Tuesday 29 September 2009

71 - 'The Death of Ivan Ilyich' (and other stories) by Leo Tolstoy

This will be short and sweet (and probably written over several sessions). You see, I have a very poorly back, caused by lots of typing at work (nothing to do with my blog!). On the down side, this means putting just about everything in my life on hold - work, studies, playing with my daughter (even the blog will be affected). On the up side, apart from sleeping and going to the physio, about the only thing I can do is read...

Anyway, I have recently finished the aforementioned Tolstoy collection, consisting of four novellas (or long short stories if you prefer): 'Family Happiness', 'The Death of Ivan Ilyich', 'The Kreutzer Sonata' and 'The Devil'. I can honestly say that these are not stories you should be reading if your marriage is on shaky ground (especially the last one). Let me elaborate...

In 'Family Happiness', a two-part story, a young woman falls in love with an older man, a friend of her late father (very normal for the nineteenth century, so I'm told), and we are led through her experiences - from first love, sweet courtship, marriage and honeymoon... to what comes after. Despite the minor hiccups she experiences, this is by far the cheeriest of the four tales.

Ivan Ilyich, as suggested by the title, ends up dead (and fairly early too). However, the story is concerned with how he dies and the reflection he undertakes on his life while waiting for it to end, leading him to conclude that his life (and marriage) was wasted. The next story, 'The Kreutzer Sonata', also tells us at the start how events are destined to unfold, but the skilful unveiling of the reasons behind a murder keeps the reader's attention until the very last page.

In the final story, 'The Devil', Tolstoy leaves us with two endings, allowing us to choose who (or what) the devil of the title is: is it the alluringly sexy peasant woman; or is it the sexual drive of the married landowner who cannot keep away from her, no matter how hard he tries? Either way, it doesn't end well...

The four stories reflect Tolstoy's views on love and marriage: his dislike of the 'cattle market' that the game of match-making had become; the double standards of wealthy young men sowing their wild oats while searching for a chaste, pure woman to settle down with; the evil, natural necessity of a sex drive, the removal, or repression, of which (according to Count Leo) would lead to the fulfilment of humanity. As you may have guessed, old Tolstoy wasn't very happy in his marriage...

Anyway, I'm going to leave it there: firstly, as it's very difficult to type standing up with a keyboard balanced precariously on the back of a chair; secondly, because, my interest having been piqued by these vignettes of Russian family life, I am going to have another look at the real thing. Book 72 will be Tolstoy's 'Anna Karenina', and the post will be appearing... well, let's just just say it will be appearing.

Sunday 27 September 2009

70 - 'The Lemon Table' by Julian Barnes

Funny name, Julian Barnes, very English; it evokes images of Enid Blyton's 'Famous Five' stories and 'Tom Brown's Schooldays', punting on the Thames and running down to London for the weekend during Hilary Term. Unsurprisingly then, he is a very English writer, famous for his sparse, precise prose and an unerring eye for detail. The thing is, having read a few of his books, I'm not convinced. I don't mean that I dislike his writing; I've enjoyed everything of his that has come my way. It's just that I wouldn't exactly go out of my way to find one of his works (how very English of me).

How I came to read 'The Lemon Table' is a good example of what I am trying to say. For months, there has been a copy of 'Flaubert's Parrot' floating around the bargain shelves of the campus bookshop (and is it just me, or does 'Flaubert's Parrot' sound like a joke of a book title, a parody even? It always reminds me of the book launch from 'Bridget Jones' Diary' for 'Kafka's Motorbike' - one of the best few dozen books of our time, possibly), but, at only 25% off the cover price, I've never been really tempted to take it off their hands. However, when I saw Mr. Barnes' collection of short stories on offer on the last day of the recent sale, for the bargain price of $2.50 (about the price of a small cup of coffee - although, in keeping with the tone of today's post, let's make that a cup of English Breakfast tea), I had no hesitation in handing over the few sparkly pieces of metal required, even though short stories are not really my cup of tea (more Safeway Select than Earl Grey).

Of course, 'The Lemon Table' is a lovely collection of tales, all centring on old age, how it affects us and what we make of it. Barnes provides eleven differing experiences of the twilight years, which vary not only in protagonist and setting, but also in time and the form of the story itself. Each one examines what's left of life after decades spent chasing the dream of happiness, exploring the role of the 'aged' in society. Should we fade out gracefully, leaving the scene to younger, fitter more attractive players? Must we live up to society's expectations of feeble old fogies needing 24-hour care to eat, sleep and poop? Have old people left all the desires and dreams of the young (and middle-aged) behind?

In 'Knowing French', an old woman who has accepted the inevitable and moved into a nursing home before she is forced to against her will, describes her efforts to hold out and grow old disgracefully in a series of letters (to an author, Mr. Barnes...). The one-sided exchange (the author's replies, although existent, are not included in the story) shows how dull and brain-numbing life can be in the wonderful institutions we have created for the elderly. At the other end of the scale, 'Appetite' is told in the form of a monologue from a woman nursing her husband, a man evidently suffering from Alzheimer's or some similar disease. Her deep care in the face of vicious, unknowing abuse shows why it's sometimes easier for family members to go down the route of packing off elderly relatives to the nursing home.

