Tuesday 26 April 2011

This Side of the Ditch

Last month it was all about NZ writers (here and here) - this time we're on my side of the ditch, catching up with some Aussie books I've read over the past couple of months.  Marg, from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader (among many others), has declared April 'Aussie Author Month', and this is a good opportunity to do my bit.  Also, it's about time I posted for Booklover Book Reviews' Aussie Author Challenge ;)  Here then are a few short summaries, with musical accompaniment (just because!).

The Book: Monkey Grip by Helen Garner
Where and When: Melbourne, Mid-1970s
What: Nora, a member of a group of bohemian dole bludgers, falls for the charismatic Javo, a rugged heroin addict.  Over a long year of heartache and hangovers, she battles with her misgivings about the relationship, balancing casual drugs and sex with her duties as a mother and her longing for the seductive addict in her bed.  The book of a generation - definitely not my generation though.  Good as it is, it says nothing to me about my life...
Soundtrack Song by The Smiths: This Charming Man

The Book: The Gift of Speed by Steven Carroll
Where and When: Melbourne, 1960-1
What: In the sequel to The Art of the Engine Driver, we return to the Melbourne suburbs to watch the teenaged Michael in his quest to become a fast bowler - and to understand how girls work.  The book concentrates on two other characters: factory owner Mr. Webster and Frank Worrell, captain of the touring West Indian cricket team...  In an absolutely wonderful book, Michael must overcome annoying physical niggles and his shyness (which one could describe as criminally vulgar, I suppose...) to make the most of his golden summer.
Soundtrack Song by The Smiths: The Boy with the Thorn in his Side

The Book: 1988 by Andrew McGahan
Where and When: Northern Territory, 1988...
What: As Australia gears up for its 200th (White) birthday, Gordon celebrates twenty-one fruitless years by heading to the Territory to work for six months on a remote weather station, hoping to kickstart his writing career.  Instead, he finds that when you're feeling down, the problem may not be where you are, but where you're at.  A fascinating Aussie road-trip story (with added crocodiles).
Soundtrack Song by The Smiths: How Soon is Now?

The Book: The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow by Thea Astley
Where and When: Palm Island, Brisbane, Townsville, 1930-1957
What: Another tale of madness in the tropics, Heart of Darkness with a Queensland setting.  Based on a true story, the boss of a small island goes mad, shooting his workers and blowing up his own house - but that's just the beginning...  Told in multiple sections, each with its own different narrative voice, the book explores the endemic racism of pre- and post-WWII Queensland.  Gripping, poignant, unusual and thought provoking, The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow explores the way history has a funny way of repeating itself.
Soundtrack Song by The Smiths: Stop Me if You Think You've Heard This One Before

The Book: The Spare Room by Helen Garner
Where and When: Melbourne, Recent times
What: A Melbourne grandmother prepares a room for the visit of her friend, a bohemian Sydney woman with cancer.  As she watches her friend throw her trust (and money) into the hands of charlatans, she begins to lose her ability to keep quiet and smile blankly at her friend's ever-more-delusional state of mind.  A short, but vibrant, novel, exploring how we cope when hope is all that's left, and what we do to cling onto that hope, even when it's time to let go.
Pessimistic Soundtrack Song by The Smiths: Girlfriend in a Coma
Optimistic Soundtrack Song by The Smiths: There is a Light that Never Goes Out

Plenty more to come for me in terms of Australian literature in the coming weeks.  I finally have the third part of Carroll's trilogy, the Miles Franklin winning The Time We Have Taken, plus Praise, the book to which 1988 is the prequel.  More happy reading to come :)  What Aussie books have you been reading, people?

Thursday 21 April 2011

Yet Another Taste of Japan ;)

As promised earlier this week, after the first of my little summaries, here is the second of my J-Lit round-ups, this time featuring a couple of very familiar names...

The first is a writer who is fast becoming one of those whose entire back catalogue will someday be gracing my shelves.  After reading a few of Natsume Soseki's earlier works last year, I recently obtained one of his final novels, Kokoro (translated by Meredith McKinney), an absolute Japanese classic and a standard high school text back in Japan.

