Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A fable from Aesop

I'm having a bit of a crazy week, preparing to change jobs, trying to sell a car and getting ready for a houseguest and big social weekend, so this is not the post I had intended. Instead, that one will hopefully come next week.

In the meantime, I thought I would share one of my favourite books: the magnificently illustrated Unwitting wisdom: an anthology of Aesop's animal fables. These 12 classics are retold and illustrated by Helen Ward in what is one of the most beautiful books in my collection, given to me by a very special friend.

Incredibly, these simple stories are more than 2,500 years old, and the wry humour and often probing insights into the human condition have entertained countless generations (at least until the advent of Nintendo, X-box, and Wii....)

Helen Ward herself opens the book with the following insight:
To Aesop and all tellers of moral tales who, despite a monumental ineffective history, still gently try to point the human race in a better direction.

Anyway, today I thought I would share one of them and have chosen this one more based on its length than the moral of the story ... although it has a biting moral lesson nonetheless.

Sour grapes
- in which a fox tries to hide his disappointment with insults

There once was a bunch of particularly fine grapes hanging temptingly from a vine that had wound its way up a tree. And as is usual with such unguarded temptations, there was soon also a fox.

The tantalising fruits hung just a little higher than the fox could reach but he would not be thwarted.

He leapt as high as he could, twising in the morning light, his jaws clapping shut on air and flies and dust until his teeth hurt. He tried to climb the tree but the trunk was too straight, the bark too smooth, the first branch too high. Everything about the tree was unhelpful. It refused to so much as twitch a twig when he tried to shake it.

The fox found a long cane and tried to prod the grapes from their vine, but the cane snapped. He threw and kicked sticks and stones at the vine, but the grapes were determined to stay put. Their sweet smell drifted amoung the branches, wasps and butterflies few by with casual ease, while on the ground below, the fox lay panting and exhausted.

Not even a few moments' patience solved the fox's problem. By the evening, the dark fruits hung as resolutely from the vine as they had that morning.

The shadows had lengthened by the time the fox finally turned his back on the grapes, muttering to himself that they were undoubtedly
the nastiest
most horrid
disgusting, revolting
inedible, indigestible
and very probably the sourest grapes he had ever had the pleasure of NOT eating!

Moral: It is easy to despise what you cannot obtain.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Meme: what's on page 123?

I've been tagged in a meme by one of my favourite literary bloggers, Books Please.

It's pretty straight forward. All you have to do is:
1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

I'm currently reading The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (and will blog on this when finished), which I am enjoying like a well aged pinot noir.

The sentences required as per the meme are:

"It's very beautiful. But it is probably a kind of mock period piece done only a few years ago. Isn't that right?"

Is this meme simply a great way to find and explore new blogs, or a way to see if three sentences can convey a writer's style, or the feel of a novel. In my example, I'd say not (because the sentences are short and in dialogue), but I've read other meme posts that may come closer to that purpose.

For me, I tag (if they'd like to play):


Personally, I don't mind whether the book is fiction or not (it actually could be quite interesting if they're not!)

And please, anyone else can feel free to play along!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

BTT: Springing

This week's Booking Through Thursday question is quite Northern Hempisphere-centric, but nonetheless poses an interesting question about whether or not reading tastes are affected by seaons:

Do your reading habits change in the Spring? Do you read gardening books? Even if you don’t have a garden? More light fiction than during the Winter? Less? Travel books? Light paperbacks you can stick in a knapsack?

Or do you pretty much read the same kinds of things in the Spring as you do the rest of the year?

I've never thought about reading in terms of literal seasons, but I think it's fair to say my reading is more seasonal on an emotional level: sometimes I'm interested in light and unchallenging fare, while other times I want something meaty, meaningful and thought-provoking. But the seasons are more based on life experience and emotions that the weather. (But then again, I live in tropical Queensland, Australia, where the seasonal changes are not so severe, so maybe my response can be somewhat limited on that basis!)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Author talks – for writers, readers, or both?

It always fascinates me to see who attends author talks.

Whether it's guest spots in libraries or book stores, or writers’ festivals … who are the people who make up the audience? Are they fans of the author, fans of a particular title, genre fans, or other writers (published and unpublished alike)?

Has everybody who listens to an author talk read that writer’s latest release (or any of their works?)

This week, I heard new Australian author Toni Jordan talk about her debut novel Addition. I went along because, generally, I enjoy listening to writers talk about their creative journey, and the session took place a few floors below my office (and was thus very handy).

Addition is described as an offbeat romance, told through the eyes of a woman who is a compulsive “counter” (of everything from bristles on toothbrushes to tiles on the floor).

During her chat, Toni talked about her fascination with the way the human brain works – something she explores in the novel – and how we all have patterns of thinking, which - for most of us - are unconscious. Certainly an intriguing subject.

I had considered trying to read the novel before her visit, but I had a couple of library books due back in a short time and decided to give them priority.

