Desolation Row

Before I start this, I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a while, it just feels hard to be creative during lockdowns, plus I started working full-time which is great but it involves a 5.30am wake-up and my body clock’s still being a little bitch about it.

Anyway during my commute I’ve once again started attempting to learn Poe’s long-ass, 18-stanza-length poem, The Raven, off by heart because every now and again I convince myself it would be a useful skill to have.

Even if you’re not a huge fan of poetry, its pretty rad tale of someone who’s resistant to accept that he will never see the woman he loves again (and obscure side note: it’s probably a coincidence but I think its cool that in King of the Hill, the ex wife that Bill needs to accept is gone is also called Lenore).

The raven symbolises death, and the poem ends with its narrator’s soul forever living under the shadow of that loss, And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor, Shall be lifted — Nevermore!”. It’s got me thinking of loneliness and desolation in books, specifically desolate places – some fictional, some real and some that are thinly veiled fictional versions of real places. It’s a theme which fits Victoria’s lockdown vibe right now, given lockdowns do leave the streets looking like empty ghost towns (I’m very over lockdowns, mainly because I desperately need a haircut).

The Plague (Albert Camus, 1947)

When I first read this in 2016, it kinda reminded me of The Simpsons movie plot where the town’s isolated under a dome and they all lose it. But rereading it last year, it not only reminded me of the experience of long-term lockdown but also made me appreciate how much worse it would’ve been in any other time period where technology and the ability to easily communicate wasn’t something you could take for granted. And thinking about it now, after recently turning 28, the same age Camus was when he wrote it hits me just how impressive his brain was and how young he was for a philosopher.

Set in Oran, Algeria; the cities experience of a plague outbreak is told in increments, largely through these four characters: Dr Rieuxs, Jean Tarrou who was visiting and gets suck in the city when the borders are closed, Joseph Grand – an elderly civil servant who long before the plague struck had struggled with his ability to express himself, and Raymond Rambert – a French journalist who like Tarrou finds himself trapped in Oran, so attempts to find a way to cross the border.

Beginning with the mysterious death of thousands of rats, high death rates of plague victims quickly becomes a reality citizens are numb to. And while the story and the outbreak its describing is fictional, the real history of the black death is delved into as Camus uses plague as a framework for exploring the human condition.

The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson, 1959)

Dr Montague chooses the abandoned mansion, Hill House, to conduct a scientific experiment on the existence of the supernatural. Renting the house out for the summer, with the landlord agreeing on the proviso that her adult nephew, Luke can tag along; Montague plans to live there and take notes of his experience alongside the only two people to respond to his invitation, Theodora and Eleanor.

Naturally Hill House has an infamous past, yet what makes it distinctive from a classic ghost story is the uncertainty of a supernatural presence, as structurally the house was built with the intention of being disorientating.

Chernobyl Prayer (Svetlana Alexievich, 1997)

Not strictly a book rather a collection of short interviews of over 500 individuals who were effected in some way by the 26 April 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Why I chose to include this book in a post on desolation is some of the testimonies are from people discussing why they continued to live in Chernobyl following the disaster, and particularly interesting the testimonies of Chechen refugees who were relocated to Chernobyl in the 1990s who created a home in the abandoned city. It’s heart-breaking but its timeless.

Milkman (Anna Burns, 2018)

This one’s pretty Kafkaesque and confusing but worth sticking with. Set in the 1970s in an unnamed Northern Ireland city, its relevant to desolation when desolation is defined as ‘a state of complete emptiness or destruction’. While violence isn’t detailed heavily in the book, the unnamed teenage narrator’s existence is defined by communal policing and distrust of the state.

The main character makes every effort to keep her head down and not attract attention, yet her habit of walking alone and reading at the same time gives her an unwanted reputation. Suddenly when a well-known figure within the IRA who she doesn’t know and has never heard of, known as ‘milkman’, continually offers hers lifts and begins appearing in places she’s scheduled to be, a rumour develops that their in a relationship which gradually begins effecting what’s real.

Not only is it a good book on desolation because of the habitual loneliness the unnamed character lives under, but often it describes her nightly walking path through dead streets and past buildings destroyed by bombings.

In the Dream House (Carmen Maria Machado, 2019)

Interesting side note, horror writer Carman Maria Machado is a huge fan of The Haunting of Hill House and chose it as the scariest book of fiction.

Anyway In the Dream House is a memoir of Machado’s experience of domestic abuse within a three year relationship, and ‘the dream house’ is both a real place where Machado and her unnamed girlfriend start living together shortly after meeting, as well as a framework for exploring why the history of domestic abuse in same-sex partnerships are often treated as non-existent.

Trapped within ‘the dream house’ by the ideal of the women she fell in love with, the book recounts Machado’s rationale for staying, alongside examples of folklore and cultural representations of abusive and what it means to be queer.

Ya filthy animal

I’ve never read the Harry Potter books; as a kid I was a little bit of a hipster and thought that too many people liked it so it must be a bit shit (which admittedly wasn’t great logic given The Simpsons was also hugely popular).

I wound up watching all the movies for the first time in lock-down last year because I started dating someone who’s pretty into them (she’s also made me watch Con Air – I’ve given a lot to this relationship), and one thing I’ll say is that Nagini is an adorable name for a pet snake no matter your thoughts on Voldemort (Seven is a lot of books, I was a pretty lazy kid/teen, I was never going to make that kind of commitment to any one series).

Anyway, since my Animals Have Eerie Powers blogpost over two years ago, other animals who are enchanted or just have a proven ability to fuck shit up have continued popping up here and there in short stories/novellas I’ve been reading. So let’s add to that list now shall we?!

The Murder of Rue Morgue (Edgar Allan Poe, 1841)

Homicide investigators are too quick to dismiss the possibility that sometimes the murderer is in fact an escaped pet orangutan of a local sailor, and that’s just sad.

