Wednesday 30 June 2010

Review Post 29 - In which Football is alluded to for no good reason...

Brazil, Holland, Argentina (definitely not England): there are many dream teams in the World Cup, but few can compare with the line-up Penguin Classics came up with for their edition of a popular Japanese classic.  Sanshiro, written by the 'Japanese Dickens', Natsume Soseki, is a wonderful Bildungsroman and would be worth the money all by itself.  However, when it's also translated by Jay Rubin, the man who brings Haruki Murakami's works to the English-speaking world (and who has written a book on Murakami), that just makes it a little more special.  And just when you think it can't get any better, who do you think Penguin have engaged to write the introduction?  None other than Murakami himself.  Now that is a team worth watching (or reading).

In Sanshiro, we follow the title character as he leaves his rural home in Kyushu to study English Literature at university in Tokyo.  His education starts on the train, before he even arrives, with a startling confrontation with a rather forward mature woman and an intriguing conversation with an extraordinary man.  On his arrival in the new capital, our young hero becomes part of a social group and attempts to make sense of life in society, not always successfully.  One of the group, the enigmatic and chastely seductive Mineko, becomes especially important in Sanshiro's life, but the young man from the provinces can never quite be sure whether she is toying with his affections or genuinely likes him...

As Murakami remarks in his introduction, while this is a Bildungsroman, it's very different to the European style novel.  In the typical Bildungsroman, a young man enters public life, usually in the big city, and undergoes a series of trials, be they emotional, romantic financial or violent.  By the end of the novel, the hero has successfully weathered the storm and has emerged older and wiser, a mature member of society.  However, this active progression towards becoming a fully-rounded citizen does not describe Sanshiro's journey; his path is characterised by indecision and procrastination, his trials subtle and confusing.  It's also doubtful that he learns much from his experiences at all, appearing almost as naive at the end of the novel as he is at the start.

Sanshiro is a dreamer, and his path through the book can be compared to that of the clouds which appear periodically.  He drifts aimlessly through his studies, picking up friends as he goes without actually appearing to know what he is doing or what he wants.  You may say he's a dreamer (and he's definitely not the only one, surrounded as he is by a bachelor teacher, a hermit PhD student, and a classmate who builds magnificent castles in the air on an hourly basis), but the whole book appears a little dreamlike; the social circle he finds himself a part of is almost like a little bubble, protecting (or keeping) him from the big, bad outside world.

This familiar circle of friends (similar to Mr. Sneaze's circle in I am a Cat) leads one to think that there are autobiographical elements to this book, and Rubin confirms this in his introduction.  The story involving a campaign to introduce a Japanese professor to the university mirrors the real life events around Natsume's start at Tokyo University (although in reality he was the interloper, brought in to replace a popular - and eccentric - American professor).  What's more, the title character was apparently based on a protege of Natsume's who, like Sanshiro, also came from the far-flung provinces of Kyushu. 

This book really is a joy to read, at once familiar and yet just different enough from its western equivalents to avoid sinking into cliche.  You can just imagine Murakami, sitting in a poky flat, poor, smoking, surrounded by cats, reading Sanshiro and forming the germ of an idea which would one day become a novel.  In the introduction to this book he discusses the Bildungsroman, saying "Virtually all novelists have such a work" (p.xxxvi, 2009, Penguin Classics).  He goes on to say that his is Norwegian Wood, and while he does not admit to being influenced by Sanshiro in the writing of his most famous book, it's not difficult to think that there's an element of truth in this.

Good luck to the Blue Samurai over in South Africa; I hope they at least get through to the quarter-finals, surpassing their previous best effort.*  However, they would have to pull off something quite spectacular to match up to this (imaginary) literary dream team.  Thank you, Jay Rubin; thank you, Haruki Murakami; and thank you, especially, Natsume Soseki.

Now it's back to the football...

*They didn't.  Stupid Penalties.

Sunday 27 June 2010

These are a few of my favourite posts...

Exactly what it says in the title :)

I have decided to enter my humble blog in a couple of categories in the Book Blogger Appreciation Week awards, so I have offered up a selection of choice cuts to be barbecued on the flame of public indifference: please be kind...

Entries for Best Writing:
Cloud Atlas
Fusion Lit Bistro
Der Prozeß
Spring Snow
The Brothers Karamazov

Entries for Best Literary Blog:
The Last Chronicle of Barset
Anna Karenina
Der Weg Zurück

Please note that these choices are completely random and could have been put in any order.  Feel free to check out the posts, leave comments and generally make yourselves at home; I'll put the kettle on...

