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The Completist – Authors I’ve Read Virtually Everything By

September 25, 2013 2 comments

Ah, lists. I love ’em and periodically I feel the urge to produce another one. Here’s a list of the authors I’ve read (and probably own) nearly everything by, with some brief thoughts on each of them.

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Megan Abbott 

She’s written six novels – I own and have read all six. My favourites are Queenpin and The End of Everything, but I like them all. I first encountered this author less than two years ago when I picked up a copy of her The Song Is You on a discount pile. I love discount piles.

J. G. Ballard

He wrote an awful lot, novels and stories, and I own and have read virtually all of it. Ballard had a profound impact on me at a crucial age (19-20), probably second only to Philip K. Dick in this regard. Ballard has definitely seeped his way into my writing subconscious. His essays are also extremely interesting – the man was nearly a genius. I recently read Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J. G. Ballard 1967-2008 and was duly blown away.

William S. Burroughs

Burroughs published a number of little chapbooks and other ephemera, so I can’t claim to have read everything he wrote, but I have at least 20-25 of his books and I’ve read numerous biographies and both volumes of his letters. I’ve even read Here to Go, his collaboration with Brion Gysin. I must have read Naked Lunch 5-6 times by now.

Pat Barker

I’m fairly new to Barker, only having discovered her in the past 3-4 years. I very much enjoyed her Regeneration Trilogy and was especially enamoured with the recent Toby’s Room. She’s an outstanding writer and there are 2-3 of her books that I’m still yet to read. I tend not to like her contemporary stuff as much as those books set in WWI.

Raymond Carver

In fact I hadn’t read a word of him until earlier this year, so it didn’t take me long to read all his short story collections (except for some posthumous stuff) and a biography to boot. Terrible person, amazing writer.

Raymond Chandler

Without Chandler I might still shy away from crime fiction. I was enraptured by novels like The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely and The Long Goodbye, and I’ve read some of his novels multiple times. I never really got into his short stories. I’ve also read numerous biographies and a book of his letters.

J. M. Coetzee

Coetzee only barely makes this list, simply because there are 5-6 of his books that I haven’t read as yet. But I’ve read at least 10 of them and enjoyed them for the most part. I especially liked Disgrace and his trilogy of memoirs. Coetzee can be dry at times, but at his best he has no peer and he is the spiritual successor to Samuel Beckett.

Harry Crews

Most of the writers on this list are pretty famous, but Crews decidedly isn’t, not anymore. Dead and more or less out of print, Crews is nevertheless on a par with the likes of Cormac McCarthy and William Gay, in my humble opinion. I’ve never read a fiercer book than his dark masterpiece A Feast of Snakes.

Philip K. Dick

What can I say about him that I haven’t said already? I’ve published a 40,000 word long article on his work in Bruce Gillespie’s SF Commentary 83 and I dedicated years to reading everything he wrote and everything wrote about him. That adds up to a hell of a lot and takes up about two shelves in my study. PKD is my number one influence as a writer, by far.

Graham Greene

The best prose stylist of the twentieth century, bar none. There, I’ve said it.

Barry N. Malzberg

Another mostly out-of-print writer, Malzberg was one of my favourite SF writers a decade or so ago. I had a fairly extensive email correspondence with the man a decade ago as well. His best novels include Underlay and Galaxies.

Maureen McHugh

I very much liked her novel Half the Day is Night many years back, and now I’ve managed to assemble her complete ouevre, even if there are a couple of things I haven’t read.

James Tiptree Jr.

In actual fact a woman by the name of Alice Sheldon, Tiptree is famous for some amazing short stories written mostly in the 1970s. I’ve read virtually all of them. “Her Some Rose Up Forever” is among the best.

Jeff Vandermeer

Vandermeer is among beautiful stylist and author of numerous works, none better than his collection thingy City of Saints and Madmen. I’ve been following his career with interest.

Daniel Woodrell

Another writer I’ve only recently discovered, I discovered Woodrell on another discount pile in the form of his novel Winter’s Bone. I liked that plenty so I ordered everything else he’d written. Right now I’m very much enjoying his most recent novel, The Maid’s Version.

