Sunday, January 27, 2008

The patron saint of eels

Regular readers of this blog may remember a book recommendation from Jacqui late last year - The patron saint of eels by Gregory Day.

It was one of the books I took away on a recent trip, and most definitely added to my holiday experience. Jacqui, you were right - what an incredibly unique and beautiful book. I absolutely loved it.

The patron saint of eels 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. They long for a time when life was less complex, when the miraculous was commonplace.

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.

I love the concepts in this book (in no particular order):
- the knowledge of our finite existence creates the intensity of our senses, driving desire, taste, lust etc;
- life is full of "gaps", between those experiencing great joy and great suffering (who are often oblivious each can be of each other, even when the physical distances between them are not great);
- that we have a connection to nature, and any truly theistic view of the world understands that God exists in all things;
- that there are miracles in nature everyday, we just don't stand still long enough to see them; and
- a truly religious journey means being real in the midst of life, not hiding away.

The novel offers a profoundly contemplative look at life and spirituality. Interestingly, although the concepts may at first seem very eastern, they reflect an important (and so far relatively isolated) shift in Judeo-Christian theology: that life and death, joy and grief, success and failure all have equal value in a life of meaning.

Reading The patron saint of eels, I was reminded, time and again, of the writings of Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest in the US who writes about contemplative prayer, the power of simply "being" rather than "doing", and the equal validity of pain and suffering in the spiritual journey.

His book Everything Belongs (non-fiction) is one of the most profound pieces of writing I've ever read. I've re-read it many times over the years (and still struggled to hang on to its lessons for more than a few days at a time). I'm now reading another of his books, Simplicity: The freedom of letting go, which continues the contemplative theme.

I'd love to hear anyone's thoughts on books that have changed the way they look at the world (fiction or non-fiction), or if anyone else has read The patron saint of eels ... or anything else you might like to talk about as it relates to great stories.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Books you know you should read, but can't get into

It's the topic we book lovers avoid discussing, the thing we like to keep secret: books we know we should read, but just can't get into.

You know what I'm talking about: that award-winning, critically acclaimed book that everyone's talking about. The one you pick up to read, struggle through for 50 pages or so, and look longingly at the next title waiting on your to-read pile.

You want to read it. You want to enjoy it. You want to be able to talk to your friends about it. But every time you try to get going, it's like exercising. You have to concentrate and it's hard work.

I used to push through the pain and force myself to finish those books. Now, I figure life's too short, there are too many other books to read. So I give myself 50 pages, and if I'm not hooked by then, it's all over.

(A librarian friend tells me the number of pages you should give yourself to like a book should reduce the older you get.)

Of course all this has been leading up to a confession. I couldn't get into The Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. The great Pulitzer Prize-winning novel published 10 years after the author committed suicide.

I really wanted to like this book, and I persevered longer than I usually would because it was loaned to me by a friend. And I know exactly why I couldn't get into it: the story's protagonist is the most obnoxious character I've ever read. I had no sympathy for him, and truly couldn't give a crap what happens to him through the story (particularly when I learned he undergoes no redemptive process whatsoever).

In fact, there were no sympathetic characters at all, leaving me very little interest in what happened to anyone.

Now, clearly, this sort of characterisation and intentional lack of redemption is a powerful way to tell a story and make a point, but apparently it doesn't necessarily engage me as a reader (and yet, I don't have the same issues with stories told on the screen - eg, Napoleon Dynamite, a movie I love).

In looking for the cover artwork to put with this post, I came across more reviews raving about this novel, and have had a fresh bout of literary guilt (promising myself I will attempt it again one day). Maybe my mistake was trying to make it holiday reading, when it clearly is not…

Am I the only one afflicted by such struggles?

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

What happens when you finish reading?

Here's a question posed to me this week:

What do people do after they've read a book? How do you absorb what you've read and work out how you feel about it?

It was a question from Daniel (henceforth known as "Golden Serpent" - see last post for explanation), who I now hope will share his thoughts.

For me, depending on the novel and how much it's impacted on me, I usually sit for a while and just let it settle into my brain. Often there's a meal waiting to be made (sometimes several hours late, depending on how desperate I was to get to the last page), so I'll think about it while I'm preparing food.

I also have a habit of going back to the book and re-reading pages, paragraphs or even entire chapters that particularly resonated with me.

I have a couple of avid readers among my close friends, so I'll usually tell them about a book I've loved/been fascinated by, and encourage them to read it so I have someone to talk to about it! I've also been known to surf the web for reviews, author interviews etc, so I can live with the book for just that little bit longer.

And, of course, now I write a blog!

I'd really love for anyone interested to share their thoughts (if you're reading this - that means you!) . It could make for a good discussion.