The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

Until my dying day I will remain mystified by whether Peter Carey is a writer once good, gone bad, or whether I was seduced by home-sickness into adoring Illywhacker.

This is awful, I’d like to hand it over to Reger of Old Masters to properly trash it to death. I have no need to rant about it myself, plenty of others have expressed their bemusement online. But I felt need to note that I tried and that any failure is not, in my opinion, the fault of the reader.

I do wish I hadn’t wasted valuable book buying funds on this one.

After watching Under Milk Wood

I watched Guy Masterton’s amazing Under Milk Wood in Adelaide some years ago (back for two performances at the 2016 Adelaide Fringe, it’s a must see if you are in town).

As it happened, the next day in a comments thread on goodreads somebody said they were waiting for someone to write a story called “Slow Thighs” – from the poem “The Second Coming”. Apparently they are about the only words in the poem that haven’t been used.

So, in bed, still cocooned in the words of Under Milk Wood, I wrote this over the next two minutes.

A just woken up haven’t had a cup of tea yet poem.

Slow thighs wait. Patient.
Wait for man. Men. A man.
And should they chance upon one,
Open up, invite him into the dark of darkness, that sloe black,
Slow black place where he dreams wicked and
In that dark of dark places cries out
As he becomes impossibly light.
He floats away.
And slow thighs wait, patient, for him to return
For the Second Coming.

Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitters ed. Ann Hood

This isn’t a book, it’s a piece of crochet, haphazardly put together from random squares of indifferent colour combinations.

We may take a moral from it: no number of highly qualified birds does a swallow make.

This book has prize-winning and NYT best selling authors coming out of its what’s it. But in the end it is that creature to be avoided at all costs, the one to which, ironically, knitting never descends: the crocheted blanket squares. The one everybody’s grandmother made and 99% of the time they are a hodgepodge of the consequences of ‘waste not, want not’ with no concern whatsoever for the general notion of aesthetics or any particular person’s sensibilities. Uggggh.

I cringed every time I read one of these writers talk about how amazingly impossible it is to knit and how they took twenty years, or isolation with their grandmother or some other extreme measure to learn – that’s those who succeeded. Quite a few of them took up astro physics or open heart surgery instead because you know. Knitting is SO HARD.

It’s not that I don’t want to sympathise. I can look back to my first knitting day, my complete frustration because I couldn’t figure out for myself how to do purl, this being just pre-internet – that is, there is no longer any excuse. But Simon showed me how and Simon hadn’t even knitted before, he’d simply watched women knit 50 years earlier when he was a young boy and remembered. With all due respect to Simon, this means knitting is NOT THAT HARD.

Like most things in life, becoming a wonderfully accomplished practitioner is hard, but becoming competent is SO NOT HARD.

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t sympathise with women talking about how it took them hours and hours and hours and years and generations to learn how to wind a bit of string over a stick. It’s a time for embarrassment, not sympathy.

I wanted to sympathise with the writer who ended up giving somebody something that was complete shit, suddenly in the zen of the notion that it’s THE THOUGHT THAT COUNTS. But I can’t. If that’s the thought: I’ve given you something perfect and you give me in return something shit, I get the thought and it isn’t pretty. It’s insulting. My friends reading this please take note. I never want to get a lousy meal in return for a good one, a lousy scarf in return for a beautiful one, a crap book in return for a magnificent work of art. Please give me nothing. I will take the message that you care. Not as much as if you’d given me something lovely, but more than if you’d given me something crappy. IMPORTANT NOTE: anybody reading this who is under the age of six is excluded from the above principle.

I wanted to sympathise with the people talking about how knitting got them through things. How it marked moments. I have those too. I have a jumper I was knitting when a friend called to say his partner had died. I knitted a mistake into the jumper. That’s happened to me more than once. I couldn’t knit hats for a long time because the first hats I knitted were for my father who was having chemo. Even after he was dead, the association was there for years.

But sympathy rarely came. I felt throughout like I was reading bits and pieces provided out of obligation or a deadline. There are a few pieces in this book that are genuinely moving or interesting, but most of it isn’t any more than a blog entry put into a book. This is not to deprecate the notion of a blog entry, this, after all, being one. But a piece on a blog fits into it in some way, it is there on a day for a reason, it may provide light or shade or reflect in the very immediate present, like this moment here, some emotion of the moment. It may simply provide surprise. Whereas this collection is an odd combination of ill-fitting pieces that nonetheless have a same, same, same quality. Maybe that means it should be dipped into rather than read.

I gave this book to two knitters last year before reading it myself. Sorry about that.

