Saturday, December 20, 2008

Top 6 reads for 2008

I thought I would end the year by sharing my favourite reads for the year. (I started with a top five, but felt guilty not including the title that’s made number six, so decided to go with an even number.)

What follows doesn’t represent books published in 2008, just my favourites among those I happened to discover this year. (Feel free to leave your own.)

1. The Patron Saint of Eels by Gregory Day
Without a doubt, this is the book that's stayed with me longer than any other this year. I read it back in January and can still vividly recall how I felt reading it.

The Patron Saint of Eels is a unique and beautiful book. It is gentle, evocative and deeply Australian. Set in a coastal Victorian town, it's the story of Noel and Nanette, two life-long friends saddened by the changes occurring in their town, and the loss of their community's connection to the landscape around it.

When spring rains flood a nearby swamp, hundreds of eels are washed downstream and become trapped in a ditch near Noel's home. Coming to their rescue is Fra Ionio, a Franciscan monk who has travelled a long way to save the eels - and remind Noel and Nanette about the important things in their lives.

The novel offers a profoundly contemplative look at life and spirituality.

Original review

2. The Arrival by Sean Tan
This is another story that’s stayed with me since I read it back in June, and now sits on my desk at home. I feel calmer just knowing it’s within reaching distance.

The Arrival is a beautiful story without words about a man who leaves his wife and child in an impoverished town, seeking better prospects in an unknown country on the other side of a vast ocean. He eventually finds himself in a bewildering city of foreign customs, peculiar animals, curious floating objects and indecipherable languages.

It’s a tribute to anyone who has left their home behind in search of a better life in a foreign land.

Tan’s narrative magic is woven two-fold: through his imaginative, evocative and detailed drawings, and the story (and stories within stories) of a man finding his place in a new world. And it’s the nature of this man's struggle - to understand his environment without sharing the language of its inhabitants - which makes the absence of words all the more powerful and appropriate.

Original review

3. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
This is one of those great books that reminded me what good literature is all about.

The Remains of the Day is a story told in the first person by Mr Stevens, an esteemed butler of a once renowned house, now in the latter stages of his career. In this sad and moving story about repression and self sacrifice, it is what’s not said in the narrative voice that has the most power.

Beyond the words on the page, lie the regrets and longings of a man whose true feelings are hidden even from himself, under layer upon layer of discipline, reasoning and “dignity”.

And it’s discovering those poignant truths – which even the narrator seems oblivious to - that make The Remains of the Day such a remarkable and memorable novel.

Original review

4. Chenxi and the foreigner by Sally Rippin
This is one of the many excellent young adult novels I’ve read recently, and makes the list because of Rippin’s narrative style, sense of place, and the ironic history of the book itself.

Chenxi and the Foreigner is the story of 19-year-old Australian, Anna, who travels to Shanghai in 1989 to visit her father and study traditional Chinese painting. Struggling to cope with her status as a foreigner, she becomes obsessed with fellow art student Chenxi, who ultimately teaches her life-changing lessons about the nature of freedom, and what it means to be an artist in a culture that forbids non-sanctioned artist expression.

Ironically, this story about artistic censorship was censored by the author herself when it was first published.

Rippin says she was afraid of the parents, teachers and librarians who were the literary gatekeepers of her target market. In that original version, she cut out profanity, sex scenes and “unfamiliar Chinese politics”, for fear her book would be blocked and never reach its intended young adult audience.

This new version has all those aspects intact, and is a much more powerful read because of them.

Original review

5. Bad Debts by Peter Temple

I’ll remember 2008 as the year I discovered Australian literary crime writer Peter Temple. I read a number of his books, with Bad Debts (the first in the series featuring world weary lawyer Jack Irish) being my favourite.

In it, Jack does some digging into the case of former client who contacts him on release from prison, only be gunned down police before they can meet. Jack soon suspects the excon might have been a pawn in a plot that reaches to the highest levels of government, and discovers there are those willing to resort to brutal violence to keep that plot hidden.

Temple's grasp of voice and place is mesmerising, his characters are Australian without being stereotypical, and he creates pervasive, slow building suspense.

I particularly liked that the narrative is first person, and Jack is a complex character whose morality is clear, even if the company he keeps is often murky.

Temple's writing has its own rhythm to it. His humour is dry, his violence graphic, and his physical descriptions wryly amusing.

The basis of his novels are crimes that eventually will be solved, or resolved, one way or another, but what you find yourself more interested in are his characters, the choices they make, and the seedy worlds they often inhabit, or must venture into.

Review of Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore

6. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
While I still have some issues with the second and third book of this four-part series, I still stand by my admission of really enjoying this first instalment. Given how quickly I read it (and how much I enjoyed the film version last week), it would remiss of me to pretend this wasn’t a highlight for me this year.

The core of the story is the romance between teenage Bella and her impossibly attractive classmate Edward, who also happens to be a vampire. Edward and his “family” have chosen to abstain from biting and killing humans, but Bella’s blood is so appealing to Edward, that even though he loves her, he’s terrified he’ll devour her if he loses control in her proximity.

Their relationship is one of restraint and longing, filling the pages with sexual tension. As the story progresses, particularly in the third book, the focus shifts to Bella’s growing desire to become a vampire, which Edward opposes.

Meyer, a practicing Morman, uses the story as a metaphor for sexual restraint, which is at once fascinating and effective.

Twilight review
Series review

In case I don’t get a chance to blog again before December 25 (highly likely given the high number of visitors in my house for the festive season) … Merry Christmas!

I’d really love to hear everyone else’s favourite reads for the year (can more be more or less than five – I don’t mind!)

Friday, December 12, 2008

The duality of human existence

Can there be life without bloodshed? Can sense be found in a world where violence and serenity co-exist?

Cormac McCarthy explores these questions in his classic coming-of-age novel All the Pretty Horses and his answers seem to be no and yes, respsectively.

It tells the story of sixteen-year-old John Grady Cole, who rides across the Texan border into Mexico with two companions, searching for purpose.

John Grady encounters a world that is at once beautiful and desolate, promising and threatening, serene and violent, and by the time he returns – less than a year later – he's irrevocably changed.

Although his new life in Mexico seems to offer an idyllic existence, there’s a pervading sense of underlying danger. But, like John Grady, I hoped the threat wasn’t real, and – like John Grady – when it the violence arrived, I realised had always been inevitable.

Perhaps one of the interesting insights into this novel is the idea that John Grady is ultimately heroic not because he stands by idealistic beliefs, but because he learns to put them aside when necessary to survive or seek justice.

He learns to accept life is both serene and violent – with little warning of which he will face each day – and while he loses his innocence, he does so without becoming disillusioned.

Through his experiences, he doesn’t simply grow up; he begins to understand the world in all its pain and glory and feels no less connection to it. John Grady gains a self possession that many philosophers and social commentators believe can only be grasped after great sacrifice.

Critics have debated whether this is a story without hope, but I tend to agree with those who feel McCarthy is more ambiguous than nihilistic. How can there be no hope when John Grady himself has learned who he is, is wiser for it, and still retains a gentleness in his soul?

All the Pretty Horses was my first foray into the world of the reclusive McCarthy, and I was immediately drawn into the story by his rhythmic prose and evocative sense of place.

The frequent conversations in Spanish were appropriate in the narrative, but a tad frustrating for a reader who doesn’t speak the language. Although, I could generally guess at the meaning through context, and when I couldn’t, the language barrier served as a reminder of how far John Grady and his buddies were from home.

All the Pretty Horses was an excellent read on a number of levels, not least of which was the question about the nature of the duality of human existence – serenity and violence – and whether you have to be able to accept that both exist before you can attempt to understand and accept the world.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A year of blogging

Around a year ago, I wrote a post about my favourite reads of 2007 and then – holding my breath and peering out one eye – bravely hit the upload button.

