The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 22: The Meaning of Friendship (Mark Vernon, 2010)

Books left: 4. Weeks left: 7 (breathe in, breathe out. Undo metaphysical belt of brain.)

Almost as pretty as a white-fleshed nectarine, and at least with a nectarine you know what you're getting.

Almost as pretty as a white-fleshed nectarine, but at least with a nectarine you know what you’re getting.

Wow, found a book with an author’s name starting with V, and that if nothing else is testament to the necessity of this project.

I see its pretty jacket and sail in, blithely unaware of the small note I later discover in the blurb that the book is a revised version of one previously titled The Philosophy of Friendship.

Consider your warning unheeded, sirs!

 

 

Vernon’s book is an examination of the rules and functions of friendship in contemporary society, with chapters on subjects such as friendships at work, the possibility of being ‘just friends’ and not lovers, friending online, friendship as it relates to politics, and friendship as a spiritual experience. He peppers his text with examples from both real life and pop culture, and simultaneously links it to the works of philosophers including Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Foucault, Kant and Aquinas.

He paints a portrait of the ancient world that shows clearly how civilisation once valued friendship, though official structures, language patterns and customs, in ways it now does not; and calls for us to reconsider, as he has retitled his book, the meaning of friendship.

Why is it that modern society has no public means of recognising the bonds formed between friends, a fact that is in stark contrast to the family, which is celebrated as the very basis of community? Surely friendship plays a vital part in that too … it is not just that friendship is not recognised in society, whereas family is, but that the particularity of friendship can often be regarded as a threat to the unconditional love that is supposed to reign within the family too. Why else do individuals somehow feel they must renegotiate a long-term friendship when their friend gets married? Or, to put it another way: is there not a steely strand in the ethic of modern marriage which repels anything that compromises the unconditional commitment of husband and wife – ‘forsaking all others,’ as the service says? Close friendship can count as infidelity quite as much as a fling or affair.

This is a deeply unsatisfactory state of affairs. For all Kant may wish it, and ethical discourse may ignore it, friendship will not cease. Aristotle’s intuition is right: it has to do with self-love, and it is certainly partial, but it is also undoubtedly necessary for a happy life. Moreover, if friendship is rising back up the agenda of people’s personal commitments, as marriage reforms and other institutions of belonging become less reliable, then an ethical discourse that takes friendship seriously is needed, not least to provide some structure for people who want to make the most of it. Friendship will always be full of ambiguities. We’ve established that by now. But that does not mean it is not possible to think through them and welcome friendship as a key, if complicated, facet of life – which, after all, is only complicated itself.

As Vernon outlines, friendship has been a topic largely ignored by most philosophers. Many of the philosophers he references in depth here are a product of those ancient times in which friendship was valued more highly. This means his book is not only justified as an unprecedented study but that he has also been able to have a jolly good stab at assembling the gist of it all in one book of modest length. For a philosophy fan it will no doubt be a valued addition to the library as its subject matter, as well as the approach through a modern lens, is unique.

Note I say philosophy fans and not people like me, with gnat-like attention spans.

I consider myself a charming blend of literary snob and member of the unwashed masses. I like books with corpses or explosions or humour or if they are Serious Literary Fiction I like them to have stunningly beautiful prose. I am reluctant with documentaries, nonfiction or even things that smell of them, such as satire, to the point I even hesitated on the very funny New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows because I thought it might be too realistic for Sunday entertainment. But I do enjoy the nonfiction I end up consuming from time to time – recent examples being tiny house movement documentary Tiny and Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought. Point is, surely I can’t be alone in finding both ancient history and philosophy a hard slog, and now I’m no longer a pretentious 20-year-old who carries around a Nietzsche tome she is unable to finish, I can admit it.

By the middle of Vernon’s book my interest has flatlined and I fight my way to the final chapters rather grimly, cursing not Vernon or his subject matter but the book’s clever marketing that has led me to buy it in the first place (PRETTY COLOURS). It’s not difficult as such, thanks to Vernon’s engaging style, but I must say I don’t plan to pass it on to anyone I know unless they have a burning interest in the subject.

Having said that, the last do raise some intensely interesting topics, exploring far-reaching and fascinating histories of gender and same-sex relationship issues, and this has cheered me up a little by the time I embark heroically upon the conclusion. Here, Vernon has somehow travelled through time and space and seen my boredom and secret wishes for a fluffy self-help book, because his final chapter, Friendship Beyond Self-Help, draws to the heart of why he has written a book of philosophy.

