Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Architecture of Happiness

This morning I finished reading Alain de Botton's thoroughly enjoyable book, The Architecture of Happiness. I've realised that I've become a big fan of De Botton's clear, thoughtful writing after loving The Art of Travel and now finding this book as good, if not better. He has a nice way of simplifying complex ideas and making clear the relationship between philosophy and ordinary, every day life.

The Architecture of Happiness is, obviously, about architecture. De Botton explores why we find certain buildings beautiful and why they might make our lives better. As in The Art of Travel, the text is accompanied by simple black and white photographs that look unassuming if you just flick through the book, but which compliment the text in clever and thoughtful ways as you read. De Botton covers a lot of material and I almost feel I could read this again just to soak up the ideas a little more thoroughly.

Some of the most interesting points in the book for me came towards the end. De Botton describes how the great architect Le Corbusier had what seems in hindsight to be an absolutely crazy plan to flatten parts of central Paris and replace the buildings with a vast parkland studded with enormous high-rise tower blocks of apartments. Rather than dismiss the idea, De Botton examines its rather idealistic motives and compares them to the reality of how people live and interact with urban landscapes. In doing so, he articulates some of the unease I feel with the city I live in- one which was planned in the early twentieth century with similar ideals about modern living in mind:
A city laid out on apparently rational grounds, where different specialised facilities (the houses, the shopping centre, the library) are separated from one another across a vast terrain connected by motorways, deprives its inhabitants of the pleasures of incidental discoveries and presupposes that we march from place to place with a sense of unflagging purpose. But whereas we may leave the house with the ostensible object of consulting a book in a library, we may nevertheless be delighted on the way by the sight of the fishmonger laying out his startled, bug-eyed catch on sheets of ice, by workmen hoisting patterned sofas into apartment blocks, by leaves opening their tender green palms to the spring sunshine, or by a girl with chestnut hair and glasses reading a book at the bus stop.

When I read this I instantly had a way of putting into words why, despite the fact that the city I live in has lots of open space and parkland, a high standard of housing, good roads with little or no traffic problems, and excellent facilities, I will never feel the same excitement and sense of possibility and even happiness here as I have in London or New York or even Sydney. While I'm not about to up sticks and move out of here right now, I feel a sense of relief in being able to explain why I don't really love the town I live in. For me, it is a great achievement of a book when it can clarify thoughts the reader already had but couldn't articulate.

De Botton gives voice to the idea that good architecture deeply affects us, that it can make us better, happier people. I've always felt quite sensitive to my surroundings and whether they make me feel comfortable or inspired and I don't think I'm at all alone in this. De Botton tries to break down this sensation and explain it in a rational way, and in doing so charges architects with the responsibility to use their skills to create a better world. De Botton explains, architecture is as much a kind of psychology- bad architecture being a failure to understand people and how they live. Beautiful places are, however,
"...the work of those rare architects with the humility to interrogate themselves adequately about their desires and the tenacity to translate their fleeting apprehensions of joy into logical plans- a combination that allows them to create environments that satisfy needs we never consciously knew we even had."

Monday, December 08, 2008

Falling Hopelessly Behind

My blog posts have become sadly infrequent (well, sadly for me at least, as I really enjoy posting here). This is for all the usual reasons of things both within and beyond my control. But now that reports are written and the long summer holiday is tantalizingly within reach, I'm determined to get back into it and once again crank up this delicious solitude.

I've got lots of Australian books to write about, including a couple of crime novels. I've also re-read and loved Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas after seeing a great documentary about Hunter S. Thompson. I'm hoping to write about The Architecture of Happiness, another Alain de Botton book that I'm finding fascinating, and as always, I'm enjoying a Margaret Atwood collection of stories, Good Bones.

But first up I've got to get out there and catch up on my blog reading which has also been sorely neglected. I'm sure you've all been far more diligent than me, and I have to hear about your reading.

Watch this space for more posts soon...

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Two Elizabeths

I'm currently reading two very English books, from roughly the same era (well, mid-twentieth century-ish) and which are both written in a really delightful, quiet, precise and beautiful way. They are both also, co-incidentally, written by women called Elizabeth.

Elizabeth David's cook book French Provincial Cooking is justifiably famous. This is a cook book that is easy to read cover to cover. Even the lists of ingredients are poetic and evoke long, warm summer nights in Provence or other such picturesque French country experiences. I'm only just realising what a debt so many modern celebrity chefs owe Elizabeth David. Her writing sounds remarkably contemporary, despite the fact that this book was written in 1960. Her promotion of fresh, seasonal ingredients and simple, clean flavours would be right at home in any modern cookery writing.

My favourite bit in the book so far is when Elizabeth David writes about Provence:
Provence is a country to which I am always returning, next week, next year, any day now, as soon as I can get on to a train. Here in London it is an effort of will to believe in the existence of such a place at all. But now and again the vision of golden tiles on a round southern roof, or of some warm, stony, herb-scented hillside will rise out of my kitchen pots with the smell of a piece of orange peel scenting a beef stew.

It is really lovely writing, and whether I ever cook anything from it or not, it is worth reading.

The other Elizabeth I am reading is Elizabeth Taylor's A View of the Harbour in one of those lovely dark green Virago Modern Classics paperback editions. I have to admit to having been hopelessly ignorant about Elizabeth Taylor (the writer, not the actress of course) and had not heard of her until I picked up this novel. But so far I'm loving the precise observation and insight into character in this novel set in a quite English seaside town after WWII. Beneath the calm surface, tensions abound in the village, with the story centering around Beth, her husband Robert who is the local doctor, and their neighbour Tory, who is Beth's best-friend but who is also having an affair with Robert. I can't wait to see how it's all resolved but so far Taylor has avoided any sense of melodrama in a plot that could tend that way.

More on both books as I work my way through the provinces of France and the intrigues of English village life...

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Carry Me Down

Carry Me Down by MJ Hyland is a disturbing and brilliant novel (a combination of adjectives that applies to some of my favourite pieces of literature). It totally divided my book group last week. There were some who hated it so much they could hardly even discuss the book- and these are lovely, educated readers- and then there were those of us who just fell totally in love with the beautiful writing and the bizarre world that Hyland creates (I like to think we were right!).

The book is set in Ireland in the 1970s and is told from the point of view of 12 year old John Egan. John would have to be one of the most unusual and fully realised characters in recent writing and his world is definitely a strange place for the reader to spend time in. John is physically mature beyond his years and is verging on a kind of madness (although the nature of this was hotly contested in my book group- some saw John as a dangerous sociopath, others, myself included, preferred to think of him as a troubled child who is reacting to the traumas he experiences). He is an only child who enjoys a disturbingly close relationship with his depressive mother and feels a kind of rivalry with his handsome, unemployed father. The family lives with John's grandmother on whom they depend financially, a situation that is fraught with tension.

