Thursday, March 31, 2011

True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

This is the most enjoyable reading experience I have had in many a month. I hardly expected to love this book, especially after reading Carey's Bliss last year which, while certainly an edifying experience, could hardly be described as a ripping good yarn.

True History of the Kelly Gang is a novel with it all: drama, pathos without sentimentality, fantastic descriptions of early Australian landscape and life, murder, love, loyalty and betrayal.

Edward (Ned) Kelly was an infamous Australian outlaw or bushranger.  He was hanged in Melbourne Gaol in 1880 at the age of 26, after being captured in a bloody shootout with the police at Glenrowan, a town in country Victoria.  Many of those gang members closest to Kelly perished at Glenrowan, including his young brother. 

The novel begins and ends with the scenes at Glenrowan.  In between Carey masterfully weaves a compelling story of poverty, prejudice, desperation and loyalty.  In truth, and I will just come out and say it, I never had must interest in, or sympathy for, Ned Kelly and his murderous exploits.  However I found this book hard to put down.  Carey tells the story of Ned Kelly's life from Ned's own perspective, as the eldest son in a large, poor Irish Australian family, Ned aged 10 steals and slaughters a calf so his starving family can eat.  Ned's father takes the blame for this crime and is sent to goal for several years.  On his release, Ned's father is barely recognisable and can no longer provide any support for his large family.  He dies shortly after.  Ned and his mother and are left to provide for the family. 

The story is full of wonderful characters.  Ned's mother Ellen Kelly looms large.  She is depicted as a tiny but fierce matriarch of this family.  Unfortunately her subsequent partners, after her husband's death, produce little except more children to feed.  The Kelly Gang itself is comprised of a mismatched bunch including Ned's younger brother Dan and other hard but loyal men.  Before the emergence of the Kelly Gang Ned is apprenticed out by his mother to known bushranger Harry Power.  Ned's time with Harry Power is a brutal but instructive time for the teenager, where he learns about loyalty, the power of  money and good horsemanship.

The novel can be enjoyed on many levels.  I can fully appreciate why it won the 2002 Booker Prize.  The characters are all fleshed out.  Carey builds a rich picture of  men and woman whose lives are moulded by struggle and oppression. Each of the gang members has their own story, from opium use to transvestism.  The harshness and brutality of life in early Australia for poor people is made very real in the novel. 

Carey certainly does not glamorise the Kelly Gang.  If anything he depicts Kelly as a moral, dignified but somewhat naive individual,who from an early age, was determined to protect those he loved.  As the novel reveals, he fails tragically.  I would highly recommend this one, it is a standout!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop
It is the weekend and time for the Book Blogger Hop, hosted by Crazy For Books.  This week the question to start the conversation is:

Do you read only one book at a time, or do you have several going at once?

I usually have two going at once.  One is generally more challenging, now I am reading Catch-22, and one is light and lovely, currently Kerry Greenwood's cosy mystery Urn Burial.

What a great question.

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Teaser Tuesday

Teaser Tuesday is hosted by Miz B over at Should Be Reading  and it is a scandalously long time since I have participated.  The idea is to share two teaser sentences from your current read. 

I am currently working my way through Catch -22 by Joseph Heller.  Here is a sample:

"The enemy," retorted Yossarian with weighted precision, "is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he's on, and that includes Colonel Cathcart.  And don't you forget that, because the longer you remember it, the longer you might live."  p. 143

The Virgin in the Garden by A.S. Byatt

The Virgin in the Garden by Byatt was published in 1978 and is the first in a quartet of novels about the Potter siblings.  Set in the summer of 1953 in Yorkshire, the title is a reference to Queen Elizabeth I.  The backdrop for much of the action of the story is a "verse drama"  put on by local theatrical and academic enthusiasts about Elizabeth I to commemorate the coronation of the new queen, Elizabeth II.

