Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

I’ve recently finished researching and writing an essay about the zoo, based on the Wheeler Centre/Melbourne Zoo writing fellowship I did at the end of last year. This ended a huge stint of reading mostly zoo-related fiction and non-fiction, and all of a sudden I was at liberty to read whatever I wanted. So obviously I read a book about animals. New habits die hard, or something. Anyhow, I picked this up because obviously Sedaris is fun, and I needed something fun and light. The last book I read for research was a long novel that was far out of my comfort zone (i.e. I hated it), so I wanted just to ease back into leisure reading.

Anyway, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk isn’t really about animals. Sedaris, the great observer and self-analyser, doesn’t totally abstain from his great human-centred talents here. This is an Aesop-like collection of tales, updated for the modern reader. Like Aesop’s, Sedaris’ animal characters illustrate very human foibles. Readers who are dissatisfied with their hairdresser might recognise many irritating traits in ‘The Cat and the Baboon’, in which the baboon, grooming a snooty cat, gossips and hedges and changes her mind. Here, though, Sedaris also satirises some pretty modern personality quirks. In ‘The Parrot and the Potbellied Pig’, the pig, a museum curator, is not troubled by the parrot journalist’s defamatory remarks about his ‘Vietnamese’ heritage, but rather is anxious about being called ‘potbellied’ when, really, he thinks himself rather slim.

The illustrations are by Ian Falconer, who is the author and illustrator of Olivia (!!), so the illos are wonderful, natch. (Apart from the horribly gory one for ‘The Sick Rat and the Healthy Rat’, which reminded me way too much of George Saunders’ short story ‘Escape from Spiderhead’ for comfort.) A variety of adorable, nasty, catty or lively animal portraits accompany each story.

I could take or leave a couple of the first stories, which are piquant but lack the heart that make ‘The Cow and the Turkey’ and ‘The Grieving Owl’ the very best and most moving in the book. The owl story is also the funniest, and made me LOL about four times. I had already heard ‘The Cow and the Turkey’ on This American Life, but the tale about barnyard animals who decide to play Secret Santa still affected me. The owl in ‘The Grieving Owl’ is a autodidact who lets his prey go if they can teach him something about the world, leading him to form an unlikely friendship with a gerbil and a hippo who lives in the zoo. (Anal leeches also make an appearance, I’ll warn you.) Who knew anthropomorphised cross-species friendships could be so heart-warming? David Sedaris, that’s who.

Great for those who are interested in a different slant on the meaning life. To show you what I mean, from ‘The Grieving Owl’: “To live in a damp crowded asshole and sing – if these guys don’t know the secret to living, I don’t know who does.”

 

Yo. I have reviews of Vikki Wakefield’s All I Ever Wanted and Anna Funder’s All That I Am up at the Wheeler Centre’s VPLA page. Both great books, though someone at the Wheeler Centre must think of me as a very, er, all or nothing person.

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Steve Hely is a very funny and nice man who writes for The Office. I met and interviewed him last year at MWF, and he showed great gentlemanship in not pointedly walking away from me when I later that day proceeded to tell him an extremely inchoate and not narratively satisfying story from my drunken past, all while I was firmly entrenched in my drunken present.

All this is to say that I still have a good opinion of him, even though the main character in his book, How I Became A Famous Novelist:

  • is offered $15,000 for his first novel. I feel that This Is Not Realistic
  • is in a scene where his friend in the publishing industry says, ‘And blogs! Jesus! Blogs! If I hear the word blog one more time I’m gonna put my neck on the subway tracks.’ (For one thing, that would not be hygienic.)
  • thinks, at one point, ‘Book reviewers are the most despicable, loathsome order of swine that ever rooted about the earth. They are sniveling, revolting creatures who feed their own appetites for bile by gnawing apart other people’s work. They are human garbage. They all deserve to be struck down by awful diseases described in the most obscure dermatology journals.’ (Come on, man.)
  • thinks, at one point, ‘Worst of all, Polly’s wedding would be filled with Australians.’ (Fair enough.)

Screw you too, Steve!

Still! The pros for this book include:

  • a scene featuring Vincent D’Onofrio (this one’s for you, Elmo Keep)
  • the line ‘He looked like an elf who’s gone through a bad divorce.’
  • something called Nepalese Nut Soda, the hilarity of which I can never quite explain.
  • a press release for a (sadly) fictional book called How to Stop Being a Ho … and Why
  • excellent satire on the world of literary fiction.
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That poor old steeplechase horse.

Please note I resisted the urge to call this post ‘Bring Up the Motherf***ing Bodies, Bitch’ (though said urge was merely displaced by the urge to put it in a prefatory explanatory note).

Just did a speedy little review for Readings of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. People often ask me if they should read Wolf Hall, and I always say ‘Yes, you should, really’. It’s incredible – Mantel is capable of the most comprehensive and vivid characterisation, and creates action stations out of what we often think of as dead Year 8–level History. Bring Up the Bodies is almost as good; nothing can really match the breathtaking confidence and inventiveness of the first Cromwell novel, but its successor is a worthy one. Review reposted below.

P.S. Very relieved to have a copy with the incredible British cover, rather than the insipid US cover. The whole point of this book is that it creates new portraits and ways of seeing these historical characters, duh.

***

There’s a story in the historical character of Thomas Cromwell, or several. But one only needs to read the Wikipedia version, eyes glazing over with boredom, to grasp what a significant achievement Hilary Mantel has wrought with her gripping, complex Cromwell novels: first Wolf Hall, and now its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies.

Of course, we know what history has to say about Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith who made his way into the service of Henry VIII. Wolf Hall, however, was a hugely successful exercise in garnering sympathy for a man whom history has often painted as a villain.

Bring Up the Bodies begins where Wolf Hall left off. It is the summer of 1535. Henry VIII has not long been married to Anne Boleyn, but his gaze has already strayed to quiet, unassuming Jane Seymour; he wishes to have his marriage to Anne annulled. Anne, changeable and increasingly wary, is plotting, threatening Cromwell’s life and also England’s tenuous peace – for the royals are losing standing with the nobility and the English public, and there are others who want to rule.

It is a delight to return to Mantel’s Cromwell, whose quick mind and giant intellect are wonderfully framed by the novel’s present-tense narration. As Secretary to the king, Cromwell is hardworking and incisively strategic, but he can also estimate a man’s wealth by looking at his clothing and he’s good with his fists. His assessments of others are always sharp and illuminating: through his eyes we see a childlike and increasingly deluded Henry, and multiple dissolute courtiers who trade insults and secrets.

There are no tedious attempts to recreate the language of the era: instead, the fresh, direct prose Mantel used to such effect in Wolf Hall again carries the action here. Dialogue is pointed and often surprisingly funny, and its content is always the basis for some new stratagem (‘I am not a man with whom you can have inconsequential conversations,’ says Cromwell at one point). Thanks to this masterful treatment of language, the characters are so vital it seems their actions could alter history, that the march towards Cromwell’s fall from Henry’s favour (to be chronicled by Mantel in a future novel) could possibly be diverted by these versions of themselves.

Despite the short timeframe covered in the novel – just nine months – Bring Up the Bodies does drag in its middle section. And although she is never opaque about Cromwell’s more brutal decisions and actions, Mantel’s overtly sympathetic portrayal of her subject occasionally feels overstretched, particularly when set against his extreme political pragmatism.

Still, this is likely to be one of the most accomplished novels you read this year. Mantel has said of writing these books: ‘I felt such a burst of energy being lent to me by the character.’ Like Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies is patently enlivened by the author’s passion for Cromwell. As a result, he will be remembered not only as one of the great political figures of England’s history, but also one of the great fictional characters of this decade.

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That sound you can hear is the rusty gate of this blog creaking open. Is that a mixed metaphor? I don’t even know anymore. Where am I? Who are you? Who am I?

Just kidding, you guys. My brain is totally intact and I can construct sentences (well, we’ll see). I have also been reading books, contrary to what my silence here might indicate. I have been pretty busy, what with everything – and let’s be honest, no one’s life has been in danger due to my non-updates – but there’s been a development in my life that made me keen to come back here and get to documentin’.

Late last year I got an iPad 2. Since then, I’d estimate that I’ve had a conversation about it with 70% of the people I know. That’s a big percentage. And despite the fact that this is the first post in a series about said device, I’m not really an Extoller of the Pleasures of the Tablet or anything; people are just very interested in them and the future of the book and what have you. Usually other people ask me whether I have an e-reader yet and whether I like it, and why I chose the iPad over other e-readers, etc.

Briefly, I decided on the iPad because I wanted to be able to test all the major reading platforms. I wanted to be able to read on the Kindle, Kobo, Booki.sh and Google Books platforms, to see what they were like. I also wanted the best opportunity to get any book I wanted as an e-book, so I wanted to be able to access e-books in just about any format.

Also, it was an aesthetic thing. I don’t like the look of a lot of the ink readers, even though my initial wish was to get an ink technology reader. They’re just too plasticky and the screens are too small. And finally, I’ve been burnt by non-Apple computer products before. Samsung, I hate you. Sony, I do not like you (mostly, actually, due to this ad). Asus, I really just do not like you very much. My MacBook has lasted six years, which is longer than any other computer I have ever had. I love it, and I trust it. I did not buy the Steve Jobs biography, but I would buy his products.

I have the wi-fi model, not the 3G. I am almost superstitiously weird about not wanting to have internet access at all times. I don’t have a smartphone, either. I bought this tablet pretty much for reading only, so I won’t be commenting on the iPad qua secondary computer or life-organiser or anything like that. (Yes, I realise this is somewhat akin to, I don’t know, buying a ladder so I can sit on the third rung when I’m out of chairs, but I don’t mind.) It’ll pretty much be just about whether I liked reading the book in the X app or on the Y platform. Sorry if this bores you.

Since I acquired my new friend, about 50% of the books I’ve read have been e-books, which has surprised me. I suspect the figure would be higher still if I hadn’t been reading so many review copies that are print books. It’s been an interesting and net positive experience so far. I’m interested to see if my print/electronic book ratio rises much or steadies around the 50% mark.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Since I’ve had it for a few months now, I’ll just do a quick rundown of the beginning of our beautiful relationship.

***

Zero hour: WOW! I love this box. I love Apple. Even with the gorillas and the … everything. I’m not proud of this. But it’s so shiny. I love it. I just want to get, like, ten iPads and rub them all together. They’re so nice. Look at it all pretty when I turn it on. Ooooooh.

Hour one: What do you mean I need to create a new account for every reading platform I want to use? What do you mean I need to come up with new passwords for all of them? What do you mean the passwords need to include upper case letters, lower case letters, numerals and punctuation marks. Are you kidding me? I can’t even remember my own name sometimes. This sucks. I hate this. Okay, my password is going to be Ih8uiPad:(.

Hour two: Okay, I have passwords. I have apps. I have fingers. I have a credit card. I want to buy a book. Kindle app, you get to go first. What do I want to read…oh, you can get so many free books! Pride and Prejudice! Who cares if I already own three copies? I guess I know how that happened because I’m going to download it onto my iPad right now, I’m going to have four copies, I’m so excited!!! Yayayayayayayayayayay!! Jane Austen is the best!!! I love her so much! Northanger Abbey! That’s the only one I haven’t read. Yayayayayayayayayayay!!! I’m going to read it tonight! I’m going to read it now! Yayayay! Downloading… this is so great. I’m going to get it straight away. What an ugly cover. Oh well, it’s not going on my shelf, who cares.

Hour three: Okay, all downloaded, I’m so excited, I’m going to read this book so bad. Wait…where is it? I just bought it at Amazon and it said it had been sent to my iPad, so where is it? Go back to Amazon and check what it says to do. Yep, I downloaded it. Should be available on my iPad. Back to the Kindle app. Not there. Where is it? This is so annoying. Where is it? Can you refresh this thing? What the hell. What the hell?? I hate this. This doesn’t happen with REAL books. WTF. Where is it. Go back to Amazon. Check what it says to do. Yes, I definitely downloaded it. I hate this iPad. Maybe if I turn it off. That always works. Okay, turn it off. Turn it on. Is it there? … I HATE IPADS.

What? You think I should reinstall the Kindle app? Maybe. Okay.

Hour four: Yayayayayayayay!!! I am going to read Northanger Abbey so bad. Oooooo, changing the fonts is fun. Ooooooo, look at all the ways you can change the page-turning visualisation. Oooooo. Oooo. I love this. I am going to read it in white text on black.

Hour three point five: Ow, my eyes. Change it back to the normal way.

Two days later: I love Jane Austen! I love romantic comedies! I hate Isabella Thorpe! You could just tell she was bad from the beginning! And her brother! I love my iPad! I love Henry Tilney! I love farms! I love my iPad!! I really love my iPad!!!!!

FIN

Thanks to Favel Parrett for making me actually start weeping uncontrollably on public transport.