It was the first instalment of a blog I’d optimistically titled Great stories, having no idea if anyone other my friends would read it or be interested in what I’d have to say on the subject of books, narrative and storytelling.

I decided to start this blog as a way to talk about books (and, at times, films and television) with anyone who might share a similar – or contrary – view on what worked and what didn’t when it came to telling great stories.

I found I was having discussions with a number of my book-loving friends on similar topics, and thought a blog would be the perfect way to have those discussions at the same time.

But what’s grown from that has been even better than I’d hoped. Who knew the blogsphere was such an interesting and generous place?

I still remember the excitement the first time I found a comment from someone I didn’t personally know (thank you Salty Letters!).

To be honest, I still get a buzz whenever anyone leaves a comment on my blog, even more so if they’re a new contributor (and aren’t you always curious how someone comes across your blog?).
Over the past year there have been some witty, insightful, clever and - yes, Ink-stained Toe-poker - cheeky comments left on my posts. All have been appreciated.

Some posts generate lots of comments, some only a few, and I still haven’t pinned down the differences between the two.

And then there was my brief addiction to meme, when I was first introduced to Booking Through Thursday (BTT).

When I found myself racing home from work to knock up a response to that week’s questions so I could make it in the first dozen comments, I realised I’d moved away from my aim of writing posts that were thoughtful and well considered. The only answer was to go cold turkey… If I was posting daily, or even a couple of times a week, the occasional BTT response would’ve been fine. But when I only post around once a week, those abrupt posts seemed out of place in the context of the rest of the blog.

Still, Booking Through Thursday remains a fantastic source of topics and bloggers, and I will be forever grateful to that meme for helping me find a whole new world of literary bloggers to exchange ideas with – on their blogs and mine.

Great stories has given me a chance to express some of the thoughts, ideas and questions bouncing around in my head, and I'm so so appreciative of those people who return to the site on a regular basis to join discussions.

I’ve met some wonderfully intelligent and thoughtful bloggers in cyberland, and blogging has added a new dimension to friendships with people who also inhabit my life away from the computer.

So, for fear of this sounding like some sort of Oscar speech, I’d just like to thank all of you who post regularly, and those who just visit.

I’ve got quite a few extra projects going on my life at the moment (in addition to my full time job), but I love writing this blog and reading other people's blogs, so I’m going to attempt to keep this going.

My posts my not be exactly weekly, but they will be regular.

And, hopefully, they’ll be worth waiting for!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A skewed view of the world

Last week I mentioned there was a particularly great line in High Fidelity I wanted to explore.

Bec, in her comment on that post, was on the same wave length, beating me to my follow-up post! (Just trying to squeeze two blogs out of one book :) )

The line involves Rob’s musings about how people whose lives are closely bound by music (or other forms of emotive storytelling) can end up with a skewed view of the world, particularly when it comes to relationships:

Maybe we all live life at too high a pitch, those of us who absorb emotional things all day, and as a consequence we can never feel merely content: we have to be unhappy, or ecstatically, head-over-heels happy, and those states are difficult to achieve within a stable, solid relationship.

Is that true?

Do great stories skew the way you see the world and live your life?

Whether it’s because you’ve read too many romances and no partner can ever measure up, or one too many crime novels, and you live in a constant state of fear, or one too many downbeat literary novels, and you feel there’s no hope to ever find happiness because the world is so flawed?

I know the books I read can colour my mood for hours, even days, afterwards (rarely more than that, unless I’ve deeply connected with the story), but I think my reading material is so eclectic that I’m generally not overwhelmed by one particular emotional theme.

I have a tendency to over-analyse most things, and I tend to experience emotions in their extremes, but I don’t think that’s because of my reading material, but more something in my own personality (or was it created from absorbing so much emotional material vicariously, in addition to my own emotional reality?)

OK, I’m going to stop now, before I hurt myself with over-analysis…

Anyone else given much thought to this topic?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Relating to High Fidelity

Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity is a much-loved classic, not least because it was the Brit lad lit equivalent to Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones Diary chick lit in the '90s.

It’s a great mix of wry humor, unpretentious intellect and blokey sentiment (a Hornby trademark that’s since inspired countless writers).

It’s also a call to nostalgia for anyone who’s ever turned to a favourite song/album to deal with a particular occasion or emotion.

High Fidelity, as well as offering an insight into one particular male mind, asks a few of life’s big questions:

- Is it possible to share your life with someone whose record collection is incompatible with your own?

- Can people have terrible taste and still be worth knowing?

- Do songs about broken hearts and misery and loneliness mess up your life if consumed in excess?

For Rob Fleming, a 35-year-old pop addict and owner of a failing record shop, these are the sort of questions that need an answer.

His girlfriend has just left him, prompting the dilemma of whether he can go on living in a poky flat surrounded by vinyl and CDs or should he get a real home, a real family and a real job? Perhaps most difficult of all, will he ever be able to stop thinking about life in terms of the All Time Top Five bands, books, films, songs. Even now that he's been dumped again, his first reaction is to create an All Time Top Five Break-ups list.

I had a couple of reactions to this book, but perhaps the strongest was that it took me back to my late teens, when my entire life revolved around music ... When the choice of cassette in my HK Premier was more important than my choice of outfit.

Regular poster, Bec C, one of my oldest, dearest and coolest friends, will remember this era vividly.

How many hours did we spend discussing whether ZZ Top was better in the '70s (Tres Hombres era) or the '80s (Eliminator era)? Or working out the lyrics to Black Sabbath’s Paranoid? Or compiling the ultimate '70s and '80s heavy metal cassette, on which Rainbow, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin could co-exist with Bon Jovi, Def Leppard and Whitesnake?

Our debates about top five lists were along the lines of best rock drummers of all time, coolest Angus Young guitar solos, best Aussie pub bands... We definitely made judgements about people based on their music tastes (and, as is apparent from last week’s blogs, I still do this to a degree with people’s reading tastes. Bec, of The Small Stuff, was also bang on a few weeks ago when she suggested I would “get” the appeal of the lists in Hornby's book).

For High Fidelity’s Rob, the ability to compile those lists and solve musical dilemmas of his own devising is central to his identity.

It’s one of his excuses for not growing up, as the “adults” in his life keep urging him to do (and by adults, I clearly don’t mean his offsiders in the record shop).

He equates growing up with having to give it all up – believing that maturity leaves no time to focus all one's energy on a single passion.

My experience with blogging this past year has revealed there are countless people who live and breathe stories (for Rob it's stories in songs – for us literary bloggers, it’s stories in books).

Book-loving bloggers are more adept than most at creating a list at the drop of a hat because the subject matter is always at the front of their minds.

But are they as obsessed as Rob is about music? Has their depth of trivial knowledge and passion shaped their lives at the expense of other things?

Are they still functional adults?

Well, are you?

(I’d like to think I am, but others may disagree…)

There’s a particularly great line in High Fidelity I also want to explore, but I’ll leave that till next time.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Judging people by book covers - do you do it?

When packing for a recent trip to Melbourne, I found myself spending as much time choosing my reading material for the flight as I did on the rest of the packing.

I could tell you it was all about finding the right book in my to-read pile best suited to a plane trip, but that’s not telling the whole story. Because, in truth, I was also making my choice based on what it would to say about me as a reader.

This is based on the irrational – and somewhat self-indulgent – assumption that complete strangers are as interested in my reading choices as I am in theirs.

I realised, on reflection, that I was putting more thought into the choice than I might if I was just going to carrying the book into the next room. So my selection wasn't just about what I felt like reading (and what would be a good distraction on a two-and-a-half hour flight), but what judgements other people might make on seeing the book in my hands.

I probably should clarify (as I suspect this may be one of those “honest reflection” posts I come to regret!) … I don’t spend every waking moment worrying about what other people think – I’ve happily outgrown that level of self-consciousness – but there’s definitely still a small, quiet voice in the background that speaks up when I pick a book off the shelf.