That’s fifteen writers I’m very fond of. Eleven of them are men. Eleven of them are Americans, three British and one South African. All of them are contemporary or near-contemporary. Chandler was born earliest, but Greene published earliest. There were a few others who didn’t quite make the list for one reason or another, such as Iain Banks, John Crowley, William Gay (haven’t read his stories), M. John Harrison, Jonathan Lethem (plenty more of his to read), Kim Stanley Robinson, Kurt Vonnegut, Irvine Welsh and Ma Jian (he’s only written about three books). And then there are Australian writers I like but haven’t read everything by, such as Garry Disher, Andrez Bergen, Simon Haynes, Paul Haines (I have read all of his), Bruce Russell, Kaaron Warren, and plenty of others.

So, which writers would make a similar list if you were to construct one?

On Reading Literary Biographies

March 16, 2013 2 comments

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I have a thing about fiction: I hate reading books over a certain length (about 300 pages). My optimum novel is probably 220 pages in length (Exhibit A: Toby’s Room by Pat Barker) and it’s no coincidence that I try to write novels of a similar length too. But there is a type of book where bigger is better, for me at least, and that is the literary biography. I only read biographies of writers and only if I respect them for their work, and I generally read bios as part of a ‘general immersion’ in writers I especially like. Put bluntly, I binge on great writers and their biographies are often a heavy though satisfying side dish. There’s nothing I enjoy more than curling up in bed with an overweight biography – like the 500+ page tome on Raymond Carver I’m currently reading. Why?

I guess literary biographies are a way of communing with (mostly) dead writers, of exploring their zeitgeist, of absorbing the lessons of their life. Writers’ lives are often chaotic, the morality of their actions very frequently questionable, their behaviour often loathsome. But a literary biography is almost always a tale of redemption, in that the Great Work eventually gets written and published, often in spite of the author’s lurchings through life. These biographies are a form of nourishment for the acolyte writer such as myself, but writers rarely offer good role models in terms of their behaviour. Perhaps it’s the type of writers I enjoy reading, but it seems to me that literary biographies often allow writers a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card for their bad behaviour in exchange for the Great Work they have produced along the way.

Here’s a list of some literary biographies I own and have read. The better ones are bolded.

The Inner Man: The Life of J G Ballard – John Baxter

Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S Burroughs – Ted Morgan

The Lost Years of William S Burroughs: Beats in South Texas – Rob Johnson

Cursed From Birth: William S Burroughs Jr – edited by David Ohle

Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life – Carol Sklenicka

Raymond Chandler: A Life – Tom Williams

The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved – Judith Freeman

Raymond Chandler – Tom Hiney

Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K Dick – Lawrence Sutin

Search for Philip K Dick: 1928 – 1982 – Anne R. Dick

Graham Greene: The Man Within – Michael Shelden

Nothing Is True, Everything Is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin – John Geiger

James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B Shelden – Julie Phillips

In addition to the above, there are a number of writers whom I would love to read full length biographies on. English novellist Pat Barker is in her seventies now so she should be prime for this treatment. American writer Harry Crews died recently and I would love to read a book on him, although I’m not sure he’s popular enough these days to warrant one. There is rumoured to be a follow-up volume to his amazing memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, so that would be almost as good, should it ever appear. I’d like to read a biography of William Gay too. But for now, it’s back to the boozing and philandering of Raymond ‘Running Dog’ Carver.

Writers of Interest: Megan Abbott

January 14, 2012 3 comments

I’ve recently discovered an American author by the name of Megan Abbott, whose work goes some way toward hitting the spot that the best work of Raymond Chandler hits. I don’t know quite what it is: something dark, something both hard hitting and slyly reflective. Anyway, The Big Sleep does it. The Long Goodbye does it even better. And Megan Abbott does it in her own way, too.

Abbott has five novels to her credit, as I’ve discovered, and it seems that recently she’s moved away from crime fiction, or at least noir set in 40s and 50s L.A. The other four are all period pieces. In order of publication, they are Die a Little, The Song is You, Queenpin and Bury Me Deep. So far I’ve only read the second and third of these, and it’s the third, Queenpin, that’s the knockout.

