Reading Roundup

BY JON PILL

I’ve rather fallen behind in my monthly reading book review posts. So here’s a quick update.

I’m tracking my reading a little closer over on GoodReads. Which is where I have lifted most of the stuff below. For the other month’s you’ll just have to make do with a simple list and a yes/no/maybe answer to the question ‘Would I recommend?’:

November Reading:

  • Mean Free Path by Ben Lerner. Maybe.
  • A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R R Martin. Yes to fans.
  • The Martian by Andy Weir. Yes.
  • The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Maybe but not before his more important works.

December Reading

  • The Hustler by Walter Tevis. Yes but only after seeing the movie.
  • Classics: A Very Short Introduction by Mary Beard and John Henderson. Yes, highly.
  • Russian Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Kelly Catriona. No.
  • Marquis de Sade: A Very Short Introduction by John Phillips. Maybe, if you are interested in hearing the rosiest possible case for the Marquis.
  • History: A Very Short Introduction by John H. Arnold. Yes.

January Reading

I got one big classic off my plate by finishing listening to the Big Read audiobook of (1) Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.

I also listened to Jezza Irons reading Eliot (who is the bestest) on the BBC, since he read several complete collections I can count the following books as read via my earholes:
(2) Prufrock and Other Observations
(3) Poems
(4) Four Quartets

For entertainment I read Peter Watts existentially challenging hard sci-fi novel (5) Blindsight which was fun and full of interesting non-fiction ideas, whereas (6) Geography: A Very Short Introduction – which is actual non-fiction – did not.

The only other proper classic I’ve got through this month was the rather uninteresting (7) Theogony/Works and Days by Hesiod, the far less interesting or fun coeval of Homer.

Further Reading

Since 2016 came and went with most of my reading goals incomplete. Other than reading a decent 99 books (well over my goal of 82), and though I would normally aim one higher for the following year I don’t feel that’s realistic.
2016 was an ideal year from a reading standpoint, and this year reading is going to have to take a back seat to writing goals so, although I will nominally be aiming for 100, I’ll be happy if I get 60ish.
I want to make sure I read more non-fiction, especially science. I’ve missed that from my reading over the last year or so. I’ll aim for twelve substantial non-fiction texts and see how many insubstantial ones I can fit in around that.
I’m also going to continue with my overview of the Classics with a focus on the British novel. I still have these books to go from my original list.

I also have a list of  books I started ages ago and never finished. I’d like to cross some of them off as well. They are:

The highest priority list I am working on is research for the novel I am working on. These include books that are stylistically similar to my novel, deal with similar themes, have historical information in them that I need, or which I think will be otherwise helpful to my thinking about the novel I am working on.

I’ve trimmed the list a little from last year, there were a few that just didn’t feel as necessary as they did when I first made this list and as with the other lists have knocked off those I finished in 2016. I’ve also added The Sacred Willow, another Xmas gift:

I also want to read the following Shakespeare works. Although I have seen or listened to performances of these nine plays, I haven’t actually read them. So for completion’s sake, I’m gonna do that this year. Then I have read the lot.

 

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Dear Jim (#19) Re: Turning Heads and Changing Minds

BY JON PILL

exorcist

I understand that people think of “The Exorcist” as a horror film, I totally get it. You don’t have to worry about it, it’s only a horror film. But I think it deals with issues far more profound than what you find in the average horror film. To be frank with you, [writer] Bill Blatty and I never set out to make a horror film. The idea never crossed our minds.’ – William Friedkin, Director of The Exorcist

Dear Jim,

Advocate for something, you said. Sell you something. You don’t need to ask me twice.

I don’t know if I can necessarily swing your opinion on The Exorcist. You’ve seen it, and weren’t hugely convinced of its myriad qualities. But it is my favourite film. Perhaps at the very least, I can help you understand why I love it, even if if I can’t be categorical that you should.

But I can say I don’t think you should just be scared or disgusted or any of the visceral stuff that makes The Exorcist so entertaining. I want to talk about the other stuff that makes it moving and thought provoking. It is proper art, serious art. With serious intention behind it.