Kokoro tells two stories in one.  The first is that of a young student who makes the acquaintance of an older man he calls Sensei.  After numerous visits to his house, they become friends, but there is always a sense of reserve, something hidden from the narrator's consciousness, perhaps connected with the monthly visits which Sensei makes to a friend's grave.  The narrator is then forced to leave Tokyo, and his friend, behind to return home when his father becomes unwell.  Bored at home, he writes to Sensei constantly without reply until, finally, one day, he receives a letter - a very long, very unusual letter.

This letter is actually the second of the stories and takes up the latter half of the novel, telling the story of Sensei's life as a student and clearing up many of the mysteries that have puzzled the narrator.  We are told of his family background, his romantic aspirations and (most importantly) we finally learn about his dead friend K.  As the narrator returns to Tokyo, at a very critical time for his family, he is left to wonder what will await him there...

Kokoro is another wonderfully-written novel, poignant and elegant, but different from Natsume's earlier works.  Where Botchan and I am a Cat poked friendly fun at Japanese society, and Kusamakura sparkled with wit and sunshine, Kokoro is much darker, building progressively through the novel to a tragic end, for both Sensei and the narrator.

The novel discusses, among other things, the idea of duty and honour, and the way people behave (or fail to behave) under difficult circumstances.  Sensei's story reveals several instances of the dark side of human nature, some explaining his disillusionment with the world, others revealing more about his own character.  Ironically, the receipt of his letter is the catalyst for the narrator's own crisis of conscience, forcing him to choose between friend and family.

This novel began life as a novella consisting entirely of the third 'letter' section, and the section with the narrator came later.  Sadly, this was pretty much the last completed work Soseki produced as he passed away (unusually for a Japanese writer it seems ) of natural causes a couple of years after Kokoro's publication.  When I lived in Japan a decade or so ago, Soseki's face was on the 1000-Yen note, proof of just how important a writer he is in his home country.  It's a shame it took me this long to get into his work :(

Another author whose works cause the slender shelves in my bookcases to groan under their weight (and who himself is a big fan of Natsume Soseki) is Haruki Murakami, and I recently read another collection of his short stories, entitled The Elephant Vanishes.  I had actually read this collection before, and I don't think I was overly impressed first time around, preferring his novels to the bizarre worlds of his shorter fiction.  However, as is often the case, this time around it was a very different story - I loved this book and discovered some excellent writing, as well as further insights into his longer works.

One aspect I had completely forgotten was the use of a female narrator in a few of the stories, something which has not happened (so far) in his novels.  One of my favourite stories, Sleep, a tale of a woman who stops needing to sleep at night, uses this ploy, and it gives the usual Murakami style an added twist.  In the story, a suburban housewife uses her extra eight hours a day to reevaluate her life, finding the time to rekindle her love of literature and think about whether she is actually wasting her life.  As a tale of taking stock of your life, a metaphor for sleepwalking through your daily existence, it's a good one, reminiscent of something Banana Yoshimoto would write (but in reverse!).

Another story, Barn Burning, actually reminded me of my most recent read, Marcel Proust's Du Côte de chez Swann, as strange as that may sound.  While comparing a simple fifteen-page short story to a 600-page epic of descriptive prose may be drawing a long bow, some of the ideas Murakami explores are similar to those Proust expounds upon.  One of these is the idea of memory and time, and the way these are individual, often brought back to our consciousness by random triggers, be they cakes (Proust) or marijuana (Murakami).  Memory, being less than perfect, becomes faded, blurring at some point into fiction - and who can say where that line is....

The collection has two translators, Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin, and I would have to say that I prefer Rubin's style to that of Birnbaum.  A good reference point here is the first story, The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women, translated by Birnbaum.  This later became the first chapter of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, translated by Rubin, and if you compare the first page of the two versions, Rubin's (for me, at least) has a much smoother feel.  Of course, the two original Japanese versions may have been different too (if only I could read them!).

