Thursday, 21 September 2017

Wrong About Japan by Peter Carey

Wrong About Japan was a lovely surprise. My relationship with Peter Carey is a bit hit or miss, but this slim memoir/travel journal with his teenage son hit the mark.

I recently caught up with a well-travelled friend who has been to Japan several times to mine her for information about where to go and what to see. At the end of the chat she loaned me her copy of Wrong About Japan saying it was a book that she and her family all read and enjoyed together.

It turned out to be a fascinating snapshot of manga and anime obsession as well as a great introduction to the Asakusa area of Tokyo and some of the cultural differences that Westerners often feel when the visit Japan trying to find the 'Real Japan'. I hadn't given much thought to manga or anime, well, ever, but reading about Carey and his son's passion for the art form and it's stories, piqued my interest...a little.

Father's of teenage sons have to find all sorts of ways to stay bonded during this weird and often trying phase. I'm not sure how many dads would spot a trip to Japan to assist in that process, but all power to Carey for doing everything within his means. Having watched Mr Books go through this painful time with both his boys, I found many of the brief comments and asides made by Carey to be very affecting and authentic.

The book was first published in 2004. I would love to know what 26 year old Charley now thinks about this trip with his dad and whether he is still enthralled by manga and if he ever returned to Tokyo. I wonder how they both would describe the 'Real Japan' now?

I'm often dissatisfied with outsiders writing about the Australian way of life. On the one hand's it's seductive to see our way of life reflected through an outsider's eyes, but on the other, it's extremely provoking to see how many errors and misconceptions exist. I therefore wonder how a Japanese reader would view Carey's thoughts on his time in Japan.

In this curious little book, I learnt a bit of history about samurai's and sword making, I got a sense of the trains and just how big and complicated the stations can be as well as the hotel rooms and just how small and compact they can be.

I also picked up two more Japan reads to add to my wishlist - Rick Kennedy's Little Adventures in Tokyo and Alex Kerr's Lost Japan.

Part of the pleasure of a holiday really is the anticipation and the preparation.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Abandon All Hope

Unfortunately this is my second post this year detailing books that I did not finish for one reason or another. I still have several half-read books languishing by my bed, but I really do plan to finish them one day, it's just that other stuff has got in the way!

When I'm deciding which book to read next, I search for something that I think might appeal to my current mood or frame of mind. I then try the first page.

I cannot begin to tell you how many books never get to go any further. I really do judge an entire book by it's ability to hook me on page one.

However, once I get past this little hurdle, I'm usually prepared to commit to reading the whole book.

I'm not sure if I'm getting fussier as I get older, but I seem to be more willing to abandon books at various stages of being read. Once a book or an author has lost my interest or my care factor, it can be very difficult for me to continue.

Believe it or not, goodreads has helped me decide which ones to abandon and which ones to persevere with. I normally save review reading until I've finished the book (& written my own response), but with those books that I'm feeling unsure about, I now check what others have thought.

I abandoned The Goldfinch a few years ago and still don't regret it. More recently, I was reading The Vanishing Futurist and began to struggle a little with some elements of the story. I checked goodreads and enough of the reviews there convinced me to continue. And I'm glad I did. It was a fascinating story, with a few reservations.

However three books are now officially relegated to the DNF pile.

The Patriots by Sana Krasikov failed to excite me at all, despite sounding so very promising. Many of my goodreads friends expressed their concerns about exactly what I was struggling I felt comfortable about letting it go.

My goodreads review looked like this -

Did not finish after 53 pgs and reading several reviews on here that had the same problems I did - it was boring, it told rather than showed, an annoying unconvincing protagonist, some lovely phrases & sentences at times but uneven.

Good intentions, interesting premise that simply couldn't maintain my interest

The Easy Way Out by Steven Amsterdam was a special case. I had planned to finish it. There was enough there to keep me going, but bookclub got in the way. I was about three quarters of the way through when I went along to my first bookclub meeting with a new group. The discussion was lively and interesting and quite personal as you would expect with a book about euthanasia.

It was a book that was well written and topical but not particularly riveting reading. I didn't particularly like the main character, Evan, but it was interesting seeing the issue from a nurses point of view.

My family as well as everyone at bookclub were very clearly on the side of voluntary euthanasia. It seems like a black and white issue when you talk to most people. The book, however, was very good at highlighting the complexities and nuances of the debate. Yes, the person dying a painful, drawn-out death may wish to exit that pain and misery, but there are medical staff who have to actually do it and clean up afterwards. There are family members who may be on board with the idea early on, but when it actually comes time to let go, they find that it's so much harder than they thought. And there are medical, religious and legal ideas that muddy the waters even further.

We also discussed why it didn't make the shortlist for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Most of were confused about the books setting - was it Australia or America? It felt like it was happening a few years in the future, but in a city that could be anywhere. Which helped to make the story more universal, but also meant that it was only just eligible to be considered for the Miles Franklin as it didn't really present 'Australian life in any of its phases'. I guess you could say the topical nature of the euthanasia debate is a phase of Australian life that is currently en trend, but it was disconcerting to have no idea where I was the whole time I was reading the book.

