Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Recent reading

There has been lots of reading around these parts lately, and I'm pleased to say that I'm on a run of books that I've really enjoyed.

First up, Sylvie Matton's historical novel, Rembrandt's Whore. Matton focuses on the character of Hendrickje Stoffels, a woman who lived for many years as Rembrandt's partner although they never married. As you can imagine this was very controversial in conservative, 17th century Amsterdam. Matton does a fabulous job of recreating the time period and also getting inside the mind of Hendrickje, a country girl who sees the genius of Rembrandt and is prepared to flout the conventions of society to be with him. From the notes at the back, I believe the novel is very carefully researched and I certainly learnt a lot about the times in which it is set. Not only is the book historically interesting, but Matton also writes in a very interesting style, particularly in the way she plays with voice. Sometimes Rembrandt is addressed by the narrator directly as 'you', and then, in the same paragraph, he is described in the third person. This takes a little getting used to but actually works, and in some ways really helps to create the voice of the narrator.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga joins a growing list of Indian novels that I have loved. I was totally swept up in the story and barely put the book down as I read it. The narrator of the story, Balram, is very entertaining company, a fascinating character who is determined to escape his poverty stricken background at any cost. Despite the light tone, the book is actually very dark, and does not flinch at describing the terrible conditions in which the poor live in India. Balram's aim to achieve success at any cost draws an inevitable comparison with Macbeth, and I quite enjoyed looking for links between the two texts. There are definitely some interesting comparisons to be made between life in Shakespearean England and the cut throat dog-eat-dog world of modern day India.

Finally I finished Scott Westerfeld's novel Pretties just this morning. Pretties is the follow up to Uglies and is the second in his sci-fi trilogy for young adult readers. I loved Uglies, and Pretties lived up to the promise shown by the first book in the series. The novels are set in a future where all people undergo an operation at 16 to become 'beautiful'. This is ostensibly so that there is no competition based on looks, however there is a more sinister side to the operation as the heroine, Tally, and a group of friends discover. The novel looks at issues of beauty and appearances, friendship, loyalty and betrayal, and human nature. Young adults generally love these books in my experience, but I think they deserve a wide adult audience as well. I've written before about how much I love Scott Westerfeld and once again he hasn't disappointed. This is smart, pacy and though-provoking writing for any age group.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

A long time between posts

Sigh. I don't want to spend an entire post on why I haven't been posting but I probably owe some sort of explanation for my pretty hopeless neglect of this blog. The last few months have been absolutely hectic at work. The flow on effect of that has been that I just haven't had the mental space for writing here. In fact I've barely had the mental space for actually reading. If you look at my 'recently read' list you'll see lots of the fairly easily digestible young adult fiction (Robert Muchamore's Cherub series, for example) that has been my diet for the last little while.

Anyway, I've just had almost two weeks holidays in which to get back my reading mojo, and while it took a while to come back, I've finally hit my stride and have been swept up in some quite fabulous books lately.

Christine Falls is written by Benjamin Black (aka Irish writer John Banville) and it's wonderful, page-turning, whiskey-soaked, rain-drenched crime fiction. Black takes us back to Dublin in the 1950s. His central character is pathologist Quirke, who has the pre-requisite damaged past and taste for booze that we expect in this genre. Quirke finds himself investigating his own family when he discovers his brother-in-law (a pediatrician in the same hospital where Quirke runs the morgue) changing the death certificate of a young woman named Christine Falls.

This being Dublin in the 50's, the Catholic church is a heavy, oppressive presence whose influence reaches all the way to the new world- part of the novel is set in Boston. There are dark hints of shadowy organisations behind the scenes who are not pleased that Quirke is nosing around in their business.

I loved this novel. The writing is beautiful and there is a degree of atmosphere and characterisation that is not always found in crime fiction. Quirke was so alive to me that I could almost feel the whiskey burn its way down his throat, feel the pain of the beating he receives part way through the book, feel the shortness of breath as this bear of a man limps about the streets of Dublin and Boston. Some fans of crime fiction might find the plotting not as inventive as in other crime novels. A little like the Australian crime writer Peter Temple, Black gets the characters right first, so that you almost forget that there is a crime to solve. And I'm really ok with that.

