Monday, 23 February 2009

16 - 'Slam' by Nick Hornby

Young Adult books. Quite apart from the ridiculous Americanised name for this genre (and the fact that it makes no sense; these are books for teenagers, and no teenager in the history of the earth has ever been anywhere near being an adult - at least, not the ones I've known), these books tend to be a bit childish and well, dull. So what happens when one of your favourite authors (well, contemporary ones anyway) decides to veer off into the realms of teenage angst, underage sex and skateboarding (not something you'd find in your average Tolstoy novel)?

'Slam' is Nick Hornby's foray into the world of teen literature, and it has many of the hallmark traits we've come to expect from his works. As usual, there are expert portrayals of pointless rows and sulking males (at least, Sam, being a teenager, has more of a right to sulk and be childish than most of Hornby's male leads) and deadpan sarcasm stopping self-righteous anger dead in its tracks. There's also a fair amount of internal monologue going off at tangents (a habit which, if you've read a few of my blog postings, you will notice that I seem to have picked up - I find it hard to finish a sentence without a pair of brackets containing a very tangential line of thought!). Oh yes, and he mentions Highbury and Arsenal: the usual ingredients are complete.

In other ways, however, there is a marked difference to his 'adult' novels (although not many of the characters in those novels are any more mature than Sam...); the style of writing seems a little more simplistic while the plot seems to move along in a more predictable, linear style. Of course, none of his other novels contain a magic poster of a skateboarding superstar which quotes passages from his autobiography and may, or may not, be transporting Sam into his future so that he can see how his life is going to pan out over the next few years. I reckon I would have liked one of those when I was a teenager...

Without wanting to give too much away, 'Slam' shows what happens when teenagers get slightly careless and how things can develop when you've passed the point of no return (no pun intended). By being granted glimpses of his future, Sam is given the courage to do the right thing, even if he'd much rather spend his days skating around the local park or selling ice-creams at the seaside (it makes more sense in the book). The book also leaves you thinking what the 'right' solution is: should Sam run off as his Dad did before, or stick it out as Alicia's (the mother of Sam's child's) parents did?

It all seems to work out nicely in the end (although Sam has to take everyone else's word for that) despite all the ups and downs of nappy changes and disastrous immunisation attempts. I'm not sure how many times I'll be reading this book over the years (the pop culture references designed to appeal to British teenagers may date rather embarrassingly very soon), but I do have one definite use for it; any child of mine who looks like they're going to have pre-marital sex will be forced to read this book until they're prepared to swear a vow of chastity for the rest of their time under the family roof. One look at the reality of teen parenthood as portrayed in this book will do more than a hundred school abstinence or safe sex lectures to keep legs crossed and minds on more wholesome activities.

Like skateboarding.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

15 - 'A Tale of Two Cities' by Charles Dickens

'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...'. Well, at least old Charles was half right. An era where any embittered scumbag with a grudge and a loud mouth could get you a night in jail and a date with Madame Guillotine (Gillette has nothing on the close shave this woman gave), was probably not a nice time to be around. 'A Tale of Two Cities' is set in the time of the French Revolution and gives a short taste of what it was like to be alive (or not) at this pivotal historical event. This is one of the problems with the book.

The story was first published in weekly instalments in Dickens' periodical, 'All the Year Round'. Although it was later published in eight monthly parts, and then in a hard-back edition, most people at the time read the book in its serialised form. This format led to a very concise result, condensing forty-odd years (some of them among the most dramatic in human history) into just under 400 pages. There is a sense of the ferocity of the revolutionary years, but we miss out on a lot of the events necessary for a complete understanding of the time. Of course, when the book was written, this was unnecessary as the events were still (for some people at least) within living memory; for the modern reader, it seems a bit rushed, especially having read Dickens' door-stop novels such as 'Bleak House'.

It's important to point out, however, that there are still many good things about this book. the typical Dickensian characterisation is there, and Jerry Cruncher and Madame Defarge are wonderfully executed personalities (even if one wants to put people under the ground while the other just wants to get them back up again). The scenes in Paris, while a little contracted, make you feel as if you are at the Bastille, or La Place de la Guillotine; you can see the squalor and rancour of Saint-Antoine.

