Thursday 28 July 2011

Welcome to the North

Well, you may (or may not) be surprised to hear that my return from 19th-Century England didn't last too long; to be precise, about as long as it took me to eat my dinner and pick up the next chapter in my Victorian odyssey.  So, without further ado, here are Tony's further adventures in the world of V-Lit :)

With barely a pause for sustenance, I dashed straight from Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights to the slightly less melodramatic, but equally wonderful, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, written by her sister Anne.  It is (like Wuthering Heights) a story within a story, a recount within a recount, as Gilbert Markham, a jovial middle-aged man, writes to his brother-in-law about events which happened earlier in his life.  He writes a letter in which he describes his encounters with a woman called Helen Graham, a widow who appeared one day in his village with her son in tow.  As Gilbert gets closer to the prickly Ms. Graham, he gradually becomes aware that she harbours a secret - and eventually we, the readers, are told it.

Markham's narrative is interrupted by Helen's diary, in which she relates exactly what happened in her married life to cause her to move to the relative obscurity of this northern village.  Once we are privy to her secret, Markham takes over again to tell us how the story ends.  Grim up north?  Not half as grim as it was down south, if Helen's marriage is anything to go by...

Anne is the least read of the three Brontës, a fact due both to limited output and sister Charlotte's oversensitive handling of Anne's book after her death.  While The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a wonderful exposé of the inequality of marriage in Victorian England, for many at the time it was simply too close to the bone - hypocrisy often trumped truth back in the 19th Century.

Ironically, in the 20th Century, it was criticised again by feminist theorists, who attacked it for its inherent support of male superiority.  The structure of the novel, with Markham's letter surrounding Helen Graham's diary extracts (which he has included in his letters) is said to perpetuate female submissiveness.  I'm sure Anne Brontë would have been amused to hear that her book was both too radical and too conventional at the same time... Whichever theory you subscribe to, one thing's for sure - this is a very good, and often overlooked, piece of writing.

We'll remain, if you please, in the north of England for our second book today, Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South.  This staple of English literature classes follows devout southern belle Margaret Hale as family circumstances conspire to send her off to the smoky skies of Milton-Northern (AKA Manchester), where she encounters the rough but courteous Mr. Thornton.  As our heroine struggles to adapt to the ways of the industrial north, and their slightly confusing language, she and Mr. Thornton (Mr. Darcy with an accent) find that when it comes to behaviour they really do come from different countries.

The title though is slightly misleading; it's not that Thornton comes from the North as such that makes him so exotic (Gilbert Markham, for example is also a Northerner), it's his role as a member of the manufacturing mercantile class which renders him so foreign in Margaret's eyes (and probably in the eyes of many of Gaskell's readers too).  Throughout the novel, our two protagonists are simply unable to understand what the other is doing, let alone thinking, and neither has a real inkling of the respect they inspire in the other.

The last unit in my long-forgotten Master's course was in Intercultural Communication, and it was difficult to overlook the cultural differences dotted throughout the book.  One good example is the two main families' respective drawing rooms, seen through the eyes of the others on a visit.  The Thorntons regard the Hale drawing room as cluttered and unnecessary (and probably a nightmare to clean).  On the return visit, however, Margaret is appalled by the sterility of the Hale drawing room, a place to look at but not to sit in.

Even when Margaret and Thornton do decide to talk to each other, the cultural differences are evident.  Thornton is continually angered by Margaret's refusal to shake his hand, an offer she is unaware she is supposed to make, and their discussions on the conditions of the working class in the north generally deteriorate into point scoring and arguments.  As Margaret's father notes:
"One had need to learn a different language, and measure by a different standard, up here in Milton." (p.149), Wordsworth Classics Edition (1994)
The north really is a different country...

As an anthropological insight, North and South is a wonderful book, and it's not bad as a novel either.  However, the longer the book went on, the less interesting it became, and whatever the introduction in my edition claims, several of the plot strands (especially the one involving her brother's exile from Britain) seemed extremely contrived and convenient.  When the rather rushed and predictable ending arrives, you are left feeling that there was an opportunity missed.  If they had only stayed in the north and continued the story in Milton, the book would have been a lot better for it...

