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Inside the safe she took out his recent will and tore it to small pieces and replaced it with the one they had both done on return from their honeymoon in Hayman Island, before all that angst with the trial separation, before he found out about her spending patterns, and long before he decided he would divide the money between the children.

‘After all, we both will have enough to live on,’ she remembered him saying in that pleading tone, as he looked with his doe eyes at a photo of the children. They thought they had him in their headlights, but now they will really have something to cry about, she thought, as she watched, mesmerized by the dance the shredded fragments performed while burning in the fireplace.

Today was a rough day. I woke up with a start in the middle of the night and did not really get to sleep again. Left to slouch across Sydney’s Bondi Junction this morning, much in the manner of a hipster zombie, let us say I was not in good form. I had an interview scheduled with an Australian musician at my magazine intern gig and had to brainstorm some further questions for an internet fandom-god. Frankly I am astonished that I still have two brain cells to rub together.

So it was with great relief that I had a light read to look forward to. Dr Joseph Reich has switched his eye-surgery practice for professional writing and I have to say I am very grateful. This was exactly what I needed to read today.

I Know Precious Little is a wry and witty novel, chock full of puns, that was apparently inspired by an early short story by Reich. The story is concerned with two women with some things in common, both having husbands with the same name – but possessing entirely opposite temperaments. Katherine is a demure suburban housewife, whereas Pree is a sharp-tongued harridan. The novel contrasts their perspectives on the indignities and frustrations of old age, each chapter presenting a different point of view, with several other characters stepping up to the plate to reveal more about the events described.

Death, physical infirmities and marital discord run through the lives of each of these characters – perhaps that sounds like a series of fiction truisms, but Reich invests so much incisive wit into his descriptions of these tired lives that reading this book passed the time as easily as a hot knife through butter. Pree is of course an absolute delight, a wicked and callous terror. Katherine on the other hand patiently tolerates such nonsense as entrenched book club politics.

This is a slyly humourous book that earns the reader’s affection through a clever line in observational comedy – enough that I was willing to forgive the age-old ‘Dr. Spock is a Vulcan’, quip! At times the tone feels like a combination of Philip Roth‘s upended epics of old age and the entertaining solipsism of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. Strangely though the novel I was most reminded of was Tsiolkas’ The Slap. Reich also describes a tapestry of interwoven lives straining against one another, but thankfully without a trace of that other novel’s oppressive nihilism

I Know Precious Little manages to achieve that rare balance, being a quick read that has a lot to say about how people live their lives. Funny, entertaining and for a first-time novel, surprisingly quick on its feet.

With thanks to the author for my review copy.

They talked about the war in the Sudan, about the decline of the African Writers Series, about books and writers. They agreed that Dambudzo Marechera was astonishing, that Alan Paton was patronizing, that Isak Dinesaen was unforgivable. The Kenyan put on a generic European accent and, between drags at his cigarette, recited what Isak Dinesen had said about all Kikuyu children becoming mentally retarded at the age of nine. They laughed. The Zimbabwean said Achebe was boring and did nothing with style, and the Kenyan said that was a sacrilege and snatched at the Zimbabwean’s wineglass, until she recanted, laughing, saying of course Achebe was sublime. The Senegalese said she nearly vomited when a professor at the Sorbonne told her that Conrad was really on her side, as if she could not decide for herself who was on her side.

Back during my Leaving Certificate examination year, a friendly rivalry was sparked between myself and another student. We both fancied ourselves writers, submitted essay after essay to our teachers competing for the highest mark and when that was not enough, most literary references per paragraph.

Here’s the thing – he was a far better writer than me. Plus he was a pretty interesting bloke, often telling stories about taking treks through the African veldt, or fishing with Rastafarians. After school was finished, he gave me a standing invitation to visit him in Botswana. I never took him up on the offer. Ever since I have had this abiding fascination with Africa, an itch I will have to scratch some day.