The book is saved, in my opinion, not just by the above bright spots, but by the sacrifice made by Sydney Carton. When I first read this book (a long time ago), it didn't dawn on me until the end exactly how the tale would unfold. Having read it again with this knowledge of events, the denouement was just as powerful, if not even more moving, having been foreshadowed by all the actions leading up to the tragic end. Being able to make such a sacrifice for love, Carton makes Darnay look transparent in comparison. Perhaps Lucy chose the wrong bloke after all...

When I first read 'A Tale of Two Cities', it was one of my favourite Dickens novels; however, after this re-reading, I'm not so sure. The content matter was made to be turned into an epic (and has been, many times); I don't think this book quite reaches those heights. It may well be a case of great expectations (sorry...), but I had some hard times (sorry again...) with this story. So far in 2009, I've read two books by Dickens, one brilliant, one not-so great; I've got 'Oliver Twist' waiting on my bookshelf, so I'll give that a go sometime soon and let that be the decider!

In short? Good book, great start, memorable ending - it's just a shame that there wasn't more in between. Definitely not the best of times for Mr. Dickens (OK, I'll just stop now).

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

14 - 'Howards End' by E.M. Forster

E.M. Forster is one of those novelists that you've vaguely heard of but whose books you've probably never read. When skimming the pantheon of British literary greats, his name is likely to go unnoticed as you skip from Austen, the Brontes, Dickens and Thackeray, to Conrad, Woolfe and Lawrence (and then, right through to J.K. Rowling...). I picked up 'Howards End' (a book that, more than any other, must have inspired countless adult video productions) in the trusty university second-hand bookshop, mainly because it was only $5.14, without any major expectations; I had read it once before, back in my undergraduate days and couldn't really recall being overly impressed by it, but I was very happy with my choice (anyone who really thought it was of an adult nature would, however, have been very disappointed).

'Howards End' is a house. The story starts here, and it also ends here; you could almost consider it as one of the main characters in the novel as it has a major bearing on the actions and events involving the human characters. The intermingling of the fates of the Wilcox and Schlegel families in turn-of-the- (twentieth) century London has serious consequences for all involved and an even more tragic result for poor old Leonard Bast, a lower-middle-class office clerk who becomes involved with the Schlegel sisters on a quest for more meaning in his life.

Forster uses his novel to discuss several themes. One is the relentless onslaught and expansion of civilisation and technology. Machines, especially cars, are seen as ugly and polluting, and Helen and Margaret are keen to get out of London to flee the oncoming suburbia (although, as we see at the end, the sprawl of the capital is visible even from Howards End). This advance in civilisation also demands human sacrifice; the few success stories get richer and richer in business while the not-quite poor struggle desperately to keep their toe-hold on the very bottom rung of the ladder of success. This is seen in the fate of Leonard, who loses his job after some poor, spur-of-the-moment advice from Henry Wilcox. Henry is unable to acknowledge (or even comprehend) that he bears any responsibility for the events that follow until he is finally ground down by their tragic ending.

The other major theme is the conflict between the inner life and the outer life, art and business, love and friendship and respectability. Henry falls at one of these extremes, and this eventually cripples him when events overtake his ability to adhere to his beliefs. His inability to connect his life experiences to those of Leonard (they are essentially the same) renders him pathetic and slightly mechanical (and, as we know, that's not a good thing!). Helen veers too much the other way and must also pay the price for letting her emotions out too freely. Despite this, she recovers from her crisis and wanderings on the continent and is able to live comfortably again.

One minor theme which crops up a few times is the role of art, or the arts, in life. Leonard spends his spare time frantically attempting to catch up as much as possible with culture, literature, music, art, tries to make up for not having had a cultured upbringing, only wants to speak of the arts with the sisters when he visits them. Margaret, however, knows the truth about the arts and wants Leonard to find out that they are a means to an end, not an end in themself. The reason for reading novels, listening to music, and studying paintings is to develop one's understanding of the world better, in order to then be able to appreciate it more.

