Monthly Archives: October 2010

The Thing Around Your Neck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

This is one of those collections of stories which startles readers at every turn. Each story is more revelatory than the one before and while there is clearly a consistent thread running through this author’s work, there are subtle deviations in each telling which bring, for the reader, a whole new perspective on an otherwise overwritten theme.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s primary concern is the position of women in Nigeria and the manner in which they are repeatedly pushed to the peripheries of society and the margins of the perceptions of the world beyond Nigeria. For Adiche, Nigerian women occupy spaces not just in Nigeria but in greater Africa and indeed, in the Western world at large. Several of her characters are wives to husbands in America, dealing with a sense of severe cultural displacement while trying to adapt to life as Wife. These stories all reminded me of Bharti Mukherjee’s fantastic 1976 novel, Wife, a stellar tale about an Indian woman who finds herself in America, incapable of dealing with her new life and with her new husband.

The prose in these stories is pared back, almost hollow. The writing resonates with something beyond simple description, echoing deeper concerns about the impossibility of life for so many of these women. For the reader, the sense of desperation is deadening on one level and inspiring on another. It is this that makes Adiche such an accomplished writer.

The lead story in this collection, The Thing Around Your Neck, is quite possibly one of the best pieces of short fiction I think I have ever read.

You thought everybody in America had a car and a gun; your uncles and aunts and cousins thought so, too. Right after you won the American visa lottery, they told you: In a month, you will have a big car.Soon, a big house. But don’t buy a gun like those Americans.

The positioning of the protagonist in this tale, in the partly accusatory second person, is fascinating. At once the reader is aware of the sense of control which governs the protagonist’s life and simultaneously, we are positioned with the protagonist for we too are “you”. Thus, we are equally disempowered, marginalized, alienated and controlled. Furthermore, although we develop this relationship with the protagonist, we are never told her name and know her only as ‘she’ or ‘you’ or ‘the woman’.

The irony is dense: here is a woman who is surrounded by family but alone. She is moving to America because that is the land of opportunity and as much as she (and everyone she knows) aspires to be like Americans, at the same time, she is taught to be wary. The symbolism of the gun as a signifier of America, a tool of power, a weapon of destruction is ironically the last thing which this woman needs to be worried about. The protagonist’s introduction to America is “a big hot dog with yellow mustard” which nauseates her. Inside her Uncle’s house she feels at home but outside, in the wider world, she is alienated. This is reflected in the fact  that she feels invisible: “Sometimes you felt invisible and tried to walk through your room wall into the hallway, and when you bumped into the wall, it left bruises on your arms.”

The irony continues when readers discover that in truth, our heroine is a slave in so many senses: a slave to her family, a slave to her Uncle’s desires, a slave to her own aspirations to study and make something of herself, and finally, a slave to the love that she eventually finds. It is this sense of slavery which forms that “thing around your neck”.

Reviews:

The Telegraph

Identitytheory.com

New York Times

The Sunday Times

The Guardian

The author talking about this book.

The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson

I started reading this book knowing only that it was a Booker Prize winner and that it was written by a Jewish man called Howard Jacobson. Apart from that I had no preconceptions about what to expect, no assumptions about its style and no notion of its subject matter. I’m not sure why this is as I did read several reviews … clearly they did not make a substantial impact!

I am only about 10% of the way through this book, but I felt that I had to share the fact that I am quite surprised by the unexpected style and tone of this author. This book is quirky. It is luscious and it is actually really funny in parts. Yes, it is sad and has an undercurrent of self-pity and introspection; but on the whole I am delighted to read such a unique piece of reflection, written by a man about a group of men who are such unlikely mates.

More on this when I’m done! So far, it has the thumbs up.

The Death of Bunny Munro, Nick Cave

I had never read a book that has been recommended by Rolling Stone Magazine. There is probably something in that fact, but I think it would detract from my review to explore that notion further! Thanks to textpublishing for breaking my mold!

So, meet Nick Cave, rock star, clearly much revered by Rolling Stone Magazine, intimidating looking dude to say the least and now an author. Meet Bunny Munro, the protagonist in his latest novel, an anti-hero, a sorrowful depiction of how some people live, a terrifying commentary on the state of life when immersed in the zone of sexdrugsrocknroll. Says Rolling Stone Online:

The Death of Bunny Munro is awash in sex, violence and sleaze, a bleakly hilarious trip through the sordid life of a traveling salesman. Like most people you’d meet in a Nick Cave song, Bunny is a disturbing character. He cheats on his wife until she commits suicide, then he takes his nine-year-old son on the road, selling beauty products and trying to hustle the customers. He has depraved fantasies about Minogue as well as Avril Lavinge. “Bunny’s obsessed with sex,” Cave says.”Yet he’s not actually that good at it.”

