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)