In this story, the narrator makes a new chum at the library called, C. Auguste Dupin. They gab about their shared interest in analysis and the importance of insignificant details, and later on when the unprecedented murder of Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter, Mademoiselle Camille is all over the papers, these two hardy boys team up and blow the cops minds with their conclusion. Who’s to say though whether they were too quick to overlook the possibility that that orangutan still had motive?

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll, 1865)

There’s a lot of cool animals petering around Wonderland -white rabbits in business casual, caterpillar-chillers smoking a hookah and giving sage advice about growth and such; but the Cheshire Cat has the ability to disappear and reappear and is basically everything you’d want in a guardian angel. He grins over you, he gives you reliable directions, plus he warns you on the beginning of your quest to watch out for how odd everybody else is.

Heart of a dog (Mikhail Bulgakov, 1925)

Starting from the perspective of a stray dog in Moscow (who’s given the name Sharik by a typist) one day he follows home a man who has given him some food. This man is a scientist called Professor Philip Philippovich Preobrazhensky, and after keeping Sharik pampered in his apartment for several days the professor performs an operation where he replaces Sharik’s pituitary gland and testicles with those of a recently deceased human.

From this point the story is told through the professor’s notes of Sharik’s progression as he gradually becomes a very hairy human. It not as cute as it sounds though – as Sharik evenually becomes the drunk disappointing drop-kick son that the professor regrets, and ultimately turns back into a dog.

Saint Katy the Virgin (John Steinbeck, 1936)

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I read this in a Mcsweeney’s; the cover had Alfred Hitchcock and Ray Bradbury fist fighting in Heaven so naturally I went for it at the second-hand bookshop [the collection’s a mix of old short stories from an out-of-print Hitchcock spooky story collection called Stories Not for the Nervous, with a Bradbury collection, Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow].

This story was one of Bradbury’s and was originally published in Steinbeck’s collection, The Long Valley. and the moral of this story is essentially this, if you find yourself a victim of a rabid pig attack you best recourse of action is to try and baptise sed pig.

Saint Katy is a pet pig of a local jerk called Roark whose evil disposition rubs off on his pet pig. One day just to be an asshole, Roark donates his pig to two priests who are out tithing, and when they go to pick her up from the pen, Katy attacks and has them climbing up a tree in fear of their lives. Out of desperation they figure why not try baptising her and from that moment she’s a good girl and stops attempting to maul them.

Between Sea and Sky (Kirsty Logan, 2020)

This short story is from a recent collection, Hag, in which forgotten British and Irish folklores have modern feminist retellings by eminent female writers from Britain and Ireland. It’s pretty rad, plus the original stories are in the back so you can compare them.

Between the Sea and Sky is a retelling of The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry, a 19th century Scottish ballad: and just as in the original tale, Logan’s story is about a woman whose son is a ‘Selkie’ – a shape-shifting part human, part seal.

In Logan’s rendition, the main character, Skye is an archaeologist sent to Glenecher to study a intriguing mass grave of mothers with their babies. Skye also happens to be a single mum to a baby who’s a few months old, and the small town treats her with suspicion because they’re unsure who her babies father is (fools it wasn’t any of your husbands it was a man seal!).

I don’t want to give spoilers but one thundery night her baby-daddy comes to the door and they decide to spilt custody with her baby spending half a year as a human and half under the sea – with unfortunate results.

Poe versus Griswold: Fight! Fight! Fight!

EDGAR ALLAN POE is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.

I’ve never watched RuPaul’s Drag Race (personally I only dig reality tv when it centres around people going on terrible dates or weddings going wrong), but apparently ‘reading someone’ or ‘taking someone to the library’ is drag slang for getting into a verbal war/throwing a barrage of insults somebody’s way – as in you’re reading someone and pointing out all the ways in which they’re shit.

I like it; even though the expression flagrantly disregards the fact that the library is a place for quiet, and the only acceptable type of fight you can have in there is one with a lot of whispering, rude hand gestures and miming ‘fuck you!’.

Anyway, learning this double-meaning got me thinking about literary rivalries and how a war of words is particularly spicy when one or both parties happen to be talented wordsmiths. Because you just know that they’re packing some quality hurtful insults if they’re coming to the table with a proven ability to eloquently string words together.

So let’s talk Poe’s heated exchanges with Rufus Wilmot Griswold (1815-1857) – his rival in life and the sneaky snake who managed to worm his way into writing the first biography of Poe following his death in 1849.

The top quote is a slice from Poe’s scathing obituary in the New-York Daily Tribune written under the name “Ludwig”. Republished in many newspapers, it was the start of what are longstanding myths surrounding Poe’s character – namely that he was a bitter erratic genius; talented, but nevertheless a drunk, paranoid, opiate addicted madman with no friends.

“Ludwig” was Rufus Griswold – a fellow editor and critic, who Poe wasn’t shy about slagging off publicly. Whether any of Griswold’s harsh assessment of Poe’s character is fair, remains debateable – and yet their rivalry is pivotal to understanding every biography written on Poe.

First meeting in 1841, when Poe was the editor at Graham’s Magazine and Griswold was working on the first of his anthology series, The Poets and Poetry of America; initially their relationship was amicable, with both praising the other in reviews.

Things soured in 1842, when Poe left Graham’s Magazine and Griswold was hired and paid more to be his successor. Around about the same time, Griswold paid Poe to write a review on The Poets and Poetry of America (in which three of Poe’s poems were included) and while this review didn’t go full bus stop it wasn’t as positive as Griswold expected, with Poe suggesting in a letter to a friend that Griswold’s payment was a bribe and commenting, “that review has not yet appeared, and I am doubtful if it ever will”.

Poe then went on to write two anonymous articles in 1893 where he criticized Griswold; stating that Griswold was “wholly unfit either by intellect or character, to occupy the editorial chair of Graham’s”, that he was “one of the most clumsy of literary thieves” and his anthology was “a very muttonish production”. In turn an article defaming Poe’s character was subsequently published, that he understandably suspected Griswold of writing (according to a letter from Poe to Griswold).