Now that I know how the book ends (thanks to the bookclub discussion) I'm ready to move on from this topic.

My final DNF for now was The Last Man in Europe by Dennis Glover.

I was really looking forward to it. I love fictionalised biography and I had seen a recent production of 1984, so it felt fresh in my mind and felt like good timing.

But I struggled with the writing right from the start. It was dull and felt like Glover was trying too hard. Goodreads revealed a whole stack of other reviewers who felt the same.

Yes, some also raved about how much they loved the book, so I tried one more time. However, the scene in the mine was my point of no return. After reading, a number of years ago, Zola's amazing description of entering a mine for the first time in Germinal, it will be very hard for any writer to deliver anything more evocative or descriptive. But it can be done (Meg McKinley did so recently in A Single Stone), unfortunately, Glover did not, or could not.

It felt like there were one too many authors in this book.

Mon evening, 2 days later:

I've just added another book to my DBF pile and one of the reasons I've decided to abandon is above, it seemed logical to add it on.

I have been eagerly looking forward to Alex Miller's newest novel all year. I've adored some of his earlier work, so I had high expectations. The Passage of Love (Allen & Unwin, Nov 2017 ) is also being billed as a fictionalised account of his own story - a genre I usually enjoy.

On the back of my ARC it says,
filled with wry humour, incisive observation and rare wisdom, Miller brilliantly solves the challenge of merging memoir and the novel.... The novel is a monumental achievement by one of our greatest writers.

I confess that all those exuberant adjectives had me a little worried (and I've only shown you one small section of the blurb)!

I was doing okay with the early first person section of the story, where Miller revealed his writers block and existential angst. But then he switched to third person and I began to struggle. The writing was very simple and unemotional - disengaging, dare I say. Every time he wrote the name Robert, I felt annoyed beyond all reason and logic.

I turned to goodreads for help, but the two reviews on offer left me wondering if I was reading the same book. So I turned to my work options.

Books + Publishing is a subscription based industry site for booksellers and other interested parties. I cannot legally copy the reviews posted by my fellow booksellers, but the review for The Passage of the Love, convinced me it was time to abandon ship. The issues I was having with the writing obviously continued the whole way through (the reviewer compared it to the minimalist writing style of Albert Camus in The Strangers) and the final straw for me was the 'if you liked....., then you will like this.'

This being Dennis Glover's The Last Man in Europe.

Have you read any of these books all the way through?
Have you abandoned any books recently or are you like Mr Books, who doggedly slogs his way through every book he starts, just in case it has a good ending?

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Just Saying

This quote popped up on my facebook feed during the week. The problems of NOW have been swirling around in my brain ever since.

We are living in a culture entirely hypnotized by the illusion of time, in which the so-called present moment is felt as nothing but an infintesimal hairline between an all-powerfully causative past and an absorbingly important future. 
We have no present. 
Our consciousness is almost completely preoccupied with memory and expectation. We do not realize that there never was, is, nor will be any other experience than present experience. 
We are therefore out of touch with reality. 
We confuse the world as talked about, described, and measured with the world which actually is. We are sick with a fascination for the useful tools of names and numbers, of symbols, signs, conceptions and ideas.

― Alan W. Watts (Become What You Are, 1955)

I love the idea of NOW and being present in the moment. I've even managed to do so on many occasions. But I get confused about how reflection and planning fit into this idea of NOW.

The only place we can physically be is HERE & NOW, but we have minds. And those minds can wander off all over the place.

I feel that we should use those minds - to reflect on past mistakes, successes and problems to help us manage the stuff that pops up NOW. Those fickle minds can also help us plan for and imagine a future so that we can set up stuff NOW that might be useful later on. In another NOW.

Being HERE & NOW is peaceful, but is it practical?

We cannot relive our memories or inhabit the future, but can we not experience happiness NOW by remembering some of those sweet times past and dreaming about the ones to come?

If NOW is all we have, what's the point of having a memory and an imagination?


Thursday, 14 September 2017

The Vanishing Futurist by Charlotte Hobson

I found the The Vanishing Futurist to be a rather peculiar read.

I'm always fascinated by the Russian Revolution and this was a curious and different angle from which to view it. But it was rather weird reading a book that I wasn't completely sure if I was enjoying it or not. The cover by LaBoca, on the other hand, I adored every time I saw it!

I loved learning about Russian avant-garde art which I knew next to nothing about before. I also wasn't aware of the English governesses who travelled to Russia at the turn of the century and got caught up the revolutionary fervour of the times.

The disintegration of Russian society, the poverty, the hardships and how so many of them simply adapted to and accepted the massive changes was, as always, mind-boggling. And how quickly society, just with different faces in charge, reverted back to those who had stuff (including the power) and those who didn't. How idealism quickly turned to cynicism, hope became drudgery and freedom lost out to total control.

