Friday 31 December 2010

In Which I See Out The Year In Style And Comfort

Alas, as the second innings** of my book blogging journey draws to a close, I am once again agonisingly short of a century, caught in the nervous nineties, set to finish on a creditable, but disappointing, 93.  Of course, my injury-enforced rest towards the end of my innings is largely responsible for this (no runners in book blogging), but I'm still happy overall with my reading in 2010.

One interesting statistic (yes, I know, an oxymoron if ever there was one) is that up until Christmas, I had a quite staggering 32-book run of new reads with not a single reread among them.  This may not be that impressive to some bloggers, but to people like me who specialise in classics, it's a phenomenal run.  However, just like the Aussie cricket team's Ashes dominance, all good things must come to an end, and what better way to break that run, and finish off the year, than with two sweet cover drives from the 19th century?  Padded up for your pleasure today, C.J.H. Dickens and J. Austen, ready to face up to pace and spin alike.  When you're quite ready...

What that all means is that after a hard year of punishing literary grind, I decided to see in the festive season by spending time with a couple of old friends - namely, Great Expectations and Emma.  Dickens' novel is a wonderful, tightly-plotted Bildungsroman, narrated by its hero, Phillip 'Pip' Pirrip, in which he looks back at his childhood and youth, paying close attention to the events set in train by a chance encounter on the Kentish marshes one cold Christmas Eve.  Comic, melodramatic and powerful, Great Expectations is one of Dickens' best works, and however Oprah Winfrey decided upon this novel for her book club choice (and regardless of what you think of her and her club..), it's certainly deserving of as wide an audience as possible.

Emma, while a little narrower in scope, is also worthy of a place in the canon.  The reader accompanies the titular heroine, Miss Emma Woodhouse, through a series of seemingly trivial encounters, misunderstandings and frustrations.  As she tries to pair up all and sundry in her circle, it slowly becomes clear that she too is both the recipient of amorous addresses and the owner of a lonely heart.  Will it all end in tears, or will she be able to cut through the tangle of miscommunication to find true happiness?  Oh, come on - it's Jane Austen!

The main difference between the two novels is the point of view adopted by the writer and the effect this has on our attitude towards the main character.  Dickens uses a first-person narrative, where a presumably middle-aged Pip recounts his youthful (mis)adventures, not concealing any of his blunders and holding his many flaws and imperfections to the light.  In contrast, the third-person style utilised by Austen allows the reader to live through the experiences with Emma and, in a sense, grow with her as she matures and realises the folly of her youthful ideas.  In this sense, Emma is perhaps as much of a Bildungsroman as Great Expectations, if not more so.

It's much more interesting though to consider the similarities between the two booksOne of the more prevalent themes covered is the idea of class differences; their importance and their tendency to blind people to true values.  In his desperate desire to pull himself up and prove himself worthy of Estella, Pip begins to consider Joe and Biddy, the companions of his youth, in a rather unfavourable light and is only too eager to run away to London in an attempt to become a gentleman.  Emma, for whom class is everything and who is only too quick to dismiss people based on their background, also blunders in her dealings because of her prejudices and in doing so almost causes severe hurt to her friends - and, at times, herself.

Another similarity is in the way the writers use language to create a plot and suck the reader into believing the same things the hero(ine) does, before casually revealing a quite different truth.  On a first reading, you are sucked into seeing things from Pip and Emma's point of view, unwitting dupes in the authors' little games.  On rereading, the fun lies in analysing the text for clues as to the authors' intent; a second reading reveals cunning wordplay and an ambiguity which is only fully realised when the reader already knows what is going to happen.  I once read a quote which stated that a classic novel is one where you know what is going to happen but which you can't wait to read anyway - these two novels definitely fall into that category.

Of course, another thing Dickens and Austen have in common is their appreciation of humour in writing.  Dickens expertly captures the confused grasp a child has on their surroundings in the first scenes of Great Expectations, where Pip is at the graveyard, confusing his parents' physical appearance with the shape of their headstones, and the scene where he reencounters Herbert Pocket, and receives casual tips on etiquette (such as hints not to put his knife in his mouth and to avoid draining a wine glass so joyfully that you end up with it balancing on your nose) during a hearty dinner is a wonderfully underplayed example of Dickens' style.  With Austen, however, the humour is less obvious and lies primarily in her characters' being given enough verbal rope to metaphorically hang themselves in the eye of the reader (if that's not mixing too many metaphors!).  Nevertheless, reading Emma certainly brings its fair share of wry smiles and little giggles too.

All in all, there aren't many better ways to close out the reading year than with a couple of old friends, and I was very glad to catch up with Pip and Emma again, and spend a week or so strolling around Little Britain and the Kentish marshes, or paying my respects at Hartfield and Donwell Abbey.  Before, I finish though, there is perhaps one final (and it does pertain to the books' respective endings) crucial difference between their fates.  Pip's future remains a little uncertain, but - being a gentleman - the world is his oyster, and the possibilities are almost endless.  Emma, on the other hand, while ostensibly happier at the end of her novel, has effectively run her race; we can be fairly sure as to what the future will bring.  A sobering thought as to gender differences in the 19th century to send you on your way...

