The end of the year is coming up fast. By which I mean to say that at time of writing it’s tomorrow.
So I figured I should really get off my arse and review some of the books I’ve consumed in the time since I last posted.
(Which is, as ever, far too long ago.)
They probably won’t be too long, but still… here we go.
The Women’s Decameron by Julia Voznesenskaya
My rating: four stars
Earlier in the year I read the OG Decameron. You know, the one involving people escaping the Black Death? The one about tales being told to pass the time? That one.
THIS one is the same.
I mean, obviously it’s different because it’s set in Soviet Leningrad. But the idea behind it: a group of people in isolation tell stories to pass the time, thus revealing both themselves and the time in which they live in the process.
Voznesenskaya’s text zips by. Each of the women in the book – rather than a mixture of men and women, we’re told stories by new mothers stuck in a maternity ward – represents a facet of the Soviet system, from the poor and down-at-heel to the snooty and the educated. Despite their differences, the universality of the topics under discussion brings them together.
The Women’s Decameron is funny, yes, but it’s also vaguely terrifying. Behind the jollity of discussion there’s hammer-blows of realism: the cracks in the system, the prevalence of alcoholism and the constant possibility of imprisonment emerge as real concerns. The work feels like eavesdropping, mostly, a delightful (and also shaming) ear on the private lives of a group of women in a place where communication is strictly controlled. It’s so much richer than I’d expected, and is well worth a look – whether you’re coming at it from Boccaccio or Brezhnev.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: four stars
This is one of those books that I always felt I should read but never actually got around to reading, until now. As you most likely know, this is a story told by Humbert Humbert – a paedophile with a name so good he was given it twice – about his attraction to a girl named Dolores Haze, who the world seemingly only knows as Lolita.
Let’s get this out of the way straight up: I have no clue how some of the blurbed authors can possibly construe this story as a love story. I can see how people reading the book when younger might come to that conclusion, but adults? Come on, man. What we have here is an incredible story – Nabokov’s prose insinuates itself into your psyche – but there’s never any time at which (at least, as far as I could tell) the narrating nonce is considered anything other than a monster.
That said, the story is compelling. I don’t imagine I would ever find enjoyed an appropriate word to use in relation to the book, but I had to keep going. I had to see whether Dolores survives the abuse. I had to see whether Humbert gets caught. And there was the feeling that I couldn’t just drop out halfway, even if I wanted to: there’s a weird grip this text gets over the reader. It’s a bit like watching Wake In Fright or The Boys – one can appreciate the portrait presented, and the skill inherent in creating such a world, without wanting to revisit it any time soon. I’m glad I’ve read this, finally, but I doubt I’ll ever reread it, and not for any wowserish reason: it’s just because the text is so raw and punishing.
My reading of Lolita was prompted by the excellent Lolita Podcast, hosted by Jamie Loftus. I cannot recommend it highly enough, whether you’ve read the book or not, as it engages with a lot of the thorny issues around this text. It’s informative – I did not know Nabokov was himself the victim of child sexual abuse – and presented in a way that aims to deal with the problematic interpretations some have drawn from the work. It’s essential.
Four Past Midnight by Stephen King
My rating: four stars
When I was a kid we moved to New Zealand for a few years. We returned to Australia when it was time for me to enter Year 11, and I remember having a copy of Four Past Midnight with me on the first day of school. I’m not sure what the logic was there, but until I made some friends, I worked my way through its pages, safe in the knowledge that if anyone were keen on trying to have a go I could put it into an athletic sock and cudgel the ever-living fuck out of them.
The book contains a quartet of novellas. Best known – largely because they’ve been adapted into films, including the frankly fuckawful Secret Window – are The Langoliers (a story about a flight through time) and Secret Window, Secret Garden, a story about an author confronted with accusations of plagiarism. The Library Policeman is about fear, while The Sun Dog is about a cursed camera.
Each of these stories is engaging on their own merits, even when (as in The Library Policeman) King seems to be revisiting familiar themes. What each tale does well is construct a characters and locations that feel more than just set dressing: the coterie of alcoholics in The Library Policeman are strikingly vivid, as are the passengers caught in the trap of The Langoliers. It’s also interesting to me that The Sun Dog presages the emergence of Koji Suzuki’s work on the transmission of a curse through media.
As a collection, this is a pretty strong showing: the stories are enticing and do precisely what they’re meant to. King’s work transitions to audiobook very well: he is, after all, a man telling ghost stories around a fire, which is the sort of thing that benefits from the voice.
Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett
My rating: four stars
This novel is one of the sort that the ’70s produced in abundance: a thriller based in historical fact with enough wiggle room to allow for authorial fancy. It’s the work that brought Follett best-selling success, and it’s pretty easy to see why: it goes down like popcorn and features perennial period bad guys, the Nazis.
Fake armies were a tool used by the Allies in WWII. The idea was that these phantom forces would confound the Germans and allow the D-Day invasion to be executed a lot more forcefully. Follett’s book takes the view that maybe a spy had found out about these fake armies… and if so, how could he be stopped?
