Sunday, December 16, 2007

Favourite Books of the Year

The end of the year is coming and I'm not reading anything too exciting right now so I think it's safe to comment on my favourite reads of 2007. None of them are particularly current as I rarely read new releases, but I loved all of the following:

The Orchid Thief (Susan Orlean): This work of non-fiction was a real revelation to me. I don't read much non-fiction and I had no interest in orchids so I was surprised at how much I loved Susan Orlean's tale of, well, just about everything to do with orchids. The book is a brilliant character study of the collector John LaRoche and a fascinating description of Florida. It's also ten times more interesting than my description of it. Just trust me on this one.

Cold Mountain (Charles Frazier): I raved about this book at the time and it has stayed with me. Just thinking about the ending has me on the verge of tears. Don't let the dodgy film version put you off. Wonderful writing and a beautiful story. An incredible first novel.

Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf): I've just written about this so I won't say much other than Woolf is a genius and this is deservedly a classic.

Special mentions also go to I Capture the Castle, the classic young adult novel by Dodie Smith, American Pastoral by Philip Roth and Disgrace by JM Coetzee.

It's a strange list of quite disparate books but probably a good reflection of what I've been reading this year. There are some big holes though, such as not reading many pre-twentieth century novels, so now I'm off to formulate my next post: reading plans for 2008...

Monday, December 10, 2007

On Finishing Mrs Dalloway

It's taken me forever but I finally finished Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway on Sunday. Actually I'm glad I took forever over this novel. It is so deliciously, wonderfully written that I think it's best savoured in little pieces. All at once might overload the system.

I think Mrs Dalloway is about as perfect as a novel gets and because I'm so attached to it, I'm a little bit nervous about really trying to review it and maybe not being able to do it justice. Perhaps instead I'll just list a few things I found interesting without trying to be in any way comprehensive.

Firstly, I'm really fascinated by the character of Clarissa Dalloway. She is so flawed- flighty, at times fickle, snobbish, even callous- but on the other hand so magnetic and charismatic. She seems simultaneously frustrated with her life and exhilarated by it, in love with Peter but also dismissive of him, class conscious but also horrified by the superficiality of the aristocracy. I think this makes her more real than many other characters in fiction, the very fact that she changes her mind from moment to moment and is not a personality composed of a fixed list of qualities.

I really enjoyed the style in which this novel is written too. Woolf captures the way the mind works so accurately that I felt I was reading the minds of the characters. The free associations and the sudden switching of topic and mood seemed so natural and realistic.

Towards the end I began to think this is a novel about aging, about looking over your life with a certain amount of experience and re-assessing the powerful moments from your youth. I liked that the aging process did not dull sensation for Clarissa. In fact, she seemed more sensitive and more insightful than she had ever been as a young woman.

Finally, nobody does descriptive writing quite like Woolf. Here is another wonderful image (of the sun setting) and it seems a good way to end this post:

I resign, the evening seemed to say, as it paled and faded above the battlements and prominences, moulded, pointed, of hotel, flat, and block of shops, I fade, she was beginning, I disappear, but London would have none of it, and rushed her bayonets into the sky, pinioned her, constrained her to partnership in her revelry.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

We Need to Talk About Kevin

When it first came out in 2003 everyone seemed to be reading We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. As usual, I'm a couple of years late and have only just gotten around to reading this novel on the tentative advice of a friend who didn't enjoy it much herself.

For anyone else who missed out on it as it swept the bestseller lists, We Need to Talk About Kevin is the letters of a mother, Eva Khatchadhourian, to her husband Franklin. The letters are written after their son, Kevin, has murdered 12 people in a Columbine-style school shooting, and in the letters Eva trawls back through the process of deciding to have a child, Kevin's birth and childhood and his devastating crime, referred to only as Thursday by Eva.

When I began this novel I absolutely hated it. The subject matter is sensational and it seemed that in making Eva unlikable, the author was writing a definitively anti-feminist novel. Shriver explores how far parents are responsible for shaping their children and I worried that she might unfairly blame the mother who initially is depicted as selfish, cold and certainly unenthusiastic about her new-born child.

Shriver's awkward style was also infuriating at first. If these are meant to be letters, they are so painfully and self-consciously written as to seem totally unrealistic. A typical sentence reads: 'It may have been disingenuous of me to imply at the start of my last letter that when we conferred at the end of a day, I told all.'

But somehow I could not put this book down, and I'm pleased that I didn't. Shriver's writing style is never elegant but it reflects certain aspects of her narrator's character and it becomes less jarring over time. More importantly, the philosophical terrain covered becomes more and more compelling as the novel goes on. Initially Kevin is depicted as a purely (and unbelievably) evil child but as he develops we see that there is more to him and realise that Eva is possibly manipulating us by presenting only her side of the story. Eva is not a perfect mother but nor is Franklin, the father, who is blindly optimistic about Kevin and refuses to confront the truth about his son. Shriver refuses to lay blame, avoiding simplistic conclusions about why a child from a relatively happy, privileged background might become the perpetrator of a horrific crime. This concept reminded me of Philip Roth's American Pastoral which covers similar terrain, albeit in a more sophisticated way.

Like Roth, Shriver also examines the idea of America (as opposed to the physical country). Eva rejects her homeland as crass and unsophisticated whereas her husband Franklin is the ultimate patriot, driving his SUV, watching baseball games and trying to develop a pally relationship with his son, as though life can be like a cheesy 1950's sitcom if only you try hard enough. Ultimately both parents are proved to be flawed in their attitudes to their country and in their attitudes to their son.

This is a flawed novel and in part Shriver plays on the sensational subject matter and the fears of middle class parents everywhere. On the other hand, who hasn't wondered what motivates crimes like these and it seems important that we as a society confront these issues head on. Shriver doesn't provide answers but she does begin to explore the issue in an interesting, thought-provoking way.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Passionate Minds

After recently claiming that I don't read much non-fiction I now find myself in the strange situation of reading not one, but two collections of essays at once. I'm part of the way through The Grave of Alice B. Toklas by Otto Friedrich and after I posted on his essay about Alice B. Toklas I picked up another book that has been sitting on the shelf for a while: Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World by Claudia Roth Pierpont. I originally planned to just read her essay on Gertrude Stein but I've found myself swept up in the essays and have gone on to read several more.

Pierpont declares in her introduction that she has chosen to write about 'literary women of influence (very different from women of literary influence)', hence some surprising inclusions such as Mae West who I had never thought of as a writer (it turns out she wrote several plays, film scripts and of course her autobiography). The first section, most of which I've read now, is loosely group around the issue of sex, and includes essays on Stein, Mae West, Anais Nin and Olive Schreiner. There are two other sections dealing with politics (Marina Tsvetaeva, Ayn Rand, Doris Lessing, Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy) and race (Margaret Mitchell, Zora Neale Hurston and Eudora Welty). These are interesting, diverse selections.

I had expected that the essays would be reverential in tone as sometimes is the case in these kinds of collections of writing on influential women. In fact Pierpont is quite critical of some of her subjects and does not fall into the trap of romanticising them. She acknowledges that much of Gertrude Stein's writing was incomprehensible and of Anais Nin's writing she says:
For the reader able to escape the solitary confinement of these endless pages through the mere act of closing a book- such a simple deliverance- relief is dulled only by a shuddering pity for the woman who lived all her days trapped inside.

Each essay is a kind of mini-biography and I've enjoyed learning about the lives of these women who I mostly didn't know much about. Pierpont convincingly argues that each of her subjects changed the world in some way. While Anais Nin might not be the world's best writer, her writing, and her life, showed women that it might be possible to view their own sexuality in a different way, that women should acknowledge their desires in the way that men have been able to in the past. Mae West similarly showed audiences that women could enjoy their sexuality without the burden of romantic love through her creation of the bawdy character, Diamond Lil. In Stein's case she thought that a woman could achieve as much as a man by purging herself of what is expected of women and writing 'like a man'.

The essays I've read so far concern the lives of very different women but they intersect in interesting ways. All of them struggled against societies expectations and all of them had periods of hardship and mixed fortune even after they had achieved fame. Sometimes it feels as though Pierpont has tried to squeeze too much in here- it's hard to condense these rich lives into essay form- but it still makes for interesting reading.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Grave of Alice B. Toklas

I should be reading Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks at the moment, especially as I set it for myself as a kind of personal reading challenge for Remembrance Day. Instead I keep picking up a collection of essays by Otto Friedrich called The Grave of Alice B. Toklas & Other Reports from the Past.

This collection was published in 1991 and it's comprised of writing from throughout Friedrich's career as a writer and journalist. It's a surprisingly engaging book, especially for someone like me who tends not to read much non-fiction. Maybe I've enjoyed it so much so far because the first few essays deal with the process of writing and creating art.

