Ok, so it has been a while since I have posted – the book reading has been ongoing, although a large project at work has waylaid me in writing up some of these reviews here. The deadline has now passed so I can get on and address the backlog of books to review, and this time it is Masquerade. This is actually a children’s book and one I cannot believe I did not find in my childhood. It was published in 1979 by Kit Williams an artist and author. Williams wanted to created a book that he hoped children would pore over again and again rather than dismiss after one reading by having the book contain clues to a real life treasure hunt. Masquerade is the story of a journey by Jack Hare to deliver an amulet to the sun from the moon, which he unfortunately losses along the way, there in creating the context for the treasure hunt. The treasure was a gold filigree jewelled rabbit amulet – see below for a picture. The book set off a wave of Masqueraders (as they ended up being known) traversing the length of England digging up bits of earth in search of the golden rabbit. Williams even had to pay for a sign to be erected in Haresfield Beacon, that the amulet was not buried there to stop people from continually searching the area. This treasure hunt went on for much of the 1980s until the amulet was finally discovered in Ampthill, Bedfordshire in 1989, admittedly with some controversy (which you can read about here), which was a bit of a shame as the whole idea seemed to be so spectacularly conceived by Williams and received by readers all over the world. The book is fantastic and I highly recommend it – it is no longer in print so I had to order a copy from the US, so when the little bub grows up she can read it too. So how actually did I find out about this book after all this time – well an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum section about a new play based on the book, and also called Masquerade. Kate Mulvany is the playwright behind the new version and her story of how she came to find the book, and the story of writing the play is a beautiful story in its own right. The play had it premiere at the Sydney Festival in January, and little sis and I went and checked it out. The play is described as family theatre – appealing to all ages. I was thinking here we go, this will be like the modern disney movies, cartoons but with some adult innuendo for the parents who are also watching, but I was wrong, it was genuinely a good play. The story was one thing, but what made the play was the music, a group of musicians named Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen played all the music within the play, including the man who plays the music that makes the world go around. All in all both the book and the play are beautiful and whimsical and I recommend both. 4 and a half stars Next up we have The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel.
As the post last week noted I am a big fan of Andrew Marr. I have read his history books on the UK and regularly listen to him on the radio, so when I saw this book in my local library I quickly picked it up. In some ways I was surprised that he would write a book on not such a serious topic – drawing, hardly up there with his other books on history and politics, but I was still willing to give it a go. In the introduction Marr writes, “This is a short book about drawing, but really, it is a book about happiness. Whatever I am doing when I am drawing, it has some relationship to whatever people are doing when they make music, pray, dance, write. How does it relate to the “art world” though? Does it have a point, or is the point that it doesn’t? And if so, what am I doing? If you draw too, what, really are you doing?”.
Marr goes on to analyse his drawing as both hard work and the result of repetitive practice over many years but also as his space for freedom and play in his very busy life. The book is filled with his own drawings – he says with dual purpose – to prove that anyone can draw, including him, and second because he owns the copyright to his own pictures they are cheap! Marr talks about how drawing fits into the art world and how drawing is ultimately as creative as painting because even if you are drawing a scene or copying a picture, the drawing will be the result of the image you have in your mind then transmitted to your hand – so every drawing is shaped by some essence of the person who drew it. Marr also talks about the artisan mode of ‘making something’ that drawing provides and how satisfying that is. The book also discusses the physicality of drawing – the hand and eye coordination, that drawing is a two handed pursuit and particularly if you draw in nature you have to battle the elements. Marr comments in the introduction that he had finished the first draft of this book about two weeks before he had his well publicised stroke, and he talks of his frustrations about not being able to draw in the same way (his left arm was largely paralysed) and how he has had to change the way he draws – still the book is filled with an impressive number of drawings that have been done on a iPad using the app called Brushes.
All in all this is an enjoyable book and gives an insight into something that many of us do on the sidelines of our lives without even thinking about, but yet underneath can reveal a lot about who we are individually and collectively (humankind need to make things and the need for aesthetics). I had started reading the book a few days before the horrible attacks in Paris on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and these themes seem to have been even more emphasised, and that drawing is a serious topic.
I am giving this book three and a half stars.
