Monday 27 February 2012

A House is not always a Home

I'm a man of simple tastes, and I love my comfort reading, so it's rare that I encounter a book which makes me feel slightly uneasy while reading it (although I get the odd book that I would rather not have read!).  Elizabeth Jolley's novel Mr. Scobie's Riddle, however, most definitely falls into that category; it's a good book, but one which made me squirm and shudder on many occasions...

The book is set in a suburban nursing home, possibly in Perth, where Matron Hyacinth Price presides over a ramshackle establishment, fleecing the residents of their money, while her brother (one of the residents) is himself fleeced by a few nocturnal card-sharks.  The novel begins with the arrival of three old men at the home, including the titular hero, Martin Scobie, and from the moment they arrive, it is clear that the matron's intention is that they quietly submit to the rules of her establishment, settling down for a slow, peaceful drift into the next life - preferably having signed control of their finances over to Ms. Price herself.

Although Scobie is eighty-five years old, he appears to be in fairly good health, both physically and mentally, and he immediately decides that he needs to get out as quickly as possible.  When this proves to be more difficult than first imagined though, the awful conditions he is placed under soon start to take their toll.  Will he manage to escape while he still has time, or will the matron get her hands on his hard-earned money?

Mr. Scobie's Riddle begins with a comical exchange of diary entries between the formidable Hyacinth and her night nurse, Mrs. Shady, a woman whose spelling and grammar eventually prove only superior to her dubious morals.  The reader is aware of the kind of establishment which awaits them at The Hospital of Saint Christopher and Saint Jude within a few pages, with its dirty floors, substandard food and clandestine midnight card games.  This satirical tone pervades the novel, and it contrasts well with the more poignant approach taken when focusing on the poor Scobie.

The hospital is an oppressive, claustrophobic place, and this sense of airlessness and constraint is heightened by the almost incestuous relations the writer develops.  Matron Price is aided by her faithful offsider, Mrs. Rawlings, who is married to Mr. Rawlings - who also happens to be the Matron's legal husband.  As well as housing Price's senile brother, the home is also a sanctuary for Miss Hailey, a retired headmistress who just happens to be a good schoolfriend of the matron (and - it is hinted - a good deal more...).  When you throw in a couple of oversexed helpers and the aforementioned Mrs. Shady's mother, it's no wonder that several of the characters occasionally reach for the bottle...

Aside from the humour of the daily goings on and the quiet dignity of Scobie's time in the home though there is a more chilling undertone to the story.  The Matron's attempts to defraud her residents are loathsome enough, but the humiliating treatment Mrs. Rawlings dishes out is perhaps worse.  The residents are gradually worn down, their independence eroded bit by bit as they are made to endure unwelcome showers, forbidden to have a cup of tea in the afternoon, prevented from going for an afternoon stroll.  It is this demeaning, degrading treatment which at times makes Mr. Scobie's Riddle difficult to stomach.

The saddest part, of course, is that there is nobody to help, mainly because those who should be helping are the ones who the residents there in the first place.  Both Scobie and Mr. Privett, one of his room-mates, have been packed off to the home by relatives eager to get their hands on their land - unintended victims of the Australian obsession with real estate.  Even the so-called healthcare 'professionals' who visit the home are of no use: the student social worker driving mummy's car; the doctor who checks pulses and winks at the matron; the health inspector, distracted from his task by lashings of Matron's sherry.  It's not exactly a good reflection of how we treat our elderly.

In Mr. Scobie's Riddle, Jolley has created an excellent snapshot of life at a nursing home, a nuanced picture where it's very difficult to separate the characters into their respective pigeon-holes.  The Matron is often portrayed as uncaring and money-grabbing, yet we also see her at her most vulnerable, alone, depressed and with financial troubles of her own.  While Scobie is the natural hero, dignified and resolute in his struggle, there are indications, worrying signs of frailty, that the home may be where he belongs after all.  It would be very easy to judge the behaviour on show, but the writer always reminds us, just in time, that needs must, sometimes at the expense of human niceties.

