Not a bad year for reading. To be honest I would have liked to have read more but, well, a whole bunch of things got in the way. Given the obstacles the year has presented I am proud of the short stories and poetry I have had published as well as proud of the draft of The Foreigner which I laboured over. And even given all of this, I still made time to read a nice range of literature which has nourished me in a variety of ways.
Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh
I saw the movie when I was about 17 years old and became an absolutely massive fan. Strange then that it took so long for me to get around to reading the source novel. Perhaps I was subconsciously put off by the book being written in a phonetic transcription of a thick Scottish brogue. I needn’t have, though – I slipped into understanding it effortlessly and from there I was right back in there with Renton, Sick Boy, Spud et al as if I was getting to know old mates all over again and watch afresh the eroding of their hopes and dreams through the variety of addictions (drugs, booze, violence) that the group indulge in to manage the brutal reality of simply living.
The book was Welsh’s first and the origins of it in short fiction became evident as I worked my way through it. And this is probably the books greatest strength and also its weakness: strength in that we see our favourite characters fleshed out through the vignettes, but a weakness in that as the book progresses (and the fact that there are more characters in the book than the film) the vibrant panoramic scope of the first part of the book becomes merely fragmented and bitty at the end.
It’s a great book. But I prefer the movie on this one.
Weird Scenes inside the Canyon – Dave McGowan
I must admit that I spend a lot of my free-time watching youtube videos about conspiracy theories. Whichever way you approach the subject, they’re fascinating. I’ve looked at them all: from shape-shifting reptilian illuminati…to NASA blurring out artificial glass structures on the moon…to MK ULTRA government trauma-based mind control creating Manchurian Candidate-style assassins…to the thing that crashed into the twin towers being a spherical metal alien thing. As a writer, my ability to suspend disbelief and enter into another, vastly divergent, view of the world is an indispensable pre-requisite for such a hobby. Now, I’m not saying I believe them, but I apply a stringently open-minded approach to every topic I investigate (a valuable discipline regardless of outcome) and have learned a lot about history, politics, and the economy from the various background research required to be able to critical engage with the often very persuasive arguments.
However, stumbling across a video one day (embedded) of author Dave McGowan speaking about the manufactured nature of the 1960s counter-culture I was struck by several of the odd occurrences and co-incidences. Why did so many of the musicians come from military intelligence backgrounds? What was the function of the mysterious Lookout Mountain military facility slap bang in the centre of the hippy movement? Why did so many people die in unexplained fires or commit suicide? How did the whole infrastructure (radio stations, live venues) just spring up in an area then not known for music just for the purpose of promoting these new bands? Why did none of the band members ever get drafted?
Jim Morrison and his high ranking father on-board the ship instrumental in the controversial Gulf of Tonkin
Now, I love that period. In my late-teens and early twenties I defined my whole approach to art and life was inspired by Jim Morrison and psychedelic music, art, and philosophy of the time. So the premise of McGowan’s book really challenged me to set aside any prejudices and, not one to shy away from a challenge, I ordered his book. It blew my mid. I am now convinced that the whole growth of the Laurel Canyon West-coast scene is inextricably bound up somehow with military intelligence operations. This book pulled my personal gods down from their pedestals…and for that, I owe Dave McGowan thanks. Sadly, he died of cancer not long after the recording of the show. Just a coincidence, nothing to worry about.
The Golden Pavilion – Yukio Mishima
The loneliest book I have ever read. Mishima is one of Japan’s towering literary legends – and as famous for his homosexuality, right-wing nationalism, and failed government coup ending in ritual seppuku as much as for his work. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature three times and inexplicably never won it. Well, inexplicable if you overlook his homosexuality, right-wing nationalism and failed government coup ending in ritual seppuku.
Kinkaku-ji, The Golden Pavilion, in Kyoto, Japan
The book tells the story of a young Buddhist monk who hears of the titular Pavilion, in Kyoto, and before he has even seen it is in love with the beauty he imagines of it. He eventually comes to study at the temple in training to be a Buddhist monk and finds himself ripped in half by a desire to step out from his Buddhist robes and embrace life…but at each crucial moment when such a choice is before him the image of the ethereal beauty pierces him and dissuades him. The conflict increases, as does his unhappiness, and he realises that in order to assert control over his life a dramatic measure is needed.
