Monday, December 18, 2006

Bad Santa

I find myself only one week away from Christmas and I'm hopelessly behind on my posts for Carl's G.I.F.T. Challenge. I'm not sure I'll manage four posts by next week but I couldn't let the challenge go by without mentioning my favourite Christmas film, Bad Santa.

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 haven't posted in a while due to a nasty computer virus, so many apologies to those who read this blog and lots of bad vibes to whoever wiped my computer out. Anyway, I'm going to be a bit self-indulgent and make a list this post, so skip it if you don't like that sort of thing!

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

It's Not All About YOU, Calma!

It's Not All About YOU, Calma! is Barry Jonsberg's follow up to his successful young adult novel, Kiffo and the Pitbull and is just as entertaining and fun. Jonsberg has a talent for getting inside the head of his young female narrator, Calma Harrison, and it is the strong narrative voice that makes both novels so good. Calma is a self-confessed 'unreliable narrator', a fantastically opinionated girl who is forced in the course of the novel to confront some of her perceptions of the people around her. Calma has grown up a bit since Kiffo and the Pitbull- she now has a love interest and a minimum wage job at the local budget supermarket. She also has her dad to contend with; he's back on the scene after abandoning Calma and her mum several years earlier.

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

GIFT Challenge: The Christmas Mystery

Christmas is a strange time for an atheist. Of course, it is essentially a Christian religious festival. Or a pagan mid-winter festival if that takes your fancy. But what is Christmas for me, who is neither Christian nor any other religion?

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

The Perfect Gift

I have been part of a bookclub in our small town for the last three years. I have had a great time with this group of people, most of whom are also my workmates. Once a month we meet at someone's house. Someone else will present a book they have chosen, kickstarting discussion with some points or question- it's all pretty informal. Drinking wine and eating good food are an important part of the equation. We always have a good discussion about the book before getting off track and discussing life, the universe and everything. I have loved getting together with friends for the sole purpose of talking about books and reading- something there should be more of! The combination of people in our group has also been crucial to its success: we have both men and women and a range of age groups, and we share generally similar tastes in literary fiction.

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
I haven't read any of these but they all look great. I've wanted to read more Murakami for a while now (I've only read Dance, Dance, Dance which was bizarre but fascinating) and (and I'm ashamed to admit this) I've never read any John Updike. The nice thing is, is that as I read each of these books I can think of the person who gave it to me.

Meanwhile, the search begins for a bookclub in my new town...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

An Alternative History

Ever wandered what the world would be like if JFK had survived the shooting in Dallas? What would Marilyn Monroe have done with her life if she hadn't died at 36 years of age? British journalist Mark Lawson imagines a world where they are both still alive in his 1995 novel, Idlewild.

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

A Christmas Reading Challenge

No matter how hard I try to be above all the Christmas hype, it gets me every time. I still find myself getting excited about wrapping presents and baking ridiculous hot food in the middle of summer and of course, enjoying the odd alcoholic beverage or two.

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
"The challenge comes in here: two of your 4 choices must either involve something completely new to you or something you haven’t read or watched in an inordinately long amount of time."

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

I've been meaning to read something by Australian writer Sonya Hartnett for ages and am very glad that I finally have. In Sydney a few months ago I picked up a copy of Sleeping Dogs, a short novel of Harnett's from 1995. I chose this novel pretty much at random. I've since realised that some her more recent novels have had more attention overseas, particularly Thursday's Child which won the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize in 2002.

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

The Ghost Road

After a hectic week of writing student reports and finally completing the school magazine for the year, I made it to the end of Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy. I finished just in time for the end of November and Kailana's November Reading Challenge.

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.