Tuesday, 31 January 2012

It Takes A Community To Raise A Child

It has been about a year now since a Kindle first arrived on my doorstep, and a glance at the contents of my little electronic friend will quickly tell you what I have become accustomed to using it for.  The majority of the digital books I have stored away for a rainy day are German-language classics, books I'm not quite sure of but would like to give a go, and it is for this availability of free classic texts that I am extremely grateful.  While blindly perusing Teutonic novellas doesn't always work out for the best (e.g. Die Glücksritter, Die Judenbuche), more often than not (e.g. Theodor Storm, Theodor Fontane, Lena Christ) I've come up with some new favourite writers.

Today's book then is another of these G-Lit classics, a famous novel by a Victorian-era Austrian writer (who fits in nicely with my Women Writers Month!), Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach.  Das Gemeindekind (The Community Child or The Child of the Parish) is an excellent book, a psychological (psychoanalytical?) tale of a case study of nature versus nurture.  I'm aware of the cliché of dragging Freud's name into any review of an Austrian book, but it is sadly unavoidable in this case...

Martin Holub, a lazy, drunken brickmaker, arrives in a small village with his family, and within the space of six months is driven out again - at which point he robs and murders the local clergyman.  He is promptly sentenced to death, and his wife Barbara, who refuses to dispute Martin's attempt to lay the blame on her, is sentenced to ten years in prison.  Unfortunately, this causes another issue for the small township - what to do with the couple's two children...

Persuading the local baroness to take charge of the sweet and likeable daughter Milada is a fairly simple matter.  However, the teenage son, Pavel, a surly, stubborn youth, becomes the community's responsibility, one which it could do without.  Sent to live with a family who are themselves not without their own criminal tendencies, it seems as if Pavel is destined for an unhappy life and an early (and unnatural death).  But the local teacher, a man who knows what it's like to be ostracised decides that there is more to Pavel than the community is willing to admit...

Das Gemeindekind is a wonderful book, a Bildungsroman which avoids the trap of idealising the young man whose life it is describing.  Pavel may be the hero of our story, but he is far from perfect.  He is an angry young man, enraged with the way society in general (and certain people in the village in particular) have already decided that he is worthless and (as one character remarks) on his way to join either his mother or his father.

Whenever events fail to go his way, his short fuse burns through, further justifying the unjustified opinions of all who live around him.  On seeing the seductive and mischievous Vinska, a girl he has a secret crush on, in the arms of another man:
"Über den Anblick vergaß Pavel seinen Hunger - seine Ungeduld wich einem rasenden, ihm unbegreiflichen Schmerz; wie in den Fängen eines Raubtieres wand er sich und brachte ein entsetzliches Röcheln hervor." p.35
"At this sight, Pavel forgot his hunger - his impatience was replaced by a throbbing, incomprehensible pain; he twisted and turned as if in the clutches of a predator and brought forth a terrible groan."***
His aggressive behaviour, coupled with his tendency to play up his bad reputation, makes it likely that he will follow his parents' lead...

However, Pavel is fortunate enough to find one person willing to believe in him, the local teacher Habrecht ('Beright' would be a an appropriate Dickensian translation of this name!).  In one of his first appearances in the book, he is forced to give Pavel a thrashing in front of the class, but:
"Seine Ansicht war, daß solche vor einem jugendlichen Publikum vorgenommene Exekution demjenigen, an dem sie vollzogen wird, selten nützt, und denen, die ihr zusehen, immer schadet." p.19
"His view was that such punishments carried out before a young audience are seldom useful for those they punish, and always harmful for those who look on."***
Habrecht is initially the only one willing to take up Pavel's case (and that includes Pavel himself), but the more our young hero matures, the more he is accepted by the community, and the better his character becomes as a consequence.

As stated above, Ebner-Eschenbach uses Das Gemeindekind as a vehicle to explore the idea of nature versus nurture, forcing us to examine our prejudices.  Not only does Pavel have to contend with the lax upbringing of his biological father; his new guardians are fairly loose with the law themselves.  The more trouble Pavel gets into, however, the more likely people are to attribute it to his genes than the lack of care shown by the community.

There is also more than a hint of racial prejudice at play: the events take place back in the days of the old Austro-Hungarian empire, and it appears that the Czech-sounding name of Pavel Holub - and his family's gipsy-like wanderings - may have instantly drawn suspicion from some of the more Germanic leading citizens of the town.  If we throw in the Oedipal context of Pavel's struggles to provide a home for his mother once she is released from prison, you can see that there is a lot going on beneath the surface of this book...

On the face of it, Das Gemeindekind doesn't have a lot in common with other Bildungsromane, such as Great Expectations.  However, it does share one excellent trait with Dicken's novel.  Like Pip, Pavel does not come to the end of his story on the final page of the novel; the end of the book is merely the start of another chapter in his life (one I would be very interested in reading, if it existed...).  Unlike Great Expectations though, there's one really bad thing about this book - those of you who are unable to understand German are unlikely to ever be able to read it :(

The translations of the German in this text, marked ***, are my own, less-than-perfect attempts :)

Sunday, 29 January 2012

A Little Silliness Goes a Long Way

Last week I posted on the last of George Eliot's works of fiction, Impressions of Theophrastus Such, but until that post became a little longer than expected, I had actually intended to review another side of Eliot's writing along side it - one which I've finally got around to talking about today :)  As you may have heard, Eliot, as well as being a novelist, was a writer of essays and assorted non-fiction, and while I was stumbling around her Wikipedia page, I came across a link to a text copy of a certain literary text she wrote...

The title - Silly Novels by Lady Novelists - will immediately tell you what it's all about, and the essay does exactly what it says on the tin.  In twenty pages or so, Eliot discusses various types of dreadful novels, and... but let me hand you over to the lady herself:
"Silly Novels by Lady Novelists are a genus with many species, determined by the particular quality of silliness that predominates in them - the frothy, the prosy, the pious or the pedantic."
Where Impressions of Theophrastus Such was a little lacking in humour, this piece has it in spades, dripping in sarcasm while ripping bad writers to shreds.  This particular lady novelist really has it in for those of her gender who give everyone else a bad reputation.  While female writers in the Victorian era were often forced into the profession (as the only one suitable for a middle-class lady in need of an income), Eliot suspects that many of the worst offenders do not have this excuse.  She writes:
"It is clear that they write in elegant boudoirs, with violet-coloured ink and a ruby pen; that they must be entirely indifferent to publishers' accounts, and inexperienced in every form of poverty except poverty of brains."

One particular criticism is the formulaic nature of certain novels, with their unrealistic characters and simplistic plots, where:
"The vicious baronet is sure to be killed in a duel, and the tedious husband dies in his bed requesting his wife, as a particular favour to him, to marry the man she loves best, and having already dispatched a note to the lover informing him of the comfortable arrangement."
Eliot scathingly dissects numerous bad examples of the genres she criticises, wittily expounding upon the female protagonists more competent in ancient languages than the average college professor (and more prone to using that ability in public), and four-year-old children who can express their feelings with the pathos of a romantic poet.  She is, as you've probably gathered by now, not very generous about it.