John believes he is a human lie detector and uses his skill to interpret his interactions with those around him. And while he dreams of making it into the Guinness Book of Records with his unique skill, those around him expect him to grow up and fit into society's expectations. He is a boy whose physical body has outstripped his child's mind.

Hyland plays with the idea of madness and explores the way in which children can live in imaginative worlds that resemble the worlds constructed by the insane. She asks us to question the effect of a child's environment on their behaviour, particularly when the action moves to an extremely grim housing estate outside of Dublin. She also explores what we consider 'normal', ending the novel with a welcome hint of hope for John and his parents (or that is how I interpreted the ending, others in the book group felt it was a relentlessly depressing ending).

Carry Me Down is at times a very bleak book but I found that overall the beauty of the writing and the fascinating characters made this book un-put-downable. At times John is a funny, astute narrator who I genuinely liked, despite his confronting behaviour. It won't be a book for everyone, and it's not one to read if you want a light read, but it's definitely one of my favourite reads of this year.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Recent Reading

For someone who rarely reads much other than fiction, I seem to have found myself reading outside of my usual comfort zone lately. For starters, I read Where Underpants Come From by Joe Bennett for my book club. Bennett has written an account of his search for the source of the unbelievably cheap underpants he buys at his local department store in New Zealand. The book becomes a kind of investigation of the crazily successful Chinese manufacturing industry, and of the Chinese economy and culture more broadly. Where Underpants Come From is an engaging read and is sometimes quite funny but I found Bennett's innocent-abroad persona a bit grating after a while. He seems to feel that because he is an amateur that he doesn't really need to go beyond superficial insights or do much research. While it's interesting to read about his experiences in remote parts of China, I couldn't help but think that there must be more thoughtful books on Chinese culture available.

I've also finished Michael Chabon's books of essays called Maps and Legends. Those of you who follow this blog will know that I love Chabon's fiction and I was happy to find that I also enjoy his thoughts on other people's writing and the process of being a writer. Chabon has twin fixations, genre fiction and his Jewish heritage, and he brings together these elements in the fantastic final essay entitled Golems I Have Known, or Why My Elder Son's Middle Name is Napoleon. In the essay he uses the idea of the golem as a metaphor for creating fiction and he plays with the idea of truth and its relationship to fiction. Other essays cover such topics as Arthur Conan Doyle, the short story, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, Cormac McCarthy's The Road and various moments in the author's own creative life. I found myself agreeing with Chabon's championing of genre fiction and, as always, enjoying his writing style and humour. In one particular passage Chabon writes about the influence of science fiction on his own writing in a particularly lovely way:
I wanted to tell stories, the kind with set pieces and long descriptive passages, and "round" characters, and beginnings and middles and ends. And I wanted to instill- or rather I didn't want to lose- that quality, inherent in the best science fiction, that was sometimes called "the sense of wonder." If my subject matter couldn't do it- if I wasn't writing about people who sailed through neutron stars or harnessed suns together- then it was going to fall to my sentences themselves to open up the heads of my readers and decant into them enough crackling plasma to light up the eye sockets for a week.

Happily, I think he has achieved that rather ambitious aim.

I'm now half-way through Jonathan Franzen's The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History which is a collection of autobiographical essays, so far mostly about Franzen's rather fraught and anxious childhood and adolescence. There are some similarities to the Chabon book; both authors share a middle class, suburban upbringing and are roughly the same age, and both tend to write in a slightly self-mocking but ultimately confident style. However, where Chabon focuses on writing and books, both his own and those of others who have influenced him, Franzen's book is much more a straight down the line autobiography. So far I'm really enjoying The Discomfort Zone. Franzen has a way of capturing the painful awkwardness of adolescence that I could really relate to. He also captures the relationship between a child and their parents so accurately that it made me wince. These are the same things I remember liking about The Corrections and so I imagine fans of that book would enjoy this smaller, more intimate and personal piece of writing.

When I finish Franzen, I'm determined to get back into some fiction so top of the list is M.J. Hyland's Carry Me Down which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year (or the year before?). I have to admit though, I have enjoyed my little side trip into non-fiction and I might well find myself back here before long.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Moments in History

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne are two books for young readers that share their basis in tragic periods from history. I read both books recently and was struck by some of their similarities. Both books share a sense of dread and fear, and both raise the issue of how brutal events in history might be mediated for younger readers.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry was first published in 1976. It tells the story of the Logans, a black family who are struggling to survive in the Deep South of America during the depression. The story is told from the viewpoint of Cassie Logan, a young girl who is on the cusp of realising that she lives in a society that views her and her family as second class citizens. Cassie's proud family have worked hard to protect her and her siblings from the racism of the world around her, but as she begins to interact with a more adult world there is no way that she can remain in blissful ignorance. The Logan family have fought hard to buy their own piece of land, therefore maintaining more independence than a lot of other families who work as share-croppers in the area. Unfortunately their independence also makes the Logans a target for local whites who are angry that they are getting 'above their station'.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry owes a debt to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird which was published the decade before Taylor's novel. They share a young female narrator and an episodic plot structure that mixes amusing anecdotes with a more serious plot line that slowly builds throughout the novel. Roll of Thunder however has something that Mockingbird doesn't have, and that is a real sense of danger and impending doom. The fact that this is a novel told from the perspective of a black family means that we as readers are central to the action. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout herself was never likely to be the victim of racism but Cassie Logan runs some very real risks when she stands up for herself. To my mind, Mockingbird is the better of the two novels but there is certainly a place for both in the canon of American literature.

Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry tells a story that it is important for young people to hear. Taylor balances out the moments of despair and fear however by ensuring that there is still a sense of hope in the novel. For me, that sense of hope is really important when writing for young people, especially readers who might not be able to put such events into perspective on their own.

***Spoiler ahead***
It is this sense of hope that is almost totally absent from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. John Boyne's novel is about the holocaust and tells the tale of a small boy, Bruno, whose family move to the mysterious 'Out-with' (Bruno's pronunciation) at the behest of the very important man known to Bruno as 'the Fury'. Bruno's father has been hired to run the camp that adult readers will recognise immediately as Auschwitz.

Ostensibly this is a novel for quite young readers- the protagonist is 9 years old and the story is simple and almost fairy-tale like. Of course, this is no fairy-tale and adult readers will know that things aren't going to end well for Bruno and Schmuel, the friend Bruno makes who lives behind the fence.

It's not that I think that children should be protected completely from awful moments in our history, however what I do object to is the way this book lures children in with a sweet and innocent tone, only to hit them with an absolutely devastating and, let's face it, unrealistic ending. While no-one with an understanding of history would expect things to go well for Schmuel, Boyne adds in a twist in which Bruno himself becomes a victim of the holocaust. Bruno's death, the book seems to suggest, is only fair given that his father is responsible for systematic genocide. This seems a particularly brutal way for the author to make his point.