It's rare that a book can be so easy to read and yet so disturbing, but Mr. Scobie's Riddle is definitely one of those books.  We would all hope that the picture Jolley painted here is a caricature, but we would also fear that there may be a greater resemblance to the truth than we would like.  It's a book you can get through in a day or so; however, the impression it leaves on your conscience will last a lot longer...

Thursday 23 February 2012

Family Matters

Just over a year ago, Penguin released four books by Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata in their Modern Classics editions.  I originally pre-ordered two (Snow Country and Thousand Cranes) and, of course, eventually ended up buying the other two anyway - Beauty and Sadness and, today's offering, The Sound of the Mountain.  Having also read The Master of Go, this then was my fifth book by the old master and yet...

...If I'm honest, nothing has really hit the spot so far.  Kawabata is the one J-Lit writer I've never quite got, not in the way I've instantly loved Natsume Soseki, Kenzaburo Oe or Yukio Mishima.  Perhaps it's because of the more oblique approach of his works; it might be because of the style of the translator (Howard Hibbett for Beauty and Sadness, Edward Seidensticker for all the others); perhaps I just hadn't found the right book yet.  Luckily, it appears that with Kawabata it's not third, but fifth time lucky...

The Sound of the Mountain is a slow-moving story centring on Shingo Ogata, a businessman in his sixties.  Commuting from his Kamakura home every day to his Tokyo office, Shingo simply wants a quiet life, time to reflect and enjoy the years remaining to him and his wife Yasuko.  Sadly, it appears that a quiet life is not to be his lot.  His son, Shuichi, who (along with his wife) lives with his parents, is having an affair out in Tokyo, and if that is not enough, one day Shingo's daughter, Fusako, arrives with her two children in tow, her marriage evidently on the rocks.

As head of the household, the family looks to Shingo to intervene in both cases, but the old man (despite his affection for his daughter-in-law) decides to let matters take their course, hoping that time will resolves events for him.  Unfortunately, his procrastination actually makes everything much worse than they already were.  For a man slowly starting the gradual slide into senility, it's all too much to take...

Right from the start, The Sound of the Mountain grabbed me a lot more than the Kawabata books I'd previously read.  The novel was specifically mentioned when he won the Nobel Prize for literature, and that's probably because it is the most Western-friendly of his major works.  It's a book which grapples with the problems of family life and the extent to which a patriarch should interfere in the lives of those around him, but it also has a much wider reach, looking at the unstoppable changes wrought on a traditional society by defeat at war and the consequent western influences this brought with it.

There are many such influences highlighted in the story.  Foreigners can be seen strolling around Shinjuku (albeit a more verdant Shinjuku than I remember!), modern electrical appliances are beginning to make their entrance into the Japanese home, and kimonos are beginning to give way to western dresses and suits.  This western dominance even extends to the way in which the method for counting your age changes half-way through the story, with Shingo and Yasuko becoming younger as a result!

However, the effects on the family unit are much more serious.  The pull of family obligations appears to be far weaker, allowing Shuichi to mistreat his wife Kikuko - and giving Fusako the strength to walk out on her husband, Aihara.  It's not only the wives who suffer though - some of Shingo's friends, married men in their sixties, roam the streets of Tokyo every evening, too scared to return home until their wives are safely asleep.

This newfound freedom is also seen in the characters of Ikeda and Kinu, Shuichi's mistress.  The two women are war widows, but instead of returning either to their husband's family or their own, they have decided to take the opportunity to be independent and live by themselves, even starting up their own business.  In fact, Kinu, despite only appearing in one brief chapter (and not actually being seen in person until page 174 of 209!), is a character who overshadows the whole novel, a potential homewrecker and a threat to familial stability.

The Sound of the Mountain reminds me of two novels by another famous Japanese writer, Jun'ichiro Tanizaki.  Shingo is reminiscent of Utsugi, Tanizaki's mad old man, albeit it in a gentler, less-deranged (!) way, his memory lapses showing that he is well on his way towards a second childhood.  The relationship hinted at with his daughter-in-law also links the two works.  However, the novel as a whole also has similarities with Tanizaki's epic family novel, The Makioka Sisters.  While The Makioka Sisters concentrates on the struggles of the younger generation, Kawabata's story, set around the same time, focuses on those of their parents and grandparents, struggles which, though different, are every bit as real.

