December 10, 2012

Argh, okay, so I’ve been doing a lot of reading and I have to return a whole bunch of books to the library so I’m going to bite the bullet and just do quick notes on the following:

The Richmond Conspiracy / Andrew Grimes

My friend Shalini at Text recommended this to me as I was on a crime kick. I found this historical police procedural a bit slow to warm up, but Detective Inspector Maclaine is a solid Melbourne variant of the middle-aged crime-solver whose life is falling apart. Loved the local postwar detail woven through this story, which sees Maclaine try to find out who murdered an unpopular, high-profile businessman.

Five Parts Dead / Tim Pegler*

Tim and I were both speakers at an education event recently, so I was keen to read this YA ghost story. Tim’s journo background is very apparent in this lovely book about Dan, a survivor of a horrific car crash that killed his best friends. On a family trip to a lighthouse, Dan deals with his own spectres and discovers others, spurring him on to seek justice for a long forgotten cold case. The past-and-present twin stories, and the way they see Dan ease back into close relationships, are moving. Also, each chapter’s title is taken from  flag signals, which provide a cool counterpoint and chillingly evoke the isolation of life on a remote island.

Stanley and Sophie / Kate Jennings

Kate Jennings is an absolute firecracker, a hard-nosed speechwriter and thinker – which makes this tale of falling in love with two Border Terriers all the more emotionally interesting and, ultimately, affecting. After Jennings’ husband passed away, the New York–based writer adopted two dogs, Stanley and Sophie, despite originally being ‘one of those who thought not only that a dog should have a job but also that keeping them in apartments and always on a leash was close to criminal’. Fascinating insight into the absurd politics of dog-crazy New York, with a middle section that takes place in Pantai Berawa, Bali, where endangered and wild animals are kept as pets.

Holding the Man / Timothy Conigrave

Seems inappropriate to quickly blurb this very important and readable book. Desperately wanted to read this after reading Ben Law’s Wheeler Centre essay about it. Timothy Conigrave recounts his sexual awakening and complicated, life-long love affair with long-lashed captain of the football team, John Caleo. Incredibly sad and confronting personal account of growing up gay in Melbourne in the second half of the twentieth century, and living with HIV. Yes, it’s rough around the edges, but it hardly matters. Conigrave passed away not long after completing the book. Vital.

The Convent / Maureen McCarthy*

One of my favourite books growing up was McCarthy’s Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life. I loved her late teens finding their way into adulthood, and complex webs of human relationships. The Convent is another work strong on these counts: Peach, an adopted and much loved teen, struggles to forget an ex-boyfriend, look after her younger sister and support her dynamic best friends. But it’s not just Peach’s story that gets an airing; the narratives of her mother (Cecilia, a nun), grandmother (Ellen, an ‘abandoned’ child) and great-grandmother (Sadie, independent and heartbreakingly hard done by) are also interwoven throughout. I didn’t completely buy Peach’s angst over her lost love, but I absolutely did buy all of the book-version-of-the-Bechdel-test-passing female conversations and relationships here, especially within the tryingly constrained repression of Cecilia’s convent experiences. Bonus Melbourne points for representing Abbotsford Convent’s fascinating past.

Angel Creek / Sally Rippin

Sally was one of the other writing residents at Melbourne Zoo with me, so I thought I would read one of her gazillion books! I picked up Angel Creek, a lovely book for younger readers about a girl called Jelly who has moved to a house that backs onto Merri Creek. Understandably, she’s not very happy about having moved halfway across the city, and her cousins (who are around for Christmas) are annoying her a lot. But then she finds an angel in the creek. I love Sally’s writing. It’s super lucid and very compassionate. And this is no fluffy baby angel with cherubic features and a harp. Jelly’s angel turns out to be complicated and very strange.

The Lover / Marguerite Duras

This is one of those books I think I have four copies of because I always buy it when I see it in an op shop, as a reminder to read it. This time I actually ended up reading it, so I suppose I can stop buying it now. A teenager breaks the rules of polite expat society in Vietnam when she accepts an older Chinese man as her lover; she discovers sexual power and social exile, and navigates her family’s madness.

Given this kerfuffle, I hate to think what would happen now if someone published a book about a 15-year-old girl with a 27-year-old man (although maybe nothing, see below). I think I should have read this book earlier in my life, because some of the cinematic images here I am sure would have set me on certain aesthetic tracks; for example, wearing gold lamé shoes paired with jaunty fedoras, giant diamonds. Maybe I’m just romanticising my younger self. Certainly I love the feeling that the narrator is romanticising her younger self in recalling the affair. The Lover is written in a dream-like way, floating between the present and the past. Fascinating article about Duras’ many versions of this (semi-autobiographical) story here. Vanessa Blakeslee’s Paris Review Daily piece looks back on The Lover in the way I think I would if I’d read the novel earlier.

Monsieur / Emma Becker

I didn’t think about this at the time but of course the only way to follow The Lover was to read another autobiographical novel about significant sexual relationships by a French ingenue. Perhaps my snobby, cynical way of engaging with the 50 Shades zeitgeist without actually reading EL James’ trilogy. Monsieur is breathless, diary-esque. French teenager Ellie is obsessed by Lolita and erotic novel La mécanique des femmes (The Mechanics of Women) by Louis Calaferte. She’s read through de Sade, Mandiargues and Pauline Réage, and has had older lovers before – none of whom is really satisfactory, nor shares her passion for erotic literature. When she hears that a 45-year-old friend of her uncle’s is also interested in these works, she contacts him. He’s very interested.Sex ensues.

It’s a very straightforward and explicit tale of an affair, but I liked the literary context – the sense that the affair, and the book, follows a long tradition of French erotic literature. Which is not to say that I think this book is extremely literary. The writing is fine, though some readers will find Ellie’s angsty writings about her passions and about Monsieur wearying. The dialogue often leaves much to be desired in terms of subtlety or even interest, but I do like the way this illustrates the uncomfortable way this relationship, er, straddles fantasy and reality. Unlike Duras’ narrator, Becker’s is very much in the moment, ostensibly frustrated by the relationship’s lack of narrative cohesion or finality, but lacking the emotional wherewithal to recognise other causes for her misery.

Actually, I also want to note that I read this on Google Play, and I found it very annoying. The highlight function was very finicky and unresponsive. It basically worked how it was supposed to about once. Maybe I have Homer fingers, but I don’t think so. I have so many notes where I have just typed ‘highlighting so buggy’ instead of being able to highlight significant sentences like ‘In his cot, their child breathes softly, like a satisfied little bear.’


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