I watched it for the first time when I was fifteen or sixteen, having been raised in a house where we were never allowed to watch a film rated higher than our age. I had my DVDs of American History X, Fight Club, Silence of the Lambs confiscated, in the case of American History X I don’t think I ever got that one back. So watching The Exorcist was a taboo experience from the get go, ramped up by a genuine belief in the voodoo of the Church and its pitchfork-tailed opposite down below.

It was scary and disgusting and visceral, and also deeply uncomfortable: the blasphemy, the sordid sexual undertones, and the existential challenge of eternal damnation and priest without faith.

Demonic possession in broad daylight in an urban street felt close and real in a way a backwoods cabin doesn’t. Isolated characters are easy to see as vulnerable, easy to root for, but when you step out of the cinema onto a crowded street the film evaporates. The Exorcist happens in Washington and the victims are surrounded by people. The movie follows you home.

When I rewatched it, older, wiser and more skeptical of religion, I was struck by the diagnostics of the film. The House-like elimination of the alternatives and the fact that the Priest – himself struggling with his faith – is only called in as a form of hypnotic suggestion. The reading that suggests that it all might just be hysteria on the part of Regan and her mother seemed to live alongside the more straightforward superstition of the ‘real’ possession. I think one of the great things about the film is that it maintains ambiguities in just the right places to allow you cognitive dissonance. You can believe in the pit and in medicine, can fear God and fear madness, at the same time as you watch.

Around this time I also found a video* which makes the case for an undercurrent of sexual abuse that lends the film a different sort of dramatic intensity and a new different sort of discomfort.

New things occur to me each time I watch it. So much of the story telling happens indirectly, Regan’s desecration of the church – an act that could just be an atmospheric coincidence or sign of the evil spreading – is confirmed not by a line, but by drawing attention to Regan’s clay animals the design of which mirror the additions made to the Virgin Mary’s statue. The infamous masturbatory scene, is prefaced by the Mother removing the crucifix from the room, making its return all the more sinister. The whole film is full of this sort of detail.

The more I watch it the more I appreciate the technique of it. The special effects (you can see their breath in those final scenes because the set was an icebox), the make-up on Regan, the performances, and above all the sound design. My favourite piece of cinema is the first ten minute of this film, the almost wordless sequence with the ominous stopping of the clock, the one eyed man, the creepy old crone, and then the drive out to the statue of Pazuzu and the shot of man opposed with the statue as the wind howls and the dogs bark and fight.

It’s exciting, and unsettling and sets the scene perfectly for the transition to that chilly room on the first floor with the noises in the roof, and moving furniture, where something very old and evil waits.

A lot of what made me fall in love with this movie comes out in the re-watching. You’ve been talking about going back to re-read old books. That can be your topic for next time.

Yours faithfully,
Jon

P.S. It was while ranting about how great The Exorcist is to a friend that I was first put on to the BBC’s Flagship Wittertainment. Which seems as good a reason as any to say ‘Hello, to Jason Isaacs.’

P.P.S. * Watch the revamped version of that video here.

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Dear Jon (#18) Re: This Is Not For You

BY JON PILL

I am in a strange street, empty of people but full of voices. A light rain forms a mist into which the two ends of the street vanish. Neon signs hang and hum along with insect light-traps and one of them sparks as a moth meets its end.

The voices are under the street calling out a garbled message: ‘Dear Jon,’ they say. ‘Be gone buzz words. Buzz off buzz words. Bzzzzzzzt.

There is a pause and I step underneath a shop’s doorway to shake the earwigs from my cochlear canals they slither down a drain and the psychic audio bletter becomes clearer:

‘Let’s talk attitudes, because there’s another aspect to deal with. There’s one attitude which you talk about, I should read, listen to, look at x. One side of the groat there. The other side of the groat: but it’s not for me, it’s not for people like me, it’s for other people…’

The voice trails off. The sign above me reads: ‘CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST.’

