Category Archives: General Literature

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.

God Help the Child, Toni Morrison

download (1)Confession: Until I read this book, I had never read a Toni Morrison book before.  I’m not quite sure why. Sure, I know all about Beloved and I feel as though I know Morrison – I certainly felt as thought I had a intimate taste of her writing as I read this book – and I wasn’t disappointed. This is exactly what I thought Morrison would feel like… if that makes sense.

When I think Morrison, I think Maya Angelou but somehow without the gravely tone of her voice and the echo of her depths. I realise that this is a very sensory response to a piece of writing but I don’t see that there is any other way to response to such a work. I agree with Kara Walker who says, in the NY Times review: “Toni Morrison has always written for the ear, with a loving attention to the textures and sounds of words.”

I don’t think I can do a review of this book justice. Not sure it’s worth trying since The Guardian has done such a superb job! What I will say is that the premise of this book quite distubed me. I expected the colour issue and I expected a feminist angle and I wasn’t disappointed on either count. What I found confronting was the story itself – the way that the protagonist, Bride, physically regresses in response to the burden of a lie she told as a child. In her own mind, her body reverts back to her childhood self. It was this that disturbed me, perhaps because it was most unexpected.

I wasn’t bowled over by this book. I loved the majesty of Morrison’s prose – there’s no doubt that she has a symphony hidden in her pen, or her keyboard or quill. She is clearly a master of language and storytelling. I was captivated by the story and by Bride’s boyfriend, Booker – I found him fascinating. I think where I was left somewhat empty was in Bride herself. There was something in her voice that didn’t entirely resonate with me, something I can’t quite put my finger on… Perhaps it is just in comparison to the grandeur of the prose that I have been left with such a high expectations of perfection from this author.

As The Atlantic so succintly puts it: “Rather than craft big novels, Morrison has distilled her fictions with atomic elements.”

This novel was certainly worth the read and Morrison is truly one of the greats. Equally fascinating, are the various opinions of the different reviews which all provide such insight into this intriguing little book.

Mark Haddon, The Red House

I‘ve been trying to work out what it is about Mark Haddon’s writing that so appeals to me. I can’t quite seem to put my finger on it. He has such a distinctive style that it is difficult to pinpoint the exact element which stands out as stellar.

Haddon tells a story through his characters and their inner thoughts. On one level, his writing seems disjointed, fractured, fragmented and at first, it was a challenge to sink into this book. But then something happens and suddenly you are committed to the story and the people and their lives and you need to know, you have to see the resolution, how they come together or are torn apart.

I’ve read a few of Haddon’s books now and they all seem to be an intimate portrait of family and the intricacies which make each one so unique. This book was no exception. I don’t think it is Haddon’s best work, but I am glad I read it for it made me think and reconsider how I relate to others, particularly those closest to me.

 

A Tiger in Eden, Chris Flynn

This book came courtesy of the good folk at textpublishing and I have to say that off the bat it wasn’t something that would normally attract my reading attention. On the surface, this book traces the journey of an Irish man wanted for ‘things’ he did back in Ireland. To survive, he has travelled to Thailand where he is living an idyllic but tortured existence romping from beach to beach and woman to woman.

But that is just one element of this story, and a sometimes superfluous one at that.

What this book is really about is a man’s struggle to negotiate the minefield of his past, to learn to accept responsibility for actions that he chose to take and then to be able to move forward and actually know and like himself in his truest form. For me, it was this that was at the core of this novel.

I am still unsure whether or not Flynn has actually managed to pull off this challenging weave of Irish rebel replete with ‘No Surrender’ tattoo and soul-searching individual perched in the strange embrace of a monk’s meditation retreat. I agree with what Rob Minshall at the ABC Weekend Bookworm has noted:

… if anything, and considering his supposedly violent past and bigoted beliefs, Billy’s character is a little too sensitive. An Australian girl composing songs on the beach moves him to tears at one stage of the novel, he falls in love awfully quickly, he enjoys a good book and, considering his years as a sectarian street fighter, he’s terribly perceptive about cultural differences.

I do think that the ending came together too easily and that has let the book down a bit. I wanted more than just a sweet happy sunset. It didn’t seem to do the subtext of this novel justice.

What I do know is that I read this book and enjoyed it, it made me think about people I would not have otherwise thought about, in a way that I definitely would never have considered appropriate for their stereotype. I warmed to this different approach and in this way, the book was, for me, successful.

“You think I don’t know what the world’s like sure I seen more than most men could stand and I done things I’m not proud of … I done enough bad shit in my life and I need to get myself sorted out before it’s too late, maybe it is already maybe I’m just kidding myself on but I got nothing left no more enthusiasm for nothing I’ve just got to stop and face up to the world before it crushes me like the f*cking worthless bug that I am.”