From 1843-1845, Poe was on an American poetry lecture tour of the East coast; here he publicly discussed The Poets and Poetry of America and accused Griswold of favouring his friends and New England writers rather than good poetry. My personal favourite catty remark was about one of Griswold’s friends, Charles F. Briggs, saying that he, “. . . has never composed in his life three consecutive sentences of grammatical English”.

In an attempt to patch things up, Poe made an effort in his 1845 lectures to omit anything which had the potential to offend Griswold and for little while there was a truce. On speaking terms long enough for Griswold to help Poe keep his magazine, The Broadway Journal, in print; in 1847 Griswold critiqued Poe’s editorial skills amongst general bitching and it was back on!

Needless to say they both shared a mutual suspicion for the other [one scholar even suggests that a large factor of their longstanding quarrel was fancying the same poet, Mrs. Frances Sargent Osgood]. Griswold was likely the last person who Poe would want having any authority over his legacy; and yet, following Poe’s death in 1849 Griswold managed to gain the post-humous rights to publish a collection of Poe’s work through Poe’s mother-in-law, Maria Clemm (who was unaware of their history and the fact that those rights actually belonged to Poe’s sister, Rosalie).

Doubling down on the less-than-flattering obituary; in 1850, Griswold began publishing volumes of Poe’s work, which included a much nastier ‘memoir’ of Poe’s life, where he exaggerated details to make Poe sound like ten-times more of a dropkick than was actually the case (going so far as to forge letters to validate his fabrications).

Griswold died in 1857, and published four volumes of Poe’s work. He was in a position where he was profiting off Poe, and thus it became in his interest to perpetuate the myth that Poe was a train wreck. Until 1875, Griswold’s memoir was the only available account of Poe’s life – and while Poe had his defenders, and more well-balanced biographies were later created, Griswold marred the public image of Poe in a way that was irreversible.

I guess my point is, if you do have a Machiavellian-level nemesis who you’ve ‘taken to the library’ on more than one occasion make sure they don’t have the ability to write a bitter memoir about how shit you were. But at the same time, their exaggerations may also spark a greater popular interest in your bird poetry so it’s not all bad.

“Quoth the Raven: what a shine

Don’t fall for their cuteness; children/youths in fiction who are terrifying

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I was never a scout so I didn’t realise until Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties that ‘brownies’ refers to a fairy tale about a tiny race of people who will tidy and make themselves useful while the adults of the house are asleep (I always assumed that the brownie organisation chose that name because it was cute or they wore brown uniforms or they sold brownies at some point in history).

The story is from 1870 by Juliana Horatia Ewing, and frankly even as a child I would’ve thought what a load of bullshit, with the twist being that after a long journey into the forest the girls learn that brownies are simply children who are suck-ups and wake up at dawn to do housework and don’t want any credit. And I say nah, kids aren’t that selfless and if they’re going to the effort of getting up at 4am to contribute you bet your sweet a that they’re not doing it anonymously.

Based on the books I’ve picked for this post; the changeling myth is probably a bit more realistic. According to that age-old legend, a changeling is a demon or fairy replacement who has been left in the place of a normal – usually unbaptized – child. The fairies or demons will give the abducted child to the devil or use it to strengthen fairy population; meanwhile if you have your suspicions, Irish folklore on changelings tells you to watch out for physical give-aways in your child like an adult level beard or long teeth.

So let’s talk about children/youth from literature who scare me and who wouldn’t be caught dead cleaning the house in secret just to be a nice guy – unless it was part of an elaborate, well-constructed scheme to gain trust from the adults and ultimately utilise that trust for evil bidding!

The Midwich Cuckoos (John Wyndham, 1957)

I wrote about Midwich Cuckoos in my fictional places blogpost, and while I generally try to avoid writing about the same book twice, a list of evil children from fiction would feel incomplete without a least mentioning this ominous pack of identical blonde youth (it’s probably also an incomplete list without mentioning Lord of the Flies too but I’ve not read that one so that’s a shame).

Midwich is a fictional isolated English village where one evening all the residents inexplicably fall asleep and wake up to find that every woman is pregnant. Similar to changelings, it turns out the entire village has been impregnated by aliens, with the book even being named after a real family of parasitic birds which lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, for other the birds to then raise.

And just like changelings, physical and mental differences make these children identifiable – with their golden eyes, blonde hair, shared mind and rapid development. Their evil deeds largely involve mind reading and causing ‘accidents’ to those they suspect mean them harm.

Rosemary’s Baby (Ira Levin, 1967) *spoilers

This is one of those rare books, where the novel is largely identical to the film – which for me made Rosemary’s failed attempt to reach out for help from an outside doctor even more tragic because I knew it was going to play out exactly the same as it did in the 1968 film adaption.

Here, a young married couple – Rosemary and Guy – move into a sought-after New York apartment building called the Bramford. This (fictional) gothic building has a historic reputation for witchcraft, but it’s vast and fancy and Rosemary and Guy are adults so they’re excited and move in anyway.

Now that they’ve got a fancy abode, Rosemary wants to start trying for kids however Guy only changes his mind once the couple become acquainted with their eccentric neighbours. Guy is an aspiring actor, and long story short, the neighbours are Satanists who promise Guy that his acting career will pick up if Rosemary carries the son of Satan.

While the book finishes with Rosemary choosing to raise her son anyway, despite knowing this, we don’t actually know how the baby turns out. His father is Satan though and he has piercing red eyes so surely he’s a bit of a rascal at the very least.

A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess, 1962)

Again this is another book I’ve written about in a previous post, but that post was five years ago so fuck it let’s revisit.