That concept definitely rings true for me; about fifteen years after reading the book for the first time, I feel I am able to understand it better than when I was a young adult trying to get educated as quickly as possible. I also hope that I would be able to forgive trespasses (as Margaret does) and not criticise people for doing things that I also did when I was their age (as Henry does). In my new job as a Learning Adviser (see one of my earlier posts for more details!), I have to deal with young international students who may not always have such a fond regard for punctuality, attendance and all-round hard work as we may like at our college; while I am certainly not going to let them know that when I was nineteen, I was ten times worse, I'll definitely try to keep a sense of perspective and a bit of sympathy. And that's a pretty good thing to get from any book, let alone one which was only $5.14.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

12a (I'm very superstitious) - 'Buying a Fishing Rod for my Grandfather' by Gao Xingjian

Just over a week ago, I got the train into the city after my last day of work at the language centre to meet colleagues for drinks to celebrate the end of the traditional busy season. I got off at Melbourne Central, and (being a suburbanite who has no concept of how things work in the city) I took the first set of escalators I walked past and left my exit point from the station to chance. Luckily for me, I happened to dawdle past a 'Borders' book shop, and (being a suburbanite who lives a 40-minute drive from the closest 'Borders' shop), I decided to go inside and browse. Of course, fifteen minutes later, I walked out with two books, one of which I am about to review for you (aren't I kind...).

Gao Xingjian is a Chinese writer who, having had a few run ins with 'the party' (including the premature closing of his play; and Broadway producers think they have it tough...), decided to change his holiday in Paris to an extended stay outside China. He's still there. In 2000, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his novel 'Soul Mountain', and he followed this up with another novel, 'One Man's Bible'. I read both of these books last year, so I was happy to see virtually the only other translated work of his, a short story collection entitled 'Buying a Fishing Rod for my Grandfather', on the shelves of 'Borders'.

The book contains six short stories, most of which were written before his impromptu emigration, and it helps to have a passing knowledge of life under the Chinese cultural revolution to understand the subtle themes of the stories (or you can just read 'One Man's Bible', which is more of a memoir of that time). The brief tales mostly have an underlying sense of sadness and frustration, caused by a life of having to do what you are told and needing to keep your true thoughts and actions hidden from... well, just about anyone really. The sentences are usually deceptively simple, but the viewpoint often dances around, making it difficult for the reader to keep track of individual voices and views (which may well be the point).

The title story follows the reminiscences of a man who sees a fishing rod in a shop window and wants to buy it and give it to his grandfather in the country. This event sets off a trail of mingled memories and imagination, and a vain attempt to revisit the past. The sense of longing for a simpler time is palpable; the ending expected but poignant.

However, it's not all good with Gao. The final tale takes things a bit too far; a stream of seemingly unlinked, fantastic events bursts onto the paper and ends with a man sleeping on the beach forty pages later. The writer himself said that his works had no underlying meaning and were mainly about the language itself, but this story was everything non-literary types suspect books of being; overblown pretentious waffle.

Another area of concern was the translation. Translating novels into English is not as straight-forward as it may seem, especially if you have no desire to read a book written in a foreign language translated into another foreign language. Although the translator, Mabel Lee, is actually Australian, the language used can appear a little Americanised at times, at least for Englishmen like myself. There was also a story which interspersed commentary from a football (the round ball variety) match into the text, and I was less than convinced with Ms. Lee's rendering of the terminology.

Gao is lionised and idolised in the West; however, in the East, his fame is not quite as unanimously accepted. I have read some commentary which criticises his writing as obscene and boring - there have even been questions asked about his standard of Chinese. It is hard to know how much of this is genuine criticism though, and how much is funnelled through official mouthpieces. Most of his works are only published in Chinese in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and I haven't met any Chinese national who has actually read one of his books. The fact that the copies of his books which make it to the mainland are knock-offs may explain the language criticism.