I saw the 1981 film of this novel when I was a child. In it, Donald Sutherland plays die Nadel, the titular Needle, a spy beloved of Hitler. I remember enjoying the film a lot at the time, though I’d watched it almost 40 years ago.
When I finished this book – I listened to this during one of several December drives to Sydney – I watched the film again. Let’s just say it has not aged very well.
Follett’s work, on the other hand, remains well-oiled and vital. The world created is richer, and the stakes appear higher than they do in Marquand’s version: we are taken inside the highest corridors of British power and the magnitude of the struggle to find the German chameleon is ably conveyed. There’s violence, there’s a portrait of compartmentalised life necessary for undercover survival… and there’s a bit where high officers are called cunts.
I understand that this kind of book is reaching that point where it’s almost a curio: something that seems oddly remote – the ’70s are half a century away, after all – and the way it engages with certain topics seems at once quaint and also a bit wrong. For me, though, that’s something of the appeal.
This is airport literature of the finest type: it drip-feeds a story and ratchets tension higher at every opportunity. I’ve been meaning to read more Follett – Pillars of the Earth in particular – so I’ll be interested to see if the excitement level matches this one.
Misery by Stephen King
My rating: four stars
This was one of the first King books I ever read, back when I was about 12 years old. I’d already read The Shining and this was my next taste. My grandmother bought me a copy, and I still have it, hardback, somewhere.
My memories of the book had faded by the time I cued this up on a drive to Brisbane. I had more recall of the movie (and of Kathy Bates’ brilliant performance) than I did of the original text, though I remembered that some of the descriptions of writing seemed particularly striking to me when younger.
(I would like to pause here to relate that there was a Broadway production of Misery that starred Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalfe and holy fuck I wish I had seen that.)
The book – one of King’s shorter works – cracks along. There’s none of the supernatural stuff that’s his usual stock-in-trade. Instead, we have a story about an obsessed fan and the lengths she’ll go to in order to ensure her favourite character isn’t written out of existence. True, the author’s handling of mental illness is very 1987, but there’s a personal touch here that’s difficult to ignore. It’s a book about writers, writing, and about the relationships between creators and those who consume what’s created.
It’s also – and this I didn’t really get when I was younger – massively about drug addiction. King has since admitted as much, but holy fuck, it this a work about being hooked bad. Annie Wilkes is the lumbering figure of addiction, and while it’s not the greatest metaphor, knowing more about the author’s history with drugs it’s pretty easily unpacked.
That said, it’s something that sits beside the story. This can be consumed purely as a thriller, albeit one with keen insight into the writing process, and a grudging appreciation of Penmarric-style books. The image of a writer falling through the hole in the paper seems as appropriate when I read it first, long before I’d ever written anything myself. Misery is a short blast with some toe-curling violence that positions itself in King’s universe as a bit of an outlier – though it’s one which I’d argue offers a better portrait of the artist than some of his longer works.
(Lindsay Crouse, the narrator of this audiobook is excellent. Her performance undoubtedly is influenced by Bates, but it’s great.)
Francis Bacon: Revelations by Mark Stevens & Annalyn Swan
My rating: five stars
This one’s a doorstop. A proper tome: a chunk of paper and cardboard that’d make a reasonable dent on your foot were you unfortunate enough to drop it.
It’s also, I think, the best biography of Francis Bacon – “old cunty” to his friends – that I’ve read.
This is quite the pronouncement. I’m a bit of a Bacon fan – I find his canvases endlessly fascinating, though I do understand that this is probably Basic Bitch-level art appreciation – and one of my comfort reads is Dan Farson’s The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon. I’ve read most of the recent biographies of the artist and while this one pays tribute to those which have come before, it’s on another level entirely.
Stevens and Swan have, in Revelations, constructed a biography at a remove. Unlike Michael Peppiatt, Dan Farson or David Sylvester, they were not contemporaries of the grumpily grand artist, and therefore have no investment in how they appear to the reader. For the most part, they do not appear: the text unfurls Bacon’s life in an engaging but unobtrusive way. Like a good soundtrack, the authors’ work frames the action and does not draw undue attention to itself: it lets you focus on what’s in front of you. There’s no question of what their angle is: it’s to tell the story of a remarkable life.
The book is excellently produced, with many black-and-white images through the text, as well as few colour sections. Bacon’s works are reproduced as well as you would expect, given the enormous reduction in scale necessary. There’s hundreds of pages of notes and sources. The tone is even and scholarly, though not dry: the time and place the artist inhabited is brought forth clearly, though occasionally without some of the bitchiness other authors bring to bear.
Instead, the story that is revealed – while obviously one of tremendous artistic and monetary success – is one of tragedy, of sadness. Bacon was a chancer, and a bit of a deadshit, but the blows death dealt to his circle were titanic. The sense of trauma that filled Bacon’s life is communicated here more effectively than elsewhere, and it accurately captures the twisting pain locked into the man’s work.