Another theme is the way our thoughts change over the course of a lifetime, with the ideas we had when young changing slightly in later years. The first story in the collection, 'A Short History of Hairdressing', sees the same person receiving a haircut at three points in his life; as a young boy, a young man and in old age. His attitude towards life (and the way you should behave in the barber's chair) evolves with each 'visit' until, in the last line, we find out the fruits of his mental labours. In 'The Story of Mats Israelson', set in nineteenth-century Sweden, a possible, quasi, imagined, real love affair is the backdrop for a similar progression of feelings. When the two main protagonists meet again late in life, will their love have survived?

Of course, modern English writing (and films, and music...) is well known for peeking behind the suburban net curtains and painstakingly describing what goes on in the private lives of the middle classes, and a couple of these stories carry on this tradition. Both 'Hygiene' and 'The Fruit Cage' deal with the lives of old men who have had, to use the vernacular, a bit-on-the-side for many years, in one case following the fallout of the decision to go public and in the other the realisation that something which you thought would last forever has suddenly gone.

The eleven stories are beautiful to read, elegant and precisely written, wonderful examples of the genre. And yet... As a reader, I have a feeling at the back of my mind that Barnes is too clever for his own good. While all the styles and settings work, and the stories combine to create a magnificent collection of thoughts on a single topic, it does seem at times as if it is done merely to show that it can be done. Is there any real need to set tales in Sweden, Russia and America? Does the time need to bounce from century to century? I am probably comparing this book (somewhat unfairly) to the most recent short-story collection I have read, 'Dubliners', and my obvious preference for the tight-knit set of tales in Joyce's collection may be colouring my judgement.

Another quibble I have is Barnes' tendency to get... well, a little vulgar at times. He seems to delight in using taboo language to shock both his characters and the readers - and he does it very well too. Perhaps (as I'm sure you will have noticed) I'm a delicate little flower, and I need to toughen up; perhaps this type of language is a necessary part of what he is trying to create; perhaps, in forty years time, I'll have a very different opinion about his use of expletives to now...

All in all, 'The Lemon Table' is a great read if you like short stories and well worth the effort even if you don't. However, I'm afraid the jury's still out on Mr. Barnes, probably because I still haven't read any of the books which he is famous for. This leads us to a vicious circle: I probably won't be convinced by old Julian until I read 'Flaubert's Parrot', 'Metroland' or 'Talking it Over', but I'm unlikely to buy any of those books until I'm convinced I'm going to love them. The solution? I suppose there's always the library option, but it's not just a matter of money, it's also a matter of time spent reading, time I don't have enough of. Hmm. Don't expect the jury back with a decision any time soon...

Thursday 24 September 2009

69 - 'Katz und Maus' by Günter Grass

Last week, I attended the 22nd English Australia Conference, the annual meeting for the Australian ESL industry, in Melbourne (which meant that instead of a flight interstate and a stay at a nice hotel, I got to wake up earlier than usual and spend the best part of an hour each way on the train every day), and one of the presentations I attended spent some time outlining the virtues of free reading for language learners. One of the points the speaker stressed was that the students should read voluntarily, should choose something they want to read and should attempt a book which is pitched just above their level (no more than 4-5 unknown lexical items per page). It was an interesting little talk; however, seeing as the topic of the workshop was 'Paraphrasing: The How To Guide', most of the audience was, understandably, fairly annoyed with the presenter for completely ignoring the supposed topic.

The connection, of course, to today's post is that I was thinking about this description of free reading as I was struggling through Nobel Prize Winner Günter Grass' novella, 'Katz und Maus' ('Cat and Mouse'). I haven't really checked, but I think I could probably count on one hand the number of pages where there were fewer than five words whose meaning was completely unknown (although a lot of those were descriptions of plants, trees, types of ships or religious terminology - none of which I'm particularly up-to-speed on in my native language either). The difficulty with vocabulary was not helped by the vagueness I found in the storyline, but at least I wasn't the only one who struggled to follow the plot. The entry for 'Cat and Mouse' in the English version of Wikipedia includes the following passage: "The narrative in the story is often fairly incoherent. For instance, the timeline of the narration is often treated flexibly, moving from the narrator's perspective to different points within his memory of the events." Good to see it's not just me then...

Pilenz, the narrator, relates his memories of life during the war years in his home town of Danzig (now the Polish city of Gdansk), but in reality, he focuses squarely on the character of Joachim Mahlke, later nicknamed 'the Great Mahlke'. Mahlke, a non-descript boy were it not for the huge Adam's Apple which draws everyone's attention, becomes part of Pilenz's group of friends one summer, coming to dominate the scene without really making an effort. The boys spend most of the summer swimming out to a sunken Polish minesweeper, where Mahlke continually dives into the depths of the ship, eventually discovering a room inside above the water level in which he makes himself a hideaway.

Throughout the story's description of the group's schooldays, the realities of war are never far from the surface. The boys mess around on their boat, watching out for Navy vessels in the distance, and their families get by on rations, hoping for news from family members at the front, hoping not to be visited by a man in uniform... Former students come back to school to tell of their experiences in the war, entrancing the crowd of students with stories of aerial fire-fights and sunsets over the Atlantic. One day, when a U-Boat captain returns to talk about his war, Mahlke, whose views on war seem to be less than positive, takes his first step on a path that will lead to tragedy.

'Katz und Maus' is a book which is difficult to pin down; what exactly is the author trying to say? This confusion isn't helped by the deliberately obscure narration which swings between using the second and third person to describe events. Pilenz, while supposedly writing about Mahlke, switches frequently to addressing him directly, and the overall impression is a masterly one of a writer who is trying to get something out but is not quite sure that they actually want to (and is not really sure exactly what they want to say anyway). This memoir, with the focus squarely on his friend, also comes across as an excuse, an apology, an attempt to square up whatever happened in the past.