Mishima in the bara-kei photography session
Given Mishima’s political stance and obsession with body-building I was expecting the translation to be Hemingway-esque in its brusque manliness. So I was surprised to find the most exquisite prose I have ever read. Page after page is littered with poetry of the most sublime kind. The only other time I have been so moved by the depth and nuance of feeling from a piece of writing was De Profundis by Oscar Wilde. But whereas Wilde adorned himself in purple velvet and silver and hid behind witty epigrams, Mishma’s life was brutal, hard, lonely, and dark. I fully intend to read much more of this complicated man whose soul I can see possessed such beauty and grace despite the cold environs which produced him.
The Sound of the Mountain – Yasunari Kawabata
Another Japanese literary giant. This is a sensitive and closely-observed portrait of an average Japanese family. The head of the family, the aging Shingo, is beginning to lose his memory and experiences mild hallucinatory episodes such as, well, hearing the “sound” of the mountain. Also in his family is his wife Yasuko, son Shuichi, daughter-in-law Kikuko, and daughter Fusako. Relations in the family are strained as it is revealed that Shuichi is cheating on his wife while Fusako has left her husband and returned to the family home with her two daughters. The situation complicates when Shingo realises that from his admiration for the quiet fortitude Kikuko shows in tolerating Shuichi’s affair, as well as her attentiveness around the house, he develops a paternal affection for her greater than that of his own daughter, whose life choices he criticises. As the trials and tribulations tick along Shingo assumes a responsibility for the poor choices of his children and he reflects on his own successes/failures as a husband/father.
And yet, the book is not without consolation. In line with Shingo’s own nature inspired hallucinations, Kawabata’s lyrical style imbues the pages with a down-to-earth simplicity which touches on poetry – albeit a very different, more prosaic sort, than that of Mishima.
Kawabata in 1938
My only criticism of the book is that each chapter seems to end with a mundane life details described in a way as to feel charged with atmosphere and potent in its implications. At times this is very powerful, but more often than not it feels repetitive. I later learned that the book was originally serialised, and this explains it. Still, this is a small criticism.
Unlike Mishima, Kawabata actually won the Nobel Prize. However, he felt so guilty at receiving it instead of Mishima that he became depressed and killed himself too.
The Plague – Albert Camus
Ah, Camus. I’ve written a lot about the problems I have with L’Etranger and Camus’ whole “absurdist” philosophy as a whole here. Still, I thought the idea of The Plague sounded intriguing: a plague descends on the Algerian city of Oran and the inhabitants have to reconcile living with the ever present threat of death with their inability to leave the town due to the quarantine imposed upon it. Supposedly the book then explores the human condition blah blah blah. I didn’t like it. At all. The main characters all do a stand up job of monitoring the progress of the disease and administrating over the running of the town but that is essentially it. The book is stubbornly un-heroic and unemotional with most of the characters ruminating superficially about the disease and their plight while those throwing caution to the wind or being consumed with desperation or angst are relegated to the background. As a result, the book is…well…dull. However, like my review of L’Etranger, I think the book succeeds in what it sets out to do…it’s just that I disagree with what Camus is trying to do. For me, the whole of Camus’ output has a condescending and anti-human tone which criticises constantly without offering anything constructive because it’s, like, erm, pointless. Later in the year I read The Fall and this opinion was confirmed. Unfortunately though, like L’Etranger, I think it’s a book which serves as a major reference point in the discussion of post-war Existentialism and should be read for that reason.
Lilith – The First Eve: Historical and Psychological Aspects of the Dark Feminine – Siegmund Hurwitz
by John Collier
In addition to drafting and attempting to get The Foreigner published, I am also busy drafting an older book I have written called The Children of Lilith. The book is about a man who finds a murdered body of a prostitute and the shock of it shakes his comfortable middle-class life to its foundations. The Lilith of the title is the fabled first wife of Adam in the Garden of Eden – a complex figure said to have been created at the same time and from the same material as Adam but who was expelled from Eden for refusing to defer to Adam; specifically, she refused to consent to missionary position sex. For this “crime” she was cast into the desert (in some versions, The Red Sea) where she became a malignant demoness who eats new-born babies and seduces men in their sleep. She is associated with the Babylonian and Sumerian goddesses Ishtar and Inanna as well as being the matron of prostitutes.