Anyway, on the whole, I'm happy I got lost under Melbourne Central, and I look forward to re-reading (most of) these stories again soon. And, if you're good, I might even tell you (one day) what the other book I bought was...

Thursday, 12 February 2009

12 - 'How to Study Business Law' by Glenda Crosling and Helen Murphy

"So," I hear you asking, "why on earth did you read that?". Which is just as well really as I was planning to talk about it regardless. Are you seated comfortably? Then I shall begin...

For many, many moons (nearly six years), I had been working at the Monash University English Language Centre (MUELC), firstly as an ESL teacher, then as a line manager/coordinator, when, all of a sudden, I saw an internal ad for another job (yeah, alright, it's difficult to spot anything not all of a sudden; will you just let me get on with this?) and applied for it.

Now, lo (and, indeed, behold), I am nearing the end of my first week as a Learning Adviser at Monash College. "But Tony," I hear you say (and yes, I do have great hearing), "what does a Learning Adviser do?".

I'll let you know that once I find out.

Anyway, to cut a long story short (or, at least a story which should never have been this long in the first place), I will be giving advice to college students on completing assignments in the areas of Management, Marketing, Learning Studies and... Business Law (and you thought I'd never get there). Having never studied the subjects in question, being the consumate professional I am, I decided that it was probably a good idea to get a Dummies' guide to the aforementioned subjects, and while "How to Study Business Law" is far from patronising, it does give complete lay people, like myself, a good grounding in what is expected when you complete assignments in this area.

Mesdames Crosling and Murphy set out the principles of cases and statutes so clearly that even I could follow them, even if I occasionally had no idea whether Fred had a case against Bob for breach of contract after selling his boat to Tom after he had promised him the boat as long as he paid $500, which he was happy to do... (feel free to take a quick power-nap at this point). I think by the end of the case studies, half the time I'd forgotten who had (or hadn't) done what to whom. But at least I knew that the courts would provide a happy ending.

The book also explains some of the basic legal terminology, which is useful for those of us who are a bit rusty when it comes to Latin (I was surprised to find out that 'ipso facto' is not the name of a character from a children's television series). However, the explanations are not always useful; I've read the definition umpteen times, and I still have no idea what a 'promissory estoppel' is. Perhaps that's for the best.

In any case, it's been interesting to step outside my comfort zone and try something new (although I won't be applying for the bar anytime soon). It's always good to look at the world from a new perspective and broaden your horizons, however you choose to do it. Now though, it's back to good old fiction; plots, dramatic twists, heroes and heroines and sparkling wordplay.

And not a promissory estoppel in sight.

Monday, 9 February 2009

11 - 'Heart of Darkness' by Joseph Conrad

Few books seem to have caused so much angst in the blogosphere/facebookdom recently as Mr. Conrad's cheery tale of a boat cruise up the Congo and back, and, for the life of me, I find it hard to understand why. The bile that has been vented (if, indeed, it is possible to vent bile) has come in a variety of shapes and colours but can be summarised thus:

1) It's overly wordy, and some of those words are old-fashioned and have fallen into disuse.
2) Nothing happens.
3) Many people are forced to read it at school.
4) It glorifies imperialism and is racist/anti-feminist/fascist.

I decided to read this terrible offence against literature (all 94 pages of it) and found... that I couldn't really understand what all the fuss was about. I quite enjoyed it, even if I don't claim to have understood it on all the levels old Joseph evidently intended it to be read on. In response to the above complaints:

1) It's a book. It has words. This is not 'Peter and Jane' time. True, there may be some vocabulary which give one a moment's confusion (or panic, if you prefer), but I can't really see that this is more evident here than in any work of classical literature; isn't part of the attraction of reading the expansion of the reader's knowledge, whether that be literary, culturally or syntactically?

2) It's not Harry Potter. If you want a dragon fight in every book, go back to Hogwarts.