Most people make almost sub-conscious judgements on people based on clothes or appearance (remember Josh Weinstein’s documentary?). Some of us also do it with reading material (for others, it’s the DVD a person is holding in the shop, or the CD playing in their car).

It’s a single choice in a moment of time, which shouldn’t define us – but often does.

Regular readers of this blog will – I hope – know that I’m not a literary snob. I have wide and varied tastes in fiction. But, I must confess, if someone is going to make a snap judgement about my reading habits, I’d rather it be while I’m clutching a book closer to the well-written end of the literary scale, rather than something I’m reading out of curiosity or experimentation.

Is that wrong?

I wouldn’t read a book just for the sake of being seen with it, but I found it interesting how much of my view of myself these days is linked to my literary life – and how I want that literary life to be perceived by others.

In case you’re wondering, I resisted the urge to attempt to finish Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (which has set half-read on my bedside table for about a year now), and chose Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity – the repackaged Penguin edition (post to come on my thoughts) for the flight down.
For the trip back, it was Mark Abernethy’s Second Strike (sequel to The Golden Serpent, which I’m still reading due to its size and my available reading time.) Both kept me entertained and kept my self consciousness to a minimum, even though the latter has a very blokey cover...

So, the questions then, for those who wish to join me in this little exercise:
- Do you judge people by the books they read?
- Are you self conscious about what you read in public?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Do you read more than one book at once?

This was a question posed to me by my blogging friend Gustav a few week’s back.

In thinking about it, it’s raised some interesting questions about the way in which we absorb narrative in its different forms.

I always have more than one book on the go at any time – but never more than one piece of fiction.

I’ll often have three of four books on the bedside table that may be about history, religion, or other non-fiction (and not all as high brow as that statement may make it sound!).

But I rarely attempt to read two novels at once. (Occasionally, a high-demand novel may become available on short loan from the library, and I’ll set aside whatever novel I’m reading at that moment so I can return the library book on time. But I always set it aside - I don’t try and read both at once.)

For me, it’s always been an issue of not having my head in two narrative spaces at once.

Which got me thinking: isn’t that what I do when I watch more than one television series in the same season? Or following stories in more than comic series?

Films are slightly different because we watch them in a single sitting, (unless you’re a pay TV “flicker”, of course, then you might watch it in three instalments, and not necessarily chronological!), experiencing the entire narrative before moving on to the next story.

I seem to manage quite well keeping track of story arcs and characters across these more visual mediums.

Is it because an episode of a television series or an edition of a comic has its own smaller story arc, with a natural place for a break at the end? Even a cliff hanger ending makes a clean break from one episode to another.

For me, the same rules just don’t seem to apply to novels. Is it because with a novel, the story takes up so much more of my imagination, and when I fill up that space with too many stories requiring my emotional and imaginative capacity, it becomes too messy?

Does the visual nature of television and comics make it easier for me to keep the stories separate?

So, my question this week is: do you read more than one novel at a time? And if so, do you find it easy to keep the stories straight?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The power of a strong narrative voice

Regular readers of this blog know I hit a wall a week or so ago in my reading schedule. Strangely enough, it was the most unlikely of novels that got me moving again: a violent, bleak urban tale in which nobody finds an even remotely hopeful ending.

Bulletproof Suzy, by British writer Ian Brotherhood, was not uplifting stuff, but it definitely got me thinking about a few things.

First and foremost, this novel has one of the most distinctive narrative voices I’ve read for a while.

The narrative character (actually called Francine, but referred to by all and sundry – including herself – by her street moniker, Suzy) is a tough young woman in a not-too-distant future Britain, living in a cold, poverty-stricken concrete jungle dominated by thugs and violence.

She and her team of “little ladies” are what are known as “Liaison Officers for the Commissioner’s Office”, government-sanctioned stand-over merchants who collect rates on behalf of the local council.

In this future, rates go so high there’s little chance anyone will willingly pay them. “Operation Community Responsibility” is launched – a system where one household is responsible for collecting the rates of another. It invariably fails, and non-government “teams” are recruited to do the dirty work. (Given my current line of professional communication work, I found the concept deeply ironic.)

Suzy’s world is brutal, but she’s adapted to it and is relatively comfortable with her place in it. Unfortunately, things take a turn for the worse when her less violent and best friend Joanne is cruelly murdered and Suzy finds herself the prime suspect.

The majority of the story is set over about 48 hours, during which Suzy and her crew try to get to the bottom of Joanne’s murder and then exact revenge.

The story, even with its bleakness, drew me in thanks to Suzy’s take on the world and her observations of those in it. She’s uncompromising, rarely sentimental, and relentlessly tough in the face of danger. A dark sense of humour helps.

Brotherhood writes like Suzi thinks, making the novel essentially a long monologue, but once you get her rhythm, it’s easy to follow. Her observations are full of profanity and slang (cops are the roz, rozzlings, rozzloiders; a gang from an apartment block called the Cherry basket are Cherroids; certain sensitive body parts are “jarlers”).

Here’s a taste:
The door starts going at all hours – this one from the first floor, all sweaty and crimson what with just having rubbed up against Shuggs and his merry cherries, or else one of the other CO teams now operating, that one struck dumb with fear, bearing the tell-tale odour of involuntarily released bodily fluids. Sometimes, if the client has actually suffered physical damage, we’ll be straight out there and then to find those responsible, Shuggs more often than not, and he’s usually to be found with his raggle-taggle collection of buff-fluffed Cherroids in the favoured Maxwell’s Lounge by the river, and it’ll be a few shouts at the door and they’ll be out, swinging whatever is at hand and making light of our being the opposite sex or whatever.

Hardly traditional punctuation, but it works perfectly in this type of story.

Plot-wise, there are muddy politics belying the situation Suzy finds herself neck-deep in, but these are far less interesting than the way she interacts with those around her, and her observations of the deteriorating situation.

This engaging narrative voice is almost enough to get me past my disappointment with book’s ending.

It’s not that I was expecting a happy ending (there’s no hope in sight for these poverty-stricken characters locked into lives of violence), and the story’s bleak resolution certainly fits the tone of the rest of the book.

I think it’s the fact the story suddenly fast-forwards a few years and all those characters who were such a strong part of the rest of the book have all but faded into the background. But then, I guess, that too fits with the transitory nature of Suzy’s world…

Maybe I liked Suzy so much I wanted her to have some level of victory. But maybe her lack of self pity is a victory in itself?

Definitely not a book for Bec…

Friday, October 10, 2008

Sequels from different authors

How do you feel about book sequels written by someone other than the original author, usually many years later?

I’ve been chewing on that question this week, after reading an article by Rosalie Higson in The Weekend Australian Review about Australian author Colleen McCullough’s new offering, The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, a sequel of sorts to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

McCullough (best known for the Thorn Birds and her Masters of Rome series) has re-imagined the Bennet sisters 20 years on, with the tuneless, personality-challenged Mary being the focus of the story.

In this story, Mary breaks free after her mother’s passing and, with a crusading fire in her belly, sets off to write a book about the treatment of the poor in industrial northern England. She encounters dangers and romance, before emerging as a “most exotic orchid”.

This concept of re-imagining literary characters is nothing new. A number of writers have created sequels to classics whose original authors are no longer with us. And literary critics have long turned their nose up at the practice, demeaning it as cheap way to cash in on fans’ hunger to know more about characters they hold close to their hearts.
McCullough herself admits she loves to annoy the literati, which was one of the aspects that appealed to her with this project (along with wanting to understand “why Jane Austen didn’t like Mary, to whom she devoted a whole eight sentences,” and explore “whatever happened to Mary?”).

For me, the question is not why a writer would want to write about another author’s characters. The answer is obvious: they either love or are fascinated by a character or characters, and believe they can deliver the next chapter in their lives. In popular fiction this is called “fan fic”, and is most commonly found in the world of sci and fantasy, where novels are regularly churned out featuring characters from television shows (e.g. Buffy, Angel and Star Trek) by writers who have no connection to the original creations.