The title of the novel comes from a scene in which Shingo is startled by a dull, distant roar, a sound he imagines to come from the heart of the mountain visible from his garden.  It is only when he later mentions this to his wife that he recalls the last time he heard it - in his youth, just before the death of his wife's sister...  The sound of the mountain then is a warning of impending disaster, a warning which Shingo is forced to heed if he is to keep his family together.  Will he manage it, despite his lethargy?  Well, there's only one way to find out...

Monday 20 February 2012

As The Lights Grow Dim...

Until last year, my German-language reading had mainly been limited to classics, but I have recently been making an effort to try some more contemporary fare.  Last November's German Literature Month was a good opportunity to read some modern books (and get a lot of recommendations too!), and I was fortunate enough to leave the month with an unexpected bonus...

You see, I was lucky enough to win a book in a giveaway held by Lizzy (one of the month's hosts), namely Eugen Ruge's In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts (In Times of Diminishing Light).  The giveaway was for the shortlist for the 2011 Deutscher Buch Preis, the German equivalent of the Man Booker Prize or the Prix Goncourt, and my choice turned out to be the eventual winner - so I was expecting something very good indeed :)

Ruge's debut novel is a wide-ranging story of a German family, set against the backdrop of the now defunct German Democratic Republic (East Germany).  Divided into twenty chapters following three distinct timelines, the book is told (in the third-person) by several members of the Umnitzer family: Wilhelm and Charlotte, heroes of the republic, communists since before the war; Charlotte's son Kurt, a former prisoner in Siberia who becomes a prominent GDR academic; Kurt's Russian wife Irina and her mother Nadjeshda;  Kurt and Irina's grandson Markus...

...oh, and let's not forget Markus' dad Alexander, or Sascha, as he's also known.   If a main character has to be chosen it would be Alexander, as one of the main strands, set in 2001, follows him on his travels in Mexico, attempting to come to terms with a cancer diagnosis.  Then again, as he is mainly absent during the other two strands (one describing the events of a party on the first of October 1989, the other starting in 1952 and ending in 1995), he might not be such a good choice for a central character after all...

As you can see from the incoherent ramblings above, pinning down what this book is all about is actually quite tricky.  One of the blurbs on the back of my copy describes it as "the great GDR Buddenbrooks novel" (referring to Thomas Mann's famous story of the decay of a north-German family), and the allusion is apt.  The Umnitzers, in their own modest way, are a communist dynasty, laden with medals and well-known in socialist ranks.  However, when the change comes, and the wall tumbles, it seems that their time has run out.

Just as much as it is about the family though, it is also the story of a country that is fading away.  When Charlotte and Wilhelm return from Mexico to Berlin in 1952 to take up their responsibility of building up the new country, the dream of a uniquely German socialist state is still a heady one, an intoxicating vision of an ideal future.  As the years progress though, we see the reality of East-German communism, the plastic cars, the crumbling buildings, the power shortages...  While stalwarts like Wilhelm continue to believe in the system, others feel that the country has lost its way, some (like Alexander) hoping to leave it behind for good.  In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts is definitely not an adherent of the Ostalgie trend of pining for the good old days of the GDR.

Ruge tells his story by using seven members of the Umnitzer family as his eyes, and it's a credit to him that even I, with my limited German, was able to distinguish between the different voices.  From Kurt's dry, academic prose, to Irina's confused, accented German, each character is instantly recognisable - and at the same time very different to the image you have of them from other people's descriptions.  The only section I wasn't too keen on was young Markus's part - the teen slang seemed a little forced (perhaps Ruge is a little too far divorced from his teen years to make this voice sound authentic...).

The older voices though were excellent.  I loved the interpretation of Nadjeshda's Russian, translated into German with irregular features, such as the doubling of verbs in a very un-German manner, and the quasi-phonetic rendering of Irina's attempts to get her head around the German language's short and long vowels.  I'm also pretty sure that there was a lot of East-German German in the novel (most of which probably went well over my head); I constantly found myself stumbling over unfamiliar past-tense verb forms, ones which appeared to be irregular variants of the more common regular forms I'm used to.  If any native speaker happens to be reading this, I'd be very happy if someone could tell me if this is/was a feature of the east-German language...