The title essay describes Friedrich's youth and the years he lived in Europe fancying himself as the next great novelist. With the incredible confidence of the young, he goes about meeting many of the great living writers in a Europe that is just emerging from the devastation of World War II. His journey finally leads him to the living room of Alice B. Toklas who nurtures and encourages his writing. Friedrich's output is incredibly prolific (at 20 he has already written two novels and is planning a quadrilogy) and ambitious (his quadrilogy will 'capture' the second World War and its impact). Friedrich writes 'Somewhere Gertrude Stein had written that writers don't need literary criticism, they need praise' and this is what Toklas gives him. Their friendship lasts until Toklas' death despite Friedrich's failure to publish his early novels, or to achieve the literary greatness he had hoped for. In some ways the friendship becomes burdensome to him towards the end, a reminder of what he has failed to become, and this gives the essay a certain poignancy. Still, it is an interesting portrait of Toklas who spent so many years in the shadow of her more famous partner Gertrude Stein.

Another interesting essay is about Wagner. Friedrich uses Wagner as a way of discussing the guilt felt by many people of German ancestry, including Friedrich himself, after the holocaust and how far art can be implicated in politics. Can Wagner ever be free of association with Hitler and the Nazi party? Or can it be enjoyed as art separately from its political associations? And just how does the audience survive a four hour sitting of Parsifal with no intermission?

Now that I think about it, some of these issues are pretty appropriate for Remembrance Day so perhaps I needn't have worried about neglecting Birdsong after all.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Back to Mrs Dalloway

Shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day...

It is images like that that give me a feeling of exhilaration as I read Mrs Dalloway.

Finally I've picked this up again. My re-reading of Mrs Dalloway has been progressing painfully slowly but it's partly because the writing is so intense; a little bit goes a long way. Today I picked it up again after a hiatus of several months. The afternoon was warm and rainy and Mrs Dalloway was the perfect book to read on the balcony in between the batches of biscuits I was baking.

I'm beginning to realise what a socially aware novel this is. Woolf works important social and political changes such as the fall of the British Empire and the fall-out from the First World War into what is also an intensely psychological and internal narrative. That's probably not news to anyone else but I don't remember noticing this political aspect the first time I read the novel when I was an undergraduate.

Anyway, time now to head off to bed, listen to the rain fall on the roof and let a little more of Woolf's writing wash over me.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

One year on

I have just realised that I started this blog a year ago this week. Wow, that time has flown. Part of me is surprised that I've managed to keep this thing going on a semi-regular basis for a whole year. I suppose it was always an experiment, being my first attempt at blogging. It's been reasonably easy to stick with though. I decided early on not to write if I didn't feel like it and not to set myself too tough a schedule. While I love reading other bloggers who write daily, I can't make that level of commitment myself. I know it would just turn me off the whole thing. Now I've settled into writing once or twice a week, an amount that seems realistic for me.

Writing about books has been a rewarding experience. I think more about what I read as I read it now, even sometimes taking notes or marking interesting passages. While that might sound terrible to some people, like being an undergrad again, I find that it has deepened my reading. I have to think more carefully about what I read so that I can write about it. As a result, I think the books I have read in the last year have had a more lasting impact on me.

The other part of this process that I love is the interaction with others who have the same interests. I have so loved reading other people's blogs and have gotten lots of my reading ideas from them. And I still get a bit of a thrill whenever someone comments on my posts. It's nice to know that someone is reading at least some of what I write, although I think I would probably blog regardless, as a way of recording my reading experiences.

A big part of me is still a little embarrassed about blogging. I don't tell many people in the 'real' world about this site. It's not that I think blogging itself is embarrassing, I just still feel a bit cringey about my own contribution to the blogosphere. I also feel that a degree of anonymity helps me to write more freely.

Anyway, enough about me. I've spent a year trying not to get too personal here so now is probably not the time to start. Thanks to all of you who have supported my little corner of cyberspace over the last year. With a bit of luck there'll be a few more years to come.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

On caring passionately...

The last few weeks have been a little crazy and this blog has been sadly neglected. Suffice to say that you should never trust a tradesman who says they can fix your bathroom in a week.

But while I haven't been able to post anything, I have, luckily, had a bit of time to read. At the moment I am totally enthralled by The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. I love this book and it continues my recent enjoyment of non-fiction, something I don't usually read much of.

Orlean's book began as an article she wrote for the New Yorker on John Laroche, a Florida man charged with stealing orchids from the Fakahatchee Strand. It quickly becomes obvious that Laroche is a fantastic subject- fascinating, infuriating, eccentric and unpredictable- and that the world of orchid collecting is awash with such characters. Hence Orlean extended her article into this book which loosely follows the trial of Laroche with many detours into the wider world of orchid cultivation, natural history, Florida, Native American culture and, well, almost everything really.

Before I began reading this book I had no interest in orchids. I picked up the book because I had seen Adaptation, the crazy Spike Jonze/ Charlie Kaufmann attempt to film it. The film was about much more than the the book, although I'm beginning to realise it was quite true to the spirit of Orlean's writing. Orlean herself approaches her subject from the perspective of an outsider. She knows little about the orchid world but is fascinated by the passion that these plants inspire in others. She explains her desire to see the elusive and rare ghost orchid:
The reason was not that I love orchids. I don't even especially like orchids. What I wanted was to see this thing that people were drawn to in such a singular and powerful way.

It seems that The Orchid Thief is really about the nature of obsession:
I wanted to want something as much as people wanted these plants, but it isn't part of my constitution. I think people my age are embarrassed by too much enthusiasm and believe that too much passion about anything is naive. I suppose I do have one un-embarrassing passion- I want to know what it feels like to care about something passionately.

Orlean is so successful at conveying the passion that others feel for orchids that I have found myself going as far as checking out the orchids in my local nursery and actually considering buying one. Apparently this passion is contagious. In the meantime I'll try to hold off from being swept up in the world of orchids and instead be content with being swept up in The Orchid Thief.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

On Grief

I am now most of the way through reading The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, her thoughtful reflection on grief written in the year after the sudden death of her husband John and the hospitalisation of her daughter. It is a very moving book, which is to be expected given the subject matter, but it also very measured and carefully written. Didion is able to capture and analyse this extremely emotional time in her life with great precision.

One of the ways in which she manages to contain her material is through many references to the science and literature of grief. She writes:
In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature.

And this is what she does, although she admits that the literature of grief is remarkably 'spare'. I guess many of us, myself included, have an instinctive aversion to the topic of mourning and grief lest we somehow bring it upon ourselves. Although I think of myself as a rational person, I find some of the superstition around death hard to shake.

Partly this might be the times we live in. Didion contrasts the formal and ritualised approaches to death in the past with our modern habit of refusing to acknowledge it, of assuming people will 'get over it' after a 'suitable period of time'. In the past death was omnipresent. It occurred 'up close, at home'. Now 'death largely occurs offstage'. As a society we find death distasteful and, by association, also those who are grieving.

In writing her book, Didion bares her own experience to the public, perhaps so that others might feel less alone. That she finds some solace in literature confirms what many of us readers already know, that literature can help us cope with the great difficulties of life. I think there is something comforting in that idea.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Book Haul

Twice a year there is a major second-hand book fair in my town. The book fair is huge and the quality of books tends to be very good, plus all proceeds go to charity so book buying can feel even more virtuous than usual!

Yesterday we headed there first thing in the morning. Once inside, the husband headed off towards the history section and I made a beeline for general fiction. We blew the budget in a major way, but this is what I ended up with:

A Confederacy of Dunces John Kennedy Toole
New Grub Street George Gissing
The Orchid Thief Susan Orlean
Behind the Scenes at the Museum Kate Atkinson
The Pilot's Wife Anita Shreve
Birdsong Sebastian Faulks
The Snow Leopard Peter Matthiessen
The Year of Magical Thinking Joan Didion
The Rise of the Gothic Novel Maggie Kilgour
Dared and Done: The Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning Julia Markus
The Grave of Alice B. Toklas Otto Friedrich

There's a bit of a mix in there. Some books that I've been meaning to read for a while (Birdsong, The Orchid Thief) and others than I've only heard of in passing (New Grub Street). I also bought a bit more non-fiction than I might normally have- I'm particularly looking forward to the book about Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. I was very pleased with my haul and came away vowing not to buy any more books for at least a few months. Not sure how likely I am to stick to that vow though...

