Monthly Archives: March 2011

Blue Skies, Helen Hodgman

This is one of those incredibly intriguing books that seems to resonate long after the last page has closed. I don’t think it’s a book that I would have ordinarily read, but I have so enjoyed textpublishing’s crop of books that I was inspired to read this one. (Those of you who follow my blog will know about my general aversion to all things related to Australian literature!)

Blue Skies is a magnificently written book. The sense of place that Hodgman facilitates is awe-inspiring, her appreciation of tones of light and shades of colour easily transport readers into a whole other world. But, while there is a magic to this world, it is tinged with an absurdity that seems to me to be characteristic of someone suffering from depression or some other illness.

The protagonist in this story is a young woman who seems to have literally stumbled upon her role as wife and mother after a romp in the back seat of her mother in law’s car. She appears to be mostly detached from her daughter and incapable of creating anything of her life inside her house, near the sea. She spends seemingly endless hours staring out the window, watching her neighbour try and cultivate grass in the dry Tasmanian sand, or sleeping until she has lost all sense of time. She is an incredibly disturbing character, and a believable one to boot. Her entire presence in this text is as an outsider – she is outside her world, watching from afar – and the book opens with the line: “I’d watched it from the beginning.” The watching mostly occurs as a form of absence from the action – she watches from inside, through the door, from the hill, through the window. She is rarely a part of events and when she is, it is in a very detached, lost manner. But, I think that this will make her more real and more appealing for most readers.

Without spoiling the story, I will tell you that ironically, the minor characters in this tale – think of them as Tuesday and Thursday, or Jonathan and Ben, whichever you prefer – are entrenched in all sorts of illicit action … in fact, even the bus driver gets some action in this narrative! There are scenes here of outrageousness that struck me as wonderfully juxtaposed to the protagonist’s quietude.

This is definitely a book to be read!

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One Foot in Eden, Ron Rash

This book was a pleasure to read. Set in 1951 in South Carolina, its backdrop is the dying rural areas of a farming community. The story is told five times, from five different perspectives: Holland Winchester is murdered and each telling fleshes  out the circumstances of his demise.

I loved the subtle nuances that distinguished the various tellings of this murder, the various tones that appeared so miraculously through the language that Rash has used so cleverly to construct this tale.

By the novel’s end I felt so moved by each of the characters that a part of me wanted to return to the beginning to revisit their individual tales. The Sheriff, who has tried so hard to distance himself from his roots; the Wife who is so torn by her desire to have children; the Husband, whose world is so black and white; the Son, who faces down the truth and the Deputy, whose words end this tale: “This was a place for the lost.”

What I enjoyed most about this story was that each character was so well defined. I haven’t seen this type of fullness of identity in characters in a long time and this was an excellent way to be reminded of the value of fully developed characters.

Rash’s book is a pleasure to read.

August, Bernard Beckett

This one came from the good folk at Textpublishing. I was attracted to the book for several reasons, one of which was that the author shares a last name with Samuel Beckett, one of the most probing writers of our time. The other major thing which intrigued me about this text was its cover page which is seemingly upside down, an indication of things to come! I was also particularly fascinated with the book’s opening which describes the protagonists trapped in a car wreck, inverted, clearly seriously injured.

I wanted desperately to like this book, in fact, I really wanted to love this book. I think that this partly accounts for my disappointment – my high expectations. The opening is superb:

“For a moment the balance was uncertain. The headlights stabbed at the thick night. A rock loomed, smooth and impassive, then swung out of the frame. A stunted tree rushed at him, gnarled and prickly. The seat pushed hard, resisting his momentum. Road, rock again, grass, gravel. The forces resolved their differences and he was gliding, a dance of sorts, but he was deaf to its rhythm, just as he was deaf to her screams. Instinct fought the wheel, but the future drew them in.”

I was immediately intrigued and desperate to find out what drew these characters to this point, to this fall.

However, I think that this book was somehow too dense for me, too heavily resting upon philosophical tenets about which I know very little and this was my disadvantage. The text grapples with the question of free will from a Christian perspective. The title alludes to the influence of Saint Augustine on the thinkings of this text – Saint Augustine was concerned with the concept of the original sin and the notion of free will. All this was culturally alienating to me and I found myself floundering, often, while reading.

I certainly enjoyed some of Beckett’s prose and his basic plot was definitely interesting but I feel as though I need to complete a Bachelor’s in Christian theology in order to properly appreciate this text.

 

Me and Mr Booker, Cory Taylor

Me and Mr BookerThis was an unusual book, disturbing on some level but flippant on another.

The book describes the peculiar friendship and affair between an adult – Mr Booker – and a sixteen year old girl. The tale is set in a small town where there are limited opportunities for young people.

While at face value the story is definitely intriguing, I can’t say that this book captivated me. Rather I found myself irritated by the characters, frustrated by their attitudes and the never ending repetition of disappointments and their overall inability to take control of their lives. Even Mr Booker’s wife, who is so much a victim of circumstance and her own sorrow, wasn’t a character with whom I could empathise or for whom I felt anything at all, bar some sense of lethargy.

Taylor has set herself a hard (some would say impossible) task to follow in Nabakov’s footsteps. Lolita is so much more of a text on every level that it is hard not to make the comparisons.

If you are looking for a well written book that is interesting on some levels but doesn’t quite make you shake in your boots then this is a good one.

