Friday, February 29, 2008

JG Ballard

I have always loved JG Ballard's books for the sheer brilliance of his ideas and how much he says about society using his fiction. And for this I have always considered him to be one of the most important novelists of the twentieth century. However, for some reason, I was never convinced of his greatness as a writer.

But not now.

Miracles of Life is undoubtably one of the best autobiographies I have ever read.

Modest and sparing, I found this telling of his remarkable life even more powerful and moving than his fictionalised accounts – Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women. A great deal of the material is already familiar from those novels, but one of the fascinating aspects of this book is his willingness to discuss his inspiration and techniques for writing.

His training as a doctor at Cambridge (where he was fascinated by dissection), his early working life selling encyclopedias, training in the RAF and as deputy editor at Chemistry & Industry along with his interest in psychoanalysis all led him to create a unique genre of writing in which the characters 'inner-spaces' are the focus instead of science fiction's usual preoccupations at that time.

I loved his delightful inversion of Cyril Connolly's quote – "my greatest ally was the pram in the hall" – and his belief in the importance of providing a happy and stable childhood for his family after his wife died suddenly in 1964. It is quite a leap of imagination to go from writing books like The Atrocity Exhibition during the day to picking the kids up from school, watching Blue Peter and preparing dinner. As he admits himself 'my children brought me up, perhaps as an incidental activity to rearing themselves', but also rightly points out he was incredibly lucky to be able to observe the process of his children growing from infancy into fully formed human beings so closely and how often fathers miss out on this. His joy in being a parent, the time spent as the sole parent of young children and the 'miracles of life' that he observed all added much to my understanding of him and his books.

It saddened me greatly to learn in the final chapter that he is suffering from advanced prostate cancer and that this may be the last thing he writes. It would be sad if this is the case, but when you look at the life he has led and the work he will leave behind I can't help but feeling that there isn't really any need to say anything else.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Grykes and clints

Moving from truly remote and relatively untouched corners of Scotland to the Burren in Ireland and on to the English countryside, Robert Macfarlane discovers and describes wild places in all their many manifestations –
Certainly, these islands possessed wild places on massive scales ... but my original idea that a wild place had to be somehow outside history, which had failed to fit the complicated pasts of the Scottish and Irish landscapes, seemed even more improper in an English context. English wildness existed in the main as Nash's 'unseen landscapes': it was there, if carefully looked for, in the bend of a stream valley, in the undercut of a riverbank, in copses and peat hags, hedgerows and quicksand pools. And it was there in the margins, interzones, and rough cusps of the country: quarry rim, derelict factory, and motorway verge.
The writing is poetic, lyrical, erudite and often all of these in a paragraph or less. The extract below, explaining how physics and climatic conditions combine to make the air in certain locations particularly clear, is a wonderful example:
On the north-western coasts of Britain and Ireland, the air has a remarkable transparency, for it is almost free of particulate matter. Little loose dust rises from the wet land, and the winds blow prevailingly off the sea. Through such air, photons can proceed without obstacle. The light moves, unscattered, and falls upon the forms and objects of those regions with candour.
Other passages that particularly touched me were his description of squirrels creating their own electric blankets using phone lines near his friend Roger Deakin's home (page 215); the explanation of how human eyes work at night (page 200) and his descriptions of sleeping outside in various locations. The latter bringing back memories of a soft, warm August night spent sleeping on a bed of heather in the middle of the Cairngorms and a snug but damp snow cave near the summit of Ben Lawers.

Constantly thought-provoking, near the end he touches upon the wild places which have been reclaimed by nature from man's clutches and presciently notes that:
Abandoned places such as these provide us not only with images of the past but also with visions of the future. As the climate warms, and as human populations begin to fall, increasing numbers of settlements will be abandoned. Inland drought and rising sea-levels on the coasts will force exoduses. And wildness will return to these forsaken places.
I always find it comforting to think that the Earth will easily outlast humanity and at some point in the future all traces of mankind will cease to exist. This remarkable diagram shows how long this process would actually take if all mankind disappeared tomorrow –

Apologies for the quality, but the original article [Times online] no longer has the diagram.