So, is that all for V-Lit this month?  Pfft - as if.  Stay tuned for more antics in 19th-century England...

Tuesday 12 July 2011

A Journey Through Rural England

As promised in a previous post, July has been reserved for old friends, and my first three books for the month are all very familiar friends indeed.  Let me take you on a little trip through time and space, from the south of England to the north.  It'll be a slow journey, but, I promise you, it will be well worth it...

Our journey starts off down in Wessex, the ancient English kingdom appropriated by the wonderful Thomas Hardy as the setting for his Victorian novels.  Far From the Madding Crowd is a typically bucolic tale, describing a few years in the life of the young and beautiful Bathsheba Everdene.  This headstrong woman, who has decided to take on the running of her uncle's farm alone after his death, is pursued by three very different men: surly Farmer Boldwood; dashing soldier Frank Troy; and the honest, reliable shepherd Gabriel Oak.  While this early novel has a little more cheer than Hardy's later tragedies, there's still a lot that goes wrong for Bathsheba, and plenty of obstacles to overcome before she can settle down in peace.

I first read this at secondary school - and got an almighty telling-off from my English teacher when I did a surprise test in class on the book without having bothered to read any of it (I think it was the question where I said Bathsheba was a farmer with a beard that gave things away...).  Now, I love this book, with its luscious descriptions of the English countryside and its long, leisurely conversations between locals in ramshackle pubs.  Admittedly, Hardy never uses a short word when he can dig up (or invent) a horribly long and complicated one instead, but this minor fault is far outweighed by his elegant storytelling - which is why, on finishing this novel, I went straight to the Book Depository and ordered three more of his works :)

Now let's (reluctantly) leave Wessex and move northwards, over the undulating southern hills, across the pleasant fields of Warwickshire, and onto the tranquil village of Hayslope in the (fictional) hilly county of Loamshire, for here we will encounter a fine example of the turn-of-the-(19th) century workman, Adam Bede.

George Eliot's admirable carpenter is one of the principal figures of her first novel, and throughout its 540 pages, he must learn to use his broad shoulders to support others in their time of need - and to bear the crushing disappointment he encounters in his own affairs.  Adam, a cut above the average English country-dweller (both mentally and physically), is in love with Hetty Sorrel, a beautiful (and empty-headed) young dairymaid.  However, when the heir to the local estates, Arthur Donnithorne, sees the pretty girl, events take an unfortunate and fateful turn (reminiscent of a certain Hardy novel), tainting the lives of all involved.

This novel, which I bought at a second-hand shop while I was living in Japan (and read to death!), has many similarities with Far From the Madding Crowd, and I constantly compare and confuse Adam and Gabriel (in my mind, they both look like an actor I saw in an ITV production of Hardy's novel!).  I'd have to say though that Eliot's story is the better of the two.  It has all of the wonderful depiction of how people in the country really lived, with less of the stark contrast between the language of the story and the philosophising.  Middlemarch is probably a better book, but Adam Bede is definitely my favourite Eliot novel.

Alas, we must keep moving, and the way is becoming less pleasant now.  We pass through the bare, coal-stained hills of Eliot's Stonyshire, skirt the big industrial cities of the north, and venture out onto the wet, wild and windy Yorkshire moors - until we stumble, on completion of our journey, upon a pair of houses isolated on the moors: Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights...

The novel is actually a story within a story (within a story) as a large part of the tale is told third-(and occasionally fourth-) hand by the feisty, and perhaps not all that trustworthy, maidservant Nelly Dean.  Through her long fireside stories to the convalescing tenant of Thrushcross Grange, Mr. Lockwood, we learn about the strange events that unfolded in recent years.  All begins when Hareton Earnshaw, the owner of Wuthering Heights, returns from a trip to Liverpool bearing a rather unwelcome sort of gift - a dirty, dark stray who soon comes to be known by the name of Heathcliff.  While Earnshaw's two children are initially repulsed by the intruder, his daughter, Cathy, quickly becomes the best of friends with Heathcliff, a tie which will endure lifelong... and perhaps beyond.

