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You see, most people, once they’ve passed, they’re not really interested in talking to this side. The effort’s too much for them. Even if they wanted to do it, they haven’t got the concentration span. You say they give trivial messages, but that’s because they’re trivial people. You don’t get a personality transplant when you’re dead. You don’t suddenly get a degree in philosophy.

When Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall won the 2009 Booker Prize it raised quite a few eye-brows. Not least because apparently there was a suspicious flurry of betting on the title before the announcement was made. As I had never read anything by Mantel before, I thought I would check out what all the fuss was about. Following this novel about death, palmistry and the tricks of memory, I am fairly confident Wolf Hall is not another bodice-ripper. I look forward to reading more of her work.

Alison Hart is a palm reader and fortune teller who appears to have a genuine ability to speak to the dead. Overweight and matronly in appearance, with bangles and jewellery for effect, pretending to an Irish ancestry for performance purposes, she expertly juggles the sympathy of her audience, with her gift for insight into their lives. Initially suspicious, Colette becomes convinced of Ali’s gift for speaking with individuals who have passed over ‘spiritside’.

When we first meet Colette she has become an assistant and recorder of Ali’s experiences as a medium. Having escaped a cold marriage to the shallow Gavin, and a career dependent on upskilling her knowledge of office software packages, she embarks on unravelling the mysterious past of her ‘partner’. She discovers that Ali is accompanied by not only an initially mischievous spirit guide named Morris, but the souls of several other increasingly threatening men. All of them figured prominently in her childhood, trapped in a house sitting on a barren English wasteland, where her mother entertained groups of men at a time. Ali never came to know her father and her mother’s grip on sanity began to wither while she was still quite young. When she began to see and hear the dead, she suspected she too was losing her mind.

As Colette spends more time with the bewildering older woman, she begins to wonder if perhaps she has. We follow the developing relationship between the two women during major events such as the death of Princess Diana and the September 11 tragedy. Ali and her community of fellow psychics respond in a very peculiar way to these occurrences, with Di in particular mocked mercilessly by the aging coven of women. Just as Ali’s mother sold her body to an endless number of servicemen, she finds herself selling her body and sanity for the use of irascible spirits haunting their descendents.

At times this book reminded me of Will Self’s How The Dead Live (itself a parody of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake). It lacks the scatological humour of these two books, instead mining a quiet form of personal tragedy. Colette is at a remove from her guru into the ways of the dead courtesy of more than her psychic abilities. She understands divination and palmistry only as a money-making opportunity (which earns the respect of her feckless husband Gavin). To her Ali’s distressing past is only content for a future book on the subject of a genuine psychic, who happens to also be quite the entertainer. Occasionally we are privy to the discussions between Morris and fellow souls spiritside, who linger on the border of this world, waiting for the likes of Ali to give them access to the physical world. They cannot acknowledge that time has marched on and their memories of their lives bear no relationship to the spectacle of psychics on cable television and phone sex lines.

Mantel plays with how we divorce ourselves from being with others by relating only to voices, either the table-tapping of the paranormal set, or a breathy voice echoing out of a phone handset. This is a quiet and unsettling novel about modern lives stranded by a fear of the future and a refusal to acknowledge the past.

When Ernest leans forward, his breath is warm and sticky on Barbara’s neck. She can feel her hairs stiffen in response, and a queer vibration passes down her spine, as though a part of that knotted bone had become, momentarily, gelatinous.

It has been a lousy day. Originally I intended to review Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black, a book I have kept on the back-burner for months now. Unfortunately our family dog fell ill, so it’s been a day filled with trips back and forth from vet surgeries and drives out to a pet hospital.

We’re a bit weary now. So I chose a slimmer volume to review for today’s entry. Tomorrow I will return to Mantel’s larger novel and give it its due.

Inventing the Abbots and Other Stories contains several shorts, each a commentary on contemporary sexual mores. The title story is the first within the collection, concerning a family of three daughters and the passions they inspire in two brothers.

The younger sibling, Doug, is our narrator and he describes how his brother Jacey falls in and out of love with each of the Abbot sisters. The titular family rule the social set of the small town of Haley. An invitation to one of their many birthday or coming out parties is considered an entry to the social upper crust.

The title is arrived at courtesy of Jacey and Doug’s mother, a war widow who recognizes that her eldest son’s affairs are evidence of a need for affection and security which she cannot provide. Doug’s incredulous narration reveals how innocently he viewed each of the social gatherings he attended at the Abbots, little realizing how little regard they had for his own family. Jacey’s attraction to the daughters seems born out of some compulsion relating to his feelings of resentment due to being ‘from the wrong side of the tracks’.