And why should she be?  As she points out, the efforts of these dilettantes do women in general (and female writers in particular) a disservice.  It's hard enough being a female writer in a man's world, without being compared to the mindless creators of the works savaged here.  Eliot claims that this has happened because the awful amateur is received kindly - at first:
"By a peculiar thermometric adjustment, when a woman's talent is at zero, journalistic approbation is at the boiling pitch; when she attains mediocrity, it is already at no more than summer heat; and if she ever reaches excellence, critical enthusiasm drops to the freezing point."
Perhaps Eliot was a little sensitive here to criticism of her own work...

I'm not usually one for including several direct quotations from books, but once again I was tempted to copy huge swathes of this essay and let Eliot speak for herself.  She is quite simply a wonderful writer, and when freed from the constraints of a monstrous three-volume novel, she can also be very, very funny.  Silly Novels by Lady Novelists is freely available and fairly short, so I would recommend that you give it a go.  It is well worth the effort :)

Friday, 27 January 2012

Blinded by Science

With my focus on female writers this month, and the plethora of Australian challenges I'm taking part in (see the icons on the right of my blog for details), when I heard of Carrie Tiffany's latest book, I thought it sounded like one for me.  I was cheeky enough to ask for a review copy of Mateship with Birds and her previous novel, Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living, and the lovely people at PanMcMillan (Picador) Australia were kind enough to send me a copy of both.  Sometimes life's like that :)

Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living is set in the Mallee region in country Victoria, a part of the Australian wheat belt, in the 1930s, where our main character, Jean Finnegan, is travelling around on the Better Farming Train, a government-funded initiative to bring progress and development to the people outside the major capitals.  Jean, a superb seamstress (two in one month!) falls in love with Robert Pettergree, an expert on soils, and the two of them very quickly decide to get married and establish their own farm in the Mallee, one based on scientific principles.

With Robert's farming expertise and Jean's wealth of household knowledge, the couple are sure they can make a go of things out in the country.  Sadly though, events conspire against them: the harsh Australian climate takes its toll on all the farmers eking out a living, and the Great Depression rolls in from the city to the country.  Sometimes scientific living just isn't enough...

There's a lot to like about this book.  It stands out from the usual urban tales of Australiana, ignoring the state capital of Melbourne and instead concentrating on life out in the country, where when people talk about the city, they mean the small regional centre of Swan Hill, not the bustling metropolis which the best tennis players in the world are currently visiting ;)  It's also a reminder that the Great Depression was a worldwide affair, not a Steinbeckian phenomenon limited to the heartlands of America, and we can see the effects of the drought and economic disaster right here on our doorstep.

One by one, farmers fall victim to the drought, unable to cope in times of reduced rainfall and economic hardship.  As Robert, on the orders of the state government, tries to move the farmers on to a more scientific method of growing wheat, the signs of the Depression are already in the air.  The very train bringing the super phosphate, the chemical which is to increase the wheat yield, also harbours economic refugees from the city - the first signs of what is to come.

It's also an interesting book in a feminist light as we get to see Jean's motives for marrying and the world she has born into, not one which encourages young women to hang around waiting for a man or to try to make a go of it on their own.  In an early flash back, we see Jean at school, in a scene where we are told in no uncertain terms what her role in society is to be:
"I didn't like it when the teacher split us into boys and girls and we had special talks.  Our talks were about being modest and having babies.  The teacher showed us a map of Australia and drew a big rectangle inside the middle of it with a ruler.
'See this - all empty.  And whose job is it to fill up the empty continent with lovely healthy babies?  It's your job, girls.  What an honour.  What a privilege...'" p.16 (Picador, 2005)
When we move forward twenty years, we see that little has changed.  On moving to her new home of Wycheproof, Jean visits the small library at the local Mechanics' Institute.  Unfortunately though, she is unable to get her library card on that day - the application form has to be filled out in the name of her husband...

It is against this background that Jean's decision to get married, even if it is to someone she loves (and sexually desires) is made.  With no real family life to return to, she finds it easy to throw in her lot with the taciturn Robert, deciding to stick it out in the country, whatever may happen.  However, for Robert, life is not so simple.  His belief in the progressive nature of science and the inevitability of correct preparation bringing superior results, means that he is unable to cope with the cruel surprises nature - and economics - spring on him.  Perversely, the more Jean rises to the challenge, the more he loses his faith in what he is doing, and his nature prevents him from truly confiding in the woman he has chosen to share this life of hardship.

It's not a perfect book by any means.  It's a little short, and the part about the train, a mobile practical classroom roaming around country Victoria, is over in a flash, half making you wonder whether it was worth including it at all.  There are several sex scenes which, while probably serving some purpose, seemed a little exaggerated and superfluous at times, and one supporting character, the Japanese scientist Mr. Ohno, bordered on a caricature, one which I really didn't think worked very well at all.  The writing is also fairly sparing and simple - while effective, there are no elegant, lexical pyrotechnics to be found here (although many readers may consider this a good thing!).

Overall though, these are minor, personal quibbles, and the positives of Tiffany's novel far outweigh the negatives.  It's an easy read, but a compelling one, and anyone interested in Australian history will particularly enjoy Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living.  Having enjoyed the first novel then, I'll be very happy to check out Mateship with Birds, again set in country Victoria, but this time in the 1950s.  I see my Women Writers Month might last a little longer than I'd originally planned for...

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

It's All Under Control...

Yoko Ogawa's Hotel Iris was written in 1996, but it took until 2010 for an English translation (courtesy of Stephen Snyder) to appear.  While this is just another indictment of the lack of adventure in Anglophone publishing (I recall that Caroline told me she read it - in German - about ten years ago...), it's still a surprise.  This is an excellent novel, one which should have been translated a lot earlier.

Anyone expecting another gentle, heart-warming tale in the vein of The Housekeeper and The Professor is, however, in for a bit of a shock.  Hotel Iris is an erotically-charged, breath-taking and, at times, extremely disturbing book, definitely not one for the nervous among you.  If this doesn't put you off though, then you'll certainly be rewarded for your bravery ;)

The novel begins in the hotel of the title, a run-down, ramshackle place, set a little back from the main beach of a Japanese seaside town.  Mari, the teenage daughter of the hotel owner, leads a boring existence behind the front desk, checking in the guests and helping out with the cleaning and cooking when required.  One night, there is a disturbance in one of the rooms when a prostitute runs out, screaming at the man inside.  As she flees, the man booms out a command - words which turn Mari's world upside down.

It's not giving away much to say that Mari eventually becomes involved with the man, who turns out to be a translator, one claiming to be working on an obscure Russian novel.  This is no ordinary summer fling though; not only is the translator about forty years older than Mari, he also has some rather specific sexual preferences - and a very murky past...