** The first of a number of cricket-related puns in this introduction - many of you will know why :)

Thursday 30 December 2010

The 2010 Tony's Reading List Awards

Welcome, one and all, to the Tony's Reading List Awards for 2010! Just as occurred last year, I am celebrating the past twelve months of reading, looking at what was read, where it came from, and who the big favourites of 2010 were. We will also be awarding a couple of prestigious prizes: the 'Golden Turkey Award' (self-explanatory really) and the 'Book of the Year Award' (ditto). 


So, without further ado, let's begin! Firstly, the 'Most-Read Author Award' goes to Anthony Trollope:

3=) Virginia Woolf (4)

When you decide to read all the Barchester Chronicles, it's hard to read more of another writer than Trollope!  Once again, two Japanese writers make the list while David Mitchell takes the silver after I read all of his novels this year.

When it comes to nationality, once again England takes out the 'Most-Read Country Award':
1) England (32)
2) Japan (15)
3) Australia (9)
4) Germany (7)

Very similar to last year's list - let's see if anything changes in 2011!  Of the 93 this year, 35 were originally not in English (of which I read 12 in the original language).

The 'Golden Turkey Award' goes to the book which was the biggest waste of time this year.  This is a highly subjective decision; basically, this award goes to the book I really, really regret having read!  In 2010, I have been fortunate enough to have enjoyed almost everything I've read (a result which justifies my policy of avoiding modern novels unless I'm convinced I'll enjoy them!), which means that I'm only nominating three books for this prestigious award:

His Illegal Self by Peter Carey
The Wings Of The Dove by Henry James
Purge by Sofi Oksanen

And the winner is... well, it was always going to be Mr. James :) To paraphrase Bon Jovi:
"Bored to the heart, and you're to blame
Henry, you give literature a bad name"
Book of the Year - Very Honourable Mentions
With such a lot of good books read, this has been incredibly difficult to judge.  I initially intended to give ten honourable mentions, but I just couldn't whittle down the list any more...  So here are fourteen of the best :)

Dead Europe by Christos Tsiolkas (Australia)
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (England)
The Waves by Virginia Woolf (England)
Sanshiro by Natsume Soseseki (Japan)
Drei Kameraden by Erich Maria Remarque (Germany)
Quicksand by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki (Japan)
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (India)
Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac (France)
Devils by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Russia)
Kusamakura by Natsume Soseki (Japan)
An Equal Music by Vikram Seth (India)
Café Scheherazade by Arnold Zable (Australia)
Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann (Germany)
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (England)

But what gets the big award?

The 'Book of the Year Award' for 2010 goes to:

The Barchester Chronicles by Anthony Trollope :)

David Mitchell can consider himself very unlucky (although I suspect not being shortlisted for the Booker Prize may have irked him a little more), but you can't go past Trollope's magnificent series of pastoral and clerical adventures for great reading.  Yes, by selecting a series I suppose I have cheated (for the second year in a row), but it's my blog, and that's all the explanation you're getting ;)

So thanks once again for your time today, and all throughout 2010. I hope you've come away with some more ideas for your reading year in 2011. Happy New Year!

Monday 27 December 2010

Something(s) Borrowed...

I've been more of a buyer than a borrower over the past few years, content to shell out for a few books every now and then to add to the growing mound in my rapidly-shrinking study.  However, this year has seen a lot more library visits and the appearance of a fair few borrowed novels on the pages of my little blog.  I'd like to put it down to thriftiness, an increase in public spirit or a desire to make use of community facilities; in fact, it's completely down to the fact that there are only so many places you can take a three-year-old on father-daughter outings, and the library is most certainly one of them.

Whatever the reason, 2010 has produced many more library book reviews than 2009, and as we head rapidly towards the end of the year, here are another three novels which won't be finding a permanent home on my bookshelves.  A good thing or a bad thing?  Well, read the reviews, and you'll find out...

Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes is a collection of five short stories, all connected, either loosely or inseparably, by the theme of music.  The quintet of tales are set in different countries, but most involve some sort of chance meeting and a hefty element of nostalgia and regret, before tailing off into a quiet - diminuendo?  I think I'll stop looking for musical metaphors now...

As always, Ishiguro's writing is impeccable, capturing the right tone of voice whether his characters be Swiss tourists, Hungarian cellists or Hollywood stars.  The stories slip by comfortably, each one forming intriguing questions in your mind before fading out, only to be followed by the next one.  The only criticism you could really lay at the writer's feet is that 222 pages of extremely spacious type hardly seems like the fruit of a few years' hard labour - then again, if he needs to relax that much before making his literary music, who am I to complain?