Belief is an important theme in this novel, both in the conventional sense and in the slightly sinister patriotic sense. Mahlke's almost fanatical church attendance stands out amongst a more apathetic background, yet even this belief is shown to be something different to what it should be. His devotion to the Virgin Mary (and the collection of objects strung around his neck with his crucifix, helping to counterbalance the enormous protuberance nature has already placed there) turns into a type of idolatry, something he later admits to Pilenz. His approach to patriotism runs along similar lines; he only wants to go to war to earn an Iron Cross so that he too can come back to his former school and talk in front of a hall full of students. When this dream is prevented from becoming reality, he has nowhere to go, nothing left to achieve.

The story ends much as it began, out on the old sunken minesweeper, just Pilenz and Mahlke. As the rain lashes down on the Baltic Sea coast, the reader wonders what the future has in store for the two of them, knowing what the future has in store for their city (and country). Pilenz writes this down for us years later, yet he has just as little idea what to make of it all as we have. The story is his way of coming to terms with a past, and a friend, that he doesn't really understand. As for me, I'm not really sure I fully get it either. Perhaps reading the other 'Danzig Trilogy' books will give me more of an idea of what Grass wants to say about the war years. At any rate, it will definitely give me the chance to improve my German...

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Another Trip to the Confessional Booth

Let's take a trip back a few weeks to where I talked about buying a couple of books at a book sale. I can see that you're already ahead of me... Anyway, the devious people running the campus book sale decided that the final Friday would see the whole stock up for sale at 50% off the sale price. Now that's just not fair for a poor person trying to live his life right (everything in moderation, including books).

So, what did I end up with after searching through the dregs of the season to find some rough (but cheap) diamonds? Well, surprisingly, I found three of Roddy Doyle's finest - 'The Van', 'Paula Spencer' and 'Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha' -, and I also dredged up Julian Barnes' 'The Lemon Table' and 'The Twyborn Affair', a novel by the famed Australian author Patrick White. Don't worry though; I also bought my daughter a rather lovely Pocoyo book (which I was forced to read to her six times in a row when I got home, leading me to regret buying it in the first place). All in all twenty Australian dollars well spent :)

But the book frenzy doesn't end there, oh no. Courtesy of those fine people at the Book Depository, who must have a really close relationship with Royal Mail to be able to send the books out with no charge for postage (either that or they have an inside man who sneaks the parcels into the sorting room in the wee hours of the morning when no-one's looking), I have just received another couple of books. Wanting to brush up on my classics, I ordered a copy of Homer's 'Iliad' (with not a mention of Brad Pitt in sight); I'm not much of an epic poem type of person, but I am a 'want-to-have-read-everything-literary-under-the-sun' kind of person, so I'm sure I'll get around to perusing it at some point. However, the other recent purchase is a monster, a Godzilla of a book, a novel so big it makes 'The Brothers Karamazov' look like my daughter's Pocoyo book (with fewer pictures); it's even longer than 'War and Peace'...

What is this lump of a book, I hear you ask (yes, my hearing is that good; very annoying when the cats outside are on heat)? I'll end the suspense here (don't laugh). In the very near future, and ending, once and for all, any chance I had of making it to a century of books this year (proving that I'm in it for the quality, not the quantity), I will be reading the humongous, best-part-of-1500 pages epic, Vikram Seth's 'A Suitable Boy'. Did I mention that it's very long? I'll probably start once my MTESOL assignment has been submitted in a couple of weeks - which means that it will probably take up the rest of October. Moving on...

In other book-related news, I was browsing the Book Depository today (and, yes, I am considering an approach to the company for a books-per-mention deal) after reading Clare of Paperback Reader's review of a Katherine Mansfield story, and, funnily enough, the Wordsworth Editions collection (688 pages for about 3 pounds 49 pence - one day I must find out where those Australians have hidden the pound symbol on my keyboard) was out of stock. Coincidence? I think not - behold the power of the blogger!

Finally, a big thanks to Dan Holloway for my copy of 'Songs from the Other Side of the Wall' (which may be waiting a while to be reread - see above). You can download a free copy of this marvellous book at Dan's web-site, or you can follow the links to buy a more tangible copy (with a rather wonderful cover and various added extras!). What are you waiting for? Check it out now!!! :)

P.S. It is now an hour after the original post was, well, posted, and I have just discovered another book which had slipped my mind, cunningly integrated as it is into my collection. After lunch with a friend a couple of weeks ago, we went into an Op shop (UK - second-hand shop, US - thrift store?) where she looked around for pretty pottery (which she could buy cheap from the old ladies in the shop and sell dear on e-Bay), I just happened to stumble across a copy of 'A Room with a View' for $1.50. OK, I didn't stumble as such; my feet were perfectly positioned at all times, and there was no swearing, but you get the general idea. This is very worrying (the forgetting, not the stumbling. Which didn't happen); what if I've actually bought lots more books AND FORGOTTEN ABOUT IT?! I'll be sure to let you all know if I come across the complete works of Virginia Woolf hidden in the wardrobe in the spare bedroom...