The Thing Around Your Neck collects a series of short stories by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, some autobiographical, such as the passage quoted above taken from Jumping Monkey Hill which describes the difficulties faced by African writers trying to break through the literary glass ceiling maintained by the Western canon; others contrasting the lives of ordinary Nigerians with foreigners, often Americans.

Imitation has a Nigerian woman living without her husband for many months of the year, but enjoying every comfort in a fine house in the States. Her only companion is a fellow Igbo house maid. When she begins to suspect her art dealer husband is having an affair back in Nigeria, her only confidante is this – an employee who in this foreign land is the closest thing she has to a friend. On Monday Of Last Week has another expat named Kamara find employment as a babysitter to a mixed race American couple’s child. Driven to distraction by the neurotic father – and increasingly curious about the absentee artist mother – she finds herself becoming infatuated with the other woman in the house. The Arrangers of Marriage focuses on a newly arrived bride in the States, whose naturalised husband insists on eroding her Nigerian identity.

Ghosts and Cell One both concern academics struggling to survive in modern Nigeria, as a result of profound personal grief and increasing gang violence respectively. Cell One is the first story in the collection and features a family left distraught when the eldest son is arrested for being a member of a street gang. The son is described as  over-privileged and arrogant, a result of his coddle middle-class upbringing. When he finds himself behind bars, the shock of witnessing genuine oppression changes his personality. Ghosts has a grieving widower encounter a former university colleague he believed had been killed during the Nigerian-Biafran war. At first thinking his old acquaintance to be a phantom, he stops himself from performing the traditional ritual of throwing sand on him,  remembering that he is a Western-educated academic and above such things.

This alienation from tradition and language is a recurring theme of the stories collected here. Another is the perception of Nigeria and its history by external bodies, such as the international media, American embassy staff, or indeed literary critics, in the case of Jumping Monkey Hill, my favourite story from the selection. A Private Experience alternates between an encounter between two women, one a Muslim the other a Christian, hiding in a store and the media coverage of the event afterwards, which would have these two individuals be natural enemies.

Again and again Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie seems to make the appeal that the stories of these people, of Nigerians generally, should be heard for what they are, without the intrusion of inferred Western values.

This is powerful writing, with a wry and critical tone throughout.

The Camino is full of strange and wonderful experiences, and this is just another one of these moments. I’m not known as someone who bestows blessings on strangers, or one who appreciates poorly made timber products for that matter. But here in Spain, these things become so much more than just superficial. Somehow I catch the emotion behind what I see, the true spirit behind the words, and in this case, the actions, and it seems to make all the difference. Things become vibrant and the world becomes alive.

The second time I came to Australia, I thought of it as my great adventure. I had travelled around the world in pursuit of a relationship, leaving family, friends and employment behind. It was a big risk. So when my relationship with Stephanie continued to grow from strength to strength and I had successfully established myself in Sydney, I really thought that risk had paid off quite nicely.

Then two friends of mine announced that they were climbing to Mount Everest base camp. Suddenly my grand adventure seemed little more than a exchange of one homogenous environment for another, my lifestyle just a generic middle-class wage-slave existence in a metropolitan city.

One of the great pleasures of writing this blog is that occasionally I get to share in someone else’s adventure, read their thoughts and feelings while undertaking incredible challenges.

Brad Kyle explains in the book’s opening the circuitous journey taken by the eventual inspiration that led to him setting off along the Camino trail in Spain. Initially he learned of the pilgrimage trail from an anonymous girl one summers day in London, who introduced him to Paulo Coelho‘s The Pilgrimage. Following the death of his father eight years later, Kyle is reminded of that happy evening when he encounters a second book – Shirley MacLaine’s The Camino – A Journey of the Spirit, which finally sets him on the path to Santiago.

Between jobs, feeling adrift and in possession of some savings, Kyle flies from Melbourne to London and then across the water to the eventual starting point Saint Jean Pied de Port. Suddenly conscious that he may well be unprepared for the road ahead – the foul weather, steep terrain, blisters! – he also becomes acutely aware of just how alone he is, having set himself the challenge of marching across two countries over a period of five weeks.