In case you were wondering, I loved this book.  It's a monumental effort, a complex, tangled web of narrative, a construction which conceals whatever lies at the core of the novel.  The postmodern, chaotic structure of the book, moving backwards and forwards in time, seen through the eyes of an array of characters, may not appeal to everyone (there is definitely a need to trust the writer and believe that things will be explained eventually...), but it is a wonderful example of how a good writer can tell a story in a non-linear way.

But what actually is at the core of the story?  It's not that easy to say.  The book conceals more than it reveals, and unusually for a novel on this subject, it actually avoids most of the expected topics.  Despite covering fifty years of German history, we only hear about political events in passing, long after they have lost their immediate impact; the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example, is barely mentioned.  This is just as true for the family history as it is for the wider one.   There are several important events which occur outside the narrative, keeping us guessing, of which many are never really resolved.

The title itself is probably a clue to the main ideas though.  I originally translated it in my head as 'In Times of Fading Light', as I thought that sounded more natural in English than 'In Time of Diminishing Light'.  However, the title actually comes from a line in the story of Nadjeshda, the old Russian mother-in-law, when she looks back at her life in Russia.  She remembers the time of the potato harvest, the point of the year where the days begin to get shorter, and the amount of daylight begins to diminish.  It's a wonderful metaphor for the time of greatest triumph being the start of an inevitable decline, with obvious parallels for the story as a whole.

In the end though, perhaps finding a central idea to the story isn't that important.  In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts (which, apparently, is currently being translated into English by Anthea Bell) is a thoroughly enjoyable novel, one I'd highly recommend.  Perhaps it's apt for a book seemingly constructed around an empty core that the central topic is a country which doesn't exist...

Thursday 16 February 2012

A Short Novel about Watching Birds

My Women Writers Month may be over, but that doesn't mean that I've abandoned the fairer sex completely.  I still have a few books by female writers to get through, mostly by Australian authors - which is handy for two of the challenges I am involved in, the Australian Women Writers Challenge and the Aussie Author Challenge.  Last month, I read and reviewed Carrie Tiffany's first novel, Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living, and as I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of her second novel at the same time, that's what you're getting today :)

Mateship with Birds is also set in the Victorian countryside (in the town of Cohuna, near the New South Wales border), but a generation later, in the 1950s.  Betty and her two children, Michael and little Hazel, live by themselves on the edge of town, and their nearest neighbour, Harry, has become a friend who helps out around the house.  Both Harry and Betty are long single, and it is clear from the start that there is a spark between the two.

Apart from staring wistfully at each other's windows, Harry and Betty spend their time looking after their respective 'herds' - Harry's milk cows and the old men Betty helps to care for at the local nursing home - while Michael begins to realise that there is more to life than school and farming.  When Harry catches his young neighbour in a compromising position one day, he decides that it is time to give the boy some important advice for life...

Mateship with Birds is very different to the usual city-centric Australian fiction, but don't imagine that life in the country is peaceful and pleasantly bucolic.  The days are full of sex (mainly the people), violence (mainly the birds) and excrement (both), and Tiffany delights in describing it all for us in great detail.  We're treated to frequent mentions of shit, sweat, piss and slobber, both animal and human.  It's not always comfortable reading, but it does come across as the natural way of life out in the country...

Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living was first published in 2005, seven years before Mateship with Birds.  If you were wondering what took Tiffany so long to produce a follow-up book, an interview I spotted recently in The Age might give you the answer.  You see, she actually wrote another book (Freud in the Bush) around a fictional visit the great psycho-analyst (never) made to Australia in 1911.  Originally planning to mock Freud, Tiffany abandoned the book when she realised that she actually agreed with many of his claims...

...and this is painfully evident throughout Mateship with Birds.  The book is littered with Freudian allusions, and the focus on sex is almost obsessive, with (it seems) barely a page passing without some sort of mention.  Oedipal complexes abound, and the fathers you would expect to see in the story are more conspicuous by their absence.  Most of the characters have dreams that any Freudian psycho-analyst would have a field day with, and at one point Harry writes about a childhood memory of his mother doing something very intimate in his presence.  Even the baby kookaburra, feeding its mother for the first time, seems to be in on the act...