All in all, more Eine kleine Nachtmusik than Der Ring des Nibelungen, but that's not a bad thing.  Sometimes, you just need a little something to relax to, and, in this sense, Nocturnes certainly hits the spot.  I've recently acquired a couple of his novels to join the two on my shelves, and with the other two on my Book Depository wishlist, 2011 may well be the year of Ishiguro.  Nevertheless, whether this happens or not, one thing's for sure - it's time to cut down on the musical puns :)

Now Ian McEwan is a slightly less-relaxed writer, but he still produces some entertaining work.  Saturday is one day in the life of a man, neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, as he enjoys his day off and roams far and wide through the streets of London.  Of course, on this particular day, in 2003, he doesn't just stay in bed and watch telly later (that wouldn't really fill out 250 pages); he has a packed schedule, and his day unfolds against the backdrop of a massive demonstration against the decision to go to war in Iraq.

This post-September 11th world is an important background, as McEwan, through Perowne's eyes, is exploring the idea of a world which has seemingly come to an impasse, a machine which has developed itself so far that the only way to improve it further is to tear it all down and start again.  Traffic-congested motorways and antiquated hospitals full of junk and paperwork which nobody can find the time to throw away are used as examples of our inability to keep up with the pace of progress.  In a time of global uncertainty, it really seems as if the whole thing could come crashing down at any moment.

Perowne's occupation is no coincidence either, as McEwan makes parallels between the ageing, crumbling city and the natural ageing of the human body - and the brain.  As he drills inside heads, exploring the neural pathways in an attempt to improve his patients' lives, he is only too aware of the limitations of his craft.  Even in his own family, he can see the inexorable march of time at work, both in good ways (the maturing of his adult son and daughter) and bad (the effects of dementia on his mother).
I almost bought Saturday a few weeks back, and I half wish I had.  McEwan tries to pack a lot into a short space, and while comparisons with Ulysses (one of the blurbs!) are a little ambitious, you can see where the idea is coming from, with the book's focus on one man on one day in a major city.  I did have a few quibbles with the story though.  Perowne comes across as a little unlikeable and aloof (hardly an ordinary man in the Leopold Bloom mode), and the dramatic events around which the day revolves (and which I haven't really mentioned here) seem a little contrived, and even superfluous.  Oh, and McEwan can't get through a book without a sex scene, even when there's not really much call for it - still, don't let that put you off :)

The third of my borrowed trio is a little different from my usual fare, and I put a hold on it after reading several glowing reviews from other bloggers.  Purge, by Finnish writer Sofi Oksanen (translated by Lola Rogers), is a book which has made lots of waves in the European literary scene.  In a flash-back/forward framework, two women - Aliide, an old Estonian woman, and Zara, a young Russian - meet under unusual circumstances, and as the story progresses, we get to learn details of their earlier lives and the bond which connects them.  With themes of war, occupation, identity, betrayal and sexual slavery, this promised to be impressive.

But.  I don't think it got there.  I had real problems getting into this book, and if I were one of those people who only gave books a certain grace period before giving up, this novel would have been going back to the library unfinished.  Luckily, after about 115 pages (just after I'd tweeted complaining about how slow the book was!), the story picked up, probably because we started to learn more about Aliide, by far the more interesting of the two characters.

I think that one of the main issues was with the development of Zara's side of the story.  It felt slow, plodding, contrived, and for such a controversial and emotive subject, it just didn't make me feel anything except a desire to skip a few pages.  The sizeable gaps in her story didn't help me to warm to her either...  The format was also a little strange, with very short sections at times, almost inviting me to put the book down and come back later (if I could be bothered).  As for the last section, consisting of Soviet police reports...

I hate it when I read books other people have recommended and then feel obliged to be less than complimentary (and this book does have a lot of good points, especially the way Oksanen slowly unveils Aliide's true nature), but I'd be less than truthful if I were to say I really liked Purge.  It's worth reading if you're interested in the content, but I think that there are much better books and writers around.  In the interests of fairness though, I will finish on a more positive note.  When I searched for reviews of this book, I quickly found out that I was pretty much on my own here; virtually every blog review of Purge gave it five stars...

Friday 24 December 2010

...and Once Upon A Time in Schönroda.

All the time while I was reading Buddenbrooks, I was reminded of something that I couldn't quite put my finger on.  Was it another book, a film, a picture?  I struggled to remember what it was - and then it dawned on me...  I was thinking of a German telenovella.

