Saturday, December 15, 2007

In My Skin by Kate Holden

Firstly, before I actually get to the business of writing my two bob worth on this book, I'm not a confident book reviewer - especially given the quality of reviews the drunkards are accustomed to - I am intimidated, to put it bluntly. The thing is I really like reading and I really like a lot of books but I'm not very good at articulating what I like about particular books, so with that disclaimer in mind please read on...

In My Skin by Kate Holden made substantial ripples on the Australian book scene two years. As the title suggests, it is a memoir and it chronicles Kate's life as a heroin addict and prostitute, beginning with how she fell in with heroin in the first place to the predictable step of supporting her habit with prostitution. The meat of the novel is how she managed her heroin addiction and career as a sex worker. The ending, naturally, concludes with her becoming clean and starting a new chapter in her life - the one where she becomes a published author.

Last year I found a discarded (that should have clued me on) copy of Tracy Quan's Diary of a Manhattan Call. I wasn't very impressed. Sure the subject matter was engrossing in its own way but it was still chicklit built from fragments of Quan's life as a highclass hooker. Personally I found her style obvious and irritating. Quan is an average wordsmith but one who has had the life experiences to a write saleable book about. There has been a spate of this genre in recent years, too, and it is unfortunate that Holden's book was published amongst this whiff. Despite the pong, however, I picked up Holden's book a few times in the bookshop until one day, last month, I bought the damn thing.

From the first page it is apparent that Holden knows words and she's going to be very honest with you. She wants to tell you her story with candour and humour but she never tries to be ingratiatingly funny or clever about it. Although she is clever because her prose is very direct, yet carries just the right amount of whimsy and emotion to make you her friend, not her critic. Holden makes many references to her love of books and reading through out the novel - she makes no secret of her early desire to be a writer. Writing was always her first love and you feel right from the start that you are in the hands of a writer, not a savvy former prostitute who sold their story to the highest bidder. In My Skin reads like beautiful fiction, albeit fiction where the author has an intimate working knowledge of her subject matter. And on that note, if you've ever wanted to know the nuts & other rude bits of working in a brothel you'll find that, too. You do expect a no hold bars approach to this sort of book though, so the frank explicitness on the business of being a hooker is expected rather than being shocking or titillating.


The other strength of this memoir - the first being Holden's style - is its portrayal of heroin as a character in its own right. Without it becoming a putrid tale of squalid street woe, Holden makes sure you understand the relentlessness of this friend and foe. She does this without feeling sorry for herself or becoming hindsight preachy about it - which is quite masterful in itself.

Memoirs are not sold on the strength of their surprise endings and unexpected twists and in this sense In My Skin is a memoir by numbers. It's a straight forward story of the worst thing possible happening to somebody's daughter which has a redemptive and happy ending - but you knew that from the start. Holden really is that girl you think a life like that wouldn't happen to and she wants you to think that, but she also wants you to know that she was damn good at what she did, too. This book really is in the telling though and you come away from it with that satisfying feeling of having read a good book. Holden's style stands on its own - quite clearly her talent isn't the sum of being a drug addicted prostitute - which is why In My Skin shouldn't render her a one hit wonder. She is apparently working on a piece of historical fiction for her follow up novel and you just have the feeling that it will good, too - if not better than In My Skin.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Your mission, should you etc.

Greetings, drunkards. You know those things that newspapers run at the end of the year telling you which books you should have read during the year, but probably haven't? Well I'm doing one. Is there anything that my list shouldn't be without? I'm after a nice thinky mix - quality fiction, biography, history, travelogue, non-fiction of various sorts and good kids' books. All ideas gratefully appreciated.

This message will self-destruct in five seconds. Do-do-do, do-do-do, do-do-do, didit.

Ed: Sorry, yes: things published this year, pls.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Through the Children's Gate, Adam Gopnik

Through the Children’s Gate is Adam Gopnik’s ballad of New York and as such, it is surprisingly beautiful and moving. The New Yorker writer moved back to Manhattan from Paris with his wife and two small children in 2000 before the September 11 attacks. This series of essays covers five years in America’s most famous city, exploring what makes it unique and introducing us to his family, friends and acquaintances along the way.

A number of the essays focus on his children, Luke and Olivia, but where in less skilled hands they could have turned into boring parent brags, Gopnik has produced thoughtful, witty pieces of writing using the children and their thoughts and feelings as a basis and then extrapolating to the rest of the city. He is taking the advice of his late friend, the art historian and sometime football coach Kurt Varnedoe: break it down and then build it up again.

The inter-related essays cover a range of subjects, from the death of a friend to the death of Olivia’s goldfish, from the games children play to the games adults play. “Last of the Metrozoids” is particularly moving. It is the story of Varnedoe's slow death from cancer, even as he composes a set of wonderful lectures on the history of art and builds a football team that never plays a game.

"Bumping into Charlie Ravioli" is a fascinating look at the crazy pace of New York life as perceived by a three-year-old. Olivia's imaginery friend is one Charlie Ravioli, a boy of her brother's age who is working on a TV show and never has time to actually play with her. She just bumps into him, jumps into a cab, grabs lunch - until he becomes so busy that he no longer has time even to speak to her. Then the relationship is conducted through his personal assistant.

The attacks on New York are always there in the background, but Gopnik shows that life goes on even in the face of fear and uncertainty because there is no other choice. This is an entirely different New York than that shown by Candace Bushnell in her Sex and the City stories: less glamorous but all the warmer, more intelligent and real for it.

The only part of the collection that is off-putting is the introduction. I nearly threw the book aside in frustration in the first 10 pages at the writing style. It was as though Gopnik had challenged Henry James to a convoluted sentence contest and came horribly close to winning. But the essays themselves are another kettle of ravioli. The writing is simple and evocative and shows a complete dedication to his family that is touching without becoming cloying. It is hard to believe that stories that take as their bases subjects such as baseball cards, a school play of Peter Pan and a children's chess tournament could be so revealing of adult life, yet Gopnik has managed it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

November 07: Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion

Howdy all - red here. Milly Moo is trapped in a parallel dimension with no portal to the interwebs, so I've posted this for her. But before you get into her terrific review, we needs halp! Scorpy is flat out like the proverbial ferret surfing and hasn't had time to give the book for December any thought. Would someone else like to move up the list and trade spots with Scorpy? Let me know in the comments. Anyway, on with the review.

As with the movie ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ reading this novel in 2007 feels just as vivid and striking as it must have been for readers nearly forty years ago.

Didion’s most acclaimed novel is entirely new to me, and reads very sparsely, instead relying on what is unsaid or expressed through the desert landscapes, empty stretches of highway and driving nowhere fast.

The story is (mostly) narrated by the main character, Maria Wyeth, a 31 year old, newly-divorced, washed up actress who is struggling to work out what her purpose in life is. Set in late 1960s California, it depicts a morality-free Hollywood full of drink, drugs and movie industry types in which Maria is still a part, yet trying to escape. She tells us, “I have trouble with as it was……I try to live in the now…..Nothing applies.”

She and her ex-husband, Carter, have a daughter, Kate, who is institutionalised for a medical and physical illness that it not fully explained in the story. Maria regularly visits her daughter and hopes to ‘get her out’ and one day live a simpler life. Maria’s love and concern for Kate seems to be the only ‘real’ thing in her life; much more important than her dead marriage, previous boyfriends or one night stands.

Maria falls pregnant by a friend of her husband (Les Goodwin) and is encouraged to have an abortion by Carter. Try as she might in her world of casual sex, vacuous friends and the ever-availability of drugs, she is unable to rid herself of the guilt surrounding her abortion. This is still easy to identify with today and must have been a pretty daring subject to tackle back in 1970 when abortion was frowned upon (and often illegal). Didion writes sparsely but expertly: “She bought a silver vinyl dress and tried to stop thinking about what had he done with the baby. The tissue. The living dead thing, whatever you called it.”

Didion’s Maria may have long rejected a conventional and moral life, but she has not been able to replace the old values with anything sustainable. Didion’s prose is very sparing and the desert landscapes, freeways and air conditioning units read almost like a film script: it is easy to imagine how ‘seeing’ such scenes could even more effectively depict the emptiness and despair of Maria’s life.

Maria’s friend (and sometime lover? Swinger? Drug supplier?) BZ kills himself; possibly assisted by Maria – at least that what his wife Helen and Carter believe. She is not officially punished or set free by this event, but ‘gives up’ and seemingly willingly enters a hospital to recover and retreat from the world.