Hotel Iris is a fairly short novel, only 164-pages long in my version, yet it is incredibly deeply written.  All of the handful of major characters have been skilfully brought to life, each of them adding their nuances to the overall picture: Mari's over-controlling mother with her obsession with her daughter's hair; the kleptomaniac maid, who may suspect Mari's secret; Mari's father, long dead, but a potential source of some of her issues.  Even the hotel itself seems to be a part of the plot, with the 'R' of 'Iris' in the hotel's name-sign hanging ominously askew.

Mari herself is a wonderfully-complicated person, switching from a sweet, obedient mother's girl to a secretive, self-destructive wreck at the drop of a hat.  Her deep need to be controlled and debased, stemming perhaps from events in her childhood, soon gets out of control.   She's the perfect find for the sinister translator, an empty vessel to be filled as he wishes...

...and yet, we have to wonder at times who is using whom.  The story is told from Mari's point of view, and there is no attempt to make excuses for herself or to shift the blame for matters fully onto the shoulders of the older man.  While no secret is made of the translator's deep-seated rage and his need to control every element of his life, things never appear forced in his treatment of Mari - at least, not more than she wants.

Ogawa's novel can be extremely unsettling, but that's definitely not a bad thing.  This is a book where even inanimate objects can appear dark and slightly unnerving.  The fountain in the hotel courtyard, poisoned by waste from Mari's grandfather's illness, decays just as Mari's innocence does, and the story the translator is working on, a romance with a heroine called Marie, has parallels with Mari's own life.  Pay attention while reading this book as there is definitely more to what happens in the small seaside town than meets the eye.

As I suggested above, this is not one of those pure, aesthetically-pleasing, Japanese novels westerners love to read, so it may not be to everyone's liking.  However, if you're ready to try something a little darker, why not check in at the Hotel Iris?  Its length means it'll only be an overnight stay; which is just as well - I wouldn't want to be in Ogawa's world for too long...

And that brings down the curtain on the current Japanese Literature Challenge, the fifth in the series.  Thanks again to Belezza for organising the event - as always, it has motivated me to get out there and discover lots of wonderful new writers (and spend time with some old friends).  Hopefully, it won't be too long until JLC6 comes around :)  Until then, ja mata - ki o tsukete ne ;)

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Impressive Impressions

When it came to choosing a Victorian writer to contribute to my Women Writers Month, it was hard to go past George Eliot, even though I've already read (and, in many cases, reread) all of her more famous fiction.  I was originally planning to read The Mill on the Floss, when I remembered that I had a couple of her less well-known works on my Kindle - which brings me to today's offering...

Impressions of Theophrastus Such is one of Eliot's minor works of fiction, and probably one for the completist rather than the casual reader, but it's still an interesting little book.  It consists of a series of philosophical musings on a range of topics, by a friendly narrator called (I assume) Theophrastus Such.  Such is (in his own words) an averagely-intelligent middle-aged man who wants to tease out a few issues with regards to human behaviour.  Of course, this is just a front, allowing the formidable mind of George Eliot to dissect the foibles of the Victorian middle classes :)

In eighteen short chapters, Such discusses issues such as people who cannot bear other people's success, the perils of attempting to create new research whilst stepping on other men's toes, the horrors of plagiarism, and the possible consequences of technological advancement.  For the most part, the essays are written in a light-hearted manner, reminiscent of Jerome K. Jerome's Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, or Anthony Trollope's occasional quasi-philosophical asides to his readers, but as you can probably tell from the topics above, Eliot's serious side is never far from the surface, negating the humour a little.

Which is not to say that it's not humorous.  I spent half my time highlighting wonderful passages, some thought-provoking, others witty, the occasional line being laugh-out-loud funny.  One unfortunate man is treated as follows:
" Some listeners incautious in their epithets would have called Hinze an "ass".  For my part I would never insult that intelligent and unpretending animal who no doubt brays with perfect simplicity and substantial meaning to those acquainted with his idiom." p.47
When discussing another gentleman, the person whose jealousy won't allow him to appreciate anything done by anyone else, Such ponders:
"Why, then did he speak of the modern Maro or the modern Flaccus with a peculiarity in his tone of assent to other people's praise which might almost have led you to suppose that the eminent poet had borrowed money of him, and shown an indisposition to repay?" p.38
And there's one particularly wonderful quote, one which may hit close to home for the bloggers among us...
"And however unpractical it may be held to consider whether we have anything to print which it is good for the world to read, or which has not been better said before, it will perhaps be allowed to be worth considering what effect the printing may have on ourselves." p.102
Perhaps I'd better move on...

While Impressions of Theophrastus Such is a wonderfully-entertaining read though, it's not perfect.  You see, Eliot is such an intellectual giant that she occasional shoots too high, and the reader is likely to get lost if they are unacquainted with at least the rudiments of the classics and a firm grounding in modern foreign languages.  While I appreciated the humour of the articles published in the "Selten-erscheinende Monat-Schrift" ("Rarely-Appearing Monthly", p.30), I doubt that many others would.  Also, beginning one essay with half a page of untranslated French is unlikely to endear Mr. Such to many monolingual readers :(

Do stick with it though, because there are a couple of gems near the end.  In one, Such (in a discussion with a friend) predicts the rise of the machines and the disappearance of the human race in a disturbingly Terminator-esque portrayal.  In another, the most serious of the collection, Such (Eliot...) argues passionately for an end to prejudice against Jews, reliving the history of the race and showing how ludicrous society's treatment of them really is.  She truly was a woman ahead of her time...

So where can you get this work?  There don't seem to be any editions from the usual suspects, but The Book Depository has scanned and formatted it, offering a copy in its Dodo Press range for about AU$12.  However, this edition is also available as a free PDF, so you can just pop over to the site and download it onto the electronic device of your choosing in a matter of moments - how good is that?!

Before you rush off though, I'll leave you with one last nugget of wisdom from the writings of the irrepressible Such.  A while back I put forward Eliot as my champion to take on the rather unlikeable V.S. Naipaul after his nasty comments about female writers, and one sentence, taken from an essay about people who can't help giving their opinions, just sums up nicely why Eliot would be up to the task:
 "Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving us wordy evidence of the fact..." p.37
There's nothing really to be added to that :)

Friday, 20 January 2012

Stories from the Land, Stories from the Sea...

It's taken a full nineteen days of the new year, but I've finally got around to reviewing my first book for the multitude of Australian challenges I'm participating in this year - and it's a very good one to get me underway too :)  Alexis Wright's Carpentaria was the winner of the 2007 Miles Franklin Award (Australia's most well-known book prize), amongst a stack of other literary contests, thus promising to be an excellent read.  It certainly lives up to this promise...

Carpentaria takes us to the Far-North-Queensland town of Desperance, an isolated little place on the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria, a reasonable plane journey from any major city.  A small white population lives in the town, existing mainly as vassals of the major mining company which has recently set up operations.  Meanwhile, skirting the town on opposite sides, two Aboriginal tribes live in what some see as squalor, but which others regard as a traditional way of life.

