Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Review Post 14 - Poetry in Emotion

Poets are funny people; at least if you go by the descriptions in my latest bout of reading. In yet another slightly tenuously-constructed post, I'll have a look at two differing views of poets and whether it is nature or nurture that creates and moulds them. Don't worry: there's no chance of any more of my poetry...


The first of our poetic delights is Milan Kundera's Life is Elsewhere, a detached, sardonic description of Jaromil (the poet), a young man growing up in pre- and post-war Czechoslovakia. From an early age, Jaromil has been encouraged - mainly by his mother - to believe that he is special and talented, and this talent manifests itself in the form of poetry.

We follow the young poet through his formative years and see his efforts to make sense of the world and his desire to achieve love (or, at least, lust). Sadly, Jaromil, while possibly gifted with poetry, is a much less perfect human being in most other respects, and as the story progresses, the reader becomes ever more tired of his immaturity and stupidity. Don't worry; that's exactly as Kundera means it.

One of the most striking aspects of this book is the relationship between Jaromil and his mother, who smothers him from a desperate sense of belonging and a desire to live life vicariously through her precious son. I was reminded a little of Paul Morel and his mother (from D.H. Lawrence's novel Sons and Lovers) in the way Jaromil attempts to free himself from the apron strings (although Morel was a lot more successful at it...).

Immature, pathetic, pitiful: this may sound a little harsh, but if you read the book, you'll see that Jaromil is not the most appealing of characters, and Kundera's slightly mocking portrayal gradually exposes his weaknesses. Far from being a great poet and a hero of the revolution, he becomes a cringing, mindless coward who betrays loved ones for pointless (and misguided) ideals. Don't worry: (relatively-) instant karma's going to get him...


Over in Dublin, meanwhile, James Joyce paints his alter-ego Stephen Dedalus (one of the main protagonists of the ever-so-slightly complicated Ulysses) in a slightly more sympathetic light (although the theorists in the introduction to my version would disagree, obsessed as they are with the 'ironic' treatment). A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a surprisingly readable plotless novel, through which the reader follows Dedalus through his childhood and youth until he embarks on his quest to become an artist.

From his early, relatively comfortable days, we accompany Stephen on selected, important events in his life, defining moments which help to shape his character - and, perhaps his soul. Despite his eventual rejection of church teachings, his language and demeanour remain immersed in his pious upbringing (one of the ironies mentioned earlier). After overcoming his teenage angst and sinning, he briefly considers becoming a priest himself, but a chance encounter on the beach, one of several moments of poetic beauty, strengthens his conviction of the inevitability of his 'fall' back into real life.

The contrasts with Kundera's young poet are numerous. Jaromil is seen through Kundera's usual detached, quasi-scientific viewpoint, more like a specimen in a laboratory than a real person. He is supremely egocentric, seemingly unable to pick up on other people's thoughts and emotions, but utterly convinced of his own worth and talent (which consists mainly of imitation and works which catch the rather feeble zeitgeist). Blindly accepting the communist view of the events unfolding in his country, he quickly becomes a part of the machine, despite his role as a poet. What is worse, it is done knowingly and willingly...

Dedalus, on the other hand, is portrayed mostly from inside. We see things as he sees them, especially in his younger days. Admittedly, the older he gets, the more we see Stephen (as opposed to seeing through Stephen's eyes), but he is never objectified to the extent that Jaromil is. In contrast to the young Czech poet, Stephen has doubts, both about his gift and (more importantly) his soul. The chapter in which he wrestles with the concept of hell and his possible fall shows a beauty of description which Jaromil would be unable to comprehend.

Perhaps the biggest difference though is Dedalus' rejection of the institutions which claim to lead us in the right direction but which, in fact, may tie us down. Stephen rejects both the Catholic Church and the Irish nationalist movement, seeing both as nets which are there to prevent him fulfilling his potential and ambitions. However, he does not impose his beliefs on others, content instead to stand aside and create his own beliefs in preparation for the departure into a new life.


Though I have praised Stephen and cursed Jaromil in the lines above, please do not fall into the trap of confusing my opinions of the characters with my opinions of the books. Both of these novels are wonderful to read, but in very different ways. Kundera's light (unberably light?), ironic style contasts with the brooding intensity and introspection of Joyce's lightly-veiled self-portrait; however, the end result is equally as pleasing. Joyce's book is just a portrait of a young poet; Kundera's is equally valid - and entertaining.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Blocks for Writers, not Writers' Block

I'd love to write a book. Really, I would. So far, I've published (in the loosest sense) three chapters, and a fourth has been under way for a good while. However, I've found that it's just not happening for me. Why?

