Friday, 30 July 2010

Chunkster Challenge!

"A chunkster is 450 pages or more of ADULT literature (fiction or nonfiction) ... A chunkster should be a challenge."

450 pages? I spit on your 450 pages...

But anyway, I have decided to sign up for the Chunkster Challenge and will be going for the top level, Mor-Book-ly Obese:

"Mor-book-ly Obese - This is for the truly out of control chunkster. For this level of challenge you must commit to 6 or more chunksters OR three tomes of 750 pages or more. You know you want to.....go on and give in to your cravings."

I may already have reached this target for this year, but I'll see how I've done soon; no book diet for me then...

And I'm back...

Yay: ten already!  The list is:

The Makioka Sisters by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki (530)
Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope (499)
A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul (564)
Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope (557)
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (529)
The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope (663)
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (496)
The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope (712)
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (528)
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (469)

I think I need a little lie down; I'm feeling rather full...

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Review Post 35 - The Homesick and the Enlightened

Being an ex-pat can be tough at times.  In your new country, you are seen as a living stereotype, a breathing, walking example of everything the locals have ever heard about your country from their television set.  Back 'home', you are a bit of an outcast; your accent's gone a bit funny, you haven't heard of any recent pop stars or Big Brother housemates, and you have difficulty working out what order the colours go in at traffic lights.  You make people a little uneasy, and you don't feel completely at home any more.  If I, an Englishman living in Australia (one of the easiest of migrations on the planet), feel like this, imagine the issues a trip home raises for someone split between two less similar countries...  Welcome to the world of Miguel Syjuco, the Filipino author of Ilustrado.

The book, winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008, begins with famous Filipino writer Crispin Salavador, the mentor of young student Miguel, face down in the Hudson River in New York.  The death of the Asian literary lion causes ripples in his home country and leads to Miguel's trip back to the Philippines to help tie up some loose ends for Crispin's family and to search for the manuscript of his legendary last book, The Bridges Ablaze.  Miguel is ostensibly returning home to interview his teacher's friends and family, gathering information for the biography he has decided to write.  However, his journey has other, more personal, reasons; he needs to confront his past and examine his identity to find out where he really belongs.

Although the reader wishes Miguel well on his journey, it is hinted from the start that this is no ordinary quest. One of the names discovered in Crispin's notes for his last novel is Dulcinea - the lead character's unwitting lady love in the Spanish classic Don Quixote. When you add this to the use of the word Quixotic in an excerpt from an interview with Crispin (p.21), where he is discussing the role of Filipino writers, you begin to suspect that there are many tilts at windmills to come.

Apart from dealing with Miguel's identity issues, the novel also looks at Filipino society and politics, which (on the evidence of this book) seem inextricably linked. Through radio updates, text messages and the odd television news break, Syjuco manages to create an authentic backdrop of scandal, intrigue and revolution, set in an imaginary parallel 2002 Manila. Regular news on President Estragan, it-girl of the moment Vita Nova, renegade mercenary Wigberto Lakandula and religious leader Reverend Martin helps to colour in Syjuco's world, based (no doubt) on people who actually existed in the Philippines.

A word of warning: Ilustrado is not your average straight up and down linear narrative. Syjuco has created a tangled web of stories, some intersecting, some parallel to the main narrative, others seemingly superfluous or, at best, tangential.  While this can be confusing at first, they do serve a purpose, filling the reader in on some important background and commenting on Filipino history and personality.  Many of the strands are excerpts from the many works of the - fictional - Crispin Salvador (although at the time of writing, Salvador's English Wikipedia page is longer than Syjuco's...), including some taken from a monstrous autobiography entitled Autoplagiarist.  With the protagonist Miguel sharing his name with Ilustrado's author, it seems an apt choice of title...

