15 December 2016

A perpetual-enjoyment collection: 400 Boys and 50 More, by Marc Laidlaw

Though they’re rarer than postage stamps who whistle, you might know a writer, and wish to give that creature a present as where-have-you-been-all-my-life loved, once tasted, as a perpetual-chew toy. Or you might know a reader who craves collections large enough to indulge all through the nights. If you’re really lucky, those rarities combine to be you. If so, there’s a way you can treat yourself without breaking your virtual pocketbook, and do it the instant-gratification way. In fact, I urge you to discover this most exciting collection--one that could have been in hiding, so little has it been noticed.

I hate that 400 Boys and 50 More: Short Stories by Marc Laidlaw is not in the type of edition it deserves--an Everyman’s Library Collected Stories--even though in this case, it would be Some Collected Stories, and still be as thick and heavy as a corned beef with all the fat trimmed off before it’s sold.

“Well over a quarter of a million words, written over approximately 40 years” this truly is 50+ stories, each one carefully chosen (and not all previously published). Laidlaw has lightly spiced and larded the sections, describing each stage of his journey as a writer. Normally I'd prefer my head to be slowly ripped off than read ‘a writer’s life’ stuff. But here it's a treat, especially when he fails to brag when he could have, and instead, let you in on his greatest ambition at one stage: sleep. So modest, you'll want him to have revealed more. Funny and inspiring, including his lesson in how to be disreputable (typically, he doesn't admit to his success). But these bits are just a small part of this collection. The meat is top-of-the-line stuff that first appeared in Omni (a you-gotta-read: "The Diane Arbus Suicide Portfolio"), The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (ditto: "The Ghost Penny Post" pub'd by MFSF in 2016), Nightmare Magazine, Rudy Rucker's Flurb, Subterranean Press Magazine, and some of the most lauded Ellen Datlow anthologies. Pinnacle publications and editors.

But who cares about history? The question is: Do the stories work now? And how! The thing I like best about Laidlaw won’t fit into one 'is'. 1) He’s a wet dishcloth to his stories. They rule. So whatever voice the story is, it most assuredly is. If that philosophy was good enough for Hans Andersen, I reckon it’s good enough for any writer. Certainly this reader loves it in a collection, as it makes each story a new find. 2) Whether the tone is baroque or contemporary, the tale *moves*. Though the stories aren’t shallow by any means, they are stories that professional storytellers could have waxed fat on.  3) Laidlaw's horror hasn't a whiff of falseness. It's real and deep and sophisticated and thoughtful as philosophers in hell. One example is his brilliant "The Boy Who Followed Lovecraft", which should be in many anthologies. 4) When Laidlaw's stories are funny, the humour is gloriously under the top. He does deadpan so well ("Mars Will Have Blood", "Pokky Man"!), I can hear the ghost of Jack Benny applauding. But don’t worry, anyone born ten minutes ago. Laidlaw should appeal to old, young, and immature enough to enjoy anything marked 'for adults'. And oh. did I mention that many of the stories' titles are treats in themselves? Get the book and see what I mean. And if you think as I do, then cry out as I have been for a while, for an omnibus collection of his Gorlen and Spar stories, my favourite contemporary high-fantasy characters and tales. They’d make a terrific movie series, too.

04 November 2016

The wake-up kiss for the incurious: Exploring tidal waters on Australia's temperate coast

Every year, millions of people stand on rocky shores gaze out to sea like sleepwalkers, looking for whales while at their feet, literally, unexplored worlds teem.

So you’re going to the beach. If you haven’t packed this essential, you are going to miss so much. If kids are coming too, this book can make your trip a life-changer for you and for them.
 Exploring tidal waters on Australia's temperate coast
by Phil Colman and Peter Mitchell

I’ll say right off: I consider this a model of a guidebook in any field, and this one encompasses so many.

In many ways, it’s written as if two children never grew up enough to get boring and well-behaved.

