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Tuesday, 26 June 2012

A Man For All Seasons (Author: Robert Bolt)


The Blurb from The Book Depository:

"Robert Bolt's classic play about Thomas More, the Catholic saint beheaded by Henry VIII at the birth of the Church of England."

Find your copy of A Man for All Seasons at The Book Depository


My Thoughts on A Man For All Seasons:


When you read a play at school and it stays with you for life, that indeed says something.

Magnificent writing by Robert Bolt brings to life, in a wonderful and tangible way, the story of an honourable man who refuses, for the good of his very soul, to bow to almost unbearable pressure. Bolt's play was then beautifully brought to the screen with Paul Schofield playing Sir Thomas More and an extremely young John Hurt as the duplicitous Richard Rich. Superb play; superb casting; superb movie.

Nobody who reads the play, and hopefully then sees the movie, can ever forget More's last words - and forgive me if I am here somewhat less than verbatim - "Friend, be not afraid. You send me to God. He will not refuse one who is so blyth to go to him", or, indeed, the wearisome resignation and exasperation behind the simple line, "Oh, sweet Jesus, these plain, simple men".

This is one of those gems that you reach for when you want to be reminded of just how much pleasure is given by a true wordsmith. Marvellous stuff - I still feel the same thrill about this book as I did way back at high school, and that's a long time ago.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The Widow's Tale (Author: Mick Jackson)

Published by Faber and Faber


The Blurb on the Cover:

A woman runs out of her house, gets in her car and starts driving. And carries on driving until she reaches the Norfolk coast … where she rents a cottage, to hide away and contemplate her new, husbandless life.

She’s not sure, but thinks she may be having a bit of a breakdown. She’s certainly drinking a little more than she ought. But as her story slowly unfolds we discover that her marriage was not exactly perfect. And that by running away to this particular village she may very well be carrying out her own small pilgrimage.

By turns elegiac and highly comical, The Widow’s Tale conjures up the most defiantly unapologetic of narrators as she picks over the wreckage of her life and tries to establish what she should carry with her and what she should leave behind.”



My Thoughts on The Widow’s Tale:

Now, I have first to tell you that I have a little problem with this book, and that problem is that we are to believe that it was written by a member of the male species. You see, the author is given as one Mick Jackson. Now, is that a bloke’s name or what? Absolutely it is. You can almost imagine good old Mick in a navy singlet, well-worn jeans, perhaps a bit of plumber’s action happening at the back, a growing bald spot on top, goodness there may even be a tattoo of a stripper called Rosie on his upper left arm. This man isn’t even called Michael, or Mike, but Mick. Mick is the guy you have a pint with at the pub while the wife cooks the Sunday roast. How is it, then, that this same person can write a book which so beautifully, lucidly and intimately conveys the emotions of a woman? I am in awe. No, seriously, I am in awe. I read this book, and I took the book into my head and I took its widow into my heart.

You know I said that I was going to post my thoughts on two books today. Well, it’s pretty obvious now, isn’t it, which is getting passed on to somebody else and which will become one of my treasured Keepers. My mate Mick has given me a friend for life. I feel that I know this woman. I can relate to her on so many levels. I know exactly what she was feeling at certain times, such as wanting to yell at inappropriate moments, to sway between the hypers and hypos without any necessity for that boring old diagnosis of bi-polarism. I want to sit down and get drunk with her. But there I have a problem also. I actually don’t know what to call her. You see, for the life of me I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced, or even informally, and the sad thing is I don’t even know her name. Who is she, this new friend of mine? 

I have to tell you, some of her thoughts are just wonderful, as deep as if she had spent six months in a cave with a long-haired unwashed monk and found enlightenment, while at other times she is just hilarious. I like her both ways. I just want to share a few little examples with you here. 

Now, as is obvious from the title, and from the blurb from Faber and Faber, the book is about a woman who is recently widowed. Here she is contemplating death: 

“It’s death’s intransigence that’s so hard to swallow. That’s the brick wall you keep coming up against. The death arrives, all done and dusted. And, frankly, how you deal with it is neither here nor there. There’s no negotiation. No higher court to whom you can appeal.” 

You read a passage like that and you go: Wow, she is so right there; it’s a done deal, and your reaction is irrelevant to the fact of it. 

Or this: 

“Losing one’s husband really is a complete bummer. But let’s look on the bright side. I’ve actually lost a little weight. Oh, there’s loss of all sorts going on around here. Mind you, I wasn’t particularly chunky to begin with. And unfortunately, after a certain age, when you lose a few pounds you don’t look any younger. Just pinched and scrawny. And those mad, staring eyes don’t help.” 