It can be difficult at times to keep track of what is happening in the chaos, and non-Filipino readers (which would be most of us - in the small area of the blogosphere I frequent, I'm only aware of a couple of writers from the Philippines) may struggle to keep up at times.  Jackie, of Farm Lane Books, recently blogged about a site called Book Drum, where kindly readers patch together background information about a novel to enhance the reading experience.  If anyone would care to do this for Ilustrado, you would be doing us all a huge favour...

For anyone who muddles their way through the thickets of autobiography extracts, self-deprecating ethnic jokes, snippets of interviews and parallel narrative though, there is great joy to be had with this Mitchell-esque style of editing the facts.  Nothing is certain or fixed (I'm sure it's no coincidence that Crispin's unpublished masterpiece is often referred to by its initials - TBA...).  The fiction within the fiction has echoes of the actual fiction (or should that be the fictional reality), and the reader is able to follow both Miguel's Manila adventure and Crispin's rise to fame as a new Ilustrado.

But what does the title actually mean?  Well, I suspect most English speakers would take a stab at 'illustrated', but it is actually translated as 'enlightened' and is an expression used to describe the nineteenth-century Filipino intelligentsia (such as the Philippines' most famous writer, Jose Rizal) who travelled to Spain to study and ended up becoming the leaders of the revolution against the Spanish in their homeland.  Crispin's days as a guerrilla fighting the new American imperialists would allow him to take on this mantle, but is there a deeper meaning linked to the text?  Probably, but it may take me a few more readings to ferret one out (or make one up...).

In short, a fascinating story on many levels, set somewhere I know very little about.  Reading this has encouraged me to branch out a little, and I'd like to read Rizal's classic Noli Me Tangere at some point to go back to the roots of Syjuco's heritage and style.  Anyway, here's to the next book by Syjuco - or perhaps next time he can introduce us to some more of the work of the mysterious Crispin Salvador...


P.S. - Thanks to Alysha from Random House Australia for sending me this copy of Ilustrado :) 

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Review Post 34 - It's a girl thing, it's a guy thing

Yin and Yang.  Two halves, connected and interspersed to create a whole.  Female and male, complementary and equal.  Which brings me to my latest reviews (I will explain later...).


Banana Yoshimoto's Asleep (translated by Michael Emmerich) is a collection of three novellas which run very much along the lines of her other works.  Each story has a female protagonist caught in an awkward stage of their lives, unable to move forward and not always wanting to.  Just as in Kitchen and Amrita, there is the need to get over the loss of someone close, and this usually entails an experience which can be best described as slightly left of centre.

In the first story, Night and Night's Travellers,  Shibami, still recovering from the death of her brother, finds a draft of a letter she once sent to his American girlfriend, Sarah.  Far from being a coincidence, this event sets off a chain of occurrences leading to a chance meeting which may help provide some closure for Shibami and Mari, her brother's girlfriend.  The second, Long Songs, sees Fumi dreaming of a woman she once knew; naturally, this is another extra-sensory event, and her boyfriend takes her to see a man who will be able to connect her with her long-lost acquaintance.  The final tale, Asleep, centres on Terako, a young woman idling her way through life, who has started to need more and more sleep.  Apart from napping, she spends her time catching up with her boyfriend, a married man with a wife (not a girlfriend) in a coma.  As Terako begins to find it more difficult to stay awake, she starts to wonder whether her condition is linked to that of her boyfriend's wife...

On finishing this short collection, my first thought was that two out of three isn't perfect, but it will do.  The first and last stories were calming to read, perfect examples of the light, slow-moving entertainment Yoshimoto is known for.  Despite the usual interchangeability of the lead characters and the obvious repetition of favourite themes (low-level supernatural abilities, dealing with the loss of a loved one, undertones of secret lesbian attraction), the writing was almost flawless, and reading them was like moving effortlessly through a sea of clouds (not that I've ever done this, but I think that's how it would feel).