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

American Pastoral

I wonder if I'm really qualified to comment on Philip Roth's novel, American Pastoral. Well, I'll re-phrase that: I wonder if I am qualified to comment on how successfully the novel dissects American society and idea of the American dream, since the sum total of my time spent in America up until now is a week in New York eight years ago.

Still, the idea of the American dream is international in a way. The concepts of freedom, wealth, democracy and so on are integral to the ideals of many other countries. Also, the rest of the world is so immersed in American popular culture that it sometimes feels as though here, in Australia, we are still participating in the American experience, albeit at one remove.

American Pastoral is a highly ambitious novel and one that I found incredibly compelling and, at times, incredibly disturbing. It follows the life of Seymour Levov, better known as 'the Swede', a Jewish boy from New Jersey whose athletic prowess, charm and good looks seem destined to help him achieve a life living out the American dream. He is the pride of his immigrant neighbourhood, the one who will succeed and infiltrate the 'real' America.

And to an extent this is what he does. He takes over his father's glove factory, marries an ex-Miss New Jersey and buys an idyllic country house. Everything suggests that he will escape from his working class, ethnic roots. However his daughter Merry changes everything- she introduces chaos into the Swede's perfect world. She stutters and stammers her way through life growing angrier and angrier, eventually joining a radical political group and blowing up the post-office in the local village, killing a man in the process, an event that tears apart the Swede's carefully manufactured life.

The characters and events in the novel are fairly obviously meant to be symbolic. While the Swede embodies the conservatism and prosperity of post-war America, as well as the success of the second-generation immigrant, Merry reflects the chaos and social upheaval of the sixties. She is the ungrateful child of the previous generation. The Swede wonders why his daughter rebels, especially given her comfortable loving upbringing, never realising the potentially suffocating effect of so much expectation and love. Roth examines the tensions between generations, races and classes in America without over-simplifying. There are no simple solutions to the problems he describes and he is careful to let the reader decide for themselves where to lay blame. Personally I had very mixed feelings abut Merry and her actions. On one hand she is incredibly selfish and inexcusably violent, on the other I can recognise the purity of her political belief and commitment to her ideals, as well as her need to reject the materialism of her parents.

A further layer of complexity is added to the novel through Roth's use of a narrator. The narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, is a childhood friend of the Swede's brother Jerry and has since made a name for himself as a novelist. He idolised the Swede as a teenager and the story of the Swede's life is told by him, based only on a few anecdotes and one brief meeting with the Swede. The entire story is essentially a product of Nathan's imagination, how he thinks life might have gone for his idol. This makes the story more unsettling and less certain, an effect that seems very apt here. Roth plays with the idea of writing, of creating a character out of almost nothing, of filling in the back story until it becomes more convincing than real life. These are interesting ideas that are somewhat abandoned in the later parts of the book as the central narrative takes over.

American Pastoral is a 'big' book in every sense of the word. It is sprawling, complex and messy but also precise and insightful, and somehow Roth manages to contain all the elements of his story just long enough to tell them, and to tell them well.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Rosie Little's Cautionary Tales for Girls

I have just finished Rosie Little's Cautionary Tales for Girls and I have to admit I loved this collection of short stories by Australian author Danielle Wood. I loved it so much that I read it in one day, being home with a cold and not able to move off the couch.

The stories are a collection of modern day 'fairy tales', stories that ostensibly are written to inform young women about how to avoid the dangers of the world. The stories are loosely connected by the character of Rosie Little (what a great story-book name!) and follow Rosie's progression from losing her virginity, through first love, relationships and working life. In some stories Rosie is only referred to tangentially and in others she does not appear at all. The stories do, however, all centre around women and some of the problems they might face in the course of their lives.

The fairy tale references are subtle enough to not interfere with the flow of the stories, but interesting enough to add another layer of meaning. Picnic baskets, red shoes, plants that try their best to grow through the ceiling, a girl who turns into a 'living doll'; all occur at times throughout the book. Wolves appear in the guise of violent men, one of whom takes the form of an abusive lover of Rosie's.

I loved how Wood doesn't flinch from dealing with the tough issues- abortion, domestic and sexual violence, and the objectification of women are among some of the more confronting subjects dealt with. These are, of course, important issues for women and for society as a whole, and Wood's fictional tales do offer some thoughtful warnings to young women without being preachy or overly simplistic.

One of the great delights of the book is the humour and frankness of it. Rosie often pauses from telling her story to enlighten the reader on such subjects as penis size or the existence of a shoe goddess who helps women find perfect shoes. Rosie herself is a great character, one who makes mistakes but gets up again, laces up her cherry red Doc Martens and boldly plunges into the world once more. As Rosie says, these are not tales for good girls who stick to the well-trodden path on their way to grandma's house. These are for girls who 'have boots as stout as their hearts' and who are prepared to 'step out into the wilds in search of what they desire'.

I saw much of my own life in these stories, and I know I would have loved it even more if I'd read it ten years ago. I hope this book finds wide readership amongst young women because I think we could all do worse than to find our own inner Rosie Little.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Don Juan

This morning I was trying to remember a bit of Byron's 'Don Juan' that had made me laugh when I first read the poem at university. I hadn't looked at the poem in ages and when I started flicking through I found bits underlined and all my old notes in the margins. Some comments were obscure (made during a lecture I think and now very much out of context) but lots of the sections underlined reminded me of why I enjoyed this poem so much at the time.

Byron has such a wicked sense of humour. I particularly like his cheeky comments about Wordsworth, who must have loomed as a great presence over younger poets writing at the time. Take this stanza for example:

Young Juan wander'd by the glassy brooks
Thinking unutterable things; he threw
Himself at length within the leafy nooks
Where the wild branch of the cork forest grew;
There poets find materials for their books,
And every now and then we read them through,
So that their plan and prosody are eligible,
Unless, like Wordsworth, they prove unintelligible

Anyway, it turns out that the bit that I remembered was not part of 'Don Juan' as such, but a fragment written on the back of the first Canto:

I would to Heaven that I were so much clay,
As I am blood, bone, marrow, passion, feeling-
Because at least the past were passed away,
And for the future- (but I write this reeling,
Having got drunk exceedingly to-day,
So that I seem to stand upon the ceiling)
I say- the future is a serious matter-
And so- for God's sake- hock and soda-water!

The footnotes tell me that hock is a type of wine and a supposed remedy for hangovers; a kind of nineteenth century hair-of-the-dog.

I think this fragment is memorable to me because of Byron's passion and earthiness, and his very refreshing irreverence. I also like to think of him writing 'Don Juan' while battling a killer hangover.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Spring Fair

The husband and I were on our way to the farmers' market this morning when we got waylaid by our local primary school's spring fair. They were selling second hand books at $2 a pop. I couldn't resist and picked up the following:

- The White Lioness Henning Mankell: I've heard lots of good things about this Swedish crime writer. This is one of his Kurt Wallender novels.
- A Room of One's Own Virginia Woolf: Progress has stalled on my reading of Mrs Dalloway but I'm determined to pick it up again and then I plan on reading more of her work. A Room of One's Own might be a good place to go next.
- The Girl at the Lion D'Or Sebastian Faulks: I know absolutley nothing about this one except that I've heard other bloggers rave about Faulks' work.
- Rosie Little's Cautionary Tale for Girls Danielle Wood: A kind of grown-up fairy tale from what I can gather. I remember this getting good reviews when it was released. It's an Australian novel, written in Tasmania, a state that seems to be producing lots of interesting writers at the moment.

What with the books and some really good pancakes with maple syrup and whipped butter that I just had to buy, we never made it to the market. A morning well spent though, I think!

I've just finished Philip Roth's American Pastoral and am currently getting my head around what to say about it. Suffice to say, I loved it and am just thinking of how to capture some of its sprawl and scale in a review.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

In just-spring

After weeks of cold grey days, today the sun is shining and it's 18 degrees. We've opened all our windows and been out for a walk to see the wattle and daffodils in bloom in our suburb. Makes me think of e.e. cummings who captures spring better than just about anybody. I'll probably lose some of the layout of this poem but you get the idea anyway...

in just-

in Just-
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles far and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it's

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old balloonman whistles
far and wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and



balloonMan whistles

e.e. cummings

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Reading Update

I've read a few books recently that I don't feel too inspired to review at length. I'm not sure why except that maybe I don't feel I have a lot to say about them so I'll do a quick round up and leave it at that.

I read The Point by Australian author Marion Halligan partly because it is set in Canberra and partly because I enjoyed her earlier novel, Lovers' Knots. There aren't many novels set in Canberra. It's such a new city and so carefully planned that it feels soulless at times. My theory is that literature is one way to give a city colour and a sort of cultural 'texture'. While it is fascinating to see how Halligan sees Canberra, unfortunately I don't feel it's the book that will bring the city to life. She manages to capture Canberran light and weather, and includes some really interesting descriptions of Lake Burley Griffin, but the characters bored me and the dialogue was annoyingly stilted. So my search for the classic Canberra novel continues.