These passages should certainly not suggest that the book is in any way morbid. Consider the following, which comes when she is checking out – for the first time in her life – the Lonely Hearts column in the newspaper: 

“Euphemisms abound. ‘Petite lady’ is, I imagine, meant to imply ‘on the short side’, but hints at being a little bit French. ‘Rubenesque’ presumably means curvaceous, and possible even ‘the larger lady’, but suggests that given the right circumstances she might be talked into lying naked on your settee. Sadly, in such exotic company, the few women who try to maintain a little dignity come across as simply frumpy. What, I wonder, is the shorthand for ‘I have a PhD’? Possibly plain ‘PhD”. But I doubt that’s going to fill your mailbag. Not when you’re competing with women of the foxy and Rubenesque variety.” 

The circumstances are not funny, but the writing is wryly so: 

“I’m slowly pickling myself. I’m going to be a biological phenomenon. Perfectly preserved, in all my widow’s glory. They’re going to put me in a big glass jar in some dusty museum. The accompanying notice will say, ‘Due to all the booze sloshing around in her system this woman managed to live to be 250 years old. Unfortunately, the last couple of hundred were a complete and utter blur’.” 

I want to quote half the book, but I would much rather you read it for yourself. It really is a superb book and one that deserves to be on everyone’s top shelf. 

Despite the fact that I have since purchased Mr Jackson’s Booker Prize short-listed novel The Underground Man, I still have my doubts about him. Are you sure it’s Mick and not Michelle?  

The House of Fiction (author: Susan Swingler)


Elizabeth Jolley is one of those names in literary circles, particularly here in Western Australia. She is right up there with Tim Winton, with Patrick White, with Helen Garner, giants of Australian literature. To not appreciate her work is to be, in the eyes of many, an absolute philistine.

Well, philistine that I am, when I read a newspaper article about a forthcoming book, Susan Swingler’s House of Fiction, which promised to expose Elizabeth Jolley as living, for years and years, a lie, of stealing another woman’s identity, of even stealing another child’s identity for her own daughter, I was intrigued. I wanted the dirt, and I wanted it dished up in great dollops. Forgive me if that makes me sound a tad nasty, but there you have it, and at least I’m being honest.

Of course, the book immediately went into my mental list of “Must buys”, and I had every intention of purchasing a copy. And then – one of life’s lovely little gifts – I was advised by the marvellous Good Reads that I had actually won a copy of the book from the publishers, Fremantle Press Of all the competitions I enter to win a book – and there are many, I assure you – this was without doubt the one that made me most happy.  Not wanting to even wait for the postal service to deliver it, I ventured down to Fremantle Press’s lovely old premises and eagerly collected my prize, brought it home, put the kettle on for a nice cup of tea and settled down with what I was sure was going to be a great read.

You know, what really struck me as soon as I began reading Swingler’s book was that these were real people I was meeting on these pages; this was not an episode of Home and Away or Neighbours, but flesh and blood people with real emotions, real foibles, real insecurities and failings. I found that I wasn’t quite as eager for gossip as I had thought myself to be.

At its base, the book relates how newly married Susan Swingler, an English woman, discovered, quite by accident – as most discoveries do occur – that a giant lie had been perpetuated, and that 12,000 miles away, in Australia, her father and step-mother, Elizabeth Jolley, had carried out, for many years, a deceit of massive proportions. In her own words, Swingler talks of how layer after layer of lies was peeled back, and of her search for answers as to why and how things became as twisted, and indeed sordid, as they did.

At the time when Susan was conceived, little did her mother, Joyce, know that her good friend, Monica Knight, was not only the lover of her husband, Leonard Jolley,  but that she was, in fact, already pregnant with his child. Monica let Joyce believe that the child she was carrying was the child of a terminally ill doctor she knew through her work as a nurse. Not only did Joyce accept this story, she even took Monica into her own home, and in due course the two little girls – Susan Jolley and Sarah Knight – romped together in the yard, loved by their mothers and their father.





Reading the book, and the letters which are contained within it, there can be little doubt of the love that Leonard felt for Monica and for their child, Sarah. It was, I believe, inevitable that he would leave Joyce and start a life with Monica. That is exactly what he did, and they set up home together, playing happy families with their little girl. Ah, if only it ended there all would be fine. Let’s face it, that scenario is played out all over the world on a daily basis, and it is not up to anybody to judge those involved. No, this story takes a strange, and I think incredibly cruel, detour now as Leonard and Monica decide to allow friends and family to believe that the family unit still consists of Leonard, Joyce and Susan. Confusing? Mm, indeed.

Having to leave behind her home, all her toys and the things she loves, Susan is taken by her mother to a new life in a boarding school in the south of England. Her father has promised her that he is off to Scotland to find a new job and a new home for them, and he will come back for her as soon as he is settled. This little girl waits, and waits, and waits, never stops waiting. Through financial deprivation, cut off from any family support, Susan never loses faith that her father loves her and will return for her one day. She even receives parcels from him, but he never comes back.