By choosing to tell the story from the Doug’s point of view, Miller disguises the real purpose of her tale. For the three girls within the Abbot house-hold are described as objects, signs of social status and a lifestyle that they find themselves trapped within. They are afforded no independence from the wishes of their family, from the high regard with which they are held by the community at large and so the romantic interest that Jacey shows in them is in fact entirely removed from their selves.

My favourite story within the collection is Appropriate Affect where an elderly grandmother seizes the opportunity of a stay in hospital to let her husband and family know exactly what she thinks of them. It’s a brilliant little satire on the lies families tell themselves to maintain their orderly worlds. Slides examines the dilemma of naked photos outlasting a relationship, a somewhat familiar problem in today’s world of youtube, facebook and camera phones.

Each story concerns issues of sexuality. Each description of a failing marriage, or relationships strained by infidelity and deception, is infused with a delicate sense of poignancy.

This is a series of well-told tales of love and lust that recognize the frailties of the human heart. Perfectly poised and delicate.

If LA isn’t the first true American city, she is certainly the greatest. I think so many journalists and tourists report condescendingly on her because they don’t being to understand the depth of the culture-shock they have experienced. A shock nothing like as immediate as the one you receive from New York, but one which is in my view far more lasting and harder to cope with.

I bought this book from a second hand store shortly after J.G. Ballard died. I had just read Michael Moorcock’s tender obituary and was thrilled to discover more about their friendship. The girl in the shop remarked that she had been surprised so many folk were buying up Ballard books before she heard the news. It was a curious friendship between the two men, both writers who appeal to quite different perspectives on the world.

Ballard’s writing evokes a fascination with a coldly objective world, where humanity itself is a passing phase and the remnants left behind, abandoned cities and nuclear fallout, have just as much a claim to life. There is a fascination with an ordered vision of a world stripped of human failings and mortality. Moorcock by contrast takes a perverse pleasure in the grit and grime of fantasy realms, where stories are all lies and wonder is to be found in the rotten core of human history.

What I find odd about the correspondence collected in this volume is that the style is indistinguishable from the crooked authorial voice of his fiction. Indeed I began to question just how real these sights and encounters with the strange denizens of Hollywood were, as the adventures of Moorcock the Englishman abroad seemed too similar to those of his character Colonel Pyat in Jerusalem Commands. If this is fiction disguised as travel writing, it is a fine joke.

We are not privy to Ballard’s replies in this correspondence and Moorcock makes reference to painful personal events during the course of his stay in the States. His marriage had just broken down and emotionally crippled, he travelled to L.A. to visit a writer friend from his New Worlds days, Graham Hall, who was himself dying.  Moorcock gives an unsentimental account of his friend’s selfishness and hurtful decision to drink himself to death. He is also deeply affected by what he sees as the waste of a potentially great writer’s talent. While Moorcock’s name is frequently associated with psychedelic drugs, he eschews puritan hypocrisy in his lamenting of a friend’s life destroyed by drink. He contrasts the aspirational character of Californians, living in a beautiful landscape of sun and surf, with the fatalistic affectations of English Bolshieness, would-be working class heroes with a college degree and ideology in a bottle.

Moorcock’s attempts to raise funds to rescue his soaring overdraft – courtesy of his estranged family relations back in England – land him a position as a script-writer on a revisionist King Arthur film. He identifies the director of the picture only as ‘Ike’, an old Hollywood player who has just had a great success with the space opera genre. I assumed this was a coded reference to Irvin Kershner and a quick google would appear to confirm this. At any rate ‘Ike’ is something of a cartoonish figure, a monstrous ego on legs who insists on Moorcock introducing a black character into the Arthurian cycle on one day and homages to Kurosawa on the next. The well-worn dictatorial relationship between the director and the screen-writer is ploughed through, with Moorcock emerging shaken and disturbed.

Once again I begin to wonder just how real ‘Ike’, is. He seems more a collection of Hollywood player clichés, which does not mean he does not exist. Just Moorcock’s flights of invective remind me more of a fictional dilemma than an actual account. An earlier encounter with a sf fan tattoo artist also raised suspicions. The character in question is identified by the name Gulliver and bonds with Moorcock over Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. The main character of which is memorably described as having a number of facial tattoos, and named Gulliver Foyle. Perhaps it is a coincidence, but it made me curious nonetheless.

For Hollywood itself is a place filled with unreality, where the ‘English countryside’, of a Robin Hood serial is just over the hill. Trust Moorcock to prove to be such a winning guide to the darker half of sunny L.A. Evocative and very intimately written.