The characters are fabulous and had me hooked from the start.  The Potter family is as eccentric and complex a family, as one could hope for.  Which is just as well as Byatt spends four novels building a drama around their exploits.  The patriarch of this family, is a literary enthusiast and teaches at the local school, but he is also a bully.  The children and their mother have learned to cope with the overbearing Bill in different ways.  The eldest girl Stephanie is kind and introverted and creates an enormous family divide when she chooses to marry the local vicar.  Much of the story is about the middle child Frederica, who is seventeen, alarmingly intelligent, and as headstrong as her father with the same potential for insensitivity.  The youngest, Marcus is sixteen and from the beginning, demonstrates signs of significant emotional disturbance.  Long suffering Winifred has very little to say, but works as best she can to protect her children, though often in vain, from their father's selfishness and lack of understanding.

There are a host of other characters who weave in and out of the drama, as their stories overlap with the Potters.   Alexander who wrote the Elizabeth play, is one of the English masters at the school.  He is terribly debonair and emotionally unavailable.  Frederica Potter has been wildly and constantly infatuated with him for as long as she can remember. 

This is a novel dense in language and in themes.  At times it felt like hard work, getting through the narrative.  Byatt fills her scenes with objects, that completely evoke the 1950s, or what I imagine 1950 England would have been like.  Rooms are stuffed with the odds and ends of the era.  In that sense the whole story is like an Elizabethan pageant, it is vibrant, and packed with texture and energy. 

In some ways the story, not so much the writer's style, reminded me of Brideshead Revisted by Evelyn Waugh, one of my all time favourites.  Both stories centre on an intellectual but dysfunctional English family.  In the case of BR it is an aristocratic Catholic family between the Wars, whereas the Potters are vehement atheists and middle class in post WW2 England.  In both cases the families appear alienated from the society around them and, more particularly, alienated from themselves. 

I loved the characters in this story.  I could never completely make up my mind about any of them, because each of them shows more and more complexity as the drama unfolds.  I feel that therein lies the strength of the novel.  The characters that in the beginning were just too much, are shown to the reader in different circumstances, so that by the end I felt like I didn't want to say goodbye.  The reverse was also true in that characters who appeared to have it all together at the beginning were gradually disrobed.

I think it would be impossible to do justice or try and cover all of the themes canvassed in the novel.  It strikes me that what Byatt captures in The Virgin in the Garden is the "Elizabeth I" quality in all of the  characters.  That is, the frailty that often exists underneath a frosty or pompous exterior.

 As I said this is one you have to commit to.  But it is completely worth it.  Despite my whingeing about difficult language and constant references to classic literature I found myself drawn into the world of the Potters, and needed to know what would happen next.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

To my surprise, I found these stories thoroughly delightful.  I don't know what I was expecting, but perhaps dull comes to mind.  Holmes is an absolute hoot.  In his own words:

"It saved me from ennui," he answered yawning.   "Alas! I already feel it closing in upon me.  My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplace of existence . These little problems help me to do so." p.58

Indeed, from page one we learn of Holmes habit of injecting cocaine.  So he does in fact go to some great lengths to escape life's ennui!  I am now dying to watch Robert Downing Jr's movie version.  My understanding is, that while the film was not wholly popular, enthusiasts of the books, found the remake true to the character of Holmes.

The book is comprised of twelve stand alone tales, all told from the view point of Holmes long enduring friend, Dr Watson.  The stories cover an array of weird and perplexing scenarios.  Holmes assists princes and common men and woman a like.  Holmes is by no means a snob, his whole focus is the thrill of untangling delicate and intractable problems.  Once the problem is solved he loses all interest in the good folk he has assisted.  Thank goodness he has Watson, who continues to put up with him.

My real surprise, I think, is that Holmes is a delightfully fleshed out character in these stories, at least I think so.   From reading the book I can fully understand why Conan Doyle's character Sherlock Holmes has endured.  Holmes has a peculiar droll genius, is reclusive, patronising, self destructive at times and narcissistic, but he  also demonstrates real concern and compassion at others.  The stories are quirky, fun and easy to read.  I look forward to reading the other books in the series.