In a dystopian future where campy teen gangs rule the street while wearing matching elaborate costumes and talking entirely in futuristic Russian-cockney slang; the main character Alex is fifteen in the first chapter where, as the head of his gang of five – beats up a beggar, steals a car, tortures a writer and gang-rapes their wife, and ultimately unintentionally kills someone all in the span of two nights. The accidental murder is the crime with Alex is sent to prison for.

We need to talk about Kevin (Lionel Shriver, 2003)

This is a good book because you’re never entirely certain whether Kevin is inherently evil or if it’s his mother interpreting everything he did as malicious even as an infant.

The narrator is Eva Khatchadourian; a former travel writer who never wanted children but conceded to make her husband, Franklin happy. Kevin is her now fifteen year old son who is in jail following a school massacre he alone perpetrated. Told through letters to her husband, Eva traces their relationship and her feelings towards Kevin throughout his life, and it’s a classic nature versus nurture thing where you’re not sure if Eva’s perspective can be entirely trusted and you’re left wondering whether part of it was that Kevin could sense that his mother never liked him.

Sisters (Daisy Johnson, 2020) *spoilers (kinda)

In comparison to the last three books, the evilness is this one is more of you’re regular high school cruelty. I’m not going to give too much of this one away because it’s quite surrealist and blurry but its about two eerily close sisters, July and September, who are moving to their family’s abandoned beach house with their mother, following a mysterious incident that happened at school.

Told from July’s perspective, it turns out the catalyst for this mysterious incident was September wanting to take revenge on the classmates who had catfished July into thinking a boy she liked was talking to her, then subsequently convinced her to send nudes and sent them around the school because high school is awful sometimes.

In defence of book quitting and not wasting your precious time

via: @bittycar

There’s an old Seinfeld rant where Jerry doesn’t understand people’s obsession with keeping books once you’ve already read them, “like they’re trophies”, because once a book’s read you have no use for it – and while he’s usually the voice of reason in the show, I have to point out why he’s both wrong and right on this.

In a way a good finished book is like a trophy (especially for someone like me who reads regularly but has no sporting prowess whatsoever and thus will not be winning a snooker trophy anytime soon), and if a book was gripping enough to not be abandoned in the first chapter why shouldn’t it earn a proud spot on the shelf?

I’m not saying I’m against doing a book cull, I’m saying if you’re picky about what you choose to read in full, then a book collection is like a beautiful assortment of stories or ideas that you chanced upon and liked.
I used to be one of those people who were adamantly against quitting a book once you’ve started it, no matter how dull or shithouse it was proving to be. But now I’m of the mindset that life’s too short to stick it out with something on the off chance that maybe it’ll pick up in 100 pages. Nah use that time finding a book that you dig immediately and doesn’t remind you of being forced to read something at school. Have standards about which books are lucky enough to be given some of your precious time, then keep them on display like the creative brain trophies they are.

Plus even with a decent book, no matter how good your memory is, inevitably you are going to forget majority of it beyond a loose recollection of the main plot points; so keeping something that you’ve already finished isn’t nonsensical for these reasons:

  • You could re-read it again
  • If you have fond memories of reading it, keeping the book around will help you remember both the book and what you were doing when you were reading it
  • If you’re a nicer person than me, you might want to lend out the books you thought highly of (yeah I rarely lend my books out, I’ve been burnt too many times)
  • You might be into the dog-tagging pages you liked and revisiting particular quotes or passages

Most importantly though, if we’re all doomed to forget the bulk of any book’s details, why finish something that sucks just so you can say you finished it? If it’s for closure, just google the ending and move on with your life!

via: @simpsonslibrary

Book Recommendations from Daria Morgendorffer’s Reading List

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My two favourite tv bookworms would probably be, Daria Morgendorffer from Daria and Mark Corrigan from Peep Show. Everyone’s favourite, Rory Gilmore from Gilmore Girls, shits me for one reason: I don’t think it’s realistic (regardless of her being gifted) that a teenager whose life is interesting enough that she’s in a quirky jam every week with her mother, has time to read 339 bulky and often dry as fuck classics on top of her schoolwork (give me a break, she’s just holding at least some of them to look like a boffin. I’m calling bullshit! No one under 20 is reading Ulysses unless someone’s holding a gun to their head for several months). 

Daria ran for five seasons, during which 62 books are either read, or referenced, by the brooding misfit – that’s a believable number (and I want only realistic standards for bookish types dammit! unless it’s Lisa Simpson; she’s been eight for 30 years, she can go read Gore Vidal and it not be weird that she’s in primary school).

The Simpsons Episode 25 GIF

The Simpsons Episode 25 GIF

Anyway the reason I’m bringing up every cynical teen’s hero is because I read a surprising bit of trivia recently; only seven of the 62 books Daria reads over the course of the show, are by women. 

Now for those of you who aren’t familiar with the character, this was unexpected because Daria is considered a bit of a 1990s feminist icon – and while she’s fictional, the writers/artists of the show would’ve thought carefully about what books to draw her with to best represent her personality and intellect. 

This got me thinking about my own reading habits and how I too could definitely stand to branch out and read more from different perspectives. 

It’s certainly not been an intentional choice, and this isn’t to say I don’t think the books I read aren’t varied: it’s more something I’ve noticed I could improve, especially when it comes to fiction – because in the fiction department I tend to go for old books or books regarded traditionally as classics and with that there’s a risk of complacence as well as not proactively searching for voices that were/are marginalised but are equally as worthy (or I could just read more fiction brought out in this millennia with an author who’s still alive).  

And I know out the four books I’m about to talk about from Daria’s reading list, only one is by a woman but I promise that with future blogposts I am going to make a better effort to read more diversely and have slightly less dead white guys. Anyway here are four of my favourites that the sarcastic legend is spotted reading! [Of the seven books from the list written by women, I’ve only read two and I’ve already written about Frankenstein in a previous blogpost so I didn’t want to double up] 

The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath, 1963)

A bell jar traps whatever’s displayed inside – and while transparent, the glass warps the perception of what’s outside the bell jar. This is how The Bell Jar’s protagonist, Esther Greenwood, describes the growing isolation she feels as her mental health descends – ‘under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air’. 