Less convincing was the love story between Gerty and Nikita, mostly because I wasn't sure that I liked either of them very much. It took me quite a while to work out all the people living in the IRT commune, I kept getting them mixed up - perhaps not enough character development to make them gel for me? The sudden jumps forward to modern day Gerty writing her memoirs for her daughter in England also felt a little contrived.

Alexander Rodchenko: Cpstume design for We, 1919-1920
© A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum

The Vanishing Futurist was shortlisted for this year's Walter Scott Prize. I had never heard about the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction before, which I thought was a terrible crime, given my love of historical fiction.

I quickly learnt that it is,

Sponsored by Sir Walter Scott’s distant kinsmen the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, the Prize celebrates quality, and innovation of writing in the English language, and is open to books published in the previous year in the UK, Ireland or the Commonwealth. 
Reflecting the subtitle ‘Sixty Years Since’ of Scott’s most famous work Waverley, the majority of the storyline must have taken place at least 60 years ago.Honouring the achievements of the founding father of the historical novel, the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction is one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the world. With a total value of over £30,000, it is unique for rewarding writing of exceptional quality which is set in the past. 
The Prize was founded in 2010, and is awarded at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose, Scotland, in June every year. The winner receives £25,000 and shortlisted authors each receive £1000.

and that this year's shortlist looked like this,

Jo Baker A Country Road, A Tree (Doubleday)

Sebastian Barry Days Without End (Faber)

Charlotte Hobson The Vanishing Futurist (Faber)

Hannah Kent The Good People (Picador Australia)

Francis Spufford Golden Hill (Faber)

Graham Swift Mothering Sunday (Scribner)

Rose Tremain The Gustav Sonata (Chatto & Windus)

What an amazing feast of historical fiction!
I have now created a page so that I can follow this award in the future (see pages tab on right hand side of this blog).

Vladimir Tatlin: Costume design for Life for the Tsaw, 1913-1915 © A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum

I'm glad I finished the book because I do love learning about new-to-me stuff.

The Russian avant-garde movement began around the 1890's under the Tsarist Empire and wound up by the 1930's (although these dates are often debated). It included Suprematism, Constructivism, Russian Futurism, Cubo-Futurism, Zaum and Neo-primitivism. 
The Russian avant-garde reached its 'creative and popular heights' during the 1917 Revolution, but eventually it clashed with the newly emerged ideals of Socialist Realism (which 'is characterized by the glorified depiction of communist values, such as the emancipation of the proletariat, by means of realistic imagery') Wikipedia

Anna Aslanyan summed up her review on The Vanishing Futurist in The Spectator with,
The disappearing act at the centre of the plot serves as a powerful metaphor for the demise of revolutionary art. The fate of the idealist inventor anticipates that of the Russian avant-garde, best described by Bruce Chatwin in his 1973 essay: ‘The Party did squash it. But it also died of fatigue.’

If this era intrigues you as much as it does me, you might like to check out these Russian avant-garde articles:

I can feel a new obsession percolating!

Anton Lavinskii, Battleship Potemkin, 1926

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Top Ten Tuesday - Aussie, Aussie, Aussie

The Broke and the Bookish host a weekly meme called Top Ten Tuesday.
Each week they nominate a topic to encourage those of us who love a good list to get all listy.

This week is a freebie...

I was meant to spend this past weekend reflecting on my AusReading Month format.
After last year's November event I felt exhausted and not very enthusiastic about hosting another one.
Unfortunately that feeling has lingered all year.

But I love reading Australian authors and books set in Australia.
Hence the idea of having a weekend reflecting on my format.

But life got in the way.

I'm still thinking about having some kind of road trip, with a book or author from every state and territory...but that's as far as I've got.
Nancy @ Nancyelin has suggested a bingo format which could be fun, except that I have never done one before!

Anyhow, to help me get me in the mood, I thought I'd try and rate my ALL TIME TOP TEN AUSTRALIAN books across all genres.

My Top Ten Australian Books


The Ladies of Missalonghi by Colleen McCullough

Despite, or maybe because of the controversy surrounding the provenance of this story, I adore this simple love story set in the late 1800's in the Blue Mountains.

Shark Net by Robert Drewe

This was the first time I really understood the importance of reading books set in your own country about your own life.
Robert Drewe's experiencing of growing up in 1960/70's Australia reflected so much of my own upbringing.
It was the first time I had ever read part of my own life in a book before.
It was very powerful.


Women in Black by Madeleine St John

A coming of age story set in 1950's Sydney, that still looked and sounded like the 1970's Sydney that I grew up with.
Very evocative and moving.

I'm not quite sure if this is my favourite Winton or not, but it's the one I hold most fondly in my heart.
It's due for a reread.


Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner

I've read this childhood classic so many times.
It's funny, sad and loves the Australian bush as much as I do.


The Secret River by Kate Grenville

Although this is another book surrounded by some controversy about the nature of perspective in history, The Secret River introduced many Australians, for the first time, to the idea that perhaps the early settlers really did treat the Aboriginal population very poorly.


Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

What's not to love about this wonderfully creepy, romantic, very Australian mystery?
It also has a fabulous movie.


The Biggest Estate on Earth by Bill Gammage

I learnt soooooooo much in this book that caused me to reassess what I thought I knew about our early colonial history and Aboriginal life prior to white settlement.
Quite a dense read at times, but eye opening and thought provoking from start to finish.


The Great World by David Malouf

A modern day Australian classic that was just as interesting second time round as the first.


The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson

This was a mammoth undertaking a couple of AusReading Months ago.
Over 1000 pages of the life and times of Richard Mahony, an unforgettable character, loosely based on Richardson's own father.
Set in the goldfields of Victoria, Melbourne and England - each area and time is brought vividly to life.
I loved and adored this book so much, that I want everyone to read it if they want to understand what early life was like in white colonial Australia.

Unfortunately blogger is having an image issue today, so no pretty pictures to enhance this post.

Do you have a favourite Australian story?
Do any of my Top Ten tempt you to try one for the first time?

Sunday, 10 September 2017

My Classic Club Questions

Lately, I've been wracked by doubts about what I actually do here at Brona's Books.
Is it reviewing or journaling?
And what about all the memes I like to join in?
Does it even matter what we call it or what we do as long as we're having fun with books and maybe learning something interesting/amusing/OMG-ish along the way?

With a little bit of reflection, I've come to realise that Brona's Books is all about my personal response to what I read. 
Sometimes I add a little bit of researching & philosophising to round out my reading experience.
I also love making lists and joining in readalongs.
However, the main thing I love is engaging with like-minded bookish folk.

Source unknown

I started blogging 8 years ago very much in teacher mode.
I wanted to inform and help other teachers and parents in finding suitable books for the children in their lives, but I got bored with that format rather quickly.

My early posts make me cringe now.
They're completely and utterly soulless and lacking in any personality.
But I keep them all here, as I view Brona's Books as a journey.

It has evolved, stagnated and changed course several times.
I have experimented, explored and ditched things that seemed like a good idea at the time.
And I keep it all here to remind me of my progress.
The good, the bad and the ugly!

One of the things I have always enjoyed is filling out surveys and compiling lists.
The Classics Club has been marvellous in feeding both these habits over the years.

I have been looking for a way to mark the spectacular non-completion of my hugely ambitious CC five year list & this seemed like the perfect response!

Classics Club Questions

Share a link to your club list. When did you join The Classics Club? How many titles have you read for the club? 

I joined up in August 2012.
This is my overly-ambitious 95 classics in five years list.
I've only read 53 of these titles so far.

The list went up and down in size a few times, until I solved my dilemma of new books and a desire to reread by creating CC Take 2.
I've read 10 of these books to date which makes a grand total of 63 classics in five years.

What are you currently reading?

I'm currently rereading The Return of the King by J R R Tolkien.
Or to be precise, I've finished the trilogy and just have the dreaded Appendix to go.
The observant among you will note that this is NOT one of the classics on CC#1.
This has been part of my problem!


I'm also reading several shortlisted, contemporary novels & non-fiction titles at the same time.
This has also been part of my problem!

Best book you’ve read so far with the club, and why?

I think it might have to be Germinal by Zola. 
The mining scenes which I thought would be boring or too technical, were so realistically written.
I felt so claustrophobic and the mine was almost a character in and of itself.
I was impressed with the richness of detail and the incredible storytelling, and I vowed to read the entire Rougon-Macquart series on the strength of this book alone.

Book you most anticipate (or, anticipated) on your club list?

Indiana by George Sand.
I read one of her books in my pre-blogging days - Mauprat.
I've been trying to source her backlist ever since.
Indiana is the only other book I've ever found still in print.
I'm also a little nervous about reading it as I have such high expectations for it.

Book on your club list you’ve been avoiding, if any? Why?

Ulysses by James Joyce for all the obvious reasons.

First classic you ever read?

My mum encouraged me to spend my 12th birthday money on a classic book (and not just another Trixie Beldon!)
On a trip to Sydney for my sister's annual orthodontic appointment, we scheduled a visit to David Jones' book department, where after much indecision, I purchased the Penguin classic of Jane Eyre.
My love affair with classics began.

Chinese Skirt (1933) Agnes Noyes Goodsir

Toughest classic you ever read?

This is a tough question.
Tough in what way?
Some of the Ancient Greek classics I read for my HSC were tough going because I had never read anything like that before, but I grew to love them.
I struggled to read David Copperfield because it was my first Dickens, but I adored it by the end.
The content of If This is a Man by Primo Levi is some of the toughest around, but I was compelled to read every single word.
However, for pure endurance, perseverance and determination to finish, the honour of toughest read goes to Homer's The Odyssey.

Classic that inspired you? or scared you? made you cry? made you angry?