The two groups are led by larger-than-life elders.  The Eastsiders' chief is the ancient trickster Joseph Midnight, but it is the head of the Westsiders who is the key to Carpentaria.  Normal Phantom is a fisherman, an ancient mariner with an unparallelled knowledge of the seas, and the stars which enable him to navigate them.  After his wife leaves him, he temporarily decides to stay at home, spending his time making miraculous specimens of stuffed fish for envious Whites.  It is not until one of his sons, the prodigal Will, returns to town bearing a less-than-welcome gift, that Norm decides that it is time to return to the ocean wave...

After the first two hundred pages or so of this book, I was starting to wonder if it was really a novel at all.  The pace unfolds slowly, unhurriedly, each chapter languidly introducing and following a new character - the laconic Norm and his haughty wife, Angel Day; the miracle from the sea, Elias Smith; the nomadic Mozzie Fishman and the mysterious Will Phantom.  The first half of the book seems to be more like a series of loosely-related novellas, set in the same town with a cast of extras in the background.  Slowly though, Wright allows us to learn more information about our new friends, and Will's return to the aptly named Desperance (an apparent mix of hope and desperation...) kick-starts the narrative into another, more powerful gear.

On the surface, Carpentaria appears to be about the clash of the old and the new, the traditional and settling communities, but this is not really the case.  Although the white community is there in body, in another sense, they're not really that important.  Despite their position in the centre of the town, they are in fact marginal, irrelevant - until, that is, the time comes for scapegoats to be found, and the paths of the communities cross.  In fact, for much of the book, more is made of the rivalry between the Westsiders and Eastsiders, both of whom believe they are the rightful owners of the land.

A more prominent issue is faith, and the way it supports those who truly believe.  Of course, in a book like Carpentaria, this idea of faith is far from being restricted to the Christian religions; it has just as much to do with indigenous beliefs in the dreamtime and the debt owed to the memories of one's ancestors.  The characters who prosper in the book are those who have kept their connection with their past, who refuse to forget where they came from.

This is one of the problems for the white inhabitants of 'Uptown' - rootless and (practically, if not theoretically) godless, they have nothing to cling to, nothing that pulls them together except a dependence on the mining money and a shared fear of both the Aboriginal population and the sea.  This is a telling contrast to what drives people like Norm and Mozzie, whose constant retelling of inherited stories grounds them and connects them with with their past.

While Norm and Mozzie share a link with their history and traditions, they are separated in a much more fundamental way though, a gulf which is probably the biggest dividing force in Carpentaria.  Norm is a man of the sea, and Mozzie is deeply rooted to the land; both are unable to function properly outside their natural environment.  Norm is, metaphorically, if not literally, a fish out of water when stuck at home restoring his fish in his shed.  His soul belongs out on the sea, sailing alone under the stars, with only the fish for company.  Mozzie spends his life in a never-ending tour of the continent, visiting sacred places, paying respects to his ancestors and bending everyone's ear with his stories.

Desperance itself, caught in an uneasy position of being delicately poised between the unforgiving arid land and the menacing, ever-shifting shoreline, is unable to establish itself, unable to decide what it is.  The white folk refuse to set out to sea, afraid of what might happen to them, preferring, despite their proximity to the wealth of the oceans, to look to the land for riches - a decision which will prove to be a misguided one by the end of the novel.

So what is Carpentaria?  It will probably be a lot of things to a lot of people.  It's a story of tension between black and white and between different tribes.  It's an exploration of the importance of faith and history, an emphasis on the necessity of belonging.  It's a description of how life can be, far from the centres of 'civilisation'.  It's a novel with a wonderfully-imaginative style of writing, an Australian variety of magical realism, asking the reader to suspend disbelief while making them wonder if perhaps, just perhaps, it could all be true...

While reading Carpentaria, I had a small scrap of paper at the back of my book, ready for any pearls of wisdom which might occur to me.  By the time I had finished reading, it was full of messy, scrawled fragments, too many to use in what has already become a lengthy, incoherent ramble.  Even without being subjected to my musings on the role of angels, ghosts and demons, the suggestion of parallels with the American deep south and a lengthy polemic on racism, it will be pretty clear to the reader of this post that Carpentaria is a book I enjoyed greatly.

But how to leave the book behind...  Well, I think a look at the name of one of our new friends will help us out here.  In one way, the name of the book's main character sums the novel up pretty well as phantoms abound in the seas around Desperance.  In another though, it's not terribly apt; you see, as I hope has become apparent by now, there's definitely nothing normal about Carpentaria...

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

A Short Life in Detail

The famous (East) German writer Christa Wolf passed away in December last year, and sadly that was the event which pushed me into trying one of her books for the first time.  I was supposed to have read Kein Ort, Nirgends (Nowhere on Earth) at university at one point, but as I recall I didn't even get around to buying it (which says less about Wolf than about my efforts at university...).  This time, however, I managed to both buy and read one of her works - and, more importantly, enjoyed it as well.

Nachdenken über Christa T. (usually translated as The Quest for Christa T.) is an intriguing, at times confusing, story of the short life of a young woman living in the former German Democratic Republic.  Our narrator meets Christa T. at school during the Second World War, and bumps into her again when studying at university a number of years later.  The narrator uses the book to relate selected details from Christa's life, from the moment of that first meeting until her untimely death from leukaemia at the age of thirty-six.

So far, so normal, you may think; however, this book is anything but.  It consists of a series of anecdotes from the narrator, who has been given a box of documents by Christa's widower and is determined to lay bare her friend's life in an attempt to explain to the reader what kind of woman she was and how she lived her life.  But why should we care?

This is a question which is (deliberately) never satisfactorily answered, and it's not the only ambiguous part of the story.  As the narrator relates events from Christa's life, the point of view slips back and forth between the first- and third-person, at times making it difficult to tell who is meant by 'ich' ('I').  In any case, the reader suspects that this issue of identification is complicated further by the temptation to throw a third speaker into the mix - Wolf herself.  Towards the end of the novel, the narrator sympathises with Christa's tendency to slip into the third-person, citing "...die Schwierigkeit ich zu sagen." ("...the difficulty of saying I.", p.201)***.  So just who is speaking here?

Knowing that the book is set in East Germany, it's difficult to avoid reading certain things into Nachdenken über Christa T., even though Wolf was one of the writers who stayed and defended her mother country.  Christa is shown to be a free spirit who refuses to be tied down by the expectations of society, waltzing in and out of lectures, not caring if her marks drag down the average of her study group, running off with any man who takes her fancy.  At one point, the narrator says:
"Kein Verfahren findet statt, kein Urteil wird gesprochen..." p.68
"No trial is taking place, no judgement is being made..."***
However, it is difficult to take this at face value; there is a pervading sense that the free-spirited Christa is somehow letting the system down by doing exactly (and only) what she wants to do.  Mind you, the state censors let it slip through, so I won't labour the point ;)

This book, with its emphasis on examining a person's life in detail, enabling a portrait to be painstakingly built up, reminds me in many ways of another classic German novel, Heinrich Böll's Gruppenbild mit Dame (Group Portrait with Lady).  Böll also used third-party sources to slowly develop his main character, avoiding having her appear in person until late in the piece to heighten the effect of the puzzle.

