Category Archives: belonging

David Grossman, More Than I Love My Life

I have to preface my words with an admission. I am a huge David Grossman fan. I love his writing style, I love his choice of material, his themes, the flow of his stories. I love the fact that his literary journey in many ways covers the history of the modern state of Israel. I love that I can read the arc of his work and see into him as an Israeli and as a Jew. I love that I often see flickers of myself in his prose. And I love the tenderness that always floats beneath the surface of his work. I will also confess that I read Grossman in English, although if I applied myself I could probably manage the Hebrew … on some level I’m worried that I would miss the music if I laboured through the original and that seems too tragic to bear.

I knew that Grossman was working on this book because I had the great pleasure of spending a few hours with the glorious Deborah Harris and Grossman called her while we were chatting. I won’t lie – it was one of the highlight’s of my life 🙂 So I was waiting with anticipation for this book which Harris described as his magnum opus – literally the most epic book he had ever written.

Given what I have shared about my adoration of Grossman’s work, I’ll start with what I thought were the stellar parts of the book. Firstly, the back story which is about Eva Panic (pronounced Punitsch). Apparently Grossman and Panic were close friends for many years and this book pays homage to her story. The story itself is devastating and I highly recommend that any readers of this book also delve into Panic’s life … I started with this article in Ha’Aretz which I thought provided a good foundation and this documentary on YouTube (you’ll have to search for all the parts as it’s broken up into segments). What struck me about Panic’s story is that it sheds light on a Holocaust experience which I think is often forgotten or perhaps neglected – that of rural villagers and communist supporters. While Panic’s own parents were taken to Auschwitz and killed there, she and her husband saved 1500 people from the Nazis. The choice that Panic faces and the repercussions of that choice are unimaginable to me; but knowing this background helped me to empathise somewhat with her as she is depicted in Grossman’s book.

Two things that Grossman always does well are characterisation of people and depiction of place. This book is no exception. Grossman paints his characters so delicately that they appear to be real. They are immeasurably flawed, painfully broken and simultaneously rich and varied. They celebrate love and wallow in loss with ferocious confidence. They are selfish and self-obsessed to the extreme and at times this is painful to read and witness. But it is real. They all need therapy – much like most people I know. Grossman’s Eva (aka Vera in the novel) is exactly the kind of person I would have liked to know. She reeks of history, languages mashed together in her heavy accent (and yes, I could sense the accent even through the translation). She is strong and coarse and bold. She is a fighter, stubborn and resistant but also passionate and while abrasive, she warms gently at startling moments. Reading about Vera I was reminded of Meir Shalev’s beautiful My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner which also took place in a Kibbutz setting and similarly featured a grandmother, although of different extraction. In truth, Vera reminded me somewhat of my maternal grandmother who was both cold and warm in a way that I think only a survivor of some tragedy can be. I leaned in to Vera but I was simultaneously repulsed by her callousness. She is clearly the spine of this book and for me it was her voice that carried the narrative – both her spoken voice and the silences behind which she hid much truth.

There were some interesting moments in this book – the scene at the airport, at Vera’s birthday party, the storm on the island. But while these stand out as particularly strong, there was much about this book that seemed to be lacking. I’m not sure whether it was the weight of the story that overburdened the narrative or whether there was something else at play. What I do know is that this isn’t Grossman’s best book. It’s good. It’s interesting. And the story is certainly worth telling. But it’s not … I don’t have the word exactly. It’s like it’s trying to be something greater than it is… There are moments when Vera is lost in the story and her telling of it and I feel as though Grossman himself was lost in the same thing. As though holding Eva was somehow too great a task – and now that I’ve watched an interview with Eva I can see that this is true. She is larger than life, despite her small stature. She is unyielding and overflowing and glorious – impossible to capture and perhaps it is this that undoes Grossman’s novel.

Undoubtedly, Grossman’s steady brilliance sets a very high standard and it’s fair to say that this book is definitely worth reading because Eva/Vera’s voice should never be forgotten and because memory so easily melts and fades and because Grossman is just such a force in the world of literature. So read it. And read beyond it.