Back in January, I posted about my guilty pleasure, Alisa - Folge deinem Herzen, and (bizarrely enough) there are several strong similarities between the show and Thomas Mann's epic novel.  The central theme of a well-established family business in the north of Germany, with the Castellhofs' Optical Works replacing the Buddenbrooks trading company, is the obvious one, the inseparable links between family and business life causing conflict in both areas.  Even the picture of the Buddenbrooks' family home on the cover of my edition reminds me of the Castellhofs' luxurious mansion on the banks of the Schönrodaer See.  Of course, we mustn't stretch the parallels too far (there were certainly fewer suspicious fatalities in the novel than in the television show!), but it's good to see echoes of high literature in daytime television :)

So far, I've watched 208 of the 240 episodes (40 minutes running time each - that equals one North American television hour!), and more has happened to the inhabitants of this small German town in this period than will happen to me - and anyone reading this - in a whole lifetime.  There are far too many crises and catastrophes to go through, but a special mention must go to Oskar Castellhof (played by Andreas Hofer), uncle of the main male lead, complete psychopath and a role that any actor with dreams of overacting would kill for (perhaps he did - the character certainly would).

Old Oskar had an affair with his nephew's wife, started a secret weapons deal on the side, drowned his brother when he found out about the deal, slept with various business partners, pushed the butler(!) down the stairs when he threatened to reveal his secrets, drugged his sister-in-law and had her kidnapped from the sanatorium she was supposed to be visiting... all this while running a multi-million-Euro enterprise: he is certainly one hard-working man!  Of course, he did find out that he had an eighteen-year-old daughter he knew nothing about and was recently told that the child his wife is pregnant with may not be his, so I suppose we can forgive him his murderous tendencies.

Although things are looking shaky for the main couple at the moment, what with the appearance of Alisa's ex, Oliver, a suave rogue who has been able to sow the seeds of discord between them, I have no doubt that Christian and Alisa will get their act together in the next 32 episodes (I still foresee a wedding in their future).  And Oskar?  Oh, he'll get away with it, as always.  He's far too good a character to get rid of...

Wednesday 22 December 2010

Once Upon A Time In Lübeck...

On the back of my copy of Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann's lengthy tale of the decline of a north German family, there's a quote from the author:
"Without doubt, my most popular book in Germany is 'Buddenbrooks', and it may well be the case that, in my own country, my name will always remain primarily linked to this work." (Buddenbrooks, 2008, Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag)***
This quote dates from 1932, after Mann had completed many of his most famous works (e.g. Death in Venice, The Magic Mountain), and - to a non-German, at least - it is a somewhat surprising claim.  Certainly, the book had never really come across my radar until this year.  Therefore, I was eager to find out why this book was given such praise, and, to a certain extent, I think I can see what he was getting at.

The book begins in 1835 in Lübeck, a large town on Germany's Baltic coast (and, incidentally, Mann's hometown), where the wealthy merchant family, the Buddenbrooks, are preparing to celebrate an extravagant house-warming party in their brand-new mansion.  We are introduced to the family members, with special attention given to some of the characters whom we will accompany through the following 750 pages, as they eat, drink and make merry.  With such a show of opulence, it seems that this is a family on the rise, with high status in the city and success in business: who would think that in the space of a little over forty years, this would almost all be gone...

Buddenbrooks is, primarily, the tale of a family's demise, detailing how a fortune and reputation earned painstakingly over centuries can melt away in the twinkling of an eye.  Based on stories and impressions gleaned from the lives of Mann's own relatives (a classic example of an artist washing dirty linen in public...), it is, nevertheless, a work of fiction.  It sounds a little like a great big Victorian novel, an impression which is supported in the first few parts of the story, where the emphasis is a little more plot-driven than is later the case.  However, this is a Victorian-style novel by a modernist writer, and the novel's worth is based less on its events than on the fleshing out of certain of the characters.

The main character is Thomas Buddenbrook, a schoolboy at the start of the book, who eventually takes over as head of the family and manager of the business.  The two roles are, in fact, inseparable as the prestige of the family is due in no small part to the renown of the company.  Having been groomed from an early age to fulfil a certain role in life, it is no surprise that Thomas has learned to control his behaviour, to harness all his energies and direct them towards increasing the good name (and wealth) of the Buddenbrook empire.

Despite his relative importance in his hometown, Thomas is under no illusion as to his worth in the grand scheme of things, but is determined to be a big fish in a small pond, in his mind lambasting his unambitious uncle at one point:
"Didn't you know that you can also be a big man in a small town?  That you can be a Caesar in an average trading spot on the Baltic?" (p.276)
It is, therefore, all the more frustrating when he is forced to acknowledge, privately at least, that his is a family in decline.  In a conversation with his sister Tony, on the occasion of the opening of his new house, Thomas confides his frustrations to her, saying:
"I know that the outer, visible and tangible signs and symbols of happiness and success often only appear when, in reality, everything is already in decline." (p.431)
Eventually, this strain between his need to be and appear successful at all times and the reality of a decline in fortunes has an effect on his health; he is unable to keep up the mask he wears without suffering.  In private, his face droops wearily, and he is continually exhausted from the effort of presenting an impeccable front to the world.