P.S.  Oh yes, please vote for me if you feel so inclined (and if you have voting rights - I'm still not exactly sure how this all works).  Honi soit qui mal y pense and all that, but I do like a bit of recognition from time to time ;)

Thursday 24 June 2010

Lost in Translation

This post was originally written as a guest post for Tanabata while she was gallivanting around in New York.  I was saving it up for a rainy day, but I thought I would dust it off now as I am planning to read a lot more Japanese books over the next few months - and because my next post will foreground the translator (and the writer of the introduction) a little more than usual.  Enjoy :)

Michael Emmerich, Stephen Snyder, Ivan Morris, E. Dale Saunders: these are not names which most people would recognise. However, you, dear reader, an avid follower as you are of Tanabata's blog, should be praising these literary marvels to the skies, for without them your lives would be bereft of joy and laughter. Well, slightly bereft, anyway. You see, the above-mentioned writers are among that legion of unsung heroes who bring the wonders of Japanese literature to the unfortunates among us who have trouble distinguishing kanji from hieroglyphs. They are, of course, translators.

We owe literary translators an awful lot, and yet we treat them so badly. Often their names are hidden away in font size 3 on the page with all the boring information we can't bring ourselves to glance at - if they're lucky. Occasionally, their names are simply not there at all, as if the translator is of no more importance than the proofreader or the boy who brings the editor his tea in the morning. What kind of way is this to treat artists who, in reality, are creating unique, original pieces of art from a foreign source? Unfortunately, as long as many people still see translating as a mechanical process involving a computer, a dictionary and a bucketful of coffee, Snyder and co. will fail to get the recognition they deserve.

The importance of translators is especially important when it comes to languages such as Japanese. As most of you will no doubt know, the Japanese use three different types of symbols to record ideas (in addition to the romaji, or roman script, which occasionally creeps in): katakana (a syllabary for expressing foreign words); hiragana (a syllabary for expressing Japanese words, usually prepositions and verb endings); and kanji (a collection of pictograms adapted from Chinese specifically to torture unsuspecting Westerners who want to learn the language). When I left Japan eight years ago, I had just about become an intermediate-level speaker (on a good day) of Japanese. If I were to work with non-native speakers of English at the same level, I would be using carefully selected newspaper articles with helpful vocabulary hints. By the end of my Japanese studies, I was able to struggle through a Japanese translation of The Ugly Duckling. You can infer from this that my chances of reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in the original are fairly slim.

Assuming then that your kanji skills are not up to scratch, you're going to have to trust to a translation to enjoy the delights of J-Lit. However, if you don't actually read the original text, then how do you know that you are reading what the writer wanted you to read? Are you reading the same book? The best translators are able to transfer the ideas across into idiomatic English while preserving the unique flavour that sets the author apart. Even in English, Mishima and Murakami have a distinct, consistent style which attracts the reader (in fact, some of Murakami's detractors, the cynics that they are, say that his translators - Jay Rubin, Phillip Gabriel and Alfred Birnbaum - actually make him look better than he is!). On the whole, translators of Japanese works seem to do a pretty good job of capturing those quintessentially Japanese elements and making them comprehensible to an English-speaking audience.

However, there are some occasions where I have my doubts. One Japanese writer whose translations I'm a little suspicious of is Banana Yoshimoto. I love her prose and stretches of descriptive writing, but I really, really get annoyed by the trite, stilted, perhaps over-Americanised dialogue. Michael Emmerich's translation of Goodbye Tsugumi and Russel F. Wasden's translation of Amrita are the two books I'm thinking of when I write this, and being unable to check with the original, it's difficult to know the reason for my unease. As both translators are American (and probably writing for an American audience), it's probably understandable that Yoshimoto's characters come across as classic US-TV teens. Still, that doesn't explain the abundance of cliches and set phrases, which sound suspiciously like literal translations of formulaic Japanese conversational turns. Another explanation is that Yoshimoto is just really bad at dialogue. Or I may just be completely wrong - the point is that we'll never know.