However, a major difference is that where Böll's Verf., the man engaged in building up a picture of Leni Pfeiffer, roamed far and wide interviewing people to get his information, Wolf's narrator refuses to ask others for help, preferring to rely on her own memory and the scraps of paper she has been given.  At times, she even imagines conversations and scenes which may have taken place, filling in certain gaps for herself.  When events start to become blurred later in the piece, this gives us even more reason to be suspicious of the facts - and of her motives...

Of course, we are given clues of this 'blurriness' early in the novel, when the narrator discusses the difficulties of ever getting a clear view of events, using clever word play related to poetry.
"Dichten, dicht machen, die sprache hilft.  Was denn dicht machen und wogegen?" p.24
"To write poetry, to seal off, language helps us.  Seal off what and from what?"***
Here Wolf is playing on the sounds of 'dichten' (to write poetry) and 'dicht machen' (to seal off) to explain that the role of poetry and literary writing is to obscure, just as much as it is to reveal.

This idea of 'defamiliarisation' would be a familiar(!) one to anyone who has studied literary theory, and while it may sound perverse, there is actually a kind of twisted logic in it.  By defamiliarising an object and rendering it difficult to make out, the writer forces us to concentrate our attention much harder on it.  In this way, we find something new in mundane objects which we don't really see properly any more.

And this is what Wolf does in Nachdenken über Christa T. - she takes an ordinary life and, through her smoke and mirrors, produces the story of a life less ordinary, a life spent trying to avoid being pigeon-holed, trying to find out what she actually wants from her time on earth.  The narrator has used this opportunity in an attempt to show us, just one time, how Christa T. really was, not how people saw her.  Why?
"Wann, wenn nicht jetzt?" p.219
"When, if not now?"***
Page numbers are from the German Suhrkamp Taschenbuch edition (2007).
All quotes marked *** are my attempts at translation :)

Sunday, 15 January 2012

1Q84 Review - Q & A with Yours Truly (Part Three of Three)

I'm back for one final post on Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 (a post which contains plot details some of you may not want to know!), and it seems that my inner voice has a couple more questions for me...

That's right.  Here's one for you to ponder - is 1Q84 finished?
Now that's probably one you weren't expecting ;)  The easy answer to this is simply to say that of course it's finished.  Murakami has written a three-volume novel (very like the Victorians he admires), and that's the end of the matter.  While it would have been a little strange if the story had ended abruptly at the end of Book Two, with Tengo and Aomame finally together, away from the parallel world of 1Q84, we have what passes for a happy ending.

Even if you disagree that the end of Book Three represents an adequate ending, Murakami's previous works will provide evidence to the contrary.  Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, two of his most famous (and substantial) works are every bit as surreal and confusing as 1Q84, and their endings are just as ambiguous and open to interpretation.  Murakami is not known for wrapping things up in a neat bow (even Norwegian Wood, his most 'normal' book, ends in an unsatisfying manner), so why should we expect things to be tied up neatly here?

You would also think that Murakami himself is thoroughly over the book by now.  He's a man of many interests, a writer who bounces between long novels, short stories, works of non-fiction, essays and translations, not exactly a good sign for anyone expecting him to devote more of his remaining years to one particular book.  And anyway, if Book Four was in the pipeline, wouldn't we have heard about it by now?

So why am I even asking (myself!) the question?  Simply because, to me at least, 1Q84, seems unfinished.  There are just too many loose threads, even by Murakami's messy standards, stories which need to be explored further.  Characters like Fuka-Eri, Tamaru and the Dowager have been left up in the air, waiting for their cue to return to the stage.  The lack of cohesion which I mentioned in an earlier post could also be easily explained by the fact that there is more to come, further volumes which will pull these strands together.

One of the reasons I gave above against a sequel was that Aomame and Tengo had finally found each other, closing the gap which was providing the tension for the novel.  But if you recall, there are a couple of details which indicate that this may not be the case.  Aomame is carrying a baby, a child which could be of vital importance to the Sakigake group, and they are unlikely to just give up on her (especially as they are still chasing her for Leader's murder...).

There is also the small hint given at the end of the novel that the lovers have not actually succeeded in returning to the real world, but have entered a third world (1X84?!), which surely gives material for a continuation.  Also, if there's another volume, we may even find out what exactly the little people are actually all about - surely there must be more to them than meets the eye...

You're probably unconvinced (and rightly so) - it's unlikely to ever happen.  However, there is one more small piece of evidence from the text, one last crumb of comfort I'm taking from 1Q84.  When Aomame is lying low in her new apartment, Tamaru brings her some reading material to the pass the time.  It was, of course, Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time - all seven volumes of it.  Now if that's not a sign, I don't know what is...

You're not getting away that easily.  You've talked a lot of rubbish about the book, but you still haven't committed yourself - did you like 1Q84?
I really am tough on myself :(

Did I like 1Q84?  Of course I did :)  Although there are a few exceptions out there, I think that most people who like Murakami's work will get a lot out of 1Q84.  It may not have lived up to the hype (which, for regular readers at least, seemed to be up there with the return of Star Wars), but it's a welcome addition to the Murakami canon.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and will be adding it to my collection at some point for a later reread (the three-volume Australian edition pictured has, alas, now returned to the library - it was brand-new too...).  And, let's face it, if I hadn't liked it, I would hardly have spent countless hours writing a series of reviews which has finally stretched to six separate posts :)

One final point I'd like to make, one I touched on in another post, is that while 1Q84 is one book, for me it is best seen as a series of separate works - and should be read as such.  I raced through each of the books in a couple of days, but I actually gave myself a couple of days between each of the parts, going away and reading something else.  In this way, I think I avoided some of the frustration many readers have expressed about Book Two (probably the weakest of the three).  In fact, my wishes for paperback versions of 1Q84 would be three separate books, all with the Vintage UK black, white and red covers, novels which will slot neatly into my Murakami shelf...

...to be followed by any possible sequels.  We can but dream :)

Friday, 13 January 2012

1Q84 Review - Q & A with Yours Truly (Part Two of Three)

We're continuing our lengthy look at Haruki Murakami's latest work, so here's another gentle reminder that people who haven't completed the book yet may wish to come back another day - I don't want anyone to be disappointed by stumbling across secrets they have yet to uncover for themselves :)

So, we've looked at what it's all about, but there's still something we haven't discussed - is 1Q84 any good?
That's a very good question (thank you Tony!), and it is one which is not that easy to answer.  It is not at all difficult to pick holes in this novel as Murakami's imagination can often leave the reader scratching their head, wondering what exactly he is up to this time.  Be that as it may though, there are several areas in particular that really make you cringe.