The book is made up of two parts: the first catalogues historical manifestations of Lilith in both exoteric culture (e.g. in depictions on pottery designed to ward her off in order to protect new borns) as well as describing esoteric interpretations of Lilith such as found in the Kabbalah. The second part of the book is a Jungian interpretation and in the conclusion the writer (who is Jewish) makes the point that Lilith is an integral part of the Jewish psyche and an archetype necessary for Jewish people to encounter in order to individuate. The ethno-centric nature of this conclusion seemed quite at odds with typical academic positions on the psychological relevance of myths (a la Joseph Campbell) that emphasise their universal applicability and even irked me at first as – not being Jewish – I felt the conclusion to be a bit divisive and exclusive. And yet, having thought about it, I can see relevance in such a conclusion: after all, myth structures shape the values of individual cultures so it isn’t really surprising that certain cultures may have attributed a value to a particular myth arc or mythological character as to give it a charged resonance in the psyches of members of that culture that it wouldn’t have in others. All that remains is for me to investigate what figures resonate deep within my own psyche.
The Sacred Prostitute: Eternal Aspect of the Feminine – Nancy Qualls-Corbett
After seeing this book recommended alongside the Hurwitz book I ordered it. As mentioned, Lilith is associated with prostitutes and in particular the practice of Sacred Prostitution. A rarefied concept now, in the civilisations of Sumer and Babylon prostitution was split into profane prostitution (such as we have today) and sacred prostitution whereby the practitioners assume the roles of Gods and the act is symbolic of the heiros gamos or sacred wedding. The loss of this sacred aspect is written into the subtext of my novel The Children of Lilith as a common thread in my work is the loss of understanding we have of an orienting myth structure in our society and the consequent spiritual lost-ness we suffer from.
However, having said that, the book lacks the historical dimension that Lilith – The First Eve had and focuses solely on the Jungian psychological aspect which I often found a bit too subjective. As a result, I didn’t find the book as personally thought-provoking nor as useful from a research point of view as the Hurwitz book.
A Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers – Xiao Lu Guo
I really didn’t like this. In fact, I felt so strongly about it that I dedicated a blog post to the problems I saw in it. Now, I don’t like bashing other people’s work. I know how hard it is to write a book and get it published and have an automatic base-line respect for anyone who has achieved both. But I felt very strongly about both this book and the way the likes of The Independent fawned over it.
In the interests of fairness, I’ll give Guo’s subsequent books a go (and I’m curious to watch one of her documentary films), but I’d be lying if I said I am expecting to become a fan.
Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert Heinlein
Whilst quite a fan of Sci-Fi movies, I’ve never really been interested in reading Sci-Fi novels. So maybe it’s strange that I ended up reading “the most famous Sci-Fi Fantasy novel of all time”. It’s been on my radar for a while though; since my early twenties when I became fascinating with 1960s cult leader Charles Manson and heard that Stranger in a Strange Land was one of the few books that Manson permitted members of his “Family” to read. However, when questioned in 1981 Manson claimed to have never even read the book. Oh well, nevermind. Regardless of such infernal seals-of-approval the book is well-renowned for offering a penetrating socio-political satire of sex, religion, and contemporary culture through the story of Martian-born human Michael Valentine Smith. Apparently the idea of the book came from Heinlein’s wife who got the idea from The Jungle Book but instead of being raised by animals the protagonist would be raised by Martians.
The first part of the book concerns the legal and political wrangling regarding the status of the Man from Mars and the massive fortune and clout he has at his disposal but is too innocent to know about or comprehend if he did. He is helped in this by the charismatic Jubal Harshaw who ends up, reluctantly, serving to introduce Michael to the ways life is lived on earth and, for his part, Michael excels in his understanding and ability to navigate this strange new world while offering a fresh perspective on the complexities and absurdities of human society that most people are too wrapped up in to realise.
The second part of the book details the cult which springs up around Michael which has some, erm, progressive attitudes to sex which make it understandable what Charlie Manson would have liked if he had read it and did indeed inspire one Timothy Zell to set up a church run along similar lines. At first, Heinlein was asked to cut a lot of this conflating of sex and religion because of its controversial nature and also due to the fact that the submitted manuscript was too long. Heinlein commented that the story “is supposed to be a completely free-wheeling look at contemporary human culture from the nonhuman viewpoint of the Man from Mars…No sacred cows of any sort…the two major things which I am attacking are the two biggest, fattest sacred cows of all, the two that every writer is supposed to give at least lip service to: the implicit assumptions of our Western culture concerning religion and concerning sex.”
Despite reading the chunky full version of the manuscript published in 1991 by Heinlein’s widow I raced through the book and thoroughly enjoyed the characters and was struck by the believability of the Man from Mars’ attempts to understand human society as well as articulate to his curious disciples the philosophy he had grown up with on Mars. I commented in my blog post on A Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which I read immediately before this that the two books are essentially ploughing the same furrow…and of the two Stranger in a Strange Land struck me, bizarrely, as the more believable of the two.