It is possible though to think about the story in non-Freudian terms (just about!).  There is a strong focus on family and what that entity actually is.  Whether it's Betty and her children, Harry's skittish herd or the laughing kookaburras in the old gum tree, the reader is constantly confronted by family groups, none of which seem perfect or complete in the usual sense.  However, even these groups can be surprisingly strong:
"In the way of a family, the herd is greater than the sum of its members.  Even in a small family, three for instance, Harry has noticed this to be the case." p.47 (Picador, 2012)
There is also a link back to Everyman's Rules... in the way that science is shown to be a tool to be used cautiously and sparingly.  The more you attempt to impose science on nature, the more you lose sight of what life is about.  Harry's sex education lessons (which are certainly more biological than emotional) are a good example of the consequences of forgetting the human element in life.

Objectively speaking, Mateship with Birds is a better book than its predecessor.  It is more cohesive, and the writing feels stronger than in the author's previous novel.  I loved the little sections where Harry writes about the kookaburra family, the space used in the margins of his notebook forcing his observations into a wonderfully-shaped poetry:
"It seems plausible to consider
that birds were the architects for trees.
A hollow,
or a fork,
for every nesting cradle;
a branch for every grip.
And they designed a structure
to which insects are naturally attracted,
like women to the shops." (p.135)
Subjectively speaking though, I probably preferred Everyman's Rules..., purely because of the continual sex references in Mateship for Birds.  While there isn't a lot of sex in the novel, there's a hell of a lot written about it, often in fairly blunt terms.  This probably says more about me than the novel (and I certainly wouldn't want to discuss the matter in therapy...), but it did affect my enjoyment of the book.  The writer defends her position in the interview mentioned above (quite rightly), and I would definitely recommend Mateship with Birds - it's a very interesting book.  Just don't say that I didn't warn you about the adult content ;)

Wednesday 15 February 2012


Today, I'm making a guest appearance over at Booklover Book Reviews: I'll be talking about Australian literature, looking at an author I admire, and having a good old-fashioned whinge about something that annoys me - why not take a quick look?

Normal service will be resumed here on the blog tomorrow - also Oz-Lit related :)

Monday 13 February 2012

The Return of the Man with the Magnificent Whiskers

While I quite enjoyed my month of women writers, it's nice to get back to a less-restrictive reading pattern - especially nice when that entails a return from an old friend.  And when I say 'old friend', I'm not talking about Trollope himself (although he has kept me company for many a year now), but one of his many fictional creations, a certain Mr. Phineas Finn.  We first met the charming Irish politician in  Phineas Finn, the second of Trollope's Palliser Novels, and Phineas Redux, the fourth of the set, returns our friend to London from his Dublin sabbatical.

After a couple of years away from Westminster, Finn's misguided, but principled, betrayal of his party has long been forgotten, and a letter from an old colleague (along with a feeling of emptiness after his wife's death) soon persuades Phineas to cross the sea and don his parliamentary armour once more.  In no time at all, the reader is back in the midst of Trollope's usual scenes: crooked elections, breath-taking hunts and bitter, spiteful debates in the House of Commons.  It's almost as if we were never away...

The more the novel unfolds, however, the more obvious the differences with the first book (what Trollope actually thought of as the first half of a single book) become.  In Phineas Finn, our friend is a young, innocent, indestructible character.  While he has his troubles, we never have any doubt that he will fall, cat-like, on his feet, usually with a thousand pounds a year and a new love interest to keep him going.

Phineas Redux though introduces a rather more mature Finn, a darker, more pessimistic man.  Where his first attempts to climb the political ladder were almost playful, now that he is keener than ever to make politics his profession, he sees that it is far from the noble pursuit he once thought it.   While the landed gentry, unburdened by the need to actually live off their parliamentary earnings, may be able to command respect, men like Finn, without fortunes of their own, are required to scramble for every crumb which may fall from the party leader's table, sacrificing their dignity in the process

Another difference between the two books is that where Phineas was able to glide through this parliamentary life fairly comfortably during his first terms of office, his second attempt at politics runs a lot less smoothly.  Mr. Bonteen, a minor character in Phineas Finn who is foregrounded in this novel, becomes a major obstacle in our hero's path, one whose spite causes Finn to be left out in the cold by his Liberal Party superiors.  Finn and Bonteen quickly become sworn enemies - until, that is, Bonteen is mysteriously removed from the picture...