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson was an addictive read. I really couldn't put this book down until the last page. Unfortunately I found that it didn't stay with me and now I find it really hard to think of the reasons why I enjoyed it so much. I might have to read more of her work and see if there is something meaningful to get out of it for me.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka is a light hearted look at the immigrant experience. Nadezhda is the grown daughter of Ukrainian immigrants in England. She and her sister Vera are dealing with their father's relationship with a much younger, brash and manipulative Ukrainian woman, Valentina. I found some of the Ukrainian history in the book heartbreaking and the clash between the new and the established immigrants in the novel is interesting. I felt that some of these issues deserved more examination than they are given here but I still enjoyed Lewycka's book.

Philip Roth's American Pastoral, which I'm about a third of the way through, looks like providing a more thoughtful analysis of immigrant communities and their assimilation into their adopted country. So far I'm really loving this book- structurally it is really interesting and I'm really curious to see where Roth takes the reader. So far the narrative has unfolded in unexpected ways, jumping between times and events and between the real and the imagined. There are lots of interesting comments on the way characters are created by writers and how much we can really know another person.

Anyway, best go actually do some reading...

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter

It's not often that I laugh out loud in books, and actually I tend to cringe when I think of what might be considered 'comic novels', but I have to say that Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa was really, genuinely funny.

I was inspired to read this novel by Dorothy's post on it back in March and I find myself generally agreeing with her thoughtful review.

Llosa's novel is set in Lima, Peru and is about Mario, an 18 year old law student who works in a radio station. The novel follows his scandalous romance with his Aunt Julia, his divorced 32-year old aunt by marriage. Interwoven with the story of their relationship is the tale of Pedro Camacho, a strange little Bolivian writer who writes serials for the radio station where Mario works. Camacho is a tireless writer who churns out endless stories in a frenzy of work. His fantastical tales make up every second chapter in the book and are just as compelling and fascinating as they are purported to be by the other characters in the novel.

Unfortunately Camacho has only a tenuous grip on reality and as his output reaches fever pitch he finds his stories and characters becoming hopelessly confused. Characters change names, jobs and religions, they swap fates and circumstances, and they come back to life only to die again in spectacular ways.

Simultaneously, Mario's life comes to more closely resemble the lives of Camacho's characters. His family are horrified by the romance with Julia and their efforts to marry are filled with comic misadventures.

Some interesting reflections on the process of writing and creation add another layer to the novel. The self-referential idea of 'writing about writing' would, I imagine, have been more novel when the book was published in 1977, but despite the waves of writers who have since covered similar territory, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter still offers fresh insight on the topic.

My only criticism of Llosa's novel is the ending is sudden and a little flat. I felt the story of Camacho was unresolved and attempts to tie up loose ends were unsatisfying.

That said, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is so much fun that I can forgive any minor imperfections. Llosa's wit and verve shine through on every page and his characters will stay with me for some time.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Artemis Fowl

I've just finished a lightning fast (for me) read of Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl and I absolutely loved it. In a way it provided me with all the answers to what I feel is lacking in the Harry Potter series (although I won't go on about that anymore- I know most people don't agree with me).

Colfer's novel is aimed at young readers. It tells the story of one Artemis Fowl, a criminal mastermind and twelve year old, who embarks on an ambitious scheme to steal fairy gold. Artemis is a wonderful character, neither obviously good nor obviously evil, smart, aristocratic and supremely confident in his ability to pull off this job.

The fairies in the story are also great. In Colfer's world the fairies, along with trolls, dwarfs and other magical creatures, have been driven deep underground in order to keep their existence a secret from the Mud Men (humans). Policing this vast underground world is the elite LEPrecon unit, and Captain Holly Short is their first female officer. When Artemis manages to kidnap her during a rare but necessary journey above ground to perform a ceremony that will renew her magical abilities, the LEPrecon unit begins a rescue operation that will stop at nothing to keep the world of fairies and that of humans from colliding.

Colfer has so much fun mixing genres in his novel. The fairies of the LEPrecon unit are straight out of a cop show, especially cigar-chomping, hard-living Commander Root, and some of the dialogue is priceless, especially when Colfer makes fun of cliched police speak. These fairies smoke, swear and have all the petty ambitions and jealousies of humans. I also particularly enjoyed the character of Foaly, the tech expert who is a little too big for his boots, but who is the only one who understands how all the fairy equipment works. Oh, and who just happens to be a centaur.

Young readers will love some great fart jokes involving a dwarf with a rather 'explosive' digestive system. I have to admit I laughed out loud during this part of the novel, proving you never really out grow toilet humour.

Artemis Fowl is witty, fun and thoroughly unique in style. This is a fantasy novel in which characters aren't telegraphed as 'good' or 'evil' and I appreciated this more complex approach to morality. In fact, I really wasn't sure who I wanted to come out of the story triumphant, the charismatic Artemis with his stolen booty of fairy gold, or the LEPrecon fairies, who risk their lives to recover the treasure and restore balance between the worlds.

I can see why Colfer's series has been so popular. He never talks down to his audience, young or old, and he resists the urge to oversimplify. And, of course, he writes a cracking good yarn.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Michael Chabon's novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is an ambitious, original and exciting read. Chabon does not shy away from trying to cover a vast terrain in his novel. The story details the effect of the holocaust on one man, Josef Kavalier, who escapes Prague just in time to avoid the horrors of World War II. We then follow his subsequent attempts to secure a safe passage out of Eastern Europe for the relatives he has left behind. Most of the action takes place in New York but the story moves from pre-war Prague to as far afield as Antarctica. Imaginatively, the novel covers even more ground. Central to the narrative is the successful comic-strip that Josef creates with his American cousin Sam Clay. The comic strip is called The Escapist and it's about a Nazi-fighting superhero who excels at the art of escapism. The story spans a significant period of time both before and after WWII and details the relationship between the two cousins as well as their relationships with others. The scale of this novel is ambitious and admirable. Even more admirable is the fact that Chabon carries it off.

If I have one reservation about The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay it is that it didn't engage me emotionally as much as I would have expected. The holocaust is of course a powerful subject, but somehow I didn't quite feel as moved as I should have been during some key scenes in the novel. This might have been me, my mood at the time, but I can't help feeling that I should have been in tears at times when I felt relatively unscathed. On the plus side, this means that Chabon doesn't go for cheap sentimentality and that he finds humour and joy in what could have been a very bleak story.

I was particularly fascinated by the recurring imagery of golems. One of Josef's first tasks before he escapes to New York is to smuggle a golem out of Prague to safety and this idea of creating life is echoed in the character he creates for his comic strip. This is neatly linked in this passage to the more obvious imagery to do with escapistry that also occurs throughout the novel:
In literature and folklore, the significance and fascination of golems- from Rabbi Loew's to Victor von Frankenstein's- lay in their soullessness, in their tireless inhuman strength, in their metaphorical association with overweening human ambition, and in the frightening ease with which they passed beyond the control of their horrified and admiring creators. But it seemed to Joe that none of these- Faustian hubris, least of all- were among the true reasons that impelled men, time after time, to hazard the making of golems. The shaping of a golem, to him, was a gesture of hope, offered against hope, in a time of desperation. It was the expression of a yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something- one poor, dumb, powerful thing- exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties, and inevitable failures of the greater Creation. It was the voicing of a vain wish, when you got down to it, to escape.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a dense, rollicking, slightly crazed, fascinating novel and on the basis of it I will be reading some more of Chabon's writing as soon as I can.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I'm not a huge Harry Potter fan. I've read the series at a leisurely pace and I'm not the type of fan who lines up to get a copy on the first day the books are out. But I have to admit that I once I got into it this weekend, I really couldn't put Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows down. (Since we also had visitors this weekend that meant I read much of the book after everyone else had gone to bed, meaning I'm writing this post fairly seriously sleep-deprived.)

I think this last book in the series is my favourite. It is more grown up but without being as teenage-angsty as the previous two books. It was the first in the series to make me really, properly cry. I won't give away why (for the sake of the two or three people left in world who haven't read it yet) but I certainly was surprised by the event that brought me to tears. It was about half way through and involved a death. This scene was some of the best writing that Rowling has produced in the series.

I was happy with the plot which rollicked along, although sometimes I couldn't quite ignore the really obvious rip-offs from other fantasy novels, particularly Lord of the Rings. One horcrux in particular behaves amazingly like the ring in Tolkien's work. But it's a forgivable offence, particularly as lots of fantasy seems to draw on common elements.

