Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Teaser Tuesday 29 June: "Bliss" by Peter Carey

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of  Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along.  All you have to do is open the book you are currently reading to a page at random and share two sentences from that page.  Be careful not to include any spoilers and please share the title and author of the book so others can add it to their TBR list if they wish.

My teaser this week is from "Bliss" by Peter Carey an Australian writer:

"Pleased to meet you, Harry."  Billy de Vere placed a fistful of notes on the table.  "If you'll allow me," he said, "what will be your pleasure?"  p.63

Henry James the Italian tour guide?

I have been discussing Henry James lately, both with reviews of The Master by Colm Toibin and  The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.  This quaint article came out in the NYTimes last week and is titled Henry James Walked Here and looks at James's love, impressions and recommendations for travelling through Tuscany and Umbria in Italy.  Italy features in James life and much of his work.  Worth a squiz for those going through a James phase :)

Monday, June 28, 2010

"The Master" by Colm Toibin

When I finished this book I actually hugged it to myself.  It is an absolute marvel.

The Master is a novel based on the life of writer Henry James.  It depicts James in his mid and late fifties reflecting back on important events, people and losses of his life.  The portrait that Toibin builds up of James is astoundingly complex, clear and nuanced.  I loved this book.

We get to know James as a very solitary man.  A man of enormous intelligence who at once craves, seeks and guards his isolation and yet at times does seem to regret some of the decisions he has made, over the years, in order to maintain it.

Colm Toibin explores this isolation in all of its complexity.  James is portrayed as a watcher, an observer of life rather than a participant.  For me much of the sadness of his character is tied in with this.  It seems that James often sees the people who inhabit his worlds through a lens that is always on the lookout for possible story lines for his writing.  To me it seems that Toibin is suggesting that James's alertness and astute observation is some sort of defense or protection against any sort of self disclosure or intimacy.  The pain of this is achingly real at times.  Occasionally James will contemplate lowering his guard with someone, or is brought to the brink of making real contact, and yet does not take that leap into abandonment or hope or whatever that thing is when we allow someone to get close.  Several times while reading the novel I had to put the book down momentarily to manage my own response to the anguish that just flies of the page.

The impact of the deaths of James's family and friends on his life feature in the novel.  The way Toibin portrays the effect of death and its sequelae is truly beautiful.  There is a scene where James has to dispose of the clothes of a deceased loved one.  I have not read a passage in any book that better evokes the sense of unreality and desolation that follows a death.

World events and other literary characters give a wonderful context to this story.  These include the American Civil War and literary figures such as Oscar Wilde, Thackeray, George Eliot, Constance Fenimore Woolson and many more.  Toibin captures what I imagine would be the spirit of the times.  The differences in outlook between the new world of the United States and the more controlled environs of Britain and Europe, where Henry James made his various homes.  The cities of London, Venice and Rome in the closing decades of the 19th century come alive in this novel.

Toibin has created a seamless story where we go back and forth from James's present to related incidents from his past.  There is not a wasted word and the pace of the narrative is swift.  So much so that I found I read the last two thirds of the novel in a single afternoon sitting.

Toibin does it all.  I can't think of a book I have read this year that has involved a more complete portrait of a character.  We experience the very heart of Henry James complete with foibles and contradictions and amazing kindness at times.  There is drama and poignancy in relation to opportunities lost, and at other times Toibin's observations are deliciously sharp as with this little gem that took place at a dinner party:

The Baroness, in finishing, looked at Henry as though daring him to contradict her.  Clearly, he had displeased her, and she seemed uncertain whether she had made herself disagreeable enough.  He sat with her as she made up her mind that she had not.   p.281

And the best news is that while the writing is beautiful, it is not at all difficult to decipher, unlike the work of James himself.  And while I have said there are poignant and sad elements to the story, do not be put off by that because it is not at all dark or depressing.  "The Master"  is above all incredibly moving and illuminating.  I can not recommend it highly enough.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Idle Book Thoughts 27 June 2010