The 'redux' of the title is Latin for 'restored' or 'brought back', and it is apt for many reasons.  Not only is our friend (and his moustache!) brought back for the reader's delight, so too are many characters we have met in the first three of the Palliser novels.  This is one of the many joys of reading Trollope's work - though he, like many Victorian writers, uses a number of minor plot strands, he is able to make these sub-plots more interesting by using old friends to paint in the minor details of the bigger picture.

Who needs to invent scores of new characters when you can bring back the likes of the Duke of Omnium, Madame Max Goesler and Lord Chiltern?  When the pivotal murder strand needs an alternative murderer, who better than to fulfil that role than a shady character we met in the previous novel?  Even where there's a need for a new character, let's just pluck a relative of the wonderfully sanguine Plantagenet Palliser from the aether to suit our purposes.  Comfort reading indeed :)

As is always the case with my reviews of the Palliser novels, there are several other ideas which would justify a post in their own right.  Just as Phineas Finn did, Phineas Redux once more examines the frustrations of middle-class women in Victorian England, bored to tears and prey for idle gentlemen when single, mere chattels of their husbands when married (especially if the marriage was more for the sake of convenience than love).  The character of Lady Laura Kennedy is an exceptional one, and a thorough retracing of her character over the course of the two books would show a complexity that many readers may think beyond Trollope.

There's also the small matter of the double-edged sword of publicity and the fashionable world.  Phineas benefits greatly from his high-class connections and his position in parliament, but the flip side of this is the extra attention paid to him in his most difficult hours.  The crusade against him in the pages of The People's Banner is eerily reminiscent of the way certain British tabloids consider it their duty to interfere with the lives of the rich and famous today...

Despite all these fascinating ideas though, the reader will always return to the man himself, our young Irish friend, a character whose early innocence and joy for life has been seriously tempered by the ordeals he has gone through.  By the time we reach the end of this chapter of his story, we fully understand why he makes the decision he does.  No longer is he as happy a man as he was when he first set foot in London; in return though, he has acquired a much greater maturity and depth of character, traits which will stand him in good stead in later years when he eventually returns to the parliamentary fray - which he will, as a minor character, in the final two novels in the series.

Don't worry - next time I'm in the Palliser world (in the not-too-distant future...), I'll be sure to give him your regards...

Thursday 9 February 2012

Making Sense(ibility) of it all

An alien, walking into the average Anglophone bookshop, would be forgiven for thinking that Jane Austen must have been the single greatest writer in the history of literature.  Despite only producing a handful of works, various editions of her novels tend to be scattered across the shelves, dominating the classics section wherever you go.  The fact that our Alien friend probably wouldn't have made it that far, having been distracted by the gigantic vampire section at the front of the shop is a matter for another time - although, even here, you're never far away from Saint Jane...

While I quite like Austen's work, I'm not the biggest of fans myself, and the one novel I've had trouble with in the past is Sense and Sensibility, a book I read a couple of times in my youth.  A spate of reviews recently brought it to mind, and (as I was in the middle of my Women Writers Month) I thought I would give it another try.  Did I end up loving it, or was I able to find out what it is about the book that puts me off ?  Patience, patience...

Sense and Sensibility, as many of you will know, is primarily focused on the lovelives of the two eldest Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne.  After the death of their father, they are forced into a move to pastures fresh by the stinginess of their half-brother (and the meanness of his wife...).  The move takes the sober, rational Elinor away from the man her sister believes her to be engaged to, Edward Ferrars; however, for the impetuous, passionate Marianne, the change of scenery brings with it two very different suitors.  Will the two sisters find love and happiness at the end of the novel?

Yep, stupid question.  A better question, of course, is who the lucky men will be, and how it will all pan out; a relatively happy ending is never in doubt.  Of course, there are many twists and turns before we find the answer, and we have ample opportunity to observe the two girls and marvel at their opposing attitudes to life.  Elinor's clear-headed, over-cautious approach clashes at all points with Marianne's uncompromising quest for the perfect romance...