Some translations can also seem a little dated, and the language chosen to convey the Japanese meaning now appears bizarre and distracting. Edward Seidensticker's translation of Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters (which has a footnote explaining what sushi means!) is one example which comes to mind. Another is provided by Aiko Ito and Graeme Wilson's translation of Soseki Natsume's I am a Cat, where they decided to translate the names of the major characters into English to bring across the puns in their names - which, in my opinion, has the unintended effect of making the protagonists slightly less Japanese than desired. Still, this is not an uncommon issue with translating: even the legendary Constance Garnett, the woman who brought the great Russian classics to life for Anglophone readers, was criticised for making Russian serfs talk with a Cockney accent...

While I am an avid reader, I do not have the time (or energy) to undertake extensive research into the differences between translations of the same work (although I have heard of some stylistic differences between different versions of one of Murakami's novels), and I definitely have no chance of becoming fluent in written Japanese any time soon, so I suppose I will just have to continue to rely on other people to do the work for me. Therefore, I would like to finish this post by paraphrasing ABBA (who needed no translators; they changed the words to Waterloo from Swedish to English all by themselves):

I say thank you for the translations - and giving them to me :)

Sunday 20 June 2010

Review Post 28 - The End is the Beginning is The End...

I have, once again, managed to make it to fifty books fairly early in the year, and I can think of no more fitting way to bring up the half-century (a metaphorical drive back over the bowler's head for six) than with the final instalment of Anthony Trollope's Barchester series, The Last Chronicle of Barset.  The sixth of the Barchester novels, it brings together many of the characters from the first five from all over Barset to parade before the reader one last time, creating new ties between old friends (and enemies) and tying up a few loose ends before allowing the citizens of Barset to fade into the sunset.

Barset is a small place, and it's not beyond the realm of possibility that people like Lily Dale (the heroine of The Small House at Allington) and Archdeacon Grantly (one of the original 'cast members' from The Warden) should find their paths crossing; however, through a plot which manages to inflame interest and imagination across the county, Trollope manages to tie his favourite characters together even more tightly than this.  In doing so, he reintroduces us to some old friends, and it is to his credit that most of these old friends have not stayed the same but have developed since we last met them, some for the better, some for the worse.  And the whole kerfuffle all hangs on a little cheque for twenty pounds.

The story revolves around the Reverend Josiah Crawley, a supporting character in Framley Parsonage who takes centre stage this time, and the mystery of the aforementioned cheque, which he has used to pay his butcher's bill.  When the owner of the cheque charges him with unlawful possession of the money, Crawley is forced to explain where he got it; otherwise, he will be in trouble with the authorities (both civil and ecclesiastical).  The trouble is that he doesn't know...

The reason for this is that Crawley is an eccentric, a poor curate from the fire and brimstone days, who lives in poverty alleviated by his unwavering belief in his religion.  Driven half to madness in spite of (or partly because of) his intellect, his mastery of Greek and Latin, and his desire to do his best for the souls of his parishioners, he is simply unable to account for his possession of the cheque.  However, the more he begins to doubt his sanity, and his fitness for the role he carries out, the more our old friends rally round him, refusing to believe that such a pillar of the church could commit petty larceny.  As things get blacker and blacker for Crawley, such Barchester luminaries as John Eames, Lady Lufton and Mark Robarts do their best to help him out, in the process irritating the notoriously prickly Crawley even further.

The plot though is most definitely NOT the thing; this is all about the people and the place.  For those who have read the whole series in order, it is a joy to meet our old friends again, and it is, perhaps, for this reason, that Trollope's only minor failings occur.  The scenes in London, where John Eames whiles his time away with Madalina Demolines, and where the minor plot involving an artist and his love affair unfolds, fail precisely because they mostly involve newly introduced characters who add nothing to the main theatre of events and for whom the reader feels very little.  You can't help but feel that Trollope would have been better advised to stay in Barchester a little more (despite these little excursions pointing to how life will go on after Barchester).

Of course, as always, the book contains some more unforgettable confrontational scenes.  Crawley's memorable audience with Bishop (and, naturally, Mrs.) Proudie at the palace ranks alongside other famous moments in the series, with Crawley triumphant and striding majestically through the country lanes back to his house.  However, the truly moving scenes here are more pathetic than triumphant, and most of them involve our old friend, formerly The Warden, the Reverend Septimus Harding, one of the most angelic, lovingly-created characters in literature.  I don't want to give away some of the later events, but one passage sticks in the memory, where Mrs. Grantley accepts her daughter's request not to invite the old man to stay as she (the daughter) is now too high in the world to associate with mere mortals like her grandfather.  She calmly tells her husband:
'Do not let us say anything more about it.  Of course we cannot have everything.  I am told the child does her duty in her sphere of life, and I suppose we ought to be contented.'  Then Mrs. Grantly went up to her own room, and there she cried.  (Wordsworth Classics, 1994, p.21)
This final, subtly written sentence, stopped me dead in my tracks, and other, similarly subtle passages later in the book had me welling up with tears.  For those who have gone the whole journey, this novel can be extremely emotional.