Now that I’ve heard Toni speak (she was a warm and engaging speaker, clearly interested in her readers, and definitely someone enjoying discovering their creative voice), I’m even more interested in seeing how that translates on the page.

No doubt, had I read the book, some of the character-based discussions would have been more meaningful, but I nevertheless still enjoyed her session, particularly when the topic shifted to her novel's themes.

Toni had a great turn-up, and the crowd seemed to be a combination of avid readers and fledgling writers, and they kept the questions flowing for a good half hour.

Here are some of the author’s I’ve heard talk in the last 12 months, and why:
- Markus Zusak: huge fan of all his work (shy but interesting speaker, especially on the subject of good storytelling)
- Rebecca Sparrow: as a Gen-Xer, I'm fan of her work generally (vibrant and engaging speaker)
- Suzanne Leal: discovered at Brisbane Writers’ Festival (gentle soul – lovely speaker); read book after hearing her speak
- Mark Abernethy: also discovered at Brisbane Writers’ Festival (came across as a pretty cool guy with interesting insights into the character development process); read book after hearing him speak – now a big fan
- Louise Cusack: fan of her work, and a professional acquaintance (always fun and engaging – loves an audience)

I'm curious to see if anyone wanted to talk about authors they had heard speak – and why they chose to listen to them.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Vocabulary (BTT)

Here's the latest Booking Through Thursday question:

I’ve always wondered what other people do when they come across a word/phrase that they’ve never heard before. I mean, do they jot it down on paper so they can look it up later, or do they stop reading to look it up on the dictionary/google it or do they just continue reading and forget about the word?

My response:

It depends: if it's obvious by the context what the word or phrase means, I'll probably jot it down and keep reading (then look up later).

If it creates a stumbling block, I'll put my book down, grab a dictionary (or go to www.dictionary.com if I'm online) and look it up on the spot. If it's a phrase I'm unfamiliar with, I'll google it, or ask someone else nearby if they've heard of it.

I must confess I'm frustrated when I come across I word I don't know, so I'll always look it up at some point!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Lists that make you go hmmmm.....

There are lots of interesting memes floating around the web about books. The list below is not strictly a meme, as I have pinched some questions from elsewhere and made up my own.

Anyway, the idea of creating such a list piqued my curiosity, so I thought I would give it a go.

Please feel free to treat this as a meme if you like (answer the questions on your own blog and leave a link here as a post), or just post your answers here. I'd just be really interested in other people's answers.

Obviously, this is a subjective list for here and now. All of us will no doubt answer differently in 12 months' time, or 10 years, as our stack of "read" books gets bigger.

So here we go.

Most recent book to make you cry
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

A book that scared you
The Throat by Peter Straub (although it was about a decade ago - don't read a lot of horror these days)

A book that made you laugh out loud
Joel and Cat set the story straight by Rebecca Sparrow

A book you loved as a child
The Man From Snowy River by Elyne Mitchell

A book you loved as a teenager
There were five actually, in the initial Belgariad series by David Eddings

A book you hated in high school
Tender is the night by F Scott Fitzgerald

Favourite crime novel
Bad Debts by Peter Temple

Favourite literary novel
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

A series you love
Harry Potter by JK Rowling (why pretend otherwise?).

Favourite fantasy book
The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

Most over-rated book you've read
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

A book that took time to realise you actually liked it
Life of Pi by Yann Martel

The most recent book you put aside without finishing
The Confederacy of Dunces (I've previously blogged on my guilt about this)

A book you put aside half-way through but intend to finish one day
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dosdoyevsky

Sexiest literary hero
Of course there's Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice and Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings, but for a contemporary sexy protagonist, I'd have to say Mac from Mark Abernethy's spy thriller The Golden Serpent.

Your turn.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: a writing challenge

It's time for Booking Through Thursday...

The challenge:
Pick up the nearest book. (I’m sure you must have one nearby.)
Turn to page 123.
What is the first sentence on the page?
The last sentence on the page?
Now . . . connect them together….(And no, you may not transcribe the entire page of the book–that’s cheating!)

My response: (from Paula by Isabel Allende)

Don Manuel died today

I hope my mother can last until then, I think she is about at breaking point.

In the words in between these two sentences, Allende poignantly describes the pain of watching a loved one die and having to console a widow exhausted by grief.

The page is particularly moving, given Allende is viewing of Don Manuel's death, and the grief of his family, in the context of watching her own daughter struggle with a life-robbing illness. From the last line, it would appear Allende's mother is also buckling under the weight of their battle.

So much pain and meaning in one page, and so beautifully written from a position of helpless love.

I've only just started this book, and this teaser is a reminder it's going to be an emotional journey.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Speaking of literary...

I've just finished reading Peter Carey's new novel, His illegal self.

Carey is one of Australia's best known literary novelists, and I really wanted to like this book, which has been described as possibly the best fictional work to explore the militant radical underground of the late 1960s and early 70s.

