april reading list

You know, the entire time I was laid up with essays a recurring thought was, as soon as this is over I can get back to writing. Isn’t that nice? Well the term papers are finally in and I celebrated by recouping all the lost sleep and then going to see Fast 5. Don’t think I didn’t seriously consider bringing a review of that film as my first offering on returning to the blog, but I figured it might bring down the tone (which I think I’ve kept to an admirably high standard). After all, no one really wants to know the answer to the question: which could I more easily live without – Mark Wahlberg or Paul Walker and his host of most excellent movie-films? Even if someone wanted an answer I don’t think I have the capacity to give it.

April.

Charles Bukowski, Notes of a Dirty Old Man
Martin Amis, The Pregnant Widow
Jean Christophe Valtat, Aurororama
Jacques Derrida & Maurizio Ferraris, A Taste for the Secret
Jacques Derrida, The Ear of the Other
George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London
George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier
Charles Bukowski, Post Office
Howard Sounes, Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life
Charles Bukowski, Factotum
H. G. Wells, Men Like Gods


It’s amazing what you can accomplish with a rapidly approaching deadline. Fairly evidently, the majority of this list belongs to my term paper bibliography. I should mention, Bukowski was called into service only to prove characteristically difficult.  I spent two fevered days reading that entire biography, along with Post Office and Factotum with a very good idea to use him in my essay on Utopia, only to discover that by the time I got there with the essay I had all of about 500 words left to use, which is clearly never going to be enough for Bukowski. On the other hand, I did get to revisit a fantastic writer I’ve not encountered for several years now.

For those unfamiliar with the genius of Bukowski, I would recommend you to read Post Office first of all; his first novel and possibly his finest. His writing can be very stark, shocking, vulgar, ugly; he writes about ugly and arbitrary things. But Albert Camus is counted amonst Bukowski’s literary heros, and proves an influence that does not hide. Bukowski is a writer of the absurd and his frank, unflinching, semi-autobiographical style captures it. He has the ability to make pages shake with hilarity and rebellion, a rejection of this other-people’s world of ridiculous and spurious convention. He also has an almost uncanny knack to capture the tragedy and beauty of existence; particularly when he writes about the character Betty in Post Office; a recurring character based on his first proper girlfriend, Jane Cooney Baker, who was also his first love. I was particularly struck by this wonderful and unexpected – wonderful because unexpected – tragedy in Notes of a Dirty Old Man. This is a collection of some of the columns he wrote for the underground journal Open City, and fairly lives up to what you’d expect from the title, until, what, the second to last story I think it is, which deals with his relationship with his father. It’s a blow that comes out of nowhere. What makes his writing the more poignant is that you can never tell how far any of it is fact or fiction – Bukowski reckoned 93% of what he wrote was pure autobiography; the remaining 7% ‘improved upon’. Then there is the meeting between Bukowski and Neal Cassady, also in Notes, I think, where Bukowski gets to experience some of Cassady’s legendary driving skills immortalised in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Bukowski tells Cassady that ‘Kerouac has written the main chapters of his life, but that maybe he would write his last one.’ (Quoted from Sounes.) Prophetic, Neal Cassady died in Mexico only a couple of weeks later.

If you’re not yet convinced that you ought to read Bukowski, I can tell you that he was a contemporary (and published alongside) Henry Miller and William Burroughs. He was contemporary with the Beat poets but didn’t have much time for them; he considered their way ‘phony’, although Cassady was something of a hero to him, and Bukowski’s Cassady story is a beautiful eulogy.

Bukowski gets a look in here because he did not in my term paper. Not so for Mr Orwell, whom I do appreciate, and who you probably ought to read if you’ve not done so already, but I can’t find the same vitality in his writing, so forgive me if I skip over two very classic texts. Derrida, too, isn’t going to have an ear – in the last few weeks I’ve done too much violence to his name already. I will say, however, that if you are interested in Derrida/deconstruction, A Taste for the Secret is an excellent place to begin; it’s far more accessible than most of D’s texts and still covers some of the most important ideas that recur through his work.