In contrast, Kingsley Amis' short crime novel, The Crime of the Century, feels mannered and overly reliant on plot. This novel was actually written as a series of columns for The Sunday Times. The best thing about it was the interesting introduction by Amis where he discusses the process of writing in this genre. He felt it was really important to cut out any material unnecessary to the plot, and I can see his point, but in the end this reads like a clever exercise in dropping clues rather than something a reader could engage in emotionally.

The last novel I'll mention for now is Beryl Bainbridge's Every Man For Himself, a beautiful evocation of the four days aboard the Titanic before it famously sank. The story is told through the eyes of a young man, Morgan, a wealthy, well-connected boy trying to find his purpose in life. Morgan is, in fact, the nephew, by marriage, of the owner of the shipping company that owns the Titanic and has had a small part himself in designing the ship (well, some of the tap fittings in the suites) as part of his quest to 'find himself a career'. Morgan is an astute eye in this world of snobbery and vanity. He himself is saved from being completely part of that world by the fact that he lived in abject poverty until he was found and adopted by his uncle as a young child. Memories of that dark beginning to his life simmer just below the surface of Morgan's consciousness and explain his attachment to the dashing, charismatic character of Scurra, a character Morgan sees as a kind of father figure.

The central concept of the novel works really well- we know what is going to happen to the ship and therefore the petty concerns of the passengers and crew (is the library too big? Are the carpets the right colour?) take on an incredible poignancy. Bainbridge also writes beautifully and I really felt that I was part of the world that she created. She has some wonderful ways of describing characters; one man is described as never having thought something that hadn't already been thought by someone else (Bainbridge of course expresses it better than that, but at the moment I can't actually find the exact quote). I would have thought that the sinking of the Titanic would have been fairly well-trodden ground but this is a fresh perspective on the event. The last pages are, naturally, devastating.

So now I'm off to read my next book, Sylvie Matton's historical novel, Rembrandt's Whore, which, if nothing else, should lead to some mighty interesting traffic to this site...

Sunday, July 26, 2009


In a dark, chaotic and dusty second hand bookshop, where the shelves were so close together that I had to shuffle sideways to get between them and, when I did, it was almost impossible to read the spines of the books that were pressed up to my nose, on a day when the rain was icy and the wind strong enough to knock you over, I came across a book that I hadn't thought about in many years.

Theodore Roszak's novel Flicker was passed around the film society that I was part of during my undergraduate years at university. We were all film nuts and aspiring film makers and this book tapped into a those interests at the time. It also scared the bejesus out of me. When I came across it again, I had to buy it, if only to see how I would find it more than ten years later. Would the book that I found terrifying and disturbing at twenty years old have the same effect on me now?

The short answer is 'no', or maybe 'kind of, but not really'.

Flicker is the story of Jonathan Gates, film lover and academic, who is strangely attracted to the films of a forgotten B-grade director, Max Castle. Gates devotes his career to unearthing and studying Castle's films and finds that they contain some very strange subliminal techniques. Through his studies, Gates is also lead to the Orphans of the Storm, a shadowy religious organisation with a history reaching back to medieval Europe and the Cathars.

Well, it wouldn't be a good conspiracy if the Cathars didn't show up at some point.

If Flicker sounds kind of schlocky and cliched, well it is. But this is quality schlock. The writing is decent and there are lots of references to and discussions about classic films for film nerds to enjoy. The characters are also a cut above the usual airport fare. And I still got a bit creeped out by the horror elements. Roszak tries very hard to shock the reader. As a twenty year old he had me eating out of the palm of his hand. On this reading I was much more aware of being manipulated and much more amused by some of the sillier aspects of the plot, but at times I still had a chill down the spine.

A part of me is disappointed that I didn't leave my memory of Flicker alone. I could have walked around for the rest of my life remembering it as an amazingly brilliant book. But my curiosity got the better of me, and for that I have had the interesting experience of going back and being able to judge the taste of myself as a much less experienced reader. The years of reading in between my first and second reading of Flicker have stood me in good stead. In the intervening years I've definitely become a more discerning and critical reader. Thankfully though, I do still occasionally get swept up in a novel these days in just the same uncritical way I did as a twenty year old reading Flicker for the first time.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Pain and Sorrow

Just coincidentally, two of my recent reads have centred on young women who find themselves in terrible situations. Although they are very different books, Kate Holden's In My Skin and Sylvia Plath's classic novel, The Bell Jar, share the ability to evoke the powerful emotions and crises in identity experienced by many young women.