And so, after 712 pages of the final chapter in the history of England's most famous fictional county, the author addresses the reader for the final time, summing up why he has been able to create a locale which fascinates twenty-first century readers as much as it did those who read the novels in instalments in the nineteenth century:

... to me Barset has been a real county, and its city a real city, and the spires and towers have been before my eyes, and the voices of the people are known to my ears, and the pavement of the city ways are familiar to my footsteps. (p.712)
It is this immersion in his fictional world which enables Trollope to create such an intriguing and enticing series of books, and it is not just the author who feels pangs of regret on leaving the English countryside behind (in Trollope's case, to move on to writing more about London and Politics - in mine, to return to the Australian winter and my family).  It's with a heavy heart that I must say that this really was the last chronicle of Barset.  However, as alluded to in the title to this post, it's not really the end.  Firstly, there's always the Palliser series of novels (with guest appearances from certain of our Barset friends) to go on to (perhaps not this year though!); and, of course, in a few years' time, I'll be standing in front of my bookcase, eyes roaming casually over my collection, looking for the next book to scratch the ever-present reading itch, when The Warden will catch my eye...

And it all starts over again.

Tuesday 15 June 2010

Review Post 27 - The Gentle Art of Humour

Do not expect a lot from me today (or any time soon): fatherhood is starting to wear me a down a little, and I've come down with a rotten stinking cold and struggle to go two minutes without coughing enough to make me want the strongest drugs money can buy. Of course, on top of all that, I'm slightly distracted anyway; you may have noticed that there's some kind of sporting event going on in South Africa...


Anyway, just to get up to date, I thought I'd tell you about the last section of the book on your left, having already talked about The Suffrage of Elvira and Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion. The third part of this bumper Naipaul omnibus was a collection of stories (some short, some not so) called A Flag on the Island. I'm not a big fan of short stories, but I do like Naipaul, and I was very happy with what I read here.

Naipaul's early work appears to be divided between tales of ethnic Indians on Trinidad and stories set in London's suburban graveyards, and (as hinted at in my review of Mr. Stone... ) my preference is for the sunnier climes. The writer's greatest strength is his command of different varieties of English, switching between patois, Indian English and a relaxed, educated standard English without missing a step, enabling him to deal with the ethnic rivalry (if not tension) from several viewpoints.

My favourites among this collection are all Caribbean-based. The Nightwatchman's Occurrence Book, which is literally composed of entries in the aforementioned book, is a wonderful example of the interplay between pedantic management and canny staff, and teaches us to be very careful what we ask for. The Baker's Story is a delightful monologue about a young islander who has to resort to an unusual tactic in order to fulfil his dream of making a success of his bakery. When God, in reply to his prayers, tells him "Young man, you just bake bread", the baker has no idea that these words have more to them than first appears...

After about ten stories of between 10 and 20 pages, the final story, A Flag on the Island, comes as a bit of a shock to the system, running as it does for over 80 pages. It's a frame narrative (of which I've had a few recently) where an American sailor returns involuntarily to an island where he spent time during the Second World War. The body of the story tells of his life with the locals and the relationships he builds, some of which still hold up on his return to the island. Not a lot of action, but, as is usual with Naipaul, nothing happens in the most enjoyable manner possible.


So that's it for today (and the foreseeable future). All in all, this collection of Naipaul's works has been a great find, and I would recommend it to all my readers in terms of both quality and quantity. However, now I'm off to watch New Zealand take on Slovakia because, playing in post-apartheid South Africa, the 'All Whites' need all the support they can get. Bye for now ;)

Don't mention the Australia game.

Definitely don't mention the England goalkeeper.