The question for me, is how would the original author feel about it?

The Guardian’s Books Blog tackled the subject when a second sequel to Gone with the Wind was released. The blog author is perplexed by the way in which these types of sequels are so reviled.

The blog points out that sequel writing exists unmaligned in other formats such as film and television, where fans and critics don’t seem overly perturbed by the fact that numerous writers are involved.

The blog puts it down to literary snobbery, and asks why sequels, prequels and companion books can’t have literary merit in their own right.

But unlike the “fan fic” – whose original characters and stories were developed by a team of writers – novels are traditionally written by individuals. Characters are created in their minds and further developed on the page.

To have another writer interpret your characters and take them in directions you might never have foreseen for them could be either flattering or insulting.

It’s not about the new writer’s background, talent, or even intention. It’s a question of whether anyone other than a character’s creator can truly tell you what might happen next.

It also treads sacred ground with fans as well, who have their own ideas on what may or may not have happened after the last page of the original book. How will fans of Pride and Prejudice (who may or may not have picked up one of the 20 plus other “sequels”) feel about D’Arcy having ambitions to become Prime Minster and Elizabeth being unhappy, as is the case in The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet.

McCullough’s novel intrigues me, purely because Mary is such an under-drawn character in Austen’s classic. But I’m not sure I want my experience of the rest of characters in the original novel influenced or challenged by anyone other than Austen. And that’s obviously never going to happen.

I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts on the subject.

Have you read a sequel to classic by another writer? Did you love it, hate it or were indifferent? Do you not care: a good story is a good story?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The brick wall

I’ve reached a strange point in my reading journey … and it looks a bit like a brick wall.

I’m sure it will pass as quickly as it has arrived, but in the meantime, I thought I’d blog about it, as I like to put something new on this site around once a week. And, by the nature of my reading situation, I don’t seem to have anything else to write about this week!

Here it is: I’ve suddenly become indecisive about my reading choices. I have an interesting list of titles waiting on my book shelf, but I can’t seem to get excited about any of them.

I’m worried that if I start one and cast it aside, I won’t go back to it (I’m not big on revisiting books that don’t grab me – remember my ill-fated relationship with The Confederacy of Dunces?), and so forever ruin a book I may otherwise enjoy.

My current shortlist is as follows (in no particular order):
- High Fidelity by Nick Hornby (loved by my good friend the Ink-stained Toe-poker)
- The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (loved or hated, depending on whose review you read)
- A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (I really enjoyed The Kite Runner, but not sure if I’m in the mood for the emotional commitment I suspect this book will require)
- Second Strike by Mark Abernethy (Aussie spy adventure sequel to The Golden Serpent, which I enjoyed last year)
- A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon (who wrote The Curious Incident With The Dog in the Night-time) (Side-note: I grabbed this book off the shelf last night and knocked a glass of wine over my laptop - which didn’t help its cause.)

Does anyone else hit these sorts of reading walls? If so, how do you break through of them?

This is quite new for me, and is probably more a reflection of where I’m at in my brain at the moment, than anything else. I have no doubt it will pass….

So, apologies for the lack of intellectual stimulation in this post. Hopefully I’ll have something more interesting for you next week!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Life of Pi explained

Life of Pi by Yann Martel is one of the most analysed, discussed and debated books of recent years, not just because of its plot, but because it makes the reader question what they have read and what they believe.

The Booker Prize winner author was one of the major draw cards at last weekend’s Brisbane Writer’s Festival, and he didn’t disappoint. He spoke about his motivation for writing Life of Pi, and how researching the story changed his life along the way.

In this post, I’m going to share a few of the things he spoke about. Those who haven’t read Life of Pi – and intend to – may want to look away now. Don’t spoil the experience of discovering the book’s talking points for yourself.

Life of Pi provides the kind of literary experience fans tend hold close to their hearts. Yann understands that, and opened his talk by promising to try and do “the least damage” to individual interpretation of the story. Because the interpretation of this story is everything.

The tale begins with Pi, the son of a zookeeper in India, who becomes curious about religion and simultaneously practices Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, much to the consternation of his respective religious teachers.

Pi’s religious instruction is interrupted when his family decides to relocate – along with a large menagerie of animals – to Canada. Tragically, the ship sinks during a storm.

What follows is a fascinating, perplexing and occasionally disturbing story of survival.

When Pi finally washes up on the shores of Mexico 227 days later, he recounts two versions of his story. The same facts are offered, with a different interpretation.

In the first, Pi is the sole human survivor on a life boat with a zebra, hyena, orangutan and a huge Bengal tiger called Mr Parker. The second has no animals and is far more brutal. One requires suspension of disbelief, the other is “reasonable”.

Yann said the very structure of the story itself is designed to force the reader to subconsciously choose whether they are prepared to walk away from the “reasonable” to accept the better story. In other words to have faith, when to do so makes no sense.

The background to how the novel came about is interesting in itself, but this post is more concerned with the story what makes it such an original piece of narrative fiction.

The key for Yann was the question posed by Pi at the end of the book to the Japanese shipwreck investigators: which is the better story? For the author, this is the question at the heart of choosing a life of faith.

While researching Life of Pi, Yann – who describes himself as being “secular” before writing the book – read a lot of scripture and books about scriptures. In doing so, he started to ask himself “what would it be like to have faith?”

To find the answer, he put aside the aspects of religion that repel him and went to India’s diverse holy places “pretending” to have faith. He candidly admits that once inside that space, he didn’t want to leave.

Up to that point, Yann says he’d always considered himself a “reasonable” person. “When you’re reasonable, you have to make sense of everything.”

But he said being reasonable didn’t leave a lot of room for religion. “And when religion is ignored, art suffers. Society doesn’t dream when it is being uber reasonable.”

Life of Pi was his personal protest to stop making sense. To believe in a reality beyond the chemical.
One of the great moments of the session on the weekend was Yann’s explanation of the purpose of “the island”, one of the more obtuse plot developments in modern literature.

He said it served the sole purpose of making the “animal” version of the story harder and harder to believe. Even more so than the chance of a blind boy and blind tiger, coming across another blind shipwreck survivor, it’s at the point of the island that disbelief breaks down and the reader wants rationality kicks in.

“Many readers assume it is something deeply symbolic they just don’t get, or it’s an hallucination –they need a reason to prop up the fiction.”

But in his own words “religion goes beyond the confines of the reasonable”.

The second story – the one without animals and strange flesh-eating islands – involves no faith. “It’s all about man’s inhumanity to man. That’s not the reality I want. I want to go back to the first story and choose to believe.”

For him, life is a matter of subjective interpretation of objective reality. Ultimately, Yann presents a very post modernistic perspective (all stories have equal validity – there is no ultimate truth, only what you believe).

Having said that, the author admits that after looking at all major religions, he’s become “pretty comfortable with Jesus”, although it’s safe to say he is not a member of any organised religion.

Regardless of whether you share his views on religion or philosophy, there’s no denying Life of Pi is an amazing use of narrative structure to encourage readers to think beyond the story – to even question what they believe and why.

Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil: my review

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Twilight series - the verdict

Given that the web is awash with reviews and comments about Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, it seems almost superfluous for me to weigh in to the discussion.

However, I’ve spent more than 2,300 pages and the past three weeks working my way through the four books, so to not discuss them would seem a waste!

Now, I know people either love or hate this series, so I’ll say upfront I generally enjoyed the overall experience (and yes, I hear the ink-stained toe-poker howl in pain).

For me the first book, Twilight, remains the best from a tight storytelling perspective (perhaps not surprisingly, it is also the shortest). New Moon and Eclipse develop the mythology and progress the story arcs that all come together Breaking Dawn, the fourth book.

