Thursday 30 April 2009

32 - 'The Universe' by Richard Osborne

I am poorly. Nothing to do with pigs, I hasten to add, just normal flu which is taking its time to clear up. This, along with the burst of reading energy set free by the completion of 'Ulysses', should explain why I've been reading and posting so much over the last few days. Anyway, I was just on my way to the doctor's, and, having finished 'Remembering Babylon' yesterday, I found myself in the predicament of having to choose my next book and only having seconds to do it in. Usually, I stand and stare at the pile of unread books on the shelves, weighing up the alternatives, fiction or non-fiction, quality or trash, English or German, contemporary or classical, until my wife comes in and quietly wheels me in the direction of the living room sofa to recover. I don't like making quick decisions when it comes to my reading.

So, I did what I usually do in these cases; I picked up the shortest unread book in my collection, figuring that even if it turned out to be a mistake, I wouldn't regret it for long. Which leads me to Mr. Osborne's very brief summary of the development of human knowledge regarding the universe. Packing this into 120-odd pages would seem a bit of a tall order, but, when I picked it up in the university bookshop, I thought that for one Australian dollar (approximately 71 US cents, 48 pence and 68 Yen for those who get confused by Kangaroo money), you couldn't really go wrong. Well, no.

Osborne, a lecturer in Philosophy, attempts to summarise what scientists, the church and assorted nutbags knew, know and could ever know about the universe and tries to put it in language everyone can understand. Unfortunately, in doing so, he comes across as a bit of an idiot who thinks that by awkwardly throwing in references to popular culture throughout his extended essay he will be admired by his readership; unlikely, unless he is writing for a convention of pub bores. Yes, Homer Simpson may have said (or have been prompted to say) something witty about science once upon a time, but that doesn't justify using it in a book if it isn't properly integrated.

It doesn't help his cause when his already slightly-annoying style is undermined by several obvious spelling mistakes, and, in one case, by the bizarre inclusion of what appears to be the draft form of the preceding paragraph. Obviously, in trying to offer cheap access to the mysteries of the universe, the idea of editing was the first to fall by the wayside. You'd think that in such a short book, it wouldn't have been too hard to pick up at least a couple of the typos.

None of this would matter too much if the style and content were entertaining, but there are also serious flaws here. A lot of the information is repetitive and badly phrased, and the book seems to whizz past without really telling you much at all. In addition, Osborne's style of someone who obviously knows more than you but is dumbing it down for the less intelligent is not designed to ingratiate him with the reader. Several times in passing, the writer mentions Bill Bryson's 'A Short History of Nearly Everything', and you get the feeling that he is subconciously putting himself into the same category as the famed travel writer. Unfortunately, he is not even in the same galaxy.

I don't know too much about the universe now that I didn't a few hours ago, but I do have some lessons learned from reading this book:

1) Having read a bad example of the genre, I now appreciate how good Bryson's book really was in being able to write as one of the common people trying to make sense of things, rather than patronisingly educating people from on high.

2) You get what you pay for. I miss my dollar.

3) Never hurry the choice of a book. With apologies to Forrest Gump, life is not a box of chocolates; it's a bookcase full of books which may, or may not, be worth reading.

Now, I have about another twenty minutes before my wife gets back from child-care with my daughter, so I may just be able to start to think about what to read next. If you need me, I'll be standing on the other side of the study, staring vacantly at a big pile of books...

31 - 'Remembering Babylon' by David Malouf

Am I Australian?

Technically, yes. I went through a very tedious ceremony a couple of years back (with my then-five-month-old daughter screaming through most of it), and I got my certfiicate, a photo with the mayor and a native plant which, although able to survive local conditions, was unable to survive complete neglect and is now quietly rotting somewhere in my garden.

Of course, that doesn't mean that I am as Australian as the people who were born here. I don't have all the cultural and social background that they do. And compared to the aboriginal inhabitants of the land down under... Well, I don't think they'd think much of my claim to being Australian. Anyway, what does that actually mean?