As I am not familiar with Didion’s other novels – or the literary set she belongs to – I can only go by my own knowledge. The characters in ‘Play it as it lays’ remind me of those in the ‘Great Gatsby’: frenetically busy drinking, fornicating, shopping, talking of nothing – money to spend but with lives of no meaning. It also reminds me of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the road’ and ‘The Catcher in the Rye,’ with similarly detached and seemingly brief views of lives lived without purpose or moral compass to guide them by. Perhaps these comparisons are obvious to the rest of you readers, but to me this book deserves a place amongst them.

I found it a very sad and disturbing read. Despite Maria’s irresponsible actions, I felt a lot of pity for her. No career, no loving relationship, a child that she can’t look after and no future that she can see for herself. She wants to tell us, her readers, that she doesn’t care about her past or future, but many comments betray her.

After the abortion, Didion writes, “She drove as far as Romaine and then pulled over, put her head on the steering wheel and cried as she had not cried since she was a child, cried out loud. She cried because she was humiliated and she cried for her mother and she cried for Kate and she cried because something had just come through to her……there must have been a relentless count somewhere, because this was the day, the day the baby would have been born.”

I think I need to read it through it again; and this time savour each sentence. I’ll conclude by saying that this is the sort of book that deserves several reads, and is one of those that is likely to have generated/will generate more words about it than the book itself contains. Lacerating, moving, tragic.

Milly Moo

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Help Me, Drunkards!

I'm sorry, this isn't a review. I have several reviews in my head at the moment that I keep forgetting to write due to time/exhaustion etc. but this isn't one of them - as such, Redcap, please feel free to delete this post if it doesn't fit the drunkard ethos.

In the meantime, I'm after some help from all the Paper Drunkards out there - namely, I need reading suggestions.

See, in a couple of weeks I'm taking off to one of those 'tropical island paradise' thingamys. There will be no TV and no interwebs and just lots of sun and lounging and a bit of drinking. While I'm a big fan of the sun and the lounging and the drinking, I also get bored easily, so ample reading material is a big fat must.

Sadly when I hit up my local bookshop the other day, everything seemed either too heavy for beach-reading, or so light it would fly away in the slightest on-shore breeze.

The holiday read is a peculiar beast - it has to be something that will keep you happily occupied for a few hours at a time, but not something so engrossing that you're skipping fun stuff just to keep reading it. It can't be too dark or depressing, but nor can it be so cloyingly light and bright that it makes even lying on a beach in the Pacific seem crappy. If they're too short and/or too easy, you finish them too fast and don't have anything for that last day when you're totally sick of the ocean - if they're too hard or too tedious (there really is no such thing as too long in my world) you're likely to give up on them halfway through and go waste your money on cheap airport novels.

So, with that criteria out there - I ask you, Drunkards, if you were heading off to an island for a week, what books would you take with you, and why?

Your assistance is much appreciated.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Paint

John Honey's novel 'Paint' was my choice for the October review for a number of reasons. The most outstanding reason was that it resonated so closely with me on many levels. The setting of the novel being round Hobart (where I live) is obvious, but this didn't really come into it though it did add to the overall feeling of familiarity about the book.

The fact that Boris, the main character, is an artist who is totally devoted to his craft to the exclusion of all else; the fact that author John Honey went into quite detailed accounts about Boris' dedication to and extreme love of food and its preparation, and wine and the fact that the repercussions of the Vietnam War fallout formed a reasonable part of the plot.

All four levels mentioned, plus the fact that I found it quite an easy read made my enjoyment of it total.

To briefly explain the logic used above: the artists world of total immersion in what they are currently working on has formed me as a human, my father being a sculptor. The circumstances of Boris' life as detailed by John Honey mirror (pretty accurately) my childhood with my father. Also the fact that I feel Honey has loosely fashioned some of his characters round real people in the art world here in Hobart whom I recognise reinforces this.

The food details logic is obvious if you've visited my blog site, named 'Hobart Food for thought'.

My late teenage years were spent in anger and frustration at our governments participation at that time in the Vietnam War - so that era comprised part of my formative years.

So - to the book itself. The main character, Boris, is a Vietnam vet who makes his living as an artist selling artwork to his Hobart dealer in order to support his lifestyle of good food, wine, music and of course painting.

Boris has a loving and caring relationship with his mother, Fairy, who lives, now widowed, alone in the seaside country town of Orford, which is an hours drive from Hobart, on the East Coast of Tasmania. His regular visits to check on his mum illustrate to Boris Fairy's slow downwards spiral into dementia.

The novel follows two separate routes: one of Boris' relationship with Fairy and the other involving his art and his discovery that his agent has ripped him off.

As with all books of this genre, it ends well, with Fairy dying on her own terms, and Boris' art dealership sorted out.

Being an avid and interested observer of my fellow man, my taste in reading matter tends to automatically veer towards books which graphically and realistically illustrate this. I found 'Paint' answered my criteria extremely well.

It wasn't 'Little Women' or 'TheThorn Birds' but I thoroughly enjoyed it and hope those that read it did too, though my bias may well have swayed my judgement.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Cool girls in print: a blatantly stolen blog idea




Following a Google link for dreary work reasons, I happened upon this post from April last year:

Last week, I started a list of Cool Girls from Kid Lit. Here is what I specified for "cool" criteria: "they should be smart and strong and independent, people who would make good role-models for girls today."


I love the idea, so I'm starting my own:

1. Jo March, Little Women
My absolute heroine. Feisty, independent, stubborn, romantic and indefagitably loyal and honorable. Cutting off her hair ('your one beauty!') to save her family was such a marvellous gesture. And I liked that she had big fat flaws to balance her virtues. And, of course, she was a writer and loved books.

2. Anne Shirley, Anne of Green Gables series
All of the above qualities (second sentence). I liked Gilbert a lot more than Jo March's beaux (as they called them in those days).

3. Ramona Quimby, The Ramona series
A spunky little tomboy with a naughty streak who always made her parents and sister laugh with her malpropisms and misadventures. Her heart was in the right place, though.

4. Josie Alibrandi, Looking for Alibrandi
Hmmm ... spunky, smart, feisty (a pattern emerging?) and incredibly likeable.

5. Alice, Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass
As may be obvious from my own blog title, I just love Alice to death. Of course, I also love Lewis Carroll's writing and the alternative universes he has created. The way he plays with language! Humpty Dumpty! ('A word means just what I intend it to. No more, no less.') The Red Queen! Richard E. Grant said recently that he read the book as a newcomer to England and immediately saw it as a delightful way of understanding the culture: they all play quite precisely by a set of rigid social rules or conventions, but the rules often don't make sense and the people are actually quite eccentric. But, okay, Alice ... she's adventurous, smart, stubborn and fiercely independent.

6. Judy, Seven Little Australians
It's a VERY long time ago that I read this, but I remember her being a Jo March-ish character, full of rebellion but actually incredibly decent. Pity about that father of hers ...

7. Dicey, Homecoming
Her flaky mother abandoned her and her brothers and sisters in a parking lot and 12 year-old Dicey kept them together and organised them to walk halfway across the country to find the grandmother they'd never met. With no money, no transport, no protection.

BAD role models



1. The Sweet Valley High twins, Jessica and Elizabeth
Every novel started with a description of their blue eyes, blonde hair and perfect bodies and by explaining that Elizabeth was the Good One and Jessica was the Bad One. Talk about madonna/whore syndrome all in one family ... Yes, I read these novels as a kid anyway. I had Barbies, too.

2. Veruca Salt, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
What a revolting little spoilt brat! But in such a melodramatic, pantomime villainess kind of way that I just loved her. Especially in the movie (the old one, that Roald Dahl apparently hated). What a brilliantly bratty song and dance routine she had ('I want it NOW!'). Sigh.

Feel free to add to this or argue ...

cross-posted at Jabberwocky

Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas


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I have very little to say about this very short novel by the Irish writer, John Boyne. In fact, I can't say very much at all without giving a lot of the plot away, and that would spoil it. It is supposedly a book for children. 'Bollocks', I say. It is a beautifully written, stylish composition that throws a harsh light on human ignominy.
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This Saturday Afternoon Read will involve you in two childhoods, neither of which any of us would want to experience. But, nonetheless, we will all recognise the view of An Innocent that takes in a moral landscape shaped by perverse adult bigotry. It's not an easy journey.
..
I recommend that you read it. It's short, but not at all sweet.

Monday, October 1, 2007

It's the end of the world as we know it.

But no, I don't feel fine, thanks for asking. In fact, I'm wishing that Mark Twain would ride in on a big white horse, six guns blazing, and save us all from the horror that is ghosted pulp*.

Just look at this. Jordan's latest 'book' (and I use the term advisedly) has outsold all the Booker shortlist put together.

There is no hope for humanity. Marketing and celebrity has taken over the world.