Rowling tends towards the obvious in her writing style and characterisations and there is not a much in the way of interesting descriptions or illuminating insights into emotions and reactions of characters. She does, however, have a great knack for creating a convincing and complex world and she uses this novel to tie up many of the loose ends from the previous novels.

While I've had a great time reading the Harry Potter series I won't mourn its passing too heavily. Partly this is because I can't help but wonder why this book took off so spectacularly when I think there are so many better books for young readers out there. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is so much more original and exciting and it never makes the mistake of patronising young readers by simplifying ideas or resorting to the predictable. I can't help but think that part of Rowling's success is due to her inoffensiveness. She includes some nice messages about self-sacrifice and the corrupting effects of power but she really isn't going to offend or challenge anyone here, and maybe that is what we want in children's fiction. On the other hand, a big part of me says that fiction is where children should learn about life's big ideas and questions and that maybe we shouldn't give in to the triumph of the bland.

Now I find myself having written a more negative review than I intended. What I really wanted to say was that I loved reading this book and this series but I suspect they wont stay with me. Harry Potter is brilliant entertainment, but when it comes to life-changing literature I hope young readers explore beyond the the world of JK Rowling.

Friday, July 20, 2007

What Book Am I?

Well, everybody is doing it so why not? Still, I'm not sure this is me...

You're A Prayer for Owen Meany!

by John Irving

Despite humble and perhaps literally small beginnings, you inspire
faith in almost everyone you know. You are an agent of higher powers, and you manifest
this fact in mysterious and loud ways. A sense of destiny pervades your every waking
moment, and you prepare with great detail for destiny fulfilled. When you speak, IT

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

Have been doing lots of interesting reading lately but unfortunately no blogging, since computer access at home has been fairly sporadic. Luckily a new computer is on the horizon so I'll hopefully be posting and reading blogs again before the month is out. Looking forward to catching up with what everyone in the blogosphere has been reading...

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Art of Travel

While I have travelled quite extensively in the past, lack of funds has kept me pretty close to home for a while now. I thought that maybe I could travel vicariously through The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton's take on some of the philosophical implications of travel in the 21st century. Luckily it worked, and rather than feeling frustrated by tales of journeys I could not myself take, I have been inspired to appreciate my immediate surroundings more genuinely.

The Art of Travel is an easy read but surprisingly thought-provoking and compelling- I whizzed through it in two days. The book itself is structured like a journey, beginning, naturally enough, with 'Departure', covering 'Motives', 'Landscape' and 'Art' before finishing off with 'Return'. Within each of these broad sections there are chapters that look at particular aspects of travel. Each chapter concentrates on a place and one or two artists, writers, philosophers or scientists. It is this glance into famous perspectives on travel that I most enjoyed.

In the chapter entitled 'On Curiosity' de Botton examines the thoughts of 19th century scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt in order to explain what makes us curious, what motivates our interest in a new place. He contrasts the curiosity of Humboldt for the smallest details of nature in his explorations of South America with his own feeling of inertia during a trip to Madrid. His analysis of curiosity is particularly interesting:

Curiosity might be pictured as being made up of chains of small questions extending outwards, sometimes over huge distances, from a central hub composed of a few blunt, large questions. In childhood we ask: 'Why is there good and evil?' 'How does nature work?' 'Why am I me?'. If circumstances and temperament allow, we then build on these questions during adulthood, our curiosity encompassing more and more of the world until, at some point, we may reach that elusive stage where we are bored by nothing. The blunt large questions become connected to smaller, apparently esoteric ones... We start to care about the foreign policy of a long-dead Iberian monarch or about the role of peat in the Thirty Years War.

There is also an interesting chapter entitled 'On the Country and the City' which looks at Wordsworth and the role of the Romantic movement in encouraging a appreciation of nature in our travels.

My favourite section though is 'On Possessing Beauty', in which de Botton looks at the need people feel to 'own' part of the beauty that they see. On a simple level this might mean taking a photo or buying a souvenir, but through the ideas of John Ruskin, de Botton examines a more profound way in which we can possess beauty. Ruskin believed that it was only through understanding what we saw that we could truly take it with us, and the best way to gain understanding of what we see is to transfer it into art either by drawing it, or by creating a 'word-painting', a piece of descriptive writing. Ruskin emphasised that we should draw or write about what we see 'irrespective of whether we happen to have any talent for doing so.' To that end, Ruskin spent part of his career teaching carpenters in London to draw, hoping that by doing so they would begin to really look at the world around them. This seems a lovely way to express the need that many of us feel to draw, paint or write, even if we aren't great artists.

Finally de Botton finishes with a reminder that we must learnt to appreciate our surroundings, that we needn't travel far to see things in a new and refreshing way, and that perhaps before we launch out for distant exotic climes we should ' notice what we have already seen'.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Let the Right One In

I generally don't do horror. I'm the kind of person who screams at the cinema and has to cover their eyes during the gory bits. I can appreciate the art of horror but on an emotional level it's just too much for me.

So I approached John Ajvide Lindqvist's Let the Right One In (subtitled: 'A Vampire Love Story') with great trepidation. It was a present from my husband so I wanted to read it. And I am interested in vampire mythology despite my weak stomach for horror. And although I found parts of this Swedish novel nightmarishly disturbing, I was totally hooked and couldn't put it down.

Lindqvist's novel takes place in Blackeberg, a newish outer suburb of a large city. The setting is significant, as explained at the beginning of the novel. It is the suburb's newness, 'the modernity of the place, its rationality', that leaves its inhabitants unprepared for the strange and disturbing events that take place there. In a way this reminded me of of Sunnydale, the setting of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an incongruous location for vampires who we are more used to seeing in medieval castles or Victorian alleyways. Both Buffy and Let the Right the One In are interested in the ways that ancient myths and contemporary society might interact.

Let the Right One In switches between the stories of several people in Blackeberg. The main character is Oskar, a young boy who is brutally tormented by bullies at his school. Oskar befriends Eli, a strange girl who has moved into the flat next door to Oskar and his mother. Eli's strangeness, her imperviousness to the cold, her old-fashioned speech and her intelligence fascinate Oskar and their nightly meetings in his apartment block's playground provide him with a new source of confidence. Meanwhile, the cold-blooded and seemingly ritualistic killings of several people in the area begin to affect the residents of Blackeberg.

The power of horror lies in the anticipation and in the ability of the writer to make the unbelievable believable. Lindqvist does the latter very well, creating a realistically gritty suburban environment for his characters. His world is so real that it seems more shocking but also strangely believable when supernatural elements are introduced into the plot. In some senses it is the humans who are scarier than the vampires in this novel.

Lindqvist is also excellent at creating a sense of anticipation and I read the first 200 or so pages of Let the Right One In absolutely gripped with terror. I couldn't put the book down but at the same time I almost had to shut my eyes at times. Unfortunately, like many horror films, Lindqvist doesn't quite pull off the climax of the novel, the part where all the horrors that have been hinted at are finally revealed. I think that maybe this is a pitfall of the genre. After so much build-up and suggestion of horrors to come, the revealing of those horrors either falls flat or takes on a hysterical edge, as it does here, and suddenly it all seems a little bit silly. Despite the gore (and there is lots of that), I wasn't as gripped by the last third of the novel as I had been at the beginning.

Still, I was pleased to conquer my fear of the genre and I think that parts of this novel are really excellent. I may even venture into more horror writing if I can psyche myself up to the task.

On another note, my entries might be a bit few and far between for a little while- my ancient PC finally died and I don't have regular computer access. Hopefully I'll be back soon with bright shiny new computer-powered posts!

Sunday, May 27, 2007


I try to regularly include young adult fiction in my reading. Mostly this is because I teach English in a high school and like to keep up to date with fiction that is aimed at my students. Partly though, I read young adult fiction purely because I like it. It is often less pretentious than serious adult literature, yet at the same time it mostly doesn't flinch from facing the big issues.

In his novel Uglies, Scott Westerfeld launches head on into some pretty interesting territory. Uglies is the first installment in a trilogy set sometime in the not too distant future. In Westerfeld's vision of the future, everyone is given an operation at sixteen to turn them 'pretty'. By doing this society claims to wipe out any discrimination based on attractiveness. The new 'pretties' as they are called are then placed together in large cities where they party all night and live untroubled lives. Tally, the central character, is just about to turn sixteen. That means she is still an 'ugly'. She spends her days in a dorm with other young uglies, fantasising about her soon-to-be life as a pretty. At night she sneaks into Pretty Town to spy on the pretties.