Inspired? To Kill A Mockingbird
Scared? The Lord of the Rings - my first read was long before the movies.
The fate of Frodo, Sam et al had my heart in my mouth for the entire journey.
Cry? I very rarely cry in books, but Little Women and Anne of Green Gables still make me tear up.
Angry? Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Longest classic you’ve read? Longest classic left on your club list?

War and Peace, but I read this BBB (before Brona's Books).
I have several chunksters left on CC#1, but I think that Don Quixote wins the chunkiest award.

Oldest classic you’ve read? Oldest classic left on your club list?

I think that Homer's The Odyssey gets the nod for this, which means that the oldest one left on my list is The Iliad.

Favourite biography about a classic author you’ve read — or, the biography on a classic author you most want to read, if any?

I'm not sure I have a favourite, although my current read, The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne may just change that.

Which classic do you think EVERYONE should read? Why?

It's probably the typical response here, but To Kill A Mockingbird has so much to say about justice, mercy, compassion, empathy and plain old fashioned goodness, that it really is the book everyone should read, even if the only thing they get out of it is the famous Atticus quote about walking in someone else's shoes to understand them.

Favourite edition of a classic you own, if any?

The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield is one of the beautifully designed books in the Virago Modern Classics Designer range.
Pretty isn't it?

Favourite movie adaption of a classic?

Nearly everybody else has said this already I'm sure, but To Kill A Mockingbird is really hard to beat, as a book or as a movie.
Gregory Peck will always and forever be Atticus Finch.

Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility has to come in a pretty close second.

As far as TV movie adaptations go, Northanger Abbey (1986) is one of the best Austen versions around.

Classic which hasn’t been adapted yet (that you know of) which you very much wish would be adapted to film.

The Tragedy of the Korosko by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Although it has quite an Imperialistic tone to the modern reader, it also has a lot to say about fear of the other and the unknown, especially in relation to Islam.
It would be interesting and relevant to explore these themes in the context of our current political climate.

Least favourite classic? Why?

Catch 22
I started off enjoying the joke and appreciating the cleverness, but then it just kept on going on and on and on!
It never seemed to get anywhere, especially to the point!

Name five authors you haven’t read yet whom you cannot wait to read.

Elizabeth Taylor, Frances Burney, Mikhail Bulgakov, Victor Hugo and Samuel Richardson.

Reading B G Gujjarappa

Which title by one of the five you’ve listed above most excites you and why?

Camilla by Burney as it was one of Jane Austen's favourites.

Have you read a classic you disliked on first read that you tried again and respected, appreciated, or even ended up loving?

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen went from being my least favourite Austen to (almost) top of the list with this reread.

Which classic character can’t you get out of your head?

Janey from Their Eyes Were Watching God.
A reread is definitely on the cards.

Which classic character most reminds you of yourself?

I'm a mixture of Anne Elliot and Elinor Dashwood.

Reading in Autumn Mountain Shen Zhou

Which classic character do you most wish you could be like?

Jo March.
I love her spunkiness and her goodness.
She is so enthusiastic and in touch with her creative side.
I envy that.

Which classic character reminds you of your best friend?

There is no character that comes close to my BFF.
She does however have the loyalty of Melanie Hamilton, the tenderness of Diana Barry and the humour of no book character I've ever met!

Whereas the wonderful Mr Books, BMF extraordinaire, is a lovely mix of Mr Knightley and Captain Wentworth. 
Lucky me :-)

If a sudden announcement was made that 500 more pages had been discovered after the original “THE END” on a classic title you read and loved, which title would you most want to keep reading? Or, would you avoid the augmented manuscript in favour of the original? Why?

Pride and Prejudice because everything about this book is so much more than a 'happily ever after' story.
I want to know how Darcy and Elizabeth navigated their married life.
I want those final paragraphs that Jane tempts us with, to be fleshed out into a proper full length story.

Woman Reading Books (Guy Cambier)  

Classic title(s) that didn’t make it to your club list that you wish you’d included?

All the ones that ended up on CC#2!

If you could explore one author’s literary career from first publication to last — meaning you have never read this author and want to explore him or her by reading what s/he wrote in order of publication — who would you explore?

I've started doing this with Virginia Woolf.
 So far, I've only read her first book, The Voyage Out, but the plan is to make my way through her oeuvre in chronological order.
Given her changing style and how difficult so many people find her later books, I'm hoping this approach will make her work more accessible to me as I evolve right along with her.

I'm also planning on reading the Sherlock Holmes books in chronological order, one day.

Has there been a classic title you expected to dislike and ended up loving?

It wasn't so much that I expected to dislike it, I just thought it might be difficult/tedious with a heavy emphasis on the poor, depressing mining stuff.
It had all of that, but it wasn't difficult and it certainly wasn't tedious.

Classic you are DEFINITELY GOING TO MAKE HAPPEN next year?

More Zola definitely.
 I think its also time to tackle War of the Worlds and begin my Sherlock Holmes journey.

Source unknown

Favourite thing about being a member of the Classics Club? 