*I have nothing against ghost writers. It's just another way of prostituting one's pen and we've all been there. And many ghosts write worthy things under their own names. It's more a self-righteous, almost religious rage that the crap they produce is sucked up because of the name on the front. Try putting Jane Smith, nobody, on those bits of shit and see how well they sell!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The story is Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier.

Will Cooper’s story begins as old man.

At the turn of the 20th century, the book’s protagonist Will lives in the same house he has occupied for nearly nine decades in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Nearly a century in age, Will is an eccentric, somewhat crotchety, high and mighty old man with an acute awareness of his failings yet no sense of remorse.

“I knew her grandfather back in the slavery days. Knew him and owned him, if I’m to tell the truth. I still wonder why he didn’t cut my throat… I’d have had it coming.”

Upon starting to read this book I immediately wondered how I could enjoy a story written through such unapologetic eyes. Yet as I turned each page it became apparent it was neither Frazier’s characterization nor his plot that was pulling me through. Rather, it was his thoughtfully written prose and well researched account of Cherokee life in the 19th century.

What I liked most about Thirteen Moons is the perspective it offers on indigenous people and colonialism in North Carolina in the 19th century. Frazier’s story includes the expected tragic elements of disease, alcoholism and eventual forced removal. However, these heartbreaks are contextualised by vivid descriptions of how Cherokee people were acting with and against the inevitable changes to their environment. For example, over the course of his life the “red-headed freckled Indian” Featherstone, a penniless runaway, transforms himself into a wealthy slave-owning plantation lord. Meanwhile the one-hundred and twenty year old Granny Squirrel lives in a shack in the forest, following the ‘old ways’ she practices an Indian magic so powerful that even Will is an ardent believer in her potions and prophecies. The contrast between these characters represents a broad spectrum of experiences that allows Frazier to avoid the stereotype of the “noble savage” while also conveying how brutal, senseless and complete the eventual break-up of The Nation really was.

What I liked least about Thirteen Moons was the “mysterious and beautiful” character of Claire; the love of Will’s life. She was a little bit too mysterious for me, to the point of seeming simple and selfish. As Will is driven to win and loose everything for the sake of love, I would have liked to have some inkling as to what made Claire so compelling. Frankly, she just seemed dull.

Frazier’s writing style, as we experienced in his first book Cold Mountain, is grand, long-winded and not afraid to be sentimental, which will probably turn a lot of readers off. I, however, loved its sincerity. I loved the ambition of an author who creates a character so large that within the course of 400 pages Will is bound into servitude, adopted by a native American tribe, builds an empire of trading posts, bears witness to the ‘Trail of Tears’, practices as a frontier lawyer, buys enough land to create his own ‘nation’, becomes a senator in Washington, a colonel in the American revolution, and of course falls madly in love with the one woman he can not have.

But don’t worry, these are not plot spoilers. As a story told in hindsight there are few surprises. Rather, Thirteen Moons reads like a series of short moral tales that are humorous, melancholic and endearing. Any sense of action or dramatics seems to get buried beneath Frazier’s verbosity. So while the blurb may sound like a rollicking adventure, Thirteen Moons is actually more like a stroll through history that places more emphasis on place rather than pace.

In conclusion: read it, but don’t read it all at once. My advice is to do what I did and lose the book halfway through and forget about it. Then, three weeks later find the book under your bed and pick up where you left off. It doesn’t go anywhere fast, but it does offer a poetic and personal glimpse into a distant and harsh period of American history.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham


The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham.
Griffin Press, 2000.
An Australian gothic novel of love, hate and haute couture.
Set against the backdrop of Australian country town,
Dungatar, The Dressmaker centres around the story of Myrtle (‘Tilly’) Dunnage, who has returned to her childhood home to care for her mad mother.

Tilly is introduced as svelte and stylish, a competent traveller having worked in the fashion industry throughout Europe. It is eluded that she speaks several European languages, as well as being extremely good looking. Yet Ham, whose story is almost entirely character based, never once allows Tilly to become too perfect nor too much of a cliché. Tilly’s bitter past - which remains largely a secret until the completion of the novel, as well the illusions to her witch-like qualities, during which the book almost borders on super natural – blemishes the image of a perfect protagonist.

When Tilly does return to Dungatar, Ham introduces the readers to an array of incredible characters. The local policeman is a cross dresser. Evan Pettyman, the local councillor, is abusing his wife. Faith O’Brien, loving wife of Hamish, is having an affair with Reginald Blood, the butcher. Tilly’s own mother borders on insane. The local pub is full of an array of colourful characters, many whose stories stay with you longer than the plot of the book – which is virtually non-existence during the first half of the story.

Yet it is precisely Ham’s focus on these brilliant characters that saves the plot. Often she uses incredibly confronting images to create the image of a country town that is almost poisonous in its existence. Sexual abuse, character deaths and the characters own bizarre personal lives create the world of a Dungatar in such a way that led the Sydney Morning Herald to title it a ‘feral SeaChange’.

The Dressmaker centres on Tilly’s affect on the town, both in creating glamorous outfits for the women of Dungatar and in her personal affect on many of the characters, most especially Teddy McSwinney – a love interest that follows a tired road. The plot begins after the introduction of the major characters, yet stems into many sub-plots, each centring on each of the town folk.

Ham’s eye for the comedic as well as the copious caricatures of small town characters gives the book its gothic quality. Her attention to detail is pronounced and her craft of words creates the lasting image of a country town and it's colourful residents - one that will stay with you far longer than the ending.

Friday, September 21, 2007

On sharing

I've tried to love second-hand books. I really have. But it's a relationship fraught with crumbs.

It's not that I have no experience of pre-loved books. In the days before op-shopping was trendy, my mum was the mistress of the bargain. Of course, they were also the days when one could still pick up cashmere jumpers for 50 cents and desginer boots for a dollar. Novels were usually 10 cents each, so she'd come home with 10 at a time.

But only if they were clean.

I've inherited this fastidiousness when it comes to books. I just can't help it. Every time I think, "I really should get over this silly prejudice of mine," and start to browse in the book stall in the Central Market, I find a book that I want. Out of Africa, for instance, or A Passage to India. "Hmm, the cover looks OK," I think, eyeing off the $2 price tag. Bargain!

But invariably I open it and find preserved between its pages
(a) a slice of bacon;
(b) a large, fleshy, very flat moth; or
(c) crumbs.

I have no problem with using heavy books to press flowers. After all, it was the only thing I used the family Bible for when I was a kid. But I can only presume that the previous owners of these volumes had no bookmarks, no fly swats, a shortage of plates or all of the above. Hey presto, I drop the book back on the pile and wipe my hands on my jeans. Ford knows what else is on them!

Yes, I probably am a little OCD. I know. It's just that I like to read in bed and my bed is my temple. I don't even like to take library books into it.

And yes, I'm one of those people who goes into small fits of apoplexy over those dirty bastards who take communal newspapers into the toilet. After all, at some point, they have to put it on a potentially pee-besmirched floor. And if they aren't putting them down, then that's even worse.

About five years ago, before I was a half-hearted hack, I had a boss whom I hated even more than celery. Let's call him Boofhead, because he was. One of my daily jobs was the office media monitoring, clipping relevant stories from the newspapers to put into a folder for future reference. I'd done this peacefully for some years with my old boss, but when Boof arrived, the papers suddenly became... distasteful.

He would wander out of his office about 10 every morning, fetch up the paper and head for the men's. Twenty-five minutes later, the door would bang, he would reappear and he'd DROP THE PAPER IN MY IN-TRAY. After a few days of this, I fronted him up and said that if he was going to take the paper into the dunny, he could clip it himself because I would not be touching it. Being a lazy little swine, he had no intention of doing his own clippings, so he refrained ~hallelujah, angels blowing trumpets, etc.~

I'm also a little fussy about who I lend my books to. A uni friend borrowed my copy of Cloud Street some years ago. It was the edition with the nice cover, showing a terrace house. A few weeks later, she said, "Oh, you know your copy of Cloud Street." Er, yes? My current favourite book, you mean? "Yes, that's the one! Well, I dropped it in the bath." You dropped it in the what?! "Yes, it slipped. Anyway, I dried it with the hairdrier and it's almost as good as new. Well, the pages are a bit wavey. But you don't want me to buy you a new copy, do you?" DO I, FUCK! "Oh well, I wanted a copy myself anyway."

So, if you ask to borrow one of my books, you can expect me to ask whether you are a Chewer of Books. Do you dog-ear? Do you break their poor dear backs by leaving them open for days at a time? Do you leave them on the lawn or take them to the tropics? Do you shred dust jackets on hard covered books? Do you allow kittens to sharpen their claws on them? Do you borrow a book and keep it for the better part of a year? Are you, in short, no respecter of the printed word? Because if you aren't, you may get one of my books, but you'll never get a second.