Although it's a superb identifying aid for anyone who's ever been challenged as to who's the real alien when you look coastal oddities in their, uh, eyes? this book would make an irresistible nag if you think you live too far away (say Broken Hill, NSW; Irkutsk, Siberia; New York City) or think zombies are more interesting than the truly freaky tidal world. Although this book’s title speaks specifically of “Australia’s temperate coast”, it is not stuck in one geographical place.

I’m prejudiced about this book. I first found it at my local library, and within a half hour, realised that it had answered so many questions about things I’ve seen and had never been able to identify or understand. I had to tell the authors. So I tracked down the guy whose concept it originally was--Phil Colman--to tell him how great this unassuming masterpiece really is. Subsequently, I was lucky enough to meet Phil Colman and spend a couple of hours with him as guide, exploring tidepools on Long Reef, his stamping ground in Sydney. Two of the best hours of my life, with one of my favourite people anywhere. I can’t remember ever saying so many incoherent one-word sentences that ended in multiple exclamation marks. He is so gracefully knowledgable, proving that there is no reason a brilliant expert can’t communicate in ways any dumbo with curiosity and a will to learn can understand and thrill to.

Onwards to the Book—

Relationships are discussed in awesomely voyeuristic detail.

About Neptune’s necklace Hormosira banksii, “a brown algae (it actually looks green) . . . Each front looks like a row of beads about 12 to 15mm in diameter. On the surface of each bead you may see little yellow spots that mark the egg and sperm chambers. As you walk on them the vesicles split open with a popping noise and you may be surprised to find that they are not filled with air, but with water that keeps them alive whilst exposed at low tide.”

The common bluebottle that when dried on the beach, pops under a foot like an exploding paper bag, gets a writeup that includes: “The bluebottle is not a single animal but a whole complex of individual zooids. The individuals cannot exist alone, only as the superorganism…The whole animal is a hermaphrodite, but produces males, which remain attached, and minute females, which float off and eventually produce another bluebottle by a process of budding.”

Scientific theories are examined with the same delightful unwillingness to just look away. About one theory that is great in theory, “many ecologists now think that the concept is too fuzzy to be of practical use. Oh, well, back to the drawing board and try again.”

Phil Colman is a scientist who’s specialised in insects, seashells, and other specialties one can add an -ist to, for international museums. He calls himself a naturalist, and when he isn’t guiding, teaching, or trying to save coastal environments, is luxuriating, picking off leeches, etc., in the wilds of New Caledonia. Do read his Saving the Reef (by navigating Government)! He writes that he’s “been taking people to look at life on coastal shore platforms at low tide for more than 40 years” Questions people asked made him see the need for “a simple book … written in plain English”.

Because Colman wanted to describe not just what things are, but how they live and relate to not just each other, but the places they live, the authorship became not one but two, as “’I’ became ‘we’ when a colleague came in to help me out with aspects such as geology, or which I profess to know little.” In Peter Mitchell, geologist, academic, environmental consultant who says with typical modesty, he “doesn’t know who he is anymore” and that “in the third half of his life he spends time trying to correct the environmental mistakes he contributed along the way”, this book got the perfect co-author. Read more about them and their creation in this Pittwater Online story

The original concept enlarged and enriched itself quite naturally, and the result should be a classic, so much does it say with so much fun and wit, in a book that you really can carry as a companion. Modestly titled and only 122 pages long, it is extraordinary in its ability to answer so many questions.

Winner of the Royal Zoological Society of NSW Whitley Award in 2013, Exploring tidal waters should have won some international award because its scope is global and its communication quality outstanding.

As I think Peter Mitchell writes in “The Water environment” chapter (though the writing of the two co-authors is seamless) “Waves travel in great circle routes round the world unaffected by the Coriolis ‘force’ and they only change direction when they ‘feel bottom’ near the shore.”

It is an instant reference for a myriad of “what is it” questions as well as taking anyone and everyone down avenues of weirdness it takes an unhinged imagination to imagine they exist. It is also one of those books that will not exhaust itself, but only stir further interest. Even compared to the classic I’ve written about before, the huge heavy, Isobel Bennnett’s brilliant Australian Seashores: adapted from W.J. Dakin’s Australian seashores, a book I love, this little book is actually more useful. The photographs, many of which are by Peter Mitchell, are superb. Combined with the succinct explanations, this makes the book the best I’ve seen for searching something you’ve seen and coming up with a “That’s it!”

