What I’m reading

After watching the movie a couple of months ago, I picked up the book Cloud Atlas a couple of weeks ago. I’m near finishing it now. It’s an interesting read and a bold story. It contains some virtuoso writing, and though some might consider it high-brow, it’s pretty easy reading. I have nothing to say against it except that I put it down. I’m not sure that it’ll leave many traces in me. I could be wrong – the last 80 odd pages might clinch it for me.

As always, I read several books in parallel. I read Everyman last week. I picked it up thinking it was another book, but once in my hand thought, bugger it, I’ll read this instead. Some years ago, I listened to the audio version of it, which profoundly affected me. In the years since I’ve, much of the book haunts me at different times.

Reading it the old-fashioned way was not quite the same. This ground had already been broken, so there was not the surprise of that first reading. And though I prefer to read than be read to, the experience this time reading in the comfort of my own home was distinctly different to that listening to it whilst out and about, riding on the tram and walking the dark and wintry streets of before.

Back then, I was a body and a pair of eyes observing the world about me even as I listened to the book. As I listened, I would find myself reflecting on the story whilst checking the things around me. In a way, those observations contributed to the experience of the story, and the words themselves, profound, carefully weighted, true, became a pseudo commentary of my life and observations of it.

Back then, it resonated very powerfully with me. Many of the themes have stayed with me since and, as I get older, recur in my mind at regular intervals. While the book as a whole did not have the same impact on me now as it did then, those same passages jumped out at me.

I tried talking to someone about it the other day, but I’m not sure that she properly understood. A book like this will resonate differently with different types. I think it speaks more to the male experience than the female, and then more so to the man vital and active and with a strong ego. In full flood – in the prime of life – those attributes feel rich and abundant. They enhance the experience of life, I’m sure. But as the body declines, as this novel charts, so too does the experience of these things. The spirit is willing yet perhaps, but the body has changed, and, most pertinently, the world no longer sees you as it once did. That’s a scary, desperate realisation, and much of what makes up the male persona – particularly the alpha male – is about preserving and hanging onto that as long as possible. To become frail is a bitter existential pill.

I read a book called Gun Machine by Warren Ellis. This was an excellent book of its kind, an enjoyable, quickly consumed bit of entertainment. The writing is skilful, but reading it is pretty much like the reading of something on holiday. Reading it, you’re immersed, but when it’s finished, it’s gone.

A book I had a less favourable impression of is Haters. This may well become a movie, apparently, and I guess I can see the potential in the premise. All the same, I didn’t enjoy this though I read it to the end. The writing is no better than average, and there’s something just a little poisonous about the story.

No-one Loves a Policeman sounded like it might be interesting. It was, culturally, but it had none of the atmosphere I was promised on the blurb.

Last month, I finally completed a book I started reading years ago: The Sailor From Gibraltar, by Marguerite Duras. She’s an author I greatly admire, and there is a lot of great writing in this book, but it struggled to hold me. Towards the end, I thought it got a bit weird, though this is not intended as a conventional novel. It’s about obsession and aimlessness, detachment and alienation.

Mario Puzo wrote the Godfather books, and so it was on that basis I picked up one of his books going cheap: The Dark Arena. It’s set in Germany after WW2, centring on the occupying forces – and one in particular – and their relationship with the local Germans. It’s a shady story that feels true enough but which also feels a bit dated. You can imagine it selling ok back when it was written – 1953 – but reading it now, it seems archaic in some way. I read it in fits and starts, with neither pleasure nor displeasure.

Finally, I read The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber. It’s one of those books you find in the business section of the bookshop and is one of the cult books of its kind. This is on one of my reading lists, so I caught up with it. It was apropos given that I’d just taken over a small business when I set about reading. I’m not a big fan of the folksy style of writing these help books, though I guess it helps to digest. Much of what I read here was eminently sensible and more, but a lot I think I already knew. It was good to be reminded nonetheless, and it did prompt me to get more involved in the business – just as I needed to.

I have a big pile of books waiting by my bed to be read in the months ahead. Some I picked up from second-hand book shops. I bought a bunch online through the Book Depository and a couple in a real-life bookshop. Looking forward to getting stuck into them, as always.

What I’m reading

The other weelk in a suburban bookstore I saw the issue of some contemporary classics at a good price. The book I selected and took home with me was Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow.

