Book reviews: three down, ? to go

Well, we’re nearing the end of the first month of 2022, and I figured it’s as fine a time as any to check in and let you know what I’ve been reading. I’m assuming you’re interested because you are reading this but then I could also be overestimating whether anybody reads this.


Regardless, onwards.

I’ve read three books of pretty great quality this month, which is a win by any measure. They’ve all been books from the list of 22 I picked at the start of the year, which I figure is a reasonable start. One of them was a bit of a behemoth – a 900-pager before the new-car smell is off this no doubt cursed trip around the sun – and one of them was really two books in one. So I’m feeling that I might be pulling out of the reading doldrums I’d been stuck in for most of the past year.

I’ve also read a book-sized chunk of Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, which ranks as potentially the most densely-packed thing I’ve ever read. You will feel stupid reading this, because you have not read absolutely everything written in the classical world, and Burton has.

Not half smug about it, either, is he? Actually, this is the first time I’ve ever seen a picture of him so I’m much less intimidated now that I know I look cooler than he does. SUCK IT ROBERT.

(He didn’t have Twitter though, which probably helped him plough through.)

I have another thousand pages to get through, but at least 250 of those will be footnotes (DFW was a fuckin’ casual) so it’s not as daunting as it seems. I’m on track to finish it by the middle of the year – I read ten pages per day, give or take – by which time I’ll be ready for something easier. Like, y’know, my mooted reading of The Bible.

Anyway, on to the other books.

The Berlin Novels by Christopher Isherwood
My rating: four stars

While they’re generally published as The Berlin Stories, Vintage decided to upgrade the billing in this reprint. It brings together Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Farewell to Berlin, two novels-that-aren’t in which Isherwood discusses his time in the German capital during the declining days of the Weimar Republic.

I must admit that my reading of Isherwood’s work was coloured by the film Cabaret. How could it not be? But I caught only glimpses of that film in the text: while Sally Bowles is present, she is most distinctly non-Liza, even if she does wear scandalous nail colours. The film certainly mines the spirit of the work – a sort of dancing on the edge of the precipice, skirting Otto Dix tableaux wherever possible – but it is its own thing. Thankfully, the novels are more than capable of keeping one’s interest. (I demand there be a film of the Norris/Bradshaw story! Admittedly there’s maybe not room for an impish Joel Grey, but it cries out for an adaptation.)

Written in 1933 and 1939 respectively, the books still seem impossibly modern. There’s a real sense of impending doom – which of course was reality for those whose lives were grist for Isherwood’s mill – but the characters, as humans throughout time have done, seem more interested in avoiding trouble, sinking some piss and getting up to arty shenanigans. Reading the travails of the crooks, the drunks and the flaneurs within, it’s difficult to believe that they were in the path of the Nazi juggernaut. I suppose that’s the banality of evil, isn’t it? The restrictions through the works ratchet up, even as people become more accommodating of the regime’s demands because for most, I guess, it’s easier. You get the sense that yep, it could happen here because if the clubs are open, who gives a fuck?

This might as well be Melbourne, let’s face it.
The Portrait of the Journalist, Sylvia von Harden (1926)

There’s a definite love for Berlin in the text – fitting given that Isherwood lived there from 1929–1933, more or less, and it’s there that he discovered “his tribe” in love – but it’s the author’s still at portraiture that really makes the novels work. Really, “being in Berlin” is most of the narrative of the books – the gold is in the descriptions of the characters attempting to eke out a life in the face of the oncoming horrors. There’s stuff in here that will break your heart… and it’ll immediately be followed by hilarity. Astounding.

I feel really dumb that I left it this long to read these: they’re bloody great. And of course, it means I need to watch Cabaret again.

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima
My rating: five stars

I’ve travelled to Japan a couple of times, and on almost all of those trips I’ve ended up at Kinkaku-ji, the golden pavilion found in a temple at Kyoto. It’s something you see in pictures but appears so different in real life: it’s a bit of an architectural confection, this golden structure from another time sitting above a mirror image of itself.

It’s also a fake, a replacement. While the building was originally erected in the late 1300s, it’s been burned down and rebuilt. Twice. Most recently, this occurred in the 1950s, after a disturbed novice monk incinerated the building.

