Monday, December 18, 2006
Bad Santa is the ultimate anti-Christmas Christmas film. It stars Billy-Bob Thornton as a foul-mouthed drunken department store Santa who does a nice line in break and enter on the side. This film possibly has more swearing than any other I can think of. Okay, maybe there are some gangster movies that top it in the cursing stakes, but nobody swears with the same style as Billy-Bob. This Santa manages to offend just about every group in society and still remain endearing. For God's sake, he pisses himself while in the Santa suit and gets away with it.
And just in case you thought it was just too dark and cynical, there is a slightly soppy ending, albeit one that is totally in keeping with the spirit of the film. Watch this one with a glass of whisky, a cigar and a healthy desire to escape the usual Christmas schmaltz.
Sunday, December 17, 2006
I'm moving to another city in January, so last weekend I thought I'd see if it is at all possible to streamline my ever-growing book collection (gasp! no!). I really couldn't stand to part with any books, however I thought that I could probably give away any that we had multiple copies of. When I met my husband, we merged our book collections and I found it fascinating to look through and see where our tastes overlapped. It was nice to see that some of my favourite books came up on the list:
1. The Shipping News E. Annie Proulx (the book I most often name as my favourite novel- anything Proulx writes is fantastic)
2. Wuthering Heights
3. The Remains of the Day Kazuo Ishiguro
4. The Bonfire of the Vanities Tom Wolff (embarrassingly we somehow had three copies of this, I've no idea why)
5. The Monkey's Mask Dorothy Porter (an Australian novel in verse, so a fairly obscure book to have two of- I also haven't read it yet, much to my shame. Soon, soon.)
6. Oranges are not the Only Fruit Jeanette Winterson (a brilliant autobiographical novel about her childhood)
7. Oliver Twist
8. The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck (one of my favourite writers, the ending of this novel is unbearably tragic and devastates me every time)
9. Exquisite Corpse Poppy Z. Brite (two copies of this and both were my husbands, me not being big on horror)
10. Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad
11. The Complete Poems of Sylvia Plath
12. Jude the Obscure Thomas Hardy (another book that regular makes my list of favourite novels ever)
All books were happily received by people at my work. Of course, I have since bought lots more books, so my collection is really no smaller. Oh well, I think I'll just have to buy more shelves...
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Jonsberg creates a strong sense of place in the novel, at times I could almost feel the steamy heat of Darwin as I read. He also writes very well about school and teachers, particularly English teachers, a result of his own teaching background. I'm not a big fan of comic novels (more on that in a future post), but Jonsberg bases his humour in believable characters and situations and I actually laughed out loud once or twice while reading this. I am looking forward to the next book in the 'Calma' series...
Sunday, December 10, 2006
Christmas still registers as important for me, even when it is devoid of religious meaning. This is because Christmas has gone beyond being a purely religious event. I can have a tree with a star on top, sing carols about religious events, give presents and send cards without being a Christian because these practices are part of our shared culture and set of traditions. These traditions are still meaningful because they reflect our history and culture.
But why am I going on about all this? Because I have just read Jostein Gaarder's The Christmas Mystery as part of Carl's GIFT Challenge. I loved Gaarder's novel Sophie's World- it is a post-modern journey through the history of thought and philosophy which ends strongly in favour of rational thinking. Which is why I was surprised to find that The Christmas Mystery is a religious story. In the novel, a young boy in Norway discovers a mysterious Advent calender. Inside each window there is a piece of paper and written on these pieces of paper is the story of a young girl, Elisabet, who journeys through time and across continents to be present at the birth of Jesus. It's a sweet children's story, with a positive message of peace and tolerance. Gaarder includes a modern day mystery to be solved and there is some well-researched information about the spread of Christianity in Europe.
But the overtly religious content turned me off. Of course I asked myself the obvious question, 'What the hell did you expect from a book called The Christmas Mystery??' Hence my ponderings about the meaning of Christmas.
The Christmas Mystery is not for me. Read it to your kids if you want to teach them about the religious meaning of Christmas, but don't bother if, like me, Christmas for you has become about something else altogether.
Saturday, December 09, 2006
Last night, however, was the last bookclub for me, having just found out that I am moving to another town in January. It was, as usual, a great night, and I felt my first twinges of remorse about moving (well that's not exactly true, I'll really miss friends here but the move is a very good one for lots of reasons). The other bookclub members got together and organised a really touching farewell present for me: each of them chose a well-loved book from their shelves and wrote a farewell message on the inside cover. I came home clutching my pile of books (swaying a bit, but that was the wine), filled with remorse that I won't get to be there for future heated discussions.
This morning, after the hangover wore off, I examined my gift books. I can't wait to read all of them! They are:
- Gertrude and Claudius John Updike
- The Elephant Vanishes Haruki Murakami
- Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World Claudia Roth Pierpont (ed)
- Night Letters Robert Dessaix
- Intimacy Hanif Kureishi
- Rembrandt's Whore Sylvie Matton
- The Art of Travel Alain de Botton
Meanwhile, the search begins for a bookclub in my new town...