“Ah, you light-complexioned women are all sulky,” he said. “What do you want? Compliments and soft speeches? Well! I’m in good humour this morning. Consider the compliments paid, and the speeches said.” Men little know, when they say hard things to us, how well we remember them, and how much harm they do us.

According to Matthew Sweet’s introduction both William Thackeray and British Prime Minister William Gladstone read this book in a day. So it seems I am in good company. However, it appears I have been labouring under a misunderstanding about this book. I always assumed it was a ghost story, thanks to a little known film starring Lukas Haas with a similar title, whereas in fact it is a pseudo-gothic tale of family intrigue and fraud.

The book’s preface contains a note stating that this is a new kind of tale, one were the action is to be related to us by its own characters. Published in serial form by Charles Dickens in the 1860s, this was considered a unique feature at the time. Collins proves to be adept with this new narrative form. [The characters] are all placed in different positions along the chain of events; and they all take the chain up in turn and carry it on to the end. The reader is left to question the truth of the events as they unfold.

Shortly before assuming a well-paid position as a tutor at Limmeridge House, Cumberland, Walter Hartright has a startling encounter on a country road just outside of London. A woman dressed entirely in white seems to appear out of nowhere. She speaks in low darting sentences, seems confused and possessed by turbulent emotions. Muttering accusingly about a man of rank, a baron of some kind, she begs Walter’s assistance. He agrees to accompany her into the city environs, where she claims a close friend lives who will aid her in her distress. She forces him to promise not to detain her, or question her about her circumstances and just as suddenly as he had made her acquaintance, the mysterious woman in white departs, leaving him much bemused on the streets of London.

After arriving at Limmeridge, Walter assumes his post as tutor to the two young women of the house, Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Marian Halcombe. The head of the house is the louche dilettante Frederick Fairlie: art lover, insufferable snob and claiming to suffer from a multitude of ill-defined afflictions. As he memorably describes himself during a later passage in the novel, he is nothing but a bundle of nerves dressed up to look like a man”.

Having introduced us to our nominal cast of characters, we then meet the villain of the piece – Sir Glyde. A man of good repute, whom Walter quickly notes, is a baron. Could this be the man the woman in white was babbling about? For Walter has fallen in love with Laura Fairlie and Sir Glyde has been promised her hand in marriage. Broken-hearted, the young hero leaves Limmeridge on an exploratory trip to Honduras. His part in the adventures that follow is not ended yet, though the telling of the tale passes from him.

Collins has both main actors and bit-part players address us during the proceedings. The story is told through the device of diary extracts, legal testimonies and signed confessions, an increasingly familiar device through the latter-half of the 19th century. Collins had a background in both art (hence Hartright’s role as an art teacher) and law, which explains the fraught legal dilemma that Laura quickly finds herself in. Strangely when Walter assumes the role of narrator, his heroic aspect transforms the two sisters into self-admonishing weak-willed women. Yet when Marian, distraught at the fraudulent marriage her sister becomes enmeshed in, steps to the fore, she is revealed to be a canny and determined heroine. She meets her match, however, in the conniving Italian Count, a friend to Sir Glyde, who uses charm and guile to entrap Laura’s estate.

Only the mysterious woman in white knows ‘The Secret’ to defeat the conspiracy that traps the sisters in their own homes, at the mercy of powerful men who with a word can strip them of their class and commit them to the asylum.

Madness and evasions of the word of the law haunt the proceedings, playing on fears of false incarceration. This is an effusively written, yet chilling, work of suspense.

We were gabbing about Oprah’s abundant advice on how to improve our health, relationships, homes, finances, spiritual lives, fashion sense, and the list goes on and on. Winfrey inspires masses of women all over the world. And yet, it dawned on me, for every Oprah fan I’ve come in contact with, there has also been someone who can’t hide her vitriol about the media sensation. I wondered why.

So Oprah made a very exciting announcement on her show last week. To commemorate the last season of her talk show/infotainment hour, the most powerful woman on American daytime television is bringing her audience to Australia, courtesy of Qantas Airlines and Tourism Australia. Then John Travolta popped out of a plane.

And yes, they’re going to rename the Sydney Opera House the Oprah House.

So I felt it was timely to read Robyn Okrant’s book Living Oprah. From January 1 2008 this performance artist/yoga instructor/self-confessed Oprah addict wrote a blog dedicated to following every piece of advice released by every facet of the Queen of Television’s media empire. From her television chatshow, to O magazine and her online website, author Okrant would dedicate herself to ‘living her best life’, as per Oprah’s instruction. Novels bearing the Oprah book club seal of approval would be read, the medical advice of special guest Dr Oz would be followed and the various exotic dishes that met with approval would be dined upon.