However, as good as the outside of the sandwich was, the filling was a stinker.  Long Songs, the shortest of the stories, managed to just about undo all of the good work of the other two novellas.  It was silly, uninteresting and left me wondering what on earth compelled her to include it with the other tales (apart from the connection of theme and the need to bring the page count up to something people would actually consider paying good money for).  Once again, I have to point out that I am not a big fan of Yoshimoto's dialogue, and it is no coincidence that the middle story, despite being half the length of the others, probably contains more direct speech than its neighbours.  Let's move on...

Having devoured something by the queen of J-Lit, it was time to even things up by sitting back and relaxing with the king, and anyone who does not yet know who I'm referring to should just hang their head in shame and go and peruse some other blog instead.  Murakami's short novel, South of the Border, West of the Sun, with Philip Gabriel on translation duties, is a wistful, nostalgic tale of lost love and missed opportunities, which teases the reader with thoughts of what we would do if they came around again.

The book centres on Hajime, an only child in a thoroughly normal suburban family, and we follow him through his school days and on to adult life.  Perhaps this would have been routinely dull too had it not been for his childhood relationship with Shimamoto, a pretty only child with a deformed leg from an early bout of polio.  Despite becoming close friends (and beginning to fall for each other), the two lose touch, and Hajime grows up alone - with and without the girls by his side - until one day when, through a heavy crowd of Tokyo pedestrians, he spots a beautiful woman walking down the street, dragging her leg slightly.  Could it be...

South of the Border... is a slow-burning love story, beautifully written and a pleasure to read.  The temptation and longing Hajime feels drip from the page, and Murakami skillfully spins events out, frustrating both his hero and the reader.  With its seemingly innocent but oh-so-wrong meetings at the bar, street-level views of Tokyo life (day and night), a slight sub-text of extraordinary events happening to ordinary people...  this is classic Murakami.  It's also one of my least favourite of his books.

There, I've said it.  Good as it is, I have serious issues with this book, and they prevent me from enjoying it as much as you would expect.  You see, I find it really hard to empathise with characters who are unfaithful and hurt their partners, and Hajime, despite Murakami's best efforts to make him likeable, is... well, he's a bit of a prick in my book.

This actually extends to many facets of his character: with his expensive clothes, his successful business and his casual attitude towards his family, he is actually a very un-Murakami-like creation - the anti-Toru, if you will.  Were I a real literary analyst, I'm sure I would be able to rise above my petty prejudices and enjoy the writing in spite of my reservations, but I receive neither money nor grades for these reviews, so I'm going to go ahead and wish Hajime a life of misery and a lingering STD.

It is a very good book though...

So, in closing...  what's that?  The Yin and Yang thing?  Glad you reminded me.  Something that struck me over the fevered two days I spent devouring these morsels of modern Japanese literature was the way in which Yoshimoto and Murakami complemented each other.  Their styles are fairly different, but their books can cover fairly similar themes from diametrically opposite angles, namely from the point of view of their gender.  Murakami's heroes have typical masculine traits: they're taciturn, hard drinking and fairly adventurous.  Yoshimoto's identikit female lead prototypes are consumerist chatterboxes (the Japanese preference for women to sound as if they have swallowed helium may lead me a step closer to uncovering the mystery of my Yoshimotian dialogue blues), women who seem to have no desire for, or concept of, work as a vocation (unlike Murakami's leads who, while not conforming to the salaryman ideal, do usually work hard to support themselves).  Simplistic (and possibly a little stereotypical), yes.  Wrong?  I'd welcome your thoughts.

Whatever the similarities though, I'll leave you with one major, crucial difference.  Days after reading South of the Border..., scenes still flash through my mind, and these memories of the story evoke colours, smells and emotions.  I can see Hajime's cafe, I can sense Shimamoto at my shoulder, I can see the trees shoot past in a blur on the road to Hakone.

To write the review on Asleep, I had to have the book next to me the whole time.  Now, I remember next to nothing about it.  So which do you think is the better book?