Emily Brontë's classic story is nothing if not divisive (as recent Twitter conversations have shown!), but I love this book.  Melodramatic?  Definitely.  Exaggerated?  Of course.  Stretching reality of behaviour to its limits?  Without doubt.  That's not the point though.  In the self-centred and slightly deranged Cathy, Brontë created one of the most fascinating heroines of the Victorian age (with the best theme tune too!), and as for Heathcliff... well, any character who bangs his head against a tree until it's covered in blood has to be worth engaging with.

This was probably the first piece of serious literature that I ever read (voluntarily anyway), back in those wonderful days when Penguin brought out their one-pound popular classics and widened general access to the literary greats.  I still remember struggling through the book, all the time trying to work out who Cathy/Catherine/Linton/Hareton actually was.  By the end of the novel, despite this difficulty, I was hooked on reading 'proper' books :)

Alas, we must now turn our backs on the world of fiction; our time here is done.  And so, with our journey at an end, it's time to leave 19th-century England behind and return to the realities of 21st-century Melbourne: a large amount of planning to do for next term, a mountain of bills to pay and two noisy (but lovely) daughters to pay attention to.

Until next time :)

Thursday 7 July 2011

More from Marvellous Melbourne

You may have noticed a lot of Aussie books in my reading list this year, and the responsibility for that can be placed firmly on the shoulders of two places: firstly, Joanne of Booklover Book Reviews, whose Aussie Author Challenge has got me hooked on local literature; and secondly, the fine people of the Casey-Cardinia Library Corporation, whose excellent system enables me to read these wonderful books without having to actually buy them at the extortionate prices charged Down Under.

This post will have mini-reviews of three wonderful books by three great writers, all of them from my adopted home town of Melbourne, and it was actually going to be a celebratory finishing post for the Aussie Author Challenge.  Today's offerings brought me up to thirteen for the year to date (!), but just as I was getting ready to pop the (metaphorical) champagne cork, I noticed the small print.  You see, the twelve required books had to be by a minimum of nine different authors, and my thirteen were the work of just eight...  Back to the drawing board, or, as I like to call it, the library web-site.  In the meantime, enjoy these short reviews anyway :)

The Reasons I Won't Be Coming is a collection of short stories by Elliot Perlman, the author of the wonderful Three Dollars and Seven Types of Ambiguity.  It's an interesting collection of short stories (mostly) set in Melbourne, with a fascinating use of voice and perspective to hook you in to the stories.  They often start very abruptly, some with the protagonist talking to the reader as if in a monologue in a play, eventually widening the scope of events to reveal the full story.

Not all the stories are a total success (a point Perlman probably knows already, but which I'd like to point out anyway, is that readers are not prone to sympathising with lawyers who have been dumped by their married mistress after getting her pregnant...), and some do take a while to get going.  However, on the whole, they do eventually suck you in and make you think - which is always good in a short story.

One of the most interesting stories is Manslaughter, the story of a trial from start to finish, told through the voices of just about everyone involved - judge, jurors, accused, bailiff, lawyer, widow.  In a matter of a few dozen pages, the writer successfully conveys the complexities of a seemingly open-and-shut case, letting the reader in on what really happens in a high-profile court case and leaving them to make their own judgement as to how fair it all is.

The news on the grapevine is that Mr. Perlman has a new book coming out later this year, and all I can say is that it's about time.  While you're waiting though, why not give this little collection a go?  It's not as if there's any hurry...

