Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

This year has seen me read far less than previous years. At least, I have not been completing as many novels, but reading from wider sources I guess. You know that warning that whatever you are doing at New Year, be warned you may find yourself doing it all year? Well I began this year struggling through Kafka and I do think it may have slowed me down a little.
This week did see me complete the unbelievably huge, in every sense, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I love Kingsolver's writing, having previously read The Lacuna and listened to The Prodigal Summer. While I don't think I could accurately say that I "love" The Poisonwood Bible, I am certain, reading it, has probably changed how I view the world in a meaningful way.

 The novel is set in the Belgian Congo. A US evangelical Baptist minister, Nathan Price, brings his family, his wife and four daughters, to the region in 1959. The novel tracks the family's disastrous struggles over the next 35 years. Their stories are set against the background of the region's struggle for independence from international interference.
What Worked About the Book for Me:
Kingsolver creates such lush imagery. You want a book set in deepest, darkest Africa, and actually experience what living there might be like for someone used to all of the conveniences of the West? Then this is the book to reach for. In all of her books, Kingsolver hones in on descriptions of nature. I don't know how she does it, but both this book and The Prodigal Summer, somehow intensified my appreciation of the natural world.
The format of the story is interesting. The novel is told from the perspective of Orleanna Price and her four daughters. At the beginning I didn't much like any of them, and I don't think I felt as sorry for them as I was meant too; they all struggle to survive, not only in a physical environment they are ill prepared for, but against a tyrannical and violent husband and father. But the character development over time is excellent, and over time, each character forms in her own very different way, largely in relation to struggling with her personal demons. I should of had more faith in Kingsolver, she does a similar thing with character development in The Lacuna. The reader has to hang in there, as she lays rich foundations, that mature and come together satisfyingly.
I didn't really see it coming, but by the end, I felt like the novel somehow gave more depth to my understanding of how the people of the African nations may view the West. Kingsolver holds up a mirror to the greed, sense of superiority, and hypocrisy that Africa has been subjected to over the decades from the, sometimes well meaning, Western nations. I felt gently confronted as the Price women's stories unfolded. I couldn't help but think, how would I go in these situations, and what choices would I make as a result?
Areas of Difficulty:
This is a long read at over 600 pages and it is largely a very grim tale. Of the three Kingsolver novels I have read so far, I would probably categorize this one as the least accessible. It really reads like a trek through a jungle filled with constant hardship. I think the nature of the story could put some readers off, and I must admit I became bogged down in parts.
Final Thoughts:
I am very happy however, that I persisted with the novel, my effort was rewarded. I won't forget this book, because as mentioned, I think I really did take something meaningful away from it, beyond the usual entertainment factor of a well written story.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

This is the second book I have read in recent times with the structure of an elderly lady telling her story before she dies. The other was on Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry. That book was a disappointment for me, compared to my passion for the other Barry books I have read over the years.  The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood strikes me as an exceptional book, I guess they don't hand out the Booker Prize for nothing (winner 2000).

As mentioned, The Blind Assassin is told by an elderly lady,Iris, as she is dying of a failing heart, perhaps in more than one sense. It is the story of two sisters, and Iris opens her story with the suicide of her younger sister Laura just after the end of WWII. Events leading up to Laura's suicide provide the thrust for the rest of the novel.

For me, part of my enjoyment of the story is in the complex narrative structure. When executed poorly, this passing from the present to the past in historical fiction, is often tedious and confusing. Margaret Atwood however, knows what she is doing. The novel is over 600 pages long and completely compelling from beginning to end. I am sure it could have all gone horribly wrong, as there are several narrative streams to the story, some told in the first person from Iris's point of view and the pivotal romantic stream cleverly told in the third person, from two points of view. It is marvellous and fascinating and all merges together beautifully in the end.

The only other novel I have read by Atwood is The Handmaid's Tale. I admired Atwood's writing in the Handmaid's Tale, but found the material too oppressive to really enjoy. In both books, Atwood's creative genius is obvious. She combines simple everyday detail with the most extraordinary imaginative worlds like no one else I can think of. China Mieville does this, but the enjoyment of his books is largely from extraordinary environments he creates, for Atwood, the outer worlds are secondary to the turmoil going on in her protagonist's head.