How could Leonard come back? He and Monica – who has changed her name from Monica Knight to Elizabeth Jolly – are now living in Perth, Western Australia, raising their daughter, Sarah, and in due course other children, Richard and Ruth. Leonard is doing very nicely as a librarian of some note, and Elizabeth’s literary star is in the ascendency. Leonard’s family, still unaware that the woman he shares his life with Down Under is not the woman they know as his wife, send parcels and letters addressed to Joyce, and of course to the girl they think of as their granddaughter and niece, Susan. And there in Australia, Elizabeth receives these gifts and letters, and she responds to them all, thanking those family members for their kindness, and passing herself off in her correspondence as Joyce. She goes so far as to send photographs of Sarah but with Susan’s name written on the back. She sends postcards to the real Susan’s grandfather, signing them as Susan.

This stuff is right out of an Oprah Winfrey show – no, worse than that, it’s like something from Jerry Springer. But his isn’t Oprah or Jerry; this is the story of one woman’s discovery of some really, really bad behaviour on the part of one of the greatest names in Australian literature. Nobody can sit in judgement on others. Nobody can decide on a writer’s literary worth based on their personal lives or beliefs. And you see, that’s where I have a problem with this book. I wonder why it was written, and why it was published.

I can see that the writing of The House of Fiction would be very cathartic for Susan Swingler. I cannot begin to understand the pain and the feelings of abandonment that she must have felt at times once the truth started to emerge – and many of her questions remain unanswered – and I am truly impressed by the lack of bitterness in her writing. Having said that, if Monica Knight had never become Elizabeth Jolley, if she had spent her working life teaching English literature in a high school, or as a CPA toiling over annual reports, would this story have ever been anything more than perhaps a self-published memoir, read by a small group of people? I don’t think so. I think that this book is one which people will buy and read simply because it concerns a literary icon. I’m never sure whether it’s a good idea to know too much about our heroes, be they singers, actors or writers; far safer – and less of a dilemma - to simply judge them only by their work.

So, how is the book? Did I enjoy the book? Well, the book is okay, and that’s about as far as I would go. The writing is not wonderful, but it is not bad either. It is, in my opinion, too long and too self-indulgent in places. Too much time is taken up with a sort of “What Susan did”, “What Susan did next”. It is at times quite repetitive, and at others there are inconsistencies, the sort which jar as you read them, which you know don’t gel with something you read earlier but you just can’t put your finger on exactly what it is that doesn’t quite add up.

I’m really glad that I won this book; I’m really glad that I didn’t actually have to buy it. I have read it, and I’m glad I have read it because it is a book which I wanted to read. But now, this is one of those books which I will gladly pass on to somebody else, and I will happily assure them, “No, don’t bother giving it back to me. Pass it on to someone else, or give it to the op shop”. 






And by the way:

If Susan Swingler's book interests you, and particularly if you enjoy Elizabeth Jolley's writing, you may like to pair this book with Brian Dibble’s biography of Elizabeth Jolley, Doing Life. I haven't read it myself, and I don't imagine I ever will, but I do think it would make a great follow-on to House of Fiction.



Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Author: Muriel Barbery)

The Blurb from Goodreads: 

Renée is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building, home to members of the great and the good. Over the years she has maintained her carefully constructed persona as someone reliable but totally uncultivated, in keeping, she feels, with society's expectations of what a concierge should be. But beneath this facade lies the real Renée passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her employers with their outwardly successful but emotionally void lives.

Down in her lodge, apart from weekly visits by her one friend Manuela, Renée lives resigned to her lonely lot with only her cat for company. Meanwhile, several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid out for her, and decides to end her life on her thirteenth birthday. But unknown to them both, the sudden death of one of their privileged neighbours will dramatically alter their lives forever.  

By turn moving and hilarious, this unusual novel became the the French publishing phenomenon of 2007: from an initial print run of 3,000 to sales of over 2 million in hardback. It took 35 weeks to reach the number one bestseller spot but has now spent longer in the French bestseller lists than Dan Brown.

The Book Depository


My Thoughts on The Elegance of the Hedgehog: 

Every so often a book comes along which you just fall in love with, gently and slowly. It sort of creeps up on you and you know that this book is now part of your life, that these characters are people to you. Muriel Barbery’s book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is one of those for me. The main character, Renée was so real that when I was in Paris shortly after reading this book I went looking for the apartment building where she had lived, almost as though on a pilgrimage. Of course she is not real, of course the other occupants of the building are not real, but the story was so real that I believed every word of it. 

Renée, the concierge who reads Tolstoy and Kant, aware that we all have to project a certain image to the world so that we don’t confuse those around us, those who put us in a little box and are uncomfortable if we don’t fit into it snugly, is so clever that she has two television sets in her apartment. On one she watches wonderful movies and documentaries, and another one – the one which is visible by occupants in the building in which she is the concierge – is tuned to inane daytime soaps and reality TV shows, conforming to what is expected to be her taste in entertainment. How clever of Ms Barbery to think of adding in detail such as that, detail which we would not have missed if it had not been there but which is just so right in completing the character study of this woman we come to know so intimately. 


