2012 books

10) Susanna Tamaro, Answer Me, 2001
A worthwhile collection that explores that heavily populated border between Catholicism and atheism. There is something precarious about all the characters in these three novelettes, raised on religion yet finding themselves in long-term situations where religious faith does not help: in 'Hell Does Not Exist', easily the best story, an abused wife attempts to protect her young son from his violent father, and yet as a teenager the son becomes the cause of personal devastation. In 'Answer Me' an orphaned girl with a troubled past searches for signs that she is loved while cultivating an inner hardness that allows her to carry on, and in 'The Burning Forest' a widower gives an account of the unravelling of his marriage while seeking the forgiveness of his estranged daughter. I was rather taken with these stories, or rather the Stygian voice with which Tamaro relates them. They were certainly not comfortable reads – I expect for people with faith they would be even less so – and their quiet power is both startling and a little disturbing. This is fiction that doesn't shout its atheism, just quietly points out how Christianity can indeed be either an unhelpful distraction when dealing with some life's major problems, or even the cause of them. A dark book, and necessarily so.

2012 books

9) Roberto Bolaño, Antwerp, 2002
Antwerp is a difficult novel to summarise, given that it’s a formative work in Bolaño’s oeuvre and one that possibly bears more relation to his poetry than his later fiction. These are fifty-six vignettes that function in part like snatches of half-remembered films, concerning a possible murder on a campsite in Spain. But just who has been murdered, and is the killer perhaps a reflection of the author himself? This is not the familiar Bolaño of the long, discursive sentences that became a style he settled into and made his own; instead Antwerp possesses a different form of intensity, perhaps showing the uncertainty of a writer in the act of setting things down in order to first find his own voice to make it stand out, or at least aside, from the influences of those he was reading at the time (among them, Norman Spinrad and James Tiptree, Jr.). Having said that, Bolaño once proclaimed this is the only novel he was not embarrassed about, which hints more at the integrity of the prosaic form he chose to use than the lack of clarity given to a reader: in 1980 it was written without any expectation of publication, but today it gives us a compact insight into the set of themes that Bolaño continued to use throughout his life. Disconnected sentences shoot past you like bullets, and the reader has to almost rearrange, Burroughs-like, what he or she is told and make of it what he or she can. Antwerp is still a self-conscious book for all its merits, but in this brief work it’s easy to discern the writer Bolaño would become in the years ahead: still manically driven at the fringes of literature, but also a far more relaxed and eloquent performer in the act of getting his message across.

2012 books

8) Tony Parsons, Departures, 2011
In August 2011 Tony Parsons became writer-in-residence at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, and these seven interlinked short stories are the result of that fruitful week. Having been connected with Heathrow for most of my professional life I thought this collection might be a bit of an unrewarding ‘busman’s holiday’, but it’s the details of the working lives of other Heathrow mavens that really caught my eye, and for readers unconnected with Heathrow other than when just passing through these stories will probably be even more eye-opening: the mysterious green plane near the perimeter, the bird-scarers, the relentless attempts of small-time criminals to evade border control, the stressful lives of travelling animals, the remote coolness of the air traffic controllers, the pull of the sky and the amazement that can come from thinking too much about modern aviation. I had a problem with the feasability of the first story in this small collection but in truth that’s a minor cavil; Parsons’s characterisation is good (particularly the seen-it-all humanity of his Border Agency immigration officer Jaswinder Smith) and this successful collection is going on my shelf for keeps. Nice one, Tony.

1980s SF film

Galaxy of Terror, 1981, USA   DIRECTED BY BRUCE D. CLARK
Slightly derivative of both Alien and Forbidden Planet, Galaxy of Terror deservedly bombed at the box office but has since gained a big cult following mostly because of that ubiquitous B-movie producer's credit, "Roger Corman". The story is familiar enough: the crew of a spaceship investigate a mysterious pyramid on a distant planet and come face-to-face with their own monsters from the Id. How they are picked off is predictable enough, with the possible exception of one crew member whose biggest fear is rape, and who gets tangled up rather unpleasantly with a giant worm. This was a scene that, in a rather sick twist, Corman had privately promised his financial backers; the director and actress refused to shoot it so Corman shot it himself with a body double, and the censors then insisted on making cuts (the entire scene is, apparently, lost). It's still the scene you remember from an otherwise unremarkable movie; everything looks like Aliens (but then that's possibly because James Cameron was the production designer), the monster effects look good despite not being the least bit scary, and the compulsory gore and dismemberment scenes look just a bit too plastic. Plus, it's mostly the annoying, garish and entirely synthesised soundtrack that gives away this movie as being a product of the 1980s. I wish I could say "they don't make 'em like this any more", but unfortunately they do.

2012 books

7) Kurt Vonnegut, Look at the Birdie, 2009
Fourteen previously unpublished short stories, all enjoyable at the very least, although it would have been useful to know from what stages of Vonnegut's career each of them were written – were they all recent, or do some perhaps date back decades? Then there's the genre question: there's roughly a 50/50 genre/mainstream split, with the more imaginative and fantastical stories not necessarily being the best, although the opening story 'Confido' sets a superior quality mark that those following don't always match. The collection is prefaced with Vonnegut's 1951 letter to Miller Harris, in which he states his creative position as a writer since quitting his job at General Electric in 1951; it's an odd way to open a collection such as this as the stories, with a few exceptions, rarely stand out as boldly imaginative. And Vonnegut's satirical purpose is not always present either, with stories such as 'The Honor of a Newsboy', 'Ed Luby's Key Club' and the charmingly sweet 'A Song for Selma' being as sentimental about 'the ordinary little guy' as Vonnegut probably ever got. For a sharper tone of storytelling the best here is probably 'Little Drops of Water' about a spurned lover's attempts to get back her man, and the most satirical is the clever 'The Petrified Ants', which takes a jaundiced view of the Soviet approach to making an amazing scientific discovery. It provides the best laugh-out-loud moment and this collection, admirable as it is, could probably have done with a few more of those.

Lives of photographs #108, 109

grace   walk with me

After a couple of lean months with no photo sales, April saw Getty Images selling these two photos, the first of the glass facade of a New York skyscraper to the Spanish branch of Interbrand (probably the world's biggest marketing company), and the second of two men walking across a field in Harare, Zimbabwe (a zoom shot from my hotel room window) to On Track Visual Communication, another marketing company somewhere in Illinois. Both 'Royalty Free' shots and no indication what either will be used for, but because of these sales May was a good month for a little extra cash, all going towards Miles's school fees.

Lives of photographs #100.1

the very hungry caterpillar

More Tumblr: looking at my Flickr stats just now I see that yesterday this photo (of Penny the bookstore cat in the now-defunct Acres of Books in Long Beach, LA) got a click-through from this 4 month-old Tumblr post by addictedreader27, which I checked out just to see which photo had in fact been blogged. Nice. But even nicer was to discover the 663 notes attached to this photo, all showing rebloggings and likes. Most of the time I reckon my older photos on Flickr are languishing completely unseen unless they turn up in people's search engine results, so it was a surprise to discover just how active this photo has been beyond Flickr without me even knowing about it.