Posts Tagged ‘2009’

It’s lucky that I’m usually a pretty dilatory blogger. If I blogged about everything straight after I read it, I wouldn’t have anything to write about during the run-up to the Emerging Writers’ Festival. I’m currently preparing to launch 16 books at the 15 Minutes of Fame book launches, so I’ve been reading, yo, but this ain’t no spoiler zone. Instead, you may have noticed that I’m trawling through the books I read over the summer (a noticeably long time ago now – brrrrrr).

When I’m in need of a gear switch, I often read YA, so Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games was the first book I cracked open at the airport. Needless to say, its action-themed front cover brought me plenty of ribbing from my (serious, boring, closed-minded, God I need new) friends. And truly, in their defence, actually, I hate this cover and much prefer the stark US cover, whose golden bird struck in the tail feathers with an arrow is a far more powerful image.

The Hunger Games is set in a dystopic future North America, now called Panem, which is divided into twelve Districts and the ruling Capitol. In punishment for having risen against the oppressive government, the twelve Districts are each forced to select two of its children every year to participate as ‘tributes’ in The Hunger Games, a televised survival contest from which only one child will emerge alive.

Katniss Everdeen is a sixteen-year-old girl who lives in the worst part of District 12 – nicknamed the Seam. Her mother is severely depressed and barely functional, so it’s up to Katniss to support them and her 12-year-old sister Primrose by selling the fruits of her illegal hunting and gathering. Hardened and rational about her chances of being chosen as one of District 12’s tributes, Katniss is aghast when Primrose’s name is drawn, and in a radical and long-unseen gesture, volunteers herself instead.

Published in 2008 (the final book in the trilogy, Mockingjay, is due out in a matter of months), The Hunger Games is definitely a book of its time. While its reality television setting has the potential to seem cringeworthy and too ‘now’, Collins investigates its moral conflicts thoughtfully. In particular, she portrays with vividness the complicity of regular people in grotesque societal practices. Heartbreaking, too, is the class divide that Collins has posed in Panem – children can barter another entry in the name draw for a portion of food, which inevitably means that the children of the wealthy are much safer than those who are struggling.

Of course, none of this would work if the characterisation was weak, and Collins has a winning protagonist in Katniss. This teenager is an Andromeda figure without the promise of a Perseus, but fortunately, she’s also a heroine in no need of a saviour. Katniss defies the role of sacrificial lamb to her people’s powerlessness, and plays the game by her own terms. She’s canny but compassionate, and her humanity is something she refuses to trade for her mere life.

There are a couple of places where the dialogue is too glossy, and the darkness underpinning the book’s concept occasionally – and a bit oddly – disappears, but The Hunger Games is still engrossing and rich. It’s impossible not to feel that The Games are but a small part of a much larger and more oppressive system, and Katniss’s major rebellion at the book’s end promises that the scope of the sequel, Catching Fire, will explore this greater territory. Can’t wait.

Now we’re really digging into the archives. I actually read The Shadow of the Sun over a year ago, in preparation for my holiday to north-east Africa.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have a great deal of anxiety about reading into any subject you know very little about. Having only read a sprinkling of African literature – Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Buchi Emecheta, Ben Okri – I confess I was overwhelmed by my unfamiliarity with that continent’s history and writers. For this reason, my travelling companions and I bought up big, books-wise, before we left – the first Popular Penguins series was a goldmine, furnishing Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, Redmond Hanlon’s Congo Journey and Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Shadow of the Sun.

Kapuscinski was a well-respected Polish journalist who travelled to Africa whenever he could over a period of forty years, speaking to local people and recording their stories. He’s written nine books that are available in English, and plenty of others besides. Given that I was so keen to disembarrass myself of my ignorance, Africa-wise, it’s somewhat poetic that the author I selected to assist me through my bewilderness, was recently accused of fabricating some of his stories. That controversy certainly stirs up some questions of truth and fiction, and whether the latter can ever be employed in the service of the former. Read Neal Ascherson on Kapuscinski’s literary reportage here.

So, Kapuscinski. To begin, he states that

this is … not a book about Africa, but rather about some people from there – about encounters with them, and time spent together. The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say “Africa.” In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.