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Review Post 33 - Friendship and Innocence

Putting aside my predilection for Japanese literature and all things Victoriana, one of my most prominent reading interests is German-language literature, especially twentieth century works.  Of course, as soon as you start to think about that, you realise that there's not just an elephant in the room; rather, there's a whole herd of rampaging pachyderms jumping up and down on your sofa and trampling the cushions underfoot.  However, while books set during the wars can be classics (one instantly springs to mind...), many works examine the times between the wars, or post-1945.  And that's where we're going today...


As alluded to above, the classic war novel is Erich-Maria Remarque's Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front).  Sadly, I read it for the last time shortly before creating this blog, so you'll just have to put up with my telling you that it's really, really good.  Remarque followed his war novel with Der Weg Zurück (The Way Back, or Coming Home as it's usually translated), a book examining the problems the surviving soldiers faced on their return to a defeated Germany.  The final book in Remarque's post-WW1 trilogy, Drei Kameraden (Three Comrades), moves the action on to 1928/9 and follows three former soldiers as they slowly start to think about settling down and building a 'normal' life for themselves.

Robby Lohkamp is happily drifting along in the company of his two army colleagues, Gottfried Lenz and Otto Köster, working at Otto's car repair workshop by day and moving from bar to bar at night in search of distraction.  This comfortable life of nothingness comes to an end when he meets the beautiful Pat, destined to become the love of his life.  Although it sounds like the start of a run-of-the-mill love story, Robby and Pat's relationship is slightly more complex than that, threatened by the ghosts of Robby's past, the uncertain economic environment of the present and certain unfortunate events yet to come.

Remarque captures the feeling of the age beautifully, a generation of young men unable to commit to settling down, unwilling to allow themselves to believe in normality lest it be torn from them again.  As times become harder, people roam the streets, looking for work or, in some cases, just a warm place to while away a few hours.  This climate of anxiety and fear drives people to seek comfort in little pleasures, often of the alcoholic variety, and where little money is available, violence is always just around the corner.  Ironically, after fighting to bring about peace, the old soldiers have returned to a society hell bent on conflict and destruction.

And yet there is an underlying sense of calm and hope throughout the novel.  The very idea of living on the edge means that the people are only too willing to make the most of any opportunity to squeeze some enjoyment out of life.  The writer constantly pauses the action to focus on the more tranquil side of life; flowers, plum trees blooming overnight, waves crashing onto the shore, a misty evening sitting in a cemetery watching the trees fade slowly from view...  When no-one knows what tomorrow will bring, it's best to live for the moment.

While Drei Kameraden is essentially a paean to love, both romantic and collegial, there is a darker, political edge to it (which led to its banning in Germany).  The later scenes, depicting political assemblies where dispirited workers drink in the tirades of revolutionary orators, help the reader to see where Germany was heading at this time and why the people were prepared to listen to people like Hitler.  The crowd stand and stare at the speakers, convinced not so much by the ideas but by the energy and passion of the activists and by the desire to tear things down and start all over again.
It is, however, the love story which made this book successful, even leading to its adaptation into a Hollywood film (Remarque was very popular in the States).  I won't say too much more about the plot - I don't want to take any of the impact away -, but it is a wonderfully moving and extremely heart-rending story which makes you reflect on life and love, and will bring a lump to the throat of the most cynical reader.  In short, a very good novel.


Let's move on now, ignoring the thirties and forties (a luxury people living at that time didn't have) and return to Germany in 1955.  Berlin is a city divided into four zones, one of which will eventually be walled off by the Russians, and it is into this early Cold War era that Leonard Marnham, a young English electrical engineer steps in Ian McEwan's novel The Innocent.  Seconded to the Americans in a joint operation, he helps engineer telephone taps to spy on the Russians across the border whilst spending his free time with Maria, a German woman he meets in a nightclub.

For Leonard, an innocent in every sense of the word, his time in Berlin is an awakening.  Quite apart from this being his first time abroad (and away from his parents), his relationship with Maria is his first real experience with the opposite sex - which shows in the way he thinks he needs to treat her.  He also has to form relationships with the Americans he is working with, including the charismatic Bob Glass, despite hints from a superior that he should, perhaps, be using them and passing information back to Whitehall.  And then, on top of all this, Maria's ex-husband turns up, and things get really complicated...

