Friday, August 19, 2005

JSF

Apparently his email address is a heavily-guarded national secret. Does anybody have any ideas how to contact him?

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Breaking Out In Pink Spots

Oh dear God. There's a sexually transmitted disease I need to tell you about and it's called Chick Lit. Although it's not new, I feel compelled to point this out to everybody as the signs are not, as previously believed, totally bleeding obvious.

Once upon a time it was assumed that by avoiding books featuring cover designs of stilettoes, handbags, or soft-focus photographs of attractive blond women, you were safe from the Chick Lit disease. That if you made it a rule to never buy novels written by anyone named 'Plum' or 'Candace', you could be quite certain that you weren't purchasing a mind-numbing 'story' that read more like the Stockist's Directory at the back of Vogue magazine than a piece of fictional narrative. Well, not so, not so anymore my friends. Apparently, Cosmopolitan magazine's Cosmopolitan Chick Lit club (it does what it says on the label) has decided to nominate Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close as one of the books on their Must Read list.



Far be it for me to comment on the average Cosmo reader's, uh, reading tastes. Hey, I love trashy magazines as much as the next dog. But let's take a moment to consider a) the definition of 'chick lit', and b) Mr Safran Foer's feelings on having his indie lit cred smushed out in the time it takes to thumb a big, pink, sticker on the front cover of one of his books.

Indulge me while I get all etymological for a second, but isn't the term 'chick lit' a shortened form of 'chick literature', with 'chick' being a common colloquialism for 'woman'? Ergo, QED, etcetera., it is a label to classify works of fiction which supposedly are written by and appeal specifically to women. Using this definition, how on earth does Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close warrant its induction to the Cosmo club? It's a novel written by a man, from the viewpoint of a young boy whose father was killed in the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. In other words, it's about as masculine as you can get.

Unfortunately the chick lit label comes with some other (some say spurious, others obvious) associations, for example, a certain vapidity, and a narrow (if not exactly unpopular) selection of themes revolving around unfulfilling relationships and fashion. One really wonders, then, how the author himself, a darling of the literary circuit and winner of multiple prestigious prizes such as the Guardian First Book Prize, the National Jewish Book Award, and the New York Public Library Young Lions Prize, as well as being named as one of Rolling Stone's "People of the Year", feels about this sticker. I'm going to ask him, and let you know if I get a reply.

Monday, August 08, 2005

A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius



When it comes to reading, I am inherently suspicious of anything too clever. Call me a literary Luddite, but when people start writing Chapter Ones on the inside flap of covers, printing whole stories onto book spines, and that sort of thing, I do get disoriented. What next, I think to myself, an inside-out book?

I was therefore relieved to find that The Best Of McSweeney's: Volume 1 (ed. Dave Eggers) appeared to be a book in the most traditional sense possible. It's an accessible mix of fiction and non-fiction writing lifted from the first ten issues of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, a literary journal that, like London's Zembla magazine, has made reading cool again.

Four out of the eighteen authors showcased here are household names (David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Rick Moody, and Mr E. himself), which is a pleasing proportion. The book stays true to the McSweeney's vision, to have "a journal assembled from [articles] not fit for other magazines". Yet there are just enough big guns included to assure readers of McSweeney's place in the game.

The collection opens with one of the highlights of the book, David Foster Wallace's short story Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders (viii), a vaguely menacing monologue delivered by a character whose flatness of tone borders on autism. The lack of emotion contrasts sharply with a potential for terrible violence, suggested via short flashbacks relating to a recent release (from custody? jail sentence? asylum? It's not really clear), as well as an allusion between the dominance of female spiders over their partners, and the characters' own relationship with his mother.

This was followed by George Saunders' equally excellent Four Institutional Monologues, a satirical look at the culture of insensitivity and cynicism, dressed up as 'professionalism', as propagated by the modern institution.

All was well until Ann Cummins' The Hypnotist's Trailer. The pacing was slightly choppy, leading to inexplicable psychological revelations and sudden crises. Moreover, the mechanics of this story were somewhat dubious: a woman takes her daughter into a hypnotherapy session with her; the shrink and daughter chat and flirt while the shrink is treating the woman under hynosis; the woman, of her own volition, gets up and leaves the session while under hypnosis.

Happily, weak points in the book are few and far between. Mr Eggers' own story Up The Mountain Coming Down Slowly sits smack bang in the middle of the collection like the centrepiece, the metaphorical mountain peak, the halfway-point. Moodwise, it also bisects the book, and in the second half the humour content is substantially upped, most noticeably with John Hodgman's hilarious short play Fire: The Next Sharp Stick?