In recent years Scandinavian thrillers and police procedurals have been all the rage, and none bigger than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Long before them though – well, about 10 years before – there was Peter Hoeg’s book. In it’s time Smilla was critically acclaimed and a popular bestseller, and was later made into an ok film. For mine it is a more entertaining and interesting book than thn TGWTDT, and much, much better written.

I dimly recall reading it the first time, curiosity, as in all the best books, urging to keep reading to find out what happens next. I have better memories of seeing the movie. This must have been about 1998. I had been at work and was sent home sick. I caught the train back to South Yarra, where I was living at the time, and stopped by the video store to find omething to watch. It was cool but fine winters day. I suppose I got home at about 2pm. I lay on the couch and slipped in the video of Smilla.

There’s a different feeling being home when you’re not normally, or shouldn’t be. It’s not necessarily illicit, but there is something alluring to it – unless, of course, you’re too ill to appreciate it. I know on such days I give myself a leave pass to pretty well do as I please – read, watch TV, nap. It’s only on those days – otherwise I’m studious in avoiding the simple pleasures in favour of being industrious.

In any case I was home sick, though not badly enough to feel incapacitated. I was free to lay on my couch without guilt and watch a movie in the middle of a school day. The movie was good, though it seemed a little outlandish. It was full of atmosphere and cemented my impressions of the book as being great entertainment.

It was with this memory I took to reading the book again. Once more I found myself absorbed in it. Hoeg is an interesting writer, more ambitious, more cerebral than Stig Larsson. It certainly doesn’t slow the action, but it adds a twist to it. Like Larsson with Lisbeth Salander, Hoeg created a truly memorable character in Miss Smilla – stubborn, independent, perverse, determined, a pain in the arse often but with a fierce sense of justice and loyalty.

Lisbeth Salander is the best thing in The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo – the other characters otherwise vaguely drawn or just bland, including the main proragonist, Blomkvist. Not so with Smilla, where she as a character she is backed up by a fascinating, sometimes compelling supporting cast. I raced through the book once more.

At the samme time as I bought this, I bought another book, The Women in Black, by Madeleine St John. It’s a small book centred around a young girl as she gets a summer job in a big department store in Sydney leading into the sixties. It’s a witty, clever book that records an Australia coming out of the war and on the cusp of transforming itself from a dull, Anglo-Saxon outpost at the bottom of the world into the progressive, modern and cosmopolitan society that exists in at least some parts of Australia today. It’s lovely written, with that light, occasionally caustic, very feminine touch very much in evidence. It was a pleasure to read, and fascinating for the snapshot of a familiar place taken before I was born.

Throughout this I have also been reading another Victor Serge book – The Case of Comrade Tulayev. This can be read as a very bitter satire, though clearly the storyline is representative of so many things that actually occurred in Stalinist Russia. In brief, a party official is shot dead on a Moscow street. The party machine whirrs into motion, less interested in finding the actual culprit than in finding scapegoats, evening scores, and ridding themselves of those with ideas no longer fashionable. The book itself is almost episodic as one party apparatchik after another is undermined, arrested, locked up, and ultimately forced to admit to crimes never committed. This, of course, happened many thousands, perhaps millions, of times in reality.

Victor Serge is a fascinating writer and man. His is the clear, uncorrupted view of a man who was once a believer turned weary realist. There’s wit in his stories here and there, though very much of the bitter variety, and you figure in person that Serge might have come across as being doomed, and completely resigned to it. He was on the run from Stalinist agents when he died of a heart attack just after WW2.

Incidentally, there’s no going past the evil crimes of Nazi Germany, and I still maintain that the holocaust is the single worst event in human history. That being said, I don’t think there has ever been a colder, more ruthless regime than that of Stalin. Hitler might have been made, but he believed in things, even if they were evil. Stalin believed in nothing but his own advancement, and he was prepared to sacrifice anyone to promote it. Hitler was a great advocate for the German people, where for Stalin his countrymen were nothing more than tools to be manipulated, and bodies to be climbed over. In Hitler’s Germany it was deadly to be Jewish and Gypsy and so on, and fraught with risk otherwise, but at least if you were Aryan you were deemed to be above the muck. Stalin was more democratic – there was no-one, ever, who was safe. He was cold, calculating, ruthlessly indifferent to the fate of others, and he built a party organisation in that image, in which every one of them acted in the same way – because they must if they were survive. I doubt there was a darker period of human existence than that in Stalinist Russia.