There are a couple of strange, less-than-perfect stories in this collection, but all in all it's a worthy companion to Murakami's novels and well worth the effort.  I read it over about a day and a half, but I would recommend spacing it out a little more - these are stories to be savoured, individually wrapped.  Very Japanese :)

Monday 18 April 2011

Another Taste of Japan

I have been avoiding writing posts for a while now, but I thought I might just do the occasional one to catch you all up on certain books I've been reading, and what better way to kick that off than to look at some of the Japanese literature I've encountered over the past couple of months?  None, that's what ;)

After the understated beauty of Snow Country, it's back to the Japanese Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata, this time with the (very) slim novella A Thousand Cranes (translated by Edward Seidensticker).  Kikuji, the son of a tea ceremony master, is invited to a ceremony by one of his dead father's mistresses.  This seemingly innocuous event is the start of a tangled web of relationships involving another of the mistresses, her daughter Fumiko, and Yukiko, a beautiful young woman who has been suggested as a future bride for Kikuji.  Oh yes, and we mustn't forget the first mistress, the sinister Chikako...

It is Chikako who is planning events from the background, constantly interfering with Kikuji, pushing women in his direction and then pulling them away from him.  First, the young man falls for Mrs. Ota; then events conspire to bring Fumiko into his life.  For an experienced reader of Japanese fiction, a happy ending is far from expected, and Kawabata doesn't fail to satisfy (or disappoint!).

Thousand Cranes is another beautifully-constructed tale, but that's all it is - in the sense that it is deceptively short.  My beautiful new Penguin Classics edition is just over 100-pages long, with fairly large print, and I raced through it in an evening.  I enjoyed it, just as I did Snow Country, drinking in the elegant, sparse prose, but I was left wanting something a little more substantial, more than a three-act play of a novella.  I have The Master of Go winging its way to me from England as we speak, so we'll see if that scratches the itch ;)

Moving from one end of the J-Lit spectrum to (pretty much) the other, one of the good things to come out of the collapse of Angus & Robertson was my $2.50 purchase of Hitomi Kanehara's Autofiction (translated by David James Karashima).  I'm ashamed to say that even at that price, I still almost decided to leave it as I was a little concerned that it was going to be a bit of a gory slasher book (a lot of contemporary Japanese fiction can be a little... well, let's just say aesthetically unpleasing).  However, I took the plunge, and I was pleasantly surprised :)

Autofiction, as the title suggests, is loosely based on Kanehara's own life.  In the first section of four, we meet Shin, a young, recently-married woman on her way back to Japan with her husband.  He goes to the toilet, she has a panic attack, thinking he is having a good time in there with another woman, and that is how we find out that she is a bit of a... shall we say a nutter?

Of course, where there is stress and angst, there is usually a very good reason for it, and Shin is no exception.  The reader follows her back in time, to when she was 18, 16 and 15, learning gradually what she has experienced and suffered though, and what exactly has made her so damaged.  By the time we make it to the end, or perhaps the start, of the story, we understand, and sympathise, with her feelings a little more.

As mentioned above, I had my reservations about this book as I have heard a lot about writers such as Ryu Murakami and Natsuo Kirino (who don't sound like my cup of tea), and Kanehara is often lumped in with them.  However, I was pleasantly surprised by Autofiction.  There are some graphic scenes, and some mind-boggling attitudes displayed (including a very blasé attitude towards an impending rape...), but on the whole the book is very well written, presenting Shin as a sympathetic character who has been toughened up by life's trials and tribulations.  The more we learn about her ordeals, the more we understand and condone her later erratic behaviour.  If written in reverse (i.e. in chronological order), it would all make more sense, but the effect would definitely be spoiled :)

Autofiction is Kanehara's second novel, and her first, Snakes and Earrings, won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize.  It's one that I may well end up buying one day...

All for now, but not for this topic - look out for another J-Lit round-up in a few days :)

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Kiwi Lit - Part Two

...and here's Part Two!  Who will be Number One?  The answer may surprise you...

Monday 11 April 2011

Kiwi Lit - Part One

Part One of my wrap of the New Zealand Reading Month Mini-Challenge - enjoy :)

Links: Maree's Just Add Books Blog