Initially I was quite judgemental: I loved Renée but greatly disliked the wealthy occupants of the apartment building in which she lived and worked. I didn’t even believe the words of Paloma, the suicidal young girl who forms the second side of the personal triangle which makes up the structure of this book: I felt her thought processes and reasonings were way too old for a 12 year old, and so therefore I rejected her. I was wrong. I came back to Paloma, realising that the very precociousness of her thoughts was part of her tragic condition, her mental state, and then I accepted her and put her in the same box with Renée, the box with “Approval” stamped on the lid. 

As I judged Paloma, she judged the other members of her family far more harshly. In her isolation, she took a blinkered view of her family. Her family were indeed dysfunctional. Her sister, Colombe, considered by Paloma to be shallow and foolish, is just another young girl suffering from the same isolation but dealing with it in a different way, by a seeming frivolity and noisiness, and a growing obsession with neatness. While one sister is planning her own death, the other is slipping into a world of self-harm. Meanwhile, to add to this cheery mixture, their mother just quietly retreats more and more into a life dedicated to her cats and houseplants.  Father, the consummate politician, smiles in the face of such devastation, retreating into his games of rugby and you can’t help but feel that he will one day end up guzzling wine with peasants on a mountain top and having unprotected sexual relations with the local rugby players, or goats, whichever comes to hand. What a family. They make me think of a very thin sheet of toffee - one light tap and it will shatter. They are brittle, and each so alone. Poor sad household - even the cat needs medication. 

Renée, of course, is just as prejudiced and biased as those she condemns, the wealthy, the aristocratic, the bourgeoisie. What we see, of course, with Paloma's family, with the other characters who come and go through the grand doors of this apartment building, is that each and every one of them – of us? - is imprisoned by their "standing" in the community just as much as Renée is. We are left to wonder, indeed, whether Renée has the easier time of it: she has to live up to nothing because nothing is expected of her.  She does, though, have the supreme joy of wallowing in her own intelligence, and possesses a certain smugness in knowing that she is so superior to most of those "successful" people around her.  

The safe life that Renée knows, the invisible walls which Paloma has built around herself, are about to be swept aside when an intriguing new tenant, the venerable Japanese gentleman, Ozu, moves into one of the apartments, an apartment left vacant after the death of its previous owner. Barbery has given us Renée, has given us Paloma, Colombe, the various others who come and go in this microcosm of society, but now she moves the boundaries and takes us on the most wonderful ride. What a marvellous skill to introduce a character so unexpected, so seemingly unconnected, but one who will form the third part of the triangle, perhaps the good old “square on the hypotenuse”. 

And then, yes, that ending, that death, that sentence which in itself is a full stop - stark, but beautiful. All the philosophy, all the amazing words and thoughts that we have become used to with Renée are encapsulated in two words, "I die".  Masterful! 

A Chat with Justin Cartwright

It is always a delight when you come across highly successful people who are gracious enough to share their time and their thoughts with you. Justin Cartwright, award-winning author, and writer of one of my favourite novels, “To Heaven by Water”, is just such a person. I am thrilled to be able to offer here my “Chat” with Justin:


Beejay:    Was there a particular life event which made you know with certainty that you had to write, that it was impossible not to do so, or did you feel it was a natural progression from advertising and journalism?  

Justin:      I always wanted to write and discovered from a reasonably early age that I had a facility for it.  Also, my father was a journalist and writer of journalism, even in that vanishing world, and enjoy seeing my name on a piece in the papers, but novel writing is the real thing for me.  

Beejay:     In “To Heaven by Water, when David and Guy are journeying through the Kalahari it seems to me that both find their nirvana. I loved the respect which David showed Guy in death.  Was Guy, for you, the voice of John the Baptist crying in the desert, albeit a drug-affected one, or was he just somebody who could not deal with the reality of life as an adult and all the responsibilities that entails? 

Justin:      One of the themes of my books is irrationality, by which I mean that which is not strictly susceptible to scientific method. Although I think of myself as reasonably rational, I am also aware that most of our lives we are in thrall to emotion and love and longing and doubt. So Guy, who was of the more spiritual persuasion, nonetheless has a huge effect - as you rightly spotted - on his brother, not least by his death.    

Beejay:     Are the views that David expressed about the cynicism of journalism, particularly the “foreign correspondent” who always shows a facial expression perfect for the story being covered, the result of your own time in journalism, advertising or the world of politics, and which would you say is more cynical in its approach? 

Justin:      Obviously advertising is, on the face of it, deeply cynical, but actually everybody who watches a commercial or sees a print ad knows that something is being sold. In television it is not so clear what is going on: the journalist parachuted in to some tragedy, who knows less than nothing about it, the picture which tells the requisite but not the true story, and the politician who can invent an eternal verity just in time for an election or an interview. All of these I experienced.    

Beejay:    After “In Every Face I Meet  was shortlisted for both the Whitbread and the Booker, did you then feel the burden of expectation and a great deal of pressure with your next book, or were you able to put that to one side? 