Physical discomfort and the vagaries of hostel curfews aside, Kyle soon begins to get the hang of life on the pilgrim trail. Initial fleeting encounters with fellow travellers soon grow into genuine relationships. The spectacular scenery and encounters with some local animals – at one point Kyle gives a silent thank you to Dr. Harry for his advice on greeting horses – soon dwarfs the aches and pains. There are even stirrings of romance. In effect, this is a story of one man’s rediscovery of what makes life worth living.

Kyle describes his journey in a very personable and thoughtful manner. Often his reminiscences are grounded in terms that can be easily understood. For example he has a tendency of comparing certain experiences to popular films, such as Finding Nemo, Men in Black and Amelie.

In fact the style of writing here is deeply personal, with the emotions described obviously keenly felt. At times it reads much like an attempt by Bill Bryson to rewrite Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. The travelogue has moved on from overtly literary fare designed for the consumption of 19th century high class salons, evolving into personal accounts leavened with a lot of humour. I had a strong sense of familiarity while reading Memoirs of a Pilgrim – it felt as intimate as reading a friend’s blog on some far-flung adventure.

This is a touching, heart-felt and engaging story of an incredible journey through a timeless landscape.

With thanks to the author for my review copy.

“Dirk Pitt of the National Underwater Marine Agency.” The voice was quiet and deep, but there was nothing evil or menacing about it. “This is an honor. I have followed your exploits over the years with some interest and occasional amusement.”

Among certain friends of mine I am notorious for my love of terrible films. Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, Shay Casserley and James Bennett’s Fatal Deviation – these are classic examples of trash cinema, that I nevertheless love irrationally. Now Breck Eisner’s Sahara is nowhere near as terrible as these two Ed Wood-like classics, but it was pretty bad.

Guess what. I liked it. It is certainly not a good film, but it has its charms. Matthew McConnaughy’s performance as Dirk Pitt is nothing to write home about, but the banter with Steve Zahn as best friend Al Giordino makes the film for me. I hoped that I would find this book by Clive Cussler as enjoyable.

Six months after a prototype nuclear submarine, the Starbuck, disappears somewhere in the Pacific, Dirk Pitt’s afternoon on a deserted beach in Hawaii is rudely interrupted by the appearance of a bright yellow cylinder just over the waves. Inside he discovers a series of messages from the captain of the missing vessel, hinting at a horrific underwater tragedy. Pitt drives straight to the office of Admiral Leigh Hunter, commander of the 101st salvage fleet, whose startled reception of this stranger wearing little more than bathing trunks is silenced when he presents the cannister. As he happened to discover the information on the lost vessel, Pitt is seconded from the National Underwater Marine Agency to Hunter’s command, on a mission to locate the Starbuck.

The night before he is due to depart Pitt finds himself in a hotel bar being literally fought over by two women, with the winner then turning on him and attempting to poison him with a hypodermic needle. A second attempt on his life is made by an assassin who tries to drive him off a mountain road. Despite his sudden popularity with exotic killers, Pitt proceeds with the mission to recover the submarine. Partnered with Commander Boland, Pitt discovers that their vessel, the Martha Ann, is actually a disguised naval vessel that resembles a rusted salvage ship. Boland proudly reveals the sophisticated equipment on board, only to be slightly deflated when Pitt claims to already be familiar with most of it through his work with NUMA. The ship sets off and thanks to Pitt’s intuition they quickly discover a graveyard of vessels on the pacific floor. To their surprise, not only do they locate the Starbuck, but there is no sign of the crew and the nuclear engines are intact. But the longer the Martha Ann stays in the region, Pitt fears they will all suffer the same fate of every vessel claimed by the ‘Pacific Vortex’.