The themes covered in the book are many, and a couple of them are shared with The Handmaid's tale: power and class; and the position of women in society. It is a story about guilt and the cost of "turning a blind eye". There is nothing especially joyful about Atwood's stories, she explores our darker motives. But so do all of the best novels don't you think?We are moved by tragedy. I do believe that The Blind Assassin would appeal to more readers than the strange world of The Handmaid's Tale.

What do you think of Atwood's work? Do you have a favourite Atwood novel?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Gathering by Anne Enright

The Gathering won the Man Booker Prize in 2007. It is a powerful book about loss and family. I hadn't read anything by Anne Enright previously but kept hearing good things about her work. Her most recent work, The Forgotten Waltz has also received good reviews.

The Gathering is mostly told in the first person, in the voice of 39 year old Veronica, as she attempts to come to terms with the death of her brother Liam. The title refers to the coming together of the remaining Hegarty family for Liam's wake. Veronica is one of nine surviving siblings.

Some of the themes covered are heavy but very well handled. Enright explores the impact of childhood sexual abuse and poverty at the individual, family and community level. She also explores intergenerational issues in a family, how an earlier generation's struggle with poverty and social restraints, can impact the current generation.  I also enjoyed Enright's exploration of the role of memory in our relationships and identity.

Even though the Hegarty family is extraordinary in many respects, not least for the large family size, I found I could relate to Veronica and some of her struggles. Enright poignantly captures the very essence of family; the mixed feelings that go with dealing with family members as one ages; the piecing together of what certain events mean and the harbouring of past hurts.

As with so many of the modern Irish writers, Enright writes like a dream. There is a sophisticated literary feel to the writing but it is also earthy and real. She evokes the faded atmosphere of the family home, right down to the sounds and smells, beautifully. There is also a real physicality to her descriptions that increases the power of her prose. She recreates the memories of childhood convincingly, complete with strong impressions and ambiguity.

This is perhaps the best book I have read in a long time about the drama and difficulties of being part of a family; the threads that unite and divide, and trying to outrun the past and forge one's own identity. The novel does end hopefully, and from beginning to end is just beautifully done. I highly recommend it.


Hello!  I am still here and still reading.

Books I have read in the last week or so and will be reviewing in coming days:

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (And yes I know most people have read it. I didn't think it would be for me, but as it turned out, I really liked it).

The Gathering by Irish writer Anne Enright. Fabulous book. The Irish writers still tend to rule my heart and it was nice to read a modern female Irish author.

And I am currently reading a very intersting memoir by British journalist Jon Swain, River of Time, covering the five years he spent in Cambodia and Vietnam 1970-1975.

Friday, February 17, 2012

How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely

It is good to be back blogging after being offline for a few weeks. I have really missed it. How I Became A Famous Novelist is one of the few novels I have read during that time.  It is a bit of fun.

Pete Tarslaw, who spins this tale, is not an exemplary human being.  He is lazy and cynical, though intelligent and reasonably well read.  After his ex-girlfriend invites him to her wedding in twelve months time, he decides that the only way to save his pride, is to become a famous literary novelist, so he can outshine all present, and humiliate her.

Nothing, and no one, associated with the publishing world are spared from Steve Hely's barbs in this book.  Including you and I!  Hely not only portrays writers, especially those of so called literary fiction, as charlatans, but he mocks consumers of all things literary (books, book signings and writers' festivals) mercilessly. 

The miracle of this book is that I didn't take it personally.  In fact, I found myself laughing out loud at times.  Which of us hasn't read some entirely overblown, though much lauded, work of literary fiction, and wondered is it me, or is this just too over the top?

Part of the fun of the novel is identifying which novels and novelists Hely is sending up, as he does not refer to them by name of course.  Our would be novelist, Pete Tarslaw, makes a study of the best sellers list and concludes, without too much effort, what is "in" an what is not.  He throws together a novel composed of the common themes and scenarios, without any heart, devotion to the truth, or noble intention, and comes up with his very own best selling novel.  But he pays a price.  Which is why I probably didn't mind that he mocked my penchant for reading WWII novels and plenty else besides.

How I Became a Famous Novelist is not the sort of novel I am going to remember much about in twelve months time.  But it is refreshing and biting and ultimately (though not till the very end) affirms why so many of us, love fiction, so very much.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness has an unusual and moving genesis. Ness wrote the novel based on an idea left behind by novelist Siobhan Dowd before she died prematurely from cancer.

Both the story itself, and the beautifully illustrated book are exceptional.  The reader accompanies thirteen year old Conor as he tries to come to terms with his mother's terminal illness and imminent death.