At the core of the series is the romance between teenage Bella and her impossibly attractive classmate Edward, who also happens to be a vampire. Edward and his “family” have chosen to abstain from biting and killing humans, but Bella’s blood is so appealing to Edward, that even though he loves her, he’s terrified he’ll kill her if he loses control.

Their relationship is one of restraint and longing, filling the pages with sexual tension. As the story progresses, particularly in the third book, the focus becomes on Bella’s growing desire to become a vampire, which Edward opposes.

For those who haven’t read the books, I won’t spoil the twists that arrive in the final 754 page instalment. Some readers have complained the first three books are a little too much the same, but – regardless of any other criticism - there can be no such complaints with the fourth book.

It takes the story in a different direction and has more sex and violence than the other three books combined – but still falls a long way short of being a “horror” story. It also sets the scene for further stories (although Meyer has said she won’t write any more from Bella’s perspective).

I’ve read Meyer talk in interviews about how much she loves her characters and loves spending time with them, and my greatest criticism with these books is that she indulges that love more than she should – or needs to - from a narrative perspective.

Plot points are demonstrated more than once, because the author clearly loves how the characters interact on the page. I grew continually frustrated – particularly in the middle two books – when it was obvious a scene or chapter was simply reiterating something that was already well established (for example, that the werewolf Jacob was in love with Bella … and don’t get me started on that relationship. Never been a fan of romantic triangles, and this one really annoyed me – but it does resolve itself with a nice sense of ironically in the end).

At nearly 800 pages, Breaking Dawn is longer than it needs to be, but, in fairness, an enormous amount happens plot-wise.

I wrote a few weeks ago about how Bella and Edward’s relationship was a metaphor for sexual restraint, and while that symbolism continues through the bulk of the story, it takes a back seat to the growing mythology. (Although, maybe her desire to be a vampire is symbolic of the transformation after marriage...)

When Meyer set out to write these stories – inspired by a vivid dream – I doubt she imagined she’d sell the number of books she has, or spark the kind of rabid fans and critics who now populate blogland.

I think she’s a writer who loves her characters and loves writing them. Enough people are devouring the series to send a message she’s not alone in her affection.

I may not be willing to don a “I love Edward Cullen” badge, but I can’t pretend I didn’t enjoy large slabs of this story.

So bring on the jibes…

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Expectations met - Markus Zusak

We’ve talked on this blog about whether or not as readers we’re influenced by the way an author presents themselves in person.

The general consensus is that it shouldn’t matter: stories should be judged on their merits alone. However, it’s fair to say that when it comes to our favourite authors, we often harbour a secret hope their personalities somehow do their stories justice.

Regular readers of this blog know Markus Zusak is among my favourite writers (not just for The Book Thief – which still tops my list – but for his other four books as well). Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to spend time with him at a literary breakfast, and then writers’ workshop (hosted by the very author-friendly Logan Libraries in Queensland). And the news is all good.

One of the things I love most about Markus’ books is the honesty, warmth and poetic use of language that infuse his narrative. It turns out those qualities don’t just exist on the page.
It's not often fans get to know an author beyond their publicity blurb, but those who gathered for the sessions on the weekend – fans and writers alike – were given that rare opportunity.

Here’s a writer who openly talks about his self doubt, how he doesn’t have all the answers about writing and style, and that the secret to success is to have a deep passion for telling stories and a willingness to put in the time necessary to craft something above the ordinary.

In a truly remarkable moment, Markus read the opening chapter to his new novel. The reading was remarkable because the story is still a work in progress, and the final version may have little resemblance with what he shared (particularly given his penchant for continuous editing).

The reading didn’t disappoint. Fans lapped it up, hopefully realising how rare it is for a writer to share something not yet completely polished - particularly from a writer of Markus’ international reputation.

Gutsy move. (Hey, even the Ink-stained Toepoker was impressed...)

Of course Markus also spoke about The Book Thief, and the endless drafts he worked through (re-writing the first 90 pages between 150 and 200 times) before he finally found the narrative voice that would elevate the novel to realm of a classic: by having Death as the narrator.

People either love or hate that book. Here’s what I wrote when I finished reading it back in 2006:

It is one of the most beautifully and uniquely written stories I’ve read. So many writers have crafted stories in an attempt to capture the power of words, but this story did that better (and more profoundly) for me, than anything else I've read. It also clarified for me the unique role literature has in storytelling, and how it differs (or at least should differ) from other forms, like film and theatre. I laughed, I cried, and thought about life, suffering, and hope.

Ultimately, Markus Zusak is a great storyteller who loves the power of words. He's prepared to spend as much time as it takes to craft his story, making sure every sentence, every word -every piece of the puzzle - does what he needs it to.

I certainly walked away inspired, and motivated to be a better writer. I'm also now a little more patient in my wait for his next work ... I'm willing to bide my time until Markus Zusak to be happy enough with his new project to hand it to his publisher and share the story with the rest of us.

(And yes, I’m actually including a proper photo of myself for the first time on this blog. That’s me on the right with Markus and my favourite librarian – and breakfast/workshop organiser – Janet Poole.)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Something to sink your teeth into

You don’t have to be a fan of horror to know that stories about vampires are ripe with metaphors.

Lately, and quite inadvertently, I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about vampires – and what they represent metaphorically - thanks to my reading material.

First, I finally bit the bullet (or the jugular, as it may be) and started reading Stephenie Meyer’s mega-selling vampire series, starting with Twilight. I’d been putting this off for a while (as a Josh Whedon fan, I was concerned about stereotyping myself as a fan of all things vampiric).

After I’d read the first two Meyer books, a novel I’d on order from the library became available, The Opposite of Life by Australian author Narelle M. Harris. It was about – you guessed it – vampires.

It was an interesting exercise reading two different stories about vampires back to back, and analysing how the authors tackled the mythology and metaphorical aspects of their tales.

While Joss Whedon used vampires, demons and other “big bads” in his Buffy stories as metaphors for real-life monsters and personal battles, Meyer and Harris take different tacks – along the way also providing refreshingly different takes on vampire mythology.

What prompted me to finally pick up Twilight was an article that revealed Meyer was a practicing Mormon and that – the first book at least – contained no sex and barely any violence. But what really piqued my curiosity was the description of the story as a metaphor for sexual restraint.

At the core of the four-book series is a romance between teenage Bella and her impossibly attractive classmate Edward, who also happens to be a vampire. Edward and his “family” have chosen to abstain from biting and killing humans, but Bella’s blood is so appealing to Edward, that even though he loves her, he’s terrified he’ll her if he loses control in her proximity.

And so, their relationship is one of restraint and longing, filling the pages with sexual tension. The first book captures this tension and conflict remarkably well - to the point of becoming addictive. The second and third books (I’m halfway through the latter) focus more on the mythology Meyer is building, along with Bella’s growing desire to become a vampire so they can be together forever. (I’ll save my critique on the series until I’ve finished the fourth book.)

Harris, on the other hand, takes a more poignant approach in a tale that’s also fresh, witty and – most importantly – original.

Her vampires – who stalk the streets of Melbourne – don’t need human blood to feed their thirst; they need it to “feel” anything.

In this story, wanting to become a vampire is about avoidance. Not avoiding death, but avoiding life and all its pain, which is a palatable option for narrative character Lissa. Too many people in Lissa’s life have died – including some unfortunate souls in Melbourne’s coolest gothic hang-outs – so when she befriends a remarkable unsexy vampire, she seriously considers becoming one herself to avoid any more pain.

Despite the bleak undertones, The Opposite of Life is an easy read and one I really enjoyed. It’s apparently the first of a series featuring Lissa and her forays into the world of vampires (Melbourne’s real underworld), and I’m looking forward to seeing where the story goes next. Harris' style is somewhere between chicklit and goth horror. And it works.

In both stories, the narrative characters have a choice to make about eternity. One is driven by love and desire, the other (at least in Harris' first offering) is driven by sadness and grief – ultimately tempered by revelation.