Sunday 20 September 2009

68 - 'Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha' by Roddy Doyle

Those of you who have seen the film 'The Commitments' will already be well aware of Barrytown, the fictional suburb chosen as the setting of Roddy Doyle's first trilogy of novels (the above-mentioned book, 'The Snapper' and 'The Van'). 'Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha' is also set in Barrytown, but this time further in the past. The story focuses on the life of a young boy in a small village slowly being linked to the city by urban spread and follows him through his daily life. There's no singing though (well, not much, anyway).

Barrytown in 1968 is a very far away place for most of us today. Paddy and his friends roam around in acres of fields, annoying the locals with their antics, fighting, playing football and generally getting into the kinds of mischief young boys (used to) get into. In a small place like Barrytown, everyone knows everyone else, which makes the trouble the boys get into more exciting with the risk of being seen by someone who will tell their parents (which brings back a couple of painful childhood memories for me!). There's no phone, no internet (!) and very little for the boys to do except wander the streets and fields looking for fun and trouble.

Paddy talks about his daily life in the illogical, non-sequential style of a young boy, constantly going off at tangents and coming up with non sequiturs which make you stop reading and check that you haven't turned a couple of pages by mistake. However, this deceptively simple style, for a while at least, masks the real story here, which is Paddy's home troubles. As the eldest of four children, he starts to feel responsible for the tension he feels at home and the arguments he hears more and more often. At first, the story appears to be a simple recount of a young boy's life, but the tale become more and more serious as it progresses.

At the start of the novel, Paddy is a fairly innocent (if slightly rough and ready) young lad; he picks on his little brother Francis (or 'Sinbad'), he hangs around with his best friend Kevin and he tries not to fall foul of his teacher. Over the course of the 282 pages, however, his relationship with each changes. Paddy realises that his brother is not just a young punchbag, but a fellow sufferer in the tense home environment, and tries to reach out and become friends. His voracious reading spills over into his schoolwork, leading to improvements at school and a perception that his teacher is not quite as bad as he thought. He becomes tired of pandering to the bullying Kevin and looks for other friends, trying to change his life. For a young boy, that's quite a lot of progress...

Doyle is a master at using simple, funny, up-beat prose to describe lives which are anything but. He manages to create a confused character who is completely real, neither an angelic, hard-done-to urchin like Oliver Twist or a tough, good-for-nothing street boy. Every time Paddy appears to have matured a little, he'll do something completely random or lash out at his poor brother. In fact, at times, his thoughts and actions are at odds, as he acts tough to cover the doubt and worry he carries inside. The impression we get from events is that despite being decent at core, Paddy is vulnerable, and his future could be affected enormously by his disturbed home life.

My childhood was spent about twenty years after Paddy's, and, although there were many differences, it was recognisably similar to the one described in the book. I remember playing football in the street, charging around in fields, hurdling hedges in gardens, fighting with friends and strangers, snooping around in abandoned houses and sheds, setting fire to the grass and then fleeing when it got out of control... Now, twenty years on, I don't think that kind of childhood is possible any more. Parents today (and I include myself in this) are much more cautious and would be loath to allow their kids to wander far from home without supervision. Urbanisation has swallowed up a lot of the land children used to mess around in, and technology has provided more interesting ways for kids to spend their free time. In a society of risk-aversion, it's rarely possible to grow up in the trial-and-error way of previous generations.

So what is this book? What can you expect from it? I would settle on two main ideas. The first is the effect trouble at home can have on a young child just discovering how the world works and expanding his thoughts outside his personal space (something to remember the next time you're about to have a row with your partner). The second is the passing of the free childhood that most of us remember, and this may not even be something that the writer meant (at least, not to the extent that I have interpreted it). 'Paddy Clarke...' was written in 1993. In terms of generational change in today's society, that really is a long, long time ago; the past can indeed seem like a different country.

Wednesday 16 September 2009

67 - 'Runaway Horses' by Yukio Mishima

Music and literature have always been entwined in my head, even before I started listening to my i-Pod on the train while reading to drown out the obnoxious schoolkids and depressingly loud bogans in the vicinity. I still remember listening to certain CDs (actually, probably tapes) while perusing serious (Dürrenmatt's 'Der Besuch der Alten Dame' to the accompaniment of REM's 'Automatic for the People') and not-so-serious (some Pern dragon books with a background of 'ABBA Gold') literature, so it will come as no surprise to learn that, even during this year's blogfest, certain songs have been going around in my head.

As mentioned in an earlier post, Franz Ferdinand released 'Ulysses' at a very inopportune time for me, and Haruki Murakami's 'Sputnik Sweetheart' will forever inspire a chorus of Doves' 'Satellites' inside my tiny brain. Even in the last two reviews, 'Wuthering Heights' and 'Molly Malone' have come up (not completely logically, but when did that ever stop me?). The point is, as someone who grew up in the eighties, what chance did I have of keeping my head free of music when reading a book entitled 'Runaway Horses'?

Sadly, Belinda Carlisle did not follow the example set by Kate Bush, and her song has no connection with the second of Yukio Mishima's four 'The Sea of Fertility' novels (and has absolutely no mention of seppuku that I'm aware of). Disappointingly, the book has absolutely nothing to do with horses, errant or not, instead reintroducing us to Shigekuni Honda, one of the major characters of 'Spring Snow', who, in the eighteen years separating the two novels, has become a high court judge. During a business trip to a kendo tournament held at a sacred shinto shrine (the kind of business trip I am rarely asked to go on), a young swordsman catches his eye, and his solid, successful life, eighteen years in the making, again becomes caught up in a turbulent whirlwind of intrigue and emotion.