Then she meets Shay. Tally and Shay become close friends, bonding over their shared love of pulling 'tricks' and getting up to mischief. The share a birthday which makes it even better as they'll both get the operation at the same time. As the date approaches, however, Shay begins to reveal some of her doubts about the operation to Tally. It emerges that Shay has some connections with a group who live outside the world of pretties, a group who choose to stay ugly. The night before their birthday Shay disappears to join the renegade group. Tally, desperate to turn pretty, is offered an awful choice by the authorities. She must find Shay and deliver her to them or she will never have the operation.

This situation helps develop a compelling feeling of tension in the novel. Tally goes after her friend, intending to turn her in. When she finds the outlaw group she finds some aspects of their society appealing and is torn between wanting to protect her new friends and wanting to be part of mainstream society.

Westerfeld keeps the plot moving along at a nice pace and develops some interesting relationships between characters. He also includes the obligatory cool technology, part of any good science fiction novel. In this case it is the magnetic hoverboards that people use to get around in his world. The authority figures are suitably menacing and there is a good message about valuing freedom and individuality over materialism and looks.

Uglies is the kind of novel that makes me enjoy reading young adult fiction so much. It is smart, well-written and thought provoking without being preachy or overly simplistic. I look forward to getting my hands on the rest of this trilogy.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Chick Lit Shame

I'm currently reading Karen Joy Fowler's novel The Jane Austen Book Club and it's a perfectly fun, light novel. It has all sorts of enthusiastic recommendations on the cover from reasonably respectable sources such as The Times ('stylish') and The Independent ('wonderful'). The characters make some fairly insightful comments about Jane Austen's books and the plot is coming along nicely. All up, I'm liking this book, however my problem comes from the cover which, in Australia at least, is lemon yellow with the title in embossed gold lettering and some pastel, cartoonish chairs on it. Yes, I seem to have drifted into the dreaded 'chick-lit' territory.

I must be a terrible snob but somehow I don't want people to think I'm reading chick-lit (even the name is offensive, surely no-one uses the term 'chick' anymore?). Somehow the genre conjures up images of desperate single women looking for 'Mr Right' and the perfect pair of shoes. Bleh. But since I avoid actually reading chick-lit, maybe I'm totally misjudging it. In fact, maybe I'm kidding myself when I presume that The Jane Austen Book Club has been mis-marketed and is actually much more sophisticated than its pastel cover would suggest. Maybe it IS chick-lit. It's about women, after all, and relationships, and everyone's outfits are described in detail. Now I'm totally confused. Should I be embarrassed by the pastel cover? Am I a ridiculous snob? And am I actually reading a chick-lit novel after all??

Sunday, May 13, 2007

History and Imagination

I don't normally read much non-fiction but lately I have read two excellent, and very different, biographies: Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn and Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen: A Life.

Writing a biography is a curious mix of the factual and the imaginative and I enjoyed seeing how these two writers balanced those aspects. Jane Austen left little behind other than her novels when she died. She didn't keep a diary and her sister Cassandra destroyed much of their correspondence, particularly the letters that might have contained more 'sensitive' material. Therefore Tomalin has many gaps to fill in Austen's life. One way that she overcomes this is through her meticulous research. She often finds illumination in round-about ways; Jane's cousin Eliza is a prolific letter writer and Tomalin gleans information from here. Also, Tomalin is able make inferences about Austen's life through the information we have about others who were in similar situations. In the end Tomalin's biography is very rich despite the lack of material and she seems to never fall into the trap of using too much creative license. In fact, she is very honest about the process and makes it clear to the reader when she is delving into imaginative recreation. Tomalin refutes the claim that others have famously made that Jane Austen led an uneventful life. Jane Austen might not have had much control of her circumstances in life but she certainly led a very rich inner life and endured her fair share of domestic dramas. Her lively, open-minded nature and a fierce intellect shine through in this biography, confirming what most readers have already worked out from reading her remarkable novels.

Nick Flynn is writing about a subject much closer to home, his own life and the life of his father, however he does face some of the same issues as Tomalin in Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Flynn's father is mostly absent throughout Flynn's life. His father is a troubled man whose chaotic life and alcoholism eventually lead him into homelessness. Father and son's lives intersect when Flynn's father becomes a regular at the homeless shelter where Flynn works. Eventually Flynn establishes some contact with his father and interviews him extensively, however his father is the ultimate unreliable narrator due to his deteriorating mental condition, his alcoholism and his desire to say whatever his audience wants to hear. He tells his son that he has a 'photogenic memory', revealing an interesting truth in his malapropism- he remembers what he wants to remember.

Flynn takes an impressionistic approach to the material, trying to get at the essence of his father's life through some quite imaginative techniques. He chooses to write one chapter as a Beckett-like play script, another as a stream-of-consciousness riff on the language of drinking. While this may sound pretentious, it works amazingly well and by the end of the novel I felt like I understood both Nick and his father, even if the dates and details of their lives were still hazy.

Biography is always going to require a certain amount of imagination. It is impossible to know the innermost thoughts of another person, and the difficulty of this only increases the more time that passes between the subject and the biography. Writers like Claire Tomalin and Nick Flynn acknowledge the role of imagination in their work and it is this honesty and openness that makes what they write more valuable to me than any number of more authoritative-sounding works.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

More on Mrs Dalloway

I am slowly but steadily making my way through Mrs Dalloway, trying to savour every moment of it. I am continually blown away by the writing. It is so dense and rich and beautiful.

I love that the action all takes place on a single day, but that the simple moments contained in that day inspire such interesting and complex memories and reflections. Woolf captures how the mind works, flitting rapidly between different emotions and thoughts.

A powerful moment occurs when Peter Walsh visits Clarissa at her home and a spark of their former relationship is reignited:
And Clarissa had leant forward, taken his hand, drawn him to her, kissed him, - actually had felt his face on hers before she could down the brandishing of silver-flashing plumes like pampas grass in a tropical gale in her breast, which, subsiding, left her holding his hand, patting his knee, and feeling as she sat back extraordinarily at her ease with him and light-hearted, all in a clap it came over her, If I had married him, this gaiety would have been mine all day!
Aren't those 'silver-flashing plumes' just perfect? And, although it's a bit of a technical point, I can't help but notice how this passage is all one sentence, and yet it flows beautifully. Woolf certainly knows how to use punctuation effectively. But most of all this passage is wonderful because of the way it captures a feeling of regret, regret that is both sweet and painful.

A moment later the scene is over, the connection broken, and the day continues...

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Secret Twin

I finished The Secret Twin a few weeks ago and have been putting off writing about it, not because I didn't like it, but because I'm not sure how to describe this unusual novel.

I read (and loved) Denise Gosliner Orenstein's previous novel Unseen Companion earlier this year. Unseen Companion is set in Alaska and describes the disappearance of a young man in a remote village. The story is told from the perspective of several young people who come into contact with him or his story. This narrative technique is one of the few similarities between Unseen Companion and The Secret Twin.

This time Orenstein has set her novel in an urban environment. In fact, the action mostly takes place inside an oppressive, obsessively clean house; the home of a young boy, Noah, and his grandmother. This gives the novel a feeling of claustrophobia, deliberately I think, since Noah has been kept in the house by his grandmother and allowed little contact with the outside world. Noah's grandmother, who he calls 'Mademoiselle', is a creepy, controlling figure. She has forced her obsession with cleanliness and her sparrow-like eating habits on her grandson, all the while nursing her secret drinking problem. She dominates Noah's life allowing him little chance to grow either emotionally or physically. When the novel begins he is a skeletal, shadowy boy who often retreats into his thoughts, particularly dwelling on the death of his conjoined twin after their birth.

This changes with the arrival of Nurse Grace. Nurse Grace is outwardly the opposite of Noah. She is large, chatty and constantly eats junk food, much to Noah's horror. She has come to care for Noah after his grandmother has an operation, and her presence in the house upsets the careful balance and control that has been maintained by Noah and his grandmother. Grace, though, is also mourning the loss of someone; for her, it is the death of her young brother.

The chapters are alternatively told from the perspective of Grace and Noah, and it is interesting to see how each of them are revealing or concealing parts of themselves. Grace makes some progress trying to befriend Noah, to nourish him with good food and to give him the confidence to open up to the world, however the tension in the novel is heightened by the presence of a sniper in their neighbourhood who is killing random victims. Orenstein plays with her audience here, hinting at the sniper's identity and potential victims.