This is the one to read.
Maestro by Peter Goldsworthy
My rating: four stars
I, like a lot of people my age, had to read Maestro for the HSC. I remember liking it well enough at the time, and certain images had stayed with me in the intervening years, but until now – today, actually – I hadn’t reread it.
The copy I read today came from a street library in a nearby village, and is full of school library stamps and some other student’s red-pen mark-up, so it seems fitting.
The novel tells the story of a family that moves from Adelaide to Darwin. Mostly, it’s the story of Paul Crabbe, a 15-year-old boy who’s a bit of a piano player who is sent to improve his technique under the tutelage of Eduard Keller, an Austrian marooned in the heat of a Northern Territory pub.
When I first read this book, it seemed straightforward enough: it’s about WWII, obliquely. About the Nazis, about death camps. About Wagner, and how culture can act as blinders until it’s too late to act. It’s about intergenerational relationships – between teacher and pupil, and the vicarious bond that can inform the acts of parents to children. All of this is presented in the fecund hothouse of Darwin: a place where the land is alive and the people are gripped in some kind of base fever.
But reading it again (it’s short: 70 minutes will see you through, if that) I felt that the work is, more keenly, about growth, and about the fact that one never realises the value of the moment while one is experiencing it. Had I been a more apt pupil I probably would have picked that up at the time, but it really stuck out this time around: this is a book about choices, and about how maturity is almost inevitably about managing how you handle the road less taken.
Can I know that mine was a foolish, innocent world, a world of delusion and feeling and ridiculous dreams – a world of music – and still love it?
There is, of course, more than that to the book. The unfolding of relationships, the flowering of sexuality, and the attempts adults make to outrun their adulthood all feature. But what stuck with me today was the regret that soughs through the text.
Once again, coming back to something I thought I understood when I was younger has uncovered something more.
Deserter by Junji Ito
My rating: three stars
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll know that I’m a bit of a fan of Junji Ito, the Japanese writer and illustrator who creates perfectly ick stories – both in short and long formats – and who can’t seem to let any opportunity to present a dripping corpse (or a girl with long hair) go by.
Normally, I’m on board with Ito’s work. I really enjoyed Uzumaki, Tomie, and his take on Frankenstein. Here, however, we have another collection of his shorter stories. They’re culled, too, from his earlier works, so both the writing and illustration aren’t as accomplished as they would later become.
What Deserter presents are ideas of stories. They’re weird, true, but they can also be summed up in a few words: crazy cultists. Shit babysitter. Fucked-up hair. Overprotective father.
There’s some properly spooky moments in this collection, but they’re few and far between. The scares are telegraphed pretty obviously in most instances, and the curation of this book seems a little less on the ball than usual. There’s a couple of shocks that obviously seem otherworldly due to my unfamiliarity with parts of Japanese culture, but for the most part they’re a bit pedestrian.
Don’t get me wrong: there are some interesting ideas here. It’s just that for the most part they seem to be of the half-baked variety. Occasionally there’s one that lands a chill finger within, but the hit rate isn’t great. I’m uncertain if this is due to my increasing familiarity with the author’s work, or whether it’s the case that I need to focus on his longer creations. Either way, this was a bit of a bummer.
The Art of the Occult: A Visual Sourcebook for the Modern Mystic by S. Elizabeth
My rating: two stars
On the face of it, this book would be exactly the sort of thing that I was into. You know, esoteric artwork, magic(k)al illustration presented in a way that could inspire or provide insight at least.
It’s a shame that this book doesn’t succeed at what it sets out to do.
The reproductions are good, true, but the range of art skews slightly more modern than I expected. Additionally, the text seems particularly thin: there’s little insight and the divisions of illustration aren’t all that well defined or useful.
I was bummed that this book wasn’t as good as I’d hoped, or as the subject deserved. There’s better books on very particular types of occult artwork – especially when it comes to alchemy, or the wealth of grimoire reproductions available – and I can’t really recommend you read this over something like The Golden Game.
There’s still a great book to be written about occult art in total. I just hope it comes along sometime soon.
This will likely be the last set of book reviews I crank out this year: the next post you have to look forward to is my annual recap of stuff I liked, which hopefully will be up here tomorrow, assuming I get it all finished.
Maybe my 2023 resolution should be to start writing things earlier?
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.
Well nothing will get me to attempt Lolita against except peer pressure, but I like your take on in.
Follet’s Pillars of the Earth is the only book I have physically thrown from my person in repulsion and disgust, but translating that vibe to 70s thriller seems perfect for him.
That absolutely makes sense: I can imagine that reading Lolita as a man is much less confronting than for a woman. I do not understand how it’s meant to be a great love story: it’s abuse, straight up.
The only book I’ve thrown has been The Illuminatus Trilogy because honestly fuck that hippie nonsense. Can absolutely recommend Nazi spy Follett though: particularly as an audiobook. Supremely moreish.