Sam van Zweden



100+ Books

A Tangible Ass-Kicking

I know there are people out there who read lots. It’s a real thing. I know this.

There’s a whole list of them partaking in J Kaye’s 100+ Books Reading Challenge. However, the snob in me discounts them as those kind of people who read crime fiction/airport novels exclusively, chewing through five books a week. These people do the 100+ Books Challenge and write posts about how last year they read 200 books, which they’d really like to beat this year … sure. Why not?

But I also know that those people I respect read a lot. And it’s their enumeration of what they’ve read that makes my reading anxiety all the greater, and the ass-kicking I’m receiving all the more apparent.

Estelle Tang at 3000 Books estimates 50 books a year, and what she reads is always pretty respectable. I admire her.

I also admire Chris Flynn, whose post this week about the 31 books he’s read in 2010 made the ass-kicking my reading is receiving quite tangible.

Freakish reader Misha Adair has, at last update, read 30 books this year.

I’m falling behind! I’m only up to 17. Oh lordy. What a terrible person I must be! What am I doing with my time!?

…Studying. Working. Writing. Filming. Domestic-ing.

I do have some friendly competition of my own calibre though. JorjaKelly’s tally is now up to 15. She also studies and has busy busy days.

My 17 equals one book per week so far, not that it’s actually happened like that… That puts me on target for the 50 that Estelle Tang aims for. A worthy number, surely…But not 100.

To follow Chris Flynn’s quite entertaining post, though, here’s some stats. I love numbers. Just love them:

13 men. 4 women.
1 graphic novel. 14 fiction. 2 non-fiction.
3 Australian. 14 non-Australian.

Looks like I share reading habits with Chris Flynn, if perhaps not quite reading at the same rate…

But enough of this analysing business. Back to the books!

Pygmy by Palahniuk, Review

I’ve recently finished “Pygmy” by Chuck Palahniuk.

We have a good relationship, Palahniuk and I. We go way back. We’ve waded through many an existential crisis together…

…all this good work was threatened by “Pygmy”, which was released late last year. I’d picked it up and turned it over, had a quick flick, and put it back on the shelf awaiting richer days.

Last week, however, this red-and-gold clad number fell into my hands for reviewing for Yartz.

I have to say, I really came out of this one confused.

“Pygmy” reads in a much less coherent way than Palahniuk’s other novels. The narrator is from an unnamed totalitarian country, and goes to America in the guise of an “exchange student” in order to infiltrate and put into action “Operation Havoc”. He tells the story in thoroughly broken English, absolutely free of any kinds of grammar or syntactical rules. It took a while to get into, but like any incredibly stylized voice, eventually I got there. This is not what made “Pygmy” such a disappointment. The lack of coherence here came from the fact that none of the chapters in the book really fit together comfortably.

It’s reads less like the tumbling-down-stairs-at-an-alarming-rate stories that I’ve come to expect from Palahniuk, and more like an assorted collection of the most horrible episodes he could think to put in a novel.

Granted, this book is uproariously funny. Hilarious. It’s just a pity that’s the most I got out of it.

All the horribleness does have a function though. This is an amusing but incredibly biting satire of American life and the terrible potential of the wrong people having power.

Usually with Palahniuk’s novels, I dive in and get comfy, and leave feeling like I’ve gotten away with something a little bit cheeky. Not so with Pygmy.

I enjoyed reading it, found it characteristically hilarious, but Palahniuk has written much better novels and has missed the mark a bit with this one.

Smokescreens and Notions: Oedipus The King.

Italo Calvino wrote, in his “The Literature Machine”, that all works are intertwined, and the reading of a book is not just the reading of one book, but of many books. Classics “bring … in their wake the traces they themselves have left on the culture or cultures they have passed through … If I read the Odyssey I read Homer’s text, but I cannot forget all that the adventures of Ulysses have come to mean in the course of the centuries, and I cannot help wondering if these meanings were implicit in the text, or whether they are incrustations or distortions or expansions.”

Apart from how fantastically happy it makes me that he’s put “incrustations” in a sentence, I can’t help but nod my head as I read this. In fact, as I read Calvino’s entire chapter on the relevance of classics. But everything he’s written does this to me, there’s an intrinsic connection between Calvino and my nodding mechanism… But I digress.

In this post-modern world we all know that when you write a text, you’re writing about other texts. In fact we’re so well aware of this that a large portion of our culture and, bless it, particularly our humour, derives from this intertextuality. The Simpsons, Family Guy, Mel Brooks’ epic Space Balls… Any form of genre fiction, particularly romance or horror. So this idea of intertextuality isn’t new, but it’s certainly something I find absolutely fascinating.