Thursday 10 June 2010

Review Post 26 - Slap Happy

Last year, it seemed as if you couldn't step onto a train in Melbourne without seeing the familiar, grassy cover of Christos Tsiolkas' novel The Slap held twelve inches away from the face of one of the many unfortunate patrons of the city's creaking transport network. Every time I got up to fight my way to the doors in time to get off at the next station, I had to bob and weave through forests of paperbacks emblazoned with Tsiolkas' name in large white letters. Nominated for the Miles Franklin Award, Australia's equivalent of the Booker or Pulitzer prizes (but beaten by Tim Winton's Breath), this story of the consequences of a back-garden barbecue was, for a brief time, more prevalent than Twilight (sadly, as they always do, the vampires later made a big comeback on the trains).

Having picked up Dead Europe and Loaded at the library earlier this year, I was even keener to see for myself what all the fuss was about, and, luckily enough, last time I was dragged to the library by my elder daughter, Emily (in the thirty seconds I was permitted to look for adult books in between the searches in the children's section for such wonders as Topsy and Tim go to the Zoo and the latest Charlie and Lola delight), I noticed the iconic cover featuring an anguished child's face on a background of a lawn. Brilliant. And I even had my library card with me this time.

So it gives me no pleasure to say that I felt ever-so-slightly let down after reading it. Now, I'm not saying that it's a bad book, not by any means. It's a good read, particularly for anyone living in Melbourne (which probably explains the hundreds of copies on the 8.01 city loop service); it's just a little disappointing and uneven, and I walked away from the book without really getting what the author wanted to say.

The premise of The Slap is very simple. A group of friends and family gather at the house of Hector, a Greek Australian family man in his early forties, to celebrate summer in the way most Australians do, namely by throwing huge chunks of meat onto a barbecue, burning them, eating them and washing them down with copious amounts of alcohol. Somewhere between the cooking and the drinking, however, Hector's cousin, Harry, sees Hugo, the obnoxious three-year-old son of Hector's wife's friends, threatening to bash his son with a cricket bat. So he slaps him - hard, across the face... The consequences, both direct and unforeseen of this event, affect all of the people at the barbecue, straining and breaking ties of loyalty, pushing some people together and ripping others apart for ever.

Tsiolkas tells the story through the eyes of eight of his characters, each one getting sixty pages or so to continue the narrative, and it is here that I feel The Slap falls down a little. As in his earlier novels, the writer dwells on the sleazy and negative side of the human persona with infidelity, violence and alcoholism rife. However, where Loaded and Dead Europe were taut, lean and intoxicating, The Slap is, like its mostly middle-aged protagonists, flabby and bitter, and not all of the sections work. The two Greek-Australian men, Hector and Harry, are suitably macho, attractive and repellent at the same time, but this is home territory for Tsiolkas. When he moves onto some of the female characters, the narrative falters, the voices become less credible, and the writing appears to get bogged down in descriptions of dresses and page-long digressions about appearance.

By the time the resolution of the main plot arrives, around two-thirds of the way through the story, I was starting to wonder what had happened and where the book would go from here. Luckily, Tsiolkas manages to pull the story through thanks to some of the stronger characters at the end of the novel. The section seen through the eyes of Manolis, Hector's father, is wonderfully written, showing the sadness and sense of loss that come with old age - and also the sense of acceptance. The final part of the book which follows Richie, a gay teenager who is tangentially connected to many of the other characters, is one of the best, sensitively handled, showing the confusion and betrayal felt by the one character who does nothing wrong.

On finishing the book, I felt a little disappointed, but only because I had built the book up in my mind to be something it wasn't. This wasn't Loaded, amplified a hundred times: this was the story of the kind of people we saw in Loaded twenty years on, struggling with parenthood and a mortgage, but not averse to reverting to the behaviour of their glory days. As always with Tsiolkas though, I should also take a look at myself to understand my attitude towards this book and its inhabitants. Perhaps it's not the fact that the characters are so damaged which taints my enjoyment of this book; perhaps I'm just too removed from the kind of life he describes to really appreciate it.

Whatever the reason, I liked this without loving it, and I think the good people at the Miles Franklin made the right choice in giving Winton his fourth award. However, don't let me put you off The Slap. There aren't that many Australian books that make it on the world stage, and anything which is set in Melbourne is very welcome indeed. My adopted hometown is a great place to live in and read about - were it not, of course, for the trains...

Monday 7 June 2010

Review Post 25 - Short Women

I'm all for gender equality, so after regaling you with my experiences of two novellas by male writers, it's time for a couple written by women. These ones were purchased rather than borrowed, but as they come from the incredibly affordable Wordsworth Classics range, I was happy to splash out the few dollars they cost me. Of course, the big question is how the ladies' efforts compared to those of the two Nobel Laureates. Allons-y...