The design is for maximum usefulness, as are the glossary, index, and generous resources listing. The book is even bound right. Shove it in your pack, and you can be sure its pages won’t fall out.

And in every sense, the information is inviting instead of intimidating.

a chapter title

And possibly best of all, this is all done with no dumbing down. Children especially, deserve better.

In the chapter “Jargon”, for instance. “Scientific names may be a bit daunting but they are better than common names that are sometimes only used locally and are certainly not standardised. For example, a common bivalve used as a fishing bait along our NSW shores is known as a pipi (also pippi). This just happens to be a Maori word that applies to three different bivalve genera in New Zealand…In South Australia the same shellfish is called a Goolwa cockle, while in Queensland it is sometimes known by an Aboriginal name, ugari (also eugari or yugari). But any scientist in Sydney, Tierra del Fuego, or London can avoid this confusion because everywhere in the world it is Donax deltoides as there is only one such species. Try to get used to scientific names. Four-year-olds have no trouble with Tyrannosaurus rex.”

I’ll leave it to children of all ages to discover what this book says about “solar powered dragons”.

Every library in Australia should have this in stock, so tell your library.

And you should have your own, to put sticky notes on, date that you saw, identify, think…

Get it and give it. It will help answer your questions as well as drive you crazy to solve more. And it is the perfect waking kiss to those whose curiosities are asleep.

 with Phil Colman as my guide, I 'discovered' this beauty.
With Exploring tidal waters on Australia's temperate coast, by Phil Colman and Peter Mitchell, 
I learned, and you can learn too, who this is.

Get yours from the CSIRO bookshop


get yourself on a Guided Reef Walk where Phil Colman himself might be your guide, and buy your copy then.


05 September 2016

Kaaron Warren's The Grief Hole is for all of us bloodsuckers

“I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.”

Theresa thought she was beyond horror at human behaviour. She’d been submerged in it, surrounded by it, and risen above it, day by day, in her job. The contrast of THEM making her feel like a better person.
The Grief Hole

“Everyone’s a parasite”

-- Aunt Prudence in The Grief Hole

A band of angels couldn’t have conspired better to launch Kaaron Warren’s newest novel, The Grief Hole, upon the world at this theres-no- better time. 

This novel could have been so many things--a simplistic Avenger ripper, a Walmart-baroque peepshow into sadism and misogyny such as Game of Thrones, an unreadably dense but otherwise deeply thoughtful exploration of evil and do-gooding Nobel Prize for Literature winner.
But it is none and yet, all of these in parts.

The Grief Hole is, firstly, such a gripping and suspenseful read that its depths are only seen when looking back, for looking back is something your mind will do, regardless of your command. This page-turner does what literature should, explore without constrictions the unfathomed, the unseemly, and the avoided-at-all-cost—doing all this with no affectation in the telling, thereby making the impacts on anyone exposed to The Grief Hole unavoidable and irredeemable.

And as for the beauty of suffering, the artpieces intentional and otherwise, of unnatural death—the nuances of good and evil in this novel shine like the rainbow on rotting meat. The contrasts between people Prudence calls ‘monsters’ refuse to keep their clarity, undermining the very nature of ‘good’, though not with any of the usual faux-nihilism tosh. Both Theresa and the beloved international singing star Sol Evictus in The Grief Hole have much in common with Octave Mirbeau’s Clara in The Torture Garden (Le Jardin des Supplices) whose passion is, not a box seat at the Opera, but strolling participation at staged displays of exquisitely refined torture. 

Warren has a particular skill with characters, so lightly sketched they could be pencil-drawn instead of oil. Explicit three-dimensionality expressed in a simple line. Family members, the one true love, hired muscles, The Lacemaker, dogs, and of course, a host of ghosts. My favourite in this novel is the wise fool, Aunt Prudence. This isn’t the only work of Warren’s in which an aunt is a standout who I hope to meet again. Aunt Beryl (who, like Prudence, has astounding toenails) in Warren's short story Bridge of Fools is as outstanding as any aunt drawn by those other aunt-employers, Wodehouse and Saki.