The young Isao Iinuma, the son of the retainer of the first novel's main protagonist, Kiyoake Matsugae, is a young man filled with a longing to reverse the trend of the past decades of foreign-influenced rule. Through a short book relating the (true) exploits of a group of samurai loyal to the emperor, 'The League of the Divine Wind', Isao discovers something worth living, fighting and dying for. His natural energy and his incredible passion attract a group of like-minded students, and together they plan an incredible assault on the pillars of the modern Japanese economy, which they consider to be a corrupt betrayal of the true Japanese spirit.

Where the first book was littered throughout with references to spring flowers, delicate colours and the first stirrings of cherry blossoms, the role of nature and the seasons is very different here. Several important scenes are carried out in the scorching summer sun: Isao's first appearance in the kendo tournament; a parade of soldiers on a visit to the army barracks; the first meeting of the new league. In all these scenes, Isao soaks up the sun, using the energy of the Emperor (the 'Sun God') to fuel his resolve, the intensity of the sunlight only matched by the strength of Isao's faith in his beliefs.

The theme of reincarnation hinted at in 'Spring Snow' is again central to 'Runaway Horses' with Honda gradually beoming convinced of the reality of his friend's rebirth. From Isao's natural grace to his fulfilment of one of the dreams in the diary Honda has inherited, the lawyer sees the return of a character he thought was lost, with a scene from one of those dreams becoming reality. Ironically, one of Isao's dreams, later on in the book, appears to point to the direction of the third book of the tetralogy (but let's not go there today...).

'Runaway Horses', like its predecessor, is a wonderful book to read, although very different in its style. Where 'Spring Snow' was feminine and graceful, conforming more to the kind of Japanese novel most of us are accustomed to read, this novel is more masculine, dangerous and urgent. It is easy to see how the events of this story, set in 1932/3, could lead to Japan's aggression in East Asia, the attack on Pearl Harbor and the brutality of the Pacific War. The passion of aggressive young men, who eventually won the support of the army, allied to a blinding belief in the divinity of the Emperor and the superiority of their homeland, was one of the causes of some of the cruellest behaviour of the Second World War.

However, when reading of the exploits of the original 'League of the Divine Wind' and their utter disregard for their lives when called upon to purify their country, it is another conflict which comes to mind. Just as the samurai did not hesitate to attack the supposed enemy, even in the face of insuperable odds, with the prospect of almost certain death clearly in view, so too have fundamentalist 'freedom fighters' waged war on enemies of their religion. The stories of the suicide bombers of Iraq and Afghanistan, if told sympathetically, would probably differ little in the essentials from the description given by Mishima in the mini-novel inside his book. Not convinced? Try looking up the Japanese for 'divine wind'; ever heard of the word 'kamikaze'...
I did intend to finish here, but there are two more things to say. Firstly, I'm looking forward to the next installment of the tetralogy (off to the book depository again next week!). And finally, I believe the last word really should go to Belinda:
"Whoa-oh, Runaway Horses, whoah-oh, take us through the night,...
You and I on Runaway horses, Ooh-ooh, baby hold on tight..."

Sunday 13 September 2009

66 - 'Dubliners' by James Joyce

"In Dublin's fair city, where the girls are so pretty, I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone..." Sorry, just catching up on some family business. It's true though; I saw the statue of my semi-fictional possible ancestor on Grafton Street about ten years ago (I couldn't see any resemblance myself, but you never know).

Aside from the famous fishmonger/woman of the night, of course, the Irish capital's most well-known artistic creations are those of James Joyce, whose epic (in all senses of the word) novel 'Ulysses', did so much for Dublin's culture - not to mention the tourism industry. However, Joyce's preoccupation with his home city started much earlier, with the writing of a group of short stories which were to become the collection entitled (simply, and somewhat unimaginatively) 'Dubliners'.

This collection consists of fifteen short stories, most of which are very short indeed (in fact, if you take out 'The Dead', a late addition to the book, they average about nine pages each). Each of the stories takes place in Dublin, usually over a very limited time span, and follows a local resident along their merry (or not so merry) way before ending, if not suddenly, at least unexpectedly. By this I mean that there is no real conclusion to many of the tales; the story simply stops, and we move on to the next little view of the great city.

The writing is beautiful, seemingly effortless, and despite the brevity of most of the stories, the reader is sucked into the details of the main protagonist's life - what little we see of it anyway. Joyce also manages to tell the tale through language tailored to suit the speech and thoughts of the character he has created, which may sound obvious but is not actually that easy to do. As the book progresses, the age of the main character increases; where the first few tales are centred around children, by the end of the collection, the central personalities are far more mature (in years, if not always in behaviour).

The last of the stories, 'The Dead', which, at 34 pages, is by far the longest in the collection, could easily serve as an example for the rest of the tales. A seemingly simple account of a Christmas party at a dance academy, followed by the main character's trip back to his hotel with his wife, manages to cram in several of Joyce's most common themes: the status of Ireland as an occupied country in search of its past in the face of an uncertain present; the presence of sexual desires, despite the teachings of the church; above all, the importance of the everyday, the common, the mundane. The final passages, with Gabriel in his bed imagining the snow falling all over Ireland, "upon all the dead and the living", are simply beautiful.