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
Idlewild is a great, light read. It's Lawson's first novel, and sometimes it feels like that, but he is having such fun here and the plot is clever and funny so I'm ready to forgive any slight awkwardness. Lawson switches between various plot strands throughout the novel. There is the conspiracy theorists' conference (with many discussions about the attempted assassination of JFK and how it was all a plot to get him re-elected), the police who protect JFK (one of whom is Michael Dukakis- in this version of history he sticks with policing instead of getting into politics) and the lives of the aging JFK and Monroe, amongst other story lines. Lawson considers how JFK's reputation would have suffered, had he been the president during the Vietnam War. This JFK is one who showed early promise and then disgraced himself, forever associated with an unpopular and unsuccessful military campaign. He is a washed out, disappointed character who looks back on his life with regret.
Similarly Marilyn has aged, and has never quite lived up to the popularity of her youth. She has to contend with losing her looks after a career built on her famous beauty. Her attempts at a serious acting career- a film version of The Brothers Karamazov- have been derided and now she lives a furtive life, avoiding paparazzi and using the name Jean Norman.
There are some great touches to the novel- apparently Marilyn Monroe was interested in making a film of The Brothers Karamazov in real life- and Lawson has created a believable alternative history. He keeps the tone light and amusing, while also examining more serious ideas to do with time, fate and the impact of the individual on history.
I enjoyed Idlewild as a light read, but felt that some of the characters lacked depth. I wanted to learn more about the aging Kennedy particularly, but Lawson seems to have sacrificed some detail in order to contain a complex and sometimes gimmicky plot. Still, it's an interesting concept and the novel doesn't take itself too seriously- a good summer holiday read.
Incidentally, the title is taken from the original name of what is now JFK Airport.
Monday, December 04, 2006
So I was please to see I'm not the only one. Carl has proposed a great Christmas reading challenge over at Stainless Steel Droppings. The challenge involves posting on any four of the following:
- Christmas movies
- Christmas novels/short stories
- Christmas songs
- Christmas poems
- Christmas traditions
- Christmas memories
I realised I have a copy of Jostein Gaarder's novel The Christmas Mystery on my shelves, so I'll be reading that for the first time. I'll also read A Christmas Carol. I'm thinking I might do a post on National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation unless a better idea comes along. It's such a cheesy film but I remember laughing myself stupid as a a 12 year old. I might also post some summery southern hemisphere Christmas memories to counter all that northern hemisphere winter/ snow/ long, dark nights stuff that will going around.
Thanks for suggesting the challenge Carl! (And thanks for the excellent buttons to go with it).
Sunday, December 03, 2006
Sleeping Dogs is a short and uncomfortable, but very interesting, read. Hartnett is a very literary writer. By that I mean that she seems to wear some of her influences on her sleeve. I felt echoes of Faulkner in this novel. At times the novel could be taking place in the deep south of America rather than in rural Australia and Hartnett has previously been described as writing in a kind of southern Gothic style. I felt an echo of some of the Russian writers here too, and there is explicit reference to the characters reading Crime and Punishment. This is not a criticism of her writing. Sleeping Dogs is a richer and more sophisticated novel for its allusions to other works of literature.
Sleeping Dogs examines the warped morality that has developed in the fiercely loyal and isolated Willow family. The family is dominated by their charismatic and cruel father, Griffin, who strictly controls his children, most of whom are adults now, but who are unable to leave the claustrophobic world of their family. They own a decrepit, run-down farm and have been forced to admit outsiders into their world in order to earn money by running a caravan park. Aside from their business, the family exists outside of society, inventing their own rules and moral codes. Within their decaying world, violence and incest have become acceptable. It takes an outsider in the form of an artist who stays in his caravan on the property to challenge the family and the way they live.
Hartnett's novel is classified as Young Adult fiction and, once again, I have to question why. It's not that I think the material is particularly inappropriate, although this novel is certainly disturbing and challenging and probably best for older teenagers, but that Hartnett's work stands on its own as a work of adult fiction. The central characters are hardly children (they are in their twenties) and the novel has a sophistication more usually found in adult literary fiction. I can only presume that publishers like categories and that once you are pegged as a 'children's writer' you are destined to remain in that category forever.
Sleeping Dogs is a dark and unsettling novel. It's not one that I'd want to re-read in a hurry because of this. But it is written with great skill. Hartnett creates atmosphere like few other contemporary writers can and I felt totally convinced by the world that she creates in this novel. I am definitely going to try to read some more of her work, but might need a few lighter reads in between...
Saturday, December 02, 2006
Overall, I really enjoyed the trilogy. However I think the first novel, Regeneration, is by far the strongest. The Eye in the Door was slightly weaker but still a powerful novel. That brings me to The Ghost Road, the last novel in the trilogy.