David Malouf, himself the son of immigrants, explores the idea of belonging and land in 'Remembering Babylon', a short book which briefly describes an event which takes place in 1860s North Queensland. Three children, playing on their property, see a figure approaching them and think that it is one of the natives. In fact, Gemmie, the man who has come out of the bush, is neither a 'blackfella' or one of the settlers; he was a ship's boy who was abandoned in the north of Australia and then taken in by the aboriginal tribe that found him.

Gemmie is given shelter by the family of the children who found him, but the rest of the small community of settlers are, well, unsettled by the newcomer. Gradually, their fears overcome them, and when Gemmie receives a visit from his tribe one day, certain pople decide that enough is enough..

The settlers, many of them from Scotland, have left their lives in dirty, crowded conditions back home, to create a better life for themselves, something which they could never aspire to in Britain. In the expanses of Australia, far away from the state capital of Brisbane (which was itself, at the time, merely a small town), the new Australians feel threatened by the old Australians. Their attachment to the earth seems to threaten the stability of life for the farmers, who know that their land was, a matter of years ago, untamed and part of the unknown wilderness. It doesn't take a great leap of imagination to see it reverting to its prior state.

The Aborigines are shown as having a deep attachment to their land and an understanding of how to live on it (something we are shown through the eyes of Gemmie, who has become part of the tribe despite being a white man). However, the white settlers are shown to be no different to the natives, in that they too seem attached to their land. The McIvors often think about Scotland and the plants and landscapes they left behind (even the eldest daughter, Janet, who has never been there). Of the main characters of the novel, only Gemmie, who willingly abandons his British life, and Frazer, the local botany-obsessed vicar, appear to understand the importance of adapting to the alien land.

A story of long ago, and yet very, very relevant today. Almost 150 years on, the white population is not that much closer towards understanding the land they now live in and its traditional owners. In many parts of Australia, there is very little intermingling and co-existence, and the Aboriginal community is still comparatively disadvantaged today. However, the idea of conflict between new and old Australians is not limited to the issues of the 1860s. Ever since the first fleet arrived, people have been sailing to these shores to start a new life, not all of them from the preferred country of origin. Although the old White Australia policy, with accompanying language tests to keep 'undesirables' out, has long gone, many people are still concerned about outsiders (outside their culture, at least) affecting their lives. Recently, boats with people smugglers and refugees have begun to enter Australian waters again, forcing politicians and ordinary people alike to examine their beliefs on what makes you Australian and who should be allowed to enter our country.

Am I Australian? Yes, and so are all the people who have just arrived, who were born here, whose ancestors have been here for millennia. What does that mean? Well that's a question for another day.

Tuesday 28 April 2009

29 & 30 - 'Der Richter Und Sein Henker' & 'Der Verdacht' by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

A long, long time ago, back when I was doing my A-Levels, I was first introduced to the work of the Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt, in the form of his classic detective novel, 'Der Richter und Sein Henker'. The title can be translated as the judge and his executioner (literally, hangman) and the book tells the story of a policeman from Bern, Kommisär Bärlach, who uses events to his advantage to finally bring a career criminal to justice. A couple of years later, while I was what is laughingly described as 'studying' at university, I took a unit on Dürrenmatt and read the sequel to the original tale, 'Der Verdacht' ('The Suspicion), where the now-retired Bärlach takes on another evil-doer, an action which almost costs him what is left of his life.

I read a few detective novels when I was a teenager (and I still like a bit of Inspector Morse!), but, on the whole, I find them a little simplistic, even when the plot is well thought out. The difference with these two stories is the way the solving of the suspected crime becomes unimportant compared to the sub-plots and interplay between the characters. Dürrenmatt uses his works to discuss the role of good and bad in the world and how far good men can, and should, go to prevent evil from gaining the upper hand.

The two titles are chosen quite deliberately; throughout the two books there are several judges and executioners, none of them appointed by the law of the land. In 'Der Richter und Sein Henker', Bärlach and his subordinate, Tschanz, are assigned to solve the murder of another policeman, Schmied (who was secretly working for Bärlach to gather evidence against Gastmann, a career criminal who continually crossed paths with the old inspector). Again and again, the investigation comes across obstacles preventing access to the suspected perpetrator until Tschanz finally confronts, and kills, Gastmann and his sidekicks. Only then do we find out that Tschanz was Schmied's real killer and that Bärlach used this knowledge to increase the pressure on Tschanz to push the blame onto Gastmann. The old inspector has judged the inveterate criminal and sent his executioner to carry out the sentence.