If we are going to expose children to the horror of the holocaust, is it too much to ask that it at least be historically accurate? Even the central premise, Bruno's friendship with Schmuel is extremely unrealistic. There are lots of books about this period in history that present the material in a more honest and open way. Anne Frank's diary springs to mind as perhaps more suitable for young readers.

When I think back to myself at 9 years of age, I think The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas would have been unreasonably disturbing. I think we owe it to young children to be honest with them and while Boyne's intentions are noble I don't think his book serves a useful purpose in the way that it makes a really awful part of history even more disturbing for such a young audience.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Catching Up

There's been lots of reading and not much blogging happening around here lately so it seems time for a bit of a round up post.

I'm reading a couple of interesting books for school at the moment. I just finished Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor and am working my through John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Both are young adult novels that deal with terrible, tragic times in history: segregation in the American South in the 1920's and Nazi Germany, respectively. The two books are very different in style but there are some striking similarities so I'm planning a proper post on these two together.

I'm also reading Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, which I'm ashamed to admit I've never read before. The play rollicks along but it seems to me the very obvious anti-semitism makes this a tricky one to stage today. In the front of my edition there's an interesting essay by the Australian actor John Bell on how he approached the challenges of playing Shylock without resorting to negative stereotypes. It really made me want to see a thoughtful production of the play.

I finally finished Carter Beats the Devil, Glen David Gold's gorgeously magical depiction of the world of, well, magic in San Francisco in the early part of the twentieth century. Watch this space for a proper review soon.

Now I'm getting stuck into Tim Winton's collection of inter-linked short stories The Turning for my book club and just loving it even though I'm only a few stories in. There is just something about the way Winton captures Australian speech patterns and rural Australian landscapes that I find irresistible.

Finally, I've bought some wonderful new books over the past week. I bought a very beautiful copy of Michael Chabon's collection of essays called Maps and Legends. Honestly the multi-layered cover is so gorgeous that I can hardly bear to open this one, but of course I will because of my newly found love of all things Chabon. I also got some great bargains at an academic remainders store in my city: a crime fiction novel by Australian author Peter Temple called Black Tide, Margaret Atwood's book on writing called Negotiating with the Dead and a great little collection of poetry called Out of Fashion which is edited by poet Carol Ann Duffy (all the poems are about fashion, dressing or undressing, and a range of contemporary poets have each submitted a poem of their own and one from 'another time' which all makes for a great range of interesting poems).

All this makes me think how lovely it is to have a really enticing pile of books in the house and almost makes up for the winter chill that has descended in full force this week.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Quiet American

I have recently converted to being a Graham Greene fan as a result of his small but perfectly formed novel, The Quiet American. I had read some Graham Greene before (Our Man in Havana) and was not particularly drawn in by his writing, although I could see that technically it was good. The Quiet American, however, really blew me away.

The Quiet American is narrated by the main character Fowler, a middle-aged English reporter who is living in Vietnam in the 1950s. The events take place during the war against the French colonialists just prior to American involvement in the Vietnam War. The 'quiet American' of the title is young aid-worker Pyle who meets Fowler and promptly falls in love with Fowler's beautiful young Vietnamese girlfriend Phuong. Despite their conflict over Phuong, Fowler and Pyle are friends, of a sort. However as Fowler begins to discover more about Pyle's actual work in Vietnam, their friendship becomes untenable and events reach a dramatic climax.

Fowler makes much of his role as a reporter (as opposed to a commentator). He tries to remain detached from the war that he reports on, refusing to take sides. This proves difficult though, especially when Fowler is confronted by horrific violence and bloodshed. For the reader, there are constant questions of how true Fowler's claims of detachment are. How much does losing Phuong colour Fowler's attitude to Pyle? And, since the story is told in hindsight, how much does Fowler's later knowledge of Pyle effect his retelling of the story? By the novel's climactic end, Fowler is forced to takes sides and realises that efforts to remain neutral are futile. He has realised that even doing nothing is in itself an act of choosing sides.

Greene contrasts Fowler's cynicism and detachment from events with Pyle's naive belief that he can understand and change the situation in Vietnam. Pyle stands as a kind of American 'everyman' in the novel. He has wildly optimistic and confident views about America's role in Vietnam and fails to read the subtleties of the situation. Fowler sees Pyle as dangerous in his innocence, describing innocence as a kind of 'insanity'. Pyle is less innocent than he seems but also more dangerous. His simplistic idealism reflects the kind of attitudes that got the US bogged down in an unwinnable war. Pyle is America on a post-WWII high, determined that the rest of the world share the democratic freedoms that they have. This is not in itself such a terrible goal, but is certainly one that can (and did) have devastating consequences.

The Quiet American is so successful partly because it is so relevant to modern conflicts. It foreshadows America's involvement in Vietnam and the quagmire of the war in Iraq. In fact, it stands as a useful metaphor of any nation hoping to blindly march in and show another country how it should live.

Graham Greene doesn't do great female characters and Phuong is very thinly drawn. Perhaps she is meant to represent Vietnam- she is a victim of the manipulation of others but in the end she endures, quiet and unknowable but unchangeable in a way. This is a small criticism though because Greene's real focus is the central relationship in the novel, the friendship between Fowler and Pyle. I find it hard to bring to mind a novel that so accurately depicts a male friendship. Theirs is an incredibly complex relationship. At times it seems that Fowler barely even likes Pyle but the final lines of the book, in which Fowler wishes he could talk to Pyle about what has happened, are incredibly moving.

There is so much in this novel and it is told with such beautiful simplicity. There is something astonishing in a novel that evokes a time and place so strongly and yet is so relevant to contemporary world politics. The Quiet American is a classic, and deservedly so.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Wonder Boys

What is it that I loved so much about Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys? It's hard to capture now that I try to write my thoughts down. In fact, I think it's the books that I really love that I find the hardest to blog about perhaps because it's those books that are hardest to disect and analyse. Part of me wants to keep the experience of reading Wonder Boys whole and untouched. On the other hand, I want to rave about a book that I love and encourage others to read it in the hope that they have the same experience. So here goes...

One thing that I love about this book is that it is so totally different in subject matter to the two other Chabon books I've read. Compared to the noirish detective fiction of The Yiddish Policemen's Union or the epic adventure of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, it could have been written by someone else. And yet... there is a certain consistency of style and language that Chabon maintains despite his amazingly wide-ranging subject matter. He writes with such confidence, with long winding sentences that never trip over themselves and feel fresh and honest and clever and... ok, I'm getting too breathily enthusiastic now.

So what's Wonder Boys actually about? The narrator is Grady Tripp, a writer and academic who has written some very successful novels in the past but finds himself now stuck on an unfinishable novel called 'Wonder Boys'. Rather than writers' block, Grady has a kind of writers' diarrhoea and his draft has reached colossal proportions with no end in sight after seven years of writing. Grady is forced to confront his failure to complete the novel (and the possibility that maybe 'Wonder Boys' isn't really very good) when his debaucherous, lecherous, old friend and editor Terry Crabtree (played by Robert Downey Jr in the film version- what perfect casting!) arrives in town for a literary festival and to see when the book will be ready.