I loved so many things about this illustrated novel, presumably for a young adult audience, but really I can't imagine there would be too many readers of any age that would not be swept up by this story.

Ness gets the thirteen year old voice just right.  I was totally engaged with Conor; his fear, isolation and anger, are all believably rendered.

The story is perfectly paced and edited.  In a minimum of words, the reader is immersed into Conor's unravelling home and school life.  The scenes with his absent father were heart-breaking as were his battles with bullies at school.  Ness has a light touch which is very effective. 

The monster is both real and metaphorical, a tree creature that Conor has conjured up unwillingly to try and make sense of the unfathomable loss of his mother and his world as he knows it.  Ness captures the loneliness of adolescence and the confusion and terror at the loss of a parent.  The book is alive with genuine feeling.

Illustrator, Jim Kay, enhances the emotional impact of the novel with  his dark and subtle drawings.  This book is a standout from beginning to end and a work of art in itself.  I highly recommended it.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

This book is nothing short of inspiring and life affirming - I loved it.

I am quickly becoming hooked on De Botton's lucid and intelligent writing.  In The Art of Travel, he explores all aspects of the travelling experience, cleverly combining thoughts on travel from artists, poets, and other luminary thinkers with his own personal accounts and points of view.

His books are so beautifully conceived and executed.  The Art of Travel opens with a section "On Anticipation"  where he argues strongly, and using some hilarious historical examples, how so much of the enjoyment of any travel adventure, is in planning.  He also digs deep into the human psyche and captures why travel is addictive for so many of us.  Throughout the whole book I found myself marvelling at his singularly brilliant way of expressing human truths:

"Journeys are the midwives of thought.  Few places are so conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship or train."  p.57

The final chapter "On Habit" invites the reader, after many happy pages of adventure through the beautiful and the sublime, accompanied by words of wisdom on travel from the likes of Flaubert, Wordsworth and Van Gogh, to reconsider our own familiar home environments through fresh eyes.  And that, as exhilarating and refreshing as travelling so often is, there is much to see in our own backyards if we only adjust our mindset to one of curiosity.

This book is just as good as The Consolations of Philosophy which I read last year.  I am besotted with De Botton.  On more than one occasion now, his books have lured me away from my usual diet of fiction to walk with him through his extraordinary take on what it is to be human.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

We have winners

Many thanks to those who entered the New Year Giveaway.  The two lucky winners are:

Joanne P  BookloverBookReview (Bereft by Chris Womersley)

Sean Adventures of a Bookonaut (The Scar by China Mieville)


Saturday, January 7, 2012

More Kafka

I think it is safe to assume that my brief foray into the world of Kafka has come to an end. As much as I enjoyed reading The Metamorphosis, I should have just left it there.  The two other Kafka short stories I have read today have not been nearly so enjoyable, or understandable, to me.

In the Penal Colony (1919)

This is a very barbaric story that opens with a "traveller" to a strange land being instructed on the workings of a complex torture device.  Out of courtesy to the readers of this blog I won't go into any more of the very gory details. The story is very compelling; you know something awful is about to happen and like the traveller, who is there as a witness, the reader is utterly powerless to do anything about it. Part of the tension comes from wondering if the traveller will step in to alter events. 

The story is immensely clever, exploring ideas of justice, being morally conflicted and not sure what to do, and some really unpleasant ideas about torture and suffering, but it is just too weird and unpleasant for me.

The Country Doctor (1919)

This is a brief short story that I really did not like. The subject is unpleasant and it is so surreal that I couldn't really grasp what Kafka is trying to say.  The story opens with an old country doctor making a late night flight to the bedside of a sick boy.  He can't find a horse and so it appears his maid is exchanged for the use of two very fast horses.  On arriving at the sick bed, the doctor is unable to treat the boy who has a very macabre wound, and the family of the boy try to prevent the doctor from leaving, he escapes through a window into the freezing night and presumably spends the rest of his life (the symbolism is dense, I couldn't really understand what was happening) riding helplessly around naked on the horses, disillusioned and dejected.

Overall I find Kafka's writing intriguing, but too dark for me.  When his work began to circulate in the first half of the twentieth century I am sure it must have created an enormous stir amongst the progressive literary types.  If you want to experience the brilliance without suffering nightmares or significant confusion, The Metamorphosis is well worth reading.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

I have always wanted to read this, I think partially because so many modern authors cite Kafka as an influence.  I guess I always thought that Kafka was one of those writers that is often quoted and cited as much by reputation as anything else.  And I think I might have assumed that I wouldn't find his writing accessible.  I was wrong, I really enjoyed this novella, or longish short story; it's a weird and wonderful tale.