The Ghost Road follows the two main characters from The Eye in the Door: Rivers, a psychiatrist, and Prior, a soldier who has suffered both mental and physical breakdown. In the first two novels most of the action takes place in England, away from the war front. I had found that setting very interesting. Concentrating on the home front gives the reader a chance to experience the war through the eyes of not only soldiers but also the women, conscientious objectors, essential workers and older men who were back in England during WWI. However in The Ghost Road, Prior manages to get back to the front despite his chronic asthma and we enter more traditional war novel territory. The battle scenes are tragic and emotional, but there is a sense that we've read about this before. At the battle front, Barker switches to first person diary entries from Prior. This device is slightly awkward, particularly when she has to keep switching back to third person when it becomes obvious that Prior wouldn't write a diary entry just before or after combat.
Another awkward feature of The Ghost Road is the extended flashbacks to Rivers' time spent studying a tribe in the Pacific. I found these long diversions distracting, although I could see that Barker was using the flashbacks to illuminate some of the themes of the novel such as attitudes to death and the role of the warrior in society.
Maybe, I've been a bit harsh on The Ghost Road. It is an interesting and well written novel. My slight sense of disappointment is probably more because the first two novels were so good. I have another Pat Barker novel on my shelves, Border Crossing, and I'm going to read it as soon as I can. The Regeneration trilogy has convinced me that Barker is a writer with the ability to develop psychologically complex and believable characters and one who writes with subtlety and grace.
Monday, November 27, 2006
1. Moral Disorder, Margaret Atwood. New Margaret Atwood. Enough said.
2. Mothers and Sons, Colm Toibin. I heard him interviewed about this on Radio National and have been dying to read it ever since.
3. Polysyllabic Spree, Nick Hornby. A book about books. How could I not like it?
4. After seeing them at the National Library, I want to start reading Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher series of murder mysteries. I've no idea what they're like but the covers had me hooked (shallow, I know)
5. The Inheritance of Loss Kiran Desai. It won the Booker. I feel obliged.
And lots more, but that'll do for a start. Can I also take a moment to point out that the town I live in has no bookshop (!!!)? This might help you all to understand how excited I get when I get the chance to check out books in a proper good bookshop. Ahhh, heaven.
Friday, November 24, 2006
Like another of her young adult novels, Big Mouth and Ugly Girl, Sexy examines the hysteria that can develop from relatively innocent events, especially in suspicious small town environments. In Big Mouth and Ugly Girl, that hysteria resulted from the (imagined) threat of a high school massacre. In Sexy, it involves accusations leveled at a gay teacher in a conservative small town high school.
Oates' talent lies with her incredible ability to create realistic characters. Here the central character is Darren Flynn, whose good looks attract attention. He cannot control his 'sexiness' and the notice that it gains him, sometimes from unwanted sources. He is crippled by his inability to forge his own character or to express himself and is terrified by the English teacher who challenges him on this.
Oates does not shy away from difficult issues in her young adult fiction. At first the novel seems to prepare the reader for some kind of sexual abuse, however what actually happens is much more complex and ambiguous than that. Without wanting to give too much away, Darren must deal with the fact that he is attractive to others, including some men. However he is also forced to take sides when his teacher becomes the victim of a hate campaign.
Oates captures the world of teenage boys with incredible accuracy. The pack behaviour, the need to actively assert their heterosexuality at any cost, is instantly recognisable to anyone who works with teenagers.
I would recommend this novel to teenagers, with some reservations. The moral terrain here is complex and requires a certain level of maturity to negotiate. To adults, I would recommend the novel unreservedly. Sometimes the distinction between 'adult' and 'young adult' fiction seems so random, sometimes it is a result of nothing more than the high school setting, as seems to be the case here. Sexy is a small novel that asks big questions of any age group.
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
So I thought I'd let someone else do the talking. Why not Kingsley Amis? A great book of his that I came across a couple of years ago is The King's English, a guide to English usage that takes its name from Fowler's earlier guide.
Amis is funny and witty and often totally priggish, but I love him for it. Here is a typical extract:
Ere: I mention this dead and unlamented word only to note that its ghost is sometimes raised by jocular chaps who effect phrases like 'ere long' and 'ere now'. I have two messages for such chaps: one is unprintable, the other goes, If you must write this shred of battered facetiousness, for Christ's sake get it right. The word is ere, not e'er.
Sunday, November 19, 2006
This novel is quite different to the first one, Regeneration. Where Regeneration carefully balanced the stories of a range of different characters, in The Eye in the Door Barker focuses her attention on two main characters, Rivers and Prior, both of whom appeared in the the first novel. Rivers is a psychiatrist specialising in post-war neuroses in soldiers. Prior is an officer from a working class background who has been declared unfit for service due to severe asthma and is now working in London at the Ministry of Munitions. Prior and Rivers met in the first novel at Craiglockhart, a psychiatric institution for soldiers, where Rivers treated Prior.
The Eye in the Door lacks the restraint of Regeneration but is probably more readable because of this. The focus on two characters makes it much less demanding but in some ways also less complex. There is also more gritty detail about the characters' lives, especially Prior's very varied sexual experiences. The novel opens with an encounter between him and another officer, Manning, who is himself nervous about being embroiled in a sexual controversy.