Oh, bugger off. No, I wasn't an only child and I have no problem with sharing unless the sharee is the equivalent of a demolition ball crossed with the Myth Buster boys and a flame-thrower. Books are sacred, damn you!

Unless they're Bryce Courteney, Jackie Collins or VC Andrews. If they're pulp fiction, you can use 'em for barbecue kindling for all I care.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Book for September 07: Mister Pip

Mister Pip, Lloyd Jones, Text Publishing, $29.99

I chose Mister Pip with few expectations simply to get the group started. actonb suggested we might begin with a Booker-nominated book and at the time, it was on the long-list, along with wretched Ian McEwan’s On Chessil Beach. Since then it has both been short-listed and bumped McEwan from his position as favorite to take out the word’s most coveted literary award. I’m still annoyed with McEwan over the obnoxious first half of Atonement and he hasn’t paid enough yet. So, as Simpsons bully Nelson Muntz would say, hah-hah.

Mister Pip is a book of great beauty, but also one of fear, horror and trauma. New Zealander Lloyd Jones has created a convincing voice for Matilda, his young Papua New Guinean narrator. Through the pages of Dickens's Great Expectations, she learns to escape from the privations of life in blockade-stricken Bougainville into an unknown world.

The story begins in 1992, several years after PNG rebels led by Francis Ona sabotaged the Panguna Copper Mine, shutting it down. When a blockade is thrown up around the island by government troops, no-one in Matilda’s village is particularly worried – until the generator fuel runs out and the hospital is raided of its medicines by the soldiers. By the time the last boat for Rabaul leaves, everyone has begun to realise what the war means.

The only white who stays behind when that last boat sails is Tom Watts, also known as Pop Eye for the bulging eyes that “made you think of someone who couldn’t get out of the house quickly enough”. To begin with, Pop Eye is a figure of fun. He pulls his mad local wife Grace about on a bamboo trolley while wearing a bright red clown’s nose. The children have watched in fascination, but none of them has ever heard him speak until he takes over as their teacher.

He struggles with arithmetic, can’t identify the weird fish that washes up on the beach and can’t tell the children why Aristotle, Einstein and Darwin are famous, but he knows Charles Dickens back to front. He introduces the children to the English writer, reading Great Expectations aloud at the rate of a chapter a day.

Mr Watts is a skilful creation. He is a Robinson Crusoe-like character, appearing on the island from the unknown outside world. Instead of a meek Man Friday, Mr Watts has a village full of people who simultaneously look up to because he is white and thinking him slightly simple because he has few practical skills. He has his flaws and his shortcomings, but he is a hugely compelling character.

When he reads to the class, he becomes a part of the story he tells. The line between writer, reader and character blurs as he variously claims to be Charles Dickens and Pip. Mr Watts is in his element when he takes the role of a male Scheherezade, renting his life for a week from a rabble of rebel soldiers by stringing out the story of his life night after night.

But on the seventh day, when the tale is all but told, the rebels disappear and are replaced by government soldiers who shoot Mr Watts, chop him up and throw his body to the pigs in a shocking act of retribution.

Mister Pip is about the power of books and reading, but it also focuses on contradictions: how life can be simultaneously simple and complex, beautiful and horrifying and how one person can be both brave and weak.

Matilda’s mother is a prime example of this. She is an angry woman who hates Mr Watts for his lack of faith and takes every chance to score points against him. Her anger is partially to blame for the suffering inflicted by the soldiers on the villagers. Nevertheless, she chooses to stand up for Mr Watts in the end, when it is already too late, declaring herself to be God’s witness to his murder and signing her own death warrant.

Jones’s writing is both lyrical and simple. In Matilda’s naïve voice, he has created something akin to Mark Haddon’s autistic narrator in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Jones has skimmed close to Matilda being just a stereotypical ‘simple islander’. After all, would it be realistic to give a 15-year-old white Australian girl a similar voice? He weathers the storm, though, creating a realistic narrator with a full range of thoughts and feelings.

Jones’s turn of phrase can be breathtaking. Sentences such as, “A fish leapt in my heart”, set him apart from the crowd and would make him a worthy Booker winner.

That, and the fact that he’s not Ian McEwan.

Right, I’ve done my bit. It’s your turn now. Let the tournament begin.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Hating Humbert Humbert

Among the other fine texts of import that I have been ploughing my way through of late, I recently read Nabokov's Lolita, for the first - and likely last - time.

For those that don't know it, it's the story of Humbert Humbert. Humbert likes young girls. A little too much. So much so that he moves in with and then marries a woman he dislikes just so he can get close to her twelve-year-old daughter, and then plots various ways in which to get the mother out of the way so he can drug the daughter and have his way with her. Conveniently for him, the mother is killed in an accident and he runs off on a cross-American road trip with the daughter - Dolores, or Lolita.

The way he tells it, while he admits wanting to make the moves, she seduces him, and is a willing and active participant - albeit later seemingly rather weary - in their very non-father-daughter relationship.

It's a very uncomfortable read - apparently it's a comedy, but I didn't particularly find Humbert funny so much as creepy and disturbing. I also couldn't tell whether I was supposed to feel sorry for him, because I couldn't do that. He struck me as a cruel and selfish man who seemed to have no interest in the way his desires were affecting those around him.

I guess the main thing this book got me thinking was this: Is it possible to like a book if you feel so strongly negative about its protagonist?

It's not something I've come across too often. Having a look over my bookshelf there's not a lot there where the protagonist is a horrible person. Sometimes they do horrible things, and as a reader I disagree with their choices, but I can't think of any examples where they are just bad people.

My most recent point of reference, if I have to find one, is The Corrections, which I loved. Franzen's characters were all deeply flawed and, in some ways, very unlikeable people, and yet their story really drew me in and I missed them when it ended.

I think the difference is that I could sympathise with those characters. I didn't like them, but through the story I could sort of see how they'd ended up where they had in life.

The other factor, I think, is that for the most part they knew they were flawed. Humbert only ever seems apologetic about his actions in order to be thought of well by the reader, not because he actually thinks he has done anything wrong, and at times he seems to be trying to present himself as the victim in the mess he has created. And I just couldn't get behind that.

In the end, it's a bit of a moot point because I didn't love Lolita for more reasons than just Humbert's awfulness. The story annoyed me and the writing style kept me from getting nicely lost in the plot. I just didn't care and I think that not caring led to a not particularly careful read, so at the end, when I was supposed to be able to 'guess' certain twists, I had no idea. And I didn't even care that I had no idea.

I do wonder though, if I could have forgiven more of the books shortcomings if Humbert hadn't been so determined to make me hate him.

Cross-posted here.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

THE TRIUMPH OF THE SUN...


TITLE: The Triumph of the Sun
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AUTHOR: Wilbur Smith
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GENRE:Historical Fiction/Adventure




-----oOo-----

An Epic tale of romance, adventure and unimaginable horrors in the deserts of the Sudan and Egypt…

-----oOo-----
Prologue: I have to say, first up, that I am an avid Wilbur Smith reader. I have his entire collection in Hardback and have read them all many times. The exception is his last novel, which I will not go into, but just let me say it was tragic in every aspect. I have noted in your comments, that many of you dislike ‘packaged’ writing but I find sanctuary in these types of novels as they lead me through history, peoples and landscapes that I would not normally read about through the more normal channels of history texts. His research is impeccable and like Alfredo Massimo Manfredi’sAlexander series, I find that I better understand history and its peoples. I am not naive enough to believe that they do not embellish history to suite their stories but in the main they are true to History as recorded and after all is not history just the biased written word of the victor? Smith has led me through the Arab and Western Slave trade, White Settlement, the Zulu wars, the gold and diamond rushes, the Boer Wars, WWI and WWII, the apartheid era, Egypt, Namibia, South Africa, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and all the while he let me see Africa’s history from a personnel level. It is, raw, majestic and brutal. He has painted the pictures for my mind and I have opened it up for him. If you cannot imagine and feel his environment then Wilbur is not for you. Now on with my attempt to paint a picture of Mr Smiths “Triumph in the Sun”…

Theme: Set in the Sudan during the siege of Khartoum. The Mahdi ‘The Expected One’ has declared a Holy War and aims to cleanse the land of the unbelievers through his fanatical Dervish armies.

This book ties the two great British ‘Smith’ families of the Courtneys (Sound of Thunder, When the Lion Feeds etc) and Ballantynes (A Falcon Flies, Men of Men etc) together for the first time in their African timeline.

