What I’m reading

It’s been a while since I reported my reading. In large part that my reading has been disrupted by the tumultuous events of the last couple of months, which has also impacted on my reporting of it. Most posts on this site are written off the cuff, without any preparation, or need of research. Half the time I don’t know what I’m writing until I’ve started in on it, and it flows (hopefully) from there.

These posts require preparation. In the past that meant reviewing the pile of books stacked on top of each other by the study door. There is no study door now, and no stack of books. The list I’ve compiled below is in part done by memory, partly some notes I made weeks ago, and the rest is recent reading, dispersed erratically among my few possessions here.

What that means is that this list is incomplete. I’ll have missed some books. Some books, read nearer the beginning of this period, have left me with a sketchy recollection of them. If I can’t remember, or if I have nothing worth saying, I’ll list the book without comment.

In basic chronological order:

Higher Gossip – John Updike. I love most of what John Updike writes, but this is patchy. It’s the nature of this sort of writing – essays and reviews – that some will resonate while other pieces will not. For me the best pieces here are about art.

Kaputt – Curzio Malaparte. There’s a surreal quality to this book, and elements which might today be called magical realism. It’s the supposed memoirs of an Italian journalist in WW2, and his encounters and travels throughout the Axis world, largely on the eastern front. He’s a cynical idealist, and some it seems greatly exaggerated, if not fabricated. It’s an episodic tale, with some episodes – like that of horses frozen in a lake with just their heads visible – memorable, and others less so. It’s a wordy book, some of it extravagant and clever, but sometimes overdone.

The Graduate – Charles Webb. Yep, that graduate. Love the movie, so when I saw the book on sale for about $2.99 I picked it up. I read it in the bath mainly, enjoying it greatly. There’s little difference between this and the movie, and it’s impossible not to picture scenes in the movie as you read it. The voice is identical too, and you hear it as you read it.

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf – Gaito Gazdanov. A small book I saw when I was in Bath, and picked up when I got back. The author is Russian, and this is a story of unlikely circumstance set during the Russian revolution, and after, in Paris.

Soul – Andrey Platonov. Been reading this for years, finally finished. Very Russian.

The Captains – Malcolm Knox. For the likes of me, fascinating – the story of ever Australian cricket captain. For the most part good, but very light-on about recent captains, particularly Ponting.

The Goodbye Kiss – Massimo Carlotto. A hard-boiled Italian thriller. Good, won’t bother any further in the series.

A Loyal Spy – Simon Conway

No-one Loves a Policeman – Guillermo Orsi. Sounded good, but very disappointing. Set in Argentina.

The Sea, The Sea – Iris Murdoch. I enjoyed the first 150 pages of this, then it lost me. Probably not my sort of book ultimately.

A Map of Tulsa – Benjamin Lytal. Some excellent writing, mixed in with a fair amount of over-writing (to my taste). One of those books where I found the protagonist an annoying tosser. Suspect he’s reflection of the author.

Breakout – Richard Stark. This is the usual efficient fare from Stark. No fuss, no bother, writing without adornment, and a story without ostentation. That’s a description that suits Parker as well. the protagonist.

At the Close of Play – Ricky Ponting.

A Death in the Family – Karl Ove Knausgaard. Already commented on this. Has some slow movements, but ultimately compelling.

The Sirius Crossing – John Creed

Sunshine State – James Miller. Ultimately a huge disappointment. For much of it a very entertaining, interesting book set in some dystopian future where the climate has gone haywire and America has become fragmented, with right-wing religious nutters running the show. Clearly inspired by Heart of Darkness, it’s a tale of a journey into an increasingly strange and violent world by a troubled protagonist, which is when it becomes  more Apocalypse Now. Then it gets stupid. Not sure if the author ran out of patience or ideas, but the last 3o pages are barely sketches that stall the stories momentum and disengage the reader. Just dumb. If only he had stuck to the script it would have been a satisfying read. Wasted opportunity.

Currently reading The Fear Index by Robert Harris. Predictable storyline in some ways, and with a protagonist you’d like to punch on the nose. Very readable and entertaining, but IMO not his best work.

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.

Writing about H

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Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been given cause to revisit much that I had previously posted to this blog, going all the way back to the start. The catalyst for this has been a person far from here who has cottoned onto this site and has been reading it with an almost obsessive zeal. I watch, bemused, as the stats wrack up. Occasionally I’ll get a message from the person about one particular post or another, to which I’ll politely respond. I’m curious and also fatalistic. I don’t know what they’ll find or what they’ll think, but that is no real cause for concern. In a way this blog puts me on the public record, and I can’t expunge what I’ve already committed to writing, and have no desire to censor the story – erratic I’m sure – that is occasionally presented. It is me after all, for good or bad.

While I have watched this feat of reading I have myself occasionally clicked on some of the links from a sense of curiosity and occasional nostalgia. I find myself reading wondering how other people take this in. I am always writing for myself – but how does the audience receive what are often quite self-indulgent posts? Gradually as I read I find that curiosity recede. In place of it I find myself recalling moments that had slipped from me. I read things and surprise myself now realising that while often enigmatic, my words frequently have the veneer of deeply considered wisdom. If only!