One of those is, of course, the suggestions of underage sex inside the cult.  Although the exact details of this later become blurred (we're not really sure who these girls are, or if they're even human, and Leader claims not to be able to do anything about it), the fact is that Murakami writes about ten-year-old girls having sex and then dumps the idea somewhere in a corner.  I actually thought, after finishing Book One, that the idea of sexual abuse would be the dominant idea of the novel, but Murakami seems to be merely using it as a plot device to move things along.  I don't like that at all...

Another issue I have is the large amount of information Murakami dumps into the story.  Part of the pleasure of reading his books is the way the narrative sweeps you along; you may not know what is going on around you, but you feel that the narrator, often a first-person point-of-view, is in the same boat. In fact, the metaphor of a boat, floating downstream towards the rapids, is an apt one for the usual style of Murakami's fiction.  However, the constant stopping and starting in 1Q84, waiting around for back stories to be filled in (or for information to be repeated for the nth time) is frustrating.  Book Two suffers particularly from this, and it's not exactly something that enhances the reading experience.

I can't finish my summary of the negatives without mentioning what could well be the silliest part of the book.  No, not that sex scene; while not exactly great writing, it was inevitable, and I could see where it was going.  I'm talking about the little people, or as I like to think of them, the seven Japanese dwarfs.  If anyone can actually think of a reason for them to be in the book, a real need divorced from the supposed voices Leader hears, or the need for someone to construct the air chrysalis, please let me know.  I really don't see what Murakami thought he was doing here - didn't he realise how stupid that whole idea seemed?

Before you all start tearing up your copies of 1Q84 though, let's look at the other side of the story.  It's not as easy to pick out reasons why the book is actually a good one (the negatives are a lot more immediate and tangible), but they do exist.  No, really, they do :)

One is that, for the Murakami fan, 1Q84 is the culmination of his life's work, with themes and ideas explored in earlier novels drawn together into one over-arching work.  In the first of my more tongue-in-cheek looks at the book, I was allegedly torn between this idea and criticising Murakami for repeating himself.  The truth is that I admire the way he has constructed the book, using the parallel narrative structure of Hard-Boiled Wonderland..., the usual everyman protagonist (e.g. The Trilogy of the Rat) and the societal concerns he has for Japan (e.g. A Wild Sheep Chase, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Underground).  He has gone out on a limb with his attempt to tie it all together, and while it isn't a complete success, he should be applauded for it.

Despite using the familiar though, 1Q84 is also full of new ideas.  The use of the third-person protagonists sets the book apart from Murakami's earlier work, and the introduction of a major female character, Aomame, is also a welcome addition.  Even within the book, the introduction of a third voice in the final book is a big surprise, and one which sheds new light on the story.  Ushikawa (who, incidentally, may have originally appeared in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle..) is key to understanding the story, the price he pays for his loneliness a contrast to what happens to Aomame and Tengo.

The best thing I can say about 1Q84 though (and I know that not everyone will agree with this) is that it is an absorbing read.  The version you can see in the photo above was approximately 930 pages, but I never really felt that it was outstaying its welcome.  The story, while ludicrous at times, pulled me along in its wake, always making me stay for just one more chapter.  The concept of the meta-fictional Air Chrysalis is a brilliant one, and the idea of the beautiful - if slightly robotic - face of a book is one which probably happens more than we would like to admit (yesterday, on Twitter, a few of us were discussing who Murakami's inspiration for Fuka-Eri actually was!).  By twisting the two (then three) strands around, the reader is offered a fuller flavour of what is happening, allowing us to get our heads around the writer's intentions.  I'm not saying it always works...

So, after all that waffling, the answer is... sorry, what was the question?  Oh yes, is it any good...  I would argue that while it is by no means Murakami's best work, 1Q84 is a very interesting novel, and one which will reward those who reread it (especially those who have already ploughed their way through Murakami's earlier books).  The question, of course, is how many people will be prepared to reread a book of this length :)  There's also one final factor which needs to be considered when answering this question, one I haven't yet touched upon, and that is...

...what I'll be looking at in my last 1Q84 post - promise ;)

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

1Q84 Review - Q & A with Yours Truly (Part One of Three)

Last year saw a few whimsical musings about Haruki Murakami's latest novel, 1Q84, but I can no longer hide behind split personalities, fictional characters and famous ghost-writers - it's time to get down to the serious business of unravelling my feelings on the book.  In the next few posts, I'll be posing myself some rather stern questions and then watching myself squirm while attempting to answer them (fun for all involved!).

Before we begin though, just a friendly warning: if you haven't read the book yet, this might be your cue to slip away quietly before you find out something you didn't want to know yet.  Don't worry - I won't hold it against you ;)

So what's it all about, Tony? 
Glad you asked - well, actually, no, I'm not.  This is not an easy book to define, and any attempt to pigeon-hole it, or define it in one sweeping statement about themes is doomed to failure.  One reason for this is the fact that 1Q84 consists of three books, and after finishing the set, I believe that this is actually how the series should be read.

Book One, as well as setting up the fictional world of 1Q84 (and introducing us to many of its delightful inhabitants), has a strong focus on sexuality, especially society's attitudes towards women.  At the start of the book, the reader is led through a series of erotic escapades, both contemporary and relived in memory, and after a while there is an uncomfortable sense of voyeurism.  At one point, I began to think that Murakami was simply indulging in cheap thrills...

However, when the writer begins to carefully disclose certain details from his protagonists' past lives, this feeling rapidly disappears.  Instead, we are left to ponder the effects of physical and sexual abuse, whether on children or married women, and the way in which a society like the Japan of 1984 (an important point to remember...) can push this kind of abuse under the carpet.  In the actions of Aomame, Ayumi, the Dowager and Tamaki Otsuka, we see the consequences of ignoring such brutal behaviour towards women: suicide, dangerous hedonism or revenge...

Book Two seems to shift focus somewhat, switching its attention to the subject of religious fanaticism and the effect it has on its adherents (and their children).  During Aomame's lengthy chat with Leader (in the course of the strangest - and most unhurried - assassination ever), the truth of what has been happening between the head of the cult and his handmaidens comes to light; however, it appears that Aomame (and Murakami himself) is no longer so interested in what has, up to this point, been her primary motivation.  The focus has switched to the organisation of Sakigake and a desire to know what exactly drives the religious group.

Of course, Sakigake are not the only fanatics highlighted in 1Q84.  In the quest to avenge her daughter's death, the Dowager, the head of an equally shadowy empire (with, arguably, more efficient agents of revenge than Sakigake itself), has become a law unto herself, focused on righting perceived wrongs that the legal system is unable to deal with.  And, of course, if we are discussing fanatics and monolithic systems, there's nobody as dedicated as Tengo's father - if the witnesses have made Aomame what she is, then Tengo is a product of neglect by NHK...

Book Three then moves the reader on to another tangent, this time concerned with loneliness.  All three of the narrative characters, Ushikawa, Aomame and Tengo, spend time cooped up in confined spaces, with limited contact with the outside world.  The result of the choices they have made, their solitude is a trial of strength and character, and Murakami does a great job of showing what a miserable life it can be when you're deserted by (or isolated from) those who make your life worth living.

