Saturday, May 22, 2010

George Orwell "Animal Farm"

I have to say as clever as this book is, it is not at all my cup of tea. Animal Farm is a novella that falls under the category of an allegorical dystopia. What this means is that is describes a fictitious landscape that is the opposite of a utopia and it does this through symbolism not literally. George Orwell wrote Animal Farm in 1945 as a commentary and warning on the rise of the Stalinist regime in Russia. In Animal Farm the farm animals rise up in revolution against the human owners and run the farm themselves. All the original good intentions of the revolution are obliterated by the animal leaders' corruption, greed and brutality.

There are some themes in the novella that still have relevance today. The use of fear based politics can sometimes still be seen in our modern western democracies. That said I found this small book hard going. It is was partly the whole suspension of disbelief thing. In this case, the animals working farm machinery on their own and building things etc, was difficult to go along with. Or maybe I just lack the right sort of imagination for this style of book. I will say the ending scenes are powerful. The story becomes more and more disturbing as it goes along, in keeping with the revolutionary dream becoming a nightmare theme. Orwell captures this very well. I am glad I read this twentieth century classic, without really being able to recommend it as an enjoyable read. I can however imagine the enormous stir it would have caused when it was originally published, and it would still be crucial reading for anyone interested in the politics of the era.

David Sedaris "When You Are Engulfed In Flames"

Well I am struggling a bit through my current reading list. It is Animal Farm that has slowed me down. This is funny because it is a tiny little volume and a very cleverly written story. I am sure I will finish it but realise I haven't blogged about anything so will hark back to a book of humorous essays I read over the Christmas hols called "When You Are Engulfed in Flames" by David Sedaris.

David Sedaris has written a number of essay and story collections, "When You Are Engulfed In Flames" is his most recent. I have not read any of the others but plan to, as his writing is sharp, modern and made me wince and gasp with the accuracy of his observations.

A well written essay really can't be beaten for bang for your reading time. Each of the essays in the collection is excellent on its own and works together to build up an autobiographical picture of some of the aspects of the authors character. The collection culminates with the last story "The Smoking Section" which documents Mr Sedaris's elaborate journey to give up smoking.

The essays tend to start with a premise, ramble away from the original idea to things that seem quite unrelated, and then return powerfully to his original theme. I say ramble, but it is generally an enchanting, very witty journey that appears effortless to the reader. Sedaris is self effacing and fearless in revealing his own insecurities and struggles. I think this is why his cutting observations about others are acceptible because they are tempered by his honesty about his own vulnerabilites. I look forward to reading his earlier volumes to see if this has always been a hallmark of his work.

Above all the essays are funny; often in a dark, dry way. Sedaris has a wonderful knack for finding the hilarious and moving in everyday occurrences. For instance "Solution to Saturday's Puzzle" describes the everyday event of sitting beside a stranger on a plane and all of the angst and anxiety that can go with this forced closeness. Unfortunately for Sedaris relations with the lady he is sitting beside started badly and then he inadvertently coughs the remnants of a cough lozenge that he has been sucking onto her while she is asleep. This little event opens the story and what is to follow is a very tightly written and funny tale that rings so true of all of our strivings for wanting to be seen to be clever and fair, yet at the same time needing to get our own way in things. I loved it.

"Adult Figures Charging Toward a Concrete Toadstool" is perhaps my favourite essay in the collection because while it is six months since I read "When You Are Engulfed In Flames" it is this story that lingers in my awareness the most. It is an example where Sedaris reveals something, that I believe would be universal and difficult for most of us to give voice to. The main theme in this story I felt was that no matter how cultured or learned we think we become there are certain humble objects from our childhood that no matter how often they are usurped with bigger and better replacements continue to symbolise, better than anything else what home means to us. When I finished reading this story I was filled with genuine wonderment because it evoked a strong and pleasant feeling about my relationship with my own memories of childhood.

I think David Sedaris is like no one else because he combines the hilariously scathing with heart stopping poignancy and reveals a universal dignity amidst peoples foibles and struggles. For the modern essay I don't think he can be beaten.

Monday, May 17, 2010

W Somerset Maugham "The Razor's Edge"

I have been dipping back into authors of the past. To this end my choices are sometimes guided by my mother's taste in reading, or at least what I know and remember of what she liked. Mum was a voracious and intelligent reader. Maugham's novels were not amongst my mother's favourites (I don't think) although she did like his short stories. But I know this sort of writing is the sort of thing she enjoyed. I have read some of Maugham's short stories myself: "The Luncheon" instantly springs to mind, and they are, withough question,"fabulous darling."

Maugham's writing is all about the characters. "The Razor's Edge" is no exception. The story is interestingly and masterfully told by Maugham himself. Maugham is a character in the story. He crosses paths with the three other main characters who happen to be American: Isabel a delightful but spoiled young woman; Elliot an American ex pat who resides in France and prides himself on mixing with only the best people; and Larry, a young American whose experiences as a fighter pilot during World War I send him on a quest to find meaning in life.

Maugham is an Englishman who was born and spent much of his life in France. As such he is very clear in this novel that he does not pretend to know what it is like to be an American and usually writes from a English or European perspective. One is given the sense that he greatly admires the American spirit and wants to do his American characters justice. We are led to believe that his characters in the novel are based on people he knew personally. The story unfolds ingeniously through the characters voices themselves as he catches up with them from time to time over the years. And for all of that the themes in this novel have less to do with the American character and more to do with individual character. I think in any western culture the equivalents of his main protagonists can be found. And found as much today as at the time the novel takes place in the early decades of the twentieth century.