Next week’s book is Masquerade by Kit Williams
I have actually had this book for a while but never got around to reading it. Another of my resolutions for the new year was to start reading some of the books that have been guiltily starring at me back from groaningly full bookshelves. I am a big fan of Andrew Marr’s BBC Radio Four show – Start the Week. I listened to it religiously when I lived in England, it ran from 9-10am on Monday mornings, which meant that I was always late for work on Mondays and then this set everything in train for the rest of the week (w ell that is my excuse anyway). Fortunately working at a university we did not really have set starting time but somehow the 9am start time seems ingrained in me – well it did then, now, too many late nights of work have erased that.
Anyway, I digress, Start the Week for those who do not know it was a radio interview show with three to four guests each having recently written a book, performed in a show, opened an exhibition or done something very interesting. It was always a fantastic hour of listening to these very interesting people talk on some theme for the week. I still listen via podcast. Andrew Marr was amazing in that he had always read, seen, visited or listened to every guests book, show or exhibition. He is definitely one of those super achievers that I was highly envious of – although with his stroke in 2012 we can wonder whether this brilliance came at some personal cost.
Stephen Grosz was one of the guests on one week, and the theme for that week was Family Secrets. He was joined by Deborah Cohen who had also written a book about Living with shame in Victorian times, Sarah Dunant author of Blood and Beauty and Alex Graham, a TV producer for the Who do you think you are TV show in the UK. The discussion that day was riveting and I ended up buying both Grosz and Cohen’s book.
Grosz is a psychoanalyst and had written this book about the different stories of his patients – obviously changing the names, but presenting a fascinating account of how different people deal with the minor and major crises in their lives, the problems that are thrown at them and the ones of their own making. Over his career Grosz has spent more than 50,000 hours listening to people tell their stories – some of his patients have been coming to see him weekly, for years. I wonder whether he does not know some of his patients better than their own families! The Examined Life is the collection of these stories and it is a thoroughly human book, one in which the both the mystery and also banality of everyday life is told through the lives of his patients. The book includes chapters on topics such as why people tell lies, how paranoia can relieve suffering and prevent a catastrophe, why parents envy their children, why people are boring, why we mourn the future and on bearing death. In each case Grosz presents the story of one of his patients – he holds back on presenting his own thoughts and psychoanalysis of the situation until it is necessary for the story and what results is the telling of situations that I think most of us will be able to relate to, or at least imagine. In his preface he writes one of the reasons for this book is to show the desire we all have to be understood and to understand the things that have happened to us. He writes “…At one time or another, most of us have felt trapped by things we find ourselves thinking or doing, caught by our own impulses or foolish choices; ensnared in some unhappiness or fear; imprisoned by our own history.” In reading the stories of others it opens a view to understanding ourselves, and as a result this is a comforting and satisfying book. I am giving it four stars.
Next week is another non-fiction book – A short book on drawing by Andrew Marr.
You know that expression change is as good as a holiday, well for me Donna Leon books are as good as a holiday – well almost, obviously the actual holiday would still be better, but there is something intensely relaxing and soothing about sitting back on the lounge with the latest Brunetti detective novel. So much so that I tend to ration them, not starting the latest one until I know there is another one in the works. This has lead to the happy occasion that when I started A Question of Faith, I was actually three behind in the series and I knew another one was in the works – so I could whip through this one without a second thought of guilt – much like one whips through a tub of ice cream when they know they have been to the gym three times that week – virtuously!
For those of you that have not had the pleasure, Leon writes a series of books with Guido Brunetti as the main character. He a Commissario in the Venetian police force, and each novel follows Brunetti and his sidekick Ispettore Vianello, and the always beautifully dressed Signorina Elettra, the Vice Questore’s PA and also who must be one of Italy’s top computer hackers, in the solution to some crime. Throughout which Brunetti continues his ordinary life in Venice of stopping in wine bars for tramezzini and prosecco, stopping home for lunch with his wife Paola and children Raffia and Chiara for what seem like simple yet luscious meals followed with coffee and grappa on the terrace looking overlooking the canal. See what did I tell you, who cannot be relaxed by this.
Donna Leon seems to hit on some topical social issue with each of her books whether it is the trafficking of eastern european women as prostitutes, illegal waste dumping or mercy killing in nursing homes. A Question of Belief is no different, this time taking up the issue of telephone horoscopes and fortune tellers preying on old women. In all of Leon’s novel there is the omnipresence of corruption and graft in the public services and church, the feeling in heavy in some books more so than others, but always there. In this book it focuses on corruption within the judiciary with the painfully slow process of the Italian judicial system under examination.