The story involves a new slant on a genuine spying operation in Berlin, introducing a real spy as a minor character in the book (so no looking things up until afterwards unless you want to spoil things!), and while it's a fairly slight work, it's thoroughly entertaining stuff.  McEwan handles the story deftly, with a few violent and sordid flourishes, but there is one aspect of the book which gives pause for thought.  The final section is set in 1987, allowing a look back at the events through the gift of hindsight, and as this is the third time he's done this in the three books of his I've read so far (this one plus Atonement and On Chesil Beach), I'm starting to wonder if he could possibly use the same technique in all his novels.  One would hope not...

That minor quibble aside, The Innocent is a pleasant read about a very interesting historical period and well worth a look (although I'm happy to have borrowed rather than bought it).  There is one more intriguing point to report though; McEwan wrote a postscript explaining some of the background information and thanking some of his sources.  Nothing there to interest one, you might think, until you see the date: September, 1989.  Timing really is everything...

Friday, 16 July 2010

Review Post 32 - Is David Mitchell mortal after all?!

The David Mitchell readathon has come to an end as I have finally allowed myself to read his fifth, and latest, novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet.  This is probably the first time that I have been really excited about the imminent release of a book - being a big fan of classical literature, few of my favourite writers are likely to pen any more bestsellers (or breathe again) -, and I was anxious as to how this book would measure up to the likes of Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten.  The result?  Well, I think the post title gives you a hint...

First things first.  The novel, henceforth to be known as Thousand Autumns, takes place in Japan as the eighteenth century is slowly giving way to its successor.  Young clerk Jacob de Zoet, out in Asia with the Dutch East-Asian Trading Company in the hope of making his fortune, arrives on the artificial island of Dejima, a trade enclave for the only foreigners allowed to communicate with the Japanese Empire.  This extension of Nagasaki, part warehouse, part prison, is where copper reluctantly leaves Japan and where modern ideas quietly creep in.  As de Zoet settles into his post, curious about the environment he finds himself in, he meets a unique woman, a native permitted to study medicine under the auspices of Dejima's Dutch doctor, and this is where events begin to unfold.

Sounds good, so far, so why the slightly negative undertones, you may ask.  Well, I think it starts to go a little wrong at the end of the first of the three major sections.  Having concentrated on life in Dejima (and centred itself on Jacob and the start of his life on the island warehouse/prison), the book then whisks us away to focus on a new, albeit connected part of the story.  This is, as any Mitchell devotee could tell you, nothing new; however, where this dislocation works wonders in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, I feel it falls a little flat here, interrupting the tempo of the book and leaving the reader wondering what exactly the point of the story is.

And that is my main issue with Thousand Autumns; I really don't get what he was driving at, and it doesn't really sit as cohesively as the (ironically, even-more-fractured) Cloud Atlas.  Without the benefit of postgraduate qualifications in Literary Analysis, the best I can come up with is that it is 'bitty'; there were times when I was soothed by his writing into a comfortable state and others where I wondered if I'd inadvertently been given an unfinished draft copy (which I would, of course, immediately have flogged on e-Bay).  Perhaps this is partly because of my expectations of the book.  Aside from the obvious difficulty of following his previous works, Mitchell also set himself the task of writing a book set in Japan, but not in Japan, if you see what I mean.  I was expecting, and hoping, for a wider view of the country, seen through Jacob's eyes, and I was a little disappointed when I didn't really get it.

Still, don't go thinking that I'm going to be throwing my copy into my tasteful blue recycling bin (emptied every second Friday morning).  Quite apart from the fact that my elder daughter Emi is fascinated by the beautiful cover design (as usual, I think the British cover beats the North American one hands down...), I did enjoy reading Thousand Autumns, and I suspect that I'll enjoy it a lot more the second time around when my expectations won't be so high.  In addition to a very Murakami-esque scene involving a cat and a tunnel, I enjoyed the continuation of Mitchell's obsession with progress and his slightly pessimistic view of the changes industrialisation and civilisation bring.  Seen in this light, the timing and location are perfect, and the first and last sections could almost be considered book ends to Cloud Atlas.