Moving on. Last week I picked up an entirely unexpected book for me – The Passing Bells, by Phillip Rock. It’s set just before and during WW1, and claims on the dust jacket that it was a pre-cursor to Downton Abbey. It seems a fair point now that I’m halfway reading it. It’s certainly not bad reading, and that period is always interesting. It’s not the sort of book I’ll normally read, but exceptions must be made. I’ll enjoy it, but won’t bother reading any more in the series.

I’m also reading, very quickly, a book I read when I was a kid – The Osterman Weekend, by Robert Ludlum. I picked it up for $2.95 or something, and it’s a guilty pleasure.

Otherwise I’m browsing the usual variety of non-fiction books: Archetypes, Smarter Selling, 1938: Hitler’s Gamble, How to Get Where You Are to Where You Want to Be (a gift). There are probably another 10 books beside my bed, from story collections I dip into occasionally, to books I intend to read next.

What I read

There’s a box of books I’m about to take out into the garage for storing which represents most of my reading over the last 4-5 months. For a change I thought it might be interesting to list the books I read.

In no particular order:

  • The Memory Chalet – Tony Judt
  • Dark Avenues – Ivan Bunin (One of my favourite writers. Beautiful, occasionally poignant stories that draw you into the scene like few other writers can. I can particularly relate in many ways.)
  • Report On Myself – Gregoire Bouillier (Not for everyone, but really enjoyed. Terrifically talented and engaging writer. Sort of dude I’d happily hang out with.)
  • Advice to a Young Wife from an Old Mistress – Michael Drury (Read this years ago having picked it up cheap in a remainder bin. Meant a lot to me then – brokenhearted at the time – it seemed profound and wise. Not so much this time.)
  • Lost – Alice Liechtenstein
  • Care of the Soul – Thomas More
  • Driven – James Sallis (Sequel to Drive – and hopefully will make a movie of this too. Not in the same class as Drive, and plotting clearly not a strength of Sallis, still a very good read.)
  • Stardust – Joseph Kanon (Has great qualities as a writer in terms of narrative and atmosphere, but always find his male protagonists limp and unattractive. Read all his stuff till now, but no more.)
  • Before I Go To Sleep – S.J. Watson (Great premise and well reviewed. Being made into a movie apparently, and made for it. Picked the end a fair way out, but I always do, so… Otherwise, a tad over-written for my taste.)
  • The Ego Trick – Julian Baggini (Fascinating read.)
  • Button, Button (uncanny stories) – Richard Matheson
  • True – Riikka Pulkkinen
  • A War In Words – Svetlana Palmer & Sarah Wallis
  • The Substance of Style – Virginia Postrel
  • Drive – James Sallis (Great movie made of this great-ish book. Very similar in tone and characterisations, but movie tidied up the plot a little – to its benefit. Very good read.)
  • Salt River – James Sallis (At his best, a very good author. At his worst, a tad self-indulgent. This is awfully slow and very self indulgent. Doesn’t really get anywhere, boring.)
  • The Song of Fire and Ice series – George R. R. Martin
  • Victory Was Beyond Their Grasp – Douglas E. Nash
  • Field Grey – Philip Kerr (Great series of books, and Bernie Gunther a great character, but this not the best of them. Reckon his books set pre-war are best.)
  • 1222 – Anne Holt
  • Headhunters – Jo Nesbo
  • Thanksgiving – Michael Dibdin (A re-read, years after the first. Profound in the first reading, less so second time around.)
  • The Humbling – Philip Roth (Unsatisfying.)
  • The Weekend – Bernhard Schlink (A favourite author, but not his best.)
  • Mute Witness (aka Bullitt) – Robert L. Pike (Not bad. One of my favourite movies. Book good, but a bit different.)
  • Damn Good Advice (for people with talent) – George Lois (Great! Very engaging, iconoclastic dude giving his take on the world.)
  • Lustrum – Robert Harris (Tedious)
  • Black Robe – Brian Moore
  • The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior – Paul Strathern
  • The East, the West, and Sex – Richard Bernsten (Fascinating)
  • Hannibal and Me – Andreas Kluth
  • Gentleman’s Relish – Patrick Gale
  • Hull Zero Three – Greg Bear (Awful)
  • The Desert War (first two books) – Alan Moorehead (One of the best contemporary journalists and writers on the second world war. Brings the North African campaigns to life with some wit and personality. A forgotten, undervalued, Australian author.)

