Tag Archives: war

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.”

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A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving

I confess that it took me about 300 pages to actually start enjoying this book. It was frustrating: I loved the writing style, the wit, the satire, empathised with the various intricacies and peculiarities of the various characters, yet the book simply didn’t hold my attention. I am not sure what exactly changed at the approximate-300 page mark, either it was that the humour suddenly took hold (the Christmas Pageant was quite hysterical) or it was that Irving began to clarify his questioning of faith and the implications of this questioning. I found myself torn between my desperate desire to know Owen Meany more, to read the unfolding of his narrative, and my general irritation with John Wheelwright and his overall lack of commitment to … well … to anything. Owen is the strength of his book, he is “a great and luminous character”,

definitely the hero of this tale, possessed with infinite wisdom and conviction. He is somehow all-knowing and omniscient, despite the fact that he is not in fact the narrator of this tale.

I was quite taken by Owen’s relationship with Hester and intrigued by the strength of their connection and the depth of feeling which went along with that bond. But so much of this relationship was hidden, unknowable for readers. We caught glimpses of the nature of their love, but it was constantly left in the background.

In fact, Hester becomes a remarkable character in this text, despite the relatively minor role that she is assigned. She is the signifier of the age, her finger on the national and cultural pulse of the peace movement, the swing of the anti-Vietnam War swell, and the music and passion that accompanied it. She remains with her finger on that pulse throughout the text, appearing towards it end as Hester the Molester, a famous rock singer.

I flew through the last 200 pages. Gulping enormous portions in my agony as I came to realise the essence of Irving’s tale and message. Who was Owen Meany? How does one navigate through the hypocrisy of life? How does life go on when all seems lost … There are no answers, only questions and a lingering sense of loss. I am glad I ‘knew’ Owen Meany, glad I followed him and stepped into his vision of palm trees.

The Complete Review

Emil and Karl

Yankev Glashteyn’s book Emil and Karl is one of those startling and breath taking books that everyone should read.

Originally published in Yiddish in 1940, Glashteyn wrote this book after he visited his ailing mother in Europe prior to the outbreak of World War II. The book is prophetic on so many levels and clearly captures the traumatic tone of the times – for Jews and non-Jews alike.

The story is set in Vienna in 1938 and follows the lives of two 9 year old friends, Emil and Karl. Emil is Jewish, his father has disappeared and he is left alone after his mother can no longer cope with events. Karl, an Aryan, is also alone after his mother, a Socialist, is forcibly taken away.

The book begins with:

Karl sat on a low stool, petrified. The apartment was as still as death. He looked at the pieces of the broken vase scattered on the floor. Several times he reached out with one hand to pick up an overturned chair lying beside him. The chair looked like a man who had fallen on his face and couldn’t get up. But each time Karl tried, he could only lift the chair up a little bit, and then if fell down again. It was even quieter in the kitchen and the bedroom – so quiet he was afraid to go in there.

The narrative recounts the lengths to which Emil and Karl went in order to survive in this tumultuous and torturous time. The book contains some horrifying moments, near death experiences and accounts of tremendous abuse. However, it is also filled with insights into extreme kindness and sacrifice. Glashteyn carefully treads this balance with humility and honesty.

By far my favourite character in this book was Hans, an activist who disguises his intentions by feigning madness. His role in this text is to touch on the insanity of this period and to illustrate the great lengths which many people were forced to go to in order to survive.

There are many things which will stay with you from this text … the fragility of life, the horrors of war and ultimately, the comfort of friendship.

Although it is primarily a young adult book, this is a must read for everyone.

Review from the New  York Times.

The Listener

There was definitely a lot to listen to in this book and in some ways this made it a challenging read. From the outset I was intrigued by the positioning of the reader as a voyeur to a psychiatrist’s private interviews with patients. This clearly made the reader uncomfortable with the insight and knowledge acquired during the sessions and I think that this, in part, is what made this book so fascinating.

The novel is set two years after the end of World War II, in a psychiatric hospital in America where a Dr Harrison is the director. The prose fluctuated between meetings between the Dr and his patients and other passages where the reader is privy to the good doctor’s own neuroses and most interestingly, his complicated relationship with his first and then second wife.

Slowly, as the novel unfolds, the reader comes to understand that in many ways, Dr Harrison is himself as disturbed as his patients. It is the meetings with an illusive character called Bertram Reiner which prove to undo him finally.

There are many ironies in this text and the contextual insight is riveting. Possibly the most intriguing aspect of this context is the far reaching impact that the war had on people in active service as well as those who stayed to watch the home front. The book is filled with references to necessary developments in the field of psychiatry which needed to take into account the consequences of the impact of war on morality as well as the challenges of reconciling the past with the present.

Nayman does a superb job of meeting the reader’ expectations in this novel and if you have the patience to persevere I have no doubt that you find the book rewarding.

<a href=”The Listener: A Novel“>Buy the kindle version.

Buy the paper version.

Read the author’s webpage.