In 'Der Verdacht', however, a chance sighting of a picture of a Nazi war criminal operating without anaesthetic in a concentration camp leads Bärlach to investigate a high-class Swiss surgeon. Only too late he discovers that his suspicion is actually the truth; worse, the surgeon knows that Bärlach is onto him and is not inclined to allow the frail old man out of his hospital alive...

Both criminals, Gastmann and the surgeon, Emmenberger, are portrayed as rich, successful, intelligent men who commit crimes for the sake of it. Gastmann is just as capable of murder as he is of paying the taxes of an entire town. Emmenberger, who tortured hundreds of prisoners in concentration camps by operating without anaesthetic, but with the consent of his victims, rejoices in his freedom from the normal rules of society, believing himself to be living the only kind of life possible, one where you are free to make whatever decisions you want (even if that involves torturing and killing people).

Both behave with full knowledge of what the results may be, and, in his own way, so does Bärlach. Dürrenmatt insists on the importance of taking responsibility for your actions, even if they do not always turn out as planned. In the first book, the old inspector, while seeming to be unable to match Gastmann in their battle of wits, is eventually the victor, able to use events to his advantage and 'convict' the criminal for a crime he did not commit. However, in the sequel, the tables are turned, and it is Bärlach who is out-thought and out-manoeuvered. As a result, he causes the death of an innocent man who was enlisted to help him put pressure on Emmenberger. This is something the policeman must take full responsibility for.

From the discussion of the events in 'Der Verdacht', it is probably clear that these events take place shortly after the end of the Second World War, and the role of Switzerland itself in this period is implicitly handled, especially in the second novel. While we condemn the criminal behaviour of the two villains and are appalled at the horrors of the concentration camps, Bärlach questions the self-rightiousness of the Swiss, stressing that they were "verschont, nicht versucht" (spared, not tempted). Gastmann and Emmenberger were tempted by life unrestricted by society and became criminals. In the same way, Tschanz, passed over again and again for promotion, jealous of the better-educated Schmied and of his beautiful partner (and car!), is tempted to get rid of his superior in order to slip into his role. Lead us, indeed, not into temptation...

However evil or good, cunning or impulsive, plans are never perfect in this world; luck can always prevent your intentions from being realised. The publication of Emmenberger's photograph in a magazine, Schmied's untimely death, Tschanz... Nothing is certain, and we must always rely on a little luck to cover up our crimes, or uncover those of others. It is no coincidence that the key character in the first book is called Tschanz (pronunciation? Chance.). A coincidence brought Gastmann and Bärlach together near the start of their lives, and luck helped the criminal commit a murder in front of the policeman's eyes without his being able to act. In the end, it is fortune that helps to complete the circle.

Quite a lot for around 250 pages, but then, Dürrenmatt is a very special writer. The difference between these dectective stories with a moral and the usual plot-driven pulp fiction is that knowing the outcome doesn't lessen the effect of the novel. Even (almost) twenty years on, the books still have the same pull, and I know I'll read them again and again. And that is the hallmark of good writing.

Sunday 26 April 2009

28 - 'Wish You Were Here' by Mike Gayle

Dear Mike,

We've had some good times, it's true, and that makes this all the more difficult. I remember the good-old days, back when I was a university student, at the inception of the 'lad-lit' trend. Nick Hornby's 'Fever Pitch' blazed a trail for other writers, such as Tony Parsons and yourself, to begin writing about the lives of men. Finally, even in the era of 'Loaded' and 'FHM', it was alright for blokes to pick up a book and read about life in nineties' England.

I loved your early books and looked forward to when they came out, but, more recently, I've had the feeling that something wasn't right; I didn't really enjoy them as much. While the topics were similar (thirty-something men, friends/partners, relationships at a crossroads), they just didn't seem to grab me anymore, the way they used to.