Thomas' character is very different to that of his sister Tony, the other main character in the book.  She too is forced to choose between following her heart and subjugating her feelings to the success of the family; however, once she has made the decision, she never looks back, devoting her whole life in a vain attempt to uphold her family's reputation.  Failing to do so by marrying successfully, she finds other outlets for her energy in helping prepare homes for the other family members, acting as a messenger and go-between, and suggesting lucrative business schemes to her brother.

Throughout her life, Tony stays young, childish and emotional, unable by virtue of her gender to take part in the town's politics and barred from jumping into the family business.  However, her optimistic nature means that she does not become an Anna Karenina figure, choosing instead to hold her head up high and make the most of the few opportunities which do come her way.  In Tony, Mann has created a sympathetic portrait of a woman frustrated by a lack of outlets for her talents and energies, and while we initially feel sorry for her, as the decades go by, the reader recognises her strength and her ability to serve the family in her own, special way.

By the time we get to Hanno, Thomas' son, the Buddenbrook family is in steep decline, and the musically-talented young man (a thinly-veiled image of Mann himself) is another example (as in Death in Venice) of an artist arriving as the last scion of a respectable, successful family.  This is a theme which the writer adressedHanno absent-mindedly draws two bold lines after his name in the family papers shows this.  When asked why he'd done this, the confused boy eventually blurts out:
"I thought...I thought...that was it..." (p.524)
As we will find out towards the end of the novel, Hanno's naive answer is not as innocent and meaningless as it first appears...

So, is Buddenbrooks worthy of the comment I quoted at the start of the review?  It's certainly an impressive work, its constant, gradual development of personalities helping to hold the reader's attention over the whole 750-page stretch.  While not all of the characters are as well-drawn as Thomas and Tony, the scale of the book allows us to become acquainted with the quirks of many a relative and friend before the story is over, and the lack of emphasis on one central plot allows Mann to devote more time to unveiling his characters' personalities.  I don't think it's for everyone, but anyone with an interest in German literature or personality-driven books will find something worthwhile here.

I enjoyed it thoroughly (although, at times, I did feel that I would never reach the end), so I'm looking forward to having a crack at Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) at some point.  Eventually.  Not in the near future.  And very slowly.  It's important to keep things in perspective...

*** All quotes in English are my own (and, hopefully, not too inaccurate) translations.

Monday 20 December 2010

A Review of Foolish Words...

This is what I wrote a year ago - highlighted is what actually happened in 2010...

What does 2010 hold in store for me and my blog? Well, sadly, I doubt I'll be posting as regularly as in 2009. Reviewing each and every book I read is proving to be a bit of a strain (December has seen me struggling to keep up with my posts), and I don't think I could bring myself to cut down on how much I actually write for each review. I see myself limiting my blogging to weekly updates with full reviews for books I feel strongly about. I also see myself winning a Nobel prize for Literature at some point, so don't take anything written here as gospel.

I started off reading more and posting less, but I've actually ended up posting quite a bit recently.  Also, I feel obliged to do full reviews on (the few) books I receive from publishers and those read for the Japanese and Aussie challenges, so it's no wonder I ended up with a touch of RSI :(

While I will continue to read widely and try to get into new authors and countries (just as 2009 brought an interest in Woolf, Wharton and Indian literature), 2010 may well be the year of rereading. As well as continuing my second tour of Haruki Murakami's novels and beginning a trip through Trollope's Barchester Chronicles, I will be reading David Mitchell's books again (in order this time) in preparation for the release of his Dejima novel. George Eliot may have to wait until 2011, but Hardy and Dickens will almost certainly be towards the top of my most-read author list in 2010 (as they were this year). But let's not get ahead of ourselves...

New authors this year included Katherine Mansfield, Natsume Soseki, Goethe, V.S. Naipaul, Albert Camus and Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, so I think I did fairly well on the new authors front (although not quite so well on the new countries!).  I managed to read the Barchester Chronicles and all of Mitchell's novels (including Thousand Autumns...), and I also read a few Murakami books.  However, I've read no Dickens and only one Hardy book this year - maybe next year ;)

Finally, I would like to think that next year will see the gradual development of what I am starting to think of as 'my book'. For Free E-Day on the 1st of December, I wrote a short story entitled 'Far From Home', and I have already written a second chapter following on from the first story. While I already know I will be insanely busy next year, what with finishing my Master's in TESOL and with other family business taking up most of my time, I hope to plod along with the story when I get time and (eventually) publish it on Smashwords, Lulu etc. If I do (which is highly doubtful, especially before the end of 2010), then I may even change the subtitle to my blog. Having said that, maybe it's time for the blurb to go. I mean, I must have written close to 100,000 words in my blog this year; surely that qualifies me as a writer...

I actually finished three chapters of Far From Home (and started a fourth), and I also published a short story on Smashwords too.  I was midway though another when I started to have health issues, and I still haven't got back to doing any writing (real writing - not this blog business!).  I'm getting on a bit, so I really should get on with it...  I did complete my Masters though!

