Monday, November 27, 2006

Wish List

After a visit to Our Nation's Capital, and to one of its finest bookstores, on Thursday I was salivating. There are so many exciting books to buy at the moment. And while lack of funds held me back from buying anything yet, I have begun composing my wishlist of current releases to be collected in the coming months:

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

Sexy (Joyce Carol Oates)

Sexy is the latest young adult fiction novel from the very prolific Joyce Carol Oates. I love her adult novels, although I have only read a small proportion of them. Her young adult fiction shows the same skill with character and depictions of intricate social situations as her adult novels.

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


I'm having a bad week. The weather is oppressive; 38 degrees Celsius today, with a hot westerly wind blowing. No airconditioning at school or at home and three classes worth of reports due, well, yesterday. There has been no real time to read, let alone compose a nice coherent post.

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

November Book Challenge Update 2

As part of the November Reading Challenge, I've just finished the second part of Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, The Eye in the Door.

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


My house has been the site of a little Frankenstein festival over the last week or so. It sort of happened by accident. My Year 8 class is studying Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands and when I said, 'Oh, and of course this film is referring to the story of Frankenstein,' a lot of them looked back at me blankly. I was horrified. Surely Frankenstein is a cultural icon!

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

When to let go...

Any regular readers of this blog -and I'm making a big leap assuming that there are any ;-) - might have noticed that two books have been sitting in my 'currently reading' list for a while now. Bruce Chatwin's What Am I Doing Here is a collection of essays that I've been dipping in and out of. I'll probably get really stuck into it soon, but I'm not too worried about that one.

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

November Book Challenge Update

As some of you may know, I am participating in Kailana's November Reading Challenge. I am making slow progress but have finally finished the first in Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy called, not surprisingly, Regeneration.

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

Armistice Day

On Armistice Day it seems appropriate to once again consider the futility of war, especially as we continue to sacrifice the lives of innocent soldiers and civilians for political and economic gain. 'Was it for this the clay grew tall?' indeed.

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

The Mobster World

Last week I rewatched Martin Scorcese's Goodfellas for the first time in probably ten years. When I first saw the film I was a university undergraduate, and while my memory of it was fairly sketchy, I remember having loved it. I saw the DVD on sale at a local shop and thought some quality mobster violence on film was just what I felt like.

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

Same Stuff, New Look

I'm just finding my feet as a blogger, working my way around this whole new world and probably being terribly clumsy as I do it. Anyway, one aspect of this blog that I have been unhappy with is its look and so I have done some overhauling (well, changed a template anyway: I'm a reader, not a programmer). I felt the old look was a little too hokey and wanted something cleaner. My partner has suggested the new look is like something you'd see on a doctor's surgery wall. I guess that's cleaner? I'm still not there so don't be surprised if 'this delicious solitude' continues to adapt and change as I work out what the hell it is...

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Secret River

The Secret River by Kate Grenville delves into an important and dark part of Australian history. In fact, as I write that, I wonder which part of (white) Australian history is not dark. The history of European settlement in this country has been short and brutal. If it isn't the indigenous people that are being exploited and abused, it's been one of the many waves of immigrant groups. Grenville takes us back to that first wave of violence and hatred.

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

Hooks and Eyes

I've been just been reading Joyce Carol Oates' article on Margaret Atwood ('Margaret Atwood's Tale') in The New York Review (Nov 2, 2006). It's a very interesting article, not least because I really enjoy the writing of both women. However I though I'd quote here the very powerful lines from Atwood's Power Politics that are included in Oates' article:

you fit into me
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


I have something to confess. As mentioned in this blog, earlier this week I was at a loss for something to read. I was talking with some friends about trashy romance fiction and conversation wended its way around to The Bride Stripped Bare, the 'confessional' novel by an anonymous author (who was revealed to be Australian writer Nicki Gemmell even before the novel was in shops). There was a lot of publicity around this novel when it was released in 2003. It sounded abominable: young housewife reveals, and proceeds to live out, her secret sexual fantasies. The scandal around the leaking of Gemmell's identity was a huge turn off at the time. It reeked of an attention-seeking publicity stunt; why not publish under a pseudonym if she didn't want to be identified? It would have created a lot less curiosity. Gemmell played right into the media's hands with her many outraged and tearful interviews. Again, at the time, I thought, why not just lay low and refuse interviews? Perhaps that would not be as helpful for sales?

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:

When alongside Theo you feel pale, like a leaf left in the water, bleached of colour and life.

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

November Reading Challenge

I've decided to take on Kailana's November Reading Challenge. This challenge involves reading novels set in WWI or WWII as the 11th of November is Armistice Day. It has inspired me to read a couple of novels that have been sitting on the shelf for a while.

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!