BOOKS: Dec 05. AU Edition

Plus: Guinness’s records are not so stout anymore, and falling in love (again) with Venice
books_guinness.jpgGUINNESS WORLD RECORDS 2006
Edited by Craig Glenday, Guinness World Records, $45.00
Up until recently the Guinness Book of Records was a quiet black and white document with every record imaginable recorded in small sombre print. Not any more. The cover looks like the inside of a pulsing nightclub, complete with hologram-like reflectors that image anything close by with a series of green and silver highlights. The contents page is adorned with the world’s Most Pierced Women and an actual-size cane toad. The razzle-dazzle continues with the Most Hula Hooped Woman, a Dog with Five Tennis Balls in his Mouth and the proud possessor of 137 Traffic Cones. Impressed? But wait – there’s more! – 31,424 Students Cleaned their Teeth for 60 seconds! 937 students and staff wearing Groucho Marx Masks! 1254 Students Danced the Scottish Reel! Leonardo D’Andrea Crushed 22 Watermelons with his Head! And here’s my favourite – Most Valentine Cards Sent to a Guinea Pig – Over 206 cards from as far away as New Zealand!
Old time Guinness Book of Records readers – fact crunchers who took their records and achievements seriously – must be wondering what the hell is going on. No question – Guinness has gone upmarket with flashy collages, in-your-face images and silly records that anyone could help set. The new format declares that you don’t have to be a fact-geek or a horn-rimmed nerd to read this book – a skateboarder or a guy with 258 straws stuck in his gob will be fine. I guess all this new mass participation is nicer than a group of Islamic terrorists squashed into a bus but it seems to eliminate the point of setting records for true human endurance which are mostly an individual matter requiring either guts, ingenuity or perseverance. Brushing your teeth for one minute with 30,000 others hardly qualifies.
OK, I’ve had my beef. The compendium still has plenty to endear the true record lover. Paul Hunn can burp at 104.9 decibels. Rene Alvarenga has eaten 35,000 live scorpions. Michel Lolito, whose teeth can grind at eight tonnes per cm, has eaten 18 bicycles, 15 supermarket trolleys, 3 TV sets, 6 chandeliers, a set of skis, a computer and a Cessna light aircraft. Whether or how long he brushes his teeth is not recorded. I was impressed to learn the largest private library contains 1.5 million books and the record for one finger pushups is 126 (pushups not fingers). I was surprised, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been, that the world’s fastest solo circumnavigation record is held by a woman (Ellen MacArthur) and astonished to learn that the world’s most dangerous stinging nettle is in New Zealand – Urtica ferox can kill dogs, horses and even once killed a man.

Bacteria are tough cookies – samples have survived over two years in outer space (they were attached to satellites). I learnt that there is such a critter as a Wolphin, the result of a whale-dolphin cross, and that the fastest humanoid robot can only stomp along at a snail-like 1.8 mph. On the human side, the oldest surviving couple have been married for 78 years and the world’s largest wedding banquet had 150,000 guests – a missed opportunity to set a dishwashing record. It is satisfying, though slightly absurd, to learn the longest prison sentence handed out (fraud, Thailand) was for 141,078 years. Though I’m sure the fraudsters will be out after only 140,000 years for good behaviour.
More criticism – many records that could reasonably be expected are absent – examples (from a list of many) could include world’s largest aircraft, most poisonous snake, world’s loudest band, largest extinct bird. In its present format, the Guinness Book of Records is no longer the exhaustive compendium of yesteryear. Perhaps they should consider a smaller formatted pocket edition which is mainly print?