Having read 'Ulysses' earlier this year, one of the questions I had about this book was whether, forgetting what was to come in the future, this set of short stories would actually measure up. It would be (and is) very easy to see in it the germs of the great novels to come, but is 'Dubliners' any good in its own right? I can assure you that the answer is an emphatic yes: it is a perfect example of the art of telling short stories. In fact, while 'Ulysses' is an undoubted classic, it would have been very interesting to see what kind of novels Joyce would have produced had he decided to become merely a successful novellist and not a genre-destroying genius. Something to ponder as I look out of my window and see the raindrops slowly sliding down the glass.

P.S. For those still confused by the first paragraph, let me introduce myself: the name's Malone, Tony Malone, licenced to make exceedingly weak puns...

Thursday 10 September 2009

65 - 'The Return of the Native' by Thomas Hardy

Out on the wild and windy moors... Sorry, wrong book (just having a Kate Bush moment there). The reason for this lapse into song is that Thomas Hardy's well-loved Wessex Tale, 'The Return of the Native', depends just as much on the natural environment and its claustrophobic (and paradoxically neverending) moorlands as Kate B.. . Emily Bronte's novel 'Wuthering Heights' does. The star of the show is not, in my opinion, the returning native of the title, Clym Yeobright, or his proud and flighty wife, Eustacia Vye, but the magnificent setting of Egdon Heath, an expanse of heathland which provides the backdrop for the drama without ever fading into the background.

The images of the first couple of chapters are among some of my favourite pieces of writing as Hardy introduces the primeval heath, a place scarcely altered by human hand and yet showing subtle signs of bygone civilisations. The brambles and heather growing wild on the ground are given a life of their own, and when human figures finally appear on the scene, they seem to be almost an afterthought to the descriptions of the countryside which have gone before. When Eustacia makes her first appearance, standing on top of the ancient 'barrow', or burial mound, which the locals call Rainbarrow, she appears to be a natural extension of the landscape, rather than a person.

This is far from the truth though. In fact, Eustacia, a woman of good birth living on the heath with her grandfather, feels trapped and isolated by its expanses and longs to get away. It is this desire to return to civilisation which drives her on to the unfortunate relationships (first with Damon Wildeve, then later with Clym) which form the seed of tragedy in this tale. It is only natural that when an educated native returns to his home village after years working in Paris, the excitable Eustacia should latch on to him as a means of escape.

Clym, however, turning his back on his luxurious, but ultimately unsatisfying, life abroad, is determined to make a new start in his home surroundings. His over-romantic attachment to his native soil is just as exaggerated as Eustacia's aversion to it, and his attempts to reestablish himself there are doomed to failure. Despite his intention to do good and raise the country folk from their state of relative ignorance, his decision to come home is met with confusion, ridicule and a complete lack of understanding (from both family and friends), with most people concurring with Eustacia's view that a return to Paris would be for the best.

As with many of Hardy's novels, the writing is beautiful (if slightly over-complicated at times), and the portrayal of rustic life and rituals is without equal. The major events of rural life, including the Guy Fawkes night bonfires, the Christmas 'mumming' play and the springtime Maypole dances are used as a backdrop to important occurrences in the novel. This picture of an England which is long gone (and was disappearing even at the time of writing) shows us a part of our cultural heritage which, perhaps, is not commonly known today. Despite the general idyllic feeling though, the story moves inexorably towards tragedy.

Another of Hardy's quirks is the tendency of his characters to end up in trouble, and 'The Return of the Native' is no exception. Chance, misfortune, frustration and boredom combine to inspire Eustacia to escape from her married life, and, as the rains lash down, and the major players are drawn inevitably together on the heath, the only question is who will come through the ordeal alive (if not totally unscathed).

The book ends, just as it started, on the wild vastness of Egdon Heath. The situations of the major characters have changed; some for the better, many for the worse (to put it mildly...). Whatever the feelings of the people sitting listening to the lecture delivered from the top of Rainbarrow, the heath itself is unchanged, quietly alive, seemingly endless. Oh yes, whether wuthering or not, it is the heath which is the true star of this book.

Wednesday 9 September 2009

A-bok-bok-alypse Now

Hurrah! After moaning and whinging about a lack of recognition, I now find myself the proud recipient of a Zombie Chicken Award. Eternal thanks to Michelle of su[shu] for this prestigious prize; it's not the Booker, but you've got to start somewhere!

For those of you who are not familiar with this highly-coveted award (and I suspect that that may be most of you), please read the following explanation of the meaning of this offering from the undead poultry:

"The blogger who receives this award believes in the Tao of the zombie chicken– excellence, grace, and persistence in all situations, even in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. These amazing bloggers regularly produce content so remarkable that their readers would brave a raving pack of zombie chickens just to be able to read their inspiring words. As a recipient of this world-renowned award, you now have the task of passing it on to at least 5 other worthy bloggers. Do not risk the wrath of the zombie chickens by choosing unwisely or not choosing at all."

Hmm. While obviously honoured and flattered, I do feel rather guilty at the thought that some of my dear readers may be disembowelled by a rampaging pack of indefatigable chooks from hell just for the sake of reading one of my posts (it also puts a fair bit of pressure on my shoulders...). Oh well, I suppose sacrifices have to made in all true art.

Anyway, the second part is now the tricky one; who do I nominate to receive this coveted award? There are two issues with this:

1) Whose blog would I face a horde of Zombie Chickens for?
2) Have any of these people already received this prestigious accolade?