Calvino goes on to say that “the reading of a classic ought to give us a surprise or two vis-a-vis the notion that we had of it,” because our notions are so often now formed by the “smokescreen,” which is made up of what other people say about a text, all the criticisms that exist, academic work and cultural murmurings… Classics are such an oft-talked-about thing that by the time you get around to reading them, there’s so much material already relating to that text in your head, that it’s pretty impossible to get a clear, untainted reading of it.

I’ve had this problem a bit lately; I’m at an age were I feel like I need to get as many classics under my belt as possible, so I’ve been chewing through them between everything else. Also, one of my units at school, “World Myths & Narratives” requires me to get through about 10 “classic” books throughout the semester, so my Classic-Intake has roughly doubled.

I’ve just finished reading Sophocles’ “Oedipus The King”. This play has been around since about the 5th Century BC, and it’s a highly influential text, so that pile of academia and cultural murmurings is quite sizeable. The most obviously influenced text being Freud’s idea of “the Oedipus Complex”.

I’ve known the story of Oedipus for a long time. He, unwittingly, kills his father and marries his mother, before inadvertently killing his mother and blinding himself. Okay, good, sounds messed up but relatively simple.

So, going into “Oedipus,” I wasn’t expecting anything too earth-shattering.

About three-quarters of the way into the book, I began to feel really uncomfortable. No matter how many times I’d heard that summary (“he kills his father and marries his mother, before…”) nothing could prepare me for the incredibly visceral nature of Sophocles’ actual play.

Here’s a snippet from the height of the action:

“He leapt upon the doors / Burst from their sockets the yielding bars, and fell / into the room; and there, hanged by the neck, / We saw his wife, held on a swinging cord. / He, when he saw it, groaned in misery / and loosened her body from the rope. When now / She lay upon the ground, awful to see / Was that which followed: from her dress he tore / The golden brooches she had been wearing, / Raised them, and with their points struck his own eyes … He smote his eyeballs with the pins, not once / Nor twice; and as he smote them, blood ran down / His face, not dripping slowly, but there fell / Showers of black rain and blood-red hail together.”

Feeling a little queasy yet?

Now, I didn’t just find the book surprising in terms of how confronting the violence is. I also found it quite amusing in people’s reactions, and what they say to one another.

Theirasius, a blind prophet, comes to Thebes to tell Oedipus a prophecy about all that’s to come to pass. Oedipus, of course, is quite offended by what he hears. So what does he tell the prophet? In modern English, he tells the prophet, “you’re shit because you’re blind, so shut up!”

Throughout the play Oedipus and Iocasta have this huband-and-wife-banter about whose prophecies are right, every few pages one of them kind of says “HA! See? In your face!,” to the other.

And when Oedipus come out, blinded, and the chorus sees what he has done, they say to him “What the hell did you do that for?! I can’t even look at you! Blind?! You could have at least killed yourself!”

So I found the actuality of Oedipus a lot more exciting, a lot more amusing, and a lot more visceral than I expected. This text, for me, is definitely a perfect example of Italo Calvino’s “smokescreens” and “notions” which often hide the real text.

Review: Smoke and Mirrors by Kel Robertson

For a novel called “Smoke and Mirrors”, I must say, I was a tad disappointed by the lack of smoke and mirrors in Kel Robertson’s novel.

Now, I’ve never really read any crime fiction. When I was handed this novel, I thought “Why not? Give it a go!”

I did – maybe crime fiction just isn’t my thing. Or maybe Kel Robertson’s written a lacklustre book.

The majority of “Smoke and Mirrors” felt like preamble. There’s a bunch of sub-plots which contribute nothing to the story, and which have no conclusions. There’s some humour, which on its own merit is somewhat amusing, but in the context of the story just feels strained. There’s a kidnapping – which is the most action there is until the last ten pages. The most active thing the narrator does is have himself kidnapped.

I’ll give it this – it was a quick read. In between a busy week this thing only took me a few hours to knock over. The only problem was that I didn’t really care what happened. All that preamble put me into a lull, so that when the action finally came (which the “hero” had very little to do with, other than the fact that he showed up), I didn’t actually care what happened to anyone.

The best thing I can say about it is that it finished.

Six Walks In the Fictional Woods

100+ Books Challenge, #3: “Six Walks in the Fictional Woods” by Umberto Eco.

If you’ve ever read any Umberto Eco, you’ll know that he writes in a way that is both accessible and amusing, and incredibly poignant.

Six Walks in the Fictional Woods is a reflection on the role of the reader, the role of the writer, and the relationship between the two. Eco uses the metaphor of “the woods” to represent exactly what it is that we get ourselves into when reading or writing a book.

As is always true in anything by Umberto Eco, “Six Walks…” is full of intersting little tidbits (the line that divides “blue” and “green” is very different in Latin/Greek cultures to our own), amusing ways of making a point (a particularly hilarious overinterpretation of The Three Musketeers), and some very worthwhile food for thought.

Definately worth a look-in for your next non-fiction craving!

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