The community that gets together to say 'hi' and support each other as soon as a CC Spin is announced, or a check-in post goes up or a what are you reading now.
Love the fellowship.

If you’ve ever participated in a readalong on a classic, tell about the experience? If you’ve participated in more than one, what’s the very best experience? the best title you’ve completed? a fond memory? a good friend made?

I joined in the Their Eyes Were Watching God readalong a few years ago.
I had never heard of this book before, but it sounded intriguing, so I found a copy and jumped on board.
It was an amazing reading experience - the book, the chats and all the reviews.

I also participated in a very enjoyable readalong for North and South.
The only problem I experience is the time difference factor for things like twitter chats.
I would love to do more readalongs though.

If you could appeal for a readalong with others for any classic title, which title would you name? Why?

A Don Quixote readalong is probably what I need to get me into this chunkster.
I think The Master and Margarita would also be best explored in a group.

Question you wish was on this questionnaire? (Ask and answer it!)

What is your favourite non-Western classic?

My favourite Indian classic is The Home and the World by Rabindranath Tagore (discovered thanks to another fabulous readalong event).

My favourite Japanese classic poet is Matsuo Basho.

Thanks for travelling all the way though this rather lengthy Sunday afternoon ramble.
You deserve a medal!

Or a gin and tonic.
Whichever you prefer :-D

Friday, 8 September 2017

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Adam @RoofBeamReader once again hosted #AusteninAugustRBR as well as a #CBAM2017 readalong for Northanger Abbey.

I've read Northanger Abbey a couple of times, many years ago, but it wasn't really one of my preferred Austen's.... until I saw the wonderful 1986 BBC TV film starring Robert Hardy, Katharine Schlesinger and Peter Firth, about ten years after it was made. The film is deliciously gothic and quite true to the book. All the characterisations feel spot on, the costuming is splendid and the music suitably eerie. Bath & Katharine's huge eyes also have a huge part in the story! It is my all-time favourite Austen TV adaptation.

It is now impossible for me to read Northanger Abbey without having these faces and places vividly in mind. Which was actually a huge achievement given that this particular reread of NA occurred poolside in Bali on a recent holiday.

Austen's brother sent Northanger Abbey off to the publisher's for the first time, in 1803. It was her first completed novel. Austen was only 22 when she began this novel, but thanks to a foolish publisher who didn't realise what a gem they had on their hands, it languished unpublished until the Austen family bought it back again in 1816. Austen revised the book in the last two years of her life (changing the heroine's name from Susan to Catherine) and it was finally published posthumously in 1817.

Northanger Abbey is a lighter, funnier novel than most of Austen's other novels. Like many of her Juvenilia, it is a parody of the many gothic and romance novels in vogue at the time. Austen may be having fun here, but many of her well-known, heavier hitting themes also make their first appearance.

Women's issues are front and centre - their economic plight, the marriage market and rational thought versus rampant sensibility. One wonders if this particular passage was part of Austen's later revision (as she was also finishing off Persuasion) or whether Anne Elliot's famous speech about the representation of women in books and history was inspired by this much earlier example of feminist thought.

History, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in....
I read it a little as duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all - it is very tiresome.

Northanger Abbey also explores the idea of first impressions - that people and events may not be what they seem at first and that imagination should not be confused with real life.

It was this loss of innocence as Catherine made her tentative first steps into adult life, that really affected me with this reread. I could sense her desperation to be 'grown-up' - to know stuff and to not be thought silly - but at the same time being confused and uncertain about what was the right way to behave.

I also really, really appreciated the humour this time around - so much so that I had to read several passages out loud to Mr Books, as he lay dozing on the banana lounge next to me. If you have never read any of Austen's books out loud, I urge you to try one day. Reading them out loud brings out the humour as well as highlighting how perfectly each sentence has been constructed.

How can you not laugh at the buffoon John Thorpe with his interminable talk about horses and carriages? His obsession with speed and specifications are surely the harbinger's of our modern day hoon in their hotted up wheels! We've all been stuck at a party sitting next to the guy who thinks everyone else is as fascinated by his mode of transport as he is!

The flipback book series from John Murray do not seem to have taken hold, which is a shame, because they are prefect travel companions. Made with the same soft paper they use in bibles, flipbacks fit in the palm of your hand, are super light-weight and the fonts are surprisingly readable.

I have three of the Austen's on my shelf - they not only take up very little space, but they're also very pretty.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

I Married You For Happiness by Lily Tuck

I Married You For Happiness by Lily Tuck was a bit of an impulse read one grey, rainy work day. It's slim form meant it could slip inside my coat pocket and come along to lunch with me.

I quickly realised that having happiness in the title was a misnomer as this was yet another book about death and loss and grief. 
I have read so many books about dying and sorrow in the past year or so. I'm not sure if it's just me and where my interests are leading me right now, or if it's a wider bookworld theme. 

Considering that I Married You For Happiness was first published in 2011, I have to assume it's me seeking out/being attracted to this theme at the moment. 