Justin:      To be honest the pressure is always there, not especially burdensome after winning a prize - I have won quite a few - but the pressure of trying to maintain a standard.  

Beejay:     If the world changed into something terrible and we could each only own one book – that would really be terrible - what would your book be? 

Justin:       If I had to save one book only it would probably be WG Sebald, “Austerlitz”.  

Beejay:      If you could be remembered for only one of your books, which would you want it to be? 

Justin:      I think maybe “White Lightning”. In a sense this is an unanswerable question, like choosing between children.   

Beejay:     I loved the way, in “To Heaven by Water, David finds himself crying at the ballet and talks about that tendency to cry easily as he gets older.  I can relate to that, Justin. Do you find yourself doing that also, or is that something which you have observed in other people?  

Justin:      I am very inclined to tears and it is brought on by all sorts of things, from great art of all sorts  - movies, plays, music, novels -  to way more mundane and embarrassing things; I saw a tv programme not so long ago about orangutans being taken from their human owners and almost broke down.   

Beejay:      Thank you, Justin, for your candid answers and for being so generous with your time.


If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of one of Justin’s books, do yourself a favour and add them to your reading list – better still, visit your local bookstore, be it online or on the corner, and pick up something of his. With a great body of work to choose from, you are bound to find something which is the perfect read for you. 

Bibliography:

To Heaven by Water
This Secret Garden: Oxford Revisited
The Song Before It Is Sung
The Promise of Happiness
White Lightning
Half in Love
Look at It This Way
Masai Dreaming
Interior
Leading the Cheers
Not Yet Home
In Every Face I Meet
Other People's Money





  
Please also visit Justin’s publishers, Bloomsbury Publishing. Visit this link for information on their wonderful reading guides – fantastic for book groups - http://www.bloomsbury.com/readinggroups/list 

And why not also check out why Justin Cartwright names W.G. Sebald’s “Austerlitz” as the book he would keep if he could only own one book. It has certainly gone onto my “to read” list.


Monday, 7 May 2012

The Help (Author: Kathryn Stockett)


The Blurb from Penguin: 

The book that has taken the US and UK by storm. 

Enter a vanished and unjust world: Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Where black maids raise white children, but aren't trusted not to steal the silver... 

There's Aibileen, raising her seventeenth white child and nursing the hurt caused by her own son's tragic death; Minny, whose cooking is nearly as sassy as her tongue; and white Miss Skeeter, home from College, who wants to know why her beloved maid has disappeared. 

Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. No one would believe they'd be friends; fewer still would tolerate it. But as each woman finds the courage to cross boundaries, they come to depend and rely upon one another. Each is in a search of a truth. And together they have an extraordinary story to tell...





My Thoughts on The Help: 

So much has been written about this book already that whether I say “Oh, I loved this book” or “Phew, I am so glad I’ve finished that one”, it’s all been said before. 

Firstly, though, I have to say that I really wish I had not read the appendix, Too Little, Too Late, as that rather put me off the author. To me, her tone was like something from the days of “Gone With the Wind”, almost an exercise of self-mitigation, but really coming over as self-congratulation, as in, “Oh, look how enlightened I am”. I just didn’t buy it.  Sometimes it really is better if the author remains a totally unknown quantity. 

Anyway, back to the book. I felt that the ending seemed to come too soon, that it just simply dropped on the reader suddenly after what seemed to have been a very drawn out story. For me, after becoming so intimately acquainted with these southern belles and their put-upon “help”, it was as if Ms Skeeter was saying, “Wow, here we go, it’s a done deal; here’s your money; I’m off to the big smoke”. I realise that I am not expressing this very well, but for some reason this book doesn’t inspire me to make my thoughts more lucid than this. What is it about the book that is, for me at least, somehow really mentally messy? Perhaps it’s the thought of all the abuse that will be hurled at me for not becoming one of the adoring fans of The Help. 

Regarding the people who walk through the pages of Kathryn Stockett’s book, I wanted to care far more deeply about Aibileen and Minny than I did, but they struck me as being caricatures more than characters. Unfortunately, I felt that way about almost everyone peopling this book. Ms Skeeter just annoyed the hell out of me, and the idea of her traipsing in the dark through the ghetto area, swathed in dark clothing, at times even arriving in a Cadillac, was really quite silly. As for poor “white trash” Celia, I can’t help wondering how it is that the sort of person who would fall in love with her could have once been engaged to the ghastly Ms Hilly. That really jarred with me, and I could not accept it at all. As the book progressed, it occurred to me that there was a real problem with the male of the species in The Help. The white men are all portrayed as incredibly weak, while the black men are mostly drunken wife-beaters. Either way, they are no more than wallpaper in this work, and the sort of wall paper you would really rather paint over.  

