Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Stuff Wot I Have Read

What ho, got a couple of potboilers on the backburner and all that. Here's just a few of them...

The Railway Children, Edith Nisbet
Edith Nisbet is great; I read some of her stories about the Bastables a couple of years ago and loved them. She typically writes realistic stories about England at the turn of the century, from the perspective of children, with a bit of bluestocking rhetoric thrown in as well, if that makes sense. In some of her books (Five Children and It, for instance) she'll throw in some weird gnome or fairy, which kind of stuffs up the realism a bit, but still makes it interesting.
I like 'The Railway Children', though; it's the story of a family whose father is taken away to London, and probably imprisoned, for mysterious political reasons. As a result the family have to go and live in the countryside, where the rent is cheaper, supported by their mother, who spends her time sending off poems, stories, and articles to various quarterlies. (Occasionally she sends off letters to Members of Parliament and Secretaries of Societies and what-not, too). Let's quote a bit of it, shall we? Oh, do lets!

Mother, all this time, was very busy with her writing. She used to send off a good many long blue envelopes with stories in them - and large envelopes of different sizes and colours used to come to her. Sometimes she would sigh when she opened them and say:
'Another story come home to roost. Oh, dear! Oh, dear!' and then the children would be very sorry.
But sometimes she would wave the envelope in the air and say:
'Hooray, hooray. Here's a sensible Editor. He's taken my story and this is the proof of it.'
At first the children thought 'the proof' meant the letter the sensible Editor had written, but they presently got to know that the proof was long slips of paper with the story printed on them.
Whenever an Editor was sensible there were buns for tea.
One day Peter was goingg down to the village to get buns to celebrate the sensibleness of the Editor of the Children's Globe, when he met the Station Master...

I say, how perfectly ripping!

Serious Concerns, Wendy Cope
I picked this up in Readings a couple of weeks ago and started leafing through it. The first poem that I read was 'The Uncertainty of the Poet' - it's a parody of a painting of the same name by Chirico:

I am a poet
I am very fond of bananas.

I am bananas.
I am very fond of a poet.

I am a poet of bananas.
I am very fond ...

The second poem I read was even better. Cope's verse is typically light, the tone hovering somewhere between Pam Ayres and Ogden Nash, but she makes some serious points, about life and relationships and stuff (apparently the book was written at an unhappy period in her life.) What can I say, I enjoy it.

Oh, alright then, let's quote one more Cope poem, the one from which the book gets the title:

Write to amuse? What an appalling suggestion!
I write to make people anxious and miserable and to worsen their indigestion.

War of the Wing-Men, Poul Anderson
I couldn't resist the title.

The Legends of Lennie Lower
I read some of these on the plane flight over to the US, but to tell you the truth, a bit of this humour is on the nose. Lower is the author of the classic Aussie novel 'Here's Luck', a tale about the anarchistic life led by a father and son in suburban Sydney during the onset of the depression. It's narrated with drunken eloquence by noted toper Stanley Gudgeon (the father) and ends with their house being burnt down.
I was sort of expecting more of the same when I picked up this book, a collection of comic newspaper articles written by Lower. The best of the articles here are packed full of hilarious puns and Lower's typically anarchistic humour; some of the nonsensical fairy stories, for instance, are great. But then, Lower also has the occasional habit of making appallingly un-PC jokes about, for instance, men hitting their wives. It's a real head-scratcher, this book - by turns quite funny, and occasionally quite awful. I just don't know what to think of Lower.

The Pilgrim's Regress, C S Lewis
An odd allegory about the Christian life by C S Lewis. The title suggests a parody of John Bunyan's classic renaissance English text, but it's not really a parody; it's a serious allegory in its own right. Some writers have a way of writing characters that resemble people in your own life; Lewis has a way of creating allegorical figures (Mr Sensible, Mr Vertue, Mr Enlightenment) that resemble specific philosophical and ethical flaws. This book is pretty interesting - it seems to start out as a comedy, and ends up reading like a medieval text.

Fierce Pajamas: An Anthology of Humor Writing from The New Yorker
The New Yorker published some of the best - Nabakov, Thurber, E B White, S J Perelman, John Updike - but it's amazing how simple some of these stories are. Entertaining stuff. Unfortunately, my book has the habit of making a 'Screech!' noise when the pages rub together, which twists every stomach in the vicinity of the book into knots.