Told from Esther’s perspective, The Bell Jar begins with the aspiring poet (and recent college graduate) completing a summer internship in New York City for Ladies’ Day magazine. She applies for a writing program which commences immediately after the internship finishes; but following her rejection, Esther moves back to her mothers for the rest of the summer and attempts to start a novel.

However, feeling as though she has no life experience to write something meaningful, teaming with the daunting realisation that college is over and none of the limited paths she has to choose from appeal to her, Esther feels the descent of the bell jar hovering above her head and must eventually undergo electric shock therapy and analysis at the mental asylum.

This is one of those books where I feel like you’re not really going to get a lot out of reading it until life’s thrown you around a little, or you’ve at least feared that your life is directionless.

It’s embarrassing but nineteen was too young for me, and my first impression of The Bell Jar was that it was average. I couldn’t understand what had spurred Esther’s breakdown: myself being a little too immature to get that that’s part of the point – as well as failing to read it with the historical context that opportunities for women were a lot more limited then, or truly appreciate that it was written by a poet who did end her own life less than a month after it was published. In other words I’m very glad I revisited it last year.

Nausea (Jean Paul Sartre, 1938)

You know how in Rocket Man, where it’s a Saturday night and they’re at a rowdy venue and you get the sneaky suspicion that a fight is about to break out so Elton can conveniently play ‘Saturday Night’s Alright’ (oh so subtle); Nausea is kind of like that, in that Sartre’s philosophical ideas are what he wanted to primarily discuss and the story fits around those discussions.

For the French existentialist/campus legend (apparently he once turned up naked at a university event, what a mad dog), “existence precedes essence”, in other words life is all about creating meaning through action.

Like The Bell Jar, Nausea’s main fellow is a writer, called Antoine Roquentin, who is having a ponder –not just about the point of his existence, but human existence in general.

Roquentin documents every thought and sensation he has in order to fully comprehend his own existence (sounding like a writer who’s got a wee bit too much time to kill) and comes to the conclusion that there’s no reason for any of us to exist, the past is meaningless and what he’s going to do with his newfound free will is to write a novel.

The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck, 1939)

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In 1948, Stalin allowed the film adaption of The Grapes of Wrath to be released in the USSR because it depicts destitute Americans and it heavily criticises capitalism. This backfired however as Soviet citizens turned out to be impressed that even the poorest Americans owned cars.

The first time I read The Grapes of Wrath I was also nineteen (the uni library had a stellar American classics section) and I reread it again this year because 2020 hadn’t made me cry enough on its own. 

I love Steinbeck, and I know this book has received contemporary criticism for having historical inaccuracies but it still has merit regardless; you can feel Steinbeck’s raw anger like he’s talking to you and his point has that rare quality of being both of its time and equally politically pertinent now. There’s a reason he received the Nobel Prize of Literature for it and if anyone wants to tell me it wasn’t their cup of tea that’s fine but you have terrible taste and we’re going to have to take this outside!

During the Great Depression over a half a million Americans migrated west in the space of two to three years; The Grapes of Wrath focuses on a fictional Oklahoma family, the Joads, who lose their farm due to draught, recession and the introduction of tractors. Their only option is to make their way to California and try to get work fruit picking. The book follows the Joads’ journey travelling on Route 66 with everything they own in a beat up Hudson, and the disheartening reality that awaits them as migrant workers, when they finally reach California.

Breakfast of Champions (Kurt Vonnegut, 1973)

This one’s a lot more fun compared to the other books on this list – it has many delightful illustrations from Vonnegut himself and a fascinating theory about mirrors being ‘leaks’ to different dimensions – good choice Daria.

So this one splits between two strangers, Kilgore Trout – an elusive and essentially unrecognised science fiction writer, and Dwayne Hoover – a mentally unstable yet respected car dealership owner and local businessman, Dwayne eventually reads a novel by Trout, after a chance meeting at an arts festival, and takes his book literally that he (Dwayne) is the only free-willed being in the universe with dire consequences. As the narrator, Vonnegut also interjects regularly to give his hot take on life.

[Images via Triple M, Bookglow, Scoopnest, and aerogrammestudio]

Judging/Perving on other people’s bookshelves

I finally got round to reading The Scarlet Letter a few weeks back; it sucked, but a big part of the disappointment was the knowledge that my copy has been sitting on my shelf since Easy A conned me into thinking it might be ok ten years ago; for a decade it’s been touching all my books that don’t suck and during that time there’s also a real possibility that at one point somebody’s looked at my bookshelf and thought that I was a fan.

And yes maybe I’m insane/overthinking it but I personally love having a gander at other people’s bookshelves and getting an impression of what they’re into. I love going to a friend’s home for the first time and seeing which titles they loved enough to keep.

I love that feeling of spotting books on somebody else’s shelf that I’ve also read and realising that we both have another little thing in common.

There’s a David Hume theory that the features of an object are all that exist: there is no object only the features which form to create it. And if you think about seeing a collection of somebody’s books, that they’ve read or are maybe yet to read, has an intimacy to it as you’re seeing little pieces of what makes them who they are. Not to mention seeing how they’ve organised their books (if you’re not putting all you’re penguin classics in the same place you are a stone cold maniac!).

Then there’s William Faulkner who once said that, “a book is a souvenir of a journey, a handhold for the mind”, and I like that too because even though a bookshelf can be proudly on display, when you look at your own, you’re the only one who’ll know where you got each book from and where you were in your life when you read certain books.

My Dad has a large accumulation of books (mainly Ian Rankin, war history and Darwin Awards) and I remember being very impressed when I asked how many of his books he’d actually read and he responded all of them. At best I’ve read 75% of the books I own, but I love the idea of one day being able to look at my bookshelf and know that I’ve read everything on it.