The story itself is both fast-moving and, far from pitching us twists and horrors like fish to seals, seems to grow as organically as bread mould. The only aspect that I felt possibly contrived was the age of Theresa, who I reckon would be about 5 years older to have her experience in social work. However, I could be wrong. Perhaps what it took for her, was just that level of experience and naiveté. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the read, though as the saying goes, maybe ‘enjoy’ isn’t quite the word, especially about that all-too-visceral hole. One last terrific part, however, is a hint in the thrilling ending. It isn’t an ending at all. Prudence is incorrigible, and Theresa didn’t have to think twice to answer her own question, “Is that what I want?”

A rare book, this. I hope it flies out beyond genres and one language, to take its rightful, deeply unsettling place, in all good souls monsters and parasites.


The Grief Hole by Kaaron Warren
Cover & internal artwork by Keely Van Order
Published by IFWG Publishing Australia
GET IT.   

24 August 2016

Steve Aylett: A Critical Anthology -- What a surprise. These critical essays fail to turn you off the author.

Steve Aylett: A Critical Anthology is nothing short of an addict’s value-added fix. Usually critical essays make me feel sorry for the author, since critical essays tend to be like that bitter stuff put on a committed thumb-sucker’s digit.  But this exceptional collection made me want to reread and find more Aylett stuff, and it enhances with new insights, intriguing conundrums that even he can’t solve—and does all this with such wit and creativity that this critical anthology is a disgraceful disturbance to the calm, congealed status quo of critical works.
 edited by Bill Ectric and D. Harlan Wilson
published by Sein und Werden

The essayists, each marvelous writers in their own right, probably couldn’t write the kind of essays Aylett skewers in his unspelled-out And Your Point Is? Scorn and Meaning in Jeff Lint’s Fiction.

Steve Aylett: A Critical Anthology, though no hagiography, is written by people who not only appreciate Aylett as much as I do but are also SA evangelicals.

“If he could just stop the Tourett’s flood of original ideas, dilute the language so the reader only had to pause and shake the head in admiration every paragraph or so rather than every other line, this man could be a sales phenomenon, could be a franchise.... Read the book, first to yourself, then, unavoidably, aloud to friends until they’re sick of you.”
— Alan Moore, from his “Introduction to Fain the Sorcerer

There are many mind-scouring (often explosively funny) quotes from Aylett’s works and the man himself; and from Rachel Haywire, there’s a new interview. All the pieces, for the most part, speak in understandable tongues. ‘Diegetic’ was used only 5 times, four, in an extraordinary (tongue-in cheek?) work of scholarship by Iain Matheson; and Derrida barely gets a look-in. These essays, often with titles way too interesting for serious journals, are a mix of preoccupations and questions posed and plumbed, one of which is plot.

But plot, as Jim Matthews says, misses the point. He writes: “I’ll invite and deserve a lot of flak if I don’t at least briefly state that Aylett’s work goes a lot deeper than just first effects, and often no distinction can be made. The satirical element of his work is strung throughout like hi-tensile electric fence-wire and is, for him, paramount. He says, ‘People have lost touch with what real satire is...’ ”

They sure have. “[Shaun Micallef] refuses to spell out exactly what it means. The best satires ... are always very diligent in explaining their jokes.” — Ben Pobjie, “I blame Shaun Micallef for the horror of Australian politics", Sydney Morning Herald, July 7, 2016

Now, that is imo, a perfect piece of satire, showing why today’s true satirists are rare as standup comedians who don’t laugh at their jokes. But satire is always rooted in tragedy—so because Aylett is the real thing and is tragically, nowhere near as famous as he should be, and because his novel Lint should be always in print in say, a “Popular Penguin” edition but so far, isn’t — I hazarded trying this book.

The discussions of satire here—what it is, what Aylett thinks it is, great satirists, in the opinions of these essayists and Aylett himself—are both fascinating and desperately needed. I loved Andrew Wenaus’ “Satire, Anxiety, and Prospect in The Caterer” partly because I agree with Spencer Pate in thinking Aylett’s masterpieces to be Lint and And Your Point Is?, and I would add The Caterer comic.