A slightly more prolific writer (although not by much) is Helen Garner, author of the notorious Monkey Grip, and The Children's Bach is another tale from a slightly-left-of-centre (in many ways) Melbourne family.  Dexter and Athena's comfortable life is disrupted by a chance encounter at Melbourne airport, where Dexter spots an old friend, the rather icy Elizabeth.  While Elizabeth herself causes few problems, it is the people she brings with her - little sister Vicki and Elizabeth's occasional lover Phillip - who turn the married couple's life upside down.

The Children's Bach is a very slender book, but it is beautifully written, and the central question of casual sex versus comfortable monogamy works well.  Athena is jolted out of a rut by her new acquaintances, and the question is whether this is a welcome break or a wake-up call.  Meanwhile, Dexter has to decide how he will handle Athena's behaviour and balance her (and his) behaviour against his principles.

The book is short, elegant and witty, but while it's a nice read, it's hard to avoid thinking that it's a little underwritten.  I found it hard to engage with the characters over such a short journey, with a lot of gaps where the narrative jumps to the next crisis.  I found myself wondering whether another writer could (and would) have made a longer, more detailed book from this...

...a writer, for example, like the extremely talented Steven Carroll.  Having read, and loved, his wonderful Melbourne Trilogy books earlier this year, I picked up his most recent novel The Lost Life from the library shelves with great anticipation.  It's a very different book in some ways, set in England in 1934 and based around a chance encounter with the famous poet T.S. Eliot.  However, once past the initial set up, The Lost Life slips into the mesmerising style that made Carroll's other novels such successes.

The central figure of the novel is Catherine, a young woman in the centre of the golden summer of her youth, enjoying the first flushes of love with Daniel, a recently graduated university student.  When they accidentally spy on Eliot and his 'special friend' Emily Hale during a walk around the parks of a local stately home, they become unwillingly mixed up in his tangled relationships.  As Catherine gets to know Emily better, she realises that there are parallels between their situations, which the older woman, an accomplished actress who seems to be playing roles rather than acting naturally, is determined to exploit for her own purposes.

Although the phrase Carpe Diem isn't actually mentioned in the book, it's one that instantly springs to mindCatherine gradually becomes aware that her love, an awkward affair devoid of any real privacy, may be more fleeting than she imagined.  Unless she takes her opportunity for a brief moment of intimacy, she may end up regretting it for the rest of her life.  Just as Emily Hale has her own, lingering regrets...

Carroll's usual time-jumping style lets us know in advance a lot of information while concealing the important, emotional events.  He also gets inside the characters' heads, describing matters from several viewpoints, emphasising both the similarities and the subtle differences between opinions on the same event.  As you can tell, I think he's great :)

All in all, another well-crafted story from my big discovery of 2011.  And the best bit?  He's also got a new novel due out later this year.  Marvellous Melbourne indeed ;)

Sunday 3 July 2011

Tony's Month of Rereading

The other day, as I was idly flicking scrolling through my reading list (yes, it exists - it's on Excel, and it's growing longer by the day...), I happened to notice that my reading had slipped into a worrying pattern of late, with the last few months showing an alarming lack of books read for the second time (or more).  I decided to investigate this phenomenon further and instigated a thorough audit of my list for rereads - with a disturbing outcome.  Where in 2009 (from 93 books read) 34 books were rereads, and in 2010 (from 91 books) 22 were old friends, the result for the first half of 2011, from an impressive 67 books, was just... 6 :(

While some of you may be starting to wonder what the point of this post is - and others may be applauding my turn towards unfamiliar fiction -, there is a method in my madness.  You see, as I took up my usual, nay habitual, stance in front of my bookcases to muse upon this issue, noticing the many hundred paperbacks arrayed in front of me, a novel, and quite unpleasant, thought occurred to me...

If I'm only going to read new books, and have no intention of giving them a second go, then what is the point of my buying any books at all?!
A scary thought, and one I dismissed rather rapidly; however, it did make me think that I had been neglecting my old friends in favour of new and shinier ones - all of which brings me to the point of this post (and yes, there is one)...