The book opens with Venice in the grip of a heatwave and everyone about to go on holidays in August. Ispettore Vianello has just found out his favourite aunt is withdrawing large amounts of cash from the family business to give to a telephone fortune teller and will listen to no reason otherwise – so Brunetti and Vianello arrange some unofficial surveillance in an attempt to provide the aunt with some evidence of the soothsayers flaws. Brunetti is just about to escape the heat of Venice with his annual family holiday to the mountain regions of Bolzano and so the unofficial investigation is put on hold. The murder of a long serving court official brings Brunetti back from his holidays after only one day, and he must again face down the stifling Venetian heat to solve the crime. Both the investigations – into the murder and the soothsayer – highlight the distance between the public and private faces of some people, and how this distance can get people into trouble.
This is not one of the best Brunetti novels, the crime- procedural part is a bit of a slow burn and the resolution a bit too neat (in conclusion if not consequence) but hey, the pleasure I draw from Brunetti novels is not all held in the storyline, and it was in the middle of a Sydney heatwave so I could relate.
Next week’s book is The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz
So I am not the only one with good intentions to read more books in the new year. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook has made it his challenge of the year to read at least one new book a fortnight, listing 2015 as his ‘Year of the Book’ and he has created a space online where he will be sharing his journey here is the link to the Year of Books community – I am sure Sparrowreads provided some inspiration (just kidding). Zuckerberg is renowned for his once a year challenges – previous years have included learning mandarin, speaking to at least one non Facebook employee per day and wearing a tie to work everyday – I have to say that this year’s challenge seems to be the most interesting so far. The Year of Books has made news around the world with many commenting on the ability of Zuckerberg to match Oprah in terms of her book buying power (or directing book buying anyway). The first book of the year is The End of Power by Moisés Naím which has already sold out on Amazon.com. There will no doubt be many publishers clamouring to get their titles into one of the 26 that Zuckerberg selects for his year. No word from the man on how he is selecting the titles, or how a discussion in one Facebook thread with thousands of readers could possibly even work…but I am happy to wait and see.
Ok book number 1 for 2015 is Richard Flanagan’s Wanting. A couple of years ago I heard someone saying good things about this book but I never got around to reading it and when I finished Flanagan’s latest book (and Booker prize winner work) the Long Road to the Deep North I was ashamed to admit that this was actually the first book I had read of what was undoubtedly one of Australia’s best writers. So off to the library to peruse his other tittles – unfortunately this was in the few weeks after the booker win so nothing was available, but coming back a few weeks later I saw this book on the shelf. The blurb on the back of the book describes this book as a meditation on the ways in which desire shapes all our lives, and it is desire – the satisfaction of it or the denial of it that brings the divergent story lines explored in this book together. It is set in 19th century Tasmania and England (London and Manchester) and covers issues of power and control and really the clash between european ‘culture’ (and event the debate about what makes up european culture) in comparison to indigenous cultures of the Tasmania the polar regions.
It is not a happy story alas, and again gives pause and consideration for the way early european settlers treated the indigenous population. The story has three main lines: the adoption of a orphaned aboriginal child by then governor of Tasmania John Franklin and his wife Jane, and Jane’s fruitless search in latter years for the lost polar expedition Erbus that included her husband, and the later life of Charles Dickens and the beginning of his last love with Ellen Ternan. These three stories are intricately connected by characters and also by the actions of the characters is searching and resisting the things that they ardently want.
Flanagan’s beautiful writing is again on display. In the recent furore over the Prime Minister’s book award for Fiction – which was shared between Flanagan and Steve Carroll this year (with the PM intervening to ensure that Flanagan’s shared the award) – head judge for the awards Les Murray (the poet not the football player/ commentator) stated that the judging panel had rejected Flanagan’s “stupid book” saying a “clear majority of us (the judging panel) thought the Flanagan book was superficial, showy and pretentious and we disdained it”. I thought the comments were a bit unnecessary and unkind seen as Flanagan had nothing to do with the judging but just seemed to be collateral damage to Murray’s obviously wounded pride and coming just after Flanagan won the Booker goes to show that all these prizes are just a matter of taste. Personally I like Flanagan’s style of writing, as far as ‘literary’ fiction goes I found it beautiful yet not pretentious in that he has this way of describing everyday things in a simple and unexpected way, similar I would say to that of Julian Barnes. What do others think? It is in describing similar emotions and desires that the disparate story lines and bought together and the book is something more than its parts. It is a smaller story than Long Road to the Deep North, to such an extend that I think it is unfair to compare the two side by side, or one after another as I am doing in my mind. If I had read Wanting first I think it would have made a bigger impact on me, but coming after the Long Road to the Deep North I can see how much Flanagan has developed as a storyteller – or maybe this was just his big story to tell. I recommend Wanting highly – but if you only have time to read one I would go for the Deep Road to the Long North. Score out of five – I would give it three and a half.