I did enjoy reading The Song is You, a tale about ‘Hop’ Hopkins and his search for a missing starlet. It was chock-full of period detail (Abbott is clearly not only extremely well read in the genre, but interested in the history of this period in general), but I felt it to lack something in the way of a killer punch. There was so much period detail, in fact, that I thought it actually bogged the narrative down a touch. Not so in Queenpin. Told from the perspective of a young woman plucked from obscurity by the notorious Gloria Denton, the ‘queenpin’ of the title, the novel has a sledgehammer effect. I read it in about three hours and Abbott didn’t miss a beat throughout. Our narrator has a down-and-out paramour by the name of Vic Riordan (tip of the hat to Chandler there, methinks, with that surname), and increasingly she becomes torn between his rough handling and Gloria’s icy cool. I guess the knockout comes about two-thirds of the way through, but the rest is just as strong too.

So what’s the difference between Queenpin and some of Raymond Chandler’s best novels? In terms of quality, very little. You could say that there are fewer twists and turns here than in Chandler, but that’s neither here nor there. The characterisation, dialogue and settings are just as good. One thing that needs to be said is that Abbott is writing what might be termed ‘feminist noir’, in that she offers strong female leads where in Chandler and those of his era most of the ‘broads’ were just there to be killed and/or fucked. I think I’m right in saying that our heroine is never named, which isn’t to say she lacks definition. But Gloria Denton and Vic Riordan steal the show, as they’re supposed to.

Queenpin won something called the ‘Edgar’ Award, which I’m guessing is a crime fiction prize, so it’s not like it hasn’t received some attention. Still, I wouldn’t have heard of the book or its author if I hadn’t picked up a copy of The Song is You at a discount pile at the front of a local bookstore the other week. Long live the discount pile.  Queenpin is the best novel I’ve read this year, and I’m not just saying that because 2012 is, at the time of this writing, two weeks young.

The Maltese Falcon vs The Maltese Falcon

October 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Given that I’m fresh out of Raymond Chandler books to read, I thought I should give Dashiell Hammett a try. I’ve had a copy of his novel The Maltese Falcon sitting around for some time, but I hadn’t got around to reading it until I picked up a copy of the film on DVD the other day. Well, the film is just fabulous. I was astounded by the quality of Bogart’s acting and the pure malevolence of the character of Sam Spade. He is such a jerk in a way that Philip Marlowe never was: he bullies, extorts, slaps a man around and tells him that he’ll like it, betrays his clients to the police, and more. The Maltese Falcon is an amazing film and one that I’ll want to watch again soon. I liked it so much that I’ve started hunting down DVD copies of other Bogart films: so far, Casablanca, The Big Sleep and Beat the Devil.

Anyway, the novel is similar in terms of storyline, except that, if anything, Spade is even more of a jerk in the book. There’s a scene, depicted on the novel’s cover above, in which Spade forces a woman to strip naked to prove that she hasn’t stolen money from him. Needless to say, the scene didn’t make it into the 1941 film. The dialogue is much the same as in the film – surely this is the novel’s greatest asset. The storyline, in which various nefarious characters try to get their hands on a priceless ‘maltese falcon’, does seem a little contrived, but not overly so. It’s the prose itself which I found a little wanting. It isn’t, I don’t think, up to the standard of Raymond Chandler’s best work. Chandler said so himself in one of his letters (I’m reading The Raymond Chandler Papers currently). Chandler’s other allegation against Hammett in general is that his books ‘lack heart’ and that ‘he never cared for his characters.’

Having read The Maltese Falcon, but none of Hammett’s other work, I’m inclined to agree. Sam Spade is NOT a sympathetic character in the slightest, but nor are any other characters either. There’s nothing of Philip Marlowe’s humanity in Sam Spade. Marlowe is forever refusing to take money from clients, refusing to sleep with various dames, getting himself beaten up unnecessarily and charting the movements of various tiny insects living in his office. I find most of this very endearing. Whereas there’s little positive to say about Sam Spade in this regard. Watching the film, I was astounded at how nasty Spade was, but it’s all there in the book, and then some. I also noticed in the novel that there’s absolutely no interior monologue from Spade’s perspective. We know what he does, and what he says, but not why. To me, this works better in film than on the page.