It wasn't the era or political content that attracted me, but the story at the novel's centre: of a seven-year-old boy on a journey of discovery about his identity and his need to be loved.

Che is a seven-year-old boy raised in isolated privilege by his New York grandmother, who also happens to the son of radical student activists. Yearning for his famous outlaw parents, and denied all access to television and news, he thinks his dreams have come true when a woman whose smell he recognises appears at his New York apartment.

What's meant to be a brief visit turns into something else entirely, as Che and the woman he calls Dial end up on the run. After passing through several cities, their life on the run takes them across the world to tropical Queensland, Australia, where they take refuge in a hippy commune.

Carey's narrative style has its own unique rhythm, and he plays with chronology to keep the reading guessing. The other effective tactic he employs is to switch viewpoints between Che and Dial, so the reader gets to the glimpse events through both sets of eyes.

And yet … I felt no connection to these characters. I wanted to empathise with them, but so often found myself struggling to understand them. Often, I felt like I was groping in the dark to follow what was going on, but then, so were the characters, so perhaps this was the author's intention.

The whisper of menace throughout the story left me uneasy for most of the journey, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and again, perhaps was intended to give the reader a greater sense of what the characters were feeling.

The jacket blurb said the book may make me "cry more than once". It didn't - I didn't even come close, which is unusual for me.

So now I'm wondering why I didn't connect enough to be moved to tears. Is it a generational thing? The attitudes of militant radical underground and its commune-dwelling hippy cousins are the driving force in the plot. As a Gen-Xer, I have only read about that time in history - I have no emotional connection to it. I imagine readers who remember - or participated in - that era may respond quite differently.

I thought the human element of the story would be enough to engage me, but on this occasion it wasn't. Having said that, I devoured the book in three days, so it certainly wasn't a difficult read.

Perhaps the story, on this occasion, is as much about making the reader feel, rather than understand. And in that case, maybe I experienced exactly what the author intended...

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Booking Through Thursday - Lit-Ra-Chur

I've discovered a fantastic blog called Booking Through Thursday, and am participating in the "meme"* for the first time. Here's the question:

· When somebody mentions “literature,” what’s the first thing you think of? (Dickens? Tolstoy? Shakespeare?)
· Do you read “literature” (however you define it) for pleasure? Or is it something that you read only when you must?

And my response:

When I hear the term "literature" I immediately interpret that to mean a book in which the way language is used has more importance than the story itself.

Although I enjoy a beautifully constructed sentence and the poetry of language, I've found I can't always sustain interest for an entire novel unless the story is compelling.

Thankfully, I've realised there are plenty of absolute gems that meet both criteria, like The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, The Patron Saint of Eels by Gregory Day etc.

For me, "literature" also represents the classics. My criteria for reading and enjoying the classics is the same as with contemporary literature or pop fiction: if it's a good story and well written, I'll enjoy it.

In the last few years, I've re-read some of those classics that were compulsory reading in school - e.g. To Kill A Mocking Bird and Animal Farm - as well reading works by Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, Maya Angelou etc for the first time. Not surprisingly, I got more out of them as an adult.

So yes, I read literature for pleasure, but I'm pretty picky about what I tackle (and tend to rely on reviews or recommendations to guide my choices).

*For those like me unfamiliar with the concept of meme, here's a definition (thanks to Booking Through Thursday):

Memememe n (mëm): A unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another. From the Greek mimëma, something imitated, from mimeisthai, to imitate

The stories we create in our heads

If you asked the average person whether they were good at creating stories, the majority would probably answer along the lines of: "no, I don't have a creative bone in my body".

But the truth is, we're all creating stories in our heads, all the time.

I'm not talking about epic works of literature, but simply stories that help us make sense of the world.

The classic example is when we meet someone for the first time. Immediately - generally involuntarily - we begin to make judgements about who they are, what they do, what they're thinking.

We create our own story for them, to help us understand how we should relate to them. We attempt to read their tone, body language and appearance to guess their mood, intention, attitude etc. We then adapt our own response to suit that story (often creating a new problem if we've misinterpreted the original behaviour!).

An innovative American film-maker recently explored the nature of first impressions in fascination fashion.

In his short documentary Cross Examination Josh Weinstein hit the streets of New York with a film camera, and asked complete strangers questions about himself.

The questions ranged from "what's my story?" and "what's my message?", to "what's my family like?", "am I in love?", and "how old was I when I lost my virginity?", with the interviewees' answers based solely on their first impressions.

Weinstein changed clothing and accessories throughout the process, which naturally influenced the answers. But, of course, it's not that simple. Yes we make judgements (create stories) based on people's appearance, voice, language, and facial expressions, but more often than not, the judgements we make make say more about us than them.

It's certainly made me more of aware of how I perceive others - and how much of that opinion making has gone on even before I've become aware of it.

You can check out Cross Examination on you Tube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sE2yyvRDohw (it's only a few minutes long and well worth watching).