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.