Well I have been very remiss with the blogging this week . Work has loomed large and I have had to shift my attentions unfortunately.  But to help me through I have been devouring a truly glorious book: "The Master" by Colm Toibin.  It is a novel based on the life of Henry James.  The writing is excellent.  Hopefully I will finish it today and have a review up soon.                                                               
To other matters, I am having a new large bookcase delivered tomorrow.  This is incredibly exciting because currently I have books everywhere.  My bookshelf currently houses books of every kind including cookbooks, a lot of non fiction, travel books, and lots of texts related to my work and a shelf devoted to puzzles, games and kids' books to amuse  my nephew and niece when they visit.  Oh yes and there are a couple of very cramped shelves devoted to fiction. 

And I have discovered a couple more really good second hand book shops in my area so keep bringing stuff home.  Now it will all have a shelf to call home.

It is a dreary winter's day here, perfect for reading and cups of tea, so I am off to enjoy.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Thomas Keneally "A Dutiful Daughter"

"A Dutiful Daughter" by Australian author Thomas Keneally (better known for the award winning Schindler's Ark) is an interesting novel.  The story begins with Barbara, a young woman in her twenties who cares for her parents, and runs the small family dairy.  Barbara is awaiting the arrival of her brother Damian who is due back at the farm on a break from university.  What unfolds is a very disturbing tale, largely told by Damian, of the Glover family drama that has led to Barbara both at once dominating, and being dominated by, the family dynamics.

My feelings are mixed for "A Dutiful Daughter."  The language is amazing and often perplexing.  Much of the narrative is told in the second person, addressed to Damian.  I can not readily recall a book I have read recently that uses this type of story telling:

The moment you saw her she surprisingly extended her hand, commanding yours.   You instantly grabbed the hand with both of yours, as if you needed rescue.   p.24

The use of "you" is even more intimate than first person narrative.  As soon as Damian enters the drama and the narrative switches to the "you" of second person, I felt inextricably drawn into this whirl pool of family hardship and guilt.

Other intriguing story telling tools include the use of a reflective journal written by Barbara.  The journal is largely about her feelings and comments on the life of Joan of Arc. Here she clearly identifies with the trials of Joan of Arc to express feelings of her own sense of duty.

A Dutiful Daughter is told in an allegorical style.  Often books using strong symbolism tend to leave me a bit cold.  However Keneally makes this work.  The symbols used are extreme and quite horrifying, but I felt they were appropriate for the message Keneally is trying to convey.  And I guess, as allegorical stories are more open to interpretation than other fiction, the following comments on the themes are only that; my interpretation.

I felt at the heart of A Dutiful Daughter is a sense of enmeshment and suffocation between the family members, and the guilt that often follows this sort of enmeshment and misplaced sense of duty:

Suddenly you found yourself angry that she so consistently saw herself as the centre of gravity in the Glover vortex of suffering.  p.30

A Dutiful Daughter was first published in 1971 and set during the preceding decade or so.  I mention this because I do get the sense that Keneally is making a statement about the effect of feelings of "duty" not just to aging parents but also the effect of constraints and expectations of a parents' generation on their offspring.  I suspect that while some of these issues are still relevant today, they were particularly relevant during the 1960s.

I just felt so incredibly sorry for the brother and sister at the heart of this story.  Damian and Barbara are both struggling in different ways, to form an identity of themselves that is not a tragic product or reflection of their truly awful family ties.  Keneally also beautifully captures that things can go terribly wrong even when the family players have no ill intent towards each other.  I think it is this that makes this story so incredibly sad.

The landscape also features in this novel and forms part of the tempo of the narrative.  Keneally gives a good sense of place and small town life.  The heavy rains and rising flood waters add to the mood and momentum of the story.