The attitude towards homosexuality on the home front is explored, with Barker contending that as a reaction to the intense focus on the importance of bonds between men during war time, there is a more conservative and punitive attitude taken to male relationships that go beyond the platonic. Authorities must make sure that love between men is the 'right' kind of love. Nearly all of the men in the novel blur this border in their relationships with other men in some way. Rivers becomes overly close to his male patients and in some senses is 'in love' with Siegfried Sassoon, a patient of his from Craiglockhart, although he does not act on this. Prior has homosexual 'encounters' but this does not prevent the very real devotion he feels to Sarah, his girlfriend. Manning maintains a wife and family for apperances sake, at the same time as sleeping with young men.
The central image in this novel is of division. Soldiers must divide their personalities in order to cope at the front, they cleave their conscience away from their bodies so that they can cope with the horrific tasks they must complete. In Prior this division has become more concrete. He begins to suffer blackouts and comes to realise that he is 'another person' during the missing time periods, himself but a more ruthless, carnal, violent self, a character born in the trenches who now threatens to take over the 'real' Prior. Rivers also describes himself as divided. He must separate his emotional self from his scientific self in order to treat his patients. This is a microcosm of an England which is divided between supporters of the war (the majority) and those who oppose it. Barker begins to explore the treatment of these 'conchies' in The Eye in the Door.
The Eye in the Door is a fascinating and readable novel. It recreates a period in history in an enlightening and interesting way, dealing with some of the less explored aspects of the war in a sophisticated way. Despite this, it lacks some of the subtlety of Regeneration. I look forward to reading The Ghost Road to see where Barker takes the story from here.
Thursday, November 16, 2006
Then I realised that I hadn't read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein myself, or seen any of the classic James Whale/ Boris Karloff films. In fact the story hadn't interested me in the way that, say, vampire mythology does. Vampires have the advantage of being much sexier, darker and more complex than Frankenstein's monster. But, after watching Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and, of course, Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, I've come to love the big fella.
Firstly, I just love Boris Karloff's performance. Despite the dodgy sets and some hammy acting from other cast members, he is believable. The makeup is fantastic and Karloff portrays such a powerful sense of yearning and loneliness. I have to confess that in Bride of Frankenstein I shed a tear after the monster was hunted out of the blind man's hut and lost his only friend (Ok, I cry in everything, but I was not expecting to cry in a Frankenstein film).
Also, the whole concept is quite radical. The idea of man as God, creating new life, is fascinating. As is the role of the monster as outsider and the violent reactions of people to this 'abomination'.
James Whale's stark sets, particularly for the outdoor scenes in forests or graveyards are artworks. The black shapes of crosses and the surreal forest of denuded trees make full use of the studio location and create a powerfully eerie atmosphere.
I still haven't read Mary Shelley's novel, a terrible oversight for many reasons, not least of which is that I find her very interesting as a historical figure. I'm definitely putting Frankenstein top of my 'to read' list now. In an era of increasing violence and intolerance, as well as of scientific advances in cloning and genetic engineering, this story is probably more relevant than ever.
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
The other is March by Geraldine Brooks. I really want to like this novel. It won a Pulitzer Prize, its author originally comes from Australia and it's based in part on Little Women, a novel I loved as a child. March follows the story of the father from Little Women and his involvement in the Civil War.
I'm 215 pages in and I just don't know if I can be bothered going on. I don't think I've ever gotten that far in a novel and then decided to give up. But I've tried and tried and I just don't like it. Perhaps it's the fact that I've read it in bits and pieces and have been a bit distracted lately, but I've read and enjoyed a couple of other novels since starting this one. Usually if I don't like a book I drop it within the first 50 pages but I've pushed on because the elements are so right. But with a 130 pages to go, what do I do? Is life too short and are there too many other books to waste another second on this one? Or do I push on and at least feel a sense of accomplishment at getting through to the end?
I'll let the beside table decide. This book gets a week on the top of the pile. If I don't pick it up by then I'll abandon it. Maybe...
Sunday, November 12, 2006
Regeneration is a fascinating read. There is little in the way of traditional plot, all the action here is psychological, which is appropriate given the setting in Craiglockhart, a psychiatric institution for soldiers during WWI. The novel is part fiction and part history, with familiar figures such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen featuring. Rivers, the psychiatrist who becomes the central character, is also based on a historical figure.
The novel switches between various patients, all of whom have reacted in different ways to their horrific experiences of war, and all of whom force Rivers to consider his own attitude to the war. The horrific experiences of these men are beyond belief, even though we've heard these kind of stories many times before. The patient who is unable to eat after being hurled by a bomb blast and landing face first in the bloated and rotten entrails of a fellow soldier is a nightmarish example.
The concept of duty is central to the novel. Men declared unfit for service must reconcile their relief with their guilt and sense that they have not fulfilled their duty to their country and their fellow soldiers. Rivers has a duty to help his patients but in this complex situation what constitutes help? If Rivers 'cures' his patients, they are sent back to the front and to almost certain death.
The title also suggest another major thematic concern, that of regeneration. How will these men 'regenerate' after their devastating experiences, how does anyone recover from that? The title also hints at the word 'generation' and the conflict in the novel between the older generations with their patriotism and idealism and the experiences of the young men that they so easily commit to the conflict.