Well, as always, life is getting in the way of art (no sniggering please). I have one more unit left in my MTESOL course, and a lot of my spare time is spent reading journal articles and taking notes which I'll never look at again. I also have a family that (rather unreasonably) expects attention when I get home from what is laughingly called 'work'. However, the main obstacle to a career as a world-renowned author and a well-deserved Nobel Prize or two (I'm nothing if not confident) is my back.

Yes, my back.

Regular readers may already have gathered that I have had back problems over the past six months, and while the young whipper-snappers among you may scoff at such a wimpy excuse, the older of my followers will probably empathise (and if you don't, well, bugger off; I like my readers sycophantic and sympathetic). You see, while I'm able to dash off rubbish like this in my sleep, my writing requires deep concentration, and it's difficult to drum that up when my back is throbbing like... (fill in your own simile - nothing dirty, please...).

Swimming, stretching and the odd day off work will, I'm sure, help me back to full fitness, but until then, my poor protagonists are frozen in the literary ether. Which must be very cold for them. If you are one of the select few who have downloaded my efforts from Smashwords, well, firstly, thanks a million for dropping by. Secondly, I do apologise profusely (rest assured, I flog myself on a regular basis). Finally, I will try to get my act together some time soon.

Possibly. Don't hold me to that. I'm an artist, don't you know...

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Review Post 12a - Australians All, So Please Rejoice

With my new regime of posting this year (weekly posts on multiple books, enforced mainly by other commitments and a dodgy back which doesn't like sitting at the computer all day and all night), my little compositions appear to have become more theme-based of late - as seen in my previous effort. Even so, I've outdone myself with today's offering: not only were all three books borrowed from the lovely people at Narre Warren library, they're all by Australian writers. Beauty. Pull up a lamington, and let's get stuck into a belated Australia Day literary bonanza!


We head first to Brisbane, the capital city of the northern state of Queensland, to enjoy a book by Nick Earls. I've read a fair few of his early books which could be categorised as lad-lit, albeit of a high calibre (more Nick Hornby than Mike Gayle), and usually contained a fair amount of slapstick moments (a date, a need to urinate, an unalert cat - let's just leave it at that). However, his previous novel, The Thompson Gunner, marked a move away from his usual style into a more adult, dare I say literary, genre, and his latest book, The True Story of Butterfish, continues that trend.

Curtis Holland, a member of the incredibly successful (and now imploded) group Butterfish, has come home to Brisbane to get away from it all and get on with a second career as a small-time producer. He buys a house next door to the Winter family: single mum Kate, Lolita-esque sixteen-year-old Anneliese and grungy teenager Mark. Throw in his (gay) brother Patrick and a surprise visit from Derek, the off-the-rails lead singer of his band, and you have the mixture of characters around whom Curtis' new life will form.

However, it's a bit more subtle than that, and the story is just as much about people who are no longer around as it is about those who are. All of the characters are making new starts, attempting to move on after losing, or being rejected by, someone special in their life. Patrick has accepted the end of his long-term relationship, and the Winter children attempt to balance their new life with occasional visits to their father. And Curtis? Well, he has more than his fair share of ghosts to deal with on his return Down Under.

It's a bittersweet story, and Earls handles it skilfully, avoiding the slapstick and forced happy endings of his early work in favour of a snapshot of a life most ordinary (if you ignore the fact that Butterfish sold twenty million records in the US). Does Curtis manage to create an ordinary life in the Brisbane suburbs, or does he, like many an Earls protagonist, manage to mess things up in a spectacular way? It's worth finding out...


Our next book also takes us off to sunny Queensland (after a short detour via North America). Australian superstar writer Peter Carey's His Illegal Self is centred around Che, a young boy from a rich American family. One minute he is off to see his long-absent mother, the next he is hitchhiking along unpaved roads in the Sunshine Coast hinterland in Australia. As you can imagine, this causes poor Che (and the reader) a fair amount of confusion.

Set in the early 1970s, a time when the Vietnam war was raging and young men from both the States and Australia were being sent off to the slaughter, His Illegal Self touches on the political counter culture of the time and brings Che (or Jay, as his East Coast grandmother prefers to call him) into contact with a group of society drop-outs in the Queensland bush, on the run just as much from the brutal police state of Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen as from the threat of the draft.