Al Confino, A Child by Eric Lamet

There is always something interesting to find  in an autobiography or memoir. This book was no exception. It tells the true story of a boy who flees Vienna with his parents at the outset of World War II as the Nazi’s invade. The child’s parents are separated and the father disappears. The mother and child are relocated in Italy and are interned in a small village which to them seems largely uncivilised. There they wait out the war.

One of the strengths of this book is clearly the fact that it tells the story of life for internees in Italy during the war. This is not the usual Holocaust narrative and so it is refreshing (that’s not really the right word to use in these circumstances …) to read of the lives of those who survived the war in different circumstances.

While this aspect of the book intrigued me, I found the bulk of the text very difficult to read. At times I was bored and I can’t quite work out why. Were my expectations so far off or was the book poorly narrated? I don’t think I felt “let down”, simply not engaged in the way that I would have liked to have been.

I can recommend this book only in as much as it reveals such fabulous detail about Italy at this time and that it is a memoir and that in itself makes it worth reading. Personally, I have read other Holocaust memoirs that have been far better crafted and which have gripped me more fervently.

Resilience, Elizabeth Edward

This is one of those books that echoes. I can’t think of another word for it … it’s not quite a resonating book, it’s more hollow, more substantial than a mere tremor.

Elizabeth Edwards died on December 7th, 2010, following a long battle with cancer. She is most renowned for her position as the wife of John Edwards, candidate for Vice President of the United States in 2004.

However, this is not who Elizabeth Edwards was and this book explores the layers of her life which defined her. It is one of those books that is both beautiful and extremely difficult to read. It traces the tragedy of her son’s death, her own battle with cancer and the myriad of other events which shaped her. Edwards is eloquent, refined and her writing is graceful beyond description. At times I felt that she belabored her point somewhat, but I cannot complain about this as I have never experienced all that she has and therefore I cannot comprehend the therapy that this writing would have been for her.

Essentially, this book is about Edwards’ own resilience and the resilience that exists, somewhere, in each of us:

“Too many times I have had to use my father’s strength – or my mother’s grace as she stood beside him – as a touchstone. I suspect we each have someone like him, someone whose personal courage in the face of impossible odds inspires us to do something we thought we could not do, who reminds us that what seems like  a mountain in front of us can in fact be climbed. My father was an imperfect man in many ways, but maybe it was better that he was imperfect and that I knew he was, for I learned that perfection was not a requirement of resilience. This was Dad, and if could decide to live, so could I.”

It is this sentiment that follows Edwards throughout this book: “I write this book as if that is the beginning and end of what I did, but it is only a small slice of the middle, a place that is hard to reach, and, in reaching it, only a stepping-off place for finding or creating a new life with our new reality. Each time I got knocked down, it took me some time just to get to acceptance, and in each case, that was only part of the way home.”

The book is peppered with stark revelations: “And yet I am, more because I am the one who raised them than that I had some extraordinary skill, the very best mother for my children, and because they raised me, they are the very best children for me.” Her journey through tragedy takes her to this place of acceptance, where Edwards can let go of the old story of her old life and write a new one.

“I have said before that I do not know what the most important lesson is that I will ever teach my children… I do know that when they are older and telling their own children about their grandmother, they will be able to say that she stood in the storm, and when the wind did not blow her away – and it surely has not – she adjusted her sails.”

This book taught me many things, but one thing that stands out above all others is that Elizabeth Edwards was a great woman and her death is a loss to all who were never privileged to know her.

History of a Suicide, Jill Bialosky

“Before Kim ended her life, I thought, like most people, that someone who would take his or her own life was somehow different from the rest of us. I was wrong.”

This is how Bialosky begins her account of her “voyage to come to grips” with her sister’s suicide.

On one level, there is almost nothing more to say about this book. Its subject matter is so fraught, so intense, so complex, that trying to encapsulate it in the confines of a review like this cannot possibly do it even an iota of justice. Bialosky’s narrative is guilt ridden and twisted, the challenges of her sister’s suicide enmeshed with those challenges that confront her own life. She cannot separate one tragedy from the other and there is no point trying.

But, despite the sorrow and despair that lines the edges of these pages, Bialosky’s memoir is magnificently told. It is littered with references that expose the author as a fine literary afficionado. There are allusions to Styron, to Eliot and to Plath’s The Bell Jar. In trying to understand her sister’s action, Bialosky (I want to call her Jill!) journeys into the very heart of what makes people suicidal, she visits psychologists, reads everything written on the subject, crawls into the skin of her sister, pouring over her journal, retracing steps over and over and over again, seeking some sense, or perhaps just seeking absolution.

What makes this such a particularly beautiful book is that Bialosky knows that her sister’s “life and death have shaped us in profound ways”, she knows that her sister’s loss is a shadow over her life, “wrapped inside the tree that shades our yard”  and that the dialogue she will have with her sister’s death “is never ending”. Ironically she writes: “In her death I was closer to her than I had been the few years before she died when she had kept a wedge between us so I would not catch sight of the troubled person she had become.”

So, while Bialosky spends almost the entire book exploring the reasons for her sister’s suicide and evaluating her own reactions to the event, what she has actually written is a love story, for “no one is truly dead when we go on loving them.” The compassion and grace with which she positions herself and her family in this book is testimony to her realisation that “the tragedy of suicide is that only in its aftermath does everything that came before suddenly seem important and dear.”

Quite simply one of the most beautiful, breath-taking books I think I have ever had the pleasure to read.