Now Martin Amis I was curious about because he’s one of those writers who are very prolific, from a fine legacy (so I hear: Kingsley has not done well by me either yet), who you tend to hear about. So when I read about his latest novel, The Pregnant Widow, and thought it sounded like my sort of thing (decadent youths spending summer in an Italian castle; love triangles abound, some hints of Utopia) and bought it. I was very unsure when I started the book; could not tell if I was reading holiday literature or something serious, you know you’re an English Lit. student when you start worrying that what you’re reading is lowering the tone of your bloggable reading list. I was unsure of it, in fact, for the entire novel. Which is not to say I did not enjoy it; I rather did, the character of Gloria in particular was inspired, or perhaps I just felt I could relate to her; and Keith was a pretty believable fellow. This is why I’m not really a reviewer – my gut reaction was, it was okay, I enjoyed it for what it was, I probably won’t be reading it again.

There was one idea in it that stuck, which made me wonder; not so much a literary idea:
beauty is related to happiness, and also
infectious.
This seemed true to me.

In contrast to the whim on which I read The Pregnant Widow, Jean-Christophe’s Aurororama was a book I’d been longing to read ever since I read a review of it in the Guardian Review, which described it as ‘stylish’ and at least one character as ‘louche’. Louche and stylish are the foundations of a good novel, if you want my opinion, and should I ever finish a novel I should hope it would be as lithe-hipped and snake-eyed as a panther, but only as sexy as it was in equal measure, unspeakably louche. I can testify that Aurororama was definitely stylish. Steampunk is a genre or an under-cultural moment that’s always appealed to me in gentle way, but I rarely see it done justice. It’s aesthetic often comes across brilliantly; particularly in the work of Studio Ghibli, whose adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle was without doubt an aesthetic masterpiece. Yet so often the glorious exterior lacks a heart, lacks any real substance. Never more so than with Howl’s Moving Castle which was the sappiest most Disneyfiedly cheese-and-sugar production and ruination of a book I’ve ever seen (Diana Wynne Jones’s novel is seven leagues ahead of the film).

Aurorama, however, I felt did a pretty good job. I was amused by the way steampunk met contemporary Shoreditch culture, replete with ‘scenesters’ and experimental bands, prolific use of psychadelic drugs and a subversive underground culture. And zepellins: another thing all books ought to have, at least one zepellin per novel. It was very accessible. And yet, it did lack something in the way of grit. The climax was far too easy to be genuinely satisfying, especially after I thought the main characters had not really suffered quite enough, or developed as characters. Gabriel was not quite louche enough for my taste, perhaps. All this said, it was a breath of fresh air from my usual stuffy bookcase, and the cover of the hardback edition is truly rather beautiful – it was worth buying just for that, I might hazard – and, I probably will read it again. At Christmas, in front of a fire.

H. G. Wells’ Men Like Gods. A good read; in fact, one of the only really intelligent Utopias I’ve read. Shoot me for that; sorry Huxley… BUT

not as good as Zamyatin’s We. This is from We, via my fellow Utopian (or, more likely, ‘anti-Utopian’) Robbie Jones:

‘My heart was light and fast as an aero, and it was carrying me up and up. I knew that some sort of happiness was waiting for me tomorrow. But what sort?’

We has that rare poetry that makes me write about it in the review of another book, so I will end there and hopefully you’ll go read some Bukowski and read We.

***
SECRET REVIEW OF FAST FIVE:
HAN LIVES!
But how? We all saw him burn to death in that horrific wreck at the end of Tokyo Drift, yet here he is with nary a scar nor an explanation, with his laconic drawl and getting it on with the hot chick from Fast and Furious. It doesn’t really matter, we’re just glad to have Han back.
Meanwhile, I did like the cross-film gathering of characters, that was very pleasing indeed; and Vin Diesel vs. The Rock was clearly an inspired bromance. The poor favela chick doesn’t really get a look in. And she knows it.

Did you know? Han’s full name is Han Seoul Oh
http://blogs.ocweekly.com/heardmentality/2011/04/han_seoul_wtf.php
Well done for that one, Fast and Furious team.

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