The book's blurb concentrates on Carey's depiction of the innocent child, stolen from his home environment and forced to make sense of the exotic, alien Queensland landscape, but I didn't think that Che actually stood out much. For me, the character of Dial, the academic with the hidden past, was much more interesting. Once this highly educated working-class girl found herself in the jungle setting, her carefully-constructed persona (an image built to distance herself from her humble beginnings) slowly starts to crumble. The contrast with the enigmatic hippie Trevor, illiterate but street smart (or should that be bush savvy?!) is fascinating: Dial finds herself manipulated by the community she has landed in and is frustrated at her inability to outwit a bunch of stinking drop-outs.

I found it hard to get into this book; the first few chapters were good, but then it slowed down with a burst of flashbacks and multiple perspectives. It wasn't until Dial and Che were established in their new (temporary) home that the novel came to life again and Carey was able to show us the effect of a change of environment on our hapless American protagonists. In a book that ponders the meaning of family and strangers (and where we're not always on the side of the family) and takes the main characters half way across the world, Dial (which, of course, is a nickname) is very aptly named: Anna Xenos - in Greek, the stranger or foreigner...


Our third slice of Australiana comes courtesy of Greek Melbourne writer Christos Tsiolkas, and I have a warning for the delicately formed among you: if you are offended by homosexuality, sleeping around, drug use, bodily fluids and functions, blasphemy and anti-Semitism, it's time to go and do something else - your time here today is done. If however, you are still curious, let's continue, and I'll do my best to make sense of Tsiolkas' novel Dead Europe. No promises, though.

The writer divides his story into two strands: one follows young Greek-Australian Isaac on a trip around Europe, starting in Athens and moving on to Venice, Prague, Berlin, Paris and London; the second starts in Greece in the 1930s and is part folklore, part horror story. The reader suspects that the two parts will intersect, but the way they eventually do is as fascinating as it is horrific. Tsiolkas combines casual sex, fantasy, horror, violence and racial tension in a novel which starts slowly and gently increases the pressure until something has to explode. And does.

The genesis of the story is when a Greek couple agree to hide the son of a Jew from the invading German forces in return for a box full of jewels; however, the wife (after certain illicit nocturnal activities) persuades the husband to kill the man in order to avoid the risk of retaliation from the Germans. This act of brutality and betrayal has far-reaching consequences - both in time and space. As Isaac goes about his merry way on the old continent, he begins to experience strange sensations, feeling out of sorts, physically and mentally. And then he starts to get strange cravings...

To be honest, I struggled, initially, to identify with Isaac. Not particularly because he is gay, more because of the way he seemed to be screwing and snorting his way across Europe. We are expected to believe that he loves his partner, Colin, who is the breadwinner of the pair and stuck in Melbourne, while Isaac behaves like a gap-year student on a twisted Kontiki tour. Later, it becomes clear that this behaviour is actually suggestive of events which will happen towards the end of the book; Isaac is, almost from the start, unable to control his desires, be they for sex, drugs, alcohol or blood.

I am a little squeamish at times (definitely not a big fan of slasher films), and there were times, standing and reading on my commute home, where I visibly flinched at some of the events of the later stages (probably making other passengers edge carefully towards the other end of the carriage). It was hard reading; there was some powerful and disturbing stuff to take in. It is, though, precisely this which makes the book a success; its ability to shock the reader and make them consider Isaac's situation and how they would act in that position. Tsiolkas also plays a little with the reader as we are never completely convinced that we understand what is real and what is imagined; as you may have gathered from what I've already said about Isaac, he is far from being a trustworthy narrator by the end of his travels.

What's it all about? The new world (Australia) versus the old; the curse and strength of the Jew; racial and ethnic tension; sexual freedom and exploitation. And blood. The blood of your ancestors running through your veins, and the blood keeping you alive. A thirst for blood.

You'll love this book. You may not enjoy it.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Review Post 12 - The Master versus The Apprentice

This week we are off to Tokyo, a sprawling, seamy metropolis of salaryman drone armies on trains by day, and Cadillac-driving Yakuza by night; and it is the night which especially interests us, a night interrupted by neon lights advertising pachinko parlours, karaoke bars and places nice people like you and I would never dream of entering (Starbucks). And who better to guide us through this vision of the future today than not one, but two (TWO!) of our favourite authors?