So there it is. I’m not saying that Hammett is a bad writer. His novel was published in 1930 after all, and it reads pretty well today. For all I know, the prose may be better in his other works. But I’m yet to be convinced that he is anything like as good as my beloved Chandler. Bogart the actor, however…

Writers of interest – Raymond Chandler

October 7, 2011 Leave a comment

I don’t normally read crime fiction; I’ve never been interested in the genre. It’s for this reason that I only vaguely knew  of Raymond Chandler until I picked up a re-released edition of his first novel, The Big Sleep, two or three years ago. The novel came highly recommended, but then so do a lot of books that I don’t especially care for. I enjoyed The Big Sleep and its protagonist Philip Marlowe so much that I immediately tracked down the rest of Chandler’s novels, most of which can be found in two Penguin 3-in-1s (as I have them) or in the two Library of America volumes as pictured above. One of those 3-in-1s contains what I believe to be Chandler’s best three novels: The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely and, greatest of them all, The Long Goodbye. I was staggered by these novels when I first read them, and on recent re-reading I am just as impressed. If you want to read Chandler, then grab this 3-in-1 and go from there.

The other 3-in-1 contains three good, although in my opinion lesser novels: The High Window, The Lady in the Lake and The Little Sister. I’ve only read these once, and they are all above average novels (The Lady in the Lake had the most appeal to me out of these three), but none as as good as the aforementioned trio.  Chandler’s seventh and final novel, Playback, is weaker still, but not without some interest to the Chandler direhard. There is an eighth novel in existence, Poodle Springs, but Chandler died after writing only a few pages, and the book was completed by Robert Parker after Chandler’s death. I have a copy but I haven’t read it.

Chandler did write short stories as well, most of which were originally published in Black Mask in the 1930s. I haven’t read many of these, but most of them are collected in volumes like Killer in the Rain and Trouble is My Business if you are interested. Of course, if you get the Library of America volumes, you get the lot.

After reading the novels of writers I admire, I usually want to read a biography or two. There are a couple of worthy volumes: Tom Hiney’s Raymond Chandler is a worthy read, as is Judith Freeman’s The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved. There’s an older biography by Frank McShane that I haven’t read. Finally, if you’re desperate for more Chandler, there are a couple of volumes of his letters. I recently obtained The Raymond Chandler Papers and I’ve just started reading that. Chandler is an entertaining and caustic letter writer, so it’s well worth a look.

And that’s it. Seven novels, thirty or so stories, and book of letters. From a guy who happens, in my opinion, to be one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.

A new reading list, and some incomplete reviews (14/6/09)

Well, my resolution to read and review the three books on my list has been a complete failure, as I’ve now abandoned all three of them midway through. It’s a nasty reading habit I’ve developed, but there it is. I’ve figured life is too fleeting to spend reading things I don’t feel like reading. So here are my incomplete reviews of the three:

The Coffin is Too Big for The Hole by Kuo Pao Kun

This is a book of plays by a Singaporean (though Chinese born) playwright. The introduction was boring, and I’m sorry to report that it was a foretaste of things to come. I guess I don’t know a great deal about drama, but I know what I like, and it isn’t this.

Dusklands by J. M. Coetzee

I was on a roll reading Coetzee after Youth and Disgrace, but this one (his first) proved too obscure for my liking. The first part was about a guy writing a report about Vietnam, or something. I found this nowhere near as readable as his later work, although it’s probably true that I didn’t apply myself to the ask as well as I might have.

Sounds of the River by Da Chen

I usually gobble up memoirs by Chinese writers greedily, but this one left me (on page 78) bored. Apparently it’s the second part in a trilogy of memoirs, but there didn’t seem to be anything of great interest to report (country boy goes to Beijing in the eighties to study). Compared with, for instance, Ma Jian’s Red Dust, this seems rather minor fare. Perhaps it gets better in the second half.
Fresh from these failures, I’m moving on to four very promising looking titles I picked up today in the new secondhand bookstore/coffee shop in Northam. I think it might be called ‘Two Stories’ but I’ll have to check up on that.

Confucius: The Golden Rule by Russell Freedman

You could say that the three philosophical schools in China, roughly speaking, are Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Daoist thought has had a major influence on my thinking (particularly the writings of Chuang Tzu [Zhuangzi in pinyin]) but Confucius generally leaves me cold. I have tried to get through The Analects, without success, but I am aware that my ignorance in these matters leaves a massive hole in my learning. Thus, I was glad to find an illustrated, 48 page hardback where seems to be a kind of summary of Confucius’ thinking! Even I can get through that.