Getting round to eventually finishing everything [or in some cases quitting after 20 pages and judging past me’s purchase decision] is the only way of having certainty that my beautiful collection is not unwittingly harbouring a few shitters in there. But I’m determined, and being in isolation has certainly helped the cause.

Fictional places

Last year my birthday happened to be on the first night of White Night. I’m not a huge fan of crowds so I’d never bothered going before, but my tram heading home goes past Carlton Gardens so I figured why not take myself on an impromptu date around the park and go glorified Christmas light spotting?

It was really incredible though, and thinking about it I can’t believe it was nearly a year ago. There was this ominous ‘oommmm’ sound playing like you were entering a pagan forest and a woman on the Exhibition Building that looked like a god you could ask advice to. Basically it all felt very surreal, like the closest thing I could get to living in a magical fictional place like Wonderland, Macondo or whatever reality the Mighty Boosh takes place in.

So lets talk fictional places in literature given that we’re all currently very boring and restricted to fantasy based travels. I’ll be real with you though, in hindsight majority of the fantasy places I chose for this post are more terrifying than magical.

The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 1943)

According to this beloved French children’s classic, one of the perks of space travel is that the lifeforms found on other planets are just solitary humans in charge of their one planet. Each space person has a flaw yet they’ll also be keen for a chat, and ultimately you’ll leave their planet feeling as though you’ve learnt something about what’s really important.

The little prince lives on an asteroid known as “B 612”; its notable features include three small volcanoes, the baobab trees which the little prince needs to weed out every day to ensure they do not overrun the whole asteroids surface, and a talking rose – his one companion who’s a bit high maintenance and pretentious but means well.

Although the little prince does love his pain in the ass rose friend, he chooses to explore the universe to see if there are other friendships he can make. Before landing on earth in the desert he visits six other planets, each with just one adult inhabitant (who each need to check themselves).

There’s the elderly geographer who has never seen any of the things he records, a lamplighter who meticulously extinguishes and relights a lamppost every thirty seconds as the days on his planet only last a minute, a drunkard who drinks to forget the shame of drinking (so few children’s book nowadays have drunkards in them it’s a shame), or the alien/starman I relate to most in this book – the narcissist who is very proud of being the most admirable/datable person on his one-man planet.

The Midwich Cuckoos (John Wyndham, 1957)

In the eighties there were these identical adult triplets who were separated at birth that reunited and what they did with that was start a restaurant called Triplets. For some reason it makes me think of Midwich Cuckoos cause all children in that are described as looking eerily alike and them all pooling together for a zany business opportunity would also be a great alternative happy ending.

I so wanted to like this book. In theory the plot sounds well up my alley: everyone in this unnoteworthy (and fictional) isolated English village mysteriously fall unconscious for 24 hours, when everyone wakes up they initially seem unharmed yet after a month they realise every woman is pregnant. There’s a conspiracy, evil mysterious blonde-haired youths who have collective powers, plus there’s a great Simpsons reference to it, what’s not to love?

It isn’t bad but it just would’ve been improved with a lot more focus on the children acting like wrongins’ and a bit less philosophical brooding (the book didn’t even give detail on the village-wide riot the children instigated – I was pretty salty, I wanted details told in real time). Surprisingly though this book gives an interesting perspective on the real stigma a woman would face at that time unexpectedly falling pregnant without a partner, and I like that it wasn’t glossed over as a detail.

The Princess Bride (William Goldman, 1973)

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I read this for the first time a few months back, and I’m so glad I saved this gem for such a dogshit year. It such a magical, light-hearted, wholesome, funny book to get lost in when reality is a touch dull as fuck.

Embarrassingly when I was a kid and saw the 1987 film adaption it wasn’t my cup of tea (I’ve since done a re-watch and clearly younger Ellen’s judgement can’t be trusted).

Goldman presents the book a “good parts version” of a (fictional) book by S. Morgenstern – a fictional author from the fictional country, Florin. His commentary and fictional facts about the history of Florin are scattered throughout the story, and like the film adaption Goldman’s introduction tells of his father reading The Princess Bride to him when he was sick (in reality he wrote it for his daughters).

It’s set in medieval Florin, where the main character Buttercup reluctantly agrees to marry the heir to Florin’s throne, Prince Humperdinck, after her one true love – a poor farm boy, is presumed dead.

Now Florin is a pretty wicked and terrifying fictional place; it has a fire swamp, cliffs of insanity, shark invested water and an underground “Zoo of Death” where Humperdick collects deadly (fictional) animals to hunt. I’d be open to visiting there, even though it’s national mortality rate is likely really high.

The Shadow over Innsmouth (H.P Lovecraft, 1931)

While the decrepit fictional seaport town of Innsmouth isn’t Lovecraft’s most famous fictional city, it is a bus ride away from the one that appears the most in his stories, Arkham. Plus I opted for Innsmouth over Arkham cause its more menacing and dangerous.

Like Arkham, Innsmouth is found in Massachusetts (it is also loosely based on the real city of Newburyport, Massachusetts), and the main character who takes the ill-advised day trip there is a student of Arkham’s Miskatonic University.

The town reeks of fish, and during the day it appears virtually abandoned with its few inhabitants all sharing odd similarities in appearance with ‘queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, stary eyes’.

Cut a long story short, for decades the villagers have been breeding with aquatic monsters known as the ‘Deep Ones’ with their offspring’s being part human/part amphibian hybrids. Once these offspring’s reach maturity they transform into Deep Ones and leave Innsmouth to live in an ancient undersea city. As with many Lovecraft stories the moral seems to be never go anywhere new.

Catching Dreams with a Trumpet & a Briefcase

“There are good reasons why we don’t want our eyes to be open, what does the world mean ‘How come I am a huge participant in this huge enterprise known as reality?’” 