Ladies and gentlemen: in the Red Corner, the outsider, the challenger, the master of the multiple perspective, all the way from England, let's hear it for DAVID MITCHELL! And in the Blue Corner, the king of the surreal, the undisputed heavyweight champion of mixing the mundane with the magical, the man with the plan (and usually a cat or two too), from the other side of the barrier, put your hands together for HARUKI MURAKAMI!

But I digress...


Mitchell's second novel, number9dream, follows nineteen-year-old Kyushu native Eiji Miyake to Tokyo on his quest to find the father he has never met. While this seems to be a more straight-forward narrative after the jumping around of Ghostwritten, it is actually anything but: from the very start, we are thrown around in the whirlpool of Mitchell's imagination as we experience Eiji's daydreams and fantasies, as well as diary entries and slightly-strange short stories. In a taste of things to come from Mitchell, the timeline of the book is anything but stable and linear, and, in a style vaguely reminiscent of The God of Small Things, we leap back and forth through Eiji's life, learning about the fate of his twin sister, Anju, and his strangely absent mother.

While it is Eiji's search for his father that drives the narrative on, it eventually becomes clear that this is more of a search for himself than his father. Leaving his home environment for the first time, our young hero is forced to come to terms with the real world and step out of the dreams he has been living. A bit like Kafka on the Shore in reverse...

The Murakami influences don't stop there. It's difficult to see Eiji and his cat without thinking of Haruki and his love for all things feline while the book Eiji regrets not finishing during one of his surprisingly frequent Yakuza encounters (I mean that while expecting to be bludgeoned to death he was regretting not having finished the book, not that he wanted to read it while being beaten from pillar to post - that would just be weird) features a familiar tale about a man down a well. And where do you think the Mongolian comes from, hmm? Let's just say that I have my suspicions...


When reading After Dark, it would be quite easy to imagine Eiji Miyake somewhere in the background (probably being dragged into a den of iniquity by Yuzu Daimon), but the atmosphere of this work is a lot slower. Number9dream channels the adrenalin of a city that never sleeps; Murakami shows us the few hours when Tokyo's pulse is barely ticking over. Over the course of one night, we follow Mari Asai and the friendly musician Takahashi through a choice selection of late-night cafes, jazz bars and love hotels. Meanwhile, back at Mari's house, her beautiful sister Eri is lost in an unnaturally-long sleep, for all intents and purposes dead to the world. And then the television in the corner starts to flicker...

A lot of people have trouble liking After Dark, and it's the Eri part which is usually to blame. It is perhaps a little too out-there and forces the reader to search for connections to the other strand, ideas which may or may not have anything to do with Murakami's true intentions. If, however, we look at Eri's story more metaphorically than literally, we uncover typical Murakami themes, albeit in a slightly different version. Just as his usual 'Toru' characters struggle (in a very relaxed fashion) against the strains and stresses of modern life, Eri is fighting against the role the world has made for her. Groomed to be a model and sex symbol from an early age, she feels trapped and needs a way to escape to a normal life, something Mari has painstakingly created for herself. Admittedly, you don't get many televisions that work without being plugged in in normal life, but that's Murakami for you.

Despite the familiar themes, After Dark is a rather experimental work for Murakami. The writing is several degrees more detached than his previous novels, and it wouldn't surprise me to hear that this was originally meant to be a play, or maybe even a screenplay. Were it not for the danger of alienating the audience with Eri's slumbering dramas, I would suggest that this is a perfect book to be filmed once Norwegian Wood has come and gone. In fact, if we pitch it at the art-house french-film-loving public, we may just have an idea...

Having read the book for a second time now, I have to confess that it has grown on me. Yes, it's different from the usual Murakami fare, but it can only be a good thing for authors to experiment, especially Murakami (who really could just phone it in if he couldn't be bothered - as shown with the hype over the still-not-available-in-English 1Q84, he can sell a million copies without anyone knowing anything about the book). If we enjoy it for what it is, a minor experimental work from a great writer, then nobody will be disappointed - just don't go expecting Norwegian Wood.

Let us finish by returning to the rather laboured boxing metaphor. If I were the referee, I'd have to give the decision to number9dream (unanimous points verdict). Mind you, I'd probably have been predicting an early KO before the fight. Of course, one caveat I'd introduce is that this was a slight mismatch; After Dark was definitely fighting out of its weight class. Now Cloud Atlas v The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: that would be a genuine clash of the heavyweights. Tickets, anyone?