Oh yes...  and I now have a second daughter, with little Hayley (born on the 11th of May) joining big sister Emily :)

Predictions for 2011?  Once bitten, twice shy!

Friday 17 December 2010

The Subtle Art of Telling Stories

From 2003 to 2009, I worked as an English language teacher at a university language centre in Melbourne, and one of my colleagues throughout that time was a genial fellow named Harry Zable.  Harry was born in New Zealand, but emigrated with his family (of Polish-Jewish background) to Australia when he was a kid.  Which is all well and good, you may say, but what has that got to do with literature?  Well, dear reader, Harry has a brother, Arnold, and it turns out that he is a writer, a fairly successful writer at that, and I recently read one of his books for the first time - and it was a cracker...

As the final piece in the Aussie Author Challenge, I decided to look up Arnold Zable in the library database and was able to reserve a copy of Café Scheherazade, a short reflective novel set in St. Kilda, a bohemian coastal suburb in my adopted hometown of Melbourne, and (via memories) in various cities all around the world.  Scheherazade was, of course, the queen who kept herself alive by weaving spellbinding tales for her husband over a thousand-and-one nights, so it is no surprise that this book is centred on stories and the power they have, even decades after they happened.

The titular cafe, located in Acland Street in St. Kilda and run by Avram and Masha, is a meeting place for immigrants from eastern Europe.  They drop by every day to eat, drink, argue, reminisce... In short, the cafe is a social hub for the displaced.  Martin, a journalist, starts coming to the cafe to interview Avram and Masha for a story he is writing, but he is entranced by the never-ending tales they spin and becomes a regular, sipping his coffee while listening to stories and watching the people walk by.  As he gets to know more of the café's patrons, and hears of their incredible histories, he begins to believe that these stories need to be written down, chronicled for future generations, before the old immigrants slowly fade away.

The stories the old men tell have to do with the Second World War - what they did, where they went and how they lived to tell the tale.  Some escaped eastwards through Asia, travelling through Russia, over to Japan, and then on to Shanghai, a neutral haven for a while.  Others hid behind false walls, hoping not to be found by, or betrayed to, the Nazis.  Still others retreated to the forests, surviving as resistance fighters, living each moment as if it was their last.  Each retelling gives a different gloss to the story unfolding, and each time Martin learns a little more of what happened, the more determined he becomes to let other people know.

The most important story though is that of Avram and Masha, and of how Café Scheherazade came to bear its unusual name.  After their various wanderings throughout eastern Europe, the two meet and fall in love, arranging, once the war has finished, to have their first official date in Paris - not under the Eiffel Tower or in front of Notre Dame, but in a café mentioned in a book by Erich Maria Remarque (Arc de Triomphe): Café Scheherazade (guess what my next purchase from the Book Depository is likely to be...).

One of the strong points of this book is the use of language, with different styles used for different functions.  While each chapter begins with a languid, poetic description of St. Kilda, usually with one of the characters making their way through the streets to the café, the dialogue is very different.  Vibrant, colloquial, argumentative, aggressive - the old men (and Masha!) tell their tales in their own inimitable style.  As the conversations are supposed to take place mainly in Yiddish, the writer throws in some Yiddish words and plays around with word order to give the English text a slightly foreign, off-kilter feel.  It definitely works, and the contrast between the descriptive prose and the lively conversation gives greater emphasis to the stories unfolding in the café.

As much as this book is about the tales though, it is also about Melbourne, a city of stories, and end station of sorts for refugees and asylum seekers from all over the world.  Here, standing on the St. Kilda foreshore, staring in the direction (far in the distance) of Antarctica, you can feel that you have reached the end - the end of your journey, the end of the world.  Many people in Melbourne are either immigrants or children of immigrants, and it's easy to believe that these stories exist everywhere.  Every time you enter the supermarket, every time you step onto a (chronically delayed) train, every time you walk into a café: there are people all around you with similar, fascinating, amazing stories to tell, if only you have the time to listen.

We all have stories - maybe I'll tell mine one day (it's a good one), but I'll leave you with one which Zable unfolds in the book in his typically hypnotic style.  You may have been wondering about the journey I mentioned above, where thousands of Polish Jews fled through Asia.  This was because they were able to obtain Japanese transit visas, allowing them to receive travel documents through Russia and escape to the relative safety of Japan and, later, Shanghai.  But why and how did a German ally allow so many Jews to leave Europe and find sanctuary within its borders?  Go to Wikipedia, and look up the name Chiune Sugihara...

Some stories should never be forgotten.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

In Which You See My Face!

Today's offering presents a rather lengthy attempt at a V-Blog post, in which I discuss Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford and a few pieces of her shorter fiction, chat a little about Victorian literature in general, and point in the general direction of my bookshelves.  I guarantee you will not sit through the whole thing :)

Oh, and here's a short bonus featuring the next generation of book bloggers!