3) I'm sorry, I really am. I was force fed 'Far from the Madding Crowd' at an early age, and it all ended in tears (when my teacher read my book report and saw that Bathsheba Everdene was a farmer with a big beard, it wasn't hard for him to work out that I hadn't got beyond page 10). Having said that, I'm over it; you all should be too.

4) This one is possibly more justifiable on some levels. I don't think you can go too far on a feminist level, if only because there aren't many female characters portrayed (which is unsurprising for the era and location depicted). The imperialism definitely doesn't wash; the sarcophagus which is Brussels pales (literally) in comparison with the description of the African jungles while the majority of the white characters are about as corrupt, weak and pathetic as any anti-imperialist would wish to see.

So is it racist?

Possibly. Without wanting to judge something written at a time far removed from ours, there are obviously caricatures of the savage African; there is no conversation, no exchange of ideas between Marlow and his crew (unless you count the cannibals' request for a snack...). The screech of the boat scaring off the natives, their subservience to the intruding white man, the posturing of Kurtz's lover (?): none of these scream of a sympathetic treatment of the issue of race. However, the story is not really about white man/black man, Europe/Africa, master/slave; rather, it is about the descent of a civilised man into chaos; how quickly (reminiscent of 'Lord of the Flies') the thin veneer of civilisation wears off when exposed to the elements; above all, it is about what happens when a corrupt soul is forced to examine itself and cannot bear the weight of its discovery.

I cannot possibly hope to sway the opinions of those who find this novella tedious, annoying or offensive (just as you will never persuade me that 'Catcher in the Rye' should not best be used for toilet paper); let's just say that it's nice to have books which make you think outside your comfort zone, and which provoke the sorts of discussions seen on our favourite web-sites.

Now get back to your teenage wizards and pretty-boy vampires.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

10 - 'The Theban Plays' by Sophocles

Sophocles, the great Greek playwright, not to be confused with Socrates, the great Greek philosopher (or Socrates, the Brazilian world cup star), was obviously enamoured with the story of Oedipus, the Theban king with serious family issues, and wrote three plays (that we know of) about the world's first dysfunctional family over the course of his life. 'King Oedipus', 'Oedipus at Colonus' and 'Antigone' are three snapshots from the rambling saga of poor Oedipus and his rather unfortunate family, and provide a useful introduction to Greek theatre for the uninitiated among us (like me).

Having read Murakami's 'Kafka on the Shore', which takes the Oedipal story as one of its main themes, I wanted to know a bit more about the classic story and learn a little of the setting of Greek drama. One of the things I was surprised to learn was that there was more than one variation on the tale and that it was a story from oral tradition which many playwrights saw fit to cover and adapt. These plays were also very different from our modern entertainment in the sense that nearly everyone knew the story before going to see the play; the interest was in seeing how the playwright (and actors) portrayed the characters in their rush towards a fate the audience knew was coming. This allowed the spectators (or listeners) to analyse the words of the characters in light of their later fates (alright, I admit this is probably obvious if you're a big fan of classical theatre, but it was fairly new to me!).

So what about the story itself? Well, 'King Oedipus' concentrates on the discovery of the title character's identity and the rather bloody consequences; you know what's coming, but the way in which it is unfolded, and Oedipus' enthusiastic promises to do nasty things to whoever killed his father (who would have thought it would turn out to be him...), make it poignantly tragic.

'Oedipus at Colonus' sees the now blind Oedipus seeking refuge in Colonus, near Athens, as he prepares to die. However, the gods aren't finished with him yet, and as a result of a prophecy decreeing his importance to the success of future battles involving his home city of Thebes, he is sought by both his son/brother and uncle/brother-in-law (it's best not to get bogged down with family issues where Oedipus is concerned). After Theseus, King of Athens, prevents the kidnapping of his daughters (sisters...), Oedipus is finally ready to die in a very ascension-like ending. I wonder if the writers of the Bible had seen this first...

'Antigone' tells of the fate of one of Oedipus' daugh.. sis... (you know); anyway, in a scene reminiscent of 'King Oedipus' (which was actually written much later), she ignores her uncle's command not to bury the body of her dead brother, and he fulfils his promise to put her to death, which brings on a lot more bloodshed and tragedy.