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Review Post 11 - From the Comfortably Sublime to the Absurdly Ridiculous

It's March, so it must be time for Doctor Thorne, the third of Anthony Trollope's Barchester Chronicles (the one I've read the least as it took me ages to get a copy - pre-Book Depository, simpler times...). In this novel, we move away from Barchester itself and spend a while in the country area of Greshamsbury, home to the fallen gentry of the Gresham family. The Greshams have blood, but they no longer have much money; therefore, it is the duty of the young heir, Frank Gresham, to marry money. But wait! A penniless childhood sweetheart? Familial discord? A rival suitor? Don't you just love Victoriana...

So where's this Doctor then, you may ask (no, not that Doctor; there are no blue police boxes in this story)? Well, the Doctor, although (as Trollope himself admits) he may not be the true hero of the story, is nevertheless the key figure in the story. Uncle, and guardian, of our heroine, Mary, confidant and adviser of Frank Gresham's father, and executor of a will which may alter certain opinions (and prospects), the tireless Doctor Thorne winds his way through the novel, mending broken heads and hearts alike. While those familiar with Barchester may be forgiven for initially likening him to our old friend the Warden, it soon becomes apparent that he is a very different character. He is a much spikier, more independent and capable person who has no qualms about standing up to the 'quality' of the county, even when the weight of generations of blood oppose him.

Blood, more notable in this book (despite the title) for its metaphorical rather than literal appearance, is at the heart of events. Breeding may be important for livestock, but is it important for people? While Frank Gresham's qualities and the Scatcherd family's failings may suggest that it is, Mary's finer points and the absurd, patronising behaviour of the ancient De Courcys hint that having a traceable family tree isn't all that it's cracked up to be.

Of course, we all know what is going to happen; Trollope never lets suspense build up when he can tell us in advance what is likely to occur. However, in this book, I feel that there was too much inevitability about the plot. As always with Trollope, the characterisation was spot on, and some of the scenes (the Thorne-Gresham confrontations, the depiction of the drunken, dying Scatcherds) are fantastically written. I just thought that at 550+ pages (and with the ending as plain as could be from about half-way through), the book may have outstayed its welcome a little. It's still a pleasure to read, but it's not the best of the series by a long way. Next stop, Framley Parsonage in April...


Blood also features in my other review today, albeit of a more literal kind. Albert Camus' classic novel L'Étranger tells the story of Meursault, a French Algerian, from the death of his mother through a serious crime and the ensuing trial. It's a fairly simple story (luckily for me; my French isn't what it used to be), but the ideas behind it are anything but. The story serves as a vehicle for Camus to expound upon his philosophical ideas and his take on existentialism.

Meursault is a curious character. The death of his mother leaves him cold, and he seems to be completely devoid of any real emotions. Despite the extreme situations he finds himself in, he never appears to get upset or hot under the collar. The reader is forced to decide whether he is emotionless or simply egocentric and unconcerned with the affairs of others. The answer, perhaps, is the latter; however, it's slightly more complicated than all that...

You see, Camus was one of the pioneers of Absurdism, a philosophical theory which basically held that life's a bit of a joke, and you have to make of it what you can. He developed the ideas of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who said that there are three ways to make sense of life: suicide, religion or accepting that life has no meaning except that which the individual can make of it. However, while Kierkegaard plumped for option b, Camus rejected religion as being a waste of time and went for the third option (in this novel, this choice extends to Meursault in his discussion with the prison chaplain).

Meursault plays this taking life as it comes role to perfection: no tears at his mother's funeral, no emotion when his girlfriend talks about marriage, no fear when on trial. He simply rolls with all that life throws at him and makes the best of his situation without stressing out about it. In the end, it is this 'unnatural' attitude which brings about his downfall. Although he is ostensibly being tried for a crime, the trial actually focuses on his behaviour before he commits it as the prosecutor and judge (and the jury) are unable to believe that someone who behaves so calmly could have acted on the spur of the moment. In effect, the trial becomes more a discussion of Meursault's inhumanity than of his guilt.

This is a wonderful read, short and (thankfully) fairly simple, while at the same time rather thought-provoking. For those of you without a guiding purpose in life, it's well worth a read. Those of you who are of a more religious nature may be a little more wary, but there is no strong anti-religious message here, simply a rejection of someone else's faith by a man who doesn't need it. Dorothy, we're not in Barchester any more...

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Review Post 10 - News from the Colonies

It's been a long time since I last went to the library (and, if you read this post, you'll know why!), but I steeled myself a couple of weeks ago and finally got a few books out. The first was The Woman who Walked into Doors; the third is waiting to be read. The second is Nobel prize winner V.S. Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas. And a lovely book it is too.