Not many young women go through the experiences that Australian writer Kate Holden describes in her memoir, In My Skin, but it is her ability to describe those experiences in a way that explains them to the rest of us that is the real strength of this book. Holden spent most of her twenties in Melbourne hopelessly addicted to heroin, an addiction which eventually led to a period as a sex worker. It is not giving anything away to say that Holden has now conquered her addiction (and written this very successful memoir about it), but the desperate times and experiences depicted in this memoir are pretty harrowing stuff.

I have to admit that I found it absolutely fascinating to read about Holden's journey from middle-class, well-brought-up, arts graduate to junkie prostitute. I think I was so affected by this book because Holden's life seemed so familiar, so similar to mine, up until the point where everything began to spin out of control. In my mind, heroin addiction and prostitution are a million miles from my own personal experiences but Holden brings it right home, made me think that this might have happened to me or to my friends, that it is not something that just happens to people who are already 'messed up'.

The danger in this kind of memoir is that it could become voyeuristic, especially in its depiction of prostitution. Holden avoids this through her skillful writing, which is informative rather than titillating, and concentrates on the emotions of her experiences. Her honesty is refreshing- she openly admits that there were parts of prostitution and drug taking that she enjoyed- but she does not glamourise the life. The big question is what she will write next, having pretty thoroughly explored her autobiographical material in this book.

It is a reasonable assumption that Sylvia Plath's novel The Bell Jar also covers mostly autobiographical terrain. The novel depicts the mental breakdown of its central character, Esther Greenwood, a young women working as an intern at a fashion magazine in Manhatten. Much like In My Skin I was struck by how honestly and realistically Plath describes the harrowing events of her novel. And yet this is not a depressing book. Esther could be any of us, she has moments of joy as well as great overwhelming sadness. There is even some humour in the book, particularly in the early chapters, something I found surprising and endearing.

Plath is one of my favourite writers, not so much for the dark topics that she covers and that make her so beloved of a certain type of moody teenager, but for the clarity and power of her words. Each sentence seems balanced and poised, the language straightforward and matter of fact, poetic in its simplicity. Take this passage from early on in The Bell Jar:

The mirror over my bureau seemed slightly warped and much too silver. The face in it looked like the reflection in a ball of dentist's mercury. I thought of crawling in between the bed-sheets and trying to sleep, but that appealed to me about as much as stuffing a dirty, scrawled-over letter into a fresh, clean envelope. I decided to take a hot bath.

Both of these books remove the 'otherness' associated with those in society who go through great trauma. Mental illness and drug addiction obviously effect all sorts of people, and books like these are invaluable for reminding us of this fact. That they are beautifully and skilfully written makes them even more successful.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

More of the Bayou

Hot on the heels of In the Electric Mists with Confederate Dead, I whipped through another book in James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux series on the weekend. Sunset Limited was similarly gripping and atmospheric, a perfect lazy long weekend read. We even (finally) had some rain here which was quite appropriate given the almost constant rain in Burke's New Iberia, Louisiana.

Sunset Limited is a more complicated story than In the Electric Mists... and I think it suffers a little for it. There are lots of characters, some of whom only last a chapter or two, and I will somewhat shamefacedly admit I had to flick back now and then to remind myself who was who. Characters are often introduced only to be killed (usually very violently- a warning to more faint hearted readers) pages later. All the plot threads are unravelled by the end but I think the story could have been told with greater clarity.

That said, the story was pacy and compelling. It centers around an unsolved murder from Dave's past in which a labour organiser, Jack Flynn, was crucified and left for dead on the side of a local barn. Jack Flynn's two adult children, Cisco and Megan, return to the town at the beginning of the novel and this forces the town to address some old demons from their community's history.

Burke touches on some interesting ideas in Sunset Limited. His characters are forced to acknowledge a violent history in their town that many would rather forget. There is also an interesting dissection of the class system in New Iberia as we see the relationship between rich plantation owners and the poorer working class whites and blacks in town. Dave Robicheaux challenges the local philosophy that only the poor ever really pay for their crimes. There is also the obvious Christian imagery of the crucifixion which is linked in to the idea of the town's need for redemption. Burke doesn't hit the reader in the face with these bigger concepts- they could be ignored if plot is all you're after- but they give a greater depth to what could be a fairly ordinary crime story

I really enjoyed this novel but in some ways I feel it is less than the sum of its parts. I thought a more unifying thread was needed to bring everything together successfully. As expected, Burke creates his world of New Iberia in gorgeous rich detail, but maybe at times he needed to hold back a little and not give the reader so much of everything when it comes to plot.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Breaking the Silence

There has been a rather long silence here at this delicious solitude lately. Partly this has been because my work has changed this year, and with extra responsibilities there, there has seemed to be little time to write here.