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Dear Jim… (#17) Re: On Converting The Philistines

BY JON PILL

I think reversing one’s position, or changing one’s mind – or in this case, maybe the idea of an ‘aesthetic education’ might be worth discussing. But I’ll leave you to flesh that out…” – Jim

Dear Jim,

In your last letter you gave me the broadest of briefs. To throw out a few thoughts on changing one’s mind or – you said, as if the two things were obviously linked – ‘aesthetic education’. I’ll deal with the latter because although less interesting to me it won’t spiral into a ramble. A tight 500 is the goal. This bletter needs sending today and I left it all until the final countdown.

Cue music:

 

In terms of aesthetical edugogy, I think it’s a valuable thing for one to do to oneself. But I’d be tentative about getting super evangelical about it. While there are somewhat weak arguments about art engaged humans being better citizens, I think liking art is more of a self-help thing than a social responsibility. With that caveat in mind, here’s what I think.

The general goal of the court mandated aesthetic education, as put together by Minister for Art Appreciation for Jon Pill would be, I think, to get the student – i.e. me  – to think about art intentionally. I think this is what is meant by that buzz word ‘engage’.

The human brain can engage with art at all sorts of levels, but the zeroth level that we all do pretty instinctively will always be: Do I like it? And here is where it is easiest to stop. With the Yes/No answer.

I come from a family of readers, my Dad read to me before I could read and listening to him read remained a family activity, especially on holiday where The Hobbit and the Harry Potter saga often made short work of train journeys.

Reading for myself was encouraged and there would be a regular exchange of cheap second hand paperbacks between the various members of the family. Redwall and Alastair MacLean, Jack Higgins and The Phantom Tollbooth. Stuff like that.

So there were books. But there was also a general air of philistinism. The first question I am asked whenever I say I have read Classic Book X or Epic Poem Y to a family member is always: ‘But is it actually any good? Or is it just one of those books your supposed to read?’

The inherent assumption behind the word ‘good’ is that it be enjoyable*. There was no room for a book to be challenging, the unpleasant, the interesting, the beautiful, unless it came with a good plot. In a house full of Austen lovers, I am the only one who likes Emma [Edit: My Dad has corrected me on this. He also likes Emma. Like father, like son.]. People hate Emma because they dislike Emma. That’s was all it takes: an irritating character that rubbed you up the wrong way. Never mind that her irritating faults are the driving force of a series of engaging dramas, never mind the amusing ironies her faults breed, never mind the impressive skill involved in what is pretty much the invention of the close-third narrator.

That is a difficult attitude to shake. Because good = enjoyable is a massive barrier between art and artee. A key part of that aesthetic education is just shedding the idea that an immediate sense of pleasure is the only positive response to something.

So interrogating Do I like it? with intentionality would level one of converting the barbarians. Once you have your yes or no follow it up with: Why do I like/dislike it? What do I like about it? What is it making me feel? What thoughts is it giving me?

I never learned to ask these questions formally. It’s been a slow trial-and-error sort of thing mostly through talking about film with friends, and more recently through reading widely, going to galleries, watching plays. And I’m still not always great about thinking like this. But, you know, fail better and all that. #selfhelpisnotselflove.

There are, of course, a ton of other ways of engaging with art, but cultivating this kind of self-aware thoughtfulness is the basis for all the rest of it. The basis of a lot of living well. #unexaminedlives. We’re not talking about turning  into a – hold back the sick – literary theorists after all. Just helping them get a bit more out of swirls of paint or lines of ink.

What the next stage in an aesthetic education might look like I’ll leave to you, someone who has spent five years formally studying fiction-books, in your next bletter.

Yours appreciatively,

Jon

P.S. *This issue of enjoyment vs. other stuff, Greene’s entertainments versus novels, and genre versus literature is all something we’ll have to come back to some day. For now though, I will leave that can of worms on the shelf beside the baked beans and Spaghetti-Os.

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Dear Jon . . . (#16) Re: Crime and Punishment, Trials and Castles

BY JON PILL

The digital flap rings out, and a writhing mass of bletters slap down onto the mat, each one struggling against the dark red elastic band that binds them to each other.

A bletter gets loose and wriggles away so, in order to keep it from slipping down the hole in the skirting board chewed long ago by an ancient king-rat’s many teeth in many heads, you skewer it on the end of your bletter harpoon and chew away the edible flaps to reveal the words etched into the skin of the bletter in rattlesnake venom.