And, just in case you were wondering, a gryke is a vertical fissure in limestone pavement which has been worn out by water erosion and a clint is a glacially polished horizontal surface of limestone pavement.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Favourite mooks of 2007

More lists... According to iTunes my favourite songs from 2007 were:

1 Rescue – Lucinda Williams (West)
2 I'm Taking the Train Home – The Twilight Sad (Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters)
3 Ocean of Noise – The Arcade Fire (Neon Bible)
4 Your Love Alone is Not Enough – Manic Street Preachers (Send Away the Tigers)
5 Heart it Races (As Played By Soft Tigers) – Architecture In Helsinki (Heart It Races – Single)
6 Fight Like the Night – Malcolm Middleton (A Brighter Beat)
7 Brainy – The National (Boxer)
8 Visitor – Nina Kinert (Let There Be Love)
9 Johnny and Mary – Placebo (Covers)
10 Hljómalind – Sigur Rós (Hljomalind – EP)
11 The Rebel on His Own Tonight – Malcolm Middleton and Alan Bissett (Ballads of the Book)
12 Parisian Skies – Maxïmo Park (Our Earthly Pleasures)
13 Lost Watch (Iceland Version) – Seabear (Music for Hairy Scary Monsters)
14 In McDonalds – Burial (Untrue)
15 Teenage Kicks – Seabear (Teenage Kicks / Piano Hands – Single)
16 Wrecking Ball – Interpol (Our Love to Admire)
17 A Brighter Beat – Malcolm Middleton (A Brighter Beat)
18 Mysteries – Art of Fighting (Runaways)
19 Make Another World – Idlewild (Make a New World)
20 What If – Lucinda Williams (West)
21 Down On the Ground – British Sea Power (Krankenhaus? – EP)
22 It's Not Over Yet – Klaxons (Myths of the Near Future)
23 Stay Close Sit Tight – Malcolm Middleton (A Brighter Beat)
24 That Summer At Home I Had Become the Invisible Boy – The Twilight Sad (That Summer At Home I Had Become the Invisible Boy – Single)
25 Raver – Burial (Untrue)

Which looks about right when you see the track listing for my best of 2007 CD:

Eating Seaweed (Best of 2007)
Your Love Alone is Not Enough – Manic Street Preachers
Johnny and Mary – Placebo
The Rebel on His Own Tonight – Malcolm Middleton and Alan Bissett
Make Another World – Idlewild
Parisian Skies – Maxïmo Park
Heart it Races (As Played By Soft Tigers) – Architecture In Helsinki
Fight Like the Night – Malcolm Middleton
Trains to Brazil – Guillemots
Wrecking Ball – Interpol
Still a Long Way To Go – James Dean Bradfield
Rescue – Lucinda Williams
Mysteries – Art of Fighting
Lost Watch (Iceland Version) – Seabear
Hljómalind – Sigur Rós
Brainy – The National
Ocean of Noise – The Arcade Fire
I'm Taking the Train Home – The Twilight Sad
In McDonalds – Burial

Trains to Brazil and Still a Long Way To Go don't figure on the iTunes list because they were acquired before January 1, 2007 but too late to make the cut for the Best of 2006 CD.

Good to see Malkie getting four entries in the top 25, pretty impressive even if you count the duet(?) with Alan Bissett (author of the awesome boyracers).

Lucinda Williams and The Twilight Sad were runners-up with two songs each. More on my favourite albums of 2007 soon...

Four to look forward to...

Billy Bragg - Mr Love and Justice
Breeders - Mountain Battles
Portishead - Third
REM - Accelerate

But which one am I most excited about?

Friday, February 8, 2008


And at number 2 was Jonathan Raban's Surveillance. I resisted reading it until March (after buying it for myself as an early Christmas present) and could tell from the first page that it was going to be a real treat.

Like in his travel writing, Raban manages to say a lot about contemporary society, the little details of fact and place are always perfectly observed, reflecting back to the reader our current preoccupations and concerns.