To be honest, reading a book a day seems a lot less daunting now.

Okrant takes us through her experiences living under Oprah’s instructions on a month by month basis. Each chapter ends with itemised breakdown of the costs incurred and time spent on each activity. Also the growing popularity of Okrant’s Living Oprah blog transforms the author into a media personality of her own right, although on a much smaller scale. One of the admirable aspects of her endeavour is her refusal to accept endorsements, despite the financial costs of abiding by the rules of her challenge. Every time a book title is announced on Oprah’s book club amazon’s electronic shelves are emptied.

This leads to an interesting question. Should one person wield so much influence over such a large number of people? I remember Oprah’s syndicated show back in the 80’s when it was indistinguishable from the many other talkshows on the airwaves – Phil Donohue, Arsenio Hall, Regis and Kathie Lee. Oprah is now the face of an incredible media empire. She is courted by corporate, charities, celebrities and national tourist boards. Okrant begins to feel concerned when her guru announces her support for Barack Obama as presidential nominee as a ‘private citizen’. Had the chosen candidate been anyone else on the ticket, would she have been willing to throw her vote away for the sake of her project?

I believe the first time I encountered the word ‘Oprahism’, was in William Gibson’s Idoru. The book is set in a near-future era, where AIDS has been cured due to a mass media ‘saint’ and various new cults have sprung up to challenge traditional religions, including the worship of Oprah Winfrey herself. It was an amusing conceit, but perhaps we are starring at the disturbing reality right now.

Okrant’s book posits how is it possible to abide by any of the lifestyle philosophies, or commercial endorsements, when many are contradictory. A programme promoting detox diets may well be followed by an episode featuring a delicious desert. For want of a better word, Oprahism appears to represent a confusing mixture of cosy Objectivism, a Luddite resentment of modern technology, rampant consumerism and body fetishism. Okrant suggests that Oprah’s influence is so pervasive her audience swallows all of this whole, without any real critical assessment.

Of course Okrant’s own role in this is questionable. How sincere is this project? Is it performance art keyed to trending topics? For one she promotes that execrable book The Secret (which has also received Oprah’s thumbs up) – I don’t object to positive thinking so much, as the poisonous notion of ‘negative attraction’. Also during the period of writing ‘geek chic’, was quite popular. So Okrant quotes “With great power comes great responsibility”, attributing it to Uncle Ben from the movie Spider-man, 2002. I told you I was a geek.” Quoting from the movie does not make you a geek – it makes you an audience member!

While this is a interesting project, I couldn’t help but suspect a degree of parasitism.

Rawrr catty.

I am becoming a swift fan of Jeff Parker’s writing. Last year I read The Age of the Sentry by him, a miniseries from Marvel Comics about a Superman knock-off. Previous writers had been unable to do much with the character, lumbering the Man of Not-Steel with mental health issues to distinguish him from DC’s ‘Boy Scout’. Parker ignored most of this and spun the Sentry into a series of parodic adventures, even including Truman Capote in the proceedings. Here was a superhero comic brimming with ideas and a deft farcical touch.

Which brings us to Mysterius The Unfathomable. Even had I not known of Parker’s work, I would have had to snap this book off the shelves due to the cover alone. Tom Fowler’s art places an almost undue emphasis on bulging stomachs and shapeless bodies. The hero, Mysterius, even has a drink enflamed proboscis, to hint at his sleazy nature. The actual texture of the graphic novel in my hands feels worn and engrained. There are coffee mug stains over the title and an impression of curling pages on each corner. This is Parker returning us to the era of the pulp magazine, featuring the strange adventures of the paranormal, but with a modern twist.

The story begins with a panicked auctioneer meeting with a representative of Mysterius, who calls herself Delfi. This of course is not her real name – as we soon learn, names have power in the world of magick. Their prospective client, a Mister Ormond, has a rather unusual problem that he hopes the famous magician can help him with. His skin has broken out in a series of highly visible tattoos. Each tattoo represents the name of a prostitute he has slept with.

Mysterius is intrigued and agrees to take the case. This also provides him with an opportunity to give Delfi more instruction into the ways of magic. She is not his first assistant. In fact he has worked with countless young women bearing her name since the turn of the century. Mysterius is quite old and powerful, although his abilities prove to be rather erratic at the best of times. Delfi was originally a reporter who encountered her future partner while covering a séance at a playboy celebrity’s house. Unfortunately the proceedings quickly went out of control – is it not always the ways with séances? – and the young woman found herself introduced to a strange world.