This is a complex and beautifully written novel. Pat Barker exercises great restraint with the material so that the truly horrifying elements are just that, and are not overwhelmed by sentiment. An added bonus is that the novel gives a great sense of the psychological climate in which Sassoon and Owen created their war poetry. While sometimes the sheer number of characters is overwhelming (I admit to having to flick back and forth a bit, particularly early on) the different strands of the novel eventually settle into place like pieces in a puzzle. It's disturbing material which seems increasingly relevant, despite our historical distance from WWI.
I look forward to reading the next two novels!
Saturday, November 11, 2006
Futility (Wilfred Owen)
Move him into the sun —
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it wakes the seeds —
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, — still warm, — too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
— O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?
Friday, November 10, 2006
I was disappointed though. The film seemed flat and the characters and scenarios underdeveloped. Could my judgement really have been so wrong ten years ago?
Then I realised that The Sopranos is to blame. Mobster stories are, by their very nature, sprawling and complicated affairs. The joy lies in the intricate power relationships between the characters and the way in which these relationships constantly change. A TV show has the luxury of space in which to examine this level of complexity. The Sopranos strength lies in its large cast of characters, all of whom are allowed to become fully developed, without the need to restrict the show to a single narrative in the way that a film has to. Maybe this explains why Francis Ford Coppola needed three films to tell the story of the Corleone family.
Now that I know and love The Sopranos I wanted to hear the stories of all the Paulie and Sil and Christopher and Adrianna equivalents in Goodfellas. They weren't there and I felt let down. I was interested to notice however that the actor who plays Christopher (Michael Imperioli) does have a bit part in Goodfellas where he is fairly cruelly shot in the foot. On The Sopranos that could have become a whole episode.
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
The novel concerns itself with William Thornhill, a Londoner who begins his life in vivid and abject poverty. The scenes in London are some of the most powerful in the novel and are key to establishing the audiences' sympathy for Thornhill. It is essential that we see his desperately poor background so that we can understand the painful and complex situations he encounters in colonial Sydney and his soul-destroying desire for property and status. Thornhill's life in London is so precarious that a few short months mean the difference between life as a reasonably successful apprentice, and a life of poverty, crime, imprisonment and, finally, transportation to the convict colony of Sydney for him and his family.
Grenville imaginatively captures Thornhill's first impressions of Sydney, which is little more than a shanty town in the early 1800's. How those first convicts and settlers experienced this alien landscape with its bizarre wildlife and flora is a subject that I find fascinating and Grenville captures it vividly. The image of a vulnerable, reluctant population desperately clinging to life on the edge of vast, hostile land is one that still resonates in Australia. Our current drought and desperate water shortages only serve to reinforce the tenuous relationship we have with this landscape.
Thornhill begins to work on a boat that transports goods from the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney, and Sydney itself. The Hawkesbury is the 'secret river' of the title, a river that is reluctant to be found, winding its way through thick forests and high cliffs and only revealing its secrets to those who know the way. On the Hawkesbury, Thornhill spots the piece of land that he falls in love with and must make his own. Of course, after dragging his wife, Sal, and family to settle on the land, he finds that it is by no means un-occupied and is eventually drawn into conflict with the local Aboriginal inhabitants. Thornhill ultimately is forced to chose between his land and his moral conscience, and it is to Grenville's credit that his actions are presented as morally complex rather than simply judged by twentieth century ethical standards.
Grenville is a powerful writer. She transports the reader into the minds of her characters and allows us to sympathise with them, even when we feel that maybe we shouldn't. It is this moral complexity that makes The Secret River such a successful novel, and such an important novel for contemporary Australia.
Sunday, November 05, 2006
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
This is a piece of poetry that I heard a few years ago and I found it so vivid and powerful that it has stuck with me ever since. It's a very disturbing image but one that shows Atwood's formidable skill with language.
Friday, November 03, 2006
So at the time when everyone was reading The Bride Stripped Bare, I stayed well clear. However with my ability to concentrate at an all time low, I decided to borrow it and give it a go. Maybe it would be so abysmal it would be worth it just for the laughs. So, three years after everyone else, I'm able to pass comment.
I was surprised by the novel. It's readable, it tries to be literary, and it does sometimes articulate some truths about relationships. There are many things that annoy me, not least of which is the use of second person. Yes, it makes the reader feel more involved in the action, but it's also very clunky and intrusive. The more descriptive passages are sometimes too self-conscious, but sometimes they work. After describing the central character's vivacious best friend, Theo, Gemmell writes:
Descriptions like these are where Gemmell is at her strongest; she understands how women relate to each other and how relationships (sometimes) function.
But then it all gets a bit silly. The central character embarks on an affair with a young man who is a virgin. When she tries to end that relationship, she is compelled to proposition a taxi driver (and his friends) not once, but twice. As a woman, this situation was ridiculous even as a fantasy but to translate it into action was simply not believable. I can't a believe that the character would really have placed herself in such danger and done it in such a casual manner. The situation seems like a male, not female, fantasy which undermines Gemmell's attempt to articulate the needs of women. The bookending of the novel with the mysterious disappearance of the author and her baby was similarly silly.