Welcome to Tony's Reading List's Rereading July :)

That's right - I have decided that for the following month, it's in with the old and out with the new, a hello to familiar friends while new books are ignored, shunned and left to gather dust in the corner.  There are only three rules to Fight Club Rereading July (and you may talk about it to your heart's content):

1) The book must be somewhere on my shelves
2) I must have read it at least once (and possibly several times) before
3) The last reading must have occurred before I began my blog (1/1/09)

After a leisurely perusal of my collection, the following books clamoured to be read:

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami
Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto
Die Verwandlung by Franz Kafka
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Adam Bede by George Eliot
One Man's Bible by Gao Xingjian
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
Cloudstreet by Tim Winton
Seven Shades of Ambiguity by Elliot Perlman
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

The above list comprises a nice collection of old friends, representing a fair cross-section of my reading tastes: some V-Lit, J-Lit, a German-language classic, a smattering of translated fiction and a few good old Aussie novels.  I've already kicked off the fun with Far From The Madding Crowd and am very happy with my choice - in the long, cold Melbourne winter, it's nice to have a bit of comfort reading :)

You are welcome, dear reader, to join me (or not) - here's hoping for a wonderful month of things I've read before...

Friday 1 July 2011

June 2011 Wrap-Up (and Giveaway Results!)

The end of June already!  Half a year gone, and I'm smashing all previous records (the reading ones that is - definitely not the blogging ones...).  As usual, for your perusal, here is the month of June at a glance...

But wait - at the end of this post (unusually), there will be the results of my F.C. Delius giveaway!  Patience is a virtue :)

Total Books Read: 10
Year-to-date: 67

New: 10
Rereads: 0

From the Shelves: 6
From the Library: 4
On the Kindle: 0

Novels: 7
Novellas: 2
Short Stories: 1

Non-English Language: 4 (2 Japanese, 2 German)
In Original Language: 2 (2 German)

Books read in June were:
1) The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata
2) Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre by Goethe
3) Felix Holt: The Radical by George Eliot
4) Silence by Shusaku Endo
5) Sartoris by William Faulkner
6) Bildnis der Mutter als junge Frau by Friedrich Christian Delius
7) The Reasons I Won't Be Coming by Elliot Perlman
8) The Children's Bach by Helen Garner
9) The Lost Life by Steven Carroll
10) The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Murakami Challenge: 0 (2/3)
Aussie Author Challenge: 3 (13/12)
Victorian Literature Challenge: 1 (13/15)
Japanese literature Challenge 5: 2 (2/1)

Tony's Recommendation for June is: Shusaku Endo's Silence

June was an exceptional month, with a number of high-quality reads.  There was another wonderful novel from Australian writer Steven Carroll, F.C. Delius' wonderful one-sentence book, the first of William Faulkner's novels set in his fictionalised hometown, Yasunari Kawabata's intriguing tale of games within a game, and Goethe's classic Bildungsroman - on which I spent half of May and the first few days of June...

However, even in such a distinguished field, Shusaku Endo's Silence was a stand out.  Very different from any of the J-Lit I'd read previously, this tale of a trial of faith in alien climes is well worth the effort - do try it :)

Well, that's all for... sorry, the giveaway?  Ah, yes - I'd almost forgotten :)

I had around sixty entries for this competition, which is roughly ten times the number of people that usually even read my posts, so I was slightly overwhelmed by the number of e-mails dropping into my inbox.  I was very happy though to see that everyone was happy to comply with my cheeky request for manners ;)

And the winner?  As chosen by a random computer thingy, congratulations to Laura of Devouring Texts - I will be contacting you for a postal address very soon!

But wait - there's more!  Surprisingly, several of you expressed interest in the German-language version, and I have decided to be generous (the Aussie Dollar is doing very well at the moment!) and also award a German copy to one lucky entrant - and that person is Eva {the writer} - herzlichen Glückwunsch!  I'll be e-mailing you too

Thank you for the interest and attention - time for me to slip back into obscurity.  Night all :)