It centres around two main male characters; Captain Penrod Ballantyne of the King’s 10th Hussars and the enigmatic Ryder Courtney, the Captain of a river trader. They are based in the besieged City of Khartoum under attack from the Mahdi, himself residing in the twin city of Omdurman a canon shot away, across the quickly receding Nile River. The river is the only barrier protecting those trapped inside Khartoum’s walls. A third male lead is introduced and offers an insight into the mind and culture of the supporters of the Mahdi…Osman Atalan is an Emir the Beja tribe and introduces us to an underlying core set of values and true morality, from his perspective. It is a truly wondrous and at times brutal ride.

The women, and there is always a love interest, centre around the daughters of the widowed British Consul, Sir David Benbrook. His eldest daughter Rebecca captures the heart of all the male leads while her twin, younger sisters eventually usurp her as the love interest of the British leads.

Sir Charles ‘Chinese’ Gordan is one of the non fictional characters whom link our fictional characters into history. He is/was an infamous English General sequestered into the Egyptian Army as the commander-in-chief, the Sirdar. He was ostensibly sent to Khartoum to evacuate the western population and the Egyptian garrison but defied inducements to evacuate, leading to his demise. Lord Kitchener, plays a hand eventually, and finally subdues the Sudan by 1898 before terrorising the Boers and then later the Germans on the Western Front of France.

The novel is based on history and we follow actual events through the eyes and actions of our fictional and non fictional characters. We find ourselves in the midst of actual battles fighting alongside everyone from the British camel corp to the Ansar of the Mahdi. Smith’s characters are always larger than life, strong, brave and handsome and through either actions or birth are destined for greatness.

Whilst his hallmark passages of epic battles, dusty and dangerous elephant hunts and fiery romance abound in this adventure, in droves, there is also the historical tale that has been researched very well….although, disappointingly, the last thirty years, or so, seem to be crammed into the final few pages to get to end the Sudanese saga.

One of my big criticisms of this and his later books is that, Smith steps aside from his tried and true and some would say ‘packaged’ stories…”Boy meets girl, Boy great Warrior/Adventurer/Entrepreneur, Epic adventure with African backdrop of wild animals and wild natives, Boy wins girl”…and possibly debases his female characters and the read by trying to intersperse rather graphic – for Wilbur – Sex scenes into his book. These tacky scenes do nothing for the story or the characters nor do they do anything for Smith or the reader. His attempts at describing lovemaking are akin to fingernails being dragged down a blackboard…they made me cringe.

So there we have it…adventure, romance, brutality, war, love and religion...all we need now is a Starbuck’s and we would have it all. As I said in my prologue, I am a great Smith fan and I forgive his weaknesses and his repetitive narrative* because I see beyond his writing and lose my self in the historical canvass he paints of the wondrous times and events of history.

Thanks for reading :)

* Smith quotes, almost verbatim, certain events that happen time and again through his sagas like whenever a lion attacks; we can smell its cadaverous breath and visualise its yellow eyes or when an Elephant sucks the air and blows the scent onto its olfactory gland by use of its trunk. He explains it very well and we can really see the moment but when you read almost the same passage in every novel it gets a bit rich. It is almost like he is too lazy to write it another way so he just cuts and pastes these little snippets.



Friday, September 7, 2007

Reading notes

Not to lower the tone of things, but my mother-in-law has just been to stay and left a great stash of trash. So if any of you need to know the latest status on Brad/Jen/Angelina/Brad's mum; Diana's heartbroken children; the night that Britney and KFed were both spotted out on the town (where were the kids); or the increasing influence of Posh over Kat, do let me know.

I have also just finished reading Last Drinks by Andrew McGahan. I know, you read it years ago, but if you didn't, I do recommend that you make time to read it now. Set in Queensland, post those days, it's kind of crime, but kind of not. It's interesting, to read a story narrated by a protaganist you're never quite sure you completely dislike.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Pharmacist's Mate by Amy Fusselman


I have read The Pharmacist’s Mate by Amy Fusselman from cover-to-cover three nights running. I’m still not entirely sure I’ve got to the bottom of it.

The Pharmacist’s Mate is a memoir of Fusselman’s experiences trying to get pregnant after the death of her father. It has a loose narrative structure, but is more “point-in-time” than linear. It ranges from matter-of-fact observations about the colour of semen which has been “washed” for insemination (pink), to musings about the way in which deaf people might interpret guitar-playing as a visual activity.

Fusselman is what other writers might consider achingly honest. She records her thoughts without fear or favour – an observation that she thinks “My Dad is Dead” would be a good name for a boy child is delivered in the same voice as her description of her mother’s visions of “something” in the room with them.

Fusselman’s writing is blog-like and conversational. She records her thoughts in a series of staccato paragraphs which are interspersed with entries from her father’s diaries as a Pharmacist-Purser’s Mate on a merchant marine vessel during World War II.

She doesn’t like the word “husband” (“it sounds like we had a party and ate cake and said words”). She is intrigued by the type of porn her husband watches at the IVF clinic (“Valentino’s Asian Invasion”). She writes in a detached way about her inability to become pregnant.

There is something about the tone of this novel which gives it a kind of sleeper effect. In some ways, the tone of writing is similar to Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho: shattering events are given the same treatment as everyday occurrences.

If I were the kind of smash-grab spin writer who might prepare a blurb on this book for Oprah, I’d observe that it “has something for everyone” – which it does in some ways. But it’s an unsettling read despite its tone, and although it goes into some detail about Fusselman’s almost accidental attendance at an AC/DC concert, AC/DC fans would find it a thin read if this was their focus.

It’s possible I may be able to tie this book down after a few more reads, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it. In the meantime I’ll be recommending it to friends, and I suspect lending it to several people.

Anyone else who is interested can get it at a bargain-basement price from McSweeney’s Internet Tendency

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Orpheus Lost

Orpheus Lost, Janette Turner Hospital, Harper Collins, $29.95

Set in a near future when suicide bombers strike at will in American cities and people are snatched from the street for interrogation by mercenaries, Orpheus Lost is a tale of love in a time of terror.

Mishka is an Australian violinst who lives in his music, while Leela is an intimidatingly intelligent young woman from the Deep South who is researching the mathetmatics of music. This unlikely pair meets and falls in love in the underworld of the Boston subway when she is drawn to his soulful violin.

With his Jewish background and dreamy vagueness when faced with the real world, Mishka is the least likely terrorist imaginable. When masked men kidnap Leela and question her about her lover’s apparent double life and jihadi connections, she thinks the world has finally gone mad. To make things even more surreal, her hooded interrogator turns out to be her childhood friend, the bizarrely named and deeply troubled Cobb Slaughter.

Follwing a suicide bombing that destroys a bus, Mishka suddenly bolts, making himself look blindingly guilty. He leaves for Beirut with a fake passport in another name and vanishes from a street corner, but Leela still refuses to believe he could be involved in the bombings.

Turner Hospital has taken the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and turned it on its head. Instead of a resolute Orpheus venturing into the underworld to bring back his lost love, it is Eurydice who is the stronger character and who launches the rescue mission.

This is the second of Turner Hospital’s terror books, following on from Due Preparations for the Plague, a chilling retelling of Boccaccio’s Decameron that substitutes hostages from a hijacked plane waiting to choke on poison gas for the revelers waiting for the bloom of the Black Death.

Turner Hospital's writing is evocative and in places beautifully wrought. She brings to life the wet tropics of Far North Queensland, a small and down-at-heel town in South Carolina and a subterranean gulag with equal skill. The supporting cast of characters is pleasingly complex: there is Leela's father, the mad and dying preacher who takes numbers far too seriously; Cobb's father, an alcoholic veteran who was demonised as a war criminal on his return from Vietnam; and Mishka's mother, who perpetrates the myth that an uncle dead for decades is actually playing his violin just upstairs.

The only real sense of a character with something lacking comes with Mishka. Though devoted to his music and to Leela, compared to other, stronger characters, he comes across as somewhat limp and weak. Sometimes he appears to be little more than a symbolic victim waiting meekly to be sacrificed

Orpheus Lost returns to the writer’s favourite themes of disappearance, loss, redemption and the rubbery and difficult nature of truth. The lines between reality, illusion and delusion, between right and wrong are blurred. Despite Mishka's shortcomings, this is a satisfying, intelligent read that never loses faith in humankind, despite the difficult and trying times against which it is set.

My Sister's Keeper

Title: My Sister's Keeper
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Atria Books, 2004



Written more in the style of a movie than a book, My Sister's Keeper outlines the story of a family torn apart and drawn back together by their decisions in supporting a child with an acute form of leukemia.