It’s probably not the done thing, but I find myself appreciating the man who could think and feel so deeply before attempting to transcribe those thouse thoughts and feelings for the world. Much of what I wrote may be mysteries to others – I am coy often, and archly reticent – but even if I have forgotten some of the people I refer to, the sense of what I write is always clear to me.

As I read I recall the different stages of my life the posts reflect. Unlike any reader who stumbles across my blog, I have the benefit of complete context – I lived it after all. And so as I read I recall the moments and the incidents that prompted me to write. I remember the things about it, often incidental, which go unreported here. You get the high notes here, but in my mind and my memory I can still recall the tune whole, the slow movements as well as the dramatic.

Reading again gives me context on the present also. I realise, or remember, that I have experienced most things at least once before. The good things you never forget, and the bad – often forgotten – you’ve obviously found a way to survive. That’s a reassuring note. We all know when trouble looms how overwhelming it can seem, so inescapable in fact. There’s no guarantees of anything – even escape – but given you’ve done it before countless times, have taken on adversity time and again and survived, there is sense of perspective and confidence. She’ll be right.

Reading back too it seems to me that my blog is a mix of things I’ve reported externally – from politics to movie reviews to commentary on my travels; and, more significantly, reports on my internal movements, the things I think, I feel, the torturous road I’ve followed. It’s very clear in re-reading that I’m strongly heterosexual, motivated by a combination of powerfully insistent lust, all the way through to a tender romanticism that makes the present day H blush. There’s a lot about women here.

I don’t know what it says about me, but the things I’ve forgotten are often incidental contacts, some of which appeared to be far more at the time. As an exercise the other night I lay in bed and tried to figure out how many women I’d had sex with in the last 12 months. It was a figure I found myself revising by the moment, recalling banal and insignificant encounters that had faded to the back of my mind: sometimes sex is only that. In another year I’ll have forgotten some of those encounters altogether. You remember what is important, the rest drifts away.

I thought that this morning as I woke up. I had dreamt overnight of a girl I used to work with and like. We still have some incidental contact via Facebook. You know how it is sometimes you feel surprise at the events unveiled? So it was in this dream with the girl making a b-line to me in a public forum and making it clear she wanted to be with me. Ok then, fair enough – she’s cute after all.

I thought of the dream and then thought how many times have I had such a dream and written of it here – or even not bothered to write of? Likewise moments when I’ve met with, or flirted, or even bedded some woman? It’s just normal, just life, just another small blip on the radar. Ultimately this is what this blog has become: it charts a journey, the small things, the big things, the sorrow and joy, the angst and desire, failures and successes, the map that has led me from there to here, and ahead a road uncharted but surely to be described.

Knowledge and reason

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Most nights before I turn out the light I read for a while. Mostly I read novels then, some literary, some more escapist. Mixed up in there are the occasional short story, but regardless of style almost it’s fiction I read at night.

It’s different when I wake up. Reading in bed early is one of the great pleasures in life. On the weekend I read the newspapers. During the week, if I can manage it, I read non-fiction – histories, biographies, essays, books on ‘things’. By and large what I read in the morning is educational, though I’ll rarely read a book I don’t enjoy. As it happens I’m greatly inquisitive and love to learn. More often than not it’s a joy toi get up from my reading having learned something new.

Sometimes I’ll make notes on the books I read. Generally they’re the books I consider work related. For example I’m reading a book called The Design of Everyday Things at the moment, which is basically about usability in design (and fascinating). About a month ago I read a book called The Strangers Long Neck, basically about delivering the right content online. Both are interesting, both have relevance to my work. In both instances I’ll make notes on what I’ve read to keep for posterity. Writing it down also helps to lock it in.

My notes generally are little more than bullet points. That’s enough for me to recall the gist of the subject. I sometimes forget what happened the day before. I remember faces, but names elude me. For the things I read I hardly ever forget.

In some quarters I have a reputation for scary intelligence. Much of it is unfounded, at least on the terms they have measured it by. I read and remember. In conversations I am always bringing up arcane but relevant snippets. If anyone ever wants to know the answer to some piece of trivia they always come to me. I’m such a whiz at trivia games I am either handicapped, or drafted into teams as their secret weapon. I’d like to take credit for this, but little is due beyond the fact that I have an insatiable curiosity and am a voracious reader. Otherwise these bits and pieces simply lodge there in my mind ready to be used or recalled when the time comes.

I like being this way, and it is very handy, but it’s not really intelligence – not as I see it anyway. Intelligence is more than knowledge, it’s knowledge applied, it’s the ability to reason – that is to observe and analyse the available information and to produce from it a logical hypothesis or theory. Intelligence is an activity; knowledge is passive. It just sits there like a bunch of dusty books on the shelf just waiting to be read.

The phrase ‘learned fools’ for me has always had a lot of resonance. You can know every fact in the world, but they mean nothing without context. There are many who know much, but few who know how to use what they know.