… which is wonderful, because a land mass housing over a billion people and 53 different countries defies any kind of easy understanding. As promised, Kapuscinski writes about people – the people he meets, the dictators he sees from afar, the desert drivers, the United Nations High Commissioner for refugee affairs. However, despite his protesting, his stories about one person, one family or one village are almost always points that expand to gradually encompass a much bigger panorama: the failure of transport in Ghana, or the structure of an Ashanti tribe.

Of course, it is always easy to start with the self. An image that sticks in my mind to this day: Kapuscinski lying abed with malaria, trembling with repugnance and cold and exhaustion, with the local villagers calmly pressing a wooden chest on top of him. ‘The only thing that really helps is if someone covers you. But not simply throws a blanket or quilt over you … You dream of being pulverized. You desperately long for a steamroller to pass over you.’

He is also equally attentive to broad-scale events that affect the fortunes of a nation. ‘The Anatomy of a Coup d’État’ is a collection of notes Kapuscinski kept while in Lagos in 1966. Ahmadu Bello, the leader of Northern Nigeria, is felled by a bullet in the middle of the night; rebel troops attack the palace of the prime minister of Western Nigeria; in the other three cities, a small army continues to take over the de facto power, until on Saturday ‘Lagos awakes, knowing nothing about anything.’

Though it is certainly made up of various and varied tales, reading The Shadow of the Sun is not really a project of simply absorbing multiple stories. To read Kapuscinski is to be invested in a dream that a Westerner can begin to understand the inhabitants, history and politics of a vast land she knows nothing about. This dream is made possible because of Kapuscinski’s lucid and unpretentious writing, his vivid imagery and his empathy. And the dream is kept alive by the number of books he wrote – next on my list is The Emperor, which is about the downfall of Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie I.

April 19, 2010

Let’s talk about my Too Early Introduction To Tim Winton. When I was a wee tacker with no friends and a constant seat at the library, my parents and teachers often encouraged me to expand my readerly repertoire. As a result, I had a lot of incoming recommendations – one teacher recommended that I read Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, though I must have felt that the rural lives of Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba Everdene (really??) weren’t quite up to my standards, as I’ve never read it.

Whether I took to the recommended book or not was pretty unpredictable. My favourite read was Jane Eyre, and it remains so to this day, despite its being an exemplar of the Possibly Crazy White Oppressor’s Simultaneous Despoliation of the Dignity Of Females From Conquered Races And The Lower Classes genre. But when I tried reading Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet on the shelves at home, I was so displeased with what it offered that I didn’t finish it.

So, however unfair it may be to Mr Winton, I’ve kind of nursed ill feeling towards him since then – more than half my life. Perhaps I wasn’t ready for Cloudstreet then, and I’m certainly not opposed to trying again in future. Occasionally, I have considered a dip into the Winton oeuvre, but every time I thought about it, I’d think of reasons not to go ahead. For example, not so long ago, a couple of my friends attempted to read Cloudstreet, and found it incredibly hard to get through. Nevertheless, I’m not one to ever say never, so I read Breath when I was on holiday in Sri Lanka.

Although it seems that I am gratuitously mentioning my tropical sojourn every time I draw digital breath, I feel like the setting of the ‘I Finally Give Tim Winton Another Go’ melodrama was important. It’s not that I’m so literal as to think a beachside location is integral to appreciating Breath. But interspersing my reading stints with the occasional surrender to tiny but powerful waves, on a shoreline tremendous with whiteness, lent another dimension to my experience of Breath’s grace and power.

Breath opens with Bruce Pike roaring up the road with another paramedic to a house where a seventeen-year-old kid has died of asphyxiation. Jodie, Bruce’s colleague, assumes that the teenager has committed suicide. Bruce knows better; he may be ‘arrogant, aloof, sexist, bad communicator, gung-ho’, but he knows what young Aaron’s motivations were, just like they his own. Once, Bruce – Pikelet – was a kid from Sawyer, ‘a town of millers and loggers and dairy farmers’. But then he chanced to follow his mate, Loonie, clinging gamely one day to the tie-rail of a flatbed truck, and he saw the ocean.

Pikelet’s first glimpse of the surf and its inhabitants haunts him: ‘How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant’. Pursuing the surf swallows up his time, and his fledgling adult identity: to follow the surf is to defy his father, who is petrified of the open water. Pikelet and Loonie get their start with a motley group of surfers, before they succeed to the mentorship of Sando, a ‘huge, bearded, coiled-up presence’, whose ability in the surf is unparalleled in their small acquaintance. Before long Pikelet and Loonie are striving to the heights that Sando sets them, and competing against each other for his regard and the wildest wave.