Even so, when my wife got your latest book, 'Wish You Were Here', from the local library, I was keen to read it and forget the bleak Melbourne weekend while immersed in your tale of thirty-something English friends on a week's holiday in Crete. I was hoping to find something of the old magic, the stories which entertained me all those years ago. I was disappointed.

Were the charcters always so one-dimensional? Were the plots always so transparent (and frankly uninteresting)? Was the dialogue always so stilted and un-lifelike? As I skimmed through the pages, not really caring about what was happening (but too cold and flu-ridden to do anything else), I wondered where it had all gone wrong. And then I knew.

I'm sorry, Mike. It's not you. It's me. You and your books are the same as they always were. You have remained constant and faithful, you can be relied on for the same structure and characters. I'm the one who has changed; I've grown, and I need more from a book. I want a well-developed plot, believeable characters, dialogue that sounds convincing and natural, interior monologues, description that enhances the background of the story. I need good writing.

It's not your fault that you can't give me what I need, and I'm grateful for all the good times we had, but it's time to move on. Don't take this the wrong way; it doesn't reflect on you as a writer. I just need to be free to experience other authors, other genres, other books. It's over.

I hope there are no hard feelings. Once you've had time to think it over, I'm sure you'll realise it's for the best. There are other readers out there, younger, less-experienced readers, who will appreciate your work for what it is and not demand what you can't give. Good luck, and all the best for the future.

Thanks for everything,


Saturday 25 April 2009

26 & 27 - 'The Family Way' & 'My Favourite Wife' by Tony Parsons

After my epic struggle with 'Ulysses', it's back to some slightly simpler literary fare this week. A few weeks ago, I saw a copy of 'The Family Way', which I'd read once before, in the bargain bin of the local newsagent's for $5. So I bought it (no surprises there). On the day I started reading it, my wife went off to the library and brought back, alongside the children's books and DVDs for my daughter (a very tempting way to get to fifty books quickly, but I'll take the high road), a copy of Parsons' latest novel, 'My Favourite Wife'. So, lucky reader, what you get here today is a review of both of these books, for the following reasons:

1) Mr. Parsons' books contain several recurring themes, and I thought it would be interesting to compare the two works.

2) I finished the first one too soon after posting the last review, and I really couldn't be bothered to start blogging again.

I'll leave it to you to decide which was the more pressing reason...

Parsons became famous in the U.K. for his novel 'Man and Boy', the story of a man trying to keep his relationship with his son intact after his relationship with his wife ended (mainly because he slept with another woman, but let's not get distracted). The book became a BBC television adaptation, and Parsons , along with one of my favourite authors, Nick Hornby, became one of the leading lights of the new (wholly invented) 'lad-lit' scene. Because, of course, men didn't read books until then.

The theme of family is what drives Parsons; all of his books examine the idea of the family in all its incarnations, and most of them involve the breaking up of the traditional family unit and the creation of new, different forms of families. The three sisters in 'The Family Way' all manage to have children within a different lifestyle; Megan, the baby of the family, gets pregnant after a one-night stand, middle sister Jessica has the perfect husband but has to consider her options after struggling to conceive, and Cat, who had to take on the mothering role after her own mother abandoned the family, is forced to examine her long-held belief of not wanting children at all after seeing what is happening with her sisters. On the other hand, in 'My Favourite Wife' (disappointingly, this book has nothing to do with bigamy), Bill Holden risks his nuclear family by having an affair with a Chinese neighbour in Shanghai while his best friend Shane (another of Parsons' dumb, blond Australian males) has problems of his own in his marriage to a Fillipina singer.

Don't get me wrong; I like reading these books. At times, the author can create some genuinely touching moments, especially when it comes to the relationships between adults and children, and the trials and tribulations involved in creating a new human being in the first place. Parsons also develops believable, recognisable scenarios which develop into whole stories which are interesting and comfortable to read. But.

