in the first place. In the end, Trout is the one to give his novel to Dwayne, watched sadly by the author, Kurt Vonnegut himself, safely hidden behind mirrored glasses and nursing a cocktail in the bar where the two protagonists collide.


Anyone who has read a draft of my own abortive novel would immediately see how this metafiction trope, the author appearing in his own novel (and his own drawings illustrating the action and descriptions throughout), would tickle me, or maybe how I was desperately failing to pay homage to Vonnegut by shamelessly and unsuccessfully copying him. 


Throughout, Vonnegut never fails to remind the reader the book is an artifice. He constantly offers his own, Creator-of-the-Universe-like commentary on America and its virtues and vices. He mentions his life outside the novel. He explains his mother had a surfeit of bad chemicals too and drank Drano until she died. It is a smorgasbord of blackly comic observational humour and satire, deeply upsetting if you're easily bruised, but something that represents the cognitive dissonance of the human experience–that deep down you know something is wrong, but you do it anyway, for whatever reason. On the road, Trout interrogates an ex-miner.

Trout asked him what it had felt like to work for an industry whose business was to destroy the countryside, and the old man said he was usually too tired to care.
In short, it is a cautionary tale. With brilliantly wild asides, slapstick and deadpan delivery in spades, it lampoons humanity, expressing Vonnegut's own impotent fury at man's idiocy. But he does offer a smidgen of hope in the form of a clear directive, an instruction on what it is we're here for after all, straight from the author to his creation and into the cosmos, a way to reflect his often expressed notions of what it means to be human***. In response to the question, scrawled on the wall of the toilet in a New York theatre showing smutty movies, "What is the purpose of life?", Trout would have responded "To be the eyes and ears and conscience of the Creator of the Universe, you fool." 

It's as good a reason as any.



*For a for-fun-only run-down of all Kilgore Trout's works as represented in Vonnegut's fiction, you'd do well to check out Marek Vit's archived blog.

**Namely, I really like Nick Nolte and was feeling sorry for myself so wanted to watch a film with him in it, and I had a copy of the movie Mother Night to hand, which prompted me to re-read the novel. Oddly enough, Nick Nolte plays the cross-dressing Harry LeSabre in what I'm lead to understand is the worst film ever, the Alan Randolph version of Breakfast of Champions, also 'starring' Bruce Willis and Albert Finney. I've ordered a copy on Amazon to check, and you can do the same by clicking that picture down there.

***As follows, expressed in God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine (1965):
Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies–God damn it, you've got to be kind.