Perhaps the key to a fulfilled life is not to be self-centred but other-centred, to lose yourself in order to find it. That’s a common religious sentiment, and it’s one attested to by the experience of friendship too. Aristotle has a particularly powerful account of it, when he talks of the friend being another self, the person in whom you not only see yourself reflected but in who you discover yourself. There is no being human on a desert island, any more than there are such things as solitary ants. The good life is the attempt to live for others in life. As Iris Murdoch has it, love is ‘the painful realisation that something other than myself exists.’
This perhaps partly explains why there is no end to self-help books. They are condemned to struggle with this conundrum – they solution they offer – attend to yourself – is actually part of the problem.

Consider me chastised!

Keep or Kill? I’m not going to re-read it, so unless someone of a more academic bent than me wants it, it’s going on the No Pile. 

 

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The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 11: The Amphora Project (William Kotzwinkle, 2005)

Books remaining: 15. Weeks left to read them: 28 (I laugh in the face of danger). 

As a pubescent, I read Kotzwinkle’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, a novelisation of the legendary 1982 Steven Spielberg film and thought the book just about better than the movie. Don’t throw rocks at me. The book was excellent.

Hence when I came across an original Kotzwinkle several years ago I snapped it up and, true to form, didn’t read it. Until now.

The Amphora Project

The Amphora Project

This is the story of Amphora, the immortality machine, and the humans who foolishly try to use it to achieve eternal life, at a time in which the Earth has long stopped being habitable, and people have long stopped accepting the idea of going quietly into that good night. When it becomes clear that Amphora is unstable and threatening the very existence of the race trying to use it, a band of fugitives makes one final attempt to destroy the device.

Lovers of a good robot, look no further – little Upquark, who converts himself into a suitcase in times of stress, is drawn haplessly into the battle and is hands-down what most endeared this story to me.

Upquark stared about in wonder. There was sand in his rollers, but excitement in his emotional card. Highly unusual circumstances were unfolding, for which he had no reference. He’d tossed and turned for hours in Ren’s ship, analysing for hours the terrible sequence of events he and his friends had undergone, and then, quite on its own, a train of nondeductive inference had begun, culminating in a picture of himself as a dangerous outlaw with a high metallic luster. Now he tried out a menacing gesture with his grippers, but no one seemed to notice. Perhaps he required Pugnacity Firmware.

Special mention, too, goes to the ‘junkernauts’, hazardous monoliths formed of obsolete, lunatic and half-broken robots determined to go on functioning in whatever capacity possible, with the result that they join to form these enormous oddities that sail about the galaxy, spectacularly destroying everything in their paths.

With its invention, whimsy and vivid stable of lovable, repulsive, weird and sexy characters, this would in fact itself have made a great movie. As a book it was a little hard to get, and stay, immersed in.

Though I put this down to lack of time to ‘get a run at it’, I find myself questioning this conventional wisdom. Surely the lack of ability to ‘get into’ books is not all because we all now have woefully short attention spans and even less free time.

When I feel truly captivated by a book I make the time, constantly rushing off for five minutes more to poke my nose into it, deciding to let this or that task slide so I might polish it off. Perhaps if we are so time-poor and have so much competing for our attention we should only keep reading any book if we feel that pull, and never let anything less suffice. (Though had this been my philosophy always there would doubtless be no chance I ever would have finished, for example, Mrs Dalloway  – a bit painful, sure, but undoubtedly worth it). But as a general rule…

I vaguely knew Kotzwinkle’s work, sure, so picking up the book was justified. But as you keep reading a book that is not compelling you, what else is going unread? Right now because of this project, I am not reading Peter Carey’s Amnesia. I’m not reading Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought or Don Watson’s The Bush or letting the Matriarch pass on her latest book club book, Karen Joy Fowler’s We are All Completely Beside Ourselves or sharing the Ministry’s new obsession with Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp thrillers.

Did I enjoy The Amphora Project? Yes. Would I recommend it to a sci-fi lover? Yes. Was it worth feeling cut off from the new book world for? Not really. Welcome to my learning curve.

Slowly I am realising I don’t actually want to read every single one of the hundreds of unread books I own, though I feel like saying it quietly in case they hear me. It is not that they have no value. It is just that I am realising the value they have to me, and to who I am, lessened over the years I carted them around.

Now what I value is freshness and space, clarity and time. A load of books is not proof of personality or taste and nor should it be. If an object is in my home, I should get joy from touching it and seeing it, not a vague sense of guilt and overwhelm.

There are only so many rainy days I will have in my life.