The Philosopher as Expert by Richard Rorty

This is an essay which anybody who has ever regaled a professional philosopher should read. It will make you snort with laughter as Rorty tells you exactly how it is, these guys in their glass castles having obscure debates about nothing that matters, when we all know that philosophy is about the things that do matter. Well, it should be anyway, right? It’s lost its way, it used to be vital, now it’s irrelevant. We all know it except the professional philosophers and you have to wonder why they are so thick that they don’t get it.

So, there you are, chortling away, thinking how hilarious Rorty is, and how brilliantly he has captured what makes you right and them wrong, when at some point you start thinking you didn’t laugh at all on that page and you turn and, well, you don’t laugh on this one either, or when you do, it’s getting a bit half-hearted, and you note that you are still there on the page, but shit, somehow Rorty is starting to explain that you are a complete arse-hole, an ignorant narrow-mindeded bigot of an amateur philosopher. He explains exactly what philosophy is, so that even you can understand it and understand why it is doing exactly what it should be doing. And why every time you told a professional philosopher his business, you were being a complete dick.

I don’t know if I will get to the book that comes with the essay, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, but for the first time in my life I have half a clue what philosophy is and why it’s important. What a pity there does not seem to be anything in the way of a Rorty-Feynman exchange. One cannot help feeling Feynman would have been put in his place too.

You can find the essay here.

Harry Harrison and Christopher Fowler: aka the good bad and the bad bad.

Deathworld I admit it. Harry Harrison’s bad style irritated me. For a while. Mainly it was these. The short sentences. If you can call them that. Sentences.

I did manage after some encouragement from the ranks to get over that and I’m glad I did. It’s a good bad-book. The Wildside edition I read was horribly proofread, but not nearly as badly as the academic books I’ve been reading lately. Nothing, at any rate, that distracted me from a punchy story, good characterisation as sci fi goes and a really interesting idea for world in which the story takes place.

As it happens I next picked up The Invisible Code by Christopher Fowler. I thought this was going to be another good bad-book for a few pages, but it doesn’t take long to discover it’s a bad bad-book. Really so bad on all levels that I don’t know what I find more mystifying: that is is consistently praised on goodreads or that it is the tenth in a series. The tenth! It’s messy, heavy handed, repetitive, characters so badly drawn that one never recognises any of them and this in turn adds to the confusion of dialogue set out so that it is impossible, as a rule, to tell who is speaking. In fact it’s the first thing I’ve read that makes me wonder if Harry Potter might be well written after all. Yeah. Maybe I should upgrade HP to a good bad-book.

A Crown of Feathers by Isaac Bashevis Singer

I’m just not a magic person. Unless ‘wand’ has an obvious coarse connotation, I don’t want one in my book. I don’t want devils, demons or invisible crowns of feathers in pillows. I don’t care if the spell is portrayed in an elegant way by Singer or a basic way for children by Rowling. I hereby give up on Singer, this is my second stab at him and I’m not finishing this one. This despite the fact that it isn’t all magic driven. The second story ‘A Day in Coney Island’ avoids all that – and I know, the magic realist clique are going to jump all over that statement and claim this story for themselves too. Well, I don’t think coins coming out of slots counts as magic. So there.

Not only do I neither like nor understand magic propelled books, but when I think about it, in general I don’t share any reading tastes with those in the queue for Harry Potter. I don’t mean by that I don’t share reading tastes with eight year olds for whom the books were written, but that I don’t share them with adults. Apparently the whole marketing strategy of ‘Young Adult’ has been created to capture the market of adults who can’t really cope with reading books for adults, they need smaller concepts, shorter sentences, words with less syllables. They wouldn’t read a book they thought was for children, but put ‘adult’ in the title and it’s okay, even though these are still books for children. The capacity of human beings for self-deception knows no bounds.

Of course, I still say ‘Star so light, star so bright’ whenever I can, but that’s just sensible isn’t it? Hedging my bets.

Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald

If I had time, I’d rage into the night about this one, but I’d rather move onto one of the slightly scary number of books I have on my to-read shelf.

I haven’t read much of it, though I’ve tried various times over the last couple of weeks to blame myself for that and get over it. But there is no getting over it. I can scarcely believe that this is written by the same person from whom I expect elegant, succinct prose. This seems like a reject from Mills and Boon – I can just see the letter. ‘Cut it in half, less of the tawdry and we’ll reconsider. No promises mind. We don’t really think you are up to it.’ I see in reading a bit about its composition, why it is a wallowing piece of utter embarrassment to the reader, whilst being too close to the writer’s heart. Nothing except good punctuation should be close to that particular organ. It has a duel for heaven’s sake. Maybe the duel doesn’t take place – I didn’t read far enough to see – but honestly, what was he thinking of?

I feel let down and I’m taking it personally. How could you do this to me, Fitzgerald?

I’m in recovery with a nice book of Indian short stories. More on that soon.