Mishima’s story – a central part of Paul Schrader’s excellent Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters – is loosely based on the ’50s immolation, though as usual the author weaves obsession and death through its pages. We’re let in on the inner life of Mizoguchi, the stuttering son of a consumptive Buddhist priest.

It’ll never love you back.

His father plants the image of the Golden Pavilion as a singularly perfect entity in the young boy’s mind, and instils in Mizoguchi the idea that one day, the boy will become the temple’s priest. This pressure, coupled with the imagined perfection of the described temple, becomes part of the youngster’s life.

Mishima’s text is very much about the difficulties one faces when the perfection of the mind’s eye collides with the unavoidable flaws of the real. In Mizoguchi’s case, the inability to reconcile the two – the much-lauded image always wins, even when sex is involved – leads to the conclusion that only by corrupting or destroying this carried perfection can he be freed from its reach.

The novel very clearly develops a sense of odiousness as the novice’s life continues. Transgressions begin mildly but become more and more destructive. There’s a distinct sense that Mishima is presenting ugliness and evil as a necessity, as something to work through to master the world – though whether Mizoguchi is successful at becoming the ruler of his own existence is never specifically described.

Still, it’s probably the Mishima novel that sticks with me the most. The imagery is outstanding, and knowing it is rooted in the real – the author went as far as to interview the real-life arsonist during his research for the text – gives it some oomph I find missing from his other works, somehow.

The Terror by Dan Simmons.
My rating: five stars

I’d wanted to read this one for a while. It’s a work that has its roots in history, but then takes a turn towards the mysterious, without eschewing a debt to truth en route.

The novel uses a lost expedition as its basis. In 1845, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror left England in order to navigate the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic. Which would’ve been a sweet trip – higher-ups had polar experience – had they not become icebound, with the crews trapped in their ships until they were finally abandoned in 1848.

Here’s where things become interesting. Simmons relates the historically-verified parts of the story faithfully, but uses the strangeness and mystery of the white expanse to consider what may have happened to those on board, both during their icy imprisonment and following their foray across the frozen expanse.

Hint: it’s nothing good.

The novel is lengthy – almost a thousand pages – but it doesn’t feel overlong. Each chapter is headed (in the same way some of George R.R. Martin’s books are) with the name of its key character, which provides an easy way to orient the reader, given the multitude of people on and below decks. Simmons has obviously done his research, as the ships become more than just wooden rooms tacked together: the vessels and their daily cycles are an integral part of the story, and enough knowledge is imparted to provide period-accurate detail without incurring academic stultification.

It’s difficult to discuss the way the story progresses following the abandoning of the two ships, because it’s where the more fantastic part of Simmons’ creation takes over. I’ve seen some people suggest that the author didn’t quite stick the landing, but I didn’t have those qualms: I thought the way things shook out was perfectly in keeping with the book. Surprising, sure, but satisfyingly appropriate. There’s never a sense that what happens to the characters is beyond the realm of possibility, and that provides a feeling of security: it feels as if you’re reading something historically verifiable rather than a work of fiction, which is a nicely strange feeling.

I think this is the sort of thing I would – in a couple of years – enjoy rereading. It’s beefy and full of enough well-researched detail to ensure the fantastic elements of the story don’t break the reader’s trust. I dug it.

The problem I have at the end of this book is the fact that I really want to read some more of Dan Simmons’ work. I know he’s better known for science fiction, but he also has a fair whack of literary- and history-inspired works as well. He’s written a lot. But you see, the problem is that he appears to be a bit of a dick. And by ‘bit’ I mean ‘fucken enormous’. I know that there’s the whole art vs artist thing, but it’s a bummer to find out that the person behind something I’ve really goddamn enjoyed is such a knob-end.

Boo. Still, The Terror was bloody great, and I’ll be very interested to see how the Ridley Scott adaptation turned out.

Gory and cold? I’m in.

So I’m feeling pretty good about what I’ve read so far. I’m looking at getting into some more review copies from Netgalley this year, too, so I suspect that my trip to the reading doldrums may well and truly be over.

It’s about fuckin’ time.

I’m not really using Goodreads any more, because I’d rather not get involved in its toxic, Bezos-enriching stew. If you’re after some good bookish times, please check out my profile on TheStoryGraph. If you’d like to buy me some books to review, there’s a wishlist over here.

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