books_the city of falling angels.jpgTHE CITY OF FALLING ANGELS
By John Berendt, Sceptre, $49.95
What is all this fuss about Venice? This question is usually asked only by those who have not visited the famous watery city – the only city in the world without traffic noise. When I spent a weekend there some years back, I knew little about the place but on arrival, I became, as many have done, an instant convert to her decaying charms. There’s something about magnificence in decay that stirs me deeply, just why I don’t know. Perhaps because magnificence at its peak is often accompanied by the expression of tyranny that expects obeisance whereas when the civilisation has passed away and only the buildings remain, we can enjoy them as architecture minus the tedious and oppressive trapping of visible power.
In the long litany of adoration that Venice has enjoyed from art critics, poets and composers (there are of course notable exceptions among the eulogists), most of the travel writers and essayists have looked at the city as a kind of architectural poem – which it very much is – and somehow overlooked the Venetians. As Mary McCarthy, renown American author once pre- sumptiously said, “Nothing that can be said about Venice has not been said before” – and she was echoing another famous American literary visitor to Venice, Henry James. As Berendt triumphantly demonstrates, these statements have about as much objective correlative as the fatuous statements made around the end of the nineteenth century that science had discovered nearly everything about the universe. Berendt, a skilful social observer, has managed to find out and report back on various scandals and upheavals in contemporary Venice – events that would make a wonderfully dramatic film. Events that give the reader a fresh view of an embattled city.
The City of Falling Angels begins – a perfect film prologue – with a destructive fire in 1996 that incinerated the Fenice Theatre, a stately opera house that was a symbol of Venetian cultural grandeur.
Three days later, with the smell of charcoal still in the air, Berendt arrived. His mission – to see Venice sans tourists – was to be fulfilled in a way he could not have anticipated. For the obvious ensuing question was, was the fire an accident or deliberately set? Either way guilty parties had to be fingered. The book has the feeling of a triptych, with the first event and eventual culprits identified enfolding many additional and wild characters, who, of course, are flesh and blood not novelists’ invention – a forwarding note says: “This is a work of non fiction. All the people in it are real and are identified by their real names.”
Presumably, Berendt (or his publisher), insisted on such a note, otherwise non-Venetians night be inclined to imagine that such fellows as Ludovico De Luigi – a latter day Dali – a surreal painter, who arranged for a porn star politician to arrive in a gondola, topless, climb one of the famous horses at St Marks and proclaim herself a living work of art – might not exist. (And in fact, I’m still wondering, if, after all, as Berendt tells us, the Venetian embellish everything and consider truth tellers a bore, whether he hasn’t added a bit of colour.) The intricate drama of intrigue and plotting that Berendt details is a modern soap opera from real life. Naturally, the Mafia come under suspicion and in my innocence, I didn’t know that they had used arson against art institutions as an extreme form of cultural terrorism.
In the middle chapters, Berendt, who seems to have a knack for engaging friend and foe alike, explores other dramas of great poignancy such as a rift in an ancient family of glass blowers from Murano. First, we side with the father, then sneakily, we see the rebel son’s point of view. Either way, the glass creations emerge, whether fire-inspired or technically innovative – some photos would have been nice. Another long chapter is devoted to Olga Rudge’s struggle with other Poundites determined to secure the old poet’s papers for a song and the bitter battles that ensue. If all of the above sounds unrelentingly highbrow in scope, Berendt slips in a rat exterminator who attributes his huge success at his chosen profession by feeding rats the same (but slyly doctored) food that local humans eat. Is Berendt trying on a symbol for the wiliness of Venetians?
Owing to the fortuitous events of history, what was intended to be perhaps just another travel book, an architectural swan song, became an enthralling and immediate social history. This is only Berendt’s second book, so it will be interesting to see which part of the globe he brings his acute gaze to next.
PS: Against difficult odds, the restored opera house re-opened in 2003.

books_lunar park.jpgLUNAR PARK
By Bret Easton Ellis, Picador, $27.00
Lunar Park which is not to be confused with Luna Park, the Sydney amusement park, and indeed there is little chance of that. Luna Park possibly brings a smile to the face of its users but Lunar Park, Ellis’s latest novel, is neither amusing, uplifting nor entertaining. In fact, it is a tiresomely bad book. The reader may well wind up asking “is this a horror or a horrible novel?”, and the answer is yes on both counts.
Initially, Ellis pulls out that tired metafictional trick of an author turning himself into a character in a novel. Witty when Philip Roth does it, alas not here. The opening chapters with their confessions of druggy parties read like a straight autobiography so the casual browser could be tricked. The blurb tell us “that every word is true”, an assertion which even the dimmest reader will slowly realise is fictional puffery. Ellis, the character, keeps complaining that he is not cut out for suburban married life. And it might appear, Ellis, the real author, is forewarning us not to expect this brat pack novelist to turn respectable and suburbanly settled, anytime soon.
Enter Terby, a nasty doll that seems to have stepped out of the B-grade pages of Stephen King. What’s worse or better, depending on how you look at it, is the presence of a young man dressed up as Patrick Bateman, sadistic-psychotic villain of Ellis’s previous notorious novel, American Psycho, who appears to be leaving a trail of corpses. In other words, art is copying life, even though that “life” is also fiction. Stated thus, something shallow sounds metafictionally deep. I can assure you this is not the case.
The gratuitous slaughters in the pages of American Psycho leave a bad taste in anyone’s mouth and here the narrator (Ellis) seems to want explain and excuse the author (also Ellis) by maintaining that brutal murderer Patrick Bateman was a notoriously unreliable narrator and that the crimes may well have been fantasies, “fuelled by his rage and fury about life in America was structured and how this had …trapped him …”. The book “was about society and manners and mores, and not about cutting up women”. Or is Ellis, the real and actual author, seeking to let himself off the hook of accusations of unrelenting sadism towards women as grimly reported in American Psycho? It certainly looks that way.
Another unconvincing theme in Lunar Park is that Ellis is trying to make peace with his father and the nastinesses of Patrick Bateman were based on anger against his dad. This notion at least leads to the only good piece of writing in the book – the last two magnificently lyrical pages which describe the ashes of the dead father being cast into the sea. Which is possibly what Ellis should have done when this book was still a manuscript. Except, of course, for those last two pages.