At the same time Grady finds himself tied up in the worries of his student James Leer, a troubled and talented young writer, and his mistress who just happens to be dean of the university and is also pregnant with Grady's child.

What follows is a few days of complete chaos as Grady, fuelled by alcohol and drugs, stumbles from one disaster to the next. There's a dead dog to dispose of, a shoot out, a stolen car, a wife who has left him, a Passover dinner, Marilyn Monroe memorabilia, booze, cigarettes, dope, and all the while the sneaking suspicion that Terry will uncover the truth about the unfinished manuscript in Grady's study.

Despite the chaotic messiness of the plot, Chabon never lets his material get away from him. This book is never self-indulgent and its free-wheeling plot is actually cleverly constructed to build the picture of a character who has lost control of his life. Chabon writes very well about writing in Wonder Boys, capturing the way we can lose perspective on our own work. Through the character of student James Leer he explores the constructedness of writing- James lives through old movies and uses them to construct much of his writing and, it is revealed, his life.

There is such a wonderful use of humour in this book as Grady's adventures descend into the ridiculous, but there is also a wonderful humanity. Chabon never loses sight of his characters, and while they might land themselves in cartoonish scenarios, they themselves never become cartoons.

This is a really hard book for me to describe mostly because I just loved it so much, and I'm not sure I've done it justice here. The most I can say really is go out and read it yourself if you haven't done so already.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Okay, I'll admit it. I'm in love with Michael Chabon. How did I not see this before when I read The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and thought it was only 'pretty good'? Clearly I was in denial because after reading The Yiddish Policemen's Union for my book club and then quickly following it with Wonder Boys, I can't believe I wasn't raving about Chabon years ago.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is Chabon's take on genre fiction, in this case the hard-boiled detective novel. All the usual factors are there: the troubled maverick detective, a body in the first chapter, crosses and double crosses and a plot that moves along at a cracking pace. Chabon works his magic to make something new out of this familiar terrain. The main way he does this is by setting his novel in a re-imagined world, one in which a homeland for Jews is established after World War II in Sitka, Alaska. Tension is created by the imminent 'reversion' in which the homeland will be returned to the US and the 'frozen chosen' of Sitka will be out on their ear.

The novel begins with the murder of a young, chess-playing heroin addict in a cheap dive of a hotel which also happens to be where detective Meyer Landsman is currently residing. Landsman becomes obsessed with solving the crime, despite the more pressing concerns of his own mess of a life, and it leads him into the dark and secretive world of the Verbover sect, a group of devout and corrupt Jews with their own plans for survival after they are kicked out of Sitka.

The plot is fast and clever but it is Chabon's use of language that really sucked me in. He channels Raymond Chandler and his ilk but then gives it a twist of his own. This is smart, funny writing that still has real emotional pull. Here's a taste from early in the book, introducing the main character:
According to doctors, therapists, and his ex-wife, Landsman drinks to medicate himself, tuning the tubes and crystals of his moods with a crude hammer of hundred-proof plum brandy. But the truth is that Meyer Landsman has only two moods: working and dead... He has the memory of convict, the balls of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker. When there is crime to fight, Landsman tears around Sitka like a man with his pant leg caught on a rocket. It's like there's a film score playing behind him, heavy on the castanets. The problem comes in the hours when he isn't working, when his thoughts start blowing out the open window of his brain like pages from a blotter. Sometimes it takes a heavy paperweight to pin them down.

Chabon also litters the text with his own brand of Yiddish slang that gives the alternative world that he has created a feeling of authenticity. It is this attention to detail that makes Sitka really come to life.

There is a certain strange freedom with writing within an established genre. Rather than it being formulaic, I think a good writer uses the shared understanding between reader and writer to leap-frog straight into more interesting territory. In genre fiction there is less time spent on establishing just what the book is and more time getting on with the really interesting stuff. Or that's what Chabon manages anyway. Sure, there are plenty of badly written crime novels, but there's lots of really turgid 'literary fiction' and the whole snobbishness around genre fiction is really undeserved, especially when you read a crime novel as good as this.

In my next post: why Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys is my new favourite book. Yes, folks, it's definitely love...

Monday, June 30, 2008

Coming out of hibernation

The days are short and fresh. The nights, long and cold. It's mid-winter and that means report writing, head-colds and that feeling that this month will never end. But finally on the last day of June, I've found time for a catch up post. Rather than go through each book in its own proper review, I think I'll just sum up my recent reading.

I bought The Greatest Man in Cedar Hole by Stephanie Doyon for no other reason than that it had a great cover. I should have known that wouldn't work out so well. It's not that I didn't like this book but it rather felt like time in my life that could have been better spent (on a really good book, say). Doyon peoples her novel about a small and miserable backwoods town in the US with a cast of unlikeable characters. It's not just me, she spends time telling the reader that Cedar Hole is full of losers, which frankly does not make for an exciting reading experience. I don't have to love the characters in a novel but I have to be interested in them. Doyon is a capable writer and there are some interesting moments in the novel. I just don't think this book knows what it wants to be. While Doyon seems to be aiming for a comic novel, some of the quite dark and serious subject matter breaks the mood and left me feeling unsatisfied.

On the hand, I absolutely loved The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon. I really can't sum this up and do it any justice so I'll break my word and leave this one for a longer review. Just trust me that it's fantastic.

Finally, I quickly devoured Stephanie Meyer's young adult vampire novel Twilight over the weekend. This novel has been huge amongst girls in the age group that I teach. I would have loved it as a 13 year old but unfortunately it seemed a bit thin to this jaded adult. The novel is about Bella Swan, a teenager who moves to a small town in Washington where she meets and falls for the mysterious and devastatingly handsome Edward Cullen. Surprise, surprise, Edward's not like other boys. It takes about five minutes to work out he's a vampire and about another five to get sick of the total power imbalance between Edward, the dangerous vampire with super strength, and the frail, accident-prone and completely trusting heroine, Bella. Give me Buffy the Vampire Slayer any day. At least it was obvious in that show why a centuries old vampire might find the teenage girl interesting as anything other than food (and satisfying to know she could beat him if it came to a fight). Still there is plenty of seething sexual tension (very inoffensively portrayed) to explain the huge appeal this book has to its audience. Try Peeps by Scott Westerfeld if you want an example of how this sort of thing really ought to be done.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Hearts and Minds

One thing I enjoy about fiction is the ability it has to show you a part of the world that you know little about. Sometimes a novel can make you feel like a true insider in a way that few other mediums can, by making you feel you inhabit a place and time completely. Hearts and Minds by Rosy Thornton was one such novel for me. In this novel, Thorton reveals some of the workings of the cloistered and arcane world of life in a Cambridge University college, a world seems quite strange to the outsider.