Having said all this, there are some passages which I considered excellent, places where I thought, “Ah, this is a great bit of writing”, such as the portion where Minny, who is undoubtedly my favourite character, is speaking about being beaten by her husband and she says: 


   “How can I love a man who beats me raw? Why do I love a fool drinker? One time I asked him, ‘Why? Why are you hitting me?’

   “He leaned down and looked me right in the face, ‘If I didn’t hit you, Minny, who knows what you become.’     
   “I was trapped in the corner of the bedroom like a dog. He was beating me with his belt. It was the first time I’d ever really thought about it. Who knows what I could become, if Leroy would stop goddam hitting me.” 

I think that what I take away from this book is a feeling of the need to examine my own attitudes, to face up to the little prejudices which pop up regularly, even though I consider myself free from racism, and so therefore, while The Help is not a book which I consider a particularly good one, it was for me a worthwhile read.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

To Heaven by Water (Author: Justin Cartwright)


The Blurb from Amazon: 

With the subtlety of Ian McEwan and the pathos of Kazuo Ishiguro, a wise, compassionate novel about age, loss, and moving forward. As he moves toward old age, David Cross finds himself living an unexpected new life. Having lost his wife, Nancy, to illness, and retired from his job as a prominent television news anchor, David is working out in the gym and becoming very thin. His children, Ed and Lucy, embarking on careers and lives on their own, suspect him of being on the lookout for a new woman. He cannot tell them that he is, in some ways, happier than he was before Nancy died.  

As Ed and his dancer wife, Rosalie, struggle to conceive a child and Lucy seeks refuge from a chaotic ex-boyfriend, all of them are now forced to face their lives without the woman who was the center of the family. With their personal lives spinning out of control, they each must find a way to hold firm. And when David goes to see his estranged brother deep in the African desert, he will come to an unexpected, meaningful, and life-affirming epiphany.  

Filled with rich characterization, warm humor, and shocking surprises, To Heaven by Water is a masterwork of great subtlety, a moving novel from a keen observer of life as we live it now.





My Thoughts on To Heaven by Water:

With an opening sentence of “Deep in the Kalahari, two brothers, Guy and David Cross, no longer young, are sitting by a campfire.” Justin Cartwright had me hooked. I mean, such a lovely use of the elegantly simple comma, not to mention the description of the men as “no longer young” resonating with a line from Don Quixote, just had to usher in a great reading experience.  And it did. 

So many books are described as being “multi-layered” these days that it has become quite hackneyed and almost yawn-inducing phrase. But here, with this lovely To Heaven by Water, we do indeed have a book which is multi-layered, which comes at life from vastly different directions, which deals with so many aspects of life – loving, aging, false hope, self-denial, self-obsession, greed in all its guises – that I can’t really imagine any reader not finding themselves in at least one clever phrase, one revealing, perhaps embarrassing, conversation or encounter. And thus, of course, the book appeals not just to that little section of the brain which revels in a damned good read but also that rather large section which deals with ego and self-reflection. 

What is it about? Well, that is covered so well in the blurb from Amazon above that I don’t need to go over the details of the story. Let’s just say the main character, David Cross, recently widowed and newly retired famous television anchor man and international correspondent, is examining his life, dealing with accusations directed at others that he has long buried, facing up to the demons and shortcomings in his own character, and through his dealings with his children, his brother and his friends, learning also to forgive himself and those he has judged so censoriously.  We also get to look at the world through the eyes of David’s daughter and son, Lucy and Ed, two people who are now facing life without the umbrella of their mother’s existence and finding themselves getting rather rained upon. And then, of course, we meet David’s brother, Guy, who wanders the Kalahari like some ancient mystic – one almost expects him to live on wild honey and grubs – usually off his face on dope, sometimes rambling poetically and philosophically, sometimes just like the boring stoner in the corner at a party you should have left an hour ago. 

I’ve marked a few bits and pieces in the book which I think are worth mentioning, whether for beautiful writing, pithy comment, or simply for a blending of words that make you go “Oh wow” as per: 

“This is what getting old produces in some people, a deliberate withdrawal from the hurts and insults – the acknowledgement of lack of presence.”

A bit sad that one, but very clever. And now, when David is watching a ballet performance:

“More and more David sees in art a desperate urge to fix ourselves in the universe – which he finds moving.”

I’m glad I’m not the only one moved to tears at concerts and the like. And here David is looking back on his relationship with Richard Burton and the price Burton paid for his fame:

“And that is what celebrity means to ordinary people, the power to escape the constraints of daily life. Burton had enormous amounts of money, the most beautiful woman in the world, and a voice which contained all the promise and possibility of human endeavour. What a burden for a miner’s son with a drink problem. Elizabeth was his reward: ‘Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies’.
“But he had left his first love and his children in Wales and in his heart he knew that he had committed a crime against nature.”

 And then, David here reflecting on his time of reporting hideous news: 

“He became a master of the sonorous platitude, a safe pair of hands, but also someone who graced the news with a kind of bogus gravitas. He wondered if they were living in a time of madness or merely the same world charged by the clamour for sensation.” 