The most interesting, for me at least, and perhaps most successful feature of this book is the focus on the inherent difficulties in communication.  I have just completed the last unit of my Master's degree, which focused on Intercultural Communication, so it's not surprising that I have been viewing all my reading lately through that prism.  This concept, however, has a lot more to it than the idea that those Japanese are strange and don't think the same as us Dutchies (as I'm sure no-one actually said in the book - although they may well have been thinking it).  In addition to the obvious issues of communicating in a foreign language, there is the difficulty of interpreting the implicit meaning behind the words, even when the words themselves are seemingly straight-forward.  One example from the book is when de Zoet is repeatedly asked in Japanese whether a man retrieved dead from the sea is English.  He senses that there is more to the question than meets the eye but is unable to untangle the hidden message until he asks his interpreter to spell the subtext out for him.

A common misconception is that Intercultural Communication is limited to interactions involving people speaking a different language and coming from different ethnic backgrounds, but Thousand Autumns give several excellent examples of why this is incorrect.  While the Japanese may occasionally be inscrutable, it is with his countrymen (and other fellow Dutch speakers) that our hero has more trouble.  It is this idea of culture in the sense of a group of people with shared interests which de Zoet falls foul of; his failure to realise that Dejima is a long way from either Amsterdam or Batavia leads to his misguided attempt at honesty.  The culture of the marooned Dutch traders is very different to his own...

All in all then, Thousand Autumns is a thoroughly entertaining read, which would be more than enough to expect from most writers.  This however is David Mitchell, so I felt (unreasonably) slightly disappointed on completing the book.  Mitchell obviously spent a lot of time researching the background to this book, writing about a time and a place which obviously fascinate him.  The problem is that I'm not sure this filters through to the reader as much as it should.  Perhaps those expectations of mine really did prevent me from enjoying this work as much as I should have.  Still, I have a suggestion for Mitchell to ponder over if he's looking for ideas for future novels.  The end of Sakoku (Japan's closed nation policy) would make for a more interesting background for a book: why not take a leaf out of Blackadder's book and bring back an illegitimate heir to take centre stage in these historic events?  The Lost Heir of Jacob de Zoet.  I'm willing to listen to offers...

Monday, 12 July 2010

Review Post 31 - Feeding the Addiction

OK, so it's not the real trophy, but it's the best I could come up with at short notice...


As a way of paying literary tribute to the event which has been seriously compromising my sleep over the past month, I thought it only fitting to revisit an old friend this week.  Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby's first book, is a work of non-fiction, which follows his life from his school days to (what once was) the present day.  The book differs widely from a standard autobiography though as it links the ups and downs in Hornby's life with those of his favourite football club, Arsenal, and along the way attempts to explain the hold football has on people and why it matters so much to so many.

While the first part of the book is full of youthful adventures and cheery anecdotes, the middle section is slightly darker and more serious.  Hornby traces the origins of his passion for the beautiful game to an attempt to find common ground with his father after his parents' divorce, but it later comes to support him in a period of his life where he can't seem to get going and where everything he does seems doomed to failure.  On further analysis though, the writer starts to wonder if football is a help or a hindrance: are Arsenal his only crutch in his darkest days, or a retardant preventing him from growing up properly?

The other major theme of the book is an attempt to explain what football means to the wider community and to explore who follows football and why.  While our allegiances may seem clear-cut, it's still worth wondering what exactly we're following.  Are we attached to the club?  Are we just obsessed by the players?  Or (as Hornby suspects in his case) is it the stadium, the secular shrine, which is the focus of attention?  With your relationship with your football team being compared to a marriage (but with no chance of divorce), it's probably best to know the answers to these questions...