I'm off now to eat a bowl of freshly picked grovels with a runcible spoon and vorpal sword. Any reflections on these books, reader? What are you reading?


TimT said...

In case you're wondering about that last paragraph:

I'm off now to eat a bowl of freshly picked grovels with a runcible spoon and vorpal sword.

Well, everyone knows of runcible spoons and vorpal swords, but as for grovels...

"He caught my arm in a vicelike grip and drew me to him, but with a blow I sent him grovelling. In ten minutes he was back with a basket of appetizing fresh-picked grovels. We squeezed them and drank the piquant juice thirstily."

S J Perelman

Anonymous said...

Reading? Now that's un-Australian! - and as fond as I am of bucking stereotypes, I'm proud to admit at present I'm reading "Immortality" by Milan Kundera. Czech it out if you get the time.

Anonymous said...

For Immortality, wouldn't one need Eternity? I'm sorry, I don't know where that one came from. Kundera... I have read his best-known work, 'The Unbearable Lightness'. I shall look for 'Immortality' shortly!

TimT said...

Hmmm, not sure why my name didn't show up there. Oh well.

alexis said...

I am currently reading "Autobiography: a collection of the most instructive and amusing lives ever published, written by the parties themselves; with brief introductions, and compendious sequels carrying on the narrative to the death of each writer" (London: Hunt & Clarke, 1826-32). They don't make titles like that anymore, more's the pity.

Anonymous said...

I, for one, am a fan of the "compendious sequel" - in all its many and varied forms.

How frightfully Britannic! Top hole, Doctor!

TimT said...

Well, they would say that they had led the most interesting lives, since they wrote the autobiographies themselves! Of course, it's hard to go past a long title, (and no, I don't mean that literally, but literarily). It's great when poems have titles that are longer than the poems itself - like the aforementioned 'On the Antiquity of Microbes'.

I also have a fondness for S J Perelman's titles:

'Underneath the Spreading Atrophy'
'The Ill-Tempered Klavier'
'Personne Ici except us chickens'

alexis said...

Dave Eggers "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" won me over with its sheer titular prolixity.

Sheer titular prolixity? Put that in your McSweeney's and smoke it.

TimT said...

Should I trust a book, though, that could just as well be titled 'A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius?' Methinks he's gone a little sloppy on the adjectives there.

alexis said...

You really should. I think you'd like it, sloppy adjectives and all. He's right up your alley, is Eggers.

TimT said...

Well now you're just Eggering me on.

alexis said...


Caz said...

All that heartbreak made him a motza.

Hasn't done anything nearly as good since, and "good", in the first instance, was "unique" rather than a staggering or timeless literary work.

He had pretty much worn out his welcome by about two thirds the way through, which was unfortunate, because it is a "worthy" book in its way.

Of course, he still persists with his journals, which is not far removed from the niche nature of his book writing, really.

TimT said...

Well, there'll always be McSweeneys. Apparently the 'printed' McSweeneys is quite different from the web McSweeneys - I got an anthology from a store in Yarraville some months back expecting some lists, maybe a few 'Letters To Various Entities', and some sestinas, but it wasn't, it was all dull, dull prose, varying in quality from bad to worthy.

I do like the web publication, though.

ras said...

Snow Falling on Cedars.

My housemate has a rather nice collection of books which are also movies and i am steadily making my way through them. I havent seen said movies of course.

Quite low brow compared to comments i've read here.

TimT said...

I am just about to launch into 'War of the Wing Men'. Hoorah for low brow!

Steve said...

Am nearly finished "Ender's Game", which I believe to be Orson Scott Card's big break into science fiction. I have never read Card before.

I have found it to be terribly dull and psychologically completely unconvincing. Its main character is a boy genius of sorts who is taken away from his family to be trained as a military commander in space. I have never become convinced of the whole set-up making any sort of emotional or other sense.

The prose is usually dull, the background is painted in as perfunctory a way as possible, and there are numerous descriptions of war games by boys that are just aren't interesting.

I am also semi-amused by the fact that, while Card is renowned as a conservative Mormon, and has written an article strongly critical of any suggestion that active gays should seek their church's acceptance (not that there is anything wrong with that, in my conservative opinion,) this novel seems to feature naked children in many scenes.