Craig Silvey, Honeybee

I’m not sure why I was surprised. I loved Jasper Jones, thought it was raw and striking and provocative. I loved it so much that I read it twice… and when Silvey came out with Honeybee I didn’t hesitate, I bought the book immediately. And then, for some reason, it sat on my shelf and gathered dust. I’m not sure why … I can only think that the cover image reminded me of what I thought Scott Monk’s protagonist might have looked like in his book Raw which left me underwhelmed to say the least.

In any event, Silvey’s protagonist stared back at me from the top shelf and every so often I thought “perhaps I should read that” and then was distracted by something or someone and the book remained. Alone.

But yesterday, I read Damon Galgut’s magnificent The Promise. I finished the book and sat there literally feeling bereft because it was done and I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. I flicked through the pages wondering whether to start at the beginning again. It didn’t seem right. And then I felt Honeybee staring down at me and I knew that now was its time.

I suspect there is indeed a deep connection between these two books for me. Galgut’s Africa is my birthplace. It rang deep in me, a bell tolling – but more about that in another post. And Silvey’s book described my home of the last 30 odd years, where I’ve lived most of my adult life, where I arrived as a 14 or 15 year old into that crazy space in between called adolescence and while I wasn’t exactly a ‘honeybee’ in the way Silvey describes, I think we are all honeybees on some level perhaps searching for a place to belong and I certainly felt like that arriving in Australia all those years ago.

So, Honeybee. What can I say. I was hooked from the very beginning. This beautiful tender moment on an overpass, the soft play of the idea of passing over mixed into the darkness, and the simple and honest relationship that develops between these two remarkable characters. I loved them both. Equally. But differently. Sam for his youth and his sorrow and his hollow existence and his sad past and tragic mother and his disconnection and culinary brilliance. Vic for his loneliness and aloneness, his secrets and his great love. And I loved the music that appeared when the two of them were together, a sense that all was right in the world. I loved the resilience of both these men and their deep goodness, despite the challenges that they both faced. I loved the friendship that emerged between them and then between each of them and others. I won’t say more because it will destroy the magic that unfolds between neighbours and like minded souls.

Perhaps the most remarkable element of this book is the strength that each of these characters demonstrates when seeking to bring joy and resolution to the other. It’s the same sentiment that I remember from Jasper Jones. In truth, Honeybee reminded me that some people are just inherently good and that is a wonderful thing.

Nine Days, Toni Jordan

downloadSo reading friends, I have discovered the awesomeness of overdrive and my local library. It’s not actually a new discovery, I’ve had the overdrive app on my iPad for the longest time. For some reason, I’ve just never used it. But lo and behold, the other night I was bored and found myself cruising the Randwick Library e-shelves and look what I found – miles and miles and miles of virtual books which are just waiting to be plucked and devoured by little old me. Who knew! It is like heaven, only better… and because I have multiple children, I have multiple cards which means no limit to the amount of books I can download at any one time … it’s overwhelming and dangerous and positively intoxicating for a reading fiend like me. So I downloaded some books for my kids – it’s their card after all – and then began browsing … ah the bliss! But before I succumbed to random book borrowing, I forced myself to consult my trusty and ever-growing Evernote list entitled “Books to Read”. I am too scared to count how many books there are on this list and I very rarely actually read these books. I simply add to the list. Often. Only occasionally erasing the odd book which I actually read. But somehow just having the list is enough to bring me the comfort of knowing that I won’t ‘lose’ the titles of those books which I just know I HAVE to read.

Anyway, back to business. Toni Jordan. One of the few Australian authors who can count me as their number one fan. She is simply stellar. A true genius, crafting softly worded tales about complex characters which punch you in the stomach, leaving you winded and on the verge of tears. She has a wonderful ability to truly capture a very Australian spirit without being cliche or kitsch. And while I generally loathe Australian fiction, Jordan does something that really grabs me – it is as though she brings to life the esse of a slippery Australian identity which is fraught with angst and loneliness and beauty.