I have read this book far too many times over the past fifteen years or so, which made the first section of the book slightly tedious (when you remember most of the anecdotes word for word, you start to lose interest after a while).  However, the writer's struggles to find a niche in life and his consequent use of Arsenal as a comfort blanket are still brutally honest and fascinating, and a lot more open than you would expect.

My circumstances have also changed, and it is this which makes my reading of the book so different this time.  When I first read it (probably in 1994), I was a football-mad university student with absolutely no vision for the future stretching beyond the next indoor 5-a-side game, and many of the events described in the book were still fresh in the memory.  Now it seems a little dated, and with sixteen years more life experience, and a greater exposure to the world outside English football, it all seems a little more distant from my life.  Which is a shame.

At the time the book came out, it was sold as a book everyone should read, a work which would help people to understand what's going on inside the brains of football fanatics.  In 2010, I'm not sure that the wider community would get as much out of it, especially if you're not British. Which is not to say that it's not worth reading (it most definitely is, and don't let my slightly reflective and nostalgic post fool you into thinking otherwise); it would just benefit from the addition of footnotes for the casual, international reader.

Eighteen years on from publication, some things have changed immensely.  Hornby is now a world-famous writer, of both novels and screenplays; his beloved Arsenal have moved out of Highbury, thus potentially destroying one of the reasons for his passion; and player salaries have rocketed to astronomical proportions.  In an early chapter, Hornby recalls a fan abusing a player, questioning how he could be earning a hundred pounds a week for such a shoddy performance.  The performances  (and the abuse) may not have changed much, but the salaries certainly have: try a hundred thousand pounds a week...

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Review Post 30 - Around the World

A quick trip around the world today:  from England to Australia, India and the Middle East (via Germany).  Please have your passport handy...


I read my first Peter Carey book, His Illegal Self, earlier this year, and frankly speaking, I wasn't overly impressed, despite some interesting characterisation,  However, I thought it was only fair to give him another go, and I picked up a copy of Oscar and Lucinda on a recent library trip (my elder daughter, Emily, was distracted by something shiny for long enough to allow me a quick look around A-D).  The verdict?  Well worth a read.

The story follows two lonely souls, English priest Oscar Hopkins and rich Australian orphan Lucinda Leplastrier, as they float along their early lives only to have them intersect and entwine under unusual circumstances.  Both find themselves separated from their own kind by taste and circumstances, but it is a shared passion which brings them together: a love of gambling.

When the beautiful and headstrong Lucinda reveals her secret to her new clerical acquaintance, she expects the usual disapproving response, especially from a man of the cloth.  Instead, Oscar's face lights up and he describes her vice in an entirely new light.
'Our whole faith is a wager, Miss Leplastrier. ...we bet that there is a God. We bet our life on it. We calculate the odds, the return, that we shall sit with the saints in paradise.' (p336, 2005, Vintage Books)
As the unlikely couple cross paths repeatedly and eventually come closer, the obsessive and the compulsive gambler stake their futures on the outcome of a larger wager, the bet which will shape their futures.  Alas, we know from the start, in the form of a series of teasing interjections from our narrator, Oscar's great-grandson, that this is one gamble which is not going to come off.

Oscar and Lucinda starts rather slowly, and the first couple of hundred pages didn't really grab me.  However, as the narrative gently ebbed forward, I became more and more involved with the odd couple and their intriguing story; by the end of the book, I was desperate to find out what had happened and how the beginning and end of the story came together.

One of Carey's strength is the descriptiveness of his writing.  He lingers over scenes, painting vivid pictures of firesides, threadbare furniture and knotted floorboards, dust floating in the sunlight coursing through lead-framed window panes.  Along with the way his characters are seen through many eyes, their own, their close friends and, occasionally those of minor characters, this attention to detail builds images in the reader's mind until you can almost see Lucinda suppressing her rage when patronised by her workers at the glass factory or Oscar battling manfully on the high seas against his overwhelming phobia. 