The Secret Twin is a beautifully written novel. The characters are psychologically complex and the dark, almost claustrophobic, atmosphere is carefully maintained. However it won't be for everyone. Despite being primarily about young characters, it is hard to imagine a teenage audience warming to this very unusual novel. While I enjoyed reading The Secret Twin, it also was distinctly discomforting. Death, conjoined twins and scary, obsessive grandmas do not make for a relaxed read.

NB. A complimentary copy of this novel was supplied to this delicious solitude by Katherine Teegan Books (HarperCollins Publishing)

Friday, April 27, 2007

Beginning Mrs Dalloway

I first read Mrs Dalloway when I was at university and my memory of it is pretty hazy. I think I enjoyed it but it didn't make a big impression on me. Now that I'm re-reading it I think that I was just too young to appreciate Virginia Woolf first time around. This time I am reading slowly, allowing time for Woolf's gorgeous writing to sink in. The novel is so dense with imagery that I want to let myself think about the words, not race through.

The opening pages of Mrs Dalloway are just stunning. The way Woolf captures the sensations of a summer morning in London, the way she switches between different thoughts and perspectives, seems to capture more vividly the processes of thinking than any other writer I have read. She allows the reader glimpses into the minds of various characters in the scene, always finding fresh ways of describing their experiences. There is such vitality to the scene, such liveliness:
In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.
In a few words she can give more depth to a minor character than some novelists achieve over hundreds of pages. A crowd has gathered outside Buckingham Palace to hopefully catch a glimpse of the royal family. Woolf describes one of the onlookers:
Little Mr Bowley, who had rooms in the Albany and was sealed with wax over the deeper sources of life but could be unsealed suddenly, inappropriately, sentimentally, by this sort of thing...
Darker thoughts intrude into Clarissa's mind, despite the cheerful morning scene:
It rasped her, though, to have stirring about in her this brutal monster! to hear twigs cracking and feel hooves planted down in the depths of that leaf-encumbered forest, the soul...
In the next moment Clarissa is admonishing herself for these thoughts ('Nonsense, nonsense!') and entering the florist to choose flowers for her party. This switching between despair and joy gives the scene a psychological realism, reflecting the way minds (well, mine at least, and I suspect others') jump from impression to impression in sometimes contradictory ways.

I only 50 pages into Mrs Dalloway, and there is already so much to think about. I'm so glad to be rediscovering Woolf!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Jane Austen: A Life

I'm about half-way through Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen: A Life and really enjoying it. I don't generally read much non-fiction so I've been pleasantly surprised by how engrossing Tomalin's book is. I've just read the part concerned with Tom Lefroy, the young Irishman that Austen briefly knew and probably fell in love with (this affair is the inspiration for the film Becoming Jane, which I haven't seen but which, from all accounts, is pretty dire). Austen mentions Tom in some of her letters and Tomalin's analysis of her writing is sensitive and insightful: is the only surviving letter in which Jane is clearly writing as the heroine of her own youthful story, living for herself the short period of power, excitement and adventure that might come to a young woman when she was thinking of choosing a husband; just for a brief time she is enacting instead of imagining. We can't help knowing that her personal story will not go in the direction she is imagining in the letter; that, as it turned out, it was not Tom Lefroy, or anyone like him, who became her adventure, but the manuscript upstairs. Not marriage but art: and in her art she made this short period in a young woman's life carry such wit and human understanding as few writers have managed to cram into solemn volumes three times the size.

I like the idea that the manuscript (an early draft of Sense and Sensibility) was her 'adventure' in life. And while it seems cruel that two people were unable to marry because of their financial situations (neither Tom nor Jane had money to bring to a marriage), it was probably to the benefit of future generations of readers that she was forced to choose art over love.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A List (because I like them)

I'm not sure why, but I do like a good list. Here is the list of books that I bought at a second-hand book fair last Friday:

1. Open Secrets Alice Munro- I've been wanting to read something by her for a long time now
2. Case Histories Kate Atkinson- ditto
3. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay Michael Chabon- I liked the sound of the plot, plus it's a Pulitzer Prize winner (no guarantee, I know)
4. Hawksmoor Peter Ackroyd- I'm always interested in anything set in London, particularly the East End
5. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter Mario Vargas Llosa- Dorothy wrote about this novel recently and I thought it sounded interesting
6. The Point Marion Halligan- I'm curious about this because it is one of the few novels (that I know about) set in Canberra and I have been formulating a theory about how a city needs to inspire art and literature before it becomes a proper city. Canberra is so new that it still lacks soul and a good novel set there might help.
7. Prep Curtis Sittenfeld- which I've already read (see below)

Of course, now that I've bought all these new books I've decided to head back to the shelves and re-read a classic, Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway.

Monday, April 23, 2007

All About School

Two of the novels that I have read recently concern themselves with teenagers growing up in institutions. In Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep that institution is Ault School, an elite private boarding school, and the teenager is Lee Fiora, a scholarship student who describes herself as ' a nobody from Indiana'. Elinor Lipman tells her novel, My Latest Grievance, through the eyes of the charmingly precocious Frederica Hatch whose parents teach and live at Dewing College, a small East Coast college.

While these are very different novels (more on that shortly) they are both to some extent concerned with the teenage experience. I think it's interesting that so many films, books and TV shows are about teenagers. While we can assume that some of these are produced with teenage audiences in mind, clearly their appeal extends beyond that market. Why do the rest of us want to watch the goings on of teenagers? As a devoted fan of the teen film, I've given this some thought. I think that, firstly, being a teenager is something that we have all experienced. We've all been to school and we all feel familiar with that environment. Secondly, it is interesting to look back on teenage experiences with an adult perspective. I'm sure we all think that we could have handled certain situations more effectively with the knowledge of the world and the confidence that we have gained as adults. So as we read novels about teenagers we both relate to the protagonists and feel superior to them.

In Prep the protagonist, Lee, is painfully self-conscious and instantly recognisable. She is paralyzed by self-doubt and spends most of her time at school analysing others for their slightest reactions. The novel is an interesting insider's perspective on an environment of wealth and privilege that is only vaguely familiar to most of us. The WASPs of Ault have ridiculously preppy first names like 'Gates' and 'Cross' but as you'd expect they carry their money and status with relaxed ease. Unfortunately Lee is quite an unlikeable narrator at times and this lead me to sympathise more with some of her classmates than with Lee herself. Her self-consciousness and paralysis mean that much of the novel is spent examining the smallest gestures for meaning and until towards the end there isn't much of a plot. While this is probably a realistic depiction of a teenage mind, a more ruthless editor might have made this a shorter, punchier novel. Ultimately Prep was an interesting but unsatisfying read for me.

My Latest Grievance is also narrated by a teenage girl, but Frederica Hatch is a very different creature to Lee Fiora, and Elinor Lipman is a very different writer to Curtis Sittenfeld. Like Lee, Frederica is interested in those around her, but this time it is the adult world that fascinates. Frederica is the daughter of Aviva Ginsburg Hatch and David Hatch, left-wing intellectuals and fervent unionists who are staff members and dorm parents at a small, not-very-good college in the 1970's. Their idyllic world is upset by the arrival on campus of the glamourous Laura Lee French who turns out to have once been married to David. Lipman pokes gentle fun at all her characters, particularly Frederica's folk-music-loving, cause-fighting parents. Frederica herself is an interesting character, one who is blissfully un-self aware, over-confident and relentlessly nosy. The plot moves along briskly and there are many genuinely funny moments. This is a light read but well-written and insightful. Lipman can laugh at her characters at the same time as showing affection for them and this made the novel a real pleasure for me.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

To Autumn

Autumn seems to be lasting forever this year. The days are still warm, the trees have changed colour and the footpaths are covered in leaves. The light has become soft, diffused; the sunsets are outrageous shades of pink and orange. I know that one day soon winter will hit but until then I'm in blissful denial.

Must be time for some Keats...
To Autumn (John Keats)

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimmed their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twinéd flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barréd clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Power of a Good Title

At the moment I am reading Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn, a book I was drawn to purely by its title. In fact, I knew nothing whatsoever about it except that several times in book shops my husband and I had picked it up and laughed about the title. In the end he bought it for me and it has been interesting to actually begin reading it. It turns out Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is actually a pretty interesting memoir. In it Nick Flynn describes the path that led to him meeting his father for the first time in a homeless shelter in which Flynn worked. The book is told in a fragmented kind of way, so the reader has to piece together various anecdotes, building a picture of both Nick and his father's lives.

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City has made me think about the importance of the title of a book. The other book I'm reading- Jane Austen: A Life- seems to be at the other end of the spectrum: a purely functional title. Lots of my favourite novels have fairly dull or just straightforward titles: Cold Mountain, David Copperfield, Middlemarch. The only other novel I have that has appealed to me quite as much as Another Bullshit Night in Suck City purely on the basis of the title is A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. I think I was more prepared to like Eggers' book because I liked the title, and I think it probably got his book more publicity.