The Metamorphosis, originally written in German, is a novella in three parts that charts the changing relationship of a young man, Gregor, with his family.  The story opens with him waking up one morning to find he has been transformed into a large, bug-like insect.  Gregor has spent the previous five years working to support his parents and younger sister, in a job he doesn't like.  His transformation forces his family to change.  I think this is the underlying thrust of the story.

The story is told in a very understated, matter of fact, third person narrative, from the perspective of Gregor.  The writing is deceptively simple and this certainly adds to the horror of Gregor's plight.  Gregor does not seem all that alarmed by becoming an insect, certainly not at the beginning.  He is more worried about what his boss will think because he has missed his train.  His passivity is frustrating, but I am sure that is the point.

I loved how Kafka simply, but surely, creates this bug transformation.  It is so real!  Kafka thinks of everything, and absolutely convinces the reader of what it would be like to find oneself trying to survive in your bedroom, at the mercy of your family, as a giant bug.  All the little details, like the mobility challenges, the eating challenges, are recreated in this rather engrossing and disturbing tale.  China Mieville has similar weirdly transformed human-animal, human-machine characters in some of his novels.

In short, I found myself enjoying The Metamorphosis on a couple of levels.  It is both simple and complicated.  The story is plainly and dispassionately told, which increases the impact of what has happened to Gregor one hundred fold.  The themes are complex, and I am sure I have not figured it all out.  I certainly think it is some sort of cautionary tale, that also must relate to the era it was published in (1915), about making oneself a slave to others at the expense of one's own needs.

If you are like I was, and thought that Kafka, might be a bit much, I would encourage you to read this, it doesn't take long, and it is absorbing and entirely original. Reading The Metamorphosis makes me curious about Kafka, he must have been quite an individual, way ahead, or at the very least, outside, of his time and his surrounds. I look forward to learning more about him.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Guidance on Book Clubs Required

For the first time I can remember, I feel like I have a reasonable number of people around me, in my everyday world, including colleagues at work, who love reading as much as I do.

I began to daydream about starting a social book club.  This idea was only in its infancy when I mentioned it to a couple of people.  Very much to my surprise, those people mentioned it to a couple of others, and now, group shy me, is facing the beginnings of this coffee-shop-book-chat-get-together next weekend.

Note to self, introverts like me, should be very careful about mentioning random musings to more action oriented extroverts, unless they themselves are ready for action.  So my plea to you is this: have you been part of a book club yourself?  What are some good basic ideas for getting a very informal book club off the ground?  I am not a terribly structured person (that is why reading works so well for me, it demands so little) but I do wonder that if we don't have some sort of loose structure or guidelines, the group will quickly become more about sampling the various coffee shops in my little city and less about any sort of book chat.

I would love to hear of your experiences with social books clubs.  What do you find works well?  And are there any pitfalls to generally avoid?  Have you started one up yourself?  Or wanted to? 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Aussie Author Challenge 2012

I am well and truly up for the the Aussie Author Challenge hosted by Joanne P over at Booklover Book Reviews. I read heaps of Australian fiction anyway, but I am always keen to discover new-to-me authors and read more from my favourites. The challenge also has an incredibly cute logo:

I will participate at the Dinky-Di level reading twelve Australian books by six different authors. Immediately I know I want to read Jasper Jones by WA based author Craig Silvey and I want to try another of Kate Morton's, The House at Riverton. That should get me started. You can learn more about this challenge at Booklover Book Reviews.

The Victorian Challenge 2012

I normally shy away from reading challenges because I don't like to feel hemmed in.  Too many conditions can make it all feel a bit like hard work for this discipline adverse reader.   But I have found two that I think will add to the reading fun for me this year, as they represent areas that I read anyway, and would like to read more.

So, I have signed up for The Victorian Challenge 2012 over at Laura's Reviews.  Of course if you are interested you can check out all of the details at Laura's beautiful blog.  But basically all you have to do is read, watch or listen to between 2 and 6 novels or films based on novels etc from the Victorian era.  I am kicking off the year reading a Dickens novel Our Mutual Friend, and I would like to re-read Jayne Eyre this year too, as I read it as a teenager and don't think I really appreciated it back then.