Also, I've had a sort of writer's block when it comes to my blog. Somehow when I'm on the internet I seem to be more easily distracted by other bright and shiny sites and have neglected my own. Embarrassingly enough, Facebook has been sucking up my time, as has my recent obsession with cooking blogs. I'm not quite sure where that came from but perhaps in times of stress and tiredness it is quite nice to read the sort of blogs that don't make me feel just a little guilty about not writing posts for my own blog.

Finally my reading has been a little lacklustre lately. The last two books that I read for my book club were fairly uninspiring and before that I spent a lot of time reading The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, which I enjoyed to an extent but which didn't really deliver in the long run (for me at least, I know lots of other people loved it).

Thankfully though I now have two weeks holidays and have read some great books that actually make me feel like blogging again.

Many of you will no doubt be familiar with the crime fiction of James Lee Burke. I had heard all sorts of good things about his Dave Robicheaux mysteries but hadn't gotten around to actually reading one until this week and I really loved it. In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead is steeped in atmosphere. Burke is particularly good at evoking the smells of the landscape, which might sound strange, but is absolutely appropriate when describing a place as humid and lush as the Louisiana Bayou where the novel is set. Although this novel falls somewhere in the middle of what is now a long series of novels, it worked really well as a stand-alone book. A back story was hinted at but I didn't feel that I needed to read all the others in the series to understand what was going on here.

In many ways the novel covers typical crime fiction territory. Robicheaux is a troubled detective with a chequered past and a gruff demeanour. The plot concerns the serial murders of young prostitutes, possibly connected with mob activity. So far, fairly standard. However it is Burke's descriptive writing that really brings the setting into vivid life. I really felt like I was right there in New Iberia, Louisiana. I could feel the dripping humidity and the smell the rotting vegetation. There is also an intriguing sub-plot involving the appearance of the confederate soldier ghosts that give the novel its title, which in lesser hands might have been a bit silly but actually works here. I'm curious to see what the film version of this novel will be like- it's due for release this year some time.

The other book I've read, and loved, recently is David Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day. I recently raved about When You Are Engulfed in Flames in this blog, and I loved Me Talk Pretty One Day for all the same reasons. Sedaris is clever, funny and touching in these personal essays. The thread that runs through the book is one about language and speech, as the title suggests. One of the most touching essays is the one in which a speech therapist is assigned to David at school in order to 'correct' his speech, a process that amounts to little less than formalised humiliation. This links nicely with one of the funniest essays which describes Sedaris' language lessons in France in which the class is routinely humiliated by their sadistic French teacher. The attempts of the class to describe, in broken French, the meaning of Easter is laugh out loud funny ("It is a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus" etc).

On that note, I wish you all an enjoyable Easter break and am heading off now to curl up with a cup of tea, some chocolate and another James Lee Burke mystery.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

King Dork

King Dork by Frank Portman is one of the most fun reads I've had in ages. It's ostensibly written for young adults but, like with the best fiction in any sub-genre, its appeal is much broader than that. I think the quote from someone called John Green on the cover of my edition says it best: "If you're in a band or wish you were, if you loved or hated The Catcher in the Rye, if you like girls or are one... King Dork will rock your world." I'll leave it up to you to decide which of these categories I belong to, but suffice to say, my world was rocked.

King Dork is the story of Tom Henderson, a teenager who is hopelessly uncool, struggles to make friends or meet girls (although he thinks about this a lot), and spends most of his time with his only friend Sam Hellerman, thinking up band names, roles and album titles of their not yet actually formed band (e.g. The Sadly Mistaken, GUITAR: Moe Vittles, BASS AND LANDSCAPING: Sam 'Noxious' Fumes, FIRST ALBUM: Kill the Boy Wonder. There's a lot more where that came from- see the 'Bandography' at the back of the book).