In summary this is a particularly dark novel.  I did find myself compelled to read on though, and at only 147 pages it is a quick read.   I genuinely admire what Keneally has achieved with this book.  Using a very shocking narrative he explores themes of family, duty and identity that aren't really tackled in modern fiction.  I would recommend it to anyone who wants to enjoy an expertly written, unusual story.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Book Beginnings on Friday

Book Beginnings on Friday  is a book meme hosted by Becky at Page Turners.  All that is required is to share the opening sentence of your current read and be sure to include the title and author.  Here is mine from "A Dutiful Daughter" by Austrlalian author Thomas Keneally:

It had been a thunderous spring.  On Saturday, thunder again rolled over the Glover farm.  Perhaps, even with four hundred of its acres swamped, it was not yet convinced of the power of water.

I have stretched it to three sentences here but I think that is fine.  The third is very cool don't you think?  I am really enjoying this book.  It is one of those painfully honest family dramas.  Keneally has an unusual writing style that is full of surprises.  Will review the book in a couple of days.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

My Favourite Series "U is for Undertow" by Sue Grafton

I have been reading the Sue Grafton alphabet series for nearly twenty years.  In this review I not only want to review U is for Undertow but try and capture why I love this humble detective series as much as I do.

Let's start with U is for Undertow, the most recent addition to the series.  Kinsey Millhone is a private detective in her late thirties.  She resides in Santa Teresa California and it is the 1980s.  Most of Kinsey's work seems to revolve around pretty ordinary PI fare: investigating insurance claims and that sort of thing.  But every now and again she has to risk life and limb to uncover the truth behind something truly scandalous or down right diabolical.

In U is for Undertow Kinsey is hired to investigate a recovered memory. Mark Sutton has sought Kinsey's help because after seeing a newspaper article on historical kidnappings in the area, he recalled a childhood memory from 1967 that troubles him.  His memory involves seeing two young men bury what he believes to be a body in the woods.  Mark believes he can tie the timing of this burial to the date in 1967 when four year old Mary Claire was kidnapped from her parents back yard never to be seen again, despite a ransom being paid for her recovery.  Mark strongly believes his memory and the kidnapping are connected. 

Kinsey agrees to do some preliminary digging into this case.  It gets very murky, Mark Sutton is seriously discredited as unreliable by his family.  While the location of the mysterious digging event is discovered, it is a large dog's body that is unearthed.  This may seem to be the end of the matter except that the owners of the property where the dog's body was found also endured a kidnapping of their adopted daughter at a similar time to the disappearance of Mary Claire.  The property owner's adopted daughter was however returned unharmed.

The "undertow" of the title relates to pulling effect of past unresolved events on the present. As with all of the Kinsey Millhone series this is a wonderful study in human relations.

Why do I love these books?  Because Kinsey feels so real.  I have read an enormous amount of crime fiction.  A lot of us have.  It is ubiquitous. From Minette Walters to the Kellermans, Reichs, Patricia Cornwell, Elizabeth George, Ian Rankin, Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell, Janet Evanovich, JD Robb, Peter Temple and many many others.  Let's face it, crime fiction is everywhere.  So yeh I suppose I am revealing myself here as, at least, a former crime fiction junkie.  It is great escapism.  But that is for another blog post...  My point is, of all of these, Sue Grafton is my hands down favourite.

I feel very reassured when I open up a Kinsey Millhone mystery.  The magic is in the detail.  When PI Kinsey Millhone walks into a room to question someone, the reader walks in with her.  Sue Grafton has a wonderful ability to create a scene with a few perfect little strokes. Through Kinsey's observations of place and nuance we experience all of the subtleties of the person she is speaking with. Sue Grafton can embody a character from the litter in the character's lounge room or the manner in which the character flicks the ash from a cigarette.  I strongly feel that her ability to create nuanced, well fleshed out characters is a rarity in this genre.  And it is not just Kinsey herself who is believable but all of the characters. 

Chapters in each of the novels generally alternate from first person Kinsey narrative, to chapters of third person narrative from the perspectives of various other characters in the story.  Grafton then seamlessly brings Kinsey and those she is chasing together.