If Gemmell had put less effort into being 'shocking' and 'risque' and spent more time considering the relationships and issues in young womens' lives this novel might have been more enjoyable. And I might have felt less embarrassed confessing that I had read it.
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
So many people have told me that Pat Barker's 'Regeneration Trilogy' ('Regeneration', 'The Eye in the Door' and 'The Ghost Road') is fantastic that it's about time I read it. And it's also a slightly sneaky way to knock over three books. I'll also revisit 'All Quiet on the Western Front' because it's been a while.
That's my pathetically short list (but a realistic one given that I have lots of student reports to write this month). I'll add to it if time permits!
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
So I picked up 'March' by Geraldine Brooks again, but it's not doing anything for me. The writing is too obvious and I find the central character intensely irritating.
Last night I flicked through the bookshelf in a desultory kind of way, looking for that 'perfect' book. I'm not sure what it is, but I'll know it when I see it. I need something plot-driven and all-consuming right now I think; something so compelling that stressful thoughts don't edge their way into my brain mid-paragraph, causing me to read and re-read each page. Soon I'll have the eureka moment and pick the right book for this moment in time and break through my reader's block.
Sunday, October 29, 2006
I read 'How I Live Now' a few months ago and was captivated. The curious thing is that I find it really hard to explain why I like her writing so much. It's something to do with the atmosphere that she creates; the world of 'How I Live Now' is both magical and believable, a world in which all things are recognisable but subtly different to our world. In the novel a teenage girl, Daisy, is sent to live with relatives in Britain. Daisy is a New Yorker with a troubled background when she lands in the idyllic Britain of the novel. Her cousins inhabit a ramshackle, aristocratic country estate from which (as in all good children's fiction) adults are almost completely absent. I hesitate to call this children's fiction, though, because there are some very adult concepts including a very sweet but sexual relationship that develops between Daisy and her cousin Edmond. Even I did a double take when presented with this relationship. Then there's the war that hits Britain and a less satisfying second half of the novel involving Daisy and her young cousin Piper on the run across the countryside. While the characters are exquisitely drawn and the atmosphere is maintained, I felt some aspects of the plot, to do with Britain being over-run by shadowy terrorists, were unconvincing at times.
'Just in Case' is similarly set in Britain but the suburban setting of Luton is a long way from the romanticised England of 'How I Live Now'. While the setting is more realistic, this novel still has the magical atmosphere of the first. The novel is concerned with David Case, a teenage boy who becomes terrified of fate after saving his baby brother from falling out of a window. David changes his name to Justin (get it?) and proceeds to change everything about himself in order to trick fate into not recognising him. As part of his new life he becomes friends with Agnes, an eccentrically-dressed 19 year old photographer who recognises David/ Justin's tragic beauty. Justin starts competing in cross-country running and at some stage acquires an imaginary dog (yes, you heard right) who some other characters can see. It is the beauty of Rosoff's writing that I was totally convinced by 'Boy' the imaginary greyhound, and was so far from questioning his presence in the novel that I actually began thinking, 'Yeah, greyhounds are great, maybe I should get a greyhound.' The plot, once again, is the weakest aspect of the novel. The events meander along, but the writing is so compelling that, to be honest, I didn't care what happened. I just wanted the novel to never end.
It's her ability to pull her audience into a new world, to present them with 'unusual' relationships and imaginary dogs and the like, and to have the audience not only not question this world but to want to hurl themselves headlong into it, that makes Meg Rosoff such an interesting and talented writer, and one that, I feel, is yet to produce her best work. I can't help but think that when she really hits her stride she will produce some very exciting writing.
Saturday, October 28, 2006
At the time, I skim-read parts of the journals but, let's face it, you have to be in the mood to read the personal journals of a woman you know isn't going to be the happiest of souls. Well, this year I was finally in the mood and over two school holidays I read the whole thing from cover to cover.
My first impression was the surprising discovery that I felt I had a lot in common with Sylvia Plath (with obvious exceptions such as the mammoth writing talent and occasional suicidal tendencies, of course). As a college student she writes about surprisingly everyday concerns; dating, clothes, friends. And of course, she discusses her writing and her confidence in herself as a writer. This theme runs throughout her journals and is fascinating. Her daily life focuses on the postman who brings acceptances and rejections from publishers and magazines. After some initial success, the postman mostly seems to bring rejections, although it can be guessed that Plath was more likely to write in her journal when she felt most despairing about her writing.
As she matures, Plath writes much about trying to balance writing with her personal life. She does not have her children until near the end of the period covered by these journals but before she does, she agonises over the effect they will have on her career, oscillating between craving motherhood and despairing of the drain it will be on her time and creative energies, a theme famously dealt with in her poem 'Ariel'.