In the end, the story is all about taking chances, betting your last shirt in the hope of attaining your dreams.  Strange?  Unseemly?  Perhaps.  I'll let Oscar have the last word...
'I cannot see', he said, 'that such a God, whose fundamental requirement of us is that we gamble our mortal souls, every second of our temporal existence...It is true!  We must gamble every instant of our allotted span.  We must stake everything on the unprovable fact of His existence.' (p.337)

A few weeks ago, I posted on the first few stories from my Thomas Mann collection (although most people would probably not have realised that from the actual post itself), having taken a break half-way through from the unrelenting mental struggle of grappling with Mann's language and concepts.  Imagine then my delight when, on returning for the return bout, I found that the remaining two stories were whimsical, humorous retellings of ancient Eastern tales (obviously, Mann mellowed a little with age).

The first, Die vertauschten Köpfe (The Transposed Heads), is set in India and tells the tale of two lifelong friends, Schridaman (an intelligent trader) and Nanda (a robust farmer and blacksmith).  After the two friends secretly observe the beautiful Sita bathing in a river, Nanda helps to arrange a marriage for the lovelorn Schridaman with the object of his affection.  Later, on a trip the three of them make to visit Sita's parents, events conspire to make the two men lose their heads - literally.  Despite the intervention of a benign deity, who promises to help the two young men come back to life, this is the real start of the story.  You see, in her confusion, the lovely Sita didn't really check whose head belonged to whose body...

What follows is a story inviting us to reflect on what makes us, well, us.  As Sita struggles to decide who is her husband, Schridaman's clever head or his slightly flabby body, we get to make up our mind about whether it is our animal impulses or higher instincts which control our decisions.  Don't worry, it's not as high-flown as it sounds; in fact, at times, it is slightly farcical and extremely amusing - a far cry from the painstakingly excruciating agonies felt by Von Ascherbach in Der Tod in Venedig.

The second story, Das Gesetz (The Law), is a retelling of part of the biblical story of Moses.  While the gist of the story is fairly faithful, there are some variations from the original.  One example is the portrayal of Moses as the son of an illegitimate tryst between an Egyptian princess and a Jewish waterbearer, with the baby being brought up by the father's family, and not the royal household.  Rather than being the stern, superhuman Charlton-Heston-like depiction of the saviour of the Jews, Moses is shown as a rough, tongue-tied holy man, who relies on the practical nous of a few choice followers to convert God's will into achievable ideas.  Joshua, a warlike lieutenant (who, it is suggested, was actually responsible for the tenth plague of Egypt), makes maps of the route to the Holy Land and considers deeply matters such as requisition of resources and the demographic growth required to usurp possible other claimants to Jewish settlements.
Anyone who takes the Bible literally will probably find little to enjoy in Mann's rather loose interpretation of Moses' travels, but for the rest of us, this new slant on an old story is a fascinating tale.  The Jews swing between praising Moses to the skies for leading them from slavery and complaining darkly behind his back for having dragged them across the desert from their comfortable, safe Egyptian bondage.  Even when he is in their good book, Moses can't catch a break as it is him his people start idolising - and not God...

In a week when the Australian Prime Minister finally became the victim of constant backbiting (and, admittedly, a bit of a messiah complex), the morals of Das Gesetz appear more relevant than ever.  Whether you're leading the chosen ones across the Sinai Desert or attempting to stare down the mining industry over possible tax reforms, one thing is certain: it's very, very lonely at the top...

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Takeshi Suzuki Goes For A Walk

Welcome, one and all!  As a part of the Japanese Literature Challenge 4, I thought it would be fun to share something which, if not strictly Japanese literature, is still set in Japan.  Takeshi Suzuki Goes For A Walk is a 3000-word short story I wrote not long ago, and (if you're interested) you can click here and go to Smashwords, where you can read the story online, download a PDF or save the file to your E-reader.  Alternatively, you can look for something more interesting instead; the choice is yours.

If you do take a look, please feel free to let me know what you think.  I'm always very happy to get feedback :)