The chunkiest entry was Gary Greenberg's In The Kingdom Of The Unabomber, a non-fiction account of his almost-encounter with Ted Kaczynski, the "anti-modernist" terrorist who attributed much of modern physical, psychological, and environmental suffering to the Industrial Revolution. Weighing in at 84 pages, reading Kingdom was like cheering a friend on in a marathon. Sometimes up, sometimes down, almost-but-never-quite in the lead; Greenberg writes the account with an objectivity granted by hindsight, but is also frank about his struggle to act ethically as he tries to convince the elusive Kaczynski to grant him an interview whilst juggling an ever-increasing rollcall of characters eager to cash in on the Unabomber circus.

The Best Of McSweeney's: Volume 1 displays careful editing and selection. The apparently disparate pieces come together as you read on, revealing a faceted critique of modernity- the language, the prejudices, the exploitation, the casualties, the pathos and the bathos- that probably would have done the Unabomber proud.

As well, I loved finding little secret links: the way Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov was namechecked in two separate pieces, as was the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. This added to the book an air of accidental continuity, like a collection of fortuitously star-cross'd writing.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Dances With Meerkats



Alright, maybe in hindsight it was a slight overreaction. I'm a stuffed toy, I was never going to be hanging around any high-risk areas, that much is true. And I might also add here that I never supported Bush's invasion of Iraq. But just as I had managed to console myself over the first round of bombings with second and third helpings of fried breakfasts, along came the news of more attempts and then the frenzied point-blank shooting of an innocent electrician.

Clearly food was no longer sufficient solve the problem at hand. Moreover for my own mental health I felt I had to do something drastic. There was a general vibe that looking "foreign" in London was going to be this season's big fashion no-no, and I, with my Asiatic eyes and non-British origins, was not feeling lucky. Mistress had been besotted with her English beau for some time now and, I suspected, not likely to leave London in the near future. Meanwhile, I was panicking. Life had barely begun for me, and I was not eager to become a fragment of frizzled fabric before I'd seen the world. So last week, I made the difficult decision to say goodbye to Tomoko (she had wanted to leave too, but lack of mobility in her limbs prevented her), and head to a distant place.

Which brings me to this post, which I am writing from an undisclosed location in Sydney, Australia. (Mistress, in case you're reading this, I'm well and I love you, but I hope you understand that I needed to do this for myself.)

I can however reveal that I had a most enjoyable excursion to the Taronga Zoo in Mosman today. It was a gorgeous, sunny, 18-degree day (I can't believe I've just discovered Australian winters. Snow is so overrated) and I was spending it communing with nature against a backdrop of stunning harbour views. Mosman is a very strange place though. I was reading in the paper that Mosmanites have one of the biggest eco-footprints of any group of people in Australia. An eco-footprint is basically the amount of resources, measured in land area, that it would take to support a person's particular lifestyle. The global average is two point something hectares, whereas a Mosmanite's is seventeen point something. I can certainly believe that, since I was nearly killed by 4WDs about ten times over today, not to mention being temporarily blinded in one eye by a flying daub of babycino foam as I walked down Spit Road.

I must say, though, zoos aren't really what they used to be. Once upon a time they were an almost unanimously-loved concept, a place of nuclear family outings and soft focus first dates, bringing man and nature together in a wonderful and commercially viable setting. Nowadays zoos seem to be constantly fraught with animal rights controversies. To some, zoo-keepers are barely one rung up from those horrible people who beat baby bear cubs in circuses, or those Indian snake charmers who so cruelly hoodwink their snakes by repetitively charming them out of their baskets only to stuff them back in afterwards. I call upon Exhibit A, an article from the Animal Planet website on the forthcoming introduction of eight endangered Asian elephants into Taronga Zoo.

To the activists, I say: what you talkin bout, Willis?!? The article said the elephants were raised and working in a logging camp in Thailand before it was arranged they would come to Taronga. Do you think, after a life of captivity, they would have done particularly well if someone just opened the gates on them and said "Go. Be free". I'd think not. On the other hand, if after a life of forced labour, if someone said to them: "Would you like to stop dragging these logs around and move to some prime Sydney harbourside real estate, enjoy a life of regular feeding, sub-tropical climate, adoring fans, and have the opportunity for expert zoologists to try to make lots of little babies to replenish your species", do you think they'd be likely to refuse? Again, I'd think not.