It is here that Ushikawa is a useful foil to the two main characters.  He is ultimately brought low by his inability to connect with other people and his insistence on going it alone.  While Aomame and Tengo are also natural loners, the love they have for each other is a redeeming factor which saves them from the fate poor Ushikawa suffers.  It is also interesting to note that it is Tamaru who brings Ushikawa's life to an end - his reaction on doing so shows that he realises that this is something which could (and quite possibly will) happen to him one day...

Three books - three ideas.  Whether or not this is what Murakami intended is unanswerable (although highly unlikely!), but there does seem to be a progression in his ideas and interests as the work progresses.   Perhaps it is is this lack of a single focus which makes 1Q84 a difficult book to pin down: a case of too many ideas spoiling the broth?  Or a healthy blend of spicy ideas?  Well, that remains to be seen ;)

So, I've looked at what I think it may all be about, but to what extent has Murakami actually achieved his aims with 1Q84?  Well, for the answer to that question, you'll have to come back next time...

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Coming Apart at the Seams

I came home from work a couple of months ago to find a book waiting for me, a fairly common occurrence around my neck of the woods.  However, this particular incident was a little out of the ordinary as it was a book I'd never heard of and had not asked for (even my wife looked a little confused).  Could it be...  Yes, on this day, I had received one of those mythical items, an unrequested advance review copy, a sign that I too had ascended to the next circle of bloggerdom, become one of the chosen...

The book in question was María Dueñas' The Seamstress (also known as The Time In Between), a best-selling Spanish novel of a woman caught up in political intrigue during the Spanish Civil War and World War II.  I was a little hesitant to read it at first, despite its being a translated work, as I suspected that it might be chick-lit in disguise (the cover certainly didn't convince me that it would be one I'd enjoy...).  However, in the idea of trying new things, and with a month of reading books by female writers in full swing, I decided to give it a go :)

The Seamstress, translated by Daniel Hahn (although you have to look pretty hard to find his name...), is written around Sira Quiroga, a young dressmaker living in Madrid, who abandons her ordinary life (and her very ordinary fiancé) to run off with a smooth-talking salesman.  Having been abandoned by her lover in Tangiers, she moves on to Tetouan (in the Spanish Protectorate in Morocco), where she is forced to work hard to pay off debts incurred by her horrible ex.

There she makes the acquaintance of Rosalinda Fox, an English woman who wants help making a fabulous dress at very short notice.  She needs it to wear to a function, on the arm of her lover - a high-ranking Nationalist official.  This chance meeting is the start of Sira's life of political intrigue...

Let me make something clear right from the start - this is not one of my usual literary tomes.  Unfortunately, my first impressions were largely justified, and I spent most of the novel picking faults in Dueñas' style, thinking about how this could have been a better book.  The major issue is that the writer is too eager to tell the story to let the story actually be told.  A good story unfolds at its own pace, unhurried by the writer's intentions, but Dueñas seems to be pushing The Seamstress along as if she has somewhere to be, and that's quite a feat in a book that runs to more than 600 pages (of admittedly large type).  In better hands, this could have been a trilogy of literary tales rather than one plumped-up page turner.

Another worrying problem is the characterisation.  The Seamstress is full of two-dimensional, stereotyped supporting players: the educated, possibly gay neighbour; the suave, roguish, seductive lover who abandons Sira; the buxom, matronly housekeeper (and smuggler!) who takes Sira under her wing in Tetouan.  Every time the reader is introduced to someone new, Sira gives us just enough details to let us know what kind of person it is before the plot continues on its merry way.  Sadly, it's not enough to make us care about any of them a great deal.

I would also argue that the choice of a first-person narrator is a fairly limiting one, forcing the author to resort to a long sequence of monologues, interrupted by the occasional conversation.  In one instance, Dueñas obviously realises that this is insufficient, and the chapter moves away from Sira and describes life in Madrid for Rosalinda and her beau.  In the final paragraphs of the chapter, we find out how this is done; it's all information Sira has gathered from letters - how convenient...

There are several more issues I had with The Seamstress, but to simply list them here would be overkill, and slightly unfair.  You see, for all the problems I had with the book, I did actually read it through to the end, and I ended up enjoying it.  As mentioned above, it is a page-turner, in the good sense as well as the bad, and the further the story progressed, the more I wanted to know about Franco-era Spain and Morocco.  It's an interesting setting for a World War II thriller, playing out in a country which isn't actually taking part in the conflict (even if it is very clear whose side Spain is actually on).

So is it worth reading?  I would argue that this depends very much on the reader.  If you crave literary fiction, books which are written in elegant and mesmerising language, painstakingly constructed with vast repositories of hidden meaning, then The Seamstress is definitely not for you.  However, if you enjoy historical fiction and ripping yarns, especially those told in the first-person by a young female narrator, you may well get a lot out of this novel (I've had a quick look around the blogosphere, and it appears that I am pretty much alone in my opinion of the book!).

Still, one thing's for sure - I don't think I'll be getting any unrequested ARCs again in a hurry...

Friday, 6 January 2012

A Reflection of Society

Bloggers are lovely people.  A while back, I left a comment on a post on Banana Yoshimoto's The Lake by Lisa from ANZ Lit Lovers, in which I had a little whinge about not receiving a review copy of the book after someone from the publisher's had actually contacted me first.  Not only did I get the sympathy I was after (I'm so transparent), but she actually offered to send me her review copy to add to my little library of J-Lit tomes!

Obviously, if the book turned out to be rubbish, I was going to feel very silly indeed.  Luckily though, that's not the case.  The Lake is a very fine little novel, probably one of the best of the five Yoshimoto works I've read, and a very enjoyable way to spend New Year's Day to boot (I ran through the whole thing in a matter of hours!).  Thanks Lisa :)

The Lake (translated by Michael Emmerich) introduces us to Chihiro, a woman approaching thirty, who earns a living painting murals on walls and buildings while she thinks about what she wants to do with her life.  As we enter her world, she has just begun a relationship with a neighbour, Nakajima, a rather intelligent young man with a disturbed, and disturbing, past - one that we (and Chihiro) will learn more about as the story progresses.  Chihiro senses that Nakajima's fear of intimacy and social situations must be related to some kind of childhood trauma, but she is unwilling to push him into a confession, for fear of hurting him.  Then, one day, Nakajima asks Chihiro to accompany him on a journey into the past - a trip to visit some friends living beside a lake...

This journey to the lake is the key to understanding the novel, but Yoshimoto sensibly initially leaves things as vague and murky for the reader as the fog-bound body of water the couple first encounter.  We are gradually fed small pieces of information about Nakajima's past, with the truth not coming out until about forty pages from the end.  Even then, there are things left unsaid, memories left untouched - and the book is the better for it.

Nakajima is ostensibly the character we should be interested in, but Chihiro herself is also an intriguing creation.  While she has not been subjected to the treatment Nakajima was forced to endure, she too, in her own way, has suffered from the way a certain group of people thinks you should live.  Living in an unorthodox family unit, simply because her father's family, appalled by her mother's lifestyle, refused to allow him to marry, Chihiro and her parents were left as a perfect nuclear family without the official social sanction.