From the outset Bunny is doomed, his name alone is cause for ridicule! His son, Bunny Junior, is more intelligent and emotionally stable than he is and infinitely more sober. He is clearly physically wasted and tormented by what readers later discover is a challenging relationship with his father. This book is crass, filled with expletives, shocking to the core and there is little to redeem this Bunny for readers.

Ironically, the purity of this text comes from Bunny Junior who so clearly adores his father, worships him on some level, and relies on him as a sort of anchor in a world gone mad. Bunny Junior spends most of the book memorizing his encyclopedia while waiting in the car for his father to return from his various escapades which clearly involve more than just selling beauty products!

This was not an easy book to read. For me, the first glimpse of sunlight in an otherwise superbly disturbing text came on page 75:

“it occurs to him that with each tick of the clock the memory of his mother ares, and she slips away. He feels, with a rush of iced wind across his heart, at even by just lying there he is losing her, little by little. He closes his eyes and attempts with reasonable success to ransack his memory and conjure up images of her. He hopes by doing this that he will prevent her from melting away completely. He wants, deep down, to remember her back into existence.”

Eventually both Bunnies do manage to remember Mrs Munro back into existence: for Bunny senior she appears as a specter come to haunt him and remind him of his sins and for Bunny Junior, she is a warm and guiding hand who reassures him and comforts him. How simply we are influenced by our perspective on things!

Interestingly, there are several different covers for this book. One features just an image of a bunny rabbit:

Another shows a blonde haired boy holding a gun:

And a third shows the object of Bunny’s fantasies:

The range of covers indicates the fact that the emphasis of this text has been interpreted in so many different ways by a range of individuals. Some see the focus on the irony of Bunny’s name, others place the emphasis on Bunny Junior and others still are attracted by the object of Bunny’s desire.

Many reviews have classed this as a humorous novel, a cross between Cormac McCarthy and Benny Hill. I have to confess that I saw very little to laugh about. Whatever humour there was in this text was clearly disguised by crass, alcohol induced, cocaine driven haze. Invisible to me. I shuddered throughout the narrative, shuddered for Bunny and shuddered for Bunny Junior who did so well not to be sucked into the undertow of his father’s mania. And, I shuddered for all those people who actually live this life and for their children who struggle to escape.

Read an interview with the author.

Wyatt, Garry Disher

Disher is a new author for me, and this is his latest book and winner of the Ned Kelly Award for Best Crime Fiction 2010.

The book’s opening sets the scene – “Wyatt was waiting to rob a man of $75,000.” – and it is through this bungled heist that we meet the protagonist, a fearfully calm and reassured man called Wyatt. What we come to learn about him, we gather only from his actions as he is as illusive and mysterious a character as I have ever encountered. He is swift, invisible, a chameleon and incredibly readable!

Wyatt encounters a range of people in this book, some more interesting than others. There is a prostitute, a thug, a police detective and a Frenchman who is a worthy opponent. Of course, there is also the necessary love interest.

However, while this tale could read like trashy crime fiction, it is actually brilliantly written and filled with a dynamism that I have rarely encountered in this genre. Disher does a magnificent job of describing Melbourne and clearly has a keen sense of the place. He takes us through her streets, down her dark alleyways and into her parks. It is a fascinating journey, impeccably narrated and wonderfully layered.

Obviously, the book is filled with the obligatory crime action of sex, drugs and a series of murders and this ensures that the plot is fast paced and quite twisted (I mean this in a positive way!)

The Australian says that Wyatt “simply has to be read in one sitting” and I can certainly attest to that (although it took me two sittings). I normally enjoy a good crime thriller, but this one has far exceeded my expectations and I dare confess that I might be a new Garry Disher fan … Is there going to be a sequel???

Eden, Yael Hedaya

This book is on my imagined ‘must-read’ pile. I can’t recall where I stumbled upon it but I have just read an excerpt and am suitably intrigued – by both the book and the online magazine which provided it! Needless to say, I am now a subscriber to Zeek, said online magazine and am looking forward to reading some new and different things!!

Monday or Tuesday, Lead Story

Lazy and indifferent, shaking space easily from his wings, knowing his way, the heron passes over the church beneath the sky.

This is the opening of the lead story from Woolf’s Monday or Tuesday collection. I’ve been slow reading this as I’m so intrigued by the stories and, furthermore, by their order. I found myself wondering who decides on the order of these collections – author or publisher? For it is indeed strange for this abstract story to follow the feminist bent of A Society.

Strangely, the thing that struck me most about this story was its similarity to Gwen Harwood’s poetry and before I even had a chance to properly digest Woolf I was picking up Harwood and trying to trace some thread of connection … I didn’t find anything concrete but it was enough to intrigue me for Harwood’s “What is truth, cries the heart” is too similar to Woolf’s notion of truth’s assembly to be coincidental. Furthermore, there is a likeness in language too which echoes in an uncanny way … this is something that I will be pondering for a long time  yet!