I can't give it back to Michelle, for obvious reasons. Another previous recipient of the chickens is Mel of The Reading Life, so no chicken for her either. Zombie Chickens then for:

(for reminding me what it's like to be young...)
(for all-round brilliance and advice)
(for the Japanese Literature 3 challenge)
(for lots of hard work and Booker prize news)
(for the inspiration for this blog!)

Yay! Cheers all round and Zombie Chickens for everyone! Let the slaughter commence!

Sunday 6 September 2009

64 - 'The House of Mirth' by Edith Wharton

Some days, I feel just like Lily Bart.

OK, I sense that there may be a little scepticism out there in Bloggerland, so I will try to explain my ideas a little more clearly (I'm not promising that I'll succeed though). The way in which I feel my life is comparable to the tragic heroine of Edith Wharton's classic novel, 'The House of Mirth', is that... well, I mean... what I'm trying to say is... Hmm. This isn't working too well. let's go back to the start.

Lily Bart - who is a woman approaching the age of thirty in turn of the (twentieth) century New York at the start of this book, and definitely not a thirty-something book-reviewing hack living in the outskirts of Melbourne - has a problem, an unsolvable, unmanageable problem which is threatening to ruin her life. Born into, and a bright star of, New York's high society, Lily does not possess the independent means to allow her to continue her life in the rarefied air of this social stratosphere and, therefore, needs to use her considerable feminine wiles to snare a rich husband who will provide her with the status, and the money, to enable her to continue living in the way to which she has become accustomed.

Lily has the beauty, and the intelligence, to pull off this seemingly minor feat; however, she also possesses something more, a sense that there is more to life than the 'gilded cage' in which she and her acquaintances spend their endless rotations between the city and the country estates of the rich and famous. Frequently, on the cusp of persuading some rich gentleman to make a proposal, Lily's better nature causes her to shy away at the last minute, and the gentleman retreats, licking his wounds, until another bright young thing comes to... mend his broken heart (what did you think I was going to say?!).

As the years pass by, these opportunities become more scarce, and Lily, despite the brightness of her star, begins to slowly fall from the social orbit in which she has been travelling. A chance meeting with Lawrence Selden, a young man who, although part of the same social group, knows his way back out of its golden residence, hastens her spin away from her path towards happiness. The problem is that she does not have the necessary desire to wrench herself from the pull of high society's gravitational field once and for all and thus falls into a gap between the two conflicting styles of life (one probably inhabited by as many mixed metaphors as the previous couple of paragraphs).

I won't say how it continues from there ('there' actually being a very short way into the book...), but I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who likes good literature, and especially to anyone who thinks that Jane Austen's heroines can be a bit weak and insipid at times; you wouldn't catch Emma or Elizabeth behaving like Lily does.

Oh yes, me and Lily Bart. I think I can see an angle now (fittingly enough, an obtuse one). You see, I have devoted large parts of my time this year to my blogging, to the extent that my wife raises her eyebrow rather pointedly whenever she notices me logged on to the site (it may not sound much, but married men everywhere will understand the significance). I am doing my best to make my blog shine among the millions of other book blogs and carrying out all the manifest duties of the assiduous book blogger, including linking to other blogs, joining challenges and commenting on other people's posts. And yet...

... it all seems, well, a bit try-hard. I know that quality of writing is not everything and that a lot of leg-work is required if you are to attract the attention you want, but I am in the unfortunate situation of wanting the love and admiration (and the millions of comments and followers that certain other blogs have), yet unwilling to take the final step towards making a real effort. Like Lily, I shy at the final hurdle, having done most of the hard work, but pulling away from turning myself from the gentleman amateur blogger I currently am into the hard-nosed, advertisement-revenue-seeking, freebie-requesting, award-receiving, million-blog-adding professional that other people are quite prepared to be. I would (secretly) like to be the Bertha Dorset of the Blogosphere, but I am actually doomed to be poor Lily.

Catharsis, a wonderful thing (and nothing to do with a sibling's chest infection). I have purged my bitter feelings and am now ready to continue serenely with my blogging life. I love you all.

I apologise: I am nothing like Lily Bart.

Friday 4 September 2009

More Books...

While I am eternally grateful to the nice people at the 'Review' section of The Weekend Australian for informing me of the wonderful institution that is the Book Depository, a part of me knows that it is a double-edged sword as I'm probably going to end up spending more in the end, if only on more bookcases to house my burgeoning collection. I'm trying to stick to a routine where, every two weeks (on pay day), I browse the site (and my long, rather messy, wish-list which lives on my desk at work) and spend as much money as I would on buying one full-priced book from an Australian bookshop. Thanks to the extortionate prices here, and my penchant for buying cheap versions of classic novels which are out of copyright, that usually means I get three for the price of one. Brilliant.

So what has been dropping through my letterbox recently? Well, for starters, most of the books I've reviewed over the past month or so. In addition, I have a nice collection of Wordsworth Editions classics sitting waiting to be read: 'The Return of the Native', Dostoyevsky's 'Demons', a collection of Tolstoy's short stories, 'Dubliners' and 'David Copperfield'; and yesterday, when I got home, my long-awaited edition of Mishima's 'Runaway Horses' had arrived. Yay :)

The sneaky side of me would like to end the post there; however, my honest, ethical side (damn him, the idiot do-gooder) feels the need to confess to some furtive book buying. You see, the campus bookshop is having its semesterly clearance sale, and... well, let's move along. To cut a long story short, I walked out $15 lighter and two books heavier, but happier. One is a novel by the Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov, whose book 'Death and the Penguin' has had some good reviews. I wasn't lucky enough to come across that, but I snapped up a copy of 'The President's Last Love' which will hopefully also be a good read.