In many ways, Cussler’s novels seem related to the Flint movie series, which portrayed an American version of Ian Fleming‘s James Bond character. Unlike the British government assassin, all ice-cold professionalism, Pitt is rambunctious and a risk-taker. However, he shares Bond’s libido, even casually threatening to rape a female assassin at one point in order to intimidate her. Given how avuncular he seems during his interactions with the navy officers, this makes for an uncomfortable note of misogyny. He also takes the time to lecture a former lover on her sex-life shortly before she beaten, much to his amusement, by the same assassin.

In fan-fiction there is a term that fits here, Gary Stu. Pitt is good at everything, his instincts are never wrong and he can survive incredible physical exertion. He punches a shark! In short – he’s a Rambo on the high seas.

What I did enjoy was Cussler’s obvious love of maritime technology. The prose comes to life when describing the various ships sunk by the villainous conspiracy behind the pacific vortex and I understand the author has dedicated a lot of effort to recovering shipwrecks. Yes, there is a real-life NUMA.

I suspect that Cussler’s work is not for me, but as he has blitzed the best-seller charts with every book in the Pitt series there are plenty of other fans out there.

‘Mark…I finally came, Mark. Please…’

Of course. You have to invite them inside. He knew that from his monster magazines, the ones his mother was afraid might damage or warp him in some way.

Back in ’94 our art teacher in school had an unusual idea. He would take his class of teenage boys and fashion them into a mini-movie studio. To inspire us he showed us a series of clips from various horror movies, pointing out how simplistic tricks could be used to shock audiences. This collage of films included John Carpenter’s The Thing, Dario Argento’s Suspiria, Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula and finally the adaptation of Stephen King‘s ‘Salem’s Lot, by Tobe Hooper. Specifically this scene. I am pretty sure that afternoon, spent in a classroom with the blinds down, probably scarred me for life.

Last night I could not sleep, so I picked up my trusty Kindle, wandered into the kitchen, poured a glass of milk and finally got round to reading ‘Salem’s Lot.

Ben Mears is a writer with three novels under his belt that failed to impress newspaper critics, but has managed to earn him a living:

Well, that was critics for you. Plot was out, masturbation in.

He returns to the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, a small village on the road to Portland that has not changed much since the briefs years he spent there as a child living with his aunt. Ever since he left he has been obsessed with the troubled history of the Marsten House. He hopes to acquire a lease to the long-abandoned building and exorcise his fears of what happened to him there as a child with a novel. Instead he discovers two European antique dealers, Mr. Straker and Mr. Barlow, have bought the building. Ben meets Susan Norton and the two of them quickly fall in love. She has dreams of living ‘Salem’s Lot for an artistic career in New York. He also makes a friend in high school English teacher Matt Burke, a quick mutual respect developing between the two men of letters. Ben, despite his troubled feelings over the Marsten House, begins to remember how much he enjoyed living in this quiet community.

Shortly after his arrival, a boy named Ralphie Glick goes missing. His brother Danny reports that just before he vanished, Ralphie described what he thought was a ghost staring at him. Shortly afterwards his parents are sent into even greater distress when he drops dead in hospital. After the funeral Matt encounters gravedigger Mike Ryerson in the local bar, delirious and weak, with a strange story about having passed out while burying the Glick boy’s body. The night Ralphie disappeared, the two brothers had been travelling to Mark Petrie’s house, to see his collection of models and horror film memorabilia. Even as Matt, Ben and a several other co-conspirators come to the conclusion that the strange events in town have been caused by an infestation of vampires – after hours of debate and argument – Mark has already identified the cause and set off alone to face the mysterious new residents of the Marsten House.

If you have seen the tv miniseries, or read the book, maybe you have noticed what I have done above – place the emphasis on Mark instead of Ben, who is yet another self-insert character in King’s fiction. That is because firstly I am quite tired of this tendency of the author’s; secondly I cannot help imagining what this book would have been like if it focused exclusively on Mark. It could have been To Kill A Mockingbird, but with vampires! As it is there is a huge cast in this book, with many voices overlapping during passages, as well as our old friend ‘the omniscient narrator’, weighing in to let us know how the vampire infiltration of the town is proceeding.