...and this is exactly what Austen is aiming to do, as the sisters are more than just characters.  They are actually embodiments of two philosophical approaches, with Elinor representing the Enlightenment and Rationalism, while Marianne is the epitome of Romanticism.  The reader is able to compare and choose between two modes of life, the scientific and the natural, the cool and the passionate, the reserved and the uninhibited.  At first, it appears that the choice is an easy one, as much as we would all enjoy running barefoot up and down hills all summer; however, the longer the novel goes on, the more it becomes apparent that both extremes have their disadvantages.

Is it a good book?  Of course, but that is pretty much a given, and not the question I'm trying to answer for myself here.  Do I like it?  Yes, but...  There is a lot to like about Sense and Sensibility, not least the metaphorical rope Austen gives her characters, allowing them to commit social suicide at their leisure, but I have a few reservations which affected my enjoyment of the book.

The first is that unlike Pride and Prejudice and Emma, Sense and Sensibility delivers you into the hand (and mind) of a central character it is very difficult to feel for.  I get the impression that Austen began the book thinking that Elinor was the natural heroine, the sister most people would sympathise with, but the longer the novel goes on, the less clear this impression becomes.  It is also very hard at times to distinguish between what Elinor thinks and what the impersonal narrator is saying.  Occasionally, some very nasty things are said, and people are most cruelly depicted, but it is difficult to tell whose opinion this is...

Another problem is the resolution of the story and the matrimonial choices made.  The last part of the novel seemed rather rushed and contrived, and while Austen certainly justifies her decisions, I can't say I agree with them (I would have chosen different partners for both Elinor and Marianne!).  Certainly, Marianne's recovery and eventual surrender are very weak to the modern eye.

Finally, Sense and Sensibility, unlike other Austen novels I've read, seemed horribly claustrophobic.  I felt trapped inside Elinor's point-of-view (not one I particularly enjoyed) while everything of importance was happening elsewhere.  Each time the sisters announced that they were to up sticks and visit another part of England, I rejoiced, grateful for the change of pace that would ensue.

I know that this restricted female life was the reality for the time, and certainly not restricted to this book; however, it's something that I noticed much more here than in the other Austen novels I've read in recent years.  I am (as someone recently mentioned...) more in my comfort zone in the later Victorian era, and one reason for that is the extended palette the writers use.  After wandering through the vast Dickensian and Trollopian expanses of London, being stuck sewing in a cramped cottage seems a little tame by comparison...

Don't let me put you off reading Sense and Sensibility: it's an excellent novel, and this post has been more about helping myself to understand my feelings towards it than about coming to any objective conclusion as to the worth of the book.  Nevertheless, I fully expect outraged Janeites to disagree - comments and abuse in the usual place, please ;)

Sadly though, that's all I've got time for today.  I've just had a call from the local bookshop - apparently, there's a little green man, clutching a copy of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and he does not look happy.  Duty calls...

Monday 6 February 2012

How I Lost Your Mother

I am a fairly placid sort of blogger, one unwilling to lay into novels in the way some reviewers do, but there are some books which, for some reason or other, just annoy me.  Let's leave it there for a while...

Kyung-Sook Shin's Please Look After Mother (translated by Chi-Young Kim) is a Korean million-selling novel, due to be published in twenty-three countries and short-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize.  It's a story in five parts, told from the points of view of the titular mother's family members after her disappearance on a visit to Seoul to see her family.  She becomes separated from her husband at the city's main train station and, despite the family's best efforts, cannot be found.

However, the novel is less about the search for the mother than a reevaluation of her life, seen through the eyes of the people who have taken her for granted for so long.  As they begin to share stories, they realise that the picture they had of her is deeply flawed, and each of them realises just how much she meant to them - if only too late.  It's also an allegory for the situation of the nation as a whole, one which may have sacrificed its past in order to ensure a prosperous future.