This is why from now in on How to Cure a Bibliomaniac that for each letter I do as the second half of the alphabet approaches – if I pick one book above the rest, with the internet as my witness, I will get rid of the others if I’m not serious about reading them.

And I’m not going to keep this book either.

This post was inspired by The Minimalists.

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 10: Sixty Lights (Gail Jones, 2004)

Books remaining: 16. Weeks left to read them: 30 (it’s going to be fine)

A voice in the dark: “Lucy?” 

It was a humid-sounding whisper. She wanted this, this muffled gentleness, swathed in sheets measured and moistened by the heated conjoining of their bodies. This tropic of the bed. This condensation of herself into the folds of a marriage. The late night air was completely still. Insects struck at the mosquito net, which fell, silver and conical, like a bridal garment around them. Lucy watched a pale spotted moth sail slowly towards her face, land on the net, deposit its powder, and lift unevenly away, It was waving like a tiny baby hand in the darkness. 

sixty lights

Jones is a lecturer in literature, cinema and cultural studies at the University of WA and, for several such units, my lecturer. She was a brilliant one, whose disarming combination of fearsome intelligence and a musical, childlike speaking voice made you want to listen forever. Her knowledge was so complex, so clever, and so beautifully phrased that it excited but did not surprise me to discover she was a novelist.

There’s no way you’re going to read one of her books and not feel like you’re studying something, frankly, so if you’re catering for the average book club, turn back now.

I’ve been carrying around three of her novels – Black Mirror, Sorry and Sixty Lights – for the better part of 10 years now, so it was time to get real.

This is the story of Lucy and her brother, orphaned in Australia as children and taken to Victorian England to grow up under their uncle’s wing. Lucy becomes a photographer and though the novel is outwardly the story of a young woman and her family, it is most essentially a portrait of the world as seen through the eyes of someone like Lucy, who experiences life as a succession of images, frozen in time.

It is not a Difficult Book. It is not lofty or dense. It is peppered with plain phrases and glints of humour that rescue it from the sometimes otherworldly loveliness of its prose.

Lucy felt exulted to be once again on the water. The world before her was like blown glass; some fluid shape expanding, sphere-wise and breathful, into a glistening new form, some sense of the weird plausibility of transmogrification. The wind was high and the broad boat rocked and tossed. Lucy saw Isaac seize the railing and vomit into the heaving ocean. She turned her face into full sunshine and full wind, held on to her bonnet, and smiled.

Lucy turns out strange enough to want to be a photographer, at a time when the closest most women of her station get is working in a factory making photographic paper.

Lucy is naughty enough to get herself pregnant out of wedlock, and curious enough to seek out new experiences that others try to discourage her from having, just so she can observe the results.

Later, when in secret Lucy had persuaded Bashanti to bring her a sample of pan, she sat chewing the tough leaves and attending to the pan-effects. Her mouth burnt, tingled, was becoming numb, and began to fill up with curious liquids. She spat onto the floor and saw before her a small mound of gleaming brownish muck.

There emerges a welcome lovableness to Lucy. I do not believe all heroes or heroines should be lovable; but by golly, in this case it helps.

But the real story is not about what happens to Lucy so much as it is about her inner life – what she sees, and how she sees it. It is above all a loving, minute appreciation of the art and mechanics of photography, a meditation on the magic of the act of recording an image. It celebrates the value of pictures, even more powerfully when the reader inhabits a world in which photographs are so commonplace and overwhelmingly digitised they have all but lost their value and their meaning.

The tale is finely crafted, undoubtedly beautiful and very readable. It was on the 2005 Miles Franklin Award shortlist and the 2004 Man Booker longlist, and deservedly so. But somehow none of this is enough to make me want to press it upon others, declaring they will love it. I am conflicted about saying I didn’t enjoy it – to say so feels like sacrilege, when I have such admiration for the writer, the writing and the achievement – but I can’t see myself rushing to pick up the next one.

Canonise or cast out? Perhaps it is just that my tastes have changed. You can’t get hung up on this kind of thing. I will clear this little shrine to the incredibly impressive Jones off my shelf and move on with life, or at least, to the letter K.

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac project here.

 

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 7: Anansi Boys (Neil Gaiman, 2005)

Books remaining: 19. Weeks left in which to read them: 37 (bad). 

Anansi Boys cover

Annoyingly water-damaged, pretty book.

There wasn’t much to choose from for G – my only other unread (ha! typo undead) options were Peter Goldsworthy’s Everything I Knew – worthy, but meh – Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach, which looked cool but was so skinny it felt like cheating, and Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. This came a close second but seemed a little dark for how I was feeling so I went with the reliably brilliant, AND happy, Neil Gaiman.