Besides these probably have about 6 books beside my bed I’m dipping into, probably another 6 lined up, plus the various books I’ve read on Kindle.

The light of the day

Cover of "Darkness at Noon"Cover of Darkness at Noon

I went for a walk during my lunch break yesterday. As forecast it was a beautiful day in the mid-20's, still, fine and near perfect. I wandered up a little pedestrian laneway leading off the main drag towards the station. It was shaded by the leaves of the overarching trees with slivers of yellow sunlight penetrating to the ground.

There in the laneway there is an outdoor cafe popular with the students, and next to it is a very good second hand book store that has been there for decades. As is my wont I've been there several times before and bought the odd book. Yesterday I stopped again to browse through the trays of paperbacks set out front. Before too long I had three books in my hand which I bought for a total of $15.

One f the books is Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler. It's a classic, seminal novel about the nature of totalitarian states. It was written in 1938 at a time when a burgeoning Germany was threatening the world, and when half of the worlds intelligentsia looked towards the USSR as an ideal of communal life. Koestler went against that tide. He saw what others didn't, that the essential character of any one party state is to oppress, no matter the stripe. His book was prescient when it came out, and important later.

In short it is book I'm interested to explore. It is a book I think I should read. Walking back to the office I considered that, curious about what I would find. And I was reminded in this passing thought of something else that has become clearer to me in recent times.

Working at a job that I enjoy and travelling every couple of weeks because has helped me to understand what I don't want. The opposite does not always follow, but this time I think I've figured out what I want. Whether I can manage it or not is altogether another question. 

I want to work no more than 4 days a week. While I want to be professionally challenged and to continue working at the pointy end of the tree, I don’t want any position of long-term responsibility. And I want to explore the things that make me the person I am.

Maybe it’s a tad self-indulgent, but I’ve realised that in order to be happy within myself I need to give space and time to the things that matter to me. Now there are a lot of things I like doing, but what I’m really talking about here are the things that fuel and sustain my soul. I need to read, to investigate and query, to wonder and learn. I need time to devote myself to my curiosity.

Why is this? Because there never seems any end to what I wonder at, and never enough time to explore as I would like. There would never be enough time, but some is better than very little. These peregrinations may seem idle but in actual fact they fuel so much of my aspirations. My life is testament to choosing the interesting over the conventional. I have seen and done unforgettable things; I have learned much about the world and about myself by exposing myself to adventure; and I have found fascination in the most unlikely places. It has broadened me as a person and as a result I have thrived. 

I can’t forget any of this. As much as anyone is anything I am this. I am curiosity. I am the spirit of enquiry. I am the need to know, to understand, to interpret. This is what puts words in my mouth and leads me on. Where it leads finally I don’t know, but that’s kind of beside the point. It’s about now and now and now…and all these now’s in a row like binary code that spell out the journey. They are the possibilities I need to reveal.

I need to stop and read books like Darkness at Noon, and others,
need for them to sit and grow in me, to add to what I already have.

To do this and to be this I need to find time outside of the working week and wedged somewhere before the domestic realities of the weekend. I need, I think, to specifically set aside time for this. To do that means achieving a permanent position of responsibility is unlikely, but the truth of it is that it’s a mind-space I’ve moved beyond. It’s not something I want, and not a commitment I can make.

I still want to push the professional envelope. I can’t ever imagine willingly winding back the intellectual demands of my work. I like to do things and to make things happen. I thrive on the creative fray of finding solutions to complex problems. There’s a fair degree of arrogance in that – I’ve set a standard I want to maintain – but I also enjoy the sensation of applying all my mind and experience to a situation and coming up trumps. It feels good. By itself though it is not enough.

What does this mean for me? Practically speaking I need to be my own boss so that I can dictate my own hours. Realistically that’s the consulting road I have already set myself on.

I’m my own man, more now than ever. I chafe when I get too caught up in the system. I need to go my own way, do my own thing. It’s all of a piece life, no matter how you choose to define it, the elements of your life fitting together like pieces in a puzzle dependent upon the other. For me now it’s important now to acknowledge those elements: the need for professional satisfaction and to maintain the lifestyle I desire; the personal, family and friends and lifestyle; and my soul for want of a better term, the ‘life of the mind’ and the sense of discovery that puts the edge on who I am.

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