Of course this is all part and parcel of King’s project, which is to describe the damning of an entire community. The arrival of the vampires is in fact a judgement on the town of ‘Salem for their sins. There is barely a single sympathetic resident in the town.

In fact for me the most horrific scene in the book does not feature monsters, but a mother punching her own baby.

I find King to be heavy-handed, with a tin-ear for dialogue and yet – I sat and read this book throughout the entire day. That counts for something.

The custom of the Northmen reveres the life of war. Verily these huge men fight continually; they are never at peace, neither among themselves nor among different tribes of their kind. They sing songs of their warfare and bravery, and believe that the death of a warrior is the highest honor.

‘cough’, ok time for Emmet to do some name-dropping.

This one time, Seamus Heaney nicked my glass of wine. That is the end of the anecdote. You may applaud.

In 1999 Heaney’s translation of Beowulf was published. I remember at the time I thought it an excellent reintroduction to the text, as well as a neat commentary on the epic poem’s privileged status in English literature, courtesy of the author’s stylistic choices. John Gardner’s Grendel is another excellent parody and commentary on the text, one which I would happily recommend to anyone.

I never realized Michael Crichton had had a go as well.

Eaters of the Dead concerns the adventures of a scholar from Baghdad, named Ahmad ibn Fadlan in Northern Europe. Actually his full name is given as: “Ahmad ibn-Fadlan, ibnal-Abbas, ibn-Rasid, ibn-Hammad.” Courtesy of a dalliance with a merchant’s wife (Crichton makes it clear that Fadlan is all man), the Caliph sends him on a diplomatic mission to the Bulgars to instruct the people there in the Muslim religion, at the request of their king.

Crichton’s authorial voice appears throughout the book commenting on Fadlan’s ‘historical’, account of what happened next.

After passing through 10th century Turkey, Fadlan and his party encounter a group of vikings, led by the warrior Buliwyf. Through a combination of superstition and the sheer martial superiority of the Northern ‘barbarians’, Fadlan becomes an unwilling member of a mission to liberate a King Rothgar from so-called ‘mist-monsters’.

The majority of the narrative is concerned with the cultural differences between Fadlan and the twelve warriors who have press-ganged him. Unfortunately this tends to boil down to various vikings calling him a ‘stupid Arab’, or his admiration for their sexual prowess.

In fact there is not a single female character in this story. King Rothgar’s queen is mentioned and a proxy ‘Grendel’s mother’, is unveiled, but for the most part the women in this story are simply there to be sexually available to Buliwyf and his men. Fadlan is at first ashamed at public displays of sexuality and retreats making obeisance to Allah, but eventually he joins in.

Oh and the Grendel of old Saxon legend is revealed to be a tribe of ‘wendols’, or as Crichton makes clear in the afterward, neanderthals. I have a number of problems with this demystified take, not least of which the 10th century setting, as well as the descriptions of these neanderthals riding horseback. I was under the impression that not only would this bipedal species have long been extinct by the period of Crichton’s choosing, they would also be too large to be carried by horses.

Secondly the wendols are revealed to be a matriarchal society that worships a stone carving of a pregnant woman. The vikings react with disgust at sightings of her icons and when combined with the unusual emphasis on male virility throughout the book, a disturbing subtext begins to emerge.

This is a very peculiar book. As a fantasy it is a failure, a pale imitation of Beowulf. Vikings are a source of fascination for modern readers still and I wonder if it is because the simplistic take on their civilization – war-mongering sea-raiders, much given to slaughter and rapine – is not as morally conflicted as the European culture that followed. In that sense Crichton’s work is yet another indulgence in vicariously enjoying a life unfettered by contemporary mores.