He authored American Gods and Neverwhere, both great, though I liked American Gods best. This, another Gods-themed novel, is blurbed (now a word):

Anansi Gods - blurb

Can’t go wrong, see?

After the endless, though awesome, wrenching of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close I needed something just lovely, and the logic seemed sound that something this big, bright and blue would have to be.

I feel as though I can’t be the first to compare Neil Gaiman to Terry Pratchett, though I scarcely dare to. For those of you who have lived under a rock for their entire lives, Terry Pratchett is author of the Discworld fantasy-humour series, and several others just as brilliant, and he is adored worldwide.

Anyway, a little scared to make the comparison, as feel that whole internet will crash accusatorily Ialso now a word) down upon my head, breathing fire and shouting that I am wrong or, alternatively, that everyone already knew this. Well, I will resist the urge to Google it before I publish and just bravely sally forth with my likening. It’s just the sheer gladness of it, the inventiveness, big-thinking plot twists in almost-real worlds, flashing and ready humour tempered by plenty of warmth.

The story of all the mad things that happen to Charlie is anchored by the narrative running underneath, in which he is slowly uncovering a long-squashed sense of self-worth. As inevitably (and quite rightly) happens with stories about uncovering self-worth, he also finds out who he really loves in life, and who loves him.

This is a lighthearted read with a kernel of seriousness at its heart. It’s quotable and causes numerous giggles of the out-loud variety. I doubt Neil Gaiman can do any wrong; at least, he certainly hasn’t here. This is the sort of book that’s too good NOT to pass on to a friend immediately after reading, secure in the knowledge that you have done them a service.

I’m going to pass this on, mainly because it got water-damaged in a rain storm just as I started reading it (you can see in the picture) and I just can’t stand water-damage. Also, he recently wrote another novel that has caught my fancy, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and I’d like to make room for that, should someone Just Happen To Buy it For Me.

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac project here.

 

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 6: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safran Foer, 2005)

Books remaining: 20. Weeks remaining to read them: 40 (argh! Get a move on, lassie. Actually, I blame Umberto Eco). 

“Hilarious!” he said. “It is! I never heard from her again! Oh, well! So many people enter and leave your life! Hundreds of thousands of people! You have to leave the door open so they can come in! But it also means you have to let them go!”

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer (COVER)

Oskar’s Dad, Thomas, died in one of the Twin Towers on 9/11.

Nearly two years later, Oskar, his mum and his grandma are trying to work out how to live without Thomas.

Oskar finds that his dad left behind a mystery. And he decides he must solve it, no matter how long that might take.

 

 

From a giant, lovely tangle of words emerges the inner world of Oskar, one of the best-rendered children I have come across in a work of literature. I’m reminded of Arundhati Roy’s classic The God of Small Things, Michael Cunningham’s Flesh and Blood and, more recently, Emma Donoghue’s Room.

Oscar's business card.

Hire this boy.

 

But Oskar is very much his own self, and is quite capable of standing alone, as his business card attests.

 

 

 

 

 

Oskar meets many people on his quest, which takes him across the whole of New York. He sees and hears the private stories of these people’s own losses, obsessions and inexplicable commitments.

My boots were so heavy I was glad there was a column underneath us. How could such a lonely person have been living so close to me my whole life? If I had known, I would have gone up to keep him company. Or I would have made some jewelry for him. Or told him hilarious jokes. Or given him a private tambourine concert. 

It made me start to wonder whether there were other people so lonely so close. I thought about “Eleanor Rigby”. It’s true, where do they all come from? And where do they all belong?

Safran uses special effects: illustration, some inventive punctuation and conversational styles, and other visual devices that rather defy description. But none of it feels contrived, pretentious or pointless. It feels like I am getting a closer look into Oskar’s world and the way he processes information. And the way he processes loss.

Because above all, this is a story about grief – grief, and the guilt that slinks in alongside it. It is about the people left behind, trying to make a new space for loves that will last forever, but that have changed into something invisible. It is about how we try to hold on and how we have to let go.

“Looking for it let me stay close to him for a little while longer.” “But won’t you always be close to him?” I knew the truth. “No.”

This book is 341 pages long. By 305 I was weeping like a baby. I kept it up until the last page, and then for a few more minutes after that. Any book that makes that happen, and still not get called depressing, is special. This book is a heady jumble of ideas, it is funny and illuminating. It charms and puzzles and delights.
I felt as though it understood me and helped me understand myself. It will make your eyes hot and your throat tight. It will remind you of everyone you ever lost. But it’s worth it.