That quote is from existentialist/debbie downer, Søren Kierkegaard, who believed that the majority of us sleepwalk through our lives. And he has a point really, some days you just do what you have to and internally replay Seinfeld quotes until its finally time you can head home and read your book (my life truly is gripping at the moment).

Then there’s French Philosopher/big-ol’ dandy, René Descartes’ how do you know you’re not just dreaming argument for Dualism (which to me will always sound like a really good name for a belief that duelling is the best form of conflict resolution); this suggests that there are instances where dreams feel so real that when you wake up, for a second you question whether it really happened, and therefore all reality is questionable.

And he has a point too really! Regularly when I’m sleeping in for five more minutes, I’ll dream that I’m not a dropkick and I’ve already made my way out of bed and I’m on the tram, and then I’ll wake up extra shitty with myself that I still have to psych myself out of my comfy-comfy bed.

Because dreams can be all lucid and weird, their origins and meanings – as well as their connection to our reality – is a theme that’s always ripe for fictional exploration. Whether you’re fond of the idea of the BFG roaming the streets of a night and sending nice dreams your way via trumpet. Or you’re re-watching Twin Peaks and you think Dale Cooper’s theory that “dreams come from acetylcholine neurons fire high-voltage impulses into the forebrain, these impulses become pictures, the pictures become dreams – but, no one knows why we choose these particular pictures” has some good points; seeing dreams as representing more than simply something your brain does to entertain itself for several hours of inactivity, makes life seem a bit more mysterious and almost magical.

So let’s talk dreams in literature and then leave feeling slightly jaded that so far your dreams haven’t shown strong signs that they have the power to shift reality or read the future!! I do feel a little ripped off, at the most my dreams are occasionally a laugh.

Slaughterhouse Five (Kurt Vonnegut, 1969)

I learnt a fun-fact a few weeks back, apparently Kurt Vonnegut managed a SAAB dealership in his day; SAAB’s were a underrated car, I respect Vonnegut more knowing he sold a babe magnet car then went home and wrote some classics of 20th century American literature, and he could also draw a tasteful a-hole – what a triple threat that man was!

For a while I didn’t want to read Slaughterhouse Five because the only thing I knew about it was that it references David Irving – a Holocaust denying ‘historian’/all round shithead whose research on the Dresden bombings has since been discredited. And its hard because at the time Slaughterhouse Five was written/published there was no way for Vonnegut to know that Irving would later be best known as a notorious Holocaust denier who exaggerated the death toll of Dresden to militarise historical memory. But it still isn’t great though that new editions don’t point this out to readers.

Anyway I’m side-tracking, I did eventually read Slaughterhouse Five and as a work of fiction it is really good aside from that one thing. In particular I love before the story begins how Vonnegut talks about the promise he made to the wife of an old war buddy that the story he would ultimately write would not glamourize war as the wife felt that books and movies sold a lie to young people by romanticising war.

Based on Vonnegut’s own experience as a prisoner of war who witnessed the Dresden bombings and it’s aftermath, the main character, Billy Pilgram, is too an American POW who witnesses the destruction of Dresden. Yet cause this is a Vonnegut book, Billy has this unique problem where he’s become ‘unstuck in time’, and occasionally when he feels asleep he’ll wake up at various different points in his life.

Billy’s presence in his past and future never alters his fate, it’s just something he can do, and I respect Billy for going with it and never really analysing why it is he has this gift.

Watership Down (Richard Adams, 1972)

I’ve written about Watership Down in a previous post so I won’t repeat myself too much here. Basically Fiver is the sensitive member of team. He’s a bit psychic and when he tells you he’s had a dream that the whole warren is in danger and every rabbit needs to leave now, he’s know what he talking about so don’t laugh at him just because he’s a wee bit eccentric.

The Dreams in the Witch House (H.P Lovecraft, 1933)

This one’s a short story belonging to the Cthulhu Mythos (a fictional satanic god who kinda looks like the every villain is lemons bit in Spongebob).

In this tale, a student of mathematics and folklore, Walter Gilman, decides to rent out a very cheap and very cursed attic room in a house known to locals as ‘the witch’s house’ (if the locals say don’t stay somewhere listen to them you fool!!).

As Walter is a fan of both maths and folklore (how convenient) he is interested in staying in this house because it once belonged to a woman trialled for witchcraft in Salem for her belief that she knew of lines and curve patterns which could allow one to travel across dimensions. Also as you’d except, the majority of this room’s previous occupants have died in mysterious circumstances.

Every night in this room Walter has strange feverish dreams (and props for Walter for even managing to fall asleep in a room he knows has a two century trend of dead tenants). In these dreams he shifts through ‘inexplicably coloured twilight’ vortexes, and envisions the witch moving closer.

Eventually the dreams reach a point where Walter has signed a mysterious book and he’s trying to stop the witch from abducting a child, and he wakes up in the morning to hear that a child’s actually gone missing.

Long story short the landlord abandons the house and years later, when workmen are demolishing the roof they find the space above the creepy attic is filled with children’s bones and the bone’s of the witch. Basically the moral of the story is never take an interest in maths.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Philip K Dick, 1968)

This is the book Bladerunner is based on. In this dystopia (set in San Francisco, 2021), the earth’s atmosphere is riddled with radioactive dust and the majority of people have relocated to a Mars colony. What’s more as radiation caused mass extinction of animals. protecting what little life remains has become the centre of society’s spiritual beliefs and owning pets has become so fashionable that mechanical animals are commonplace.

An incentive government offers for people willing to move to the mars colony are android servants. These androids are physically identical to humans, and the job of the main character, Richard Deckhard, is to ‘retire’ androids who escape the colony and try to disguise themselves as humans.

Despite having dream in the title, dreams are not a big part of this book’s plot. However, the religion the last earth dwellers follow, Mercerism, does involve plugging your mind into a box and fusing thought in a sleep-like trance, with a character who’s slowly trekking up a mountain to his death; the point being to encourage shared empathy.