Wow moments, indeed. 

And now, after David has been invited to address a local book group, this little gem (which of course doesn’t relate to any book group to which any of us here belong): 

“Book clubs, he thinks, are cover for the myriad longings and disappointments of female life. Women have a far stronger sense than men of what life might have been.” 

And do all the people say “Amen” here, or a resounding, “Nay, nay”? 

I found the next comments almost quite unnerving due to the fact that when you read them you know, without a doubt, they are correct: 

“At Global they prepared stories on the problem of lawlessness and out-of-control teenagers and mindless crimes of violence and schoolgirl pregnancy with relish, but they never suggested that in large swathes of the country this was perfectly acceptable, even traditional. In his experience, depraved behaviour is often the norm.” 

And now, just a lovely, very evocative sentence: 

“The streets are anticipating winter: they already have a defensive look – they crouch.”  

Don’t you know exactly what he means there, particularly anyone who has lived, or does live, in cold climes? 

And now David’s daughter, Lucy, thinking of what was written about her in a magazine article: 

“Her father once told her, quoting somebody or other, that diplomats lie to journalists and then believe what the journalists have written.” 

How clever is that?  I keep thinking I should send that quote to some politicians. 

And here, Lucy again, after a particularly terrifying and traumatic experience in her own apartment: 

“They may be killing each other casually with knives and guns down in South London, but here, in the still-living radius of her mother, most of us are terrified of randomness.” 

So true – we all like to abrogate our casual and random acts of violence to a different socio-economic group, a distant location on the globe, a younger, or older, age group, so that we can maintain our lovely veneer of “civilisation”. 

I hope the above makes you want to rush down to your local bookshop or library and find your own way To Heaven by Water. Happy reading.


Friday, 4 May 2012

Hamlet: A Novel (Author: John Marsden)

 The  Blurb from Penguin Books: 

Hamlet is bored and restless. His friend Horatio can't work him out-but who can? His father has just died, and his mother has already remarried. He seems damaged by the sudden changes in his life. Or maybe he was always a little damaged. Or maybe he wasn't.   

Then, on a still night, the ghost of Hamlet's father comes walking, his long silver hair blowing wildly . . .  

This wonderful book, by one of Australia's most loved and most read writers, takes Shakespeare's famous play and makes it into a moving and full-blooded novel. John Marsden follows the contours of the original but powerfully re-imagines its characters and story lines, rather as Shakespeare treated his sources. We are aware not only of the strength of Marsden's own writing but the sensitivity of his insight into Shakespeare. Hamlet, A Novel will be adored by adults whether young or old.




My thoughts on Hamlet: A Novel: 

As one of those uneducated people who have never actually read Shakespeare, other than some wonderful quotes, the odd “scene” acted out at school, or a glimpse at some of his beautiful poetry, I approached John Marsden’s Hamlet: A Novel full of anticipation, blissfully ignorant but waiting to be told just what was so rotten in the State of Denmark.  Oh, joy, Marsden has absolutely done it for me with this one: I feel that I want to go out now and read the Bard’s version myself. Isn’t that a great writer, one who can open doors to give you a glimpse of other undiscovered goodies. 

I am so glad that I purchased a copy of this book and didn’t just check it out from the library, because there are so many lines and passages which I have underscored, or highlighted, lines where I felt the writing to be particularly beautiful, or amusing, or just plain masterful, the sort of lines where you interrupt your partner, who is himself busy reading, to say, “Listen to this; isn’t this fantastic”.  A few are: 

“He was quickness and light, a shadow on the wall, an illusion, a dream, a fancy. He was a glimpse, nothing solid. How could she anchor her boat to a wave?”  

There we have Ophelia talking of Hamlet. “How could she anchor her boat to a wave?” Wow, indeed. 

Next, one of those amazing passages which I think is an amalgam of Shakespeare and Marsden: 

“Oh, to oneself, always to oneself. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio, or in mine, but somehow we are expected to make it all intelligible; to carve statues from air and make books from bark. It is too much. This is the proper work of gods and we are not gods, indeed all our human errors come from the vain belief that we are.”  

Powerful stuff, isn’t it, and who can say where the edges lie. 

Is this just a cheeky passage, or does it appear in the original work, I wonder, where the manager of the visiting acting troupe, speaking of the performance they plan on giving: 

 “… but we can do Romeo and Juliet if that is your wish. It’s not a bad bit of work, although a bit far-fetched.” 

And now, just because it’s a fabulous little metaphor: 

“…busy as a line of laundry in a windstorm.” 

Can’t you just see those sheets getting whipped hither and thither? And who but a skilled writer would think of such a domestic scene to use in such a manner?

Some great philosophy here, something which I myself would put my hand up to second: 

“It’s a terrible thing to be a coward, but it is not so bad to be prudent.” 

Kenny Rogers could write a song along those lines, methinks. 