Not only does Jordan weave a masterful story, but she does it so tenderly over generations. In this novel each of the central characters is given a chapter of their own which unfolds their role in the larger narrative. The Sydney Morning Herald calls Nine Days a “sprawling family drama” but I didn’t feel this sense of vastness or distance in Jordan’s telling. Quite the opposite, I felt a closeness that I see in many families; my own included. I found Jordan’s book to be sensitive, shocking at times and definitely loaded with a wonderful empathy that only became evident once the struggles of the individual characters had cleared to make way for the depth that hovers in this text. I loved that each character was so separated, described as having their own lives, their own problems and quirks, yet at the same time was so invested in the extended family – past and present – and so much a product of the influences of all these family members. “Like so many things that shape us, it’s the smallest actions that add up to leave the deepest marks.”

There are too many subtle themes in this book to convey them all in a short book review – family, love, friendship, honesty, belonging. One which resonated to me was exposed toward the novel’s end:

“‘Alec. You must know this. People disappear. They just go puff. Thin air. Every time you see someone, you never know if you’re seeing them for the last time. Drink them in, Alec. Kiss them. It’s very important. Never let anyone say goodbye, even for a little while, without kissing them. Press your lips against the people you love. Hands, they can touch anything. Open doors, hold cameras, hang clothes on the line. It’s lips that matter.”

I could share so many sections of this book that I have underlined for posterity but that would only give away the magic of this prose and ruin the dignity of the story which you have to discover for yourselves. Instead, I will leave you just with the last line of Jordan’s novel Nine Days:

“I can hardly believe my good fortune. Everything will be alright.”

11/22/63, Stephen King

As a young reader I ploughed through all of Stephen King’s work. I can’t quite recall what grabbed me at the time … Most probably it was just that his work was just so readable and gripping. It has been a long time since I read any of King’s work and I have to confess that I only picked this one up because of a high school history project that I once did on JFK. I couldn’t resist seeing what King had done with this era and how he had resolved some of the controversies surrounding Kennedy’s assassination.

In hindsight, this book had some interesting elements. I was intrigued by King’s description of time travel and the implications of changing the past. At times I felt that this part of the book was too drawn out and at times meaningless. But I did find myself considering his notion of the “butterfly effect” and the waves of change that ripple from any one moment in time …

It was clear that King had done considerable research in constructing this narrative – reconstructing the events around Kennedy’s last moments and building Lee Harvey Oswald’s persona seductively in the background. I found all of this very well crafted. The insights that King provided were intriguing and certainly provided much food for thought. Who was Oswald? Was he a patsy? King’s time travel enables him to envisage multiple endings or resolutions to this situation and I found that quite liberating in some way.

As to be expected, King’s characters were wonderful and layered and there was sufficient thrill in each of them to provide action to sustain the flow of the book and to carry King’s underlying interest in the Kennedy story.

Despite all these intriguing elements, I found reading this book somewhat slow and at times tedious. While I appreciate King’s desire to properly explore his context, there were times when I felt that he had done so in a manner that was too long winded and that detracted from the flow and speed of his narrative. I don’t think I would recommend this book to anyone … If you have an interest in Kennedy then it is a must read, or, if you are a history buff and appreciate some of the deeper nuances of the passing of time and the impact of all events on the evolution of society and the world, then I expect you will find this book well worth the time.

Secret Daughter, Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Loved this book, loved this book, loved this book! What a great story, intriguing characters and endearing moments. A pleasure to read. I thoroughly enjoyed the juxtaposition of cultures, the clash between America and India and the challenges of trying to balance the influences of each place.

Somer, a high achieving American woman meets and marries Kris, an Indian who is studying in America. They have the picture perfect relationship. Both graduate as doctors and they begin their lives living the American Dream. But, Somer can’t seem to have children and despite everything that they try she is unable to carry to term and suffers two miscarriages. Somer is devastated and cannot get past her inability to realise her potential as a mother.

Somer and Kris’ story is balanced with equal attention and tension with the story of Mr and Mrs Merchant, a couple living in rural India. They live at the mercy of the seasons and are subject to the cultural preference of sons over daughters.  The story that unfolds is somewhat predictable: Mr and Mrs Merchant have a daughter that they surrender for adoption and Somer and Kris land up adopting that daughter.Where this novel excels is in the development of these five very different characters. Each is wonderfully unique and multi-dimensional. Their personal growth and journey is well worth the read and often inspiring. Kris’ Indian mother was particularly fascinating and delightful.

I highly recommend this book!

 

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