In following up on the Ormond case, however, the pair quickly come up against larger problems than they had been anticipating. For one there is the little matter of the disastrous séance yet to clear up. What’s more Mysterius suspects Ormond’s strange affliction is due to a witch, whom he has slighted in some way. It turns out the witch belongs to a coven that worships an old and familiar evil.

Then there are the demonic Doctor Seuss books. I always knew that damn Cat in the Hat was evil!

Mysterius The Unfathomable is a delightful story. The main character is an absolute louse, his distended stomach a testament to his wasted long life and poor habits. He is also cowardly, at one point suggesting that they distract a demonic creature from another dimension by letting it eat a baby, so that he and Delfi can make their escape. In certain respects his relationship with his assistant is similar to that of The Doctor to his many ‘companions’. I am thinking in particular of the madcap Tom Baker incarnation. He will do the right thing – eventually – but usually only after a series of puckish stunts. Mysterius is the anti-Thomas Carnacki, whose only rule is to always get paid (although as a matter of principle, he refuses to exchange money for anything).

This is more than a parody of the pulp magazine era, it is a rueful love letter to madcap adventures and paranormal absurdity. Lovecraft-esque, but with a sense of fun and whimsy that eluded the grim New Englander. If you were to say the word ‘squamous’, to Mysterius, he would probably snort with laughter. There’s even a dig at Lovecraft and the pulp era’s more racialist tendencies, with Delfi’s ethnicity raising the main character’s eyebrows briefly.

Tom Fowler matches the manic proceedings with a grotesque bestiary of humans, only to let loose with the Seussian demon dimension. He captures the sleazy vibe of Mysterius’ world perfectly.

Gleefully recommended.

‘Pacino can play Jewish. Okay. You don’t like Pacino, how about Jack Lemmon? Richard Dreyfuss?

‘Jack Lemmon’s too old…’

‘Dustin Hoffman…’

‘I dunno…I was thinking, I was thinking Michael Douglas. I want somebody who’s more, like sexy.’

There’s something about kitchens. MasterChef is all the rage in Australia at the moment. You have a dozen celebrity chefs per television channel, cooking books are the perfect gift for Christmas and Jamie Oliver is the finest political mind of this generation. Apparently.

Course there’s the other side of kitchens. I used to work with chefs wired on something-or-other at night. I came to understand this was simply an aspect of the culture. Anthony Bourdain is a writer who likes to play with the seamier side of the restaurant scene and Bone In The Throat is a post-Sopranos tale of protection rackets, wire-taps and media-savvy Mafiosi.

Harvey is a man with a dream. A dream of owning and running a fine cuisine restaurant, that specialises in fish dishes. Unfortunately Harvey has a few problems. He’s in debt to the local mob and Sally Wig may look ridiculous with his hairpiece, but he does enjoy bouncing the would-be restaurateur’s head off furnishings when he is late with his payments. Not only that, but Harvey is a stool-pidgeon for the feds, having agreed to take part in a sting to take down Sally and his outfit. In fact there’s nothing real about the restaurant at all – it’s a front for a federal investigation into racketeering. A man can dream though, right?

Harvey’s staff are not doing too good either. The chef has a heroin habit and sous-chef Tommy is embarrassed by his family connection to Sally. In fact the only reason he has his job is due to his uncle putting pressure on Harvey. Now Sally wants a favour and Tommy knows that ‘favours’, can quickly get out of hand. Throw some messy affairs among the floor-staff and you’ve got a whole heap of trouble brewing at the Dreadnought Grill.

Bourdain’s has an amusing central gimmick to this yarn. A character’s moral worth is measured by their interest in food. Tommy and the chef are both frustrated foodie’s trapped by their respective circumstances. They see the local mobsters pouring money into joints that specialise in fried calamari and dishes swamped in red sauce. Restaurants that would not know a fresh tomato if they saw it on a shelf, or how to de-bone a fish!

Unfortunately if you’ve watched any episodes of The Sopranos you probably already know how the story goes. The personal failings and love lives of characters receive more attention than actual crimes, until a sudden explosion of violence occurs every now and then to shock the reader into paying attention. The banter is quick and sometimes funny, but mostly repetitive cursing.

The book opens with a prologue revealing that one of the characters has died, washed up on a shoreline. When the identity of the floater is finally revealed, I had already forgotten about that particularly plot thread.

Passable fare, but nothing especially interesting.

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