Keep or not? I’ll keep it for the moment, but only so that I can give it to someone who is interested.

Postscript: The Ministry and I tried to watch the film of this a year or two ago. We found it disappointingly mediocre and turned it off after half an hour. I might have another burl at it now, though, not because I think I’ll like it better, but it’s fun watching stories you’ve read come to life, even if they don’t do it the way you wanted.

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac project here.

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 4: Grace (Robert Drewe, 2005)

Grace, by Robert Drewe

Grace, by Robert Drewe

Books read: 4/26. Weeks remaining: 47

I got this one lining my nest because Robert Drewe’s The Shark Net was a classic that everybody except me, it seemed, had read. True to bibliomaniac form, I got them both, and still haven’t read the The Shark Net.

In my defence, I also love good Australian literary fiction, which I thought this was bound to be, and I love crime thrillers, and was tantalised by the idea of a book straddling these genres.

So that’s why I have it, but clearly it all wasn’t enough to make me actually read it. All these years later I was drawn to it over the other “D” potentials (the shortlist having comprised Don DeLillo, Philip K. Dick and Daphne du Maurier) because it was set in the Kimberley region of WA. Having just spent my honeymoon in the region, this is the closest I can get – at present – to going back there.

The tale is of 29-year-old Grace, named for her archaeologist father’s famous discovery of a gracile skeleton in the Kimberley desert before her birth. Grace is a film reviewer in Sydney, but when a stalker tears apart her relationship, her job and finally threatens her safety, she flees to the remote Kimberley and becomes a crocodile park worker and nature tour conductor.

Her life, as she slowly learns to appreciate it afresh, is once again complicated, this time by the appearance of a refugee. Police failed to round him up after a cyclone facilitated a mass regional detention centre breakout, and he is nearly out of strength from wandering in the outback.

The two try to help each other as the authorities – and Grace’s stalker – close in.

With my lit-fic-crime-thriller comes a healthy and interesting, if unexpected, dose of subjects including beach worms, archaeology, anthropology, history, crocodiles, Aboriginal rituals surrounding the dead, refugee politics, erotomania and film theory. It was clear the author possesses the wide knowledge born of boundless curiosity (and undoubtedly, meticulous research). But it is not immediately clear what the connection between all of these concepts is.

At least part of an answer hits me, though, after an exchange between Grace and her fugitive friend.

“… there were schools of prehistoric fish swimming right where we are now.”

“I would rather hear about crocodiles.”

“ ‘The crocodile kills hungry. It also kills not hungry.’ That’s an Aboriginal saying.”

“It will attack you whether it’s hungry or not?”

“If it’s in the mood. If it’s hungry, of course. If it’s not hungry it might kill you anyway and store you in its larder for later. Or kill you just because it feels like it, because you’re in its territory. Maybe it’s nesting. There’s a famous one that attacks outboard motors – tries to chew them up. It thinks their noise is the courtship bellowing of another male.”

“What else?”

“They like to kill each other, too. The big ones like to eat the smaller ones; the females like to kill the other females – they’re very intolerant animals.”

This is a story of the hunted. Although, in a place like the Kimberley, Grace and the nameless refugee are surrounded by natural predators, they run from their own kind. Even the gracile skeleton for which Grace was named bears the marks of an inexplicably violent burial ritual.

Grace takes tourists on a walk to see turtles laying eggs and, maddened by goannas preying on the vulnerable eggs, the group beats a goanna to death.

In this climate the nights were far busier and more bloodthirsty than the days. Every morning showed evidence of tiny murders. The scuffle marks, the pile of chest feathers, the ball of bloodstained fluff.

After the constant sense of imminent terror Drewe builds, the end, when it comes, is a surprise and a relief.

This novel is confidently written, periodically funny, and seemingly effortless in its style and poise. I am remotivated to read The Shark Net. So I’m calling that success.

Keep or let go? If you love it, let it go. Must practise this. Grace will be a good read for whoever picks it up off that bus stop bench.

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac project here

Man Stroke Woman (2005)

British comedy sketch show is more or less it.

But I like this! Is good! Stars, among other most excellently comedic people, Nick Frost, the guy who was in Shaun of the Dead (among other things).

And just ridiculous enough to please those of a slightly sadistic bent who like things like Shaun of the Dead, The IT Crowd, or Black Books.

Disclaimer: So far, I’ve only watched the first episode.