The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula K. Le Guin, 1971)

A bit like The Butterfly Effect but with aliens; the main character, George’s dreams have the ability to shift reality to the point where the past can be restructured overnight to fit what George dreamt about.

George however hates this overwhelming responsibility his sub-conscious has, and goes to see a sleep therapist, Dr William Haber. Haber is sceptical at first but with the help of Haber’s trusty dream machine he’s been working on, Haber suggests things for George to dream about and becomes the only person who remembers what the reality was like before George fell asleep and changed everything.

The general gist is Haber gets too into having this level of power and attempts to sculpt a Utopian society, while George feels like he’s being used and tries to find a lawyer who’ll believe him. What I like about this book is that while suggestions can be made to George as to what he’ll dream about next, it’s realistic in that he has no control as to what form that idea will take as a dream.

Melbourne’s Ghost Bookshop

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I’d buy a book from that guy. He has a santa/willy wonka vibe going [image via Spencer Shier]

I don’t know if this’ll make a lot of sense but cause I’ve lived in my fair share of rentals, sometimes I start imagining what I’ve looked  like from each of my former houses/flats’ perspectives [and ditto what my current abode thinks of me].

If walls were somehow sentient and could talk, do you think they’d have secret opinions and preferences on all the people who’ve called them home in their lives? Would every share-house remember all the various ways their rooms have been decorated over the years? And like an all-seeing, wise, grandma willow presence – could they give you a definitive and impartial answer to who out of the group, in their humble opinion, is the hardest to live with? 

With older buildings in the city too, occasionally I’ll walk past them and think about their stories and wonder whether there was an era, or identity or business that was their favourite. And whether they’d be pro or anti having a little graffiti on their bones?

Melbourne has so many beautiful older buildings and little traces of its past scattered and hidden in plain sight if you look closely; and since the CBD is currently so quiet it’s  almost a ghost-town, I figure let’s talk about a 137 year old ghost bookshop that I think about every time I pass the glass roof on Howey Place (I mean ghost bookshop as in it doesn’t exist anymore, I’m not talking about an existing bookshop that exclusively sells ghost-themed wares).

From 1883 – 1929, a bookshop two blocks in length, called Cole’s Book Arcade, stood on (what is now) 299 Bourke Street, and it’s founder, Edward William Cole, installed that glass roof illegally when he extended the bookshop to Little Collins Street in 1896. 

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Popularly described as a ‘palace to the intellect’ , in its heyday Cole’s Book Arcade was one of the largest bookshops in the world, with supposedly ‘two million books’ on it’s shelves.

Walking through the rainbow sign archway on the Collins Street entrance; the staff all wore scarlet jackets, and the ground floor had over a hundred chairs with signs everywhere reading, ‘Read for as Long as you Like – Nobody Asked to Buy’ [they did have a massive theft problem though bless them. But this didn’t phase Cole who was quoted as saying: ‘at least the thieves will be reading!’]

Cole’s Book Arcade also boasted the following features:

Basically it sounds so cool that I can’t believe it ever existed (sort of like a less lame Mr Magorium’s Emporium). So who was the eccentric shy-guy behind Cole’s Book Arcade?

Originally from Kent and the eldest of ten, Edward William Cole (1832 – 1918), was the son of a labourer who died when Edward was a baby. At twenty, after living rough in London and South Africa he emigrated to Ballarat during the Gold Rush where he started his first business – a lemonade stand called ‘Cole’s Cordials’ which had a frying pan for its sign.

Eventually, after then working as an itinerant photographer on the Murray, Cole moved to Melbourne where he was able to save enough money to utilise Melbourne’s public libraries for two years and make up for the education he missed out on.

Before opening Cole’s Book Arcade in 1883, Cole ran a pie stall followed by a book stall called Cole’s Cheap Books, then the first Cole’s Book Arcade in 1873 (which was a smaller bookshop, still on Bourke Street but closer to Parliament) until finally opening the bigger Cole’s Book Arcade (the one he is most remembered for) on Melbourne Cup Day a decade later.

He met and married his wife, fellow introvert Eliza Frances Jordan, in 1875, after he posted the following want-ad in the Herald Sun:

 A GOOD WIFE WANTED

TWENTY POUNDS REWARD

POSITIVELY BONA FIDE

I, EDWARD WILLIAM COLE OF THE BOOK ARCADE BOURKE STREET

wish to obtain… a wife with the following characteristics: SHE MUST BE good tempered, intelligent, honest… neat, but not extravagantly or absurdly dressy… industrious, frugal…

I am quite sensible that I may be laughed at, but… the best thing a man can have is a good wife, and the worst thing a bad wife, yet in most cases, a very irrational principle of selection is followed, for nineteen out of twenty [marriages] originate from the merest accidents of life…

I have no more hesitation in advertising for… my partner for life, than I should have were I merely advertising for a business partner…

They ended up having six children together who would live in an apartment above the famous Cole’s Book Arcade – the eldest of whom (Linda) would run the bookshop following Edward’s death in 1918.

Ultimately Cole’s Book Arcade couldn’t survive the great depression and it closed in 1929. A David Jones is now located on that address, and all the traces of the once immense cultural institution which stood there are gone – save the glass roof walkway and some original stone work next to it.

Even after seeing a whole bunch of old photos, I can’t picture what that lost bookshop must’ve looked like to walk past or how magical it must’ve felt to browse through those shelves. Plus it’s pretty incredible that you could walk past that the glass roof a billion times and not realise that its not meaningless and in fact it has its own rich backstory. I am glad though that (as far as I know) no respected bookshops keep monkey families anymore!

[A lot of really great independent Melbourne bookshops, like Embiggins and Grub Street in Fitzroy closed down last year. It really sucks and it’s embarrassing cause Melbourne is proud of its City of Literature status but the list of bookshops keeps getting smaller cause of rent hikes.]