The story is told from multiple points of view, but it is mostly about Anna, the youngest of three children who was conceived in order to be a bone marrow donor for her sister Kate, who suffers said leukemia.
Anna, 13, decides she wants medical emancipation from her parents - and informs them of this by filing a law suit. It isn't clear, until the final pages of the book, just why Anna files the law-suit originally, as we, the reader, are only given opinions of those surrounding Anna, she herslef never divulges the reasoning behind her decision.

This book touches on many issues, but central to the plot - should society allow parents to decide whether or not one child should become a donor for another, sick, sibling?
I believe that the characters presented, within Anna's family are all believable. Jesse (brother) and Anna clearly show the effects of being neglected, in an emotional sense, by their parents, especially the mother, who are entirely focused on having three healthy children, ie. dedicating most of their time to Kate (although i think Brian, the father, is not so much guilty of this as the mother. He appears more in-touch with the states of all his children and the mother's clear 'writing-off' of Jesse is depressing in the fact that it is so common amongst youth of my generation who are misunderstood and get caught up in drugs and other bad practices).

To me, the characters presented outside the family, Julia and Campbell, diminish the quality of the rest of the book as they are much harder to believe. Their sub-plot does add some much needed distraction from the times within the book when Sara, the mother - and easily the most unlikeable character - is talking from her viewpoint.

All in all, this book is a fabulous read that touches on some of the hottest topics relevant in today's society from IVF and genetic engineering to just how much can a parent control their child?

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Callisto

The Facts: Callisto (Torsten Kroll, 2007 Picador by Pan Macmillan Australia) rrp $32.95 Available everywhere

***

Torsten Krol, if he exists and isn't (as suspected) a pseudoym for some well-known author who is worried that writing something like this could be potentially damaging to his or her marketability in the US, lives in Queensland. This is his second book and if you can find out any more than that about him, you're a better Sunday morning researcher than I am.

Callisto is one of those books that currently seems to be near the front door of most bookshops, like they’re either trying to create a bestseller or just get rid of it. I picked it up because, well, bright colours and glossy covers appeal to that simple side of my brain.

When I started reading it, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Now that I’m done - I’m still wondering.

This is the story of Odell Deefus: a young, white, poor American male, on his way to join the army. He hasn’t got a high school diploma, but he’s pretty sure that won’t matter, because the army is desperate, what with the war killing off all their personnel and a general reluctance among would-be recruits to be next. On his way to his local recruiting centre, his car breaks down and he meets Dean Lowry, who puts him up for the night until he can get his truck fixed.

It’s an ill-fated meeting, with Dean ending up dead and Odell getting caught up in multiple terror plots, a little drug smuggling, murder and late-night TV Christianity.

On the surface, Callisto is just your typical wrong-place-wrong-time story, sitting somewhere in the genre intersection between small-town fish-out-of-water, crime and political thriller. Read a little deeper, however, and its loftier ambitions become apparent.

Callisto reminds me in some ways of Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump, in that it’s a story told through the eyes of a rather dim-witted soul who keeps getting caught up in quite remarkable events – thankfully, there’s not so much of the tweeness and no t-shirtable sayings. Krol has obviously given Odell’s ‘voice’ a lot of thought, and the result is convincing, without getting annoying. Odell isn’t particularly likeable, and I spent a lot of the book marveling at his stupidity, but ultimately you do feel for him and want him to get away – if only because he didn’t do anything (much).

This is actually quite a political book, and Krol finds ways to work in commentary on a gamut of issues – from homophobia and the church-state divide to the guilty-until-proven-innocent treatment of suspected terrorists, with many in between. It’s not always successful, but for the most part it is thought-provoking and the ‘message’ is pretty clear: something is rotten in the Untied States of America.

Callisto seems a little unsure of itself at times, like it can’t decide whether it wants to be pulp fiction or serious literature. Some of the ideas are a little clunky and the way all the loose ends tie up at the end is a little bit forced – as though Krol wrote himself into a corner and didn’t really know how to get himself out.

Ultimately, though, this is a fairly easy, if not always light, read. It’s a black comedy that just keeps getting blacker and that bad taste in your mouth through the last hundred or so pages – well, that’s kind of the point.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Book for October 07

My instinctive reaction on finding myself first cab off the rank in the reviews, to follow the extremely polished performance of redcap was...well, you can imagine!

I pondered long and hard. Stayed awake at nights. Trawled bookshops like a woman possessed - which I was. Then realised the solution was staring me in the face.

A fabulous book by a local author which I had recently had recommended to me. I had bought it, been unable to put it down till I finished it, then, carried away with enthusiasm, had lent it to the next person to arrive at my house.

As is the way, that was the last I heard of my prized possession until now. I have recovered it and am re-reading it. I really hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

I am in Hobart, and the author, John Honey, is also a local. I have spoken to John and warned him about what I was about to do, so he knows exactly what the score is.

The description on the back of the book reads, "Kevin 'Boris' Goodenough, Vietnam vet and reclusive artist, loves food, wine, women.....and paint. When an old post-traumatic dream recurs he launches on a major series of paintings about war. Suddenly his world changes, then threatens to fall apart...."

It's an easy read. One I identified very much with, being the progeny of an artist.

It is currently in the planning stage of being made into a movie, with the first draft of the screen play having been finalised in March this year. It is now in script development. The producer, Rosemary Blight, has been working on her recent production, Clubland, with Brenda Blethyn. It is looking like a 2009 film, at this stage.

John Honey has worked inTV/current affairs and film & TV writing/directing. He made the Tasmanian movie "Manganini" and worked in the US in the 90's making TV documentaries. He was also an original writer on the team of McLeods Daughters.

The book is only available from the author. He published it himself, so the details of how to obtain your copy are:

Cost of book is $29.95
No postage or handling will be charged within Australia
You can email or call direct or fax your details
www.redhillbooks.com
email directly: redhillbooks@iinet.net.au
or call John on 03 6267 2331
or fax your address and credit card details to 03 62671036

John is an incredibly straightforward person with no delusions of grandeur at all. If you want to call him for a copy of the book, just pick up the phone!
Be warned though, he has a stall at the infamous (Hobart) Salamanca Market, peddling his book, so that's where he is to be found every Saturday.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

(Books) Out of Africa


When people ask South African journalist and singer Rian Malan why he stays in a country that’s clearly going to hell in a handbasket, he says, “It’s boring where you are.” And it is. Where else can you walk through adrenaline grass as tall as your elbow, knowing you could step on anything from a lion to a black mamba at any moment?

I’m a masochist and I enjoy torturing myself with daydreams of places I'd rather be, so I like to read books set in Africa. I’m not that fussy what sort, so long as they have a sense of place. I haven’t had a go at Wilbur Smith yet, but when I admitted that to one of my Saffie mates, he said, “So that’s what’s the matter with you!” Thanks Richard.

Anyway, here’s a selection of some I’ve read lately. I realise it’s all from a white perspective, but I can’t help that. It’s been too long since I read any Chinua Achebe to review him now. I think there might just be something for everyone here. Well, except people who don’t fancy Africa. No soup for you lot, I’m afraid.

All the way home, Bookey Peek
Bookey and Richard Peek own Stone Hills, a Zimbabwean wildlife lodge, and they love their land and the animals that roam it. They’ve shared their bed with squirrels, their study with owls and kingfishers and their couch with a pampered warthog that took an unseemly pleasure in peeing between the cushions. All the way home is a lovely memoir, full of stories of the injured or orphaned animals the Peeks have rescued, rehabilitated and released.

Richard Peek is an ex-National Parks ranger and a passionate zoologist and ornithologist who seems to find it particularly difficult to suffer fools gladly. Along with the animal tales, the book features all the usual cringe-worthy stories of feral tourists who drink the place dry and expect to see the big five all in one day.

Bookey Peek writes evocatively of her surroundings, bringing Stone Hills and its inhabitants to life. Their little patch of Africa is an oasis in the middle of the basket case that is Zimbabwe.

The Congo and Cameroons, Mary Kingsley
Mary Kingsley was one tough cookie. At the turn of the century, when upper class women were expected to marry, raise flocks of babies and manage the servants, Kingsley was following in her explorer father’s footsteps, wandering Africa.

This slim volume is an excerpt of the journal of her travels through western Africa. She climbed mountains, canoed in crocodile-infested swamps and trekked through jungles with no-one for company but a rather dubious band of cannibals. But forget the cannibals. Here’s the bit that amazed me the most: she did it all in long skirts.

When she was already that kooky white lady who wanted to poke around in jungles, I don’t understand why she didn’t go the whole warthog and become the kooky white lady who poked about jungles in trousers. After all, she spent half the time wringing wet, scratched to pieces by the numerous thorny things Africa has to offer, bitten by its equally bitey insects and red-raw from sunburn. In comparison, the battles with the locals she hired as bearers and guides were relatively minor and on the scale of a modern traveller’s stoushes with sneaky taxi-wallahs.