Over the six books of his which I've read so far, I've never really had the feeling that the characters have been fully developed; to be honest, the characters exist only to help Parsons expound upon his beliefs regarding modern marriage and family. Milan Kundera gets the same criticism; his themes are a little more high-brow, though. I've never met old Tony (and I've only read a little about his life in the book blurbs), but, as my dad says, I'll bet you a pound to a piece of shit (my dad is a little more direct than I am) that Parsons has:

a) Been divorced (OK, I know that one already)
b) Had child maintenance issues
c) Lived or worked in Asia (no-one would mention Japan, Hong Kong and mainland China in their books so much without having a reason for it; unless, of course, they were actually from one of those countries).

Another issue I have is with the simplistic stereotyping, both of genders and of nationalities. I've already talked about poor Shane (and casting an Australian character called Shane from Melbourne is bad enough in itself. I'm just glad the poor bloke didn't have an addiction to texting), and the various Japanese and Chinese characters in his books, with the exception of Jinjin in 'My Favourite Wife', seem to be there just to act as people we Westerners will never be able to understand. It's also intriguing how useless most of the male characters seem to be. Admittedly, a book about a man who stays faithful to his wife and loves his kids may not make for quite such an interesting tale, but there seems to be a very high proportion of men in Parsons' world who wine and dine strange women on an almost-nightly basis (having said that, I've never lived in London, or Shanghai, so I may be the one who is out of the loop).

I've already hinted that the books are more of an outlet for Tony Parsons' personal manifesto than attempts at entertainment, and the final point I want to comment on is the actual style of writing itself. There isn't a lot of dialogue (which is good, because it's not his strong point); much of the text consists of descriptions of action followed by a character's thoughts on what is happening. Which tend to be very neat and profound, and wrap things up neatly with a final sentence.

Just so you know what to think (annoying, isn't it?).

After reading a few of his books, it becomes part of the rhythm; you know it's coming, and it can be extremely repetitive and a pain in the behind.

Now, after a few hundred words criticising the poor, unsuspecting (at least I hope so, or I may be in a spot of bother) author, what can I say to make up for all my nasty words? He's no Milan Kundera (or even Nick Hornby), but he writes interesting books about life and family, and he can write good scenes about ordinary people. Not everyone can be James Joyce, and, quite frankly, not everyone would want to either; it's good to have something to get through quickly on a cold, wet and windy day in Melbourne when the thought of having finished 'Ulysses' makes one feel much better than the idea of having another 500 pages to go.

Literary comfort food; not junk, but certainly no Emperor's banquet. Is that unfair?

Monday 20 April 2009

25 - 'Ulysses' by James Joyce

"La, la, la, la, la, Ulysses,
I've found a new way, I've found a new way"

Thank you Franz Ferdinand for releasing this song, in Australia at least, while I was struggling through this book. Very, very annoying to have that line stuck in my head all the time.

However, whether they were writing about Joyce's epic work or not, the Scottish popsters have a point; 'Ulysses' is unlike anything you've read before (or that anyone has written since). In eighteen chapters spread over 933 pages, the writer tells the tale of an ordinary man's meanderings through Dublin on the 16th of June, 1904. While this may sound fairly straightforward, it is, in fact, one of the most complex and tightly designed pieces of writing ever published.

The eighteen chapters are not random; the whole novel is underpinned by the classic myth of Ulysses, or Odysseus, and each of the sections corresponds to a stage in the wanderings of the legendary Greek hero. Joyce wanted to contrast the idea of the hero with his everyman, Leopold Bloom, to protest against the dominance of violence and aggression, both in life generally and during the First World War. Bloom, a rather effeminate (or perhaps not overly masculine) Jew, wanders the streets of Dublin from house to funeral, from pub to beach, from brothel to deserted streets and back home again. On his travels, he meets up with Stephen Dedalus, the central character of Joyce's earlier, semi-autobiographical, novel, 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man', and the meeting of the two minds drives much of the later part of the book.