The fictional St Radegund's College is a women's college that has, for the first time ever, appointed a male head of the house. The new 'mistress' is James Rycarte a former tv journalist and foreign correspondent. Rycarte's position as an outsider is a useful device for explaining the complex world of the college to the reader. Through the course of the novel Rycarte comes to understand the peculiarities of the college, with its balance between different academic factions and a fiery student council, and the many obscure traditions and protocols of the centuries old college.

The other central character in the novel is Martha Pearce, dedicated Senior Tutor at St Radegund's, mother to a worringly aimless daughter, wife to a hopelessly self-centred husband and ultimate peace-maker and diplomat in the quagmire of inter-personal relations between staff at the college. Martha and James find a connection at once and together they negotiate various crises, including a student rent strike and the ethical dilemma of accepting a wealthy Italian parent's enormous financial donation.

For me, Martha was the most convincing character in the novel. There was something about her constant feeling that she can never do enough for her family or in her demanding job that seemed to ring true. Her efforts to hold together her marriage to her lay-about poet husband were frustrating but all too believable, as was the difficulty she has watching her daughter fall ever further into depression.

Hearts and Minds is fairly light reading. It isn't trying to be anything terribly deep and meaningful, the cover even hints that the book might be aimed at the (cringe) 'chick lit' market. Fortunately Thornton avoids the major pitfalls of that genre and does not sink into sentimentality. There is the suggestion of a romance that is very nicely resolved at the novel's end. The plot is restrained, maybe at times a little too restrained. I don't think it would have hurt to inject a little more drama into the story, but it's a small quibble with what is essentially an enjoyable read.

This novel was kindly provided to this delicious solitude by the author.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Hot on the heels of having read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, I recently found myself reading yet another modern take on the Victorian novel. Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith is a rip-roaring yarn set in 19th century England. Waters draws on the tradition of social realism, combining it with a good dose of the Gothic, to create a page-turner of a novel. The plot flies along, taking the reader on what is a pretty entertaining ride. This is a Victorian novel seen through a contemporary lens. Characters swear and have sex, something that doesn't happen much in Dickens.

Waters writes skillfully and entertainingly but at times this book stretched the bounds of believability for me. Somehow everything works out a little too neatly and the coincidences and connections are forced at times. I found the experience of reading Fingersmith very much like reading Waters' more recent novel Nightwatch. Both were great fun but neither really stayed me. Waters' writing seem to promise something that it doesn't quite deliver. Fingersmith plays around the edges of some really interesting ideas, such as the role of women and women's sexuality in Victorian England, but it never quite soars for me. I'm interested enough in Waters' writing though to want to read her novels in the future, just to see if they ever really fly.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

A bit of this, a bit of that

The new school term started on Monday and, as usual, that means not much time for reading or blog-writing in this part of the world. However the beautiful autumn weather (we even had dusting of snow on the surrounding hills the other day!) bodes well for cosy indoor activities ahead.

I've been slowly making my way through Tristram Shandy, a book that I am finding quite easy to read in fits and starts because that is how it is written. It is funny and playful, but at the same time I think Sterne creates some wonderful characters. Uncle Toby is my favourite so far, with his unwavering obsession with the battle that left him, well, not quite all man.

I also squeezed in a quick read for my book group which met last week- Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. This is a short novel, translated from the Norwegian, about a man, Trond, reflecting on some of the formative experiences of his youth. It is written in a very distinctive style. There are long, almost dream-like sentences, describing the idyllic Norwegian countryside of Trond's youth, and the countryside that he has now returned to as an ageing man. Petterson describes the simple physical tasks of rural life with great beauty. I could almost feel I was there.

As with all literature in translation, I sometimes wondered how much of the word choice was down to the translation process. Sometimes there is a slight awkwardness to the words and the phrasing, but it suits the character of Trond and I like to think it would be there in the original too.

Out Stealing Horses has a fairly pedestrian, coming-of-age plot, that falls into cliche at times. I won't give away too much here but when Trond's father's secrets are revealed I thought it was all a bit too predictable. In some ways the plot doesn't live up to Petterson's skillful descriptions and thoughtful insights into character. Still, this is an enjoyable read and a reminder that they do write novels that aren't crime fiction in Scandinavia.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke was just such a pleasure to read. It's not often that a book is enjoyable in so many ways. From the thick creamy paper of the cover, with its gorgeous font, to the quaint charcoal illustrations, the book itself is a sensory experience. And that's nothing compared to how fun it is to actually read this novel.

Susanna Clarke creates a world in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell that is utterly believable. The novel takes place in a version of 19th century England which is much like the one we know, except that this England has a history of magic dating back to a golden age in the middle ages. The tradition of 'English magic' has fallen into decline and it is the aim of magicians Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange to restore its proper place in English life.

Primarily, Clarke is concerned with the characters in her novel. She doesn't get carried away with the whizz-bang fireworks aspects of fantasy and magic (well, maybe she does a little towards the end, but by then the reader is so convinced by the characters and wrapped up in the plot that they would follow her almost anywhere). The novel centres around the two magicians of the title. Norrell is a bookish, scholarly type who is secretive and suspicious about the motives of others. His aim is to hoard away knowledge about magic so that it won't fall into the 'wrong' hands. Unfortunately he is also ambitious, and in trying to win himself a position of authority with the government he uses a dangerous form of magic to bring a woman back to life, leading to all manner of strife.

Jonathan Strange on the other hand is gregarious and likeable, but with a tendency to take risks and to be attracted to the darker side of magic. He seeks out Norrell as a tutor and, although he finds Norrell infuriating at times, the two compliment each other and form a strong bond. It is only when they are separated by Strange's posting at Wellington's side during his war with the French (magic proving very helpful in battle) that cracks begin to show in their relationship.

This is the kind of fantasy novel that Charles Dickens might have written had it ever occurred to him to write fantasy. While this is unapologetically a fantasy novel, the genre that it has most in common with is the 19th century novel. Clarke draws on the 19th century both for setting and style. The humour and naming of characters struck me as very Dickensian, and there is a touch of Austen to the depiction of social relationships and manners. Surprisingly this pairing of genres really works to create something which, to my mind at least, is quite new and refreshing, although I'll admit to not being a big reader of fantasy so maybe this has been done many times before!

At almost 800 pages Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a long novel, but it is to Clarke's credit that it never feels long. I was totally swept up in the world that she creates and can't imagine how this novel could be shorter. In fact, I wished it could have gone on longer! I can't recommend this novel highly enough and will definitely be reading more of Clarke's work in the future.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Starting Tristram Shandy

I have finally begun reading The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (to give it its full, very 18th century title) by Laurence Sterne. It's slow reading so far, but still lots of fun. I find myself constantly looking up the footnotes at the back of the book. I so much prefer it when the footnotes are on the same page- it's still distracting but at least you don't have to be leafing back and forwards all the time. I suppose I could just skip the notes but my curiosity gets the better of me each time and I worry that I'm missing something crucial.