Book number 2 is something a bit lighter: A Question of Belief by Donna Leon.
Well I know it has been a while since I last wrote here, but with the new year starting I have been thinking about getting back to blogging. With the new year’s fireworks – pretty spectacular here in Sydney – I have also come up with another resolution. A couple of years ago (ok maybe eight years ago) I was listening to a late night radio show with Phillip Adams and he was talking about how the world would be a different place if everyone read a book a week – people would know so much more about the world around them and they would spend less time watching TV because they would be reading. I cannot argue with the sentiment of his thoughts – although you could probably mount opposite arguments about the amount of time spent reading means less time for spent with family and exercising etc. Every since I heard that radio talk I ave thought that reading a book a week would be a great idea – I was in the middle of my PhD at the time, so thought not a good idea to start now, but as soon as I finished….even when I did finish, other things got in the way, but no longer! As a new years resolution I have decided that 2015 will be it and this is when I will start – so the challenge a book a week, and I will write about each of the books here.
The first book will be Richard Flanagan’s Wanting. Yes the 2014 Booker Prize winner Flanagan. I have read his amazing book The Long Road to the Deep North. A quote on the front cover described the book as “savagely beautiful” which at first glance I did think was an odd description, how can something be savage and beautiful but now reflecting back on the story it is an extremely apt description. But, I read this book last year – so cannot be counted in this year’s list. The Long Road to the Deep North did inspire me to look further at Richard Flanagan’s work – which I am sorry to say that I had not read anything else of, and this took me to Wanting. So happy new year everyone and happy reading in 2015.
In a nutshell…
Americanah is the story of Ifemelu and Obinze who grow up and fall in love as teeneagers in Nigeria during the 1990s. They are separated when Ifemelu moves to America to study. Adichie’s novel tells the tale of Ifemelu’s introduction to America and the changes it has on both herself and her relationship with Obinze. While Ifemelu and Obinze’s relationship is central to this novel, this is not just a love story with plenty of other themes explored including race, class and politics and the legacies they leave.
I was slightly apprehensive when I first picked this book up. It was the title of choice for my book club last month and is not a book I would normally be drawn to. Weighing in at nearly 500 pages, the prospect of slugging through it in order to have an intelligent conversation with my friend who picked (and loved) this book was slightly daunting.
Thankfully, my fears were unfounded. This book is both smart and funny and deals with issues of race and class with an irony and lightness of touch I haven’t come across in a long time.
Americanah is the story of Ifemelu who starts the book as a teenager growing up in Nigeria. The students who attend her school are obsessed with the western world and schoolyard creed is measured by how many songs, fashion labels and magazines you have picked up from the two bastions of western culture, Britain and America.
While Ifemelu wears American fashions and reads American magazines her connection to the west is different. She is much more reserved and skeptical about the dream that is America and what it can really offer.
This reticence deepens after Ifemelu travels to America to live and study. Adjustment to a new country is hard and Ifemelu faces the inevitable bouts of racism (some inadvertent, others blatant) as well as unemployment, depression and financial woes. The novel becomes quite dark about a third of the way through however is saved from being outright depressing by Ifemelu’s dry humour and steady perseverance.
Ifemelu eventually chronicles her experiences in a successful blog which ultimately ends up being the vehicle of her salvation, providing her with a stable income and the opportunity to articulate the otherness she feels. As a reader I found the blog a great narrative tool. It got across some otherwise confronting messages in a direct way without preaching.
For me this book had two key draw cards. The scenes about Nigeria, which are for want of a better comparison, written in HD quality with full surround sound. Adichie talks about Nigerian life in such as way that I often got the feeling I was watching the story unfold while being shown around by a local.