This meeting is also part of the original Odyssean myth: Bloom (Ulysses) is on a spiritual search for a son after his own died in childhood while Stephen (Telemachus) wishes for the parental guidance he does not find with his present, but absent, father. The theme of absent fathers is further discussed when Stephen elaborates on his ideas on 'Hamlet' (a vivid discussion ensues as to who Hamlet and his father are based on - is Hamlet Shakespeare himself or his son?). At the end of the book, the two have met and talked and seem to have made plans for future dealings; it is doubtful though whether either has really found what he is looking for.

Bloom is a very different type of person to the one you would expect to be roaming the streets of Dublin, and this is exactly what Joyce was trying to create, an ordinary man who is slightly out of the ordinary. His lack of understanding with many of the other men populating the pages of the book can be put down to his background (or the fact that he doesn't get blind drunk before noon...), but it is also something to do with his personality and his preference for the company of women. He abhors violence and is eager to live and let live (to the extent of not being overly concerned about his wife's infidelity). So, unlike the real Ulysses? Well, yes: he doesn't slaughter all of his wife's suitors. On the other hand, Ulysses, as can be forgotten, was also a man of peace and did his utmost to avoid being dragged off to Troy to fight in a war over a woman (just like Bloom!).

I usually write about themes in the novel at this point, but I'm not really going to here, simply because there are just too many ideas criss-crossing to get them all down in one post (I do not intend to make this a lecture series). One I found interesting though was the topic of colonialism, and the attitude of the oppressed to the oppressors. In my previous read, 'A Passage to India', E.M. Forster sketched the attitude of the Indians to the rule of the English, and there are many similarities in the natives' rather passive dislike of the invaders in Joyce's Dublin. The writer found the traditional Irish mythology of the famed Celtic defender Cuchulainn to be a bad basis on which to found a plea for independence and preferred the more cerebral Greek legend to form the skeleton of his story. Like the Indians, the Irish (well, most of them..) had very little time to wait for freedom from the Union Jack.

So much for symbolism and myth. As a linguist, the main interest for me in 'Ulysses' is the use of the language itself, which is, of course, the thing which makes it so hard to read. Having recently discovered Lawrence, Woolf and Boell, this seems to be my time for stream-of-conciousness writers; 'Ulysses' contains the mother of all stream-of-conciousness sections with Molly Bloom's 62-page, eight-sentence rambling monologue rounding off the book. However, it is Stephen's shorter, but seemingly more incoherent, talk early in the book which I found almost impossible to read. Joyce creates these patches of interior speech by starting and stopping thoughts and interrupting them with new ones and cutting the sentences short and not really stopping the flow because as you know that's how we think and speak not in standard sentences yes if you think about it writing is but no I mean (OK, I'll stop there; I think you get the point!).

Another inventive use of language is related to the use of different genres throughout the book, culminating in the scene at the midwife's house where events are relayed in different writing genres, progressing from ancient sagas to modern (for the time) slang. Each genre adds a different slant to the proceedings and uses a different type of language, something which most native speakers are unconciously aware of but could not actively analyse. In my tertiary studies, I have had to work with genres, and the ability to decode and, eventually, reproduce different text types is one of the key aims of a non-native learner of English (in fact, it could be argued that all speakers of English require some education in the different accepted styles of writing required in different spheres of life).

A third area of language use is the coining of new words and manipulation of word order and sentence structure. Joyce plays with word order to disrupt the rhythm of the text (and, thus, the reader's sense of comfort) and constantly introduces vocabulary which can be found nowhere else (or is so rare that it would be used nowhere else). As well as creating new adjectives and combining words to combine meanings, he has Bloom invent ways for animals and inanimate objects to communicate (apparently machines go 'sllt'). Although Joycean coinages may not have caught on as Shakespeare's did (he was another big maker-upper of words), it still shows a vast intellect - and courage...

Alright, yes, it's a classic, brilliant, etc. etc., but is it any good? Should anyone in their right mind actually read this monstrosity of a house brick masquerading as literature?

Yes. But the case for the prosecution...

1) It is a bit long and unneccessary at times.

Having read the extensive introduction in my edition and several commentaries, I realise that the bulk of the book is tightly woven onto the stem of the original Homerian tale; but are you really sure that it couldn't have been cut here and there?