I seem to have digressed into discussing the footnotes when I wanted to write about how funny this book is. It's probably the influence of Tristram Shandy that has me losing my thread; the story is full of constant digressions with only the slightest nod to a narrative structure. The novel is, however, very funny and often very, very rude. I love that about 15 pages in the narrator finally finishes his dedication and then offers it up for sale:
If therefore there is any one Duke, Marquis, Earl, Viscount or Baron, in these his Majesty's dominions, who stands in need of a tight, genteel dedication, and whom the above will suit, (for bye the bye, unless it suits in some degree I will not part with it)- it is much at his service for fifty guineas;- which I am positive is twenty guineas less than it ought to be afforded for, by any man of genius.

Hopefully I can keep up the momentum with this book, it requires quite a lot of concentration, at least for my poor brain, but will be worth it in the end I know.

I've also just finished Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and am trying to put together a post that in some way captures the wonderful-ness of it.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

On Chesil Beach

Warning: Spoiler ahead.

She watched him, willing him to go slower, for she was guiltily afraid of him, and was desperate for more time to herself. Whatever conversation they were about to have, she dreaded it. As she understood it, there were no words to name what had happened, there existed no shared language in which two sane adults could describe such events to each other.

This section occurs about two thirds of the way through Ian McEwan's novella On Chesil Beach and it really gets to the heart of what the book is about. Edward and Florence are on their wedding night. It's 1962, before the sexual revolution, and things do not go well. Both are crippled by nerves and fears about sex and it is their lack of a shared language to speak about such things that creates a disastrous situation.

On Chesil Beach is a painful reading experience, not because it is badly written at all, but because of the awful awkwardness, fear and shame that both characters feel on their wedding night. On top of their inability to discuss their fears about sex, McEwan also includes a class conflict: Florence is from a batter educated and wealthier family than Edward. This class issue is emphasised during the intense emotion of their first (unsuccessful) attempt to have sex and to my mind, it is partly Edward's feelings of inferiority that mean he cannot understand what Florence is really feeling.

McEwan centres the entire novel around one short evening but this never feels limiting or claustrophobic. This is because he uses the wedding night as a springboard from which to explore the two main characters' backgrounds and childhoods. There is a dark hinting at some sort of sexual abuse in Florence's childhood that helped me to believe in what seemed at first an unreasonable fear of any sexual contact with Edward, who she clearly loves desperately. Edward it seems is determined to do what he feels he is supposed to do, what society expects of him, and thus cannot consider any suggestion of other ways that he and Florence might organise their married life.

It is no surprise then that things don't end well for the couple, although part of me was happy that they were able to go off and explore beyond the confines of what seemed a rather limiting relationship. McEwan describes the rest of Edward's life but I wanted to know more about Florence and whether she ever did have a satisfying sexual relationship, although I suspect she doesn't. Some readers have criticised the lack of historical accuracy in the novel and it does seem lax of McEwan to not get at least the simplest facts correct such as when albums were released and so on, but for me this was not a barrier to enjoying the story. In the end I felt as though he might have exaggerated circumstances somewhat. To my mind, the shame of a failed marriage and divorce would have been a pretty compelling reason for characters as conservative as Edward and Florence to stay together, but on the other hand I can see that they had reached a point of no return.

On Chesil Beach is a reminder of the terrible price of ignorance. I finished this book feeling so thankful that I have grown up in a world that values openness and education about sex so that hopefully none of my peers experience anything like what McEwan's characters go through. Thankfully we now do have that shared language that Florence and Edward so desperately needed.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Secrets and Awkwardness

There is a nice symmetry in my reading at the moment. I have just finished Open Secrets by Alice Munro and am now about half-way through Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach and it occurs to me that both books deal with the quiet and awkward moments between people that are not often the subject of 'great' art.

Munro's short stories are wonderfully thought-provoking. She knows just when to end a story, finding the balance between some sort of resolution and still leaving the reader with something to think about. Her stories in this collection all revolve around interesting and often unconventional female characters, particularly women who are unconventional in their sex lives. She finds drama and poetry in the everyday. I loved her deceptively simple writing style and unique perspective on small town life, and I will be reading some more of her work very soon.

I still haven't made up my mind about On Chesil Beach. So far I'm enjoying McEwan's writing, as I have in his other novels. The situation is interesting- two young people on their wedding night in the early '60s, both of whom are sexually inexperienced and ignorant in a way that seems incredible today. My reservation at the moment is that he seems to be saving the lion's share of sexual dysfunction for the female character and somehow that seems unfair. I'll wait until I finish the book before I say any more, however.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Recent Reading

I've once again let my reading overtake my blogging, so I thought I might do a kind of catch up post rather than write at length about the last couple of novels that I've read. So here goes...

Some of you might have read my whinge about Bel Canto a couple of posts ago. Well, I finished it and suffice to say my opinion did not change. Ann Patchett's novel left me very cold. A part of why I didn't like it was that I though it was incredibly unrealistic, however on Friday night I watched a documentary about the hostage siege that Patchett used as inspiration and found out that she stuck surprisingly close to what actually happened in Lima, Peru. The Japanese embassy there was taken by a group who wanted to capture the President. When the President wasn't there the group got stuck with a huge group of hostages and no exit strategy. In some ways the real drama was crazier than the fictional version. In real life the hostages even went so far as to allow the press into the embassy for interviews during the siege. Amazing. Unfortunately I still don't like the novel.

After Bel Canto, Engleby by Sebastian Faulks was refreshing, if you can use that word to describe a novel about a seriously disturbed person. It was refreshing for its originality, black humour and unflinching examination of a very dark subject. It's hard to talk too much about this one without ruining it, although I think most readers would find the ending of the novel fairly unsurprising. Faulks' narrator, Mike Engleby, must be one of the most interesting and well-drawn characters in recent fiction. I felt confronted and disturbed by this book, but in a good way!

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield was much hyped on its release, in part because so many bloggers were given it for free, thus sparking a debate about the ethics of declaring or not declaring where you get your books from before you write about them. For the record, I bought my copy fair and square at a book fair last week. The Thirteenth Tale is fun Gothic mystery/ romance. It's very readable and fairly insubstantial. I had hoped for something cleverer from a book that is so concerned with reading and writing. Unfortunately I felt that Setterfield was somewhat milking an audience that she knew would be interested in a book about a young women writing the autobiography of an older, very famous author who has finally decided to 'tell her story' after a lifetime of weaving fiction.