Sunday 12 December 2010

Marriage, Actually

What with the dozen novels making up The Barchester Chronicles and the Palliser series (and, of course, the necessity of rereading these wonderful works), it's actually quite difficult to move onto any of Anthony Trollope's other fiction.  I've read The Way We Live Now a couple of times, but I finally got around to buying another of his novels, He Knew He Was Right, earlier this year and, as I'm currently a man of leisure, thought I would spend an idle few weeks working my way through this 820-page monster.  So, nine days (!) later, I'm ready to review and, luckily enough, also in time to participate in the Classics Circuit Trollope Tour - step this way...

He Knew He Was Right centres on the marital problems of Louis Trevelyan and his young wife, Emily.  When an old 'family friend', the slightly sleazy Colonel Osborne, becomes a little too intimate with Emily Trevelyan, her husband overreacts, and his heavy-handed actions are the catalyst for a devastating split.  Emily's refusal to apologise for her lack of obedience and Louis' inability to countenance a reconciliation without her unconditional apology and surrender prevent any possibility of a resolution, and the effects of the separation, not only on the unfortunate couple but also on the innocent bystanders caught in the cross-fire, are sketched out perfectly across a very wide canvas.

Most of the Trollope novels I've read so far have used marriages as a sub-plot, often as a form of light relief from the main proceedings, and at first I was a little disappointed with the book, wondering how the trials and tribulations of a host of star-crossed lovers could possibly fill the pages allotted to the task.

However, I gradually became absorbed by the many differing approaches taken to the subject of holy wedlock.  From Nora Rowley's rejection of a 'suitable' match and her resolute adherence to her true love, to Dorothy Stanbury's willingness to sacrifice her love to the loyalty she owes her aunt and the Reverend Gibson's constant dithering as to which of the Misses French he desires to marry (and eventually, as to which would be the lesser of two evils...) - getting married is a rather complex and worrying affair.  As I have intimated in my title, I was reminded a little of the style of the film Love, Actually with its light-hearted look at various types of love (platonic, unrequited, forbidden, betrayed etc).  When all is said and done, marriage actually is all around...

Anyone reading the book will be struck by the frequent allusions to (and quotations from) Othello, and - according to the introduction in my edition - one of the catalysts for the writing of He Knew He Was Right was a newspaper article bemoaning the lack of a Victorian Othello.  Of course, being Victorian, there was little chance of a full-blown tale of sexual jealousy, and this side of the story is very muted.  However, the parallels with the Shakespeare play, including the addition of an Iago figure (Bozzle), are there for all to see: just like Othello, He Knew He Was Right is the story of an otherwise succesful man laid low by one deadly character flaw.

Another interesting theme touched upon rather too briefly is the growing importance of feminism, portrayed in this book by the rather unflattering figure of Wallachia Petrie, an American poet(ess) who rages against the iniquities of both male domination and hereditary power (and who, therefore, is doubly disappointed when her intimate friend decides to get involved with a member of the English aristocracy).

Trollope was not fond of strident blue-stockings, and this exaggerated caricature is guaranteed to annoy feminists, but the character is a very interesting one, representing a slight shift in Trollope's fiction from an entirely patriarchal anglocentric world to one where America is playing an ever-increasing role, and where traditional gender roles are, if not challenged, then questioned ever so slightly. It may be stretching things a little to think that the writer intended undertones of sexual attraction between Petrie and her protégée (this is Trollope, not Woolf), but there is enough there to make one think that it is not beyond the realms of possibility, especially in the final mention of the American poet:
"In the privacy of her little chamber, Wallachia Petrie shed - not absolute tears - but many tearful thoughts over her friend.  It was to her a thing very terrible that the chosen one of her heart..." He Knew He Was Right, Penguin Classics (2004, p.682)
It is though, of course, the Trevelyan marriage which is the focal, and most important, pillar of this novel.  In his lengthy description of the tragic consequences of a seemingly trivial disagreement, Trollope shows how an unwillingness, or an inability, to overlook an apparent slight can bring a marriage crashing down.  The actual issue of who is right or wrong is not really that important; it is more about a clash of wills and a struggle for marital supremacy.  Louis, despite knowing full well that his wife is completely innocent of the charges he has lain upon her, demands that she bend to his will, insisting on the complete obedience and submission he (and many Victorian readers) believed owing to him as the husband.

When his wife refuses to apologise for something she has not done, his attempts to punish her, while causing her enormous anguish, backfire and affect him much more deeply.  He begins to suffer both mentally and physically, the stress of his marriage breakdown taking its toll on his appearance and, later, his health.  However, even when it is clear that he has been abandoned by his closest friends and that even his paid helpers have decided to wash their hands of him, his obstinacy refuses to let him take his wife back without the profession of submission and repentance he craves:

"Should he yield to her now - should he make her any promise - might not the result be that he would be shut up in dark rooms, robbed of his liberty, robbed of what he loved more than his liberty - his power as a man."  (p.659)
Trevelyan is prepared to go to the grave, if necessary, before compromising his principles and excusing his wife without her apology.  I'm sure modern psychologists would have a field day analysing Louis' state of mind and tracing the progress of his decline into madness - even for someone with no real knowledge of mental illness, He Knew He Was Right is a masterful and intriguing insight into the effects of mental strain on bodily well-being.

