Book reviews: snow, slaughter and silliness

Time for a trio? Time for a trio. Here’s three books I’ve finished – one audio, one ebook, and one physical – that are about as different from each other as they can be. One’s fiction, one’s nonfiction, and the other is… well, you’ll see.

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au
My rating: four stars

This novella, winner of the inaugural Novel Prize (bankrolled by Giramondo, New Directions and Fitzcarraldo), is a pretty quick read, though it remains a little elusive to pin down.

Essentially, it’s the story of a woman who plans a trip through Japan with her elderly mother. We hear about their travel, but don’t learn their names. They visit assorted museums and restaurants, travelling through the country on an itinerary designed to foster connection – but which seems to just provided an experience shared by proximity alone, not the emotional closeness the daughter really wants.

As that kind of story, the novella is serviceable. But there’s a bit more at work: the trip is mostly a framework upon which Au can hang a selection of musings about how impossible true connection and communication is to achieve. About how fitting in and finding a way to interact with the world – and the curveballs life throws you – can seem an insurmountable challenge.

The writing is almost clinical, but instead of being cold it comes across as detached, observational. It fits the subject matter well.

If it were any longer, I feel this would lose some of its impact. I’ve noted some online discussion about parts of the book – without giving away anything, as it’s a short read and you could knock it over in an afternoon – where readers appear at odds about what’s happening. That could be considered slack planning, but in the spirit of the work I think it’s a good example of the way vagary and missing context hamper how we can get things across to others.

I enjoyed it very much. I don’t know that it would hold up after a reread, but as both a travelogue and a rumination on the difficulty of intergenerational communication, I felt it was successful.

1914–1918: The History of the First World War by David Stevenson
My rating: five stars

As I’ve mentioned before, my knowledge of historical events has holes you could – fittingly – drive a tank through. Major military conflict is one area where most of my knowledge has been supplied by fucking Blackadder and, uh, Wolfenstein games. So let’s just say it’s less than fulsome.

As an attempt to rectify this, I checked out a bunch of reviews about one-volume histories of the First World War, and it seemed that Stevenson’s work received the biggest nods. So I figured it was the one to go with.

As a collection of engagements, the 1914–1918 war was a complex entanglement of operations, advances and defeats. It’s a complicated subject to pick apart, but Stevenson’s book – broadly divided into Outbreak, Escalation, Outcome and Legacy – provides a solid structure to hold on to. There’s plenty of detail if that’s the sort of thing you’re into, but I enjoyed the fact that the narrative stretched beyond the military action itself.

There’s a considered explanation of the situation that led to the commencement of hostilities, and there’s a good overview of how the end of the war set up the preconditions for the Second World War. Particular attention is paid to the process of treaties and agreements, and the way they changed the way the world worked, and led almost inevitably to continued hostilities. I imagine some people find that a little less interesting than blood, guts and trenchfoot, but I thought it was a good way to position the experience beyond the fog of war, which can end up being about statistics and equipment porn.

I really enjoyed 1914–1918 despite the occasional (though apt) feeling of slogging through mud that accompanied its digestion. I do wonder, though, whether I’ll revisit my score after reading a bit more widely on the subject? I guess it’s the prerogative of the neophyte to love an introductory text, right?

We’ll see, I guess. I imagine the next book won’t use “none the less” as much as this one, though.

(Next year will probably be a WWII year, unless I get sidetracked into some other horrible military stoush. Wish me luck.)

Nothing in This Book is True, But it’s Exactly How Things Are by Bob Frissell
My rating: one star

There’s certain things you don’t really want to see in a book. Chief among them is any line beginning “Then, according to David Icke…”

Yeah, you know. That guy.

He’s not the only person of dubious repute that’s brought into this thing. Bill Cooper shows up – always the sign of first-class research. And then there’s Drunvalo Melchizedek, who’s supposedly an intergalactic ascended master who’s here to give us all the benefit of his geometric expertise.

Yeah. Geometry. Sacred geometry. Because you do know that we each have access to a personal space/time vehicle made out of a couple of triangles, powered by fancy breathing. Right?

Right.

This is the 25th anniversary version of Frissell’s book. I first read it on release when it came out, in an edition I picked up from a now-defunct Theosophical bookstore called Adyar, in Sydney. I was a lot younger then, obviously, and I found it to be interesting. This was largely because I hadn’t dived into the esoteric side of the Internet yet, and a lot of the information I had come across was the result of a kind of game of spiritual telephone: confused and garbled.

This acceptance of muddled stuff probably explains why the disorganised tome appealed to me back then: it contains enough sense to hang the increasingly outlandish shit on.

Frissell starts off believably well-natured, but then the nuttiness sets in. There’s references for chapters, sure, but he likes to inject information without any support. This includes claims that he’s heard stuff from Thoth, or that Jews come from space, or that Lucifer invented the UFO, or that he knows the secret intentions of aliens that live on different planets. (Except you won’t see them if you go there because they’re on different vibrations you know.) The chapters don’t hang together at all, the diagrams are pretty childish (and don’t even make mathematical sense), and a whole chunk of the book is an odd infomercial for the author’s breathing workshops. There’s a shitload of stuff lifted from est, lots of mentions of biblical characters and more than a passing fixation on Star Trek, particularly the movie with whales in it.

I’ve read a lot more esoteric stuff now, and am much more aware of the whole conspirituality grift space that has become a lot more weaponised, particularly since COVID became part of our lives. I’d intended to approach this reading as amusing – you know, yogic flying, ascended masters, repeated dates passing for the end of the world, hee hee – but I found it difficult to cut the work slack when there’s sentences like this

All illness, disease, and even injury are the result of your negative beliefs

uncritically pushing harmful bullshit. Fuck that Pete Evans-style noise.

I couldn’t read this as funny this time around, and I just wondered how many people take it seriously. I think there is a big space in the world for mystery and the inexplicable, and stuff like this, seemingly written to capitalise on the desire of people to believe in something kind of magical seems… cruel. Because you know those people aren’t going to ascend to Christ-consciousness using geometric vehicles and vaguely altered breathing.

This is making me more irritated the more I think about it. So I’m going to stop: fuck this.

I feel like I’m getting back into the swing of reading, though that could be the relief of finally being through the Stevenson tome, which occasionally seemed to stretch on forever. Here’s hoping that the rest of the year will be a bit snappier.

Maybe I should stick to shorter stuff for a while. Hm.

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.

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