A lot of the humour and enjoyment in the novel comes from Tom's wry observations of those around him. He is an outsider with excellent insight. Some of the funniest moments for me were his comments about his try-hard hippy step-father, also called Tom:
Our official legal relationship is pretty recent, though he's been around for quite a while. I don't know why they decided to get married all of a sudden. They went away for the weekend to see Neil Young in Big Sur and somehow came back married. They still refer to each other as partners, though, rather than husband-wife. 'Have you met my partner, Carol?' Like they're lawyers who work at the same law firm, or cops who share a squad car. Or cowboys in the Wild West. 'Howdy, pardner.'

Later in the novel Tom goes even further into articulating the difference between the 60's generation and those who came after them (although I did have to think that most teenagers today would have parents who grew up in the 80's rather than the 60's). He combines this with a critique of the Catcher in the Rye, the book most of his high school English teachers are obsessed with (forgive the long-ish quote, I think it's worth it to get a flavour of the book):
Look, it's not even that bad a book. I admit it. I can feel sorry for myself while pretending to be Holden Caulfield. I can. And I can see why the powers that be have decided to adopt it as their semi-offical alterna-Bible. Things were really bad in the sixties. You were always getting kicked out of your prep school, or getting into fights at your prep school, or getting marooned on deserted islands on the way to your fancy English boarding school. And when you finally got off the island, your 'old man' was always on your 'case', and Vietnam just drove you crazy, plus you were constantly high on drugs and out of touch with reality and it was sometimes a little more difficult than it should have been to get everyone to admit how much better you were than everybody else. It was rough. I get it. I really get it. Up with Holden. I'd have probably been the same way.
In the end, though, the attempt to save the world by forcing people to read Catcher in the Rye and dressing casually and supporting public television and putting bumper stickers on Volvos and eating only weird expensive food and separating your cans and bottles and doing tai chi and going to the farmers' market and pronouncing Spanish words with a cartoon-character accent and calling actresses actors and making up your own religion and so forth- well, the world refused to be saved that way. Big surprise.

Tom also has some cutting things to say about education, particularly in his description of AP classes (which I believe are advanced classes in American schools). At Tom's school the AP classes spend their time making collages and doing role plays while the plebs in the regular classes (including the narrator) do endless vocabulary lists in English. Needless to say, everyone is reading Catcher in the Rye. As a high school English teacher (who loves Catcher in the Rye by the way) this was pretty close to the bone for me, and had me rolling on the floor with laughter.

King Dork has a pacy plot which somewhere part-way through turns into a crime mystery, a funny, coming-of-age, crime mystery, romance mash up that just works. The ending slightly stretches believability but somehow Portman pulls it off. This is definitely not a book a book for younger teenagers (sex and drug references aplenty) but would suit savvy readers in the upper years of high school. And, as I mentioned, there is lots here for adults to enjoy as well.

Monday, January 26, 2009


I read William Boyd's novel Restless in a day and a bit (give or take a few hours for necessities like eating and sleeping). It was a perfect book for the moment (that being mid-way through my long summer holidays, in the middle of a heat wave and with plenty of time on my hands). Please forgive my review though, which might be rather shallow- I read this book quickly and it was a few weeks (and a couple of books) ago, and I'm embarrassed to admit that it has already faded a bit from my memory.

alternates between a hot summer in England in the 1970's and pre-WWII Europe, London and America. In the 70's we follow Ruth who is a single mother and English language tutor to non-English speakers. She has been given a document by her mother, Sally, which reveals that Sally is, in fact, Eva Delectorskaya, who was recruited to the English Secret Service in the years before WWII after the murder of her brother Kolia. Eva/ Sally's memories are revealed slowly as alternate chapters in the book and it is these chapters that I found most exciting. It describes Eva's training, and her first real mission in Belgium, all under the watchful eye of Lucas Rohmer, the mysterious agent responsible for her recruitment. This half of the novel reads much like a traditional spy novel, or rather, what I imagine a traditional spy novel would be like, given that it's not a genre that I've read much. Eva's story is exciting and mysterious and full of the kind of cloak and dagger stuff totally sucks in the reader.

Back in the 1970's, Eva/ Sally, who has been living a fairly staid rural life in a quiet English village for many years, has begun to believe that she is in danger once more. Her daughter Ruth is enlisted to help Eva investigate some of the details of her past and to help her uncover current dangers. Ruth is, understandably, stunned to find out about her mother's past and curious enough to help her with her current situation. Ruth also has to navigate some of her own personal problems, from the unwanted house guests that won't leave her flat, to her unsatisfying romantic life.