If the purpose of teaching is to make people want to learn more and more, writers such as John Marsden achieve this beautifully. Because Hamlet says, on page 87, in reference to the/his play which the visiting acting troupe is to perform, “… I am calling it The Mousetrap”, I then Google that famous Agatha Christie play to see whether she did name her play according to that reference in Hamlet, and find that, yes, indeed, being unable to run the play as Three Blind Mice, which was the title of the original short story, her son-in-law suggested The Mousetrap, the title suggested by Hamlet, because “the play’s the thing”.  Fantastic. 

My next note is one where I’ve added exclamation marks to my underscoring just to show how brilliant I find the words. Here, after having killed Polonius, Hamlet says to his mother: 

“’There’ll be trouble with this one’, he remarked. ‘He may weigh more in death than he did in life.’” 

Weighing more in death than in life – so superbly put, and so fitting to more than just an old man in a play by Shakespeare.  

I think John Marsden put his tongue firmly in his cheek when he wrote, on page 147, when Hamlet’s mother/aunt and stepfather/uncle are discussing where to send him: 

“Further than England. To Australia. No, he’ll end up marrying some unsuitable girl.” 

Oh, as if a Danish prince would marry an unsuitable Australian girl! Preposterous, isn’t it. 

Master of the understatement, page 152: 

“And then Ophelia went mad.”  

That’s not just a sentence; it’s a whole paragraph. Look and learn, oh wordy ones (self included). 

The last passage from Hamlet: A Novel that I want to share is another where Shakespeare and Marsden meet, and do so like old friends, I feel: 

“’There’s a divinity that shapes our ends’, Horatio muttered, ‘rough-hew them how we will.’ 

Hamlet looked at him with surprise and pleasure. ‘Yes, that’s it! Where did you get that from?’           

‘I don’t know. I read it somewhere.’ 

‘I’d like to get that book.” 

And so, I really hope, will you now like to get this book. I believe that John Marsden took 12 years to write this book, and it is the one of which he is most proud. He should be; it’s wonderful stuff.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The Memory of Running: A Novel (Author: Ron McLarty)

The Blurb from Amazon:

Once in a great while, a story comes along that has everything: plot, setting, and, most important of all, the kind of characters that sweep readers up and take them on a thrilling, unforgettable ride. Well, get ready for Ron McLarty’s The Memory of Running because, as Stephen King wrote in Entertainment Weekly (Stephen King’s “The Pop of King” column for Entertainment Weekly), “Smithy is an American original, worthy of a place on the shelf just below your Hucks, your Holdens, your Yossarians.”

Meet Smithson “Smithy” Ide, an overweight, friendless, chain-smoking, forty-three-year-old drunk who works as a quality control inspector at a toy action-figure factory in Rhode Island. By all accounts, including Smithy’s own, he’s a loser. But when Smithy’s life of quiet desperation is brutally interrupted by tragedy, he stumbles across his old Raleigh bicycle and impulsively sets off on an epic journey that might give him one last chance to become the person he always wanted to be. As he pedals across America—with stops in New York City, St. Louis, Denver, and Phoenix, to name a few—he encounters humanity at its best and worst and adventures that are by turns hilarious, luminous, and extraordinary. Along the way, Smithy falls in love and back into life.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Memory-Running-A-Novel/dp/0670033634




My Thoughts on The Memory of Running:


I don't want to be too analytical about The Memory of Running because I believe that this is truly a book which does not lend itself to dissection or clever analysis; this is a book which elicits a purely emotional response from the reader. You find yourself not talking about the structure, the character development, the turning points in the book; you just simply go on a journey yourself in the company of the main character, Smithy, and you share every slight and every delight with him. 


In Smithy, Ron McLarty has given us a young man damaged by so many things in life: his sister’s psychiatric problems and the effects of that upon him as a youth; his experiences in Vietnam; his dead-end job; his health issues,  and a lifestyle with the life removed. Leaving behind that shadow-land after the death of his parents, as he travelled - symbolically and literally – across the US in search of his beloved sister, Bethany, he learns to reach out, to reach forward, to step into the unknown, to open himself to what may be lingering there. Sure, there were still bad things happening, but those bad things turned out to have happy consequences, and so Smithy discovers redemption is possible, for himself and for others.

As I write this, I think of a poem I loved at school. I wish I could track it down via the internet, but as yet have had no success doing so, and so I will have to quote what I remember of "The Tiger and the Rose", and I ask you to forgive me if I quote incorrectly: 

I go to know
I go to dare my arm into the thicket
To see what grows there
Whether tiger, or rose
Or tiger and rose together


I think Smithy found that the tiger and the rose do indeed grow together.

Sure, there are twists and turns, there are episodes where you want to sing out, “No, Smithy, watch out behind you”, or to pick him up and put him in a safe place. There are people from whom we expect the worst and find the best, there are people who make us feel optimistic and who then leave us bruised and shaken. Over it all, there is redemption, there is hope, there is a journey to the light.