I, for one, am enjoying seeing a classic mythology being given new treatment in hybrid genres. But I think once I’ve finished Meyer’s Breaking Dawn, I’ll take a break from the creatures of the night for a bit.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

I've been known to peek...

I have a teeny confession (come on, it’s been months since my last one) … I sometimes peek at pages towards the end of a book.

Yes, I know, very juvenile and somewhat pathetic, but sometimes I just can’t help it.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t read the end of the story (I actually want the plot resolution to still be a surprise), I simply skim the pages to see if names of characters I care about are still there.

I try hard to not let my attention grab on to full sentences. I just want to see enough to know the character/s I care about are still in the picture.

Even if I discover the worst, I’ll still keeping reading – but at least I’m prepared for a particular ending … and often I’m even impressed with how the narrative arc made me OK with that ending by the time I reached it.

I don’t do this with all novels, and if I’m being honest, it tends to involve stories that are relationship based. I did it with The Remains of the Day (would Mr Stevens make his meeting with Miss Kenton?) and I did it this week – despite giving myself a good talking to that it was not the behaviour of a mature reader!!

I was reading the second instalment of Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight series (full posting to come on this once I’ve made it through all four novels), and found I needed to know if Bella and Edward were going to be reunited. (Of course, I know there are two more, so they would be together again at some point, but I needed to know if it was going to happen in this book.)

I guess it’s a sign of well created tension that I feel the need to do this with certain stories. It could also be a sign I don’t yet trust the author - there's a fear they may make me care about a character, only to rip my heart out. (With more books, and more understanding of an author’s style, this becomes less of an issue).

Perhaps this is one of the reasons I enjoy writing so much: I’m in control of my characters’ destinies. No surprises!

Is anyone else brave enough to admit to this embarrassing compulsion (or give me the lecture I deserve!), and if so, what books prompted it?

Friday, August 22, 2008

We are now beginning our descent

With some books, it’s easy to recognise a theme, comment or purpose to a story. With others, the themes are more subtle and require a greater level of analysis or perception.

We are now beginning our descent by James Meek sits somewhere in between.

There are so many ideas, metaphors, observations and analogies in this novel, it’s hard to extract a single dominant theme. So it’s no surprise readers are taking away a myriad of different messages.

The story is told through the eyes of Adam Kellas, a British war correspondent who’d rather be a novelist, but whose literary efforts are not bringing in the kind of money and lifestyle he thinks he wants.

After September 11, he’s sent to Afghanistan to cover the Northern Alliance forces fighting the Taliban. There, he falls for Astrid, a moody and unpredictable American magazine writer. After sleeping together an Alliance outpost, they unwittingly play a part of an impromptu artillery attack which leaves them both traumatised.

Kellas returns to London, where he writes a “sell-out” novel about Europe going to war against the Americans. But he struggles to live at ease with his friends, insulated as they are from the realities of the world.

He’s also haunted by thoughts of Astrid, so when he receives a strange but short email demanding to see him, he jumps on a plane and heads straight to her – after a night in which he does irrevocable damage to some long standing friendships.

The story is told along three timelines, which the author seamlessly moves between (usually without warning): Kellas’ experiences in Afghanistan, his present journey from London to the east coast of the US, and the events of that fateful dinner party before his flight.

This is one of those occasions when the detail of story – particularly Kellas’ experiences and observations in Afghanistan – carry more weight when you know the author has first experience with what he’s writing about. Meek is a journalist, whose reports from Iraq about Guantanamo Bay won a number of British and international awards. In 2001 he reported for the Guardian from Afghanistan on the ware against the Taliban and the liberation of Kabul.

In this latest novel, he questions the US and its role in the Middle East, but tempers his criticism by recognising that “…America is no exception to the iron rule that every country, seen for the outside, seems to know itself, and that no country, seen from inside, ever does.”

But back to the themes readers and critics are finding in this well-written and highly readable novel. According to a few of the comments I’ve come across, We are now beginning our descent is:
- a criticism of war correspondents’ complicity in the conflicts they cover
- a post traumatic syndrome love story
- about the futile search for love and meaning in a world of pain and chaos
- a criticism of novelists who “sell-out” from writing important literary works to make big bucks
- a comment on the way the world's comfortable societies insulate themselves - politically, mentally and emotionally - from the world of the deprived
- exposes the lofty presumption of the West as it loses altitude and comes ignominiously to ground among the long-ignored and newly unstoppable hungers and angers of the Third World.

For me, it was the theme of connection – or lack of – between people, and people and places, that resonated the most.

But it was interesting to note the reactions of others, which probably says as much about each reader’s politics, state of mind and viewof the world, as it does about the author’s intentions with this story.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Bitter chocolate

Every now and then, a story comes along that makes you change your habits – or at least your mindset – as a consumer.

Before I saw Blood Diamond last year, I had no idea just how brutal the diamond trade in Africa could be. I don’t buy a lot of diamonds, but it made me look at my modest engagement ring and wonder whether or not its purchase had come from a country where men, women and children were brutally exploited in its mining.

Should I buy another diamond at some point, it’s a question I’ll certainly be asking.

Not long after, I read about a potential shortage of chocolate in some parts of the world due to unrest on the Ivory Coast. The story made me curious (and, I confess, a tad panicked), so I started researching the cocoa bean industry to understand how trouble in Africa could affect the products on my supermarket shelves in Australia.

The result was the appalling discovery of the conditions under which a sizeable percentage of the world’s cocoa beans are farmed.

How had I never heard about this before?

Stories of kidnapping, slavery and torture left me horrified, and prompted several hours of further research – and a few emails – to ascertain which chocolate brands I could eat without feeling guilty.

Chocolate may come from France, Italy, Switzerland and Belgium (and, of course, Tasmania), but the cocoa it is made from is grown and farmed far away from those glamorous locations – in far harsher conditions.

Former war correspondent Carol Off has attempted to expose the horrors of the cocoa bean industry in a new book, Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of The World’s Most Seductive Sweet.

She writes about the seedier side to our favourite decadent indulgence, from corporate espionage to the rise of child slavery in cocoa production

She travelled to the Ivory Coast and interviewed children who had no idea what the cocoa crop was used for – let alone tasted chocolate – risking her own safety to fully understand the violence and brutality of the industry in that part of the world.

Hers is an important book, but very few people will read it.

If its contents were the subject of a fictional film – a la Blood Diamond – it might actually have wider impact. As we’ve talked about many times on this blog, narrative has a way of getting under the skin, making people see a situation through different eyes, that straight reporting can rarely achieve.

Chocolat, Like Water For Chocolate … these are stories that make us salivate. But what about a story that made us think twice about what chocolate we buy? What if there was a story that made us think about kidnapping and child slavery every time we ate it?

I wonder if such a film could ever be made. And if it was, would we watch it?

Which leads me to a question: have you seen a film or read a novel that changed you as a consumer?

(For those interested, Kerrie Murphy of The Australian has an interesting article about Carol Off and Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. You can read it here.)

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Artistic freedom - not as simple as it sounds

Here in the West, we take our artistic freedom for granted, forgetting that throughout history - and in other parts of our world right now - men and women have died in the attempt to express themselves honestly through their art.

But, interestingly, there are also artists in our “free” society who censor themselves for fear of the reactions their works may elicit. Our artists may not be physically imprisoned, tortured or executed, but they can be attacked by critics and opponents in ways that deter others from telling the stories they want to.

This week, I read an amazing young adult novel by Sally Rippin, called Chenxi and the Foreigner, chosen for me by the Ink-stained Toe-poker (thanks pal: great pick!). The novel’s theme of artistic freedom is particularly meaningful, because this edition is not the first version to make it into print.