I couldn’t help but like Billy and I liked him even more when I read this interview with Flynn which I think adds enormously to the book.

This is definitely worth a read and I will be watching out for more from this debut author.

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.

We Are All Made of Glue, Marina Lewycka

I have absolutely no idea whatsoever what attracted me to this book. I recall seeing the book by the same author with the bizarre title about Tractors in Ukrainian and I being so perturbed by the peculiarness of the title that I never bothered to give the book a second glance. I had never read any review about this book nor had I read anything about Lewycka as an author. I had nothing to guide me but the apparent ‘fun’ that this author seeks as implied by those tractors.

So, imagine my surprise and sheer delight when I discovered that this book was filled with the most magnificent characters in a traditional sense. Here were people who seemed real. People with issues, people who struggled with themselves and with the world without needing psychotherapy. People who seemed somehow whole, despite their many holes.

I was gripped from the moment I first encountered Georgie Sinclair vigorously throwing her husband’s precious LPs into the dumpster. I was even more taken by the quirky Mrs Shapiro, a neighbour, who we meet ravaging through the dumpster and delighting over her find. The conflicting values between these two women make them a perfect combination to force readers to reconsider their own connections with people, what manufactures those connections and how they are cemented.

For some very strange reason, Georgie and Mrs Shapiro are bonded, quite like glue in fact. Georgie comes to Mrs Shapiro’s aid in many ways throughout the book, saving her from nursing homes and other nightmares. However, at the same time Mrs Shapiro gives Georgie back the passion that she has lost somewhere along the road that is her life. I loved the way that these two bantered and related, the way they resided both separately and within each other, alongside each other, connected but clearly apart.

Even more than the characters, I loved the plot. The twists and crazy turns were fabulous. There were so many highlights that I can’t name them all and doing so would only spoil the story for those who might choose to read it. Needless to say, this book spoke to me on so many levels and really reignited a joy for reading that is so often lost beneath the mire of more intense and overtly challenging texts.

In this book I read satire and endearment, love and passion, politics and sociology. I read health care and economics, I read deceit and resolve. I read families and loneliness, connections and the wonderful unfolding of furls of tangents which made the characters so multi-dimensional. Watch out for the action with Georgie’s son to understand some of my meaning here!

So, I eat my words. Tractors in Ukrainian sounds, in hindsight, like a magnificent idea… along with Two Caravans and anything else this marvellous author cares to pen.

The Book of Lies, Mary Horlock

Textpublishing provides the following outline of this book:

Guernsey, 1985. Fifteen-year-old Catherine Rozier has a secret she can no longer keep to herself. It’s about the night her best friend fell from the cliffs.

Twenty years earlier, Charlie Rozier stands at the edge of the same cliffs, looking for a confession of a different kind. He thinks he was betrayed by his friend during the Occupation, and now he wants the truth to come out.

This stunning debut from Mary Horlock is about the conflicts and trials of growing up, the secrets of families, and the repressed histories that we all harbour. Captivating and moving, it is a journey with two characters whose unique voices the reader will not easily forget.

It sounds captivating. It wasn’t.

I really and truly struggled with this book. I so desperately wanted to like the characters, to be drawn into the plot and to be carried away into another time and place. But, none of this happened. I found the first part of the book terribly boring, slow moving and at times confusing. I felt as though there was something there waiting to be discovered but it was never really revealed. My position as reader in this relationship was frustrating to say the least and I read on to the final page only because of this feeling that buried here was something great.

Despite the challenges that I faced in actually completing this book (read: it took me a REALLY REALLY REALLY LLLLLOOOOOOONNNNNNGGGGG time!), what I found most interesting was the context of Guernsey during WWII. In fact, I was so taken by this background that at times I found myself researching some of the events and descriptions which Horlock provided in outlining the backdrop for part of the story.

When I go back and reread the book’s opening, it doesn’t seem so bad. It actually captures some of the elements which so attracted me to the book in the first place. For a moment I have to consider that perhaps I have missed the book’s essence … but no, I don’t think this is the case. I wasn’t convinced on too many levels – even the title didn’t seem to fit with the angst that this book described. Poor Cat, fat and lumpy she seemed to me, totally out of place, exactly as I imagine Guernsey to be, funnily enough (not that I have anything but assumptions to base that on!). But, rather than empathise with Cat, I found her irritating. She grated on me as I imagine she grated on her peers. And, to top it all off, I found Nicolette’s actions totally over-exaggerated and unrealistic, especially toward the end as Cat tries to recall the events of the night on the cliff. Whether Nic’s behaviour is described in this way as a means to convey Cat’s version of events (a type of justification), I cannot be sure. Nonetheless, there are too many moments in this text where Nic seems excessive in terms of characterisation.