Before you start thinking that this is a wonderfully heart-warming story though, one you might want to look for on your local library database, let me give you a piece of advice - don't bother.  Please Look After Mother is a piece of trashy kitsch, a giant guilt-trip of a book which has probably sold its million copies simply by virtue of making middle-class Koreans uncomfortable about not having called Mum much recently.  I am amazed that it made it onto the Man Asian short-list (ahead of Murakami's 1Q84!), and I am crossing my fingers that the panel aren't short-sighted enough to actually give it the prize.

So what's wrong with it?  To be honest, there isn't much right with it, but I'll list a few of my concerns.  The way the book is structured, using first-, second- and third-person viewpoints, is gimmicky and pointless - the idea adds nothing to the story being told.  The actual story itself is repetitive: once you get past the first section, it's the same old story of whining, sibling squabbles and hand-wringing.  The characters are wooden and unlikeable, especially the men (which could be a cultural thing or merely bad writing), and shout at each other at the drop of a hat.  I think you've got the idea by now that I'm not a huge fan.

What was probably a very average novel in the original though has undoubtedly been made worse by a sub-par translation.  Please Look After Mother reads like a clichéd translated novel, clumsy, with unnatural sentence structure and over-formal language (meant to reflect the original Korean, no doubt, but out of place in a translation).  There were also several errors with pronouns, forcing me to go back and find out who exactly was supposed to be talking to whom, and an obsession with repeated relative clauses, which just looked strange in English.

It's sad because the idea behind the novel is a good one.  The premise of an old woman's disappearance serving as a reflection on the price paid for the rapid societal progress South Korea has made over the past few decades is a very interesting one.  We get to see how Seoul has developed in the space of a generation, and the way in which the population has shifted from a rural to a mainly urban one in a matter of decades.  However, Shin's treatment of these issues is superficial and fleeting, as is her attempt to portray the effect of the mother's disappearance on her family.  Sadly, I really didn't care about any of them.

As I am nothing but fair though, I'll finish by pointing you in the direction of a few more reviews.  The team behind the Shadow Man Asian Prize have nearly all reviewed this book, so why not have a look at what they had to say?  I'm sure it'll be more entertaining than the book itself...

Thursday 2 February 2012

January 2012 Wrap-Up

We're back for another year of reading and reviewing, and it's time for my first monthly wrap-up for 2012.  On the spur of the moment, January became my Women Writers Month, with a couple of delights from each of my specialist areas (plus one bonus featurette!), all written by women - which means that they have a big head-start on the men this year!  But enough waffle, let's get on to the numbers...

Total Books Read: 11
Year-to-Date: 11

New: 10
Rereads: 1

From the Shelves: 3
Review Copies:
From the Library: 2
On the Kindle: 4

Novels: 8
Novellas: 2
Non-Fiction: 1

Non-English Language: 6 (2 Japanese, 2 German, 1 Spanish, 1 Korean)
In Original Language: 2 (2 German)

Books read in January were:

Murakami Challenge: 0 (0/3)
Aussie Author Challenge: 2 (2/12)
Australian Women Writers Challenge: 2 (2/10)
Japanese Literature Challenge: 2 (10/1)

Tony's Turkey for January is: Kyung-Sook Shin's Please Look After Mother

My inaugural monthly turkey (the 'award' has been established so that I'll have a dozen plump birds to choose from at the end of the year!) is Please Look After Mother, a book which has somehow made the shortlist for the Man Asian Prize.  I have no idea how, as it is a weak, sickly-sweet, poorly-written (and poorly-translated) slip of a book.  The central idea is a really good one; I just find the execution totally lacking.  Until I read this one, I had assumed that The Seamstress would be taking home the drumsticks - the reality is though that despite its flaws, I actually quite enjoyed Dueñas' book at times, something I can't say for Shin's...

Tony's Recommendation for January is: Alexis Wright's Carpentaria

The chillingly dark Hotel Iris was excellent, and my latest find from the electronic graveyard, Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach's study of nature versus nurture, Das Gemeindekind, was also a front-runner.  However Wright's lengthy story of life in Australia's far north won out for its blend of social commentary and magical story-telling - definitely one that any reader can enjoy :)

That's all for January then.  I'll see you all again in February, when I'll probably have a few books by men to review - and about time too ;)