It's hard to say much more about the plot without giving away some rather fun twists in the story. This is a gripping and entertaining novel with a quite haunting message about the long term consequences of a life steeped in suspicion and betrayal. The title refers to the restlessness of the spy who can never really trust anyone, never really relax again.

My only complaint about Restless might be that I found the parts set in the 1970's slightly less interesting that the flashbacks to Eva's spy years. I also felt that at times Boyd didn't quite capture the voice of Ruth Gilmartin who narrates this part of the book. Interestingly enough, both my husband (who read the book after me) and I thought the narrator was male before she was specifically referred to as a woman. This might be because the author is male, but I do feel that she had a more 'male' voice at times, that the character wasn't quite well-realised enough.

Overall, I found Restless a really enjoyable, un-put-downable read. I was totally swept up in the world of espionage and was genuinely surprised by some of the twists and turns in the plot. The hot English summer described in the book was a perfect match for the long, hot summer days we have been having here.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Scandal of the Season

While on holidays over Christmas I was looking for a light, fun read. Something not too challenging. And I hoped that Sophie Gee's historical novel The Scandal of the Season would fulfil my requirements. I had heard about Gee's novel on an ABC TV special on the genre of romance- one of the series hosted by Jennifer Byrne. Sophie Gee appeared on the panel and came across as clever and interesting so I figured I should give her book a go.

My copy of The Scandal of the Season has a big gold sticker on the front proclaiming 'Women's Weekly Great Read' (for those of you overseas, Women's Weekly is a magazine aimed at middle aged housewives- recipes, celebrity interviews, that sort of thing). While I like to think of myself as egalitarian and certainly not a snob, I have to admit, I'm not that comfortable walking around with a big sticker on my book proclaiming that I have the same reading tastes as Women's Weekly readers. It doesn't sit well with my image of myself as an urban sophisticate :-)

Having revealed to you all that I'm a hopeless elitist, hopefully I can redeem myself somewhat by saying that none of this stopped me from actually reading The Scandal of the Season. The premise of the book is interesting. It is set in the eighteenth century and gives us a back story to Alexander Pope's famous poem, 'The Rape of the Lock'. I had studied the poem at university but that was a while ago and my memory of the poem is pretty sketchy, not that this mattered much, as Gee fills the reader in on the details.

The story involves the real life seduction of glamourous socialite Arabella Fermor by the dashing Lord Petre. The seduction is seen through the lens of Pope, who features as a main character in the novel, and his friends (cousins to Arabella) Martha and Teresa Blount. Gee has researched the period carefully and it is the historical details that I enjoyed most about the novel. She gives an interesting insight into the sexual lives of women at the time, and the enormous role that money and social status play in romance and marriage. Arabella and Lord Petre fall in love but cannot hope to marry as they are not social equals. Gee portrays the dangers facing young unmarried women who must preserve their virginity at all costs if they wish to marry well. Married women of aristocratic background seem to be able to indulge in affairs if they wish, an aspect of the society that I found fascinating. Men, as usual, seem to be able to get away with romantic indiscretions at any stage.

Another really interesting plot line involves a Jacobite plot to assassinate Queen Anne. Most of the major characters in the story, including Pope himself, are Catholics and therefore part of a persecuted minority (and possible suspects in any Jacobite plot). Many characters have memories of Catholics being burnt at the stake in the streets of London and there is a general fear that such violence will return. The novel starts with the murder of a Catholic priest and this theme continues throughout. I had known a little about the religious conflicts in England at the time, but Gee really brought this aspect of eighteenth century London to life for me.

Unfortunately, however, I didn't feel that The Scandal of the Season ultimately lived up to its potential, even as a light summer read. For a start, I think Gee has a problem writing realistic dialogue. The witty exchanges between characters just didn't really work a lot of the time. Also, a lot of the character exposition felt laboured. Gee describes the feelings of characters in enormous detail where I think she could have revealed this information more effectively through their actions. Finally, the plot, which is strong for most of the novel, just kind of peters out at the end. A stronger finish would have made me enjoy this book a lot more, although I guess that is the constraint of working with material based on actual historical events.

Gee's novel is a literate and well-researched book but with some major limitations. In the end, I found it interesting but have to disagree with the Women's Weekly 'Great Read' label. Not that I'm a snob or anything...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

When You Are Engulfed in Flames

When I bought David Sedaris' collection of essays, When You are Engulfed in Flames, as a Christmas present for my husband, I hadn't read anything by Sedaris but the reviews of this book had been fantastic and somehow I knew it would be his kind of thing. Happily, I was right. My husband raced through it in a day or so and then I got my greedy mits on the book.