The first of the two novellas is Edith Wharton's slim classic Ethan Frome, and when I found out that the introduction in my version wasn't much shorter than the actual story, I was not a happy bunny. Luckily, as has been the case with the other books of hers which I have read, I was very pleasantly surprised and had forgotten about the injustice of the lack of pages by the end of the story. Set in 19th-century rural New England, it is a story within a story, where a visitor to a sleepy, isolated town sets eyes upon the gaunt figure of Ethan Frome and, on learning sketchy details of his life, becomes fascinated by the taciturn farmer. On being caught in a snowstorm, he is invited into the Frome house, and it is at that point that Wharton throws us back a quarter of a century, and the real story begins.

The main part of the book describes Ethan's life, living with his older wife, Zeena, and her engaging and beautiful cousin, Mattie, on his farm. It becomes clear that Ethan has fallen for Mattie and that she is not adverse to him either. However, in the background, lurking like a vengeful zombie, is the awful Zeena, a hypochondriac who subtly gets into the mind of her husband and cousin, poisoning the atmosphere of the house and squeezing out what joy her two younger companions have left in their lives. You may have noticed that I wasn't particularly fond of old Zeena...

Wharton expertly creates a psychological prison, leaving Ethan flailing around blindly for a means of escape - but there is none. With no money, he can't countenance leaving his sick (in many senses of the word) wife, and he tortures himself thinking of what could be and what should never have been. The bleak, mid-winter New England landscape which the writer conjures up adds to the feeling of gloom and oppression, both real and imagined. When Zeena unexpectedly takes her cruelty to new heights, Ethan and Mattie, driven into a corner, suddenly make a decision which will alter their lives for good...

And then... Then we return to the present day where a surprise awaits us at the Frome farmhouse. And it's a good one.

Despite its brevity Ethan Frome is an excellent story, gripping and thought provoking, and in Zeena, Wharton creates a remarkable literary villain. Despite the best efforts of the academic writing the introduction to my copy, who has a lot of sympathy for Zeena, a woman who has no real choices in a time and place where women had little opportunity to improve their lot, I was content to boo and hiss and hope that the roof would fall on her head. Now Wharton, on the other hand, I have a lot of time for. Three out of three so far for a writer I hadn't even heard of a couple of years ago: that's a good strike rate in anyone's language.


The second of my short ladies is Virginia Woolf, another (fairly) recent discovery of mine, whose books I have enjoyed immensely so far. I was a bit worried about this one though, and, for the first couple of pages, I thought my misgivings were justified, with a mind-bending switching of voices from line to line which was... well, just annoying, quite frankly. However, it settled down quite quickly, and The Waves turned out to be a thoroughly absorbing read.

There is no plot as such, which may come as a bit of a surprise to some. Instead, Woolf was writing to a rhythm, switching between the minds of her six protagonists, allowing us to see what's going on in their heads, what they are really thinking. The nine chapters follow the six from their childhood at a school near the sea to old age, and each one takes the characters further on their journey though life. At first, the voices are bewildering, clamouring, almost identical, but they quickly take on their own nuances, developing into individual personae. The characters appear to speak directly to the reader rather than to the others present at the moment, at times rendering the style similar to a Greek tragedy or a Shakespearean play. Look, just read it, and you'll see what I mean...

The flow of the characters' progression from childhood towards death is contrasted with descriptive pieces preceding each section, in which Woolf depicts one day of sunshine over the coast. The first piece captures the glories of sunrise and the first mention of the waves, and as the book progresses, so does the day, with the sun beaming out at the height of its powers when the characters are in the prime of their lives and beginning to crawl back towards the horizon as old age approaches.

The six main characters are thought to represent people in Woolf's life: family, friends, lovers. However, it is also said that they actually represent different facets of the writer's own personality, allowing her to explore the different sides of her life, revealing all of her true colours. The Waves is obviously one of those books which you have to read about before actually reading...

No plot, as mentioned, but there are, of course, trillions of themes and motifs, much too many to even attempt to explore outside a doctoral thesis (and I'm certain a good few academics will have spent their PhD years on this particular work). Every reader will take something different from the book and will probably identify with one of the characters more than the others (or, at least, with their way of life). For me, it's Bernard's sad obsession with stepping outside life, avoiding the pressing constraints of civilisation, the rush, rush, rush, the must, must, must that fascinates me (like most bookworms, I am forever wanting to turn the outside world off for a time and exist suspended in a stress-free cocoon). Sadly, however magical the moment, eventually the bubble pops, and we are left to continue with our busy, busy lives.