What blew me away was the sheer physicality of Winton’s ocean. I’ve never felt more terrified and awed and seduced by a description as I have when reading Winton’s Old Smoky, the wave that baptises the boys as local surfing mavericks, and the Nautilus, a notorious wave that taunts Pikelet and Loonie with its unpredictability and danger. Breath parses the surf in straightforward poetry, from Old Smoky’s immense ’sound of sheetmetal shearing itself to pieces’ to the gentler water’s ‘cauls of fizz and light’, which accompany the surfer who’s taken on the impossible and won. I’ve never seen surf like that, but I’m pretty sure I will always be able to call to my mind’s eye the spectacle of thousands of cubic metres’ worth of spine-snapping water curving in a wall towards a person, tiny on a board of fibreglass and foam.

In some ways, the novel’s structure is but a viable vehicle for the absolute, unbiddable presence of the water. Something that I read about Tim Winton and Breath, long before I ever read the book, is James Ley’s comment that ‘Winton is a high symbolist working in a realist mode’. I came across this quote at Kerryn Goldsworthy’s blog, and it stayed with me for two years. Ley’s comment deeply affected the way I read the book. Aspects of the novel feel like they are in service of the novel’s focal symbol, the breath, including Pikelet’s sexual relationship with Sando’s wife, Eva, who herself seems merely perfunctory at times.

Nevertheless, what a way to shirk any indifference I felt about a writer many consider Australia’s finest. Good to meet you again, Tim.

April 12, 2010

When I read Indignation over the summer, I really enjoyed it. But I wouldn’t have read it unless my boyfriend hadn’t been given it by an Icelandic friend he’d met in Tanzania and if I hadn’t been on holiday in paradisiac Sri Lanka, which was satisfying my hunger for hammocks and beers so generously that all I could do was read the books I’d brought and then everyone else’s. Despite appearances, I’m not trying to flaunt my bourgie lifestyle – only point out how improbable and extreme were the circumstances of reading only my second ever Roth tome. Whatever, you like holidays too.

My first Philip Roth experience was with Goodbye, Columbus. I know a lot of people who love that book, but I wasn’t struck by any gigantic lightning bolts by any means. I’m a bit puzzled now, looking at the Wikipedia summary (yes, okay, whatever, I am lazy), about why I don’t remember Goodbye, Columbus more fondly. Some of those later stories sound pretty interesting. But, with reference to the first, titular, story, I can pretty easily explain why I’ve been so reluctant to dive into the Roth oeuvre since then. I guess I don’t really care about classism if the concerns are expressed predominantly within the context of wanting to screw a lady whom society deems inappropriate for you. So, that story kind of stuck in my head, but not in a good way.

A little while back, I expressed my reluctance to choose another Roth to read – mostly because I perceived that his oeuvre was uneven – at Lydia Kiesling’s blog (she now writes for The Millions), to which she replied: ‘Norman Mailer and Philip Roth both belong to my American Post-War Masculine Bermuda Triangle of Doom.’ Which also stuck in my head. How am I supposed to pick a safe harbour in a Triangle of Doom?

But I read this ‘Pulling a Roth’ post in the Wheeler Centre’s Dailies the other week, and it refers to comments Roth made in his Paris Review interview:

It’s all one book you write anyway. At night you dream six dreams. But are they six dreams? One dream prefigures or anticipates the next, or somehow concludes what hasn’t yet even been fully dreamed. Then comes the next dream, the corrective of the dream before—the alternative dream, the antidote dream—enlarging upon it, or laughing at it, or contradicting it, or trying just to get the dream dreamed right. You can go on trying all night long.

…the effects of which are basically ‘I’ve been writing the same novel…28 times.’

I thought again of Indignation, though many months have passed since I read it, and despite the similarities between it and ‘Goodbye, Columbus’, I remembered it with a small glow. (Of course, I was also recalling with warmth my rope bed swinging between coconut palms.) I think half of our holidaying companions read Indignation during those weeks, and we all really liked it.