Plath seems surprisingly normal in the journals. Many of her concerns could be related to by most young women who spend any time at all in self-reflection. The reason that Plath doesn't come across as profoundly unhappy could be attributed to the fact that Ted Hughes burnt her final journals (those that lead up to her suicide). Presumably these would also contain the most negative depictions of Hughes as they deal with the period in which they separated and she discovered his extra-marital affair. A suicide attempt and stay in a psychiatric ward during her college years is also not covered.
Many of the poems that Plath is most famous for ('Daddy' for example) were published in the period after these journals end and I was disappointed not to be able to read about the creation of these works. But I was surprisingly engaged by the more balanced and 'normal' Plath that emerges from these pages. She creates rag-rugs, goes shopping and bakes, washes her hair, goes for tea at the neighbours and cleans the house. She thinks about trying to get a tan and what she will wear. She grows up and seems to become more outward-looking as the years pass. And all of it is written so beautifully. Which, ultimately, is the reason that we read anything that she writes and remember her life; those perfect words. I'm sure there are many aspects of Sylvia Plath that do not appear in these pages. I'm sure she censors herself, as well as having been censored by others. But what is here are her words, and they ring true.
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
The Observer's top 100 novels had me interested. I know the whole idea of a list of the 'best' books ever is a bit dodgy but I can't resist having a look, if only to get outraged at novels that are missing. For the most part I'm with the Observer, although sometimes I would have chosen a different novel for the author ('Unbearable Lightness of Being' instead of 'The Book of Laughter and Forgetting' for example). I've nicked an idea from this site and have bolded those that I've read. I'm pretty ashamed of the amount of unread ones but I guess it gives me something to work towards...By the way, where's 'Heart of Darkness'?