Kingsley went to Africa four times, dying on her last trip while volunteering as a nurse in a Boer POW camp in South Africa.

Disgrace, JM Coetzee
Disgrace was published in 1999 and won the Booker Prize, but it’s taken me a while to get to it. David Lurie is a Cape Town university lecturer who has been sidelined by positive discrimination after the end of apartheid. He teaches a bastardised English to uninterested students while composing an opera about Byron’s mistress. Like Byron, Lurie is a sensualist and it ultimately causes his downfall. When an affair with a student goes badly wrong, his pride will not allow him to save his career. Instead he walks away, hoping to find sanctuary on his daughter Lucy’s small-holding. Things go from bad to worse, though, with a raid on the farm that leaves father and daughter wounded in body and soul.

Disgrace is as much a story of modern South Africa and its spiral into lawlessness as a story of one man’s fall. Gradually, Lurie loses everything he once thought important, including his pride. Lucy has an almost unnatural sense of stoic acceptance of the misfortunes that befall her, but Lurie rages against them. By the end of the book, he has come a long way from the pompous fool he was in its opening pages.

Coetzee’s later books tend to make me feel as though I’m sitting through a rather dry and tedious lecture. Elizabeth Costello was a prime example and I didn’t even want to pick up his last, Slow Man. Disgrace, however, is in another league. I can’t say I enjoyed it, because it was far from a pleasant read, but as bleak as it was, it was confronting and thought-provoking and had a lot to say about what people will do when they feel they have no choice.

Safari, Tony Park
I doubt that Tony Park has ever been mentioned in the same breath as JM Coetzee. But then I know who I’d rather have a Zambezi Lager with. Tony Park’s books are my guilty pleasure. Come on – everyone has one. And I’m convinced thrillers are better than watching Australian Idol.

Park is an ex-journo Army Reservist who spends a few months a year in Africa and writes a cracking thriller. His heroes are ex-soldiers, his female leads are no-nonsense types and Africa steals the show as the main character.

In his latest book, Safari, ex-SAS soldier Shane Castle has been working security in Iraq. After a sticky incident involving the shooting of an insurgent, Castle takes a job as head of an anti-poaching team at a Zimbabwean hunting lodge. The lodge caters for the filthy rich, but as the poacher body count grows, it becomes clear that things aren’t quite as they seem.

Safari is a cracking page-turner with great Hollywood flick potential. I did pick the plot twist fairly early on, but there are plenty of shoot-outs, lots of tramping around the African bush and some rather racy bits. It’s not Booker material, but it's not meant to be. It’s fun and I enjoyed it.

Oh, and Tony Park's got a blog too, which makes him one of us.

I reckon you might like this one, Scorpy.

Eleanor Lipmann's 'My Latest Grievance'

Preface: I just wrote this for something else and thought I'd dual post...



The unfortunate reality for funny women writers is that they are often sidelined as ‘chick lit’, ‘summer reading’ or, worse, ‘light’. Publishing companies, clamouring to discover the next Bridget Jones, saturate what are perfectly respectable novels either with references to the aforementioned heroine or with garish illustrated front covers synonymous with literature that is lightly pleasant but has no real depth. One wonders why it seems so difficult for some publishers to accept that a good, funny book written by a woman can be wildly popular without being touted as a beach read.

Eleanor Lipmann, notable writer of previous works The Dearly Departed and The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, is no stranger to such treatment. Despite such marginalization however, Lipmann continues to produce work of insight, intelligence and great humour. She is remarkably adept at laying bare the foibles and idiosyncratic obsessions of humans without losing their humanity. She creates characters that are at turns pompous, arrogant, incredible, moving, hilarious and remorseful. While she allows us to laugh at them, it is never without at least a pinch of affection.

Such is the way with My Latest Grievance. Set in the 1970s, Frederica Hatch is a 16 year old girl blessed with intelligence and cynicism in equal measures. She has spent all her life at a small women’s college outside Boston, where her political activist parents are dorm-parents. Given free reign to explore the world around her (both personal and political), Frederica’s natural moment of rebellion arrives with the excessive Miss Laura Lee French, vivacious and over the top bon vivant – and also the first wife of Frederica’s father.

At first, Frederica is taken with Laura Lee, expressing childlike fascination with her glamour and style. Soon though, it becomes obvious that Laura Lee is the key to all their undoing, and her selfish, thoughtless acts will change the future of the college forever.

Lipmann keeps a tight reign on her characters here, and provides a fresh voice brimming with intelligent humour. Frederica Hatch is one of the most amusing heroines to spring out of fiction in recent years and will simply delight you.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Courage

I've decided to jump in with the first random review, as I had some notes on a book I've just finished (and loved) that were never going to make it beyond my notebook. 'Tis written accompanied by red wine and not much editing, but here it is anyway. No spoilers! (It's not that kind of book anyhow.)

I have to give you some of the details of the book, because I am a book nerd and can't stop myself.

***



Courage (Maria Tumarkin, MUP, $32.95 pb, Released September 2007)

This LOOKS like it could be either pretty dry or dripping with sucrose. But it’s actually completely fascinating – and liberally laced with gratifyingly spiky charm:

People care desperately about courage. For once, I am one of the people. Do you want to know what it means to care desperately? It means that I am prepared to give up dignity, talent and generosity for the attribute of courage. When I fantasise about what people will say after my death, I know what I want them to recall-whatever her flaws (too numerous to mention), she certainly had guts. Yet the courage I conjure up in my fantasies exists outside of the extremes of violence, endurance and fear. It is not primarily a virtuous ideal or an idea, but rather an expression of the human spirit-messy, explosive and morally ambivalent.


I loved Maria Tumarkin’s first book, Traumascapes, which was about the meaning of sites where great human traumas have been suffered: New York, Bali, Berlin, Port Arthur. It looked at the meaning of the sites themselves – encompassing the bizarre trade in disaster tourism as well as the meaning of the sites for those connected with the tragedy (survivors, relatives of victims).

Yes, the subject was morbidly fascinating, but the writing is what really drew me.

Tumarkin has the gift of drawing the reader into her thought processes and allowing them to join her on the intellectual journey. She writes as she thinks – in an almost conversational manner, drawing on her personal experience and observations where relevant, but supporting that with research. I read a book review of hers in The Monthly soon after I read the book and was similarly attracted to it. (It was a review of Anne Manne’s Motherhood, which also talked about Tumarkin’s own thoughts on the subject and her relationship with her daughter, who sounded like a right gutsy and intelligent little thing.)

Her new book, Courage, follows the same can’t-pin-it-down blend of genres, combining cultural studies, sociology, current affairs and memoir. With rather more of the memoir bit – which is a very good thing indeed.

She writes that the book is dedicated ‘to courage rather than heroism in all its guises ... for I see heroism primarily as a chimera we have to fight our way past in order to reach courage’.

What does this mean? Well, courage is about drawing on our inner reserves, and about being tested. It’s about doing things DESPITE obstacles. Heroism is about extraordinary actions in extraordinary circumstances – the kinds of things that many of us will never even have the chance to do, and is often done on instinct, without thinking. This strikes a chord with me.

She also writes about Steve Irwin in the context of courage – and concludes that he was neither courageous nor heroic. Which also strikes a big fat chord. She observes that in discussion boards and blogs everywhere, people said he was a hero because he ‘died doing what he loved’. Her rejoinder:

The same might be said, for instance, about an ageing businessman dying of a heart attack while fornicating in a hotel room.


Quite.

As far as I can ascertain he did nothing heroic or truly courageous either, for that matter. If we are prepared to classify his interaction with animals as heroic we are, I am convinced, in a great deal of trouble.


Sure, he risked his life by wrestling crocodiles, etc. – but it wasn’t in order to save anyone or achieve anything beyond wrestling with animals. His work on behalf of the environment and promoting conservation of wildlife was admirable, but not heroic or courageous for the same reasons – what was he actually risking to do that?

Tumarkin is, as the first quote above demonstrates, darkly and dryly humorous. On Melbourne Uni (which she didn’t much enjoy):

It is not Cambridge and it is not Columbia, but graduating from it has never hurt anyone yet.


On (some of) her fellow students:

These rich private school students spit and sneeze privilege.


Wonderful imagery! I love that sentence.

And on the university’s lack of real debate, outside the sanctioned ‘isms’:

The opinionated students I come across are usually recruits to an existing school of thought. It is not really their opinions that they breathlessly insist on ... but those of their church.