Indignation is the first-person story of Marcus Messner, the son of a butcher and his wife. Marcus is a pretty good kid who gets excellent grades at school and helps out at the shop but is nevertheless being slowly alienated by his father’s increasingly pathological worrying. So he jumps ship to a small liberal arts college called Winesburg, where he is subjected to all the usual outsider traumas: frat boys shouting ‘Hey, Jew! Over here!’ and a roommate who has an almost demonic lack of regard for him.

But Winesburg is also, of course, the stage for Markie’s big love story, ‘the beauticious Olivia’. And here again the nauseating lusty affection for what a disgruntled Tim Rutten, writing in the LA Times, called ‘the requisite inappropriate shiksa’. I’ve heard a lot about Roth’s uncomfortably one-dimensional, gazed-upon women. But Indignation’s ridiculous affair worked for me, for a few reasons. One: sure, Olivia is mentally ill and is given short shrift as a character. But Messner’s obsessive fantasising is so feckless that it’s horribly sad to witness, especially in conjunction with his other foibles. I realise that if you’d read more than one other of Roth’s 28 books, Messner’s hopeless, useless, obsessive erotic thrall (that’s Rutten again, paraphrased) wouldn’t just be Chinese Water Torture drop #2, but something progressively worse than that. But Messner is an emotional infant, and his love for Olivia makes that clear.

Second, Messner’s über pathetic romance-stimulated body and thoughts are exploding against the backdrop of the Korean War, which is in its second year. Messner, the butcher’s son, is all too aware of what carnage is like: ‘I grew up with blood and grease and knife sharpeners and slicing machines and amputated fingers or missing parts of fingers on the hands of my three uncles as well as my father—and I never got used to it and I never liked it.’ His academic strivings are an attempt to put a gulf between himself and the violent visceral promise of war, and similarly, Messner’s self-imposed sexual deadline becomes more urgent in the threat of being drafted: ‘I was determined to have intercourse before I died.’

{Don’t read the next paragraph if you object to details that are arguably spoiler material.}

Christopher Hitchens was pretty scathing about this whole tra-la: ‘The ordinariness of the prose here (“trammels holding sway” and all that) is matched by the familiarity of the Eros/Thanatos dialectic.’ But for my part, I was relieved to see Roth’s sexual foregrounding anchored by some pathos in Indignation; though Messner is a terribly weird and self-indulgent unit, his defiance of school norms and his bleating anxiety are just sympathetic enough. This makes the novel’s framing conceit (revealed partway through the book) an effective one – Messner’s in hospital, deeply injured, and is narrating the events of his short life under morphine’s potent sway.

I do find it, in theory, an infuriating proposition that any author might consider each novel an improved iteration of the successive ones. However, late Roth in my case was a far more rewarding experience than early Roth. Indignation puts Roth’s usual ingredients together to create an effective novel; he even manages to make masturbation kind of poignant. Did I just say that? Hmmmm.

We hear a lot about the death of language. Whether it’s the death of the author, the novel, the letter – every literary item imaginable has, it seems, been eulogised. Michael Quinion’s Gallimaufry is a delightful book that trawls through the obituaries of the many such fallen soldiers: words that have sailed off into the ether.

A word-nut will have lots of fun with this book. Quinion is an engaged guide, and uses a light writing style, which is a blessing when he navigates the linguistic and historical origins of the words he studies. The title word, gallimaufry, which now means a ‘hodgepodge’, comes from old French. It originally meant a stew or sauce, and it’s still used today, though perhaps only in very enlightened (or pretentious) corners of the English-speaking world. Quinion has divided his enquiry into five thematic parts. The first deals with food and drink, and is of course my favourite; the second with health and medicine; the third, entertainment and leisure; the fourth, transport and fashion; and the fifth, names, employment and communications. Those of you with refined palates will relish the knowledge that the word bottarga (or cured fish roe) – as we know it in Australia – came from the Arabic butarkha originally. There are lots of wonderful little slices through history like this that make you feel like you’re lifting up a magic curtain into the past.