1. Don Quixote Miguel De Cervantes
2. Pilgrim's Progress John Bunyan
3. Robinson Crusoe Daniel Defoe
4. Gulliver's Travels Jonathan Swift
5. Tom Jones Henry Fielding (well, ¾ of it- I’ll finish it one of these days, I promise!!)
6. Clarissa Samuel Richardson
7. Tristram Shandy Laurence Sterne (I've seen the brilliant film with Steve Coogan, but I don't think that counts)
8. Dangerous Liaisons Pierre Choderlos De Laclos
9. Emma Jane Austen
10. Frankenstein Mary Shelley
11. Nightmare Abbey Thomas Love Peacock
12. The Black Sheep Honore De Balzac
13. The Charterhouse of Parma Stendhal
14. The Count of Monte Cristo Alexandre Dumas
15. Sybil Benjamin Disraeli
16. David Copperfield Charles Dickens (Twice, I love it!!)
17. Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte
18. Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte
19. Vanity Fair William Makepeace Thackeray
20. The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne
21. Moby-Dick Herman Melville
22. Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert
23. The Woman in White Wilkie Collins
24. Alice's Adventures In Wonderland Lewis Carroll
25. Little Women Louisa M. Alcott (Many times, when I was a kid)
26. The Way We Live Now Anthony Trollope
27. Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy
28. Daniel Deronda George Eliot
29. The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoevsky
30. The Portrait of a Lady Henry James
31. Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain
32. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Robert Louis Stevenson
33. Three Men in a Boat Jerome K. Jerome
34. The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde
35. The Diary of a Nobody George Grossmith
36. Jude the Obscure Thomas Hardy (and still devastated by the suicide scene)
37. The Riddle of the Sands Erskine Childers
38. The Call of the Wild Jack London
39. Nostromo Joseph Conrad
40. The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame
41. In Search of Lost Time Marcel Proust
42. The Rainbow D. H. Lawrence
43. The Good Soldier Ford Madox Ford
44. The Thirty-Nine Steps John Buchan
45. Ulysses James Joyce
46. Mrs Dalloway Virginia Woolf
47. A Passage to India E. M. Forster
48. The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald
49. The Trial Franz Kafka
50. Men Without Women Ernest Hemingway
51. Journey to the End of the Night Louis-Ferdinand Celine
52. As I Lay Dying William Faulkner
53. Brave New World Aldous Huxley
54. Scoop Evelyn Waugh
55. USA John Dos Passos
56. The Big Sleep Raymond Chandler
57. The Pursuit Of Love Nancy Mitford
58. The Plague Albert Camus
59. Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell
60. Malone Dies Samuel Beckett
61. Catcher in the Rye J.D. Salinger
62. Wise Blood Flannery O'Connor
63. Charlotte's Web E. B. White
64. The Lord Of The Rings J. R. R. Tolkien (yes, and feel I wasted too many hours of my life in doing so)
65. Lucky Jim Kingsley Amis (the speech he gives while drunk is one of my favourite scenes in literature)
66. Lord of the Flies William Golding
67. The Quiet American Graham Greene
69. Lolita Vladimir Nabokov (recently and loved it)
70. The Tin Drum Gunter Grass
71. Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe
72. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Muriel Spark
73. To Kill A Mockingbird Harper Lee
74. Catch-22 Joseph Heller
75. Herzog Saul Bellow
76. One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel Garcia Marquez (bleh, hugely overrated)
77. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont Elizabeth Taylor
78. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy John Le Carre
79. Song of Solomon Toni Morrison
80. The Bottle Factory Outing Beryl Bainbridge
81. The Executioner's Song Norman Mailer
82. If on a Winter's Night a Traveller Italo Calvino
83. A Bend in the River V. S. Naipaul
84. Waiting for the Barbarians J.M. Coetzee
85. Housekeeping Marilynne Robinson
86. Lanark Alasdair Gray
87. The New York Trilogy Paul Auster
88. The BFG Roald Dahl
89. The Periodic Table Primo Levi (and loved it)
90. Money Martin Amis
91. An Artist of the Floating World Kazuo Ishiguro
92. Oscar And Lucinda Peter Carey (yay, an Australian)
93. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Milan Kundera
94. Haroun and the Sea af Stories Salman Rushdie
95. LA Confidential James Ellroy (brilliant!)
96. Wise Children Angela Carter
97. Atonement Ian McEwan
98. Northern Lights Philip Pullman (yes, and the rest of the trilogy- love it)
99. American Pastoral Philip Roth
100. Austerlitz W. G. Sebald (well, I own it and have read 2/3…. :-) )
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
I have read (and taught) 'Looking for Alibrandi' and have an affection for its very accurate portrayal of teenage life in inner-city Sydney, however I haven't yet read 'Saving Francesca' or Marchetta's new novel 'On the Jellicoe Road'. After the talk I am really looking forward to 'Jellicoe Rd' as it sounds like a big departure from the other two novels which were fairly straightforward, dealing with issues and characters rather than complex plot. The new novel is a mystery set in a rural Australian boarding school.
However the most interesting aspect of the talk was hearing Marchetta's comments on the writing process. She works full-time as a teacher as well as writing. I asked her how she manages this and she said that it is difficult (all her first drafts have been written in the summer holidays) but that being in school has kept her around the voices of the students that she writes about. I am really impressed by her self-discipline, having tried to write myself and never really getting beyond half-baked ideas before term begins and I have no time to think again.
Another interesting point Marchetta made about her novels was that 'Looking for Alibrandi' was rejected many times before she found a publisher. After each rejection, Marchetta rewrote the novel before resubmitting it. That must have taken incredible resolve and a thick skin, something that nearly every writer seems to have to develop. It must be so disheartening after the first couple of rounds!
Anyway, Marchetta's talk was a very civilised way to end a day of English teaching that, up until that point, had had sadly little to do with writing or reading.
Monday, October 23, 2006
Malouf's idea brought to mind 'Atonement' by Ian McEwan. I loved the first part of 'Atonement'. In fact, the first section of that novel would be one of my favourite pieces of writing ever. McEwan creates the period atmosphere so effectively and the betrayal of Robbie Turner by the young girl Briony is so powerful I had an almost physical reaction to it. I couldn't tear my eyes away from the page no matter how horrified I became. This opening section is then followed by a sections that take place during and shortly after WWII and then there is a short section that concludes the novel and takes place in 1999. This last part of the novel fails to live up to the power of the novel's opening. There is a 'twist' in the ending which smacks of post-modern gimmickry. It is an ending that is surprising, but not inevitable given the vivid 'truthfulness' of the opening scenes.
This got me thinking about which novels have really satisfying endings. 'To Kill a Mockingbird' springs to mind, and certainly feels surprising and inevitable. There is drama and excitement as Scout and Jem fight Bob Ewell in the dark and Boo comes to the rescue, however it is not drama for drama's sake. The ending feels inevitable because it draws together the unresolved story lines in a realistic and satisfying way. But maybe it is just because I love this novel and think everything about it is perfect...
More on this topic later as I consider other examples. I would love to hear anyone else's thoughts on this issue of endings or the above novels though...
Sunday, October 22, 2006
Orenstein's prose is indeed wonderful. She switches between teenage narrators in small town Alaska to tell the story of the mysterious Dove Alexie. Dove is the 'unseen companion' of the title. According to the novelist, 'unseen companion' is an astronomical term for a body in space that cannot be seen but that we know exists because of the influence it exerts on other objects. This metaphor is perfect for Dove, who has no 'voice' in the novel but yet significantly changes the lives of all the narrators. The first landing on the moon is happening in the background of events, another astronomical reference.
The novel is concerned with the treatment of Native-Americans in Alaska and is sensitive and thoughtful in its discussion of these issues. It also has a gentle sense of humour thanks mostly to the unintentionally funny narrator, Lorraine Hobbs who totters around her small town in high heels and elaborate outfits, cooking amazingly eccentric meals for the local jail. I'm not sure the 'Southwestern Gelatin Fiesta Salad' would be gracing magazine pages today.
It's not another 'Mockingbird' and at the end the novel becomes a little mawkish. I was also concerned at the 'anti-science' undercurrent in the novel. But it is a moving and compelling story, which very effectively evokes another time and place.
I'm hoping in this space to share some of the books and films that I love and hopefully find other people who love them too. I might also include some ramblings about food, politics, nature and the world in general but will try my best not to become too 'navel-gazy'.