The story concerns a journalist, reclusive writer, gay actor/activist, the journalist's 11-year-old daughter and whether the writer's bestselling war-time memoir is real or not. The story races along and is always fascinating. The ending, however, leaves everything unresolved, not reaching any conclusions about what has gone before. I can't decide if he is trying to make a larger point about the world and mankind's place in it or if he just felt that was how the story should end.

Maybe I need to read it again and see if I can work it out...

Thursday, February 7, 2008

What was Lost

So, Catherine O'Flynn's What was Lost was my favourite book of last year. I first read about it on the redoubtable Crockatt and Powell's blog (why did they wait for me to move from Battersea to Melbourne before opening up shop?) and managed to get a copy brought out from the UK.

For me it is just about perfect - moving, funny (hilariously so in places), mysterious and wonderfully well written. I am not going to say any more because basically everyone should read it and I don't want to give anything away.

The Readings' catalogue this month had a special feature (i.e. short interview) with Catherine and Scribe are publishing it in Australia, so well done to them and whoever was smart enough to invite Catherine to the Perth Festival...

(Scribe also published the excellent Dark Roots by Cate Kennedy and the very enjoyable Border Street by Susanne Leal, both of which I read last year and would recommend.)

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Books of 2007

Listed in the order they were read. 2007 was actually a pretty good year in terms of quantity (mostly due to spending the best part of two and a half months in hospital) and I expect 2008 will mark a return to levels more like 2006's twenty-eight.

1 Kate Atkinson – Case Histories
2 Nicholas Shakespeare – In Tasmania
3 Cormac McCarthy – The Road
4 William Boyd – Restless
5 Markus Zusak – The Messenger
6 Matt Rendell – The Death of Marco Pantani
7 William McIlvanney – Laidlaw
8 Rory Stewart – The Places In Between
9 Paul Auster – In the Country of Last Things
10 Anne Fadiman – Ex Libris
11 Jonathan Raban – Surveillance
12 Laura Hird – Hope and other Urban Tales
13 Richard Gwynn – The Colour of a Dog Running Away
14 Catherine O’Flynn – What Was Lost
15 Orhan Pamuk – The New Life
16 William Boyd – Fascination
17 Cormac McCarthy – No Country for Old Men
18 Roberto Bolano – The Savage Detectives*
19 Colin Thubron – In Siberia
20 Mark Taplin – Open Lands
21 Cate Kennedy – Dark Roots
22 David Vise – The Google Story
23 Martin Cruz Smith – Wolves Eat Dogs
24 Sara Wheeler – Travels in Thin Country
25 Richard Moore – In Search of Robert Millar
26 Ian Rankin – The Naming of the Dead
27 Kenneth Deffeyes – Beyond Oil
28 Graeme Fife – Inside the Peleton
29 Jonathan Coe – The Rain Before it Falls
30 Michael McGirr – Things you get for free
31 John O’Farrell – Things can only get better
32 Paul Auster – Oracle Night
33 William Gibson – Spook Country
34 Ian Rankin – Exit Music
35 Simon Winchester – The Map that Changed the World
36 Susanna Leal – Border Street
37 Andrew Greig – Kingdoms of Experience
38 Graham Swift – Tomorrow
39 Alexander McCall Smith – 44 Scotland Street
40 Orhan Pamuk – Istanbul
*Mostly read in 2007, but I ended up putting it aside about two-thirds of the way through and only finished it off recently.

Fiction: 24 titles
Non-fiction: 16 titles
Number of authors: 34
Male authors: 27
Female authors: 7
Books published in 2007: 7
Books published in 2006: 10
Books published in 2005: 7
Books published 2000-04: 8
Books published 1990-99: 5
Books published 1980-89: 2
Books published before 1980: 1

Top 10
1 Catherine O’Flynn – What Was Lost
2 Jonathan Raban – Surveillance
3 Orhan Pamuk – Istanbul
4 Cormac McCarthy – The Road
5 William Boyd – Restless
6 Colin Thubron – In Siberia
7 Ian Rankin – Exit Music
8 William Gibson – Spook Country
9 Paul Auster – In the Country of Last Things
10 Nicholas Shakespeare – In Tasmania
Notes on the top 10 to follow...