A quotation from Blaise Pascal acts as epigraph for the story,
We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us

Which sets the scene for this bitter sweet story beautifully.

Philip and Nina's history is told over the course of one night.
It's the night that Philip has died in his sleep after having a little lie down after work and just before dinner. Nina sits, shocked, with Philip's body, and throughout the long night, she remembers some of the moments that made their marriage what it was - their first meeting in Paris, the birth of their daughter, Philip's career as a mathematician, the flirtations, arguments and counselling, the jealousy, the secrets and, of course, their love, that endured it all.

Philip was a mathematician, so quite a lot of probability and philosophy was thrown into the mix. His rational nature often clashed with Nina's more artistic soul and their marriage, like most, I guess, became a compromise and dance around each other's emotional abilities and needs.

Tuck throws in the occasional harsh reality check - like Nina suddenly remembering a story about an elderly local woman who was brutally raped when her home was broken into, who subsequently died, not so much from the pain, but the shame.

This is where Tuck excelled. She showed us the complicated and sometimes random nature of grief. Weird trivial thoughts and practical matters often interrupted and intruded on Nina's ability to process what had happened. The reality of her loss would hit her anew, as another memory led her back to this present moment. And then off again.

Tuck used a fragmentary style of writing which suited the in and out, to and fro nature of Nina's thoughts. The writing was sparse yet delicate as Tuck explored the age-old tragedy of how one partner will eventually predecease the other in any marriage. And that even though we all know this harsh fact right from the start, it still catches us by surprise when it actually happens.

Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Caravaggio

The only really weird moment for me, the reader, was the ending. Was it all a dream? Or did Nina create a fantasy to sustain herself in her grief? Given that her favourite painting was Caravaggio's Rest on the Flight into Egypt, the reference to an angel with black wings is perhaps not so surprising, and could be seen as a sign of comfort and solace seeking in her time of need.

Seeking comfort is one of the essential strategies we all need to develop to distract ourselves from our grief. We will never erase or forget our emotional memories, and closure is a myth, but we can plan for and soothe ourselves when those intense emotions and memories are triggered.

Perhaps that's what Tuck was trying to tell us all along - that we all have the ability to comfort ourselves when the time comes.

If you enjoyed Kent Haruf's Our Souls At Night, Tinkers by Paul Harding or Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan you might also enjoy this. 

Monday, 4 September 2017

Epigraph Philosophy - Smith Vs Shamsie

I love a good epigraph.

A well-chosen, thoughtful epigraph can establish the tone for the book journey you're about to embark on. However many authors spend a lot of time and effort on finding the perfect epigraph only for it to be skimmed over by most readers.

For the reader who does consider the epigraph, its true significance may not become apparent until the end of the book, by which time it has been long forgotten.

It's time to rectify this sad, sad wrong.
It's time to save the epigraph from obscurity!

Today I'm confused.
I'm not sure which Man Booker longlisted book I should jump into next. I thought I would check to see if their epigraphs might help me to decide one way or the other.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Two brown girls dream of being dancers - but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, black bodies and black music, what it means to belong, what it means to be free. It's a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten either.

Bursting with energy, rhythm and movement, Swing Time is Zadie Smith's most ambitious novel yet. It is a story about music and identity, race and class, those who follow the dance and those who lead it...

And Zadie Smith's epigraph is....

According to wikipedia, the Hausa are one of the largest, most homogeneous ethnic groups in Africa, primarily based in Nigeria. Many Hausa proverbs have two corresponding, but interrelated parts that display balance and cohesion in a poetic way.

When the music changes, so does the dance, tells us that we should adapt to what is coming our way. It's another way of saying we should 'go with the flow' and embrace where we are and what we're doing right now. It can also be claimed by those who wish to create change or reinvent themselves.

It also makes me think of Anthony Powell's series of books titled A Dance to The Music of Time.

Sounds promising doesn't it?

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

The suspenseful and heartbreaking story of an immigrant family driven to pit love against loyalty, with devastating consequences 

Isma is free. After years of watching out for her younger siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she’s accepted an invitation from a mentor in America that allows her to resume a dream long deferred. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London, or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream, to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew. When he resurfaces half a globe away, Isma’s worst fears are confirmed.

Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. Son of a powerful political figure, he has his own birthright to live up to—or defy. Is he to be a chance at love? The means of Parvaiz’s salvation? Suddenly, two families’ fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined, in this searing novel that asks: What sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

 Shamsie's epigraph is...
The ones we love...are enemies of the state -
Antigone, Sophocles  (translated by Seamus Heaney, 2004)

I studied Antigone at school, but sadly remember very little from it. Perhaps the most interesting part in this choice of epigraph is that it is actually a quote from Heaney's 2004 play, The Burial at Thebes, which is classified as a version of Sophocles' play.

Antigone's main themes were personal freedom versus civil disobedience, fidelity and love of family, natural law versus law and human error.