And now I'm deeply absorbed by Alice Munro's collection of short stories, Open Secrets. I've been meaning to read something by Munro for so long and am glad to find her exactly as interesting as has been claimed by others. The stories in this collection so far offer a thoughtful perspective on ordinary lives, pointing out the extraordinary in small town, domestic life. The intricate level of observation reminds me of Annie Proulx in some ways, but the writing is more direct and less heavy with imagery. I can't wait to read the rest of this book.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Here, Bullet

Last year I heard an interesting interview by Philip Adams on Radio National with American war poet Brian Turner. Turner has served in Iraq and his poetry describes his experiences there. During the interview he read the title poem from his collection of poetry, Here, Bullet. I found it moving and confronting. To say he reminds me a little of Wilfred Owen might be going too far, but there is something of the same feeling of immediacy. You can find out more about Turner here.

Here, Bullet

If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Bel Canto

I'm trying with Ann Patchett's novel, Bel Canto, I really am. I want to like it. I've heard great things about it from other people. And I'm keen to be a girly swot and get it read by Monday for my bookclub.

But I'm really struggling here.

I just find it so boring. The plot centres around a group who have been taken hostage in a mansion in an unnamed poor South American country. The group includes a famous opera singer, a wealthy Japanese CEO and his translator, and the Vice President of the country in which the events take place. These are possible the world's nicest and least competent terrorists. They have barely hurt anyone and seem utterly confused about why they are actually there. So the siege turns into a weeks-long ordeal where not much happens (at least so far). There is much description of the boredom experienced by the captives which I can totally relate to, feeling much the same myself whenever I pick up this book.

Then there is the impending romance between some of the captives, which I really don't find convincing. It's a hostage drama and... a love story? It's like Mills and Boon does An Evil Cradling.

There is no doubt that Patchett can write well. Her characterisations are interesting and initially the premise seemed promising. I'm only half-way through so maybe it will pick up. It could be me. Maybe I haven't given the book my full attention. Maybe it's my mood or the weather or something and maybe I'm being terribly unfair to Bel Canto. Perhaps I've missed the point.

I'd love to hear the thoughts of others on this one. Can I hold out hope for the second half? Have I totally missed the point? Is Bel Canto, in fact, an inspirational masterpiece? Please, I'm ready and willing to be convinced!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Vampire Cool

Peeps by Scott Westerfeld is one of the most enjoyable books I've read in ages. I raced through it in one day last weekend and then passed it straight on to my husband who had the same experience.

Scott Westerfeld has built himself a reputation as one of the most exciting writers of young adult fiction at the moment, especially with his sci-fi series, Uglies. I've only recently discovered his work but in the couple of novels that I've read, I've been impressed with his ability to take a genre like sci-fi or horror and make it his own. His novels are underpinned by well-thought out philosophies and scientific concepts. In Uglies, he focused on our society's obsession with beauty, imagining a future where everywhere has an operation to make them uniformly 'beautiful' at sixteen. In Peeps, Westerfeld considers what modern science knows about parasites and uses it to explain an outbreak of vampire-like behaviour in New York City.

Peeps centres around Cal Thompson, a young university student who becomes infected by a parasite. Luckily he is immune to some of the parasite's nastier side effects (fear of light, a violent temperament, a taste for human blood) and becomes what is known as a carrier. He does get some of the cooler side effects though, such as fantastic night vision, super strength, a very good sense of smell and the world's fastest metabolism. Unfortunately he also develops a very active sex drive as the parasite tries to spread itself. Since even kissing a girl would be enough to pass on the parasite and turn her into a crazed, flesh eating vampire, he faces considerable challenges.

Cal is contacted by a secret organisation, mostly made up of other carriers, who are given the task of containing the parasite. He must track down and capture all his past girlfriends and, eventually, find the carrier who infected him. It is during the search for the girl who gave him the virus that he meets an attractive young woman, Lace, who quickly finds out more than she should about Cal's mission. Cal finds himself in a difficult situation as he falls for Lace but knows that he can't even kiss her without passing on the parasite.

Westerfeld alternates chapters of the story with chapters about the weird and wonderful world of real parasites. It sounds like a strange technique but it works. Learning about the bizarre parasites that really exist makes Westerfeld's fictional vampiric parasite much more believable. He also writes about the science of parasites in such a funny ad entertaining way that it never feels intrusive in the story.

There is little to fault in Peeps. It is smart, funny and fast-paced. Thankfully Westerfeld avoids the kind of po-faced seriousness that seems to plague some vampire books and films. The ending is all a bit rushed but it's a small criticism. This is definitely one for older adolescents and adults who are happy to go along for the ride.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Australian Crime

Until recently I had never read any Australian crime fiction but I can now boast about having already read two examples this year. In January I read Eden by Dorothy Johnston, which is not only Australian crime fiction but is also set in Canberra, thus continuing my mission to read books set in the capital. I have also recently finished The Broken Shore by Peter Temple, which I'll write about first because I can't praise this novel too much.

Peter Temple won the 2007 Duncan Lawrie Dagger for his novel, The Broken Shore, the first time an Australian author has claimed the prestigous prize. I can see why the judges might have chosen Temple's novel as I was absolutely blown away by it. The action takes place in a small coastal town in Victoria. Temple is careful to establish a strong sense of place. I could almost feel the cold winter rain of his setting and his descriptions of rural Australia are spot on. Take this passage for example:
Farmland had once surrounded the village of Kenmare like a green sea. Long backyards had run down to paddocks with milk cows oozing dung, to potato fields dense with their pale grenades. Then the farms were subdivided. Hardiplank houses went up on three-acre blocks, big metal sheds out the back. Now the land produced nothing but garbage and children, many with red hair. The blocks were weekend parking lots for the big rigs that rumbled in from every direction on Saturday- Macks, Kenworths, Mans, Volvos, eighteen-speed transmisssion, 1800-litre tank, the owners' names in flowery script on the doors, the unshaven, unslept drivers sitting two metres off the ground, spaced out and listening to songs of lost love and loneliness.

It's certainly an unromanticised view of Australian rural life.

Temple's detective Cashin is in many ways a cliche. He is posted to the country, tired and physically damaged, after a traumatic incident with a criminal in the city. He is battling with personal demons, as well as fighting other cops within the system. And of course an intriguing murder drops right in his lap.

It is to Temple's credit that he takes these standard features of the genre and makes them fresh. I believed in his characters. They speak and act like people I know. Temple captures the complexity of small town life, weaving class and racial tension into the plot with ease. Rarely has an author so accurately depicted the relationship between white and Aboriginal communities in small towns. The Broken Shore moves steadily and inexorably towards its resolution, using the conventions of crime fiction to create something fresh and absorbing.

Eden by Dorothy Johnston is another in her series featuring Sandra Mahoney, a security consultant who develops an obsession with the death of an ACT politician in a brothel. Johnston takes some pains to capture Canberra in January, a month when the city all but shuts down while most of its inhabitants escape the hot weather and head to the coast. The dry Canberra heat radiates off the pages and even as a reader I felt relief when the action shifted to a much cooler Sydney.