Dear Jon,” the bletter begins. “Being, shall we say, terminally unhip – I too had an angst canon, though the bulk of it came out of the late 1800s rather than the late 1900s. Specifically, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Crime and Punishment, Demons, The Brothers Karamazov. Yet, the connections with your canon are there, no? Instead of a murderous Manhattanite, there’s the axe-wielding Raskolnikov killing old women in St Petersburg…”

To read the rest of the bletter turn to page 34, or click here .

 

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The Best Books For Writers – Part 5: Books on the Other Arts

BY JON PILL

Previously on… 

Part 1 – Books on Being Writerly

Part 2 – Books on the Craft of Writing

Part 3 – Books on The Writing Life

Part 4 – Books on Reading

This is the last and considerably latest, in this series on books to read if you’re a writer / into writing / want to write. This time looking at a grab bag of books that I and / or humans have found useful in our approach to writing that deal with other art forms topics.

There will also be another post coming soon about all the non-book resources people have found useful. So look forward to that, kidz.

Part 5 – Books On Other Art Forms

1. Silence by John Cage

This collection of lectures by experimental composer John Cage (he of 4′ 33″ in(fame)y), is a collection of lectures on various subjects. Unable to keep from experimenting even in the when typing up his lecture notes, the book is full of odd formatting and the occasional section of apparent word salad.

But as a creative guide it’s served a few of my writerly friends. It might well serve you to.

2. 7 Minutes. The Life and Death of the American Animated Cartoon by Norman M. Klein

This is another Interior Dasein recommendation, covering the history of the short American Cartoon, typified I guess by the work of Chuck Jones. There are parallels between the zany movies and the short story, and you can certainly learn a great deal from the discipline of the artists and the surreal and metamorphosable worlds they build.

For members of the straw poll, it was also a source of inspiration and permission to break the rules of our world in interesting and fun ways in their art.

3. The Artist’s Reality by Mark Rothko and 4. A History of Art by E. M. Gombrich

Visual art has inspired a great deal of poetry and a little prose, but it is also probably the art form with the longest history. Where the stories told by the cavemen at Lascaux are lost to time, their paintings live on.

The Rothko is a collection of essays on art and artistry, and the Gombrich a broad history of visual art from the ancients to us with a ton of colour plates and a lovely binding.

5. How to Read a Film by James Monaco

An overview of the mechanics, theory, business and history of film this book is readable intro to the medium. I consume a lot of story through television and movies, and having a better sense of how to watch closely and think critically about film has improved my ability to do the same for reading and in assessing my own writing.

It could do the same for you.

6. Logical Chess: Move by Move by Irving Chernev

Recommended by Jim MacDonald in an Absolute Write thread on the grounds that Chernev’s approach works for the creation of plots as much as it does check-mating your opponents on the board.

If nothing else, it will probably improve your chess game.

7. Measurement by Paul Lockhart

Measurement teaches maths creatively, and draws comparisons between the formal restrictions of poetry and the logical restrictions of maths. Paul Lockhart empowers the reader to go away and create maths on their own by focusing on the process and on proof. Having given the reader the tools to do maths, he then sets them off with a bunch of questions for them to look into and solve on their own.

The link with writing is pretty tangential but much of what makes maths beautiful is there in literature: those moments of realisation and discovery, and the revelling in patterns. The approaches to learning however, are perfect for the writer.

Enjoy.

If you have any favourite books that have helped you with your writing, especially if I missed them in this series, let me know in the comments.

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Dear Jim . . . (#15) Re: Angst and Anxiety

BY JON PILL

‘Rules are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools.’ – Douglas Bader

Dear Jim,

Christmas came and went. 2016 came and went. I hope it came and went well. I have a horrible feeling 2017 will be a time of reaping what 2016 has sown. But it also looks like it might be pretty good for you and me on a professional level.

As you guessed in your letter, I have been fiddling with the odd reading list for the coming year. You asked a bit about what guides my instinct re reading. I’m not sure I have a very interesting answer to that. I am rarely coming to a book cold, years of Google, Wikipedia and long conversations with book mad friends like you means I have a general sense of who and what out there will fit my given needs.