Whereas Heaney's play, according to Wikipedia has,

conflicts between individual freedom and the imposition of restrictions by state, as well as the conflict between Divine Law and Civil Law.
The play contains many digressions from the Greek original, Heaney adding Irish idiom and expanding the involvement of some characters such as the Guard. Relevant to the time of its writing, Heaney also adds in "Bushisms", referencing George W. Bush and his approach to leadership, drawing a parallel between him and the character of Creon.

Both books appear to cover big themes that have vexed the human condition since we began recording it.

Which one should I read next?

Saturday, 2 September 2017

#6degrees September

#6degrees is a monthly meme hosted by Kate @Books Are My Favourite and Best.

Oftentimes I haven't read the starting book for this meme, but I can assure you that I only play the next 6 books with ones I have actually read. 
If I've read the book during this blogging life, then I include my review, otherwise, you just have to take my word for it!

This month the starting book is Wild Swans by Jung Chang.
Are you game?

Old image alert - Kate @Books Are My Favourite & Best now hosts #6Degrees but this is a good refresh of the rules.

In 1996 I travelled to China for three weeks. It was a country I had wanted to visit ever since I was a teenager gazing in awe at the Terracotta Warriors exhibition on a school excursion to Canberra in 1983. As a result of this interest I have read quite a bit of Chinese literature and books based in China since then.

Jung Chang's Wild Swans was one of those books.

But it was not my favourite book set in China.

The one I hold most dear, is the one I purchased in Hongkong on my way home from China, The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan. Part of it's appeal was it's setting - in Guilin - which was one of the areas I had just explored.

The English language section in the Hongkong bookshop was light on in choice, but this was exactly the book I was looking for. It was Tan's latest book, newly released & despite the ghastly cover, paper and font, I snapped it up.
Thanks to this perfect timing, the images, smells and sounds of China within the book felt more real to me than any other book on China I've ever read.
It is now firmly a part of my China experience.

I had a similar bookish experience in Bali.
In Periplus Books in Seminyak I found an English translation of the book I had been searching for before leaving home to read in Bali.

Vicki Baum's Love and Death in Bali turned out to be the perfect thing to read whilst actually in the country and I'm thrilled that I found it in time.

It filled in so much of the history of the island and helped me to fall in love with Bali.

Another island that I fell in love with whilst holidaying nearby was Moloka'i by Alan Brennert.

We spent a couple of weeks exploring the beautiful islands of Hawai'i, Maui and O'ahu in 2010.
Thanks to this book, next time (fingers crossed), I plan to visit Moloka'i too.
I knew very little about the nature of leprosy or how the leprosy colony on Moloka'i worked before reading this book. Its scientific basis and historical record were fascinating and enlightening.

I could make this entire post about books I read about a country whilst holidaying there, but that might be showing off!

So instead, I will follow the thread of illness, science and pathology to Anne Manne's The Life of I: The New Culture of Narcissism.

In her book, Manne explored the idea that narcissism actually sits on a spectrum - with high functioning at one end and extreme pathological narcissism at the other.
Her example for this end was the Norwegian serial killer Anders Behring Breivik.

The only other book that I can think of that I have read with a Norwegian protagonist is Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder.

Fortunately Sophie is much nicer and her story far more philosophical than Breivik's.
Until we realise (*****SPOILER ALERT*****) that she is in a story within a story.
Meta-fiction has sucked us again!

Meta-fiction is my next (and last) rather easy link in this month's #6degrees, because it allows me to jump straight into one of those unforgettable books that totally weirded me out when I first read it - Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy.

There you have it! I've been to New York, Norway, Hawai'i, Bali and China via books this month.
As you read this post, I will actually be relaxing, cocktail in one hand, book in the other, in one of these amazing destinations.

Can you guess which one?
(although if you follow me on Insta, you will already know the answer to that question.)


Thursday, 31 August 2017

The Hypnotist's Love Story by Liane Moriarty

I've needed a lot of comfort reads this year, so it was only a matter of time before another Moriarty made an appearance!

Her stories are light-hearted fun, featuring characters that we all know. The Hypnotist's Love Story had less characters to get to know and love, than most of her other stories, but you still ended up feeling quite attached to them all by the end - even the stalker!

And that's the charm of Moriarty. She writes believable characters, in (almost) everyday situations. She never sensationalises the issues - actually that's not true. I've just realised why I didn't enjoy Truly, Madly, Guilty as much as the others.

Empathy and the ability to walk in someone else's shoes are her strong points. She doesn't demonise or victimise her characters, she also doesn't put them up on a pedestal. She shows us normal, functional people who suddenly cross a line they never thought they would.

The climatic moment in The Love Hypnotist's Love Story featured an early morning scene with a
strange, eerie orange-yellow light. It was like there'd been a fire, except there was no smell of smoke....where Ellen would normally see the beach and the ocean, all she could see was a haze of apocalyptic orange.

There really was a day in 2009 (22nd September to be precise) when we all woke up to a Sydney bathed in dust. It was eerie and other-worldly. Normally we had a lovely view across the harbour to Cockatoo Island and the morning sun shone through our lounge room window.