But, back to this story. It is all of two and a half pages long, filled with austere descriptions of the heron wheeling and turning in a Yeatsian fashion and the magic of the sky cloaking the stars and then revealing them. It seems that Woolf’s concern here is with the nature of reality and therefore her idea of truth – if something is simply hidden by clouds does it still exist, is it still true? And, what is truth?

The sense of movement in this story is simply inspiring: the bird “shaking space”, the sky endlessly “covers and uncovers, moves and remains” and there is a sense that everything is “drifting at corners” and “blown across the wheels”, as Woolf writes: “gathered, scattered, squandered in separate scales, swept up, down, torn, sunk, assembled”. For the reader, it is difficult to pinpoint what exactly Woolf is writing about, is there actually a story in the sense that we expect or is she musing about the nature of her writing in its essence, the process of recollection that is language and its evolution?

There are so many questions and the reader is left wondering if it is the heron who holds all the answers. “Lazy and indifferent the heron returns; the sky veils her stars; then bares them.”

I need to think about this further, to read it again and again, to immerse myself in its lyricism. There is no doubt that it is beautiful but there is something in this story that evades my grasp and leaves me somehow in darkness. It is a darkness I am happy to inhabit with such a writer beside me.

Book Awards

Well, the winner of the Booker Prize is Howard Jacobson with his Finkler Question. He is now 50,000 pounds richer and we can all move on to think about other things. I will eventually wade my way through the Booker shortlist and Finkler is definitely on my ‘must read’ list, but for now, on to greener pastures!

The American National Book Award has announced its shortlist and I am unsure.

Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America (Alfred A. Knopf)

Jaimy GordonLord of Misrule (McPherson & Co.)

Nicole Krauss, Great House (W.W. Norton & Co.)

Lionel Shriver, So Much for That
(Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)

Karen Tei Yamashita, I Hotel (Coffee House Press)

I’m not a Peter Carey fan so I don’t think I’ll be rushing to read his Parrot and Oliver and I read Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love simply because she is Safran Foer of Extremely Loud fame’s wife and was sorely disappointed – whether that was because of the quality of the book or my need to compare her to her brilliant husband, I can’t quite say. I loved Shriver’s Kevin, but have been unable to read anything else she has written because I was simply too disturbed by Kevin to contemplate her again … this one definitely looks worth a look. I haven’t heard of the other two authors but I’m happy to try anything bookish at least once!

Any thoughts?

New Books

Looking very forward to some new reading matter. Check out the following:

The Lieutenant, Kate Grenville

Wyatt, Garry Disher

The Women in Black, Madeleine St John

The Death of Bunny Munro, Nick Cave

Quick Reads

You might enjoy Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen’s contribution to The New Yorker.

Both pieces are insightful and thought provoking, and encapsulate wonderful textual integrity!

Thanks to Sasha whose read of short stories last month has inspired my interest in shorter fiction!

Monday or Tuesday

Well, I’ve dived into Virginia Woolf’s short stories. Not sure why since most of you will know that this is not my favourite genre.  I’ve only read the first two stories in this collection but I am so excited to be reminded of Woolf’s magnificent prose that I couldn’t resist sharing.

The first story, A Haunted House, is remarkably short. Woolf’s strength is revealed here as she clearly captures the atmosphere of this house and the ghosts haunting it. The story is filled with rhetorical questions – “What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?” – which are posed by the ghosts who are seeking “their joy” which they describe as a buried treasure. The metaphor is marvellous, the house imbued with this miraculous energy, their memories encased in the very air that fills these spaces, the “heart of the house” literally “beats proudly”. The notion of this joy as connected to pride leads us to the heart of Woolf’s message in this story: Joy comes from connections between people and it is through others that we find ourselves. For Woolf, this realisation often comes too late:

“Death was the glass; death was between us; coming to the woman first, hundreds of years ago, leaving the house, sealing all the windows; the rooms were darkened … ‘Safe, safe, safe,’ the pulse of the house beats gladly. ‘The Treasure yours.'”

Ironically, the second story in this collection is remarkably different to the first one. In A Society Woolf clearly conveys her feminist bent, parodying patriarchal influences and emphases. The story describes a group of young women who gather regularly over a period of years to investigate the contribution that man has made to the world, particularly to the world of books.

“We have gone on all these ages supposing that men were equally industrious, and that their works were of equal merit. While we have borne the children, they, we supposed, have borne the books and the pictures. We have populated the world. They have civilised it. but now that we can read, what prevents us from judging the results? Before we bring another child into the world we must swear that we will find out what the world is like.”

The subtext is clear here, the revelation “Why did my father teach me to read?” when there is nothing worth reading? Together these women decide that they will collectively not bear any more children until they are satisfied with man’s contribution.

The realisations abound in this story and it is quite brilliant in the way that it engages reader through humour and wit. For me, this is essential Woolf, encapsulating all that makes her brilliant.