This is an intriguing book and well deserving of its reputation. It needs to be read and reread; and I'm sure that that's exactly what I'll do.


After a week of short fiction, it's time to hand out the prizes, and I would have to give this match to the ladies. Woolf played a very strong game and was ably backed up by her American partner, whose concision and precision made her a formidable protagonist. On the other side of the net, Garcia Marquez used his unorthodox style to great effect, his cunning and elegance making up for a lack of brute strength. Sadly, Naipaul, usually very strong, let his partner down slightly; a little off his game, I feel he didn't take this one too seriously - not bad, just not up to the level of this company.

Still there's always the chance of a rematch...

Wednesday 2 June 2010

Review Post 24 - Not Bridget Jones' Diary

It's a funny thing, the internet. It lets you do all kinds of things you never thought you would (or thought you could), connects you with people you've never met, and probably never will, allows you to do things in ways you hadn't previously considered. It also contains a lot of rubbish, but then, none of us are perfect, are we?

The reason for this little bout of navel gazing is the recent conclusion to a novel I have been following via blog - yes, blog! Fiona Robyn's novel Thaw follows Ruth, a thirty-two year old English woman who, disappointed by life, is wondering if it might be time to leave it all behind. The reader is allowed to peruse her diary, one day at a time, starting on the 1st of March and ending on the 31st of May - when she finally decides whether life is worth living or not.

Ruth comes across as fragile, distant and slightly damaged, someone too slight to bear the weight of the world. She has cocooned herself off from the outside world, hiding herself in her work and her thoughts. Then, one day, seeking a portrait of herself as a present for her father, she visits Red, an enigmatic Russian painter and begins to sit for him. And things slowly start to change...

Some of you may now be mentally filing this story under Mills and Boon, but I assure you that this is not the case. Far from being her perfect Prince Charming, Red is just the first of several people Ruth lets into her life during her three months of indecision. She reconnects with a family member, takes a colleague under her wing and makes new friends who help her to step outside her stagnant persona and try something new. And yet, thankfully, the hurt does not just disappear (that would have been a little too easy); Ruth still swings between happiness and self-loathing, unable to exorcise her demons fully - and the clock on her self-imposed deadline is always ticking...

Fiona reveals Ruth slowly and delicately over the course of the book, allowing us to learn about her past and personality one piece (and one day) at a time. The tone is generally quite mellow and drifting, but interspersed with the occasional grating, painful (intentional) mischord as Ruth acts differently to how we were expecting - or how we were hoping. Warning - some entries made me wince.

The presentation of the novel as a diary worked wonderfully in the blog format, allowing the reader to follow the action in real time (which, on at least one occasion was both confusing and frustrating!). The gradual approach of the 31st of May allowed the tension to steadily build, and I found myself checking more and more often for the latest update over the final couple of weeks. In fact, I'm not sure that the story would have had quite the same impact if I had been able to read it at my own pace.

However, one disadvantage that I found of the delivery was that my reading of blog posts is not as detailed and concentrated as when I settle down in a comfy chair and spend time with a quality book. I tended, especially towards the start of the novel, to peruse the post quite mechanically, scanning for important events and ignoring some of the more descriptive writing. I suspect that reading the paper version, especially as a reread, would be very different .

Still, it was a very enjoyable experience, and I am extremely grateful to Fiona for entertaining and delighting us for the past three months. Please do check out the site, and, if you like what you read, the old-fashioned paper version is available at the Book Depository with free postage worldwide (something which, living in Australia, I am eternally grateful for).

On the whole, this is a book well worth reading, and I would recommend Thaw to anyone who enjoys reading about people who can't quite bring themselves to face the world with confidence. By the way, I'm not going to tell you what Ruth decides in the end; you'll just have to find out for yourselves...

Tuesday 1 June 2010

It's that time of year again...

Belezza, of Dolce Bellezza, has just started up her 4th Japanese Literature Challenge (one of the very few challenges on the blosphere that I participate in!). Check out the site, read the reviews and feel inspired to read some classic or contemporary works from the land of the rising sun.

Oh, and be warned: expect to see a good few reviews of Japanese books here too over the next few months...