The novels vary in the degree of Kinsey story building. U is for Undertow has less of the ongoing Kinsey character development than other novels.  It is not worse off because of this.  Compared to some of the others U is for Undertow is dense in plot and parallel plots involving the investigative mystery and there is not as much scope as there has been in previous books for Kinsey story development.

To put my feelings for these books in perspective, I think I started reading them when I was about 18 and Kinsey was in her early thirties, in the first, A is for Alibi.  Over the subsequent 19 books Kinsey has aged slowly to 37, which is just about my age now.  It is my understanding that Sue Grafton intends to end the series when Kinsey turns forty.  It is clear from her writing that Sue Grafton loves this character, and over the course of the books (although admittedly I was hooked from the first) the reader grows to love her too. 

Kinsey is a character who is a pleasure to return to.  We experience her haphazard love life, her less is more and often appalling sense of dress, her questionable grooming (Kinsey who is an astute judge of detail in others cuts her own mop of hair with nail scissors), her unusual health and fitness regime that combines  rigorous morning jogs with a penchant for junk food and her wonderful octogenarian landlord and his siblings as well as a host of other neighbourhood characters.

I think some of the appeal of the books is that they are set in the '80s.  Kinsey's sleuthing takes place without the benefit of the Internet, satellite tracking or mobile phones.  For me Kinsey works so well as a character because from A is for Alibi to U is for Undertow and the 18 books in between she develops slowly but is consistent with what we already know.  Because the books generally take place in and around Santa Teresa her investigative work often overlaps with bits and pieces from her own past and so we build up a gradual picture.  As with all series, some of the novels are better than others.  I am delighted to say that the most recent two, for me, were as good if not better than any of the others in the series.

I guess the question is, do the novels stand on their own? Can they be read independently?  I am possibly not the best person to ask being such a devotee. Grafton does repeat the salient facts of Kinsey's life at the beginning of each book, and strangely enough I do not get tired of reading them.  However if given the chance why wouldn't one start at the beginning and get to know Kinsey chronologically?

I have been keen to blog about this series of books because I do sometimes think that all of the crime fiction genre is tarred with the one brush and dismissed as pulp fiction.  I would encourage anyone to give Sue Grafton a go.  She plugs into something meaningful and often poignant in each of these books. 

As a slight post script, I should add that from the list of crime writers above I also really enjoyed  Peter Temple's latest offering "Truth" and will be reviewing it in the near future.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (June 15)

Teaser Tuesday is a fun bookish meme hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading The idea is to open the book you are currently reading at a random page and share two teaser sentences from that page. Of course the teaser should avoid being a spoiler. And please include the title and author so others can read the book if they wish. Here is mine for this week:

At half-past eleven the smoke and thunder were gradually dying away.  Blue seas were a litter of broken ships and their dead. 

p103 "My Love Must Wait"  Ernestine Hill

Monday, June 14, 2010

Aussie Author Challenge

I am joining this challenge a little late in the day in June.  Aussie Author Challenge is being hosted by Booklover Book Reviews.  As it is halfway through the year I will commit to the "tourist" level and read three Australian books by three different Aussie authors.  I will increase the challenge for myself by the authors needing to be new to me.  I am currently reading "My Love Must Wait" by Ernestine Hill a novel about Matthew Flinders.  I also want to read some Peter Carey as I have not read any of his work yet.    I feel this challenge is a wonderful way to highlight the many excellent Australian authors.  And it will keep me on track for the rest of the year to read more of them.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Antipodean Childhoods

Antipodean Childhoods

As I shiver through an Aussie winter I found this post on the New Yorker fiction blog: The Book Bench about two authors reminiscing about  hot childhood Christmas rituals in Australian, very heart warming.

The New Yorker is a wonderful source of many things bookish.  Also note they have an excellent montly fiction podcast you can subsribe to for free through iTunes or listen to straight from The New Yorker website.  The podcasts features a different author each month who reads a favourite short story from the work of another author, and provides comment on the story.  I love these podcasts hosted by The New Yorker's fiction editor Deborah Treisman

Henry James "The Turn of the Screw"

The Turn of the Screw is a novella by Henry James first published in 1898.  This is the first work by James I have read.  The shorter length allows a good introduction to the author's work without becoming too overwhelmed by his challenging style.