For anyone who has lived in Japan, or read anything about its customs, the idea of a homogeneous society will be nothing new, and it is this issue which Yoshimoto constantly returns to in her fiction, the way outsiders have to find a place for themselves in a society which would rather they didn't exist.  In many ways, the group that takes control of Nakajima is a microcosm of Japan itself, a community unwilling to accept difference and determined to make people conform to its own norms.  It is no coincidence that Chihiro and Nakajima are alike in their different approaches to life, or that their goal is to flee to Paris - often the only way for young Japanese to escape the constraints of family and social ties...

As for the lake itself, it's a wonderful piece of imagery and symbolism, almost certainly containing the crux of the whole work - now, if only I knew what that actually was :(  Perhaps a clue can be found in the way Mino, one of the friends living by the lake, insists that although the lake may seem still, it is in fact constantly changing with the seasons and with the activity on it - just like society itself...  Chihiro's attempt then to recreate the lake in her mural could represent an attempt to reshape society to suit her own wishes and to make a place for the two young lovers to live without fear of outside interference.  Then again, I may just have been hitting the literary theory books too hard recently...

Whether any of this makes sense or not, what I've taken from reading The Lake is a sense that this is a very good book, one which lingers in the memory (unlike certain others of Yoshimoto's works) and contains a lot more in its 188 pages than you might think.  I'm not sure that it's the kind of book which wins prizes, but it's certainly worthy of its place on the Man Asian Literary Prize long-list.  Like the body of water which gives the book its name, there's definitely more to The Lake than meets the eye.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

2012 - Plans and Challenges

A new year is like a blank canvas for bloggers; we are able to forget about the constraints of the last few months and embark on a new reading direction.  Sadly, being the people we are, we tend to make elaborate plans and fill up that canvas pretty quickly, leaving ourselves just as hemmed in for space by the end of the year as was the case twelve months earlier...  Still, January is a great time for readers, and I always enjoy launching into a new year and wondering what the next twelve months will bring :)

Last year, I only took part in a few challenges, all of which I comfortably completed, and that's the way I like it!  To start off 2012, I'll be putting my name down for a few Australian-themed ones, encouraging me to read more local fare.  For the third time, I'll be taking part in the Aussie Author Challenge, and I'll also be trying the Australian Women Writers Challenge - if I add the Reading Matters January Australian Literature Month, that'll be three birds with one stone :)

I'm also reserving a little reading space for events which may be coming up later this year.  The fifth Japanese Literature Challenge wraps up at the end of January, and given my love of J-Lit, this is another challenge I'll be signing up for when it returns later in the year.  I'm also hoping that after the huge success of German Literature Month last November, Lizzy and Caroline will be up for repeating the event at some point in 2012!

That's more than enough to be going on with for the moment as I don't want to fill up my particular canvas in the first week of the new year!  However, January is already looking pretty scheduled - I have decided to get the year off to a flying start by reading only books by female writers...

I have already set aside a few books from each of my specialist areas: from J-Lit I have Banana Yoshmoto's The Lake and Yoko Ogawa's Hotel Iris; in the German language I can choose from Herta Müller's Herztier, Christa Wolf's Nachdenken über Christa T. and Jenny Erpenbeck's Heimsuchung (Visitation); for Oz-Lit I have put a hold on Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career and Alexis Wright's Carpentaria at the local library; I also have a couple of Victorian classics up my sleeve in the shape of Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey and George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss.  And if that little lot doesn't take up the whole month, I'm sure I'll be able to find another couple somewhere on my shelves...

That's quite enough planning for one post - I'm off to do some reading...  So, what are you all planning to do with 2012?

Post-Script - Although I have no plans to read any more of Haruki Murakami's fiction in 2012 (as I've read it all over the past couple of years!), my arm has been gently twisted, and I will be taking part in Tanabata's Murakami Challenge again this year :)

How, you may ask?  Well, I've had a copy of Jay Rubin's Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words sitting on my shelves for a while now, so it's about time it got read.  I'm also planning to purchase a couple of his non-fiction titles this year - Underground & What I Talk About When I Talk About Running -, and I may even get around to the anthology of short stories he selected, Birthday Stories.

But that's definitely it...

Sunday, 1 January 2012

2012 Challenges

Here's how I'm faring with the challenges I've signed up for this year :)

Murakami Challenge - January 1st, 2012 - December 31st, 2012
-Toru Level (read any three Haruki Murakami books)
1) Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words by Jay Rubin
2) The Sheep Man's Christmas by Haruki Murakami

Japanese Literature Challenge 6 - June 1st, 2012 - January 31st, 2013
- Read any work of Japanese literature
1) The Wild Geese by Ogai Mori
2) Modern Japanese Literature edited by Donald Keene
3) Flowers of Grass by Takehiko Fukunaga
4) The Gate by Natsume Soseki
5) When I Whistle by Shusaku Endo
6) Coin Locker Babies by Ryu Murakami
7) Frozen Dreams by Wahei Tatematsu
8) Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto
9) Ukigumo (Drifting Cloud) by Shimei Futabatei
10) Japan's First Modern Novel - Ukigumo by Marleigh Ryan
11) Some Prefer Nettles by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki
12) Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words by Jay Rubin
13) The Sheep Man's Christmas by Haruki Murakami
14) Volcano by Shusaku Endo
15) The 210th Day by Natsume Soseki
16) Rivalry - A Geisha's Tale by Nagai Kafu 
17) The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata
18) The Briefcase by Hiromi Kawakami

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2012 Longlist
- Read the fifteen books on the longlist as part of the Shadow Panel!
1) Jenseitsnovelle (Next World Novella) by Matthias Politycki
2) 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
- Book One, Book Two & Book Three
- Aferthoughts: Part One, Part Two & Part Three
3) Please Look After Mother by Kyung-sook Shin
4) Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke
5) From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón
6) The Prague Cemetry by Umberto Eco
7) Professor Andersen's Night by Dag Solstad
8) Scenes from Village Life by Amos Oz
9) Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld
10) Hate - A Romance by Tristan Garcia
11) Alice by Judith Hermann
12) Parallel Stories by Péter Nádas (Part One & Part Two)
13) The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg
14) Seven Houses in France by Bernardo Atxaga
15) New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani

Aussie Author Challenge - January 1st, 2012 - December 31st, 2012
- Dinky-Di Level (read twelve books by six different Australian writers) 

Australian Women Writers Challenge - January 1st, 2012 - December 31st, 2012
- Franklin-Fantastic Level (read and review ten books by female Australian writers)
1) Carpentaria by Alexis Wright***
2) Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living by Carrie Tiffany***
3) Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany***
4) Mr. Scobie's Riddle by Elizabeth Jolley***
5) Legacy by Larissa Behrendt***
6) The Promise of Iceland by Kári Gíslason
7) My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin***

*** - Eligible for both Aussie challenges