The second book is called 'Classics' and is the work of an Australian academic who has chosen sixty-two works of literature (mainly prose) from throughout history, starting with Homer and ending with 'Midnight's Children', and written a few pages on each, explaining its importance and context. At the end of each review, there is also the distraction of a short piece from famous contemporary writers and artists talking about their favourite books. I don't think this is one to read from cover to cover, so I may be dipping into it for years to come (starting with the books I've already read!).

Phew. The Catholics are right - confession is good for you. Well, until I get home and find that my wife has read this post anyway...

Wednesday 2 September 2009

63 - 'Amrita' by Banana Yoshimoto

I am, as anyone who read my last post closely enough would know, thirty-four years old and will turn thirty-five very soon. Time for reflection, perhaps. Therefore, it was perhaps apt that I (randomly) decided to re-read 'Amrita' this week as Banana Yoshimoto's novel, a departure from the usual novellas or collections of short stories, is especially concerned with reflection and taking stock of your existence. In this tale about a young woman who loses her memory and has to reassess the way she is living her life, Yoshimoto blends elements of Buddhist theology and everyday philosophy to examine what it means to live in the present.

Sakumi, a Japanese woman in her twenties, lives at home with her mother, brother, cousin and her mother's friend, part of an informal family unit which has come together after several deaths and breakups. One winter day, she falls down a steep flight of stone steps, and, on waking up in the hospital, realises that she has lost a significant part of her memory. This loss of memory, however, is a catalyst for Sakumi to re-examine her life and relationships: she becomes closer to her little brother Yoshi, slightly more 'gifted' than your average elementary-school student; she starts to spend more time with Ryuichiro, the ex-boyfriend of her dead sister, Mayu; and she also begins to come to terms with the effect that Mayu's death has had on her.

The loss of memory enables Sakumi to look at the world around her through a new pair of eyes, and although she does regain her memory slowly, the lack of detail in her memory forces her to reconsider her relationships with people and places. The brush with mortality also brings her to consider life and death, and she comes to realise that all things - friendships, relationships, families - are transient and fleeting. While this sounds negative and depressing, in fact the opposite is true; Sakumi uses this new knowledge of the temporary nature of life to focus on the positives and especially the here and now; she is able to live for the moment and enjoy life for what it is.

The title, 'Amrita', refers to concepts present in the Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist religions and is connected to the refreshment of the human soul from drinking a liquid, like the nectar of the Greek gods, which is vital for living. Yoshimoto reinforces this allusion to Buddhism and Hinduism with frequent comparisons of characters to gods such as Shiva and Kannon. The 'thirst' for water is mirrored in the events of the novel as Sakumi finds enjoyment in swimming and then finds peace in journeys to the Japanese coast and Saipan, an island in the Pacific Ocean which appears to be a mythical place where the line between our 'real' life and the spirit world is blurred. Towards the end of the novel, Sakumi is also urged to quench her thirst by drinking in everyday occurrences - the water of life.

When I first read this book, I wasn't overly impressed; I felt that there was a lack of a structure to the novel, and it often felt as if it were a random series of events with very little to link them and move the story along. Also (as always with Banana's works), I felt that the dialogue was trite and that there was an overreliance on metaphor. I'm still not convinced on the latter point, although I am moving more and more towards the opinion that this is the fault of the translator, not the author (several typos and a couple of literal translations which even a low-level Japanese speaker like myself could pick up are swaying me in this direction), but I enjoyed the book as a whole much more this time. The idea of life circling around and people continually going through the cycle of making friends, developing relationships and moving on came through more strongly on this reading, as did the writer's focus on showing how Sakumi's loss of memory enables her to stop and look at what she actually is.

Of course, the reason why my opinion of the book this time is so different to when I read it a couple of years ago has a lot more to do with me than with the book. I'm a bit older, (hopefully) a bit wiser and more able to read things into a novel like this one (some of which probably weren't intended). Just as Sakumi needed an accident to give her the necessary distance to view her life, most of us find it difficult to get the required perspective to see our world as it really is, and being caught up in the daily grind makes it difficult to know if we're happy or not. Reflecting on the moment and ignoring both the past and the future is hard. Very hard.

And so, this morning, on the train to work, I finished 'Amrita' and looked around the busy carriage. The sun was shining brightly through the windows on a beautiful spring morning, the first of many to come. Across from me, a group of students were talking and laughing, generally being young and happy. On my i-Pod (on shuffle mode for a change), songs came and went: Motorace (a sadly defunct Australian indie band), The Stone Roses (the classic indie group from my school and university days), The Yellow Monkey (one of my favourite bands from my time in Japan - my lack of Japanese ability prevents me from finding out whether their lyrics are as clever as their Arctic simian cousins). I got off at Caulfield station and walked slowly through the campus to my office, taking a different route in order to stay in the sunlight for as long as possible. Trying to live for the moment and forget the past and future.

Of course, it's virtually impossible to always live for the moment (life has a nasty habit of getting in the way), but if you do look back, do so with joy, not regret. Life is constantly moving on; you meet people, you grow close, you have good times, and then you go your separate ways. If you are able to step outside the moment and look back on these times without wishing for their return, you will be a lot better for it. As I've recently learned (from all the Japanese books I've read), life is short enough as it is; wasting it worrying about how short it is just makes it shorter.

Time to step back into the sun...