The plot is ostensibly a rather sophisticated ghost story.  I say ostensibly because the plot itself is ambiguous.  If anything Henry James's The Turn of the Screw is one of the most reviewed and debated fictitious works you could think of.  The story begins at a Christmas house party where tales involving the appearance of apparitions are being discussed.  It is suggested that when such reports involve an apparition appearing to a child the atmosphere is heightened thus giving the effect "another turn of the screw."

One of the guests at this party tells a story from a manuscript that was given to him many years earlier by its author, a governess.  What unfolds is her version of events at Bly where she is put in charge of two orphaned children.

The style of the story can be described as late Victorian Gothic. With that, it has the obligatory large, many roomed spooky house, stern housekeeper and pretty children.  As mentioned before on this blog, I will always try to avoid spoilers because I do believe they diminish the pleasure of reading a book for the first time.  For this review that is a difficult promise to keep because the story is so perplexing.  I will avoid further discussion of the plot specifically, but highly recommended, once a reader has made their own way through "The Turn of the Screw" a perusal of the many discussions available on the internet regarding the interpretation of the story.

Having said that I am going to put a slight spoiler warning here.  Because I think to discuss the merits of the novella further may amount to a slight spoiler for some.  The ambiguous round about writing style, which is something I want to discuss, is to a purpose that does intersect with the plot.  So if you want to read the story without any premonitions as to the purpose of the ambiguous style, skip the next paragraph.

Henry James plays around with first person narrative. The beginning, at the Christmas gathering is told in the first person from the perspective of a guest who is hearing the story.  Once the telling of the manuscript begins the first person narrative switches to the voice of the governess.  Of course the first person narrative lends itself beautifully to the experience of a ghost story.  James also uses it to increase the confusion and tension around what is actually happening.  There are uncertainties about what we are being told.  The ultimate conundrum persists long after one has finished the story.  The enigma at the heart of the story, much more than the ghostly apparitions is what keeps the reader awake at night long after the story is read.  It is not straight forward.  I think we have become used to far more simplistic uses of first person narrative trickery in modern story telling.  Henry James is a conjurer here, it is very smoke and mirrors.  There is no "ta dah!" at the end.  The reader has to work harder than that.

The whole thing is hard work in many respects.  The challenge is not so much in the words used: you do not need a dictionary at your side.  The difficulty is the complicated sentence construction:

"How could I put even a little of that article into a suppression of reference of what had occurred?  How on the other hand, could I make reference without a new plunge into the hideous obscure?  Well, a sort of answer, after a time, had come to me, and it was so far confirmed as that I was met, incontestably, by the quickened vision of what was rare in my little companion."  p. 79 The Turn of the Screw.

Obscure indeed, no?  The reading often feels like two steps forward and one step back, in terms of understanding what is going on.  But then there are also many delightful turns of phrase:

"Whatever he had been driven from school for, it was not for ugly feeding."   p.78 The Turn of the Screw 

This is a reference to young Mile's exquisite table manners.

For me, overall, the work is worth it.  James does create a very tense atmosphere, loaded with longing, uncertainty and frustration.  And yes, the frustration I think is often mirrored in the reading experience itself.  There is something marvellously clever in a tale that allows distinct multiple interpretations and I suspect that this was the author's intention.  We can only suspect what James's intention may have been because in his own comments on the interpretation of The Turn of the Screw, he is also deliciously ambiguous.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Teaser Tuesdays (June 8)

Teaser Tuesdays (June 8)

Teaser Tuesday is a fun bookish meme hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading.  The idea is to open the book you are currently reading at a random page and share two teaser sentences from that page.  Of course the teaser should avoid being a spoiler. And please include the title and author so others can read the book if they wish.   Here is mine for this week:

It was plump, one afternoon, in the middle of my very hour: the children were tucked away, and I had come out for my stroll.  One of the thoughts that, as I don't in the least shrink now from noting, used to be with me in these wanderings was that it would be as charming as a charming story suddenly to meet someone.

p 15 The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

I am really enjoying this story.  The language is long winded but delicious.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Jack London "The Call of the Wild"

What a surprise package this book turned out to be.  I absolutely loved it.  The Call of the Wild is about Buck, a large domesticated dog who lives a very comfortable life in California.  A disreputable servant of his master, sells him into servitude to pay a gambling debt.  Poor Buck is taken to work as a sled dog in the Yukon territory of Canada during the Klondike Gold Rush at the end of the nineteenth century.  Buck's life as a working dog is fraught with danger and hardship but he adjusts to life in the harness, in the frozen wilderness, and starts to experience yearnings to be free in the wild as his ancestors once were.

I was completely captivated by Buck and his experiences from the first page to the last.  Jack London takes us inside Buck and his metamorphosis from domesticated dog to wild hunter.  The action sequences in the novel (and there are many) are brilliantly told.  It is really edge of your seat stuff.  The language is simple, beautiful and evocative.   The fights, the ceaseless toil and the flights through the forest in pursuit of prey, are incredible.  I can see all of it as I write this now.  Jack London's writing is magic; you don't even notice the writing.  The reader is effortlessly transported to the frozen north and can hear every gnashing of teeth and cracking of the whip.  The writing is tight, not a word wasted.  It is so real.  Yes I haven't gone mad, this tale, told from the point of view of a dog is very real.  And not only is it real but as the reader I cared so much about this dog.  I don't even like dogs that much for goodness sake, but Buck well and truly found his way into my heart.

The novel is quite violent in parts.  The dogs are subjected to vicious cruelty by some of the humans in the story. There is also an ongoing struggle for supremacy amongst the dogs themselves.  It all works and adds to the tension, but I think children would find it all a bit much.

The themes explored in the book include loyalty, bravery and love.  In many way these themes are amplified because we see them enacted through Buck.  Then there is the "call of the wild" itself.  The idea that we carry buried deep inside, something elemental and essential from our ancestors that links us to nature, exploring new frontiers and a kill or be killed way of life.  But yes I know I am going on. I can't really explain why The Call of the Wild works so well, and why the trials of Buck moved me, except to suggest that it is a simple adventure story brilliantly told.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Isabel Allende "Eva Luna"

This is the first Isabel Allende novel I have read.  Allende is a Chilean novelist.  Eva Luna was first published in 1985 and is translated from the original Spanish.  The story is set in an unidentified South American country and follows the adventures of orphaned Eva.  Set against a backdrop of political unrest and upheaval,  Eva who is born into poverty and uncertainty, uses her talent as a story teller to deal with the tragedy and oppression that besets her early life.

This is a very readable and enjoyable novel.  The strength of the story lies in the world Allende creates.  She makes ordinary things seem extraordinary and magical.  This mirrors Eva's own internal world where she finds strength in the midst  of poverty and danger, by summoning up spirits and stories from her past to envelop and protect her.

Several themes are explored in Eva Luna.  Perhaps most central is the plight of women in countries where there is political instability.   Allende skillfully explores issues of gender, poverty and identity.  Despite these serious themes, there is nothing depressing or preachy about Eva Luna.  At the heart of the novel is Eva's ability, through story telling, to strengthen her own resolve and enchant those she meets.

I did not feel especially connected to Eva or any of the characters, but what kept me involved with the story were the different worlds that Eva inhabits which in turn inform her internal world and dream scape.   These include the hot, noisy and filthy city; the dusty, lonely town and the wet, luscious jungle.  There is a joyful earthiness to Allende's writing that is truly captivating.  Her style is both mythical and visceral, and totally transports the reader to another world.  Surely this is the hallmark of a true story teller.  I look forward to diving into Isabel Allende's other novels.