Some other topics bemused me because I don’t understand them, though they are of great importance to so many readers, critics and editors. I don’t get speed at all. Okay, if it’s not Elmore Leonard or a Mac, isn’t one person’s fast consumable another’s slow, and why does speed matter unless something’s so slow that it’s fast because you can’t read it at all, like I can’t José Saramago’s suffocating single-paragraph novels? But speed obviously matters, since “It’s a fast read” is considered a plus in a review, while ‘fast food’ is its own damnation. So Robert Kiely’s statement “[Aylett’s] prose is uncompromisingly fast” in his essay “Speed, Originality and Déjà vu in Bigot Hall” reminded me of how even the most definitive statement in a critical essay is, undressed, a human POV. I find Aylett a slow read, which is why I enjoy him so much. He’s got so much on every page that to read it fast is to skim. I find Dr. Seuss a slow read too, and Joseph S. Pulver Sr., and Nesbit and Wodehouse, and Rikki Ducornet. They’re all slow reads because I love to loiter on the page. But Kiely’s essay, like this whole contrarian collection, sucked me in. It is both insightful and deeply thought out. Also, as with many of these essays, it introduced me to other authors and works I can’t wait to explore.

A wonderful conundrum asked and unsolved in this volume could be summed up by the statement “I know not what I do, unless I do and I don’t know”. Does Aylett mean to say what he does all the time, does he know what he means—and when is he taking the piss out of, uh, who? This mystery was great fun to read, and it certainly doesn’t seem as if Aylett is, like Dylan Thomas, famously laughing at us finding meaning when there isn’t. It’s good to know, when this reader isn’t sure, that he might not be either. Or maybe he was, and forgot. There’s so much in that head.

You will not only find gems you mightn't find for yourself in Aylett's works, but many other treasures--other authors' works, musicians' (Spencer Pate's "The Wonderful and Frightening Worlds of Mark E. Smith and Steve Aylett" is a personal favourite), and running back to Aylett, background, underpinnings, motivations, nuances. The essays themselves also give such vicarious pleasure as they transmit their joy in discovery. You will also find that spirit of mentorship/admiration/camaraderie/almost a salon, that is in the best spirit of brilliant creatives inspiring/encouraging each other instead of seeing each other as competitors. And I’ve left the editors and essayists Bill Ectric and D. Harlan Wilson to last. I particularly liked Bill Ectric’s lovely description of exploring Aylett’s treasures. He is one of those modest people who has so much under the surface, yet doesn’t let on about his erudition. This book is, I think, primarily his brainchild, but he and Wilson must have complemented each other to produce such a fine, and subversive outcome. 

Far from putting you off an author, this book of critical essays does what they all should—Enhance, entrance, intrigue, and make you want to get your mitts on, at the very least, every work by the unique Steve Aylett.

Heart of the Original by Steve AylettNote: Looking back, I noticed that I’ve written more posts about Aylett on this blog than I have about any other exceptional, even the quince. So if you haven’t tried Aylett, try these for starters:

Immerse yourself.

    04 August 2016

    Donald Trump Wall

    “We cannot put aside our memories of the day when 50 per cent of the people had a ‘favorable opinion’ of this bully and fraud and another 21 per cent had ‘no opinion’ of him... McCarthy offered a powerful challenge to freedom, and he showed us to be more vulnerable than many of us had guessed to a seditious demagogy—as well as less vulnerable than some of us had feared....

    “In the mirror, McCarthy must have seen and recognized a fraud...He lied with poise and spontaneity...No man was ever quicker than this super-Munchausen to call another a liar, generally with amplifying adjectives...If history had been cooperative—continuing or increasing the tensions and anxieties and misconceptions on which he thrived—changes in the country’s temper might have come to pass that would have made possible a successful bid for power. The truth is that lack of experience makes it difficult for us to judge the possibilities of a national demagogue.”
    — Richard H. Rovere, Senator Joe McCarthy, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1959 

    The pictures are by me, and posted here for Creative Commons use.