Sedaris seems to be pretty well known to Americans but less so here in Australia (or maybe I'm betraying my ignorance?). All I can say is that I wish I had discovered him for myself sooner. Sedaris writes an almost perfect personal essay. It's a genre that doesn't seem that common these days and more's the pity.

Many of these essays made me laugh out loud. Sedaris has a lovely self-deprecating sense of humour that allows him to share his personal humiliations with the reader in a way that only makes him more likeable. He is particualrly funny when writing about the gaps in understanding when he is in non-English speaking countries. For example, his struggles with the French language (Sedaris lives in France) reach a particularly funny peak when he describes how he answers all questions with 'd'accord' (meaning 'okay'). Using d'accord as a catch-all response to questions that he can't understand leads him into some very strange situations, one of which involves ending up in a doctor's waiting room full of well-dressed French people wearing only his underpants.

Sedaris is just as good at depicting other characters that he encounters. One of my favourites is his abrasive, outspoken New York neighbour, Helen, who has lived in her apartment for 50 years and reserves her right to say whatever she likes about anyone ("Stick it up your ass," she tells Sedaris, "I'm not your goddamn mother." When he points out a friend of his on Oprah).

Sedaris and his partner Hugh are listening one of Sedaris' first appearances on NPR when Helen knocks on their door:
"Listen," [Hugh] whispered. "David is on the radio."

"So what?" Helen said. "A lot of people are on the radio." Then she handed him an envelope and asked if we'd mail in her stool sample. "It's not the whole thing, just a smear," she told him.

His portrait of the foul-mouthed, angry, opinionated Helen could have been played for laughs at Helen's expense, however like in many of these essays, Sedaris ultimately reveals the humanity and vulnerability of his subject, as well as his affection for her.

It's this more serious side to the essays that makes them really outstanding. They are not just descriptions of funny incidences. Each essay comes back at the end to close with a thoughtful point, a kind of 'a ha!' moment that brings the whole essay together and makes us realise that we are not, for example, just reading an essay about a taxi driver who quizzes Sedaris on his sex life, but actually considering how easy it is to feel superior to others. Sedaris makes his writing seem utterly effortless and yet anyone who has tried to write this sort of thing knows how hard it is to achieve such an understated style. This is elegant, funny, intelligent writing, and, really, what more could you want?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Thoughts on Reading in 2008

We're a good way into the first month of 2009 and finally I get around to writing my post on reading in 2008. Oh well, diligent posting does not seem to be the way for me...

2008 was a great year for reading at this delicious solitude. I read 39 books, which is ok for me, but I'd love to read more this year (and I really think I should be able to count Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell as more than one book!). There was lots of contemporary fiction on the list and not many classics. As usual, then, I'll vow to read more classics this year. It's just that I get swept up in those shiny new books!

The discovery of the year for me was Michael Chabon. I read and loved The Yiddish Policemens Union and went on to read The Wonder Boys and Maps and Legends. The Wonder Boys is the book I now count as my favourite novel and I heartily recommend it. My newfound love of all things Chabon is strange because I read The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay a couple of years back and was not overly impressed. Was it a matter of the other books being better? Or had I changed? Ah, the eternal mysteries of reading!

My other great discovery of 2008 was Australian crime writer Peter Temple. I have given copies of his excellent novel The Broken Shore to so many people now, that I keep forgetting who has and hasn't received a copy from me. I went on to read another Temple crime novel, Black Tide, which I am yet to review in these pages but which was also outstanding. Temple is brilliant at evoking a sense of place and the rhythms of Australian speech. He also writes a bloody good story.

In brief, I also loved reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, a great big crazy Dickensian fantasy of a novel, and I loved Graham Greene's The Quiet American for its contemporary resonances. My favourite young adult novel of the year was Scott Westerfeld's Peeps which is the vampire novel that should be selling more than Twilight. I'll take cool New York vampires and sassy, tough female characters over the vapid Bella and vacant Edward any day. Still, the 14 year old girls that I teach would beg to differ...

So overall 2008 was a another great year for reading. It looks like 2009 is also shaping up well if William Boyd's excellent novel Restless which I've just finished is anything to go by.