I'd never read a Caribbean book before (in fact, the closest connection I have to that part of the world is a Trinidad & Tobago football shirt I bought cheaply after the last World Cup and a love for cricket which confuses and infuriates my wife in equal measures), and it definitely wasn't what I'd expected. Naipaul is of Indian heritage, and the book, set in Trinidad, focuses on the lives of an extended clan, and wider society, of expatriate Indians, the principal of whom being (of course) the titular Mr. Biswas. His full name is Mohun Biswas; however, right from the start, the writer gives him this rather unusual address whenever he is mentioned outside direct speech. Curious?

Not really. This emphasis on his name is part of the point of the book. Living sporadically, from a fairly young age, with relatives and then in-laws, Mr. Biswas's name is part of his identity and the way the writer lifts him up above the hordes (and there are hordes) of other family members living in the same house. It is this desire to be different, not to be more successful or richer, just to live his own life, which leads him to ruffle feathers and make plenty of mistakes in his quest for the ultimate in achievements: a house of his own.

I live in a country where home ownership is seen as a right - and where increasing house prices and interest rates are viewed as unfair and (the most negative of adjectives) 'unaustralian'. However, in WW2-era Trinidad, just having a roof over your head (even if it is shared with a few other families) is seen as a luxury. Mr. Biswas, however, cannot be content with residing in a cacophony of chanting, impromptu school lessons and squawking in-laws; at every opportunity, he attempts, in the face of derision and incredulity from both his relatives and his own wife, to build or buy himself a house: a house of his own.

From the first page we know that Mr. Biswas is, paradoxically, a success story and a tragedy. He will die young, but in a house of his own. The house is shoddy and rickety, but it is his. He has put his ambitions ahead of his family interests, but he is master of his own abode. At the end of the book, there is a tinge of sadness, regret, in contrast with the feelings of pride and success Mr. Biswas radiates in the prelude to his life story. The reader, at the end of 600+ pages of wonderfully-told family drama, is left to answer the question posed by the writer: was Mr. Biswas' life worth it? I won't answer that, but I can say that the book certainly was...


One event I recall from Mr. Biswas' slow social ascent was an invitation to a writers' group where he was asked to read something he'd written. After toiling for a while, he had something, but he couldn't find an ending. Having read plenty of post-modernist literature, however, he didn't see that being a problem...

...which brings me neatly to the second part of my trawl through Katherine Mansfield's Collected Stories. Following on from reading her earliest works, I worked my way through Bliss and Other Stories and The Garden Party and Other Stories last week; to be perfectly honest, 300 pages of short stories, even in sporadic doses was a bit much for my constitution.

These two collections were, as Mansfield herself thought, much more developed than the earlier stories. Aside from the two title stories, I greatly enjoyed Prelude and At the Bay, two longer tales featuring the same Wellington family, and Je ne Parle pas Francais, a wonderfully moody story featuring an enigmatic Englishman, his long-suffering partner and a Parisian narrator who is everything a literary Parisian should be. Some of the twists in the writing in these collections were breathtaking: one particular example was Bliss where the palpable joie de vivre of the main character is frozen in a heartbeat by one simple act. Class tension, domestic drudgery, social roleplaying, repressed homosexuality... all in a handful of wonderful pages.

I suppose it's my own fault for reading the two collections one after the other, but it did become a bit of a chore towards the end. I found myself wanting to get it over and done with, and the pile of gleaming, unread books on my bookshelf caught my eye more than ever before. Still, Mansfield is not completely innocent in all this. I really do not want to read about anyone with 'weak nerves' for the rest of the year, and while stories about spinsters may be all well and good in moderation, they are as bad for you as any drug if you overdose on them.

I suppose the main problem with reading a collection of short stories is that yes, they are great to read - while you are reading them -, but when you are between stories, and you're not currently reading one, there is nothing to draw you back, nothing to tear you away from your i-Pod, your computer, your television. In short, there is little motivation to return to the book as you are, in effect, starting from the beginning.

Please don't think that I am criticising these collections (far from it; as short stories go, they are excellent). It's just that when people describe Katherine Mansfield as the inventor of the modern short story, I'm not sure whether it's meant as praise or blame. At any rate, the final part of the collection will have to wait for a good while; I'm off to immerse myself in a voluminous Victorian novel, and I won't be out for a week or so...