Wonderfully, the thematic division of the book allows you to discover English-speaking habits and cultures that are long fallen by the wayside. Quinion fossicks around in the verbal dirt for things I now kind of regret finding out. Harry Potter fans will know that a bezoar is a ‘concretion of hair or vegetable fibre that forms naturally in the stomachs of ruminant animals’, used once upon a time as an antidote to poison. Men awaiting the barber’s attention used to enjoy the music of a cittern. Also, find out what Benjamin Franklin’s thoughts were about wearing a wig! However, I just couldn’t be enthralled by discovering that the zingerilla and the bransle were fancy lady-and-gentleman dances. Perhaps my fellow Jane Austen readers would beg to disagree.

Despite the subject matter of Gallimaufry being predominantly old and now obscure words, Quinion is certainly no obscurant. There are lots of treasures to be had here for readers of British historical fiction, and even those who once pondered why the Australian Women’s Weekly ‘Dolly Varden’ cake was termed as such. (The Dolly Varden was a rakishly side-slung hat. Though what connection a hat has to a cake with a doll stuck in it, I’ll never have the capacity to fathom.) If you like odd language trivia and showing off your vocabularistic prowess, you will like this book, as it will enable you to say things like: ‘Did you know that “fig” used to mean “banana” in the West Indies at one stage?’ NO, I DIDN’T. And now I do.

NB. I work at Oxford University Press.

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A woman, standing, with an eagle on her arm.

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January 18, 2010

I’m as little physically intrepid as it is humanly possible for a person to be. I do not like rollercoasters. I do not like to change hairdressers very often. God forbid that I go on some kind of orienteering foray of an afternoon. And I detest horror movies. A girl like that needs to get her kicks from somewhere, and I am lucky to be able to satisfy my minimal urges for life’s tasty variety through…can you guess? Books? Oh, you’re so smart. Let me buy you a drink.

You may scoff, but if you don’t think that words can help you can swim in adventure straits, then you haven’t read Crime and Punishment. Or Memoirs of a Bugatti Hunter. Or Liar by Justine Larbalestier. Reading this book is like walking a tightrope. I’m not saying it’s some kind of literal safari or anything. But Liar is certainly a masterful exercise in maintaining reader tension: it’s tight, then lulled, then tight again, all the way to its extraordinary end. And even then, I wasn’t quite sure whether I was off the ride yet.

My father is a liar and so am I.
But I’m going to stop. I have to stop. I will tell you my story and I will tell it straight.
No lies, no omissions.
That’s my promise.
This time I truly mean it.

‘Telling the Truth’: such is our introduction to Micah Wilkins. She’s a liar, and we’re duly warned. So we stick with her through all the stories she tells, and there are a lot. Micah starts off with the time she perpetuated the fiction that she was a boy at school. Then, she tells you about her half-black, half-white family, which includes a strange branch of reclusive folk on a two-hundred acre farm. There’s her brother, Jordan. And there’s Zach, her boyfriend. Two pages in, though, and Zach is missing. Three pages, and Zach is dead.

The death of a young boy is a tragedy anywhere, but in a high school, it’s a trigger. Even at a progressive high school like the one Micah attends, the news is a spritzer pill in a glass of water. Zach’s ‘real’ girlfriend, Sarah, is surprised that he had anything to do with Micah, as is everyone else. Micah is a ‘freak’, a loner. The tacit avoidance Micah usually countenances in her school days becomes full-blown hostility as people begin to suspect she had something to do with Zach’s death. But some of the people around her realise that there’s more to her than strangeness and untruths, and as all this unravels, so too do Micah’s stories. ‘I haven’t been entirely honest,’ she says. Perhaps the liar is becoming a truth teller? If so, then who is Micah really?

In Micah, Larbalestier has created a character whose reliability is inversely proportionate to her appeal. Excruciating though Micah’s physical and psychological instability is for her, she is also a deeply fascinating and vital character. The danger with a book focused on the dichotomy of truth and lies is the potential prioritisation of a moral axis of some kind, but we’re never in any danger of that in Liar. Sensitive exploration of the adolescent spikes of identity is what we get instead. Identity is a popular topic in young adult fiction, and it’s well explored here, with fantasy, metaphor and reality holding hands. Micah is a rustling, sparking ball of falsehood and confusion in the midst of youth’s mysterious hot heat, which Liar evokes superbly. Larbalestier shows how the distinction between reality and fantasy becomes moot in that context, because thinking and feeling is just that difficult, alien and animal. It’s this insight and compassion that makes Liar a riveting, supremely put together book about the addictive utility of saying things that are not true.