Chenxi and the Foreigner is the story of 19-year-old Australian, Anna, who travels to Shanghai in 1989 to visit her father and study traditional Chinese painting. Struggling to cope with her status as a foreigner, she becomes obsessed with fellow art student Chenxi, who ultimately teaches her life-changing lessons about the nature of freedom, and what it means to be an artist in a culture that forbids non-sanctioned artist expression.

It was one of the earliest young adult novels written by the prolific Rippin, who now has more than 20 books for children of all ages in print. It was inspired by her own experiences as an art student in China, and the people she met there. But nearly 20 years later, she realised she’d sold herself and her readers short.

In the after word in this new 2008 version, Rippin explains she had compromised her original story through her own self-editing, “which is ironic given that this is a novel about artistic freedom”.

She says she was afraid of the parents, teachers and librarians who were the literary gatekeepers of her target market. In that original version, she cut out profanity, sex scenes and “unfamiliar Chinese politics”, for fear her book would be blocked and never reach its intended young adult audience.

She was also not sure she was ready for the potential backlash to her political themes. “I was worried at that time that, if my novel was too obviously political, I might stir up a discussion I wasn’t brave enough to enter into at that age.”

In the new edition, the main character’s name has changed, as has – apparently – the ending. I say apparently because I’ve only read this latest, grittier, version, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s the political context, honesty and realism that make this story so compelling, without being so confronting as to scar its young readers.

The timing of the novel’s re-release this year, when the world’s eyes are on China, might be a coincidence, or a brilliant marketing ploy. Either way, Chenxi and the Foreigner is an excellent novel on several levels: the characters are fascinating, raw and real, and the narrative brings China – and its politics – into sharp focus in a way a detached news report rarely can.

Yes it is challenging, and yes it covers aspects of Chinese politics many young adult readers may be unfamiliar with – and are now likely to explore to better understand Chenxi and his struggles.
And isn’t that what great stories should do?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Australian stories - I'm addicted

I think I’ve become addicted to quality Australian writing.

Quite by accident, I’ve read more Australian writers than any other this year (just check this blog), and after a brief break last week with Mma Ramotswe, I found I was hungry to return to Australian stories.

I had planned to read a classic piece of American literature next, but I was side-tracked by a $3.50 find in a book cafĂ©. It was Melina Marchetta’s 1992 hit Looking for Alibrandi, a coming-of-age story set in Sydney, spanning a year in the life of 17-year-old Josephine Alibrandi.

The plan was to add this title to the reading pile for a later date, but the lure of a critically acclaimed contemporary Australian story was too strong. So I read it, in three sittings ... and loved it.

I saw the film adaptation back in 2000, which I enjoyed, but – no surprises – the novel is so much richer in its characterisation, conflicts, pathos and humour.

Josie is a second generation Italian-Australian. She's a bright girl, raised by her single mother, and has a scholarship to one of Sydney’s most prestigious schools. Her class and cultural background put her at odds with the world of privilege around her, and the freedom her friends enjoy is in stark contrast to the traditional values imposed on her by her Sicilian grandmother.

Looking for Alibrandi is a story about discovering identity, appreciating cultural heritage and family ties, learning tough lessons about love, and recognising the realities and fallacies of class distinction.

It’s about romance, life, death, estrangement and self-discovery, and explores the consequences of choices – even those made with the best of intentions.
Classed as young adult fiction, it's yet another story that transcends its label. It captures an era of Australia (both good and bad) that we, as a nation, haven't quite outgrown.

Major book chains these days are packed to the ceiling with blockbuster international titles, with only the most prominent of Australian writers able to score reasonable shelf space and time. What a shame.

I love great stories, regardless of who writes them and where they are set. But I must admit it has surprised me to discover this deep passion for Australian stories, and I’m not sure whether it's my stage of life, or simply the fact I’m bothering to read more of them.

So, my questions this week:

For readers of this blog in Australia: do you read Australian authors? If so, who, and why?

I pose the same questions to those who are outside Australia. And for those who answer yes, I wonder: do those stories with a strong focus on Australian people, culture and issues resonate with you? Do they, in fact, shape the way you see our country?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Returning to the simple life in Botswana

Sometimes, when life gets a tad overwhelming, even reading material can add to the pressure.

It may be because the story is intense, distressing or tension-filled - or I'm simply racing to finish a library book due back in a few days.

But shouldn’t our reading be our “quiet time”? A time to reflect?

I tend to try and cram “doing” into every waking moment. Some days the closest I come to reflecting on life is while reading –and that only happens if what I’m reading is conducive to quiet reflection.

So, every now and then, I consciously choose to read a story I know will slow me down – in a good way!

This week, it’s been a return to The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith.

It’s a wonderful series set in Botswana, about Mma Ramotswe, a woman who “finds things out for people” as the owner of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

In between solving the small mysteries troubling her fellow townsfolk, she muses about the important things in life: the people she cares about, the landscape she loves, the country of which she is so proud. And spending time with her is soothing for a busy mind.

In Smith’s latest release, The Miracle at Speedy Motors, Mma Ramotswe finds her usually calm life stirred up by personal challenges. So what does she do? She squeezes her “traditional” build into her tiny old white van and takes herself back to the land.

She returns to a hill overlooking the village of her birth. There, looking out over the plains she loves so much, listening to the sound of cattle bells drifting up from below under a big Africa sky, she finds peace.

She sat, doing nothing, staring out over the plain below. If, when viewed from above like this, our human striving could seem so small, then why did it not appear like that when viewed from ground level?

In this place of contemplation, she finds perspective on the issues troubling her: an employee who may be the author of threatening letters; a husband willing to believe in a miracle cure for their wheelchair bound foster daughter; a puzzling search for a client’s birth mother.

Some series, with sweeping narrative and character arcs, beg for their books to be read back to back (JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a classic example).

Others, like The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency, work best in isolation, because the growth of characters is so subtle and the pace so gentle. These are books to be savoured, not devoured one after the other.

They are my literary refuge when I need a reminder of the simple pleasures in life and the value of gentle stories.

Does anyone else have a book, or series, they turn to for a peaceful narrative experience?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Do you believe it?

One last post about the idea of “truth in fiction” and then I’ll move on.

When I was writing last week’s post, I remembered something I’d read in The Playwright’s Guidebook by Stuart Spence about the idea of “believing” a story.

Spence says the phrase “I don’t believe it” is the enemy of art. He says that when you set out to have an artistic experience, you need to decide that, no matter what, you’re going to believe it: “We suspend our disbelief, and we do it willingly – because if we don’t we’ve locked ourselves outside the room where the art is happening.”

By using the phrase “I don’t believe”, he’s referring to a reaction in which we don’t believe in the truth of a character’s actions or a story’s twists, turns and resolutions. “I just don’t believe anyone would do that … I didn’t buy it when he decided to… that’s just ridiculous - Lassie couldn’t possibly give precise directions to Timmy’s well…” etc.

Spence says that when people say they don’t believe a certain plot twist or character action, what they actually mean is they can’t accept it, or it’s offensive, off-putting, difficult or even dull.

It’s not even about whether or not you like the story. It’s about accepting the story is true and then reacting subjectively to those “facts”. How could you enjoy Lewis Carroll if you didn’t believe Alice really fell down a rabbit hole?

Spence’s point is that if a writer tells you a character is thinking this, doing that, planning such and such, it’s true. After all, the writer should know: it’s their story. As a reader, our job is to believe it, and then decide from there how we respond to it, whether it be annoyance, joy, relief, disdain, repulsion, etc.

“Any of these feelings are perfectly valid responses to art. But they are purely subjective.”

I must admit there were moments towards the end of Tim Winton’s Breath I wasn’t particularly comfortable with, but I certainly believed them.

Spence summarises his lesson about believing thus: if a story is interesting enough, most people won’t give any thought to whether they believe it or not.

Do you agree with this idea?

