Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Reader's Block

I'm having one of those antsy periods when I just can't get into a book. Bruce Chatwin's 'What Am I Doing Here' is beautifully written but requires too much concentration right now, especially as it is a collection of essays that switch rapidly between locations and times. I'm half-way through but not really doing it justice.

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

Believing in Imaginary Dogs...

I need to take a moment to rave about a (relatively) new novelist that I've come across recently. Meg Rosoff has published two novels: 'How I Live Now' and the very recent, 'Just in Case'.

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

Connecting with Sylvia

A few years ago I was living in London when I was given 'The Journals of Sylvia Plath' (edited by Karen Kukil) by my good friends and lovely housemates: George and Philine. This book has become an object treasured by me for the associations with people and place that it holds. I love the note written in the front which includes a little drawing of our house at the time and stick figures representing each of us who lived there. To me it is a reminder that the book as a physical object is more than just the words on the page. This is probably the reason that I can never part with books and am surrounded by overflowing bookshelves.

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

Best 100 Novels of All Time

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

68 On the Road Jack Kerouac (during moody teenage years)

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

The Writing Life

After work today I went to a talk by Melina Marchetta, an Australian writer of young adult fiction who is probably most famous for her novel 'Looking for Alibrandi' which was turned into a popular Australian film in 2000. The talk was at my small local library and was packed with students and other teachers, excited to have a real live author in our small town.

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

Happy Endings

I was listening to Australian author David Malouf on Radio National last night and he made an interesting comment about why he finds it so difficult to finish his novels. He said that an ending must be 'both surprising and inevitable'. I thought this was an excellent way of describing what makes a good ending in a novel. The endings of so many novels are disappointing and usually it's because they don't satisfy both of these criteria.

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

An Artic Mockingbird

A novel I have recently finished and enjoyed is 'Unseen Companion' by Denise Gosliner Orenstein. This novel would fall under the category of 'Young Adult' fiction but is not restricted to that. At a talk I went to last month the speaker described this as a little like an Alaskan version of 'To Kill a Mockingbird', and made the heady claim that it easily held its own against Harper Lee's novel. My cynicism and my curiosity got the better of me and I bought a copy in Sydney in the October holidays. Australian readers might find it difficult to find a copy of the novel as it is not published locally and most major stores don't stock the book (I found one of two copies ordered by Dymocks- they will not be restocking the novel).

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.

What's in a name?

'this delicious solitude' is a phrase I have borrowed from Andrew Marvell's poem 'The Garden'. I chose it because, for me, it sums up the wonderful feeling of being in another world when you read a great book or watch a great film.
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'.