2) It's a bit crude, unnecessarily so at times.

I'm sure it was all necessary to drive home his point (no double-entendre intended or implied). However, the language did go over the top, and some of the characterisation bordered on the stereotypical (and would have been described as such if produced by, say, Dickens).

3) Clever word play, at times too clever for its own good.

No argument here.

4) The portrayal of women is not balanced.

True, few of the women come across as appealing and realistic. Then again, neither do most of the male characters either.

5) You need to do a lot of reading just to be qualified to open the book.

Yes. A good grounding in Greek mythology (especially Ulysses, naturally), a fair command of Latin, some experience in French and German and a strong interest in Philosophy seem to be pre-requisites for tackling this monster (reading 'Dubliners' and 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' first is also recommended, if not compulsory).

The introduction of my edition comments that you do not read 'Ulysses'; it reads you. Very true. After reading it, you feel exhausted and a little confused. After reading what other people say about it, you're even more confused. This is the type of book which you read again and again, if only to try to understand it more (or if you have serious masochistic tendencies). I'd like to finally get around to reading the original Ulysses legend, which may help me to understand the modern myth a bit more, but that will have to wait a bit. My head hurts now, and I'd like Franz Ferdinand to finally bloody shut up.

Friday 17 April 2009

Almost There

You would think that after more than a week off work, I would have ploughed through the 933 pages of Joyce's epic by now. But you would be wrong.

So what's the hold up?

Of course, my 3000-word assignment (which, due to my perfectionism, or possibly my lack of editing skills, came in at 5000-words+) was a slight impediment to my reading plans. However, the main reader's block has been my beautiful daughter, Emily, who decided this week that she really wasn't that keen on going to sleep in the evening and would prefer to howl non-stop until I sloped off to bed around midnight.

I did do my bit (even if my bit is ever so slightly under the fifty per-cent that modern society demands), but even in the few minutes I was able to snatch away from the screaming toddler, reading just did not work. Why?

Because reading 'Ulysses' while a baby screams is like running a marathon on stilts.

703 down; the next post will be the review.

No idea what I'm going to write yet. But write I will.

(Don't worry: it won't be 933 pages)

Monday 13 April 2009

Progress Update

I'm past the half-way point, and I should be able to knock off the rest in the next week or so as I've just about finshed my assignment. Of course, I'm sure that's what Captain Scott said when he was half-way to the South Pole too (well, not about the assignment, although that could explain a few things). I can see why a lot of people have given up after a few hundred pages, but I have the pressure of my loyal followers (that's you!) and Facebook people, so I'll persevere. I'm not going to pre-empt my final review by saying too much here. However, one thing's for sure; James Joyce was definitely on something a lot stronger than Guinness when he decided to write this...

Monday 6 April 2009

Apologies For The Delay...

I've had a pretty good start to this 50-Book Challenge lark despite my new job and my studies (to say nothing about my hyperactive daughter), but things have come to a temporary halt; don't hold your breath for the next post (because you'd run out of Oxygen pretty quickly, and then I'd feel extremely guilty). Two main reasons for this roadblock:

1) I have an assignment due on the 17th of April for my Master of TESOL course (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). Which means that I really should get down to work.

2) My current book is 'Ulysses' by James Joyce. Which means that I'll be lucky to get it read and reviewed by the end of April.

Thank you for your time (all three of you. Oh, and my wife, who reads the posts right after I've written them); I'll be back as soon as I can!

P.S. I've gone for a new look, but I'm not convinced...

Wednesday 1 April 2009

24 - 'A Passage To India' by E.M. Forster

Here's a quick question to start us off today: what do indie greats 'The Stone Roses', writer E.M. Forster and Australia's national football team, the Socceroos, have in common? Answer at the end of the review!

Moving from trivia to the not-so-trivial, 'A Passage To India' is generally regarded as Forster's masterpiece, and it is easy to see why when reading this novel. The reader is transported into a lost world of British (English) colonialists attempting to subdue the natives in far-away lands, where men in three-piece suits drink gin and tonics while the servants wait patiently in the scorching sun, and elephants wander around playing football... wait, no, that was the kangaroos. In any case, Forster, who worked and travelled in India, something which shines through in his treatment of the culture in his writing, is able to conjure up a magical, enticing image of a place many westerners have never seen (and which those with a sensitive stomach probably never will).