The Middle Kingdom by Andrea Barrett

More stuff on China. This appears to be a novel (memoir?) about a Western woman’s travels in China in the eighties. Sold.

Soviet Women Writing by I. Grekova (editor?)

I haven’t really taken an interest in Russian writing in the past, except for a couple of fascinating memoirs: one on Chernobyl (Voices from Chernobyl), and the other on random drunkenness (Russia Through a Shot Glass). I did read and enjoy Solsenitzyn’s Cancer Ward and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich when I was younger too. So I get the idea that I might take to Russian, and perhaps specifically Soviet-era literature. This seems as good a place to start as any.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

I used to steer well clear of the Crime shelves in bookstores new and old. Twelve months ago I could probably say truthfully that I’d never read a novel of crime fiction through to the end in my life. Then I started reading Raymond Chandler. I am still skeptical about modern crime fiction, but I figure that seeing as I like Chandler, I might like Dash Hammett too.

Okay, no promises this time. I think it’s highly likely that I’ll have read Confucius: The Golden Rule within the next day or two, however. Whether it’s worth me reviewing it, I’m not sure.

Book Review – The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler

February 2, 2009 1 comment

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First published in 1943, The Lady in the Lake is the fourth Philip Marlowe novel, and my fourth overall. Certainly not as famous as The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye, it nevertheless came highly recommended to me on the basis that J. G. Ballard considered it his favourite Chandler novel. Having read it now, I can’t say I agree.

Chandler creates his own set of norms and stereotypes which, while initially unusual, eventually wear out from use. So in your typical Marlowe detective novel, the following things are certain to occur at some point:

– Marlowe talks to a sassy dame. She comes onto him but he staunchly rebukes her advances.

– The cops try to throw Marlowe off the case by threatening him or calling him a ‘shamus.’

– Marlowe pokes his nose into situations he knows he shouldn’t, and gets the crap beaten out of him as a result.

– Marlowe gets threatened with a gun, to which he offers an array of wisecracks in response.

– A chance encounter or situation gives Marlowe a vital clue which can advance the story.

– Someone offers Marlowe a large sum of money, which he refuses.

– And how could I forget, Marlowe drinks a pint of whisky, gets into his car and drives around the streets of L.A.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these events on their own, and they can work in concert too, but I felt with The Lady in the Lake that the pattern was becoming overly apparent to me. Worse, of the various mysteries in the novel, I was able to predict at least two of them, which is unusual for me. The first mystery is given away by the novel’s title (think about it – it’s not The Lady OF the Lake) and the second with an all too obvious plot gimmick in which two women are described as being virtually identical. Even I could tell that this was a set-up for a switcheroo.

So what actually happens in The Lady in the Lake? These novels usually open with Marlowe meeting the client for the first time; here he meets Derace Kingsley, who wants him to find his wife. This may involve driving up to (then) rural Little Fawn Lake. There’s also a guy called Chris Lavery hanging around. Up at Little Fawn Lake, Marlowe meets a country bumpkin with the unlikely name of Bill Chess. Chess almost whacks Marlowe a couple of times, and then he discovers his OWN wife’s body in the lake, in bizarre circumstances. It appears she’s been in there a month or so, since she said she was leaving him. There’s also mention that Kingsley’s wife was at the lake at the same time, and had the same appearance. You got that? SAME time, SAME appearance, DIFFERENT woman. This will be important later.

This novel features an even more bumpkin-like character, Sherrif Patton. He has a sticker on his car that says ‘Voters, Attention!  Keep Jim Patton Constable. He is too old to go to work.’ This got a laugh out of me.  Chess semi confesses to his wife’s murder and is taken away. Marlowe isn’t convinced and does a bit of snooping. There’s always some snooping in Marlowe novels, and it’s all part of the fun. Chandler’s technique is to pile mystery upon mystery, complexity upon complexity. It often works quite well, but not, to my mind, in The Lady in the Lake. By the end the only thing I was certain of was that I had successfully predicted the novel’s major plot twist.

And it ends. I didn’t dislike this novel while reading it, and I got through it in until 24 hours, but on reflection I believe this to be the poorest of the four Marlowe novels I’ve read thus far. The Little Sister is up next.