Having never really been in that environment for long, I can’t comment in relation to Melbourne (or any other) Uni, but I do think that sometimes the most progressive and left-wing and well-intentioned people could do with examining their own thoughts on various matters more, rather than automatically adopting the branded view of the ‘people like us’. (And I include myself in that.) I do think that sometimes it can require real courage to openly disagree with your tribe.

There’s a lot in this book, and here I’ve just grazed on a few of the things I liked and had noted as I read. Tumarkin (who is Russian) tells stories of taking in a Russian stripper to live with her in her one-bedroom flat – and reflects now on whether she was as accepting and respectful of her choices then as she thought she was. She writes about deciding to go ahead with an unplanned pregancy and become a single mother – just because she knew it was what she had to do for herself (which I identify with!) and resulting issues to do with courage and motherhood. She writes about being a teenage migrant, of struggling with English and feeling stupid while knowing she wasn’t, of her relationship with a wild extended Aboriginal family who lived next door to her in Townsville (and charging next door to take in the women and children one noisy night – courage indeed). And there is, of course, philosophy and observations on filmmakers and artists and writers.

The anecdotes and slivers of memoir in this book are entertaining and interesting. But the arguments here, and the depth of thinking about her subject, exercise the mind, in an accessible and engaging way.

The book has recently inspired me to do something I was planning to turn down (public speaking engagements) because I am terrified of doing it. It's a reminder that courage is, at essence, doing unpleasant or daunting or risky things in order to achieve something. And that sometimes you fail - but that's the risk you take, and that's the way that life is meant to be lived.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

I have a cunning plan

"How cunning?" I hear you say.

So cunning, you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel. That cunning.

I noticed from the last post that not many people like Bryce Courteney. I'm one of the Anti-Bryce Club. I'm not entirely sure how Mr Courteney sells books, actually. My theory is that everyone thinks their mum likes him and buys the latest book as a Christmas gift. (Not a present, a gift. As in something contained in a gift shop.) Mums are too unassuming to say, "Oh for fuck's sake! Stop buying me this tripe!" so Mr Courteney keeps selling his over-adjectived tear-jerky bits of squiff.

As far as I can see, the only thing the guy has in his favour is that he's South African by birth. Being a Saffie means many sins are forgiven because most of the guys are extremely hot. Not Bryce, of course. He's a tool. And so is JM Coetzee. But most of the others are way hot.

Sorry, the cunning plan? Yes, it's very cunning. You'll love it.

As much as I loathe Bryce Courteney and his ilk, I adore a good literary hoax. I'm not sure what I love more: seeing one uncovered or seeing one perpetrated and then revealed by the perpetrators. I think it's probably the latter, since Ern Malley is my favourite literary hoax ever. "Sting them, my anopheles, sting them!" I didn't think it was quite fair to prosecute Max Harris and the Angry Penguins for obsecenity, but at least he ended up with the copyright to the poems for his trouble.

I've followed many a literary hoax with great pleasure. Helen Demidenko/Darville/whatever-the-hell-she-calls-herself-these-days was possibly my least favourite, largely because she won a prize and she just annoyed me with her superior attitude and Aryan blondeness. But that made me enjoy it all the more when she was found out, so I guess it's those swings and roundabouts again. I didn't really care one way or another about A Thousand Tiny Pieces or Forbidden Love because I hadn't read either of them and if people were shallow enough to buy a book only because they thought it was a true story, then sucks be to them. I have no sympathy. Sting them, etc., etc.

I think I take the greatest pleasure from the literary hoaxes perpetrated on the publishing industry. Stirrers have made very minor changes to chapters of Patrick White, Charles Dickens and, most recently, Jane Austen and sent them to publishers to see whether they would recognise and accept them. Naturally, most of the publishing people have failed to recognise the chapters and rejected them as being dated and not at all what they were looking for. Though I think one of the Jane Austen victims did raise questions over plagiarism, so more power to them. So well done, those people.

But I also rather enjoy playing Devil's advocate. So, in the publishers' defence, these books have been sent to them unsolicited and as a consequence, landed on their slush piles. Slush piles are often huge stacks of paper and are dealt with by people who are either quite junior or by the more senior as a form of penance. You know, like jamming red-hot pokers up one's nose. As I understand it, the slush pile usually contains dull-as-dust memoirs, shitful sci-fi and speculative fiction and barely disguised rip-offs of The Da Vinci Code or the other Latest Big Thing. Only very rarely is there gold in the slush and reading through the dross may be even more demoralising then covering local council meetings for a suburban newspaper or writing advertorial.

So, back to the cunning plan. It's my theory that writers like Bryce Courteney get away with twaddle only because of their marketable names. "Hey, he wrote The Power of One, right? No, don't edit it! No, don't read it either! Just publish it! At Christmas!"

I'd love to take chapters of Bryce Courteney, Jackie Collins, Dan Brown, Tom Clancy and Barbara Cartland and send them into publishers under a nom de plume. Well, I suppose strictly it would be a nom de guerre, as it is a war on rubbish writing. But I'd love to see the comments. Would they run to things such as, "Potboiler. Start again." Or even, "You can't write. Please learn what an adjective is and stop using so many! Oh, and make your blasted tenses agree." Or perhaps, "Turgid crap. Never contact us again." Or what about, "'Alternate' and 'alternative' are not interchangeable. That is all."

Oh Ford, I'd love to do it! Getting people to refuse White and Austen and Dickens is like shooting fish in a barrel in a way, because their styles are now considered to be dated and have too many commas. But taking down the big guns as decided by Anus and Robertson - now that would be fun.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Wordtail


Here, have a wordtail

Shaken, not stirred, of course.

Yes, a book was harmed for this photo and harmed most grievously too. In fact it was partially shredded.

But I doubt anyone will be too upset when I say it was my review copy of House of Hilton, aka, House of Whores and People Who Get Drunk With Ducks and it was taking up valuable bookshelfage. It was one of those books that you would have a use for if you happened to be shipwrecked and it happened to wash up on your desert island. After sufficient drying over a palm tree, you could use it as kindling for a signal fire. Holy Ford, you didn't think I meant you should read it, did you?

Anyway, keep an eye out for a new look soon. Customising Blogger templates defeats me, aside from adding the odd link and a Shakespearean Insulter here and there. Miss Chesty has come to our rescue from the miserable bluey-green template we have now with the offer of something a bit more funky.

I'm also going to declare a moratorium on new team members, if that's OK with everyone. We've either hit 30 or are very close to it and 30 seems like the magic number. Non-team members can still join in in the comments - they just won't go on the extra-long list for choosing a book.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The order of things

All righty, a hat and some bits of paper were fussed with and an order has been selected. It's going to take a bit of time to get around to everyone, I'm afraid, because there are 24 of us! I hope it doesn't look like too much of a long-term commitment...

So, here we go:

October 07 - Rita
November 07 - millymoo
December 07 - scorpy
January 08 - hungry hungry hypocrite
February 08 - ThirdCat
March 08 - killerrabbit
April 08 - phishez_rule
May 08 - beer and skittles
June 08 - gigglewick
July 08 - audrey
August 08 - actonb
September 08 - Ariel
October 08 - nai
November 08 - harriet
December 08 - sakura
January 09 - Rosanna
February 09 - the ianandan expedition
March 09 - feminkneesm
April 09 - Chesty LaRue
May 09 - kiki
June 09 - yoffi
July 09 - blakkat
August 09 - dot
September 09 - gerl
October 09 - Mary Bennett

In the interest of getting things rolling, I'll take actonb's suggestion and start us off with a book from Booker Prize long list. September's book will be Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones. The English bookies are paying 20/1 on it winning. Ian McEwan is the favourite to win with On Chesil Beach, but I'm still carrying a grudge over the first half of Atonement being such a monumental pain the arse, so I wasn't going to go there.

Here's the blurb from the back of the jacket:

"After the trouble starts and the soldiers arrive on Matilda's tropical island, only one white person stays behind. Mr Watts wears a red nose and pulls his wife around on a trolley. The kids call him Pop Eye. But there is no one else to teach them their lessons. Mr Watts begins to read aloud to the class from his battered copy of Great Expectations, a book by his friend Mr Dickens.

"Soon Dickens' hero Pip starts to come alive for Matilda. She writes his name in the sane and decorates it with shells. Pip becomes as real to her as her own mother, and the greatest friendship of her life has begun.

"But Matilda is not the only one who believes in Pip. And, on an island at war, the power of the imagination can be a dangerously provocative thing."

Admittedly I haven't read Mister Pip yet, so I'm not sure what it will be like. It's had good reviews and it hasn't been on Oprah's Book Club yet, so I figure those are points in its favour. And it's not Ian McEwan, Harry Potter, Jane Austen or The Celestine Prophecy.

I'll post the review on 15 September. Gosh, I hope it's not a dog...