I am puzzled as to why it seems to have been popular.

TimT said...

Card, the cad.

TimT said...

Incidentally, what is it with sf and dull prose? Mind-blowing plots about galactic empires and the death and creation of entire universes, characters who rove across time and space and dimension, and some authors seem to feel the need to render these tremendously exciting plots in the most stultifyingly dull prose imaginable. (Phil K Dick, I'm looking in your direction: nice ideas, pity all his books seem to be narrated by a Californian stoner).

Sure, the prose should not obscure the grand ideas, but there's a difference between simple, clear, and precise writing and dull writing.

This is probably one reason why SF comedy has taken off in the last decade: it's injected some much needed wit into a scene that was for years the domain of socially-inept old men.

Steve said...

Um, Tim, the obvious answer is that Dick was a Californian stoner!

I have read some of his books and liked them; others I have found dull and not finished. His more metaphysical (and semi-autobiographical) VALIS trilogy was pretty good. I also liked one of his earlier books, Time Out of Joint.

On poor science fiction stylists generally, the later Arthur C Clarke takes some beating. I couldn't really stand the prose of Asimov much either.

I still think Robert Heinlein at his best was a pleasure to read, and since you obviously have no hesitation in reading books written for a younger audience, I assume you have read some of his "juveniles" which have child or teen protagonists? Most of them are very good, except for perhaps the first one which featured Nazis on the Moon.

However, after The Moon is a Harsh Mistress he increasingly lost it.

Am I boring you yet?

TimT said...

Yeah, but does he have to sound like a Californian stoner?

I like Clarke's style, mostly he avoids the worst excesses of dullness that overtakes some of his contemporaries. He has enough literary skill to know where his talents don't lie, if that makes sense; so he avoids stupid attempts at character development and sticks to the description of planets exploding, etc.
Heinlein and Asimov both couldn't write exciting prose to save their lives. But Nazis on the moon! That sounds ace!

Time out of Joint is excellent, as are a few other of Dick's novels. Scanner Darkly is an interesting work, but it contains some of his dullest prose - pages and pages of idiots talking about nothing to one another, virtually. It's puzzling, because occasionally Dick could write quite well - incisively, and with an awareness of 20th century styles. The opening of 'Maze of Death', for instance, has Stream Of Consciousness passages, but the conclusion is a complete let down - one of his worse books. It's funny, he seems to have had the stylistic capacity for short-stories - many of his shorts are brilliantly incisive - but the ability to think up ideas and plots that were full of weird conspiracies and twists: suitable, in other words, for extended novels. He's a paradox, is PKD.

TimT said...

Ever read any Robert Sheckley? He's an ace alternative to Dick; the ideas are often as interesting (though simpler) and he's consistently witty, turning out SF that is light in tone, but underscored by serious ideas. Very good.

Steve said...

Just to clarify: I quite like earlier Clarke too. It's just that some of his late, late books (Odyssey 4 or 5, or somewhere there) became virtually unreadable to me because of how poorly written I felt they had become.

Heinlein did not waste time on descriptive prose, but I still think that at his prime he was great at telling a lively and entertaining story in an interesting science fiction world. A lot of his short stories were good too. I hope you are not basing your opinion on his bloated books from the mid 70's on, are you?

Sheckley: no have never read him.

On Dick: I only tried one anthology of his short stories, and found them very uneven, and a bit dull for the most part.

Which bring me to another point: I love the prose of Ray Bradbury at his prime, especially his science fiction/horror short stories. There is very little science in his SF, but he wrote magnificently. (Again, he kept writing well after his talent ran out, and his later work became unreadable too.)

I also loved his full length novel "Something wicked this way comes". Even the movie version was pretty good, even though few people saw it.

TimT said...

I have only read Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury, which is marvellous - a real phenomenon. Have been meaning to read 'The Martian Chronicles' for some time, it's on my list along with some other hundred books!

I think the earliest book of Heinlein I have read is 'Harsh Mistress', so you may have a point. He has been recommended to me before.