books_country life.jpgGRANTA 90: Country Life
Edited by Ian Jack, Granta, $27.95
Established some 20 years, the very non-literary (no criticism or poetry) literary book-formatted magazine, Granta continues to publish first class short stories, travel and sociological memoirs. There is a Granta package – meticulous detail, lucid elegant English, sympathy for the underdog, particularly the working class underdog – the old style factory or field worker – which is sometimes presented as the worker speaking or narrating non-stop for several pages. This approach is used for the lead feature – an evocation of a fading rural way of life in England entitled “Return to Akenfield” by Craig Taylor.
Akenfield – first published in 1969 – was “a rich and perceptive portrait of life in an English village, told in the voices of the farmers and villagers themselves”. Akenfield has had a boom – population 298 in 1950, by 2001 it had rocketed to 358. We learn that picking black currants is bloody (actually sticky) hard work and buying a reasonably-sized dairy farm nowadays will set you back a cool five million bucks.
In former days, Granta tended to mainly feature big name writers but the only one featured here – unless you count Studs Terkel interviewing Bob Dylan back in 1963 – is Doris Lessing’s “The Death of A Chair”. I found Lessing’s piece uninspiring. She is surpassed by less known authors like Barry Lopez (noted for his book on wolves) who writes a poignant piece on salmon fishing with his son; “Fantastic Mr Fox” by Tim Adams, a satisfying look at the crazed dedication and frantic antics of the anti-fox hunters, and “Nightwalking” by Robert Macfarlane, a celebration of noctambulism (walking at night especially in search of melancholy) as opposed to somna- mbulism (sleepwalking, possible at high noon).
The intriguing thing about Granta is if you open it at random you will find it difficult to tell fact from fiction. Actually, the fiction is in the minority but when I read “Constitutional” by Helen Simpson (fiction) I took it to be the kind of typical personal memoir piece that Granta writers do so well. Does this mean my reading filter had fallen asleep? Or that fact and fiction have become indistinguishable? Neither, I believe; it’s just the hard bitten exactitude of the Granta style.
The collection is rounded off by the postcard-tinted style photographs of tree blight by Robert Gumpert and the solemn dignity of English folk parading their showtime farm animals by Liz Jobey. The piece de la resistance (almost) is a bunch of gloriously cheerful Englishwomen holding up their prize chooks on a Hertfordshire farm in 1933, exceeded only by four behatted gentlemen clutching their piglets. The inscription on the building behind reads, “Adolph’s Kindergarten, Bombing Verboten.” Great stuff.

books_space race.jpgSPACE RACE
By Deborah Cadbury, Fourth Estate, $67.95
As a small boy I informed my parents that one day a man would fly to the moon. My parents, aunties and grandparent (I had only one) laughed with amiable derision. Man fly to the moon! Consistent aerial Luddites, none of my elders so much as set foot in an aeroplane though they lived into the 70s, the era of cheap flight.
Today – setting aside the conspiratorial sceptics – we know men have flown to the moon not once but six times. The notion that flight to the moon was possible was most prominently mooted by Werner Von Braun, a refugee from Nazi Germany, a former member of the SS whose scientific prophecies included space stations, artificial sunlight, rocket planes crossing the Atlantic in 40 minutes – all in 1945! A series of articles published in Colliers in 1952 continued the hype and were read by millions. Certainly, I knew the name von Braun when I was in short pants. As adolescence hit, I became a science fiction fan. The moon trip was a certainty – it was just a matter of time. My parents were alive when the moon was reached, though kindly, I never crowed ‘I told you so’.
Space Race is a very apt title and just how fiercely it was contested is the thrilling tale related in this gripping book. Major Staver was responsible for the Americans gaining an early lead over the Russians by acquiring – just hours before the Brits arrived – 100 V2 rockets, 15 tons of documents, 1000 technicians, plus the inimitable and charismatic Von Braun, ever after to lead the American half of the space race. Later, the Americans secured some 7000 “German experts” from all branches of industry. By any standards, they had a head start. In fact since they had the V2s, they had a flying start.
What of the Russians? Stalin was furious that they had no V2s, no documents and no senior experts. But SMERSH agents managed to get hold of a gyrostabiliser platform used in a V2 rocket, a talented young engineer called Helmut Grottrup and some blueprints for parts of the V2. Later the Russian’s trump card was an outstanding rocket engineer, Sergei Korolev, brought back into favour after a period of incarceration in a gulag on the usual trumped-up charges.
It was the genius of Korolev in pioneering the R-7 rocket that led to the dramatic overtaking of the American space program by the Russians. I am of the generation who reeled under the impact of Russian success – A satellite! A dog! A man! A rocket impacting on the moon! – while the Americans languished in miserable technical failure. In relatively uncensored America, the press had a field day calling the failed American attempt to catch up Flopkin … Dudnik … Puffnik … Oopsnik …Goofkik … Kaputnik. Of course, the Russians had their disasters too, though Soviet propaganda meant that a massive explosion in 1960 which killed 150 was hushed up. The Americans had their small successes and further humiliations, but their moment of triumph finally came with the awesome moon rocket Saturn V whose 5 F-1 engines delivered 7.5 million pounds of thrust and were so powerful they could be heard 100 miles away. Meanwhile, in an ironic reversal, the Russian equivalents began blowing up. This is drama on a grand scale and no has told it better than Deborah Cadbury. It’s a blast!