Feel free to read some other reviews here, here and here.

What has stayed with me most from this read is how relieved I am that I finally reached the last page!

(As an aside, I have read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and I found that a far more endearing read.)

Alice Munro

How is it that I have never before read Alice Munro? How is it possible that I have missed such awe inspiring brilliance? I am stumped. Baffled. I feel as though I have suddenly discovered all that I am lacking in my appreciation of literature, of texts in general. What else am I missing out on? I shudder to think!

Alice Munro and short stories to boot (you will recall that this is my least favorite genre)!

“When she realized what was in her head, she should have got off the bus. She could have got off even at the gates, with the few other women who plodded up the drive. She could have crossed the road and waited for a bus back to the city. Probably some people did that. They were going to make a visit and then decided not to. People probably did that all the time.
But maybe it was better that she had gone on, and seen him so strange and wasted. Not a person worth blaming for anything. Not a person. He was like a character in a dream.
She had dreams. In one dream she had run out of the house after finding them, and Lloyd had started to laugh in his old easy way, and then she had heard Sasha laughing behind her and it had dawned on her, wonderfully, that they were all playing a joke.”

In this first story of her collection Too Much Happiness, Munro has carved a fluid, simple and wonderfully vivid and intense narrative without being overwhelming. She has danced around this story in a way that clearly indicates her skill and alacrity. She is subtle with a sense of integrity or perhaps, even, innocence or naïveté?

Clearly, Munro’s ability to manipulate the flow and style of this genre sets her apart from so many other short story writers who have, in the past, so defined this genre for me.

Am I allowed to confess that I possibly enjoy Munro more than Woolf in this genre?

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua

I first stumbled across this controversial book in the Wall Street Journal where an extract published caused furious and frenzied responses from a wide spectrum of the community, both local and global. The original publication depicted Chua as somewhat of a demon, extreme, manipulative and, in all honesty, quite vile. She was described as terrorizing her children, forcing them to perform to a strict schedule of tasks, limiting their interaction with their peers and preventing them from engaging in anything that might be deemed ‘fun’. Chua herself confesses that she is “not good at enjoying life”, this is apparently not one of her “strengths”. For Chua, childhood was “a training period, a time to build character and invest for the future.”

I was intrigued. It was hard not to be. Chua’s position – that Chinese mothers are superior to their Western counterparts – was so outside of our expectations of political correctness and accepted social ettiquette. How could one not read this book?

As one might expect, the Post sensationalized Chua’s book, selecting the most vitriolic segments to create its extract, probably hoping to inspire debate. And her response to the uproar parallels the disclaimer with which she starts her book:

“This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising their kids than Western ones.

But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.”

What Chua’s book is actually about is her own journey through parenting her two, very different children. It is about an extraordinarily driven woman who seemingly managed to balance marriage, children and a demanding academic role and still be apparently successful.

But Chua’s message is clear: “All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.” Chua goes on to detail what she perceives as some of the greatest differences between Chinese and Western parents and parenting:

“Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.”

And I have to confess that this gave me pause to think about my own parenting style – how often do we pander to our children, concerned that we might offend them, desperate to enable them to lead a soft and easy life and certain that the way to do this is to bring them dinner while they sit in front of the television and warm their milk just so in the evenings.

It is almost impossible not to like Chua – she is bright, devoted and respected. She is also reasonably honest about herself, confessing her inability to have fun and painfully detailing how she failed with her younger daughter, Lulu. However, this does not stop readers from wanting to shake her and make her refocus! Interestingly, the urge to bring the author to her senses is consumed by Katrin’s – Chua’s sister – battle with cancer which neatly distracts readers, allowing them to empathise with Chua on a totally different plane.

But, there is a resounding and subtle sadness to this book. Despite Chua’s convictions, she still has doubts, is still uncertain about her choices and her parenting style:

“Happiness is not a concept I tend to dwell on. Chinese parenting does not address happiness. This has always worried me. When I see the piano – and violin – induced calluses on my daughters’ fingertips, or the teeth marks on the piano, I’m sometimes seized with doubt.

But here’s the thing. When I look around at all the Western families that fall apart … I have a hard time believing that Western parenting does a better job with happiness.”

Perhaps, for Chua, the lesson is to decide what parenting is actually about: is it predominantly concerned with creating “happy” little people or is it more about molding character and determining futures. This book doesn’t provide any answers. It does, however, present a fantastic read filled with thought provoking ideas.