I think Clarke is interesting in that he is almost alone among the Golden Age SF writers (unless you class Aldiss amongst them) who has developed in style, for whatever reason. I have somewhere in my posession a recent book by him, written in 2000, about an attempt to refloat the Titanic. It's strikingly good in many ways, one being the way in which it an SF storyline from things we all know about; it's not set on an alien planet. There is some interesting character development, (although if memory serves correctly, it does contain a somewhat questionable rationalisation of adult/teenager sexual relationships - possibly bearing on Clarke's own life.) It also contains an interesting and elegaic coda. I will try and remember it's name and get back to you.

Your comments on Clarke are interesting, could it be that he does not write sequels well, but finds them to be good money spinners?

TimT said...

UPDATE: The book was The Ghost from the Grand Banks. I found it to be much more interesting and readable than some of the pseudo-religious tosh he produced early in his career (ie, Childhood's End.)

Steve said...

Hmm, I did read "Childhood's End", but very little of it has stuck with me. I do remember that the paperback version I had of it had a recommendation by CS Lewis, of all people! (I seem to recall they met at a pub once and had a pleasant enough time, even though they were philosophically poles apart.)

By the way, I bet I am one of your very few readers who has also read Pligrim's Regress. It didn't stick much with me either. Lewis later wrote that he was ashamed of some of the figures he used in it.

I can't recall clearly whether on another post we have discussed CS Lewis's other fiction. I am not the world's biggest fan of Narnia, but like it much more than anything by Tolkien. Voyage of the Dawn Treader I seem to recall liking most.

[You know, I have actually spent time searching the web for anti-Tolkien websites, but basically came up with nothing. That was most disappointing. My big complaint about him is that I find the writing style just plain dull and unengaging. I have started LOTR at least twice and just lost interest at about 100 pages. I even then took some advice and tried The Hobbit, and I lost interest after about 30 pages. I saw the first LOTR movie and couldn't be bothered seeing the next two. There is just something in my mind that resists his stories, and can't see why they are so popular. What is wrong with me?]

Did you read Lewis' outer space trilogy? I liked them a lot at the time, but my religious views have softened somewhat and maybe I would not like them so much now. He's a good writer, though.

TimT said...

The Pilgrim's Regress was quite enjoyable, and a rather original work. Lewis is a fine writer, much better than Tolkien - who may have had the benefit of better publicity following the publication of his books, since there is nothing really remarkable about any of them that makes them stand out from all the other fantasy published. Lewis's space trilogy is fascinating, though the last chapter of the last book was awfully, awfully misogynistic. (People somewhat wrongly look to the Narnia books for misogyny when they could find it so easily elsewhere).

I do like The Hobbit, though; and Tolkien's 'Tales From The Perilous Land' are quite wonderful.

Caz said...

Isn't "Ender's Game" one of those books that is touted as being a beaut primer for business people and wanna-be leaders of the world?

Like "who moved my salami", even though Ender's wasn't purpose built with modern day executives in mind, some have taken it as an inspiring metaphor, full of wonderful leadership lessons. Or something like that.

All excluding the naked children, I suppose.

Kathy said...

Tim you MUST read The "Martian Chronicles"!
If you liked "Farenheit 451 "you will definitely love this one!

When it was published in Australia years ago, it was under the title of" The Silver Locusts"( I have an old copy)

And Steve, yes those short stories of Bradbury's were brilliant!

Particularly liked the chilling "The Pedestrian"

Steve said...

Gosh, Caz, I had never heard that.

Wikipedia says it is to be made into a movie. I am betting the boys then wear PJ's to bed, and don't sleep nude as they do in the book. There's also a pivotal fight that takes place with the hero in the shower.

(I kept puzzling over why this was relevant or important, or even likely, in the story. These boys, and the occasional girl, are taken to a big space station school to be trained for years in zero G tactics. Can't the world government afford to give them boxer shorts at least to sleep in? It also didn't seem likely to me that most boys above the age of about 7 would not be more inhibited.)

TimT said...

SF writers have occasionally been very fond of the idea of 'progressive' education. One of the hallmarks of said 'progressive' education is sometimes a 'progressive' approach to sexuality. Indeed, in his book of essays 'The Shape of Further Things', Brian Aldiss imagines a whole future course of education based on Freudian/Jungian principles. This could help to explain the fondness of Card for naked kiddies training in the martial arts in outer space.

Kathy, that settles it, I'll get The Martian Chronicles this weekend.

Email: timhtrain - at -

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