1 - Don't ignore Greek gods; it never turns out well.
2 - Some family secrets are better left well alone.
3 - Never vow to put a criminal to death unless you're absoulutely positively sure that the culprit is not one of your nearest and dearest (or yourself).
4 - It is much better to be part of the chorus in a Greek play than to have a named role.
5 - It may be a good idea to beware Greeks bearing gifts, but I would be more concerned about those who bring prophecies from the gods. If you ever see a blind old man with a message from Apollo, run away, and keep running until you cross the Greek border.

Now, I'm just going off to double- and triple-check my family tree...

Sunday, 1 February 2009

9 - 'How To Be Good' by Nick Hornby

It seems a large leap from 'Bleak House' to 'How To Be Good'; early-19th century versus very early-21st century London; a rant against corrupt institutions and a portrayal of the difficulties of everyday life; the best part of 1000 pages against just under 250. However, there are several similarities in the two books (apart from the fact that they are the last two books I've read, which is good - I'd have had trouble linking this book with 'Jane Eyre'!).

Firstly, and most obviously, both novels are set in London. Dickens is rightly considered the supreme portrayer of life in the great capital, but Hornby is also, in his own Arsenal-centric way, a chronicler of life in olde London towne, especially that part of it inhabited by guilty, liberal-minded middle-class types. Another similarity is the foregrounding of social injustice. Hornby's characters (well some of them...) attempt to change their slightly-privileged existence and start to do more for the less fortunate members of society, and, just as Mrs. Jellyby in 'Bleak House' does, inflict harm on their own family in doing so. In fact, this idea of charity starting at home (literally, and not for the benefit of those who live there) is very close to the ridiculous projects of Mrs. Jellyby and the rest of the well-meaning, but deluded, do-gooders of Dickens' imagination, but in Hornby's case (seen throught the eyes of Katie Carr, a doctor whose marriage is falling apart and whose husband has consequently attempted to change his life by becoming more forgiving and altruistic), we are unable to dismiss these do-gooders; we see that our cynicism is stopping us from doing what is right and helping those who are less fortunate.

The key to the book is the question: what does it mean to be good? Katie believes that her job as a doctor makes her automatically good; however, the more her husband tries to do real good, the more she sees that she needs to put herself before other people. This is also true for her children, who suffer (materially, at first, and later on emotionally) from the projects of their father and his new-age business partner. Despite deciding to make a go of the marriage, the effects of the efforts to be good bear little fruit, and the family is arguably in a worse-off position afterwards than they were before.

Katie is selfish, but, it could be argued, she has every right to be. Are the middle classes obliged, simply by having become relatively affluent and successful in life, to give away their riches because other people are worse off? When charity begins at home, should it stay there? How would your kids feel if you decided to give their computer to the homeless shelter?

'How To Be Good' is typical Hornby. There is sarcasm aplenty, a vivid insight into the pettiness and viciousness of domestic arguments (which, more than once, are likened to a kind of sport or game) and people asking awkward questions at socially inappropriate times. The idea of what it means to be good is something that must torture those of us who have a little more than we probably need, and Hornby catches the tortured ruminations of the London mortgage belt superbly. The only slight quibble I have with this book is that although the story is seen through the eyes of Katie (the first time that Hornby has used a female narrator), I'm not sure that it worked overly well; there may have been no real change to the book if the roles of Katie and David had been switched, and I'm not convinced that the author managed to capture the female mind. Certainly, there were definite shades of the central characters (all male) of his previous novels. Still, this is only a minor point, and not even Dickens got everything right!

The book has one more parallel with 'Bleak House'; the issues, whatever you may like to call them, have no resolution. Chancery is not reformed, and Katie's life is no better than it was before. Although she decides to stay at home and work on her life (including making more time for herself), you are tempted to think that it may all be in vain. When, at the end of the book, she looks out of the window and sees "nothing", you can't help but wonder if she made the right decision in staying with her husband after all.