Johnston's story moves along at a steady pace, but for me this novel was too dry (and not just because of the weather). Much of the exposition seems awkward and forced. The plot is interesting but Johnston is so keen to reveal information to the audience that she does little to package it in an interesting way. Conversations are often unrealistic and clues are uncovered a little too easily. Nevertheless the premise and the crime are interesting enough for me to consider giving Johnston's work another go should I get the chance.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Coming Soon

Reading plenty at the moment but not writing much. The beginning of the school term seems to mean I can do one or the other, but not really both. Anyway, I'm working on a post raving about Peter Temple's wonderful crime novel, The Broken Shore. I also want to go on about how good Scott Westerfeld is (I read his vampire novel Peeps in a day!) and, strangely, am enjoying fantasy set in Medieval Japan courtesy of Lian Hearn's novel Across the Nightingale Floor, the first in her Tales of the Otori series.

I've also joined a new book club and had much lively discussion about Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, some of which I hope to share with you.

Anyway, enough writing about what I'm going to write! Hopefully, I'll actually get a decent post done sometime soon...

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Books on Film

In the last week I have seen two film versions of favourite novels of mine, The Golden Compass and Atonement. Although both were generally well done, it's a strange experience seeing a novel you love as imagined by others.

The film of The Golden Compass was probably always going to be a bit disappointing for me as I love Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy so intensely. The Hollywood version is true to the book and visually stunning but, as is common with films of books, the story is simplified and some of the harder edges are removed. The ending is considerably changed to make it much happier than the cliffhanger that concludes the book, which is understandable given that the film is aimed at children, but also a little patronising to the audience. The quite strong anti-organised religion message in the book has also been toned down by the film-makers making this a rather anaemic version of Pullman's very interesting and challenging ideas.

It also didn't help my enjoyment of the film that I have a probably quite unreasonable dislike of Nicole Kidman, who I think has a kind of anti-charisma on screen. I'm aware that not everyone shares my opinion on that though. Friends who have seen the film without reading the book loved it, so perhaps I had unrealistic expectations of this one.

On the other hand, I thought the film adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel Atonement was just stunning. The film-makers managed to capture the subtleties of the novel quite cleverly and the film is visually stunning. Keira Knightly is surprisingly good and looks just gorgeous in the 1930's fashions her character wears, and James McAvoy, well, let's just say I have a serious crush on the guy and could spend hours watching him on screen no matter how bad the film. In this case though, his acting is great and the film is really quite good. If you tend to cry in films though, be warned, I cried for a least half of the film. I'm pretty sure I was joined by a majority of the audience at the film's devastating end.

There are some very interesting ideas about personal responsibility and truth in McEwan's novel and these translate well to the screen. In fact, seeing the film reminded me how visual the novel is, particularly the early events that revolve around glimpsed scenes and moments that are mis-interpreted by the young child Briony. While the more post-modern aspects were a little distracting for me in the novel, they worked well on film.

I'd love to hear what anyone else thinks of either film.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

On the Jellicoe Road

I read On the Jellicoe Road, a novel for young adults by Australian author Melina Marchetta, on a rainy night while staying in a caravan on holidays at the beach. Branches were brushing the roof and the wind howled and screeched, rocking the caravan. I could have been at sea, lost in the blackness of night. Perfect reading weather. Perfect for reading this un-put-downable novel until it was finished in the early hours of morning.

When it was released, lots of Melina Marchetta's fans didn't really know what to make of On the Jellicoe Road and now I can see why. Her first novel, Looking for Alibrandi, was (and still is) very popular with teenagers in Australia and was made into a popular film. While I found Looking for Alibrandi entertaining and realistic, I also thought it was a little too simple and straightforward. On the Jellicoe Road is a much more sophisticated novel and one which rewards the reader's patience as the plot lines are slowly revealed. I loved this new style but some young readers might miss the straightforwardness of Marchetta's previous books.

It feels like Marchetta has found her voice in On the Jellicoe Road. She has developed a complex, but highly engaging plot about a young girl, Taylor, who lives at a rural boarding school in western New South Wales. Taylor is trying to negotiate the annual turf war between her school, the kids in town and the local cadet unit, at the same time as she tries to solve the mystery around her friend Hannah's disappearance which is somehow connected to Taylor's abandonment by her mother when she was a young child.

The story is told through Taylor's eyes, interspersed with excerpts from a manuscript for a novel being written by Hannah. Slowly the manuscript and Taylor's story become entwined. There is a sense of menace that lingers just under the surface of the story; there is talk between the students about a serial killer who targets children and speculation about which adult might be the killer. Marchetta also vividly captures the violence and secretiveness of youth as the young teenagers wage their quite vicious wars right under the noses of the mostly ineffective and oblivious adults in the story.

Marchetta also develops a romantic storyline between Taylor and the leader of the Cadet unit, Jonah. This is one of the most successful parts of the story. It is realistically and sensitively portrayed and the tension between Taylor and Jonah really propels the story.

It is so refreshing to read books written for young adults that are challenging and complex. While not everyone will love On the Jellicoe Road I think that if this is the direction that Marchetta is taking with her writing, then I can't wait to read what she comes up with next.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Reading in the New Year

I haven't posted for ages, instead choosing to do some reading, eating, drinking and much playing of cards as the rain continues to fall at my beachside holiday location. I never seem to have much luck with holiday weather. Nevertheless it is pretty good weather for reading and I've managed to get through a couple of novels.

Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres is certainly not light summer reading. It is over 600 pages long and takes a few hundred pages to really get going. The story follows the lives of a group of people from a small village in Turkey and through these people de Bernieres essentially follows the history of Turkey in the twentieth century. I found the book similar in some ways to Captain Corelli's Mandolin, the only other novel of his that I have read, but it was less emotionally engaging, perhaps because there was just so much history to cram in, often at the expense of plot and character development. I learnt a lot though, and found the parts about Gallipoli, told from the Turkish perspective, particularly interesting. De Bernieres has a nice, readable style but I'm not sure I'd go out of my way to read anything else by him.

After reading about the horrific and violent history of Turkey I turned to Rachel Pine's novel The Twins of Tribeca for some light contrast. Pine is a former employee of Miramax and this is a 'tell-all' novel in the style of The Devil Wears Prada. The tone is light and gossipy, and there is lots interesting inside information on the way films get made (especially the bad ones). Pine never really finds a narrative arc for her story though. Lots of times it felt like something dramatic was about to happen but then... nothing. It's a fun read but fairly forgettable.

I'm still considering plans for reading in 2008. So far the only thing I've thought of is that I should read more classics. In particular I want to read Tristram Shandy this year. I've been planning to read it ever since I saw the great film version with Steve Coogan. Hopefully I will come up with some more plans before the year is half over.

Hope you all had a great Christmas and New Year.