Then again, those mental health experts may have been preoccupied looking at the effect these events had on someone who has so far remained unmentioned - Trevelyan's son Louis.  The descriptions of the poor boy towards the end of the novel - apathetic, unemotional, silent - perhaps do more to highlight the stupidity of the quarrel than all the deterioration his father undergoes.  Whoever you think is right in the dispute, there is no denying that both parents are utterly wrong when drawing the argument out has such a worrying effect on their only child. 

The moral of the story?  Think twice (at least) before rushing into marriage; respect your partner and don't jump to conclusions without talking things through; and never ever allow your actions to hurt the children.  There you have it: Anthony Trollope - marriage adviser.

Oh, and yes, it's a very good book.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

A Small Amount of Catching Up - Part 3

Hold on, everyone - there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  Would you believe that I am almost up to date with the reviews I missed during my enforced absence?  You would?  Well, aren't you Mr/Ms Smartypants...  Just a few more books to slate review, and we're fully up to speed - a deep breath, and away we go.

The first of today's books is Vikram Seth's An Equal Music, and I'm afraid Seth is one writer I doubt I'll be slating any time soon.  Just like A Suitable Boy, An Equal Music (if nowhere near as long) is quite simply a sumptuous read, one of those books you just lose yourself in, curled up in your favourite armchair on a cold, rainy, November afternoon.  It's the story of a violinist, who unexpectedly meets up with an old flame and falls into the trap of trying to rekindle lost passion and relive past experiences.  Set in London, Vienna and Florence (a place I have never visited but which has appeared alarmingly frequently in my reading recently), the story proceeds quietly, but measured, very much like the music described in the text.

As well as being a story of reignited love, An Equal Music is also, some would say just as much, a novel about music.  Michael, our romantic violinist, is a member of a string quartet, and Seth creates a credible picture of an incredibly complex set of relationships and egos, which must all be appeased and balanced in order to allow the group to make music.  Now, I wouldn't know a Stradivarius from a cheap fiddle, but many other people have hailed this book as a magnificent portrayal of what life as a musician is really like - so believe them, if not me, when I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment :)

Alas, the problem with Seth is that he hasn't actually written many novels, something I'm rather upset with him for.  He's obviously too busy with his poetry, travel writing and keeping the streets of Gotham City free of crime (actually, that might be someone else) to devote himself to cranking out more fiction.  However, he is currently in the process of writing a follow up novel to A Suitable Boy, set two generations later and entitled (inevitably) A Suitable Girl, and I am greatly looking forward to the appearance of this particular book.  Sadly though, there is a cloud on the horizon.  The release date for the novel?  2013...

No real slating for my second book today either (where is the bile?).  American Gods, Neil Gaiman's epic fantasy/mythology/crime novel, follows Shadow, a recently-released prisoner, across America in the company of a supposed deity who goes by the name of Mr. Wednesday.  As we travel from town to town in the company of the enigmatic Shadow and the much-larger-than-life Wednesday, Gaiman treats us to a story mixing a description of current American society and the origins of its multicultural people.  It's a classic road trip, in the vein of On The Road, but it's also a thought-provoking look at where we're heading.  Oh, and it's also a great whodunnit...

Where Neverwhere was claustrophobic, reading American Gods could make an Agoraphobe have a nervous break down.  Gaiman manages to capture the essence of a vast country of contrasting regions and lifestyles, all the time slowly unfolding his tale, a story of the Gods the immigrants brought with them in their heads, and the struggle between traditional and modern ways of life.  It's an allegorical last battle, where all must stand and be counted, rallying around their standard bearer in a fight to the death.  Or is it?

There's a definite progression from Neverwhere, and Gaiman succeeds in blurring genre lines, creating a book which will appeal to almost everyone who enjoys reading.  Anyone with more than a passing interest in mythology will enjoy seeing the Gods come alive, interact and adapt to modern life.  However, this book doesn't quite make it into the top rank of writing for me, and that's to do with, well, the writing.  Perhaps I've been spoiled by reading Vikram Seth and Natsume Soseki recently, but I missed the elegant prose of Kusamakura and An Equal Music.  Whether that's possible in such a book as this, I'm not sure, and I hasten to add that I still loved this novel: I just wish that the language had flowed just as perfectly as the tale itself.  Is that too much to ask?

So, I'm pretty much up to date - yay!  Stay tuned in coming days for my first submission for The Classics Circuit and something new...

No, not telling ;)