The book describes Adela Quested's journey to India, where she is to decide whether to marry Ronny Heaslop, one of the Anglo-Indian ruling class. In the course of her visit, wishing to see 'the real India' and the native people, she is befriended by an Indian surgeon, Dr. Aziz. In a desire to win the favour of Adela and his new-found English friend, Cyril Fielding, Aziz organises a trip to the famous Marabar caves, a day-trip which goes drastically wrong and has dire consequences for all concerned...

The main idea of the novel was the impossible relationship between the colonisers and the colonised and how alien cultures could co-exist under such circumstances. The English attempted to seal themselves off from the locals in order to prevent any loss of power, and the Indians, resentful of this unfriendly attitude, discard the desire for peaceful, friendly servitude and start to dream of ousting the white invaders from their land (something they only had to wait another twenty-five years for). Despite the obvious connection to actual events in the sub-contintent, the difficulties experienced on both sides parallel those in many other parts of the world. Living in Australia, I am only too aware of the potential for disaster when two cultures collide; the plight of the Aboriginal population, even today, shows the difficulties of mutual respect for cultures. This is also true in more advanced stages of civilisation; the trial of Doctor Aziz reminded me strongly of the plot of 'To Kill A Mockingbird' with the difficulty in separating prejudice and fact in a racially-charged atmosphere.

Aside from the larger issue of politics and colonisation, Forster examines the thorny question of intercultural friendships and asks the question of whether true friendship is possible under conditions such as those in British India. Fielding, regarded disapprovingly by his fellow Englishmen for his relations with the natives, and Aziz, the educated surgeon in the pay of the Crown, would appear to be as likely as anyone to be able to get past the veneer of civilised politeness; in the end, however, psychology, geography and fate doom the friendship to failure. Their ways of thinking, their views of life, their morals, their ways of looking at the universe, everything about them puts obstacles in the path towards a true understanding of each other's character.

Over the past decade, I have spent the majority of my time either in Asian countries or working with Asian students, and I have experienced both of the situations outlined above. During my three-year stay in Japan, despite my efforts to learn the language and find out as much as posible about the culture, I never really got past superficial niceties with any Japanese people and certainly never got close to any locals (although many of the other western teachers got very close with the help of alcohol and love hotels). Admittedly, I spent a lot of my time working or with my Australian (then-) girlfriend, but even in conversations with coworkers in bars after work, I never really felt that we had much in common. One of the problems was that, just like the Anglo-Indians, the foreign workers in Japan often stayed together (although not to the extent that the English in Chandrapore did), living in the same apartments and drinking together on free evenings.

Now that I'm here in Australia and educating young (mostly) Asian students, I can see them falling into the same traps. There is a tendency to share houses with compatriots and a reluctance to socialise, or even work together, with students of a different nationality. Of course, this is a generalisation, and some students do strike up friendships outside their own ethnic group; however, from my own experiences (supported by Forster?!), I'm not sure how deep these friendships go, especially when they involve two such disparate philosophies as the Asian and Western cultures.

Only about 260 pages, but as you can tell from the disjointed musings above, there is a lot packed in. Despite the fairly straightforward plot, the psychological byplay and the beautifully drawn conflict of minds makes this a great book to read and justifies the opinions of the critics; which makes it a shame that this was only Forster's fifth and last novel. Oh, and the quiz question? The common theme was tardiness: The Stone Roses took about five years to follow up their eponymous debut album with a slightly disappointing second effort; the footballing Marsupials first qualified for the World Cup in 1972 but didn't appear for a second time until 2006 (cheating Italians - that's all I'll say...); and Forster also made his fans suffer by finishing 'A Passage To India' a full fourteen years after his fourth novel, 'Howard's End', was published. Like John Aloisi's penalty against Uruguay (and unlike 'Second Coming'), it was definitely worth the wait.