Plus my reading lists are almost always for a purpose, however broad. Catching up on the classics, research for the novel, sometimes its just: read more stylists, more plot, more nonfiction, more James Bond novels.

There is a certain amount of the should’ves on my lists, but I don’t know how sophisticated a gut instinct is needed to know one should have read some Dickens if you want to be a writer.

 

Your other question re teenage reading is a little more interesting, and one we’ve discussed several times. When you’re a teen you’re in that weird tension of wanting to be part of the group and to be an individual, different. If one of those things wins out you end up as either Molly Ringwald and Emilio Estevez or Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy. Or that nerdy kid or the janitor. Or something*.

The compromise of being a goth or hipster or whatever is to belong to a little group that dresses funny. Same-same but different.

My cod-sociological theory is that the angst canon of books teenagers read is a way of revelling in that specialness. The Molly Ringwalds opt for manifest destiny as their reason for being weird, so Harry Potter and Star Wars for them. The Ally Sheedy’s are more likely to have a copy of Camus poking ostentatiously out of their pocket. Or as in my case Chuck Palahniuk. Judd Nelson didn’t read very much at all, I suspect.

For me the books that I read and reread (along with Michael Crichton’s whole oeuvre) were: American PsychoFight Club and The Beach. All in some ways were aspirational wish fulfilment. All three are books about outsiders who exercise power (and often violence) in their own sphere. It probably doesn’t hurt the appeal that they all get laid and enjoy freedom from authority (it is no coincidence that the British boarding school produced the inventors of the concentration camp).

What is also odd is that they are all also about mentally ill characters. And I do remember having a very romanticised notion of what it meant to have poor mental health. Think of the pop culture crazies like Donnie Darko and Hannibal Lector dictated my images of madness at the time. Being a teenager is often to be locked in several forms of mental breakdown anyways: , a barely developed sense of empathy, constant crises of identity and purpose, or else monomania and narcissism. or persecution complexes, anxiety, insecurity, paranoia, body dysmorphia, mood swings, sexual obsession and perversion, your average teenager is a grab bag of pages out of the DSM and Dr Levick’s notes on penguins.

The nihilism and existentialism (both in the most vague and colloquial sense) in the Ellis and Palahniuk reflected, and probably intensified, my personal philosophies at the time and that the books reflected and reinforced my dislike for those who feel entitled to authority.

I don’ know exactly how much I saw myself as Patrick Bateman or Tyler Durden (though it would not be beyond my cognitive dissonance to have seen myself as both), but I enjoyed for those years a total condescension and contempt towards all people everywhere. And although I was a very shy child, and am a pathologically anxious adult, in my mid-teens for a few years I felt very little shame or self-consciousness at all. It was around then that I was reading those books.

I still like those books. I haven’t read them in a long time, but their film versions have jogged my memory from time to time. But I like them for completely different reasons**. Where I used to admire Bateman, I feel pity instead. What was revelled in as wish fulfilment as revel as a teen reads as a satire now. Nice flat, expensive suits, and taking what he he couldn’t buy at the end of a nail gun, everything seemed perfect back then. Now he looks desperate and trapped. The horror isn’t in the gore, its in the empty relationships and impersonal flat.

These books are no longer my favourites. But they are still interesting as much because of my personal history with them as anything else. That as a writer is something that is probably impossible to account for in your readers. But interesting to ponder.

I’d be interested to hear about your own teenage readings. But I also wonder if there are any artworks in whatever form, that you’ve had a similar revisions or reversals of your feelings about a text or play and what they were?

Sincerely Yours,

The Breakfast Club

* P.S. I know and also don’t care that the movie was about how they’re not all that different you and I.

** P.P.S. I deliberately avoided talking about The Exorcist, because I could write a whole bletter just on that. Every time I have watched that film, it has seemed to be about something totally different. But that is because the film has so many ambiguities, and so much of the story happens off screen that it allows for interpretive shift. They all feel like natural readings of that movie. American Psycho, on the other hand, I find hard to imagine  missing how unhappy Bateman clearly is. Which I definitely did at the time.

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