Once again though my main objection to this author’s work is his insistence on pretending to pseudo-science. With Eaters of the Dead Crichton is attempting a revisionist work, challenging our perception of viking culture, while at the same time introducing contemporary prejudices into the narrative. This is a trend that would eventually led to his becoming held up as a authoritative global warming sceptic – following the publication of his book State of Fear, which was a work of fiction, but once again attempted to sit on two stools, occasioning much criticism.

Crichton writes at one point: “But Ibn Fadlan was a writer, and his principal aim was not entertainment […] his tone is that of a tax auditor, not a bard; an anthropologist, not a dramatist.” Stangely fitting that.

The Furs had been married seven years but had no children, a situation in those fecund days that caused them both grief. Mizpah was a little cracked on the subject and traded one of Bill’s good shirts to a passing emigrant wagon for a baby pig, which she dressed in swaddling clothes and fed from a nipple-fitted bottle that had once contained Wilfee’s Equine Liniment & Spanish Pain Destroyer but now held milk from the Furs’ unhappy cow – an object of attention from range bulls, rustlers and roundup cowboys, who spent much of her time hiding in a nearby cave. The piglet one day tripped over the hem of the swaddling dress and was carried off by a golden eagle.

Another first for me – I have never read Annie Proulx before today. I must confess that was a deliberate choice. I have some sympathy with the likes of B.R. Myers, who has argued that as a novelist she is representative of a certain turn away from genre fiction, yet another literati exploring the faultlines left by Woolf and Joyce with modernism.

On the other hand, I figured a book of short stories would be an interesting introduction to her style, that should it prove not to my liking, could be dispensed with quickly.

Fine Just The Way It Is I understand is another in a series of books by Proulx about ordinary folk living in countryside  Wyoming. The tales featured here are set in various periods of American history, although two relate to the adventures of the Devil and his personal secretary, satirical visions of a Hell that is not all that far removed from the world we know.

Family Man opens the proceedings with a tale set in the present-day of an elderly man being visited in a retirement home by a young relation. She hopes to record his memories of their family’s past, something he only agrees to do with the understanding that this will be a true account of what happened, not some sentimental memoir. His life has led him to The Mellowhorn Home, with its insistence on group activities and a lack of privacy. One of the nurses even eavesdrops on Roy Forkenbrock’s account of his past. Ultimately his experiences, the history of his family (and the painful secret he chooses to unburden himself of) becomes just another trivial story, swamped in an age of sensationalist reality television.

Them Old Cowboy Songs returns to the pioneer era of 1885. A young couple make a stake on a plot of land and the man goes off to find work, leaving his wife Rose behind, pregnant and alone. The story opens with a chilling note that many folk who lived in these times ‘had short runs and were quickly forgotten.’ It makes for a timely warning as to the couple’s fates and the random dangers of the wild country. Testimony of the Donkey skips back to the present day and has another couple, this time separated by a spurious argument, with one of them leaving to hike on a mountainous trail by herself. What follows is a horrific description of the human body being subjected to exposure and crippling thirst.

Proulx has a reputation as an archivist of an idea of America, like McCarthy, unveiling some notional ‘true history’, of the country through the prism of fiction. Whether it be the cost of isolation on the pioneers, the prevalence of homosexuality among men left to themselves, or the slow erosion of identity caused by modernity. It is easy to see why her stories have proved so popular with Hollywood. She is offering a counter-point to their own mythology of the Old West, a shock to cinema-audiences who have grown bored with stories of cheerful manifest destiny.

So it was some surprise to encounter fantastical stories thrown into the mix here. There are the aforementioned ‘Devil’, interludes, I’ve Always Loved This Place & Swamp Mischief, as well as the bizarre The Sagebrush Kid, which is quoted above and slowly drifts into horror fiction.

Even when her stories fail to keep me gripped throughout, in each I found at least a momentary shock, a passage that impresses with its callousness, or randomness.

The jury is out. I am eager to learn more about Proulx.

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