I really enjoyed this novel and was very surprised to find it so compelling. The plot is thin, it is more about the characters' life choices and subsequent journeys. The times do play a part as events of the first third of the twentieth century leave their mark on the people in the story. Most notably the first world war and then the Wall Street crach in 1929. There are also themes about good and evil. Maugham succeeds in not preaching or making moral judgements yet still at times really gets to the very heart of his characters. Throughout the novel the characters are consistent and entertaining.

First published in 1944 "The Razor's Edge" has alot to offer the present day reader. There is plenty of tension and the themes resonate as much today as they did in the 1940s. I particularly like that Maugham does not take the moral high ground but lets each reader draw what they need from the narrative. And I think there is much to be drawn from it. I look forward to reading other Maughan novels and comparing them to this one which I believe he wrote relatively late in his career.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Henning Mankell "Return of the Dancing Master" and "Kennedy's Brain"

Okay I am cheating a bit here because I am going to tackle these two novels at once. Actually I might even talk about that other Swedish giant of the moment (although the poor man is deceased and not around to enjoy his huge success) Stieg Larsson as well.

I read "Return of the Dancing Master" first and really loved it. There is a stillness and sparsity to Mankell's writing that really amps up the creepy factor. Like Larsson the Swedish landscape and character looms large in Mankell's novels.

Return of the Dancing Master is a meticulously constructed murder mystery. It is eerie and desolate and down right chilling. While Mankell's novels have not "swept the world" in the same way that the Larsson Millennium trilogy has, I think Return of the Dancing Master is at least as good if not better than the Millennium books. There is a very strong sense of place in The Return of the Dancing Master. While reading it you actually feel like you are in the cold, immense and isolated forests of northern Sweden. The turmoil of the young police officer Stefan Lindman, feels very real. He throws himself into solving the increasingly disturbing murder of a former colleague to avoid facing his own mortality. Stefan has recently been diagnosed with mouth cancer. I also like how Mankell takes his time and lets the story unfold slowly. He is masterful in slowly and believably increasing the tension through building up the details. I thoroughly enjoyed this book

The more recently published "Kennedy's Brain" by Henning Mankell is not entirely satisfying. The novel is basically about a mother, Louise, trying to unravel the circumstances surrounding her twenty eight year old son, Henrik's death. The death has been put down as a suicide but Louise is suspicious and so joins forces with her ex husband, Henrik's father, to uncover the truth.

The search for the truth takes her to a multitude of destinations including Australia and Africa. As a complete aside, I couldn't help but notice that both Henning Mankell and Steg Larsson send their characters to Australia when the characters need to escape unpleasant life experiences and want to start afresh. I guess as an Australian I should feel flattered, or maybe not. Getting back to the plot of Kennedy's Brain, Louise's search takes her to Mozambique where she steps into a world of greed and the exploitation of HIV victims.

There are too many unanswered questions in Kennedy's Brain for my liking. The strangest being the disappearance of Louise's husband mid way through the book. This is never referred to again. Don't get me wrong I don't need everything tidied up and can even deal with the fact that Louise does not discover the exact chain of events leading up to her son's death.

Maybe it doesn't work because the characterisations of Henrik, and Louise and her husband are strong; what has driven them throughout their lives and that sort of thing and then the momentum switches to some appalling scenes of of abuse and experimentation with HIV victims in Mozambique. The sensitive depictions of his protagonists sort of gets lost in what is to follow as the full horror of the situation in Mozambique starts to unfold.

Mankell creates a wonderful sense of place in all of the settings that Louise visits on her search. I found the depiction of the Mozambique scenes especially evocative and moving. Mankell's writing conjures up a vivid picture of poverty, colour, heat and suffering. I have since learned that Mr Mankell has strong connections with Africa and it resonates strongly in his writing.

As a whole the plot doesn't hang together well enough and frankly Louise is rather annoying. Hers seems to be a picture of someone who is falling apart or barely holding on maybe. I guess by the end of the book she has some resolve to take things to the next level, both in her quest to uncover the truth and in her need to take possession of her own destiny. But that is merely a guess, because the point, in relation to the outcome for the main characters, is far from clear. On the other hand Mankell's anger at the abuse and mistreatment of the poorest people in Mozambique is palpable and I suspect this message was the author's main purpose in writing the novel. More to inform than entertain. I felt short-changed.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Sebastian Barry "The Secret Scripture"

This is a beautiful story. Much has been written about it in other reviews and all extremely complimentary. I couldn't agree more with this.

For me the tale of Roseanne is reminiscent of other heroines like Tess in Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Anna in Anna Karenina. The male authors in each of these sensitively convey stories of female tragedy, that occur against a back drop of prejudice and social constraint.

Sebastian Barry has such a lyrical and enticing writing style. There is no sentimentality in the telling of Roseanne's story and perhaps because of this it is all the more moving. I also think that some of the power of the narrative occurs because of what is left out. The story is comprised of a series of exquisitely told anecdotes that are enough for us to see who this woman is.

I enjoyed how Roseanne's story provokes the reader to consider the role memory plays in our lives and in our perception of reality. It is not so much Roseanne's courage, although her courage is enormous, that stands out, but her dignity and ability to keep finding ways to engage with life. I feel like the story challenges us to be able to sit with the unknown sometimes and not have to keep pushing and asking questions.

I rarely feel the urge, or need, to reread a book, even one I have enjoyed greatly. But I know I will be dipping back into The Secret Scripture to savour again Sebastian Barry's beautiful writing and explore some more the many rich themes of the novel.