Some other book titles that appeal to me are:
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera- I like the paradox of lightness being 'unbearable'
  • Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas Tom Robbins- a nice, surreal image
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell- simple but powerful
  • White Chappell Scarlet Tracings Iain Sinclair- an interesting title with lots of different resonances such as the London area, Whitechapel, the blood suggested by 'scarlet', the contrast between the colours in the title
  • A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters Julian Barnes- I like the ambition of this title, and the 1/2 chapter is amusing
  • The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams- a fun title that leads nicely into the idea of the book within the book
  • The Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys- I'm a sucker for alliteration in a title, this one rolls off the tongue nicely, and isn't 'sargasso' a good word!
Although the title has little bearing on how good a book will be, it obviously doesn't hurt to have an interesting one. Clearly I am drawn to quirky titles, some of which border on the gimmicky and probably turn some readers off. Feel free to tell me your favourite book titles, as I'd be interested to see what appeals to other readers...

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Cold Mountain

It is not often that I finish a book and want to start re-reading it immediately. It is not often that I am reduced to tears by a novel, that I feel so much a part of the world the author has created that I feel the characters' pain as though it is my pain. Part of me wants to not review Cold Mountain because how can I possibly explain the profound experience of reading it?

I'll try, because I want to tell people how much I loved this novel, but you will have to take some of my praise on faith because I don't think I can do Cold Mountain justice.

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier takes place during the Civil War. Inman is a Confederate soldier who has experienced the horrors of some of the worst battles of the war. He begins the novel in hospital, recovering from a gun wound to the neck and is resolved to no longer fight in a war that he doesn't believe in. Therefore he begins his long, painful and dangerous journey back to his mountain home and to Ada, the woman he loves.

Frazier alternates between Inman's story and the story of Ada and her battle to survive on the home front. Ada's father has died leaving her alone and penniless on their farm. She finds a life of relative wealth has ill-prepared her for the subsistence lifestyle she must now face. Her saviour comes in the form of Ruby, a resourceful young woman whose tough, impoverished upbringing has prepared her well for these difficult times. The two women develop a close, symbiotic relationship that transcends their class differences and allows each woman to discover her ability to adapt and survive.

Frazier writes wonderfully about people and about the natural world. His work is meticulously researched, so that the reader feels intimately acquainted with the landscape that Inman passes through. His local knowledge is reminiscent of the novels of Annie Proulx in attention to detail. Frazier's descriptions are always fresh. He is a master of the simile in particular; snow and cold smell 'like sheared metal', snow comes down 'soft and fine like ground cornmeal falling from between millstones'.

Inman's journey through the countryside and his encounters along the way allow Frazier to show various aspects of the rural South and the effect that the war has had on it . Frazier touches on the issue of slavery, but his focus is on the effect of the war on those white Southerners who had little or nothing to begin with, the poor men who fought a war designed to protect the interests of the rich and powerful. Inman encounters ignorance, cruelty, eccentricity and kindness in the people who help, and hinder, his passage home. And all the time the prospect of his reunion with Ada, with whom he has a tentative but powerful connection, draws him on.

Cold Mountain is filled with an ache. It is the ache of Inman and Ada for each other, an ache for better times, times in which acts of random violence don't intrude on life with astonishing frequency. It is the ache of hunger and physical pain, the aching beauty of nature in its softness and its cruelty, the ache of hope and the ache of despair. This pain, this rawness, fills each page and made reading this novel such a powerful and moving experience. Cold Mountain effected me more powerfully than almost any other novel I have read. It is an amazing literary achievement, particularly considering it is Frazier's first novel. The beauty of his writing, the sensitivity of his characterisations and ultimately the irresistible pull of the narrative made this my new favourite novel and one which has raised the standards by which I will judge all other novels I read from now on.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Hope and Despair

I began an interest in the American Civil War a few months ago when my husband bought a copy of Ken Burns' documentary, The Civil War, at our local ABC shop. The Civil War is an amazing documentary series and watching it helped me to fill some of the embarrassingly huge gaps in my knowledge about the war (it is not generally studied in Australian schools). As seems to often happen when you start thinking about something, afterwards the Civil War began coming up in all sorts of places, including in the fiction I read. I started reading Geraldine Brooks' March but found it flat and uninteresting and gave up half way through. Around the same time a friend recommended Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain and I was lucky enough to find it in a second hand book store.

I'm about two thirds of the way through Cold Mountain now. It's the kind of book that you hope will never end, it's so full of beautiful images and intense emotion. The novel alternates between the story of Inman, a soldier who has deserted and is making the long journey back to his mountain home by foot, and Ada, who must survive at home on her father's farm. In an early chapter Frazier beautifully captures the faint but desperate hope that Inman has of ever returning home or of escaping the despair he feels as a result of his war experiences:

He thought on homeland, the big timber, the air thin and chill all year long. Tulip poplars so big through the trunk they put you in mind of locomotives set on end. He thought of getting home and building him a cabin on Cold Mountain so high that not a soul but the nighthawks passing across the clouds in autumn could hear his sad cry. Of living a life so quiet he would not need ears. And if Ada would go with him, there might be hope, so far off in the distance he did not even really see it, that in time his despair might be honed off to a point so fine and thin that it would be nearly the same as vanishing.

But even though he believed truly that you can think on a thing till it comes real, this last thought never shaped up so, no matter how hard he tried. What hope he had was no brighter than if someone had lit a taper at the mountain's top and left him far away to try setting a course by it.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Books Purchased, Books Received

A good present says a something about the giver and something about the receiver. I'll leave you to consider what the following books say about me, and about my husband who gave them to me for a recent birthday:

Let the Right One In John Ajivide Lindqvist
My Latest Grievance Elinor Lipman
The Jane Austen Book Club Karen Joy Fowler
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City Nick Flynn
A Short History of Tractors in the Ukraine Marina Lewycka

The following books were bought at special night for teachers at my local book store in which they used free wine and a 20% discount in order to get us to part with our money:

American Pastoral Philip Roth
Jane Austen: A Life Claire Tomalin

And, somewhat controversially, this is the first free book I have received as a result of this blog:

The Secret Twin Denise Gosliner Orenstein

The ethics of accepting free books have been discussed at length in the litblogosphere, however I do think it is important to let readers know that I will always disclose when I've been supplied with a free book (assuming that it ever happens again). I accepted The Secret Twin for two reasons: firstly, the author contacted me directly after reading my review of her novel Unseen Companion; secondly, this is a book I would have purchased anyway because I loved Orenstein's earlier work.

Much exciting reading awaits!

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Hollow Lands

Strangely enough, one of my favourite parts of Sophie Masson's young adult novel, The Hollow Lands, was the afterword. This is because I was intrigued by the setting of the novel, which although it is fantasy, draws heavily on Breton folklore and history. The Hollow Lands centres on the fate of young twins, Tiphaine and Gromer Raguenel, the children of noble parents in fourteenth century Brittany. The twins are drawn into the dangerous world of the korrigans (fairies) from which they must escape or risk losing their humanity forever.

Brittany is an interesting place to set a fantasy novel. It allows Masson to explore Celtic mythology and tradition, particularly the concept of fairies and their interaction with the world of humans. She has also drawn inspiration from the Arthurian story of Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady and from the real life story of the relationship between a poor hedge-squire who rises to military fame in the Hundred Years' War (Bertrand du Guesclin) and his noble wife, who, legend has it, was part fairy.

The novel begins with great promise. There is some lovely hypnotic prose and the suggestion of wonderful and mysterious events to follow. Early in the novel the twins read from a beautiful manuscript of traditional fables. They fall asleep...
...leaving the book lying open on top of the chest, instead of putting it away, as they usually did. And there it stayed, quietly, in the dark of the night, and the moonlight, until, in the very depths of the night hours, something swift and silent fluttered on to the pages, like a moth, then settled deeper into the book, which received it with a kind of shiver.
Unfortunately this is one of several incidences that seem to lead nowhere and the second half of the novel falls short of its early promise. Whilst the first half is atmospheric and magical, the later scenes, mostly set in fairyland, seem hurried. This is a shame given such a promising scenario and such obvious attention to research.

The Hollow Lands is interesting enough for me to want to read more of Sophie Masson's work (her novel, The Tempestuous Voyage of Hopewell Shakespeare, sounds particularly interesting) but I can't help feeling there is something missing in this novel. Given more length I think this could have been a very good fantasy novel. As it is, it does not distinguish itself enough to stand out from the many other novels in this genre.