Have you ever read a story or plot twist you didn’t “believe” - regardless of what Spence says?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Truth in fiction

Last week we talked about the authenticity of novelists. This week, I’d like to go one step further and talk about the notion of truth in fiction.

I’m not talking about truth as it relates to history or events in a fictional narrative; rather, I’m talking about whether or not the character’s reactions, revelations and resolutions are “true”, or based on reality.

James Bradley, in the June Australian Literary Review, points out the general notion that most narratives have therapeutic value, with arcs that feature “an uplifting journey from squalor to redemption, purpose-built to elicit the bursts of spontaneous applause that pepper American talk shows like the ‘hallelujahs’ they have taken the place of”.

Bradley argues that narratives which set out to inspire people and change lives are fantasies and fairytales, which “not only do not enrich our moral imagination but denude it. It isn’t true stories we hunger for at all, but manufactured stories that resemble true stories in every way but the ones that count”.

He says these types of “fantasy” narratives (assumedly ones involving happy endings) are “symptomatic of our culture’s growing resistance to the messiness and moral ambiguity of real life ... Our impatience with complexity, our desire for resolution, our need for clear moral messages … are the driving the erosion of the cultural authority of fiction”.

Is this true?

I guess it depends on what you want from a story (and for me this changes as often as my reading material) and how well it is delivered.

In my teens and early 20s, I think I always wanted clear resolution and happy endings. Now, in the latter half of my 30s – after experience more of life and its complexities – I’m satisified to read a story without a clear resolution, providing there’s been some sort of meaningful emotional journey by a major character, and they (and I) are left with a sense of hope about the future.

I’ve just finished reading two excellent Australian novels that manage to be firmly grounded in the “real” and yet still deliver emotional resolutions.

The first is Helen Garner’s first novel in 15 years, The Spare Room. The other is Tim Winton’s first offering in seven years, Breath.

The Spare Room is told through the eyes of Helen, a woman who agrees to support her friend Nicola - in the final stages of a terminal cancer - while the latter undergoes bizarre “experimental” treatment. Over the course of three emotionally-charged weeks, Helen becomes Nicola’s nurse, guardian angel and unflinching judge.

The novel appears to contain even more “truth” than usual: the narrator shares the author’s name, and her experience of living next door to her daughter and having recently helped a friend through the latter stages of cancer.

But instead of penning this story as memoir, Garner’s written it as fiction, which no doubt gave her greater scope in the storytelling. An interesting question for the author then, would be which parts reflect her actual experience, and which parts are fictionalised for the sake of the story.

Of course the answer is actually irrelevant, because this story rings with truth as Helen struggles with rage, grief, compassion and affection towards her friend.

Meanwhile Breath is a rites-of-passage story of Pikelet and Loonie, two risk-taking, competitive mates who team up with a gun surfer, Sando, and his fractious wife, Eva. The boys become obsessed with risk and danger. It begins simply enough, with staying under the river water for as long as possible, but moves on to the more intense physical and emotional risks posed by huge surf and confronting sexual experiences.

Like The Spare Room, Breath is expertly written. Winton captures a wonderful sense of place and uses fiction to ask questions about addiction and its costs, about risk-taking and about their long-term consequences.

In both stories, the endings are not what many might call “happy”, but the tension is resolved, and all experiences have meaning. If they were to follow the rule of being “true”, I suspect the endings for both could have been very different; which might have made them more realistic, but less satisfying.

Many literary experts would tell us that fiction (like other art forms) should reflect society and reality, but can’t we have more than one type of “legitimate” narrative?

Is it wrong to crave a happy ending, in a world where so few rarely exist?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


There’s been plenty of ink given lately to the debate about an author’s “authenticity” in the context of the narrative they provide.

Prompting the most recent spate of discussion has been the second book by James Frey, the American author who caused all sorts of strife for writing a best-selling memoir (Million Little Pieces) that turned out to be mostly fiction.

It raised the question that if a memoir writer is found to have fudged a few things here and there, does it mean the work is totally without merit?

This time around, he’s calling his new work (Bright Shiny Morning) a work of fiction, which begs the question why he didn’t reach for the fiction label the first time around.

When it comes to memoirs, I’m definitely in the camp of readers who required – and expect – the story to be based on the author’s actual experience. Former ABC journalist Sally Cooper has recently released A Burqa and a Hard Place, her memoir about years spent in Afghanistan training Afghans to become radio journalists. The story’s real power comes from the fact that the author is writing from first-hand experience.

Surely the better option for a writer like Frey is to pen fiction that is “semi-autobiographical” (such as Helen Garner’s moving new novel The Spare Room – more on that in future a post) rather than marketing a story as memoir, only to find out there have been certainly liberties with the truth. The former at least piques the reader’s curiosity as to which bits are “real”.

But can the same measuring stick of authenticity be used for fiction?

A classic example is The Hand that Signed The Paper, a remarkable debut novel by Australian writer Helen Demidenko, which took out the Miles Franklin Literary Award and Australian Vogel Literary Award in 1995.

At first, the controversy surrounding the novel was based on the story itself: how Ukranian peasants became merciless tools of the Nazis during World War II and turned on those who previously persecuted them. It was deemed particularly powerful because the author claimed to be of Ukranian descent.

When it turned out Demidenko (whose real name was Darville) had completely fabricated her cultural background and connection to people involved in the war, the literary world turned on her with incredible savagery.

Thirteen years after the controversy, I picked the book up and read it for the first time last week. I found it to be a confronting view of genocide from the perspective of the perpetrators, but far from making excuses for them, it presented a powerful morale about how hate breeds hate - regardless of cultural background or religious creed.

Demidenko/Darville’s narrative voice is impressively strong for a debut novelist, across a range of characters, and while the brutality is wearing by the novel’s end, the story is told unflinchingly and – it seems – with intentional coldness.

From the first page, the author makes it clear The Hand That Signed the Paper is a work of fiction. Why then was the literary world so enraged that she invented an identity for herself that helped market the book? Was the book only deemed to have award-winning merit because of her supposed ethnicity?

Critics (including those speaking out before her “unmasking”) point out apparent historical and factual errors in the work, and this, at least, is a warranted criticism if the author was selling the novel as “faction”.

But what does this mean for the power of the story itself and the questions it asks about hatred, violence and war?

I’d like to pose the question: is the merit of a fictional story contingent on the author’s life experience and “authenticity” or can you judge a story on its own merits? Or is this too simplistic a view of the role of fiction?

(And I apologise for the title to this post … I couldn’t help myself).

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Does the photo of an author influence how you experience their story?

Gustav, a regular visitor and contributor to this blog, posed an interesting question to me this week: do you prefer to see a picture of the author inside the cover of a book that you’ve just read and that you really loved?

Having given this some thought, I think I’d say my preference is not to see an image of the author, mainly because – consciously or not – it will influence how I experience and judge the story (either before, during or after I read it).

By seeing an image of a writer, there’s a chance I’ll form/change my opinion of their work, having been influenced by their age, gender or ethnicity; I may judge the quality of their story against who I think they are, particularly if any of those physical traits seem contradictory to the story I’ve just read.

As humans, we tend to create stories for other people based on how we perceive them – which of course will always say more about us than it does about them. Josh Weinstein captured this concept brilliantly in his short doco Cross Examination (which I blogged on earlier this year in April).

This certainly doesn’t mean I’m not interested in an author’s background, personality, motivation etc. In fact, often when I read a book I love, the first thing I do is search online to find interviews with them. But at least using that method, I fill out my ideas about the writer based on their words, not what they look like (although, granted, that will still play a part if I see them on television or at writers' festivals).

So Gustav, I agree that seeing a photo of an author can be distracting.

Of course, none of these things should matter. A good story is a good story, regardless of who the writer is and what their life experience is. Which is an excellent lead in to my next blog, when I want to talk about The Hand That Signed The Paper and its infamous author Helen Demidenko/Darville.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on the topic: do you care whether or not you see a photo of an author you enjoy?