The second draw card are the novel’s two key characters, Ifemelu and her love interest Obinze. I can’t help but wonder if these characters are drawn from Adichie’s own life, they’re both so genuine with personalities, hang ups and faults which most readers can relate to. While reading this book there were a number of times I found myself annoyed at choices that Ifemelu or Obinze had made. In my experience the ability of characters to irritate me through their antics is a sure sign of a good book as I’m becoming I’m becoming involved and not just passively reading.
However while Ifemelu and Obinze are both written in technicolor the rest of the characters are not (with few exceptions). I found many characters, particularly the American characters to be two dimensional and in some instances not much better than stereotypes. For instance, Curt, who is one of the key influences on Ifemelu’s life while she is in America is rich, beautiful and megawatt happy but not much else. Similarly, the members of Curt’s family vary between shades of vapid and pleasant. The only marginally interesting character from the family group is Curt’s bitchy cousin Laura, who is threatened by Ifemelu’s appearance in the family and vents this through various childish but humourous attempts at baiting Ifemelu with poorly guised racist remarks.
The verdict? I definitely recommend this. Its long (maybe too long in parts) but easy to read and will have you thinking about it for weeks afterwards.
I have read most of Sally Vickers’ novels (Mr Golightly’s holiday I only managed to get halfway through) and she writes in such a gentle, knowing kind of way that when you finish each book you find that reading it as been a refreshing experience. Each book seems to have some link with religion and this always has me wondering what kind of upbringing Vickers had in that her wonder with the religious and spiritual still seem in tact and unburdened by disappointment or disillusionment.
This story centres around the town of Chartres and its famous cathedral. It was a coincidence that the book I finished before starting on this one was Alex Miller’s Conditions of Faith, part of which was also set in Chartres (the site of Emily’ affair and also where she returns to give birth to her daughter, Marie). The whole issue of motherhood looming in Emily’s life took on new meaning when read the first few paragraphs of the Cleaner of Chartres and finding out that the key draw card (I.e. Relic) of the cathedral was the birthing gown of the Virgin Mary, a gift to the church by the grandson of Charlemagne, and a gift that miraculously survived the fire in the cathedral in 1194. S this was a holy mother site literally.
The main character in this book is Agnes Morel – this not being her real name, but as she was abandoned as a baby, found by a rural farmer Jean Dupere, in an area where the morels usually go – this is how he came to name her – Agnes after the lady saint, and Morel after where she was found. He takes Agnes to the nearby Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy who eventually agree to take the baby Agnes in and raise her.
Agnes life progresses in waves of happiness and sadness and many yeas later she ends up in the town of Chartres, destitute, alone and looking for a new start. Slowly she begins to build a life and home for herself (doing way more cleaning than it should be right for anyone person to do) and we learn about the lives and loves of the small cast of characters that surround Agnes in her new life, each of whom have been damaged in some way, and each of whom have come to Chartres to find something that they seem to be only getting just by without.
Sometimes you think that Vickers is cast her characters is too black and white a tone, that there is not enough grey around the edges for them to be real, but then she takes you gives one further, however small insight and you are back in thinking these are real people. The town of Chartres also is a character and like much writing of the south of France, this place seems to take on the aura of a fairytale (could any place be so lovely, so quaint and perfect without crime, graffiti or even litter!)
This is another book that you can quickly glide through and enjoy the feeling that reading it give you, the feeling doesn’t last that long afterwards, but that is ok – it is good while it lasts.
Well I am back in the country and back to the blog…more about my book adventures abroad later. First up I would like to talk about a bit of an experiment I am conducting with the lil sis – a winter book buying moratorium. This experiment came about for two reasons; firstly looking around our respective book shelves and realising we had many, many books we had on our bookshelves that we wanted to read, but never seem to have time, and secondly to save money. But back to the first reason, I also find I never have time to read my books, but that is not exactly true, I spend lots of time reading – it is more that books have so much competition for my reading eye.
So a book buying moratorium offers me the opportunity to give the books I already own space to catch my eye. The moratorium began on the winter solstice and will end on the spring equinox – very pagan timetable I know. I have been discovering some great titles on my shelves – first up I have been reading Alexandra Harris’ biography of Virginia Woolf, and also two books in the Alison Bruce‘s Gary Goodhew detective series. I am looking forward to my PD James Death in Pemberley (which I got for christmas), Claire Tomlin’s biography of Dickens, and George Megalogenis‘ Australian Moment. So stay tuned for some new reviews.