Posts Tagged ‘penguin’

Guys, this is a Cancer Book.

First up, I do not like to read Cancer Books. I do not like to read Horrific Car Accident Books. I do not like to read Conceived to Provide a Bone Marrow Transplant for Her Sister Books. Blurbs like the one currently gracing the hero area of Jodi Picoult’s homepage:

Edward Warren, twenty-four, has been living in Thailand for six years, a prodigal son who left his family after an irreparable fight with his father, Luke. But he gets a frantic phone call: His dad lies comatose, gravely injured in the same accident that has also injured his younger sister Cara.

… I do not like. Before you get huffy with me, I have enough experience of family members having cancer for you not to be able to get shitty with me because you think I’m being insensitive. (It’s fine to dislike my general surliness, though.)

Obviously, it’s not about the cancer. My aversion to Sickness Books is something different that I think a lot of people can probably identify with. A friend of mine was recently watching some Disney movie or something that made her cry, and her mother asked her ‘Why would you watch something that makes you cry?’ I can understand that lack of comprehension about others’ culture-consumption choices. But for some reason, I like watching movies that make me cry. (I also like real-life, self-made situations that will make me cry, such as the present moment, in which I am downing the dregs of a double shot of Talisker while listening to the Dario Marianelli soundtrack to Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre. P.S. I pre-schedule these blog posts, just so you know I don’t routinely drink spirits before 11 am.) But I don’t enjoy or seek out books that seem guaranteed to elicit the Tears of Estelle. For some reason, I just can’t stand it. I feel so manipulated and sad and alone when I read those kinds of books.

However, John Green co-wrote one of my favourite YA books of the last few years, Will Grayson, Will Grayson. He is just excellent at writing teenagers’ voices that feel authentic, and with a lot of unforced, totally natural-sounding humour. His characters are super memorable and delightful. It is only with this kind of writing prowess that you can convince me to read your Sadness Book That Is Also Ubiquitously Advertised By Urban Poster (I never promised you that I was not a snob). You possibly also know of John Green, either from being one of his 1.2 million+ Twitter followers or seeing his Vlogbrothers videos or whatever.

Hazel Grace Lancaster is a 16-year-old with thyroid cancer. It affects her lungs, so she needs an oxygen tank at all times, and she’s at time painfully aware that she has ‘fat chipmunked cheeks’ from treatment. But she’s intelligent and hyper-engaged: she talks casually about psychologist Abraham Maslow and her favourite author Peter Van Houten. (Also, she agrees with me that ‘cancer books suck’, so there.) At the suggestion of her doctor, she begins attending a support group for children with cancer, held in the middle of a church, or ‘Christ’s sacred heart and whatever’. It quickly becomes apparent that this isn’t a Traditional Cancer Book. As the members of the group each share their feelings, Hazel explains, ‘Like, I realize that this is irrational, but when they tell you that you have, say, a 20 percent chance of living five years, the math kicks in and you figure that’s one in five…so you look around and think, as any healthy person would: I gotta outlive four of these bastards.’

That’s Hazel’s voice: matter-of-fact and whip-smart. I fell in love with her immediately. Someone else does too; Augustus Waters is a dude with a ‘low, smoky, and dead sexy’ voice, who shows up to support group. He’s got a touch of the too-verboses, but he’s hot and has an eye for Hazel, so he’s okay in our book. Augustus and Hazel build a friendship edged with the knowledge that one of them is unlikely to live very long. As Hazel puts it, they’re ‘learning to live with one foot in the grave’.

This book is amazing for so many reasons. The ones I want to list don’t even sound that amazing, but they just are. For one thing, Hazel’s parents are both present and loving, palpably devoted to their daughter while also being their own people (think of all the YA books you love where one or both parents are absent, or awful, or stupidly daffy, or…). Hazel’s dad: ‘Really…I wouldn’t bullshit you about this. If you were more trouble than you’re worth, we’d just toss you out on the streets.’ For another, while love interest Augustus is very charming, he’s not the most interesting person in the book; nor is there a sense that Hazel wouldn’t be who she is without him.

The book’s title comes from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves’. (Note: Even this one line makes me tear up now. Like Lev Grossman, I’ll cop to crying over this book. Like, copious weeping in public kind of crying. Like telling a co-worker on the tram to ‘Please just go away, I’m just crying right now’ crying. My friend’s mum would not be impressed.) In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Green explained that his experience as a chaplain to children with life-threatening diseases drove him to write this book. Green said, ‘I found myself really unfulfilled by the answers that are traditionally offered to questions of why some people suffer and why others suffer so little’. The Fault in Our Stars is a tectonically moving, humbling result of that experience, and as good a reason to overcome snitty book prejudices as any.

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So, hope you’re going okay. The end of 2011 was just a haze of activity, so excuse the absence. As a prize for sticking around/being good at Google/being a spambot, here’s a post to illustrate my mental declivities during the final months of 2011.

Running commentary on my reading of Madame Bovary:

Page 5: God, I can’t wait until Vronsky shows up.

Page 19: Where’s Vronsky?

Page 45: Where’s Vronsky?

Page 116: Okay, there’s a big party. I bet this is where Vronsky comes in.

Page 125: Where’s Vronsky?

Page 140: I just don’t know how someone with a name like Vronsky is going to show up in this tiny French town. It doesn’t make any sense.

Page 210: This book is practically over, and no Vronsky.


End: Pretty good book though.

Some day I shall regret being so open with all of you.

Hope you’ve all had a great year of reading. Looking forward to another.

I think I should rename this blog – 12 BOOKS. One book a month. That seems to be the going rate right now. Not exactly a bargain. Sorry guys!

I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned for the Kill Your Darlings Culture Club podcast. I was joined by Lorelei Vashti, who writes a weekly column in The Age‘s Green Guide (which used to be my bible in the days of Seaquest DSV) and Anna Krien, author of Into the Woods (one of my favourite books this year). I quite like podcasts, and I hope you like this one. Good company for any drives to the beach you might be taking this Christmas, any holiday baking times, leisurely walks in the park, and also good as a precursor to a nap.

This is the third Fitzgerald book I’ve read, which hardly makes me an expert – I think there are five novels, eight short story collections, some essays, some letters…a veritable font of words. I certainly think that anyone with an interest in Fitzgerald would enjoy reading this – it’s so uneven as to be intimate, and many of his famous themes get a wringing out here. As expected, Fitzgerald writes beautifully about his lovers and society, but there are a couple of surprises here, particularly in form.

Not sure if I will get in another post before Christmas. If not, happy holidays! And if you’re still present hunting, Kill Your Darlings has a nifty $50 subscription, which comes with a free book (your pick of a rather good bunch: Scribe’s New Australian Stories 2, Black Inc.’s Best Australian Essays or Andrew Mueller’s Rock and Hard Places).

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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.

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

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How I felt about Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, somewhat in the style of said book:

This is a book I didn’t read for a long time, because sometimes it gives me extremely heavy boots thinking about books that lots of other people have read and I haven’t read yet, and on top of that, it’s a book about a so, so sad thing in recent Western history that is very confusing and distressing. Anyway, I finally got around to reading it, and I really liked it, and it definitely wasn’t shiitake like I was scared it would be. Actually, you need a big place inside you to store this book. That’s how much I liked it.

This is a book about a boy called Oskar Schell, who is extremely clever and endearing — that is, if you like smart kids who have no friends — and whose family has suffered a lot, including when Oskar’s father died when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center. One day, Oskar finds a key in an envelope that has BLACK written on it, and this makes him EXTREMELY DEPRESSED VERY EXCITED INCREDIBLY DETERMINED, since he thinks it has something to do with his dad. So he tries to find out which of the 162 million locks in New York City the key opens, and along the way he meets people like Mr. Black, who was born on January 1, 1901, and has a bibliographical index with cards and a one-word biography (“Henry Kissinger: war!” “Tom Cruise: money!”) for tens of thousands of people.

Another thing that Jonathan Safran Foer does with this book is talk about the impulse of documentation that comes from love, and how it helps people process things and also, how much people love words and pictures. It’s also about doing things even though they hurt us. Oskar has a scrapbook titled Stuff That Happened to Me and it looks like this:

(These pictures aren’t from the book; I got them from here, here, here.)

Oskar’s grandfather can’t speak and he has to also write a lot, and he has plenty of notebooks that have just one word or phrase on them, like this:


And sometimes Jonathan Safran Foer uses other ways of showing how heavy people’s boots can get by doing things with words and how they sit on the page that are different to what other people usually do in books. Like sometimes he does this thing with kerning that I can’t figure out how to do with html. And sometimes he does things like lots of space to you can tell or what’s going on. (Okay, it turns out I can’t make bigger than a regular word space in html either. Who knew?) Sometimes I wished the author wouldn’t do all these things, but other times I really didn’t mind. There’s a really good couple of pages about testing pens. That made me feel okay for some reason.

One thing that was weird was that Oskar gets a letter from Stephen Hawking, which I’m pretty sure would never happen. What about how busy he gets? What about the fact that he probably wouldn’t really have time to read all the letters a little kid sends him? What about the time that even if he read all the letters sent to him by the kid, he wouldn’t have time to send a letter back? I just googled “getting a letter from Stephen Hawking” and there were no results, so I don’t think anyone has ever received a response from a fan letter to Stephen Hawking, and I guess if anyone ever googles that again, they’ll just get my blog. José!

I guess the final thing I want to say about this book is that the father in it, and the son actually too, are two of my favourite characters in a book I’ve read all year. And this book is a really beautiful way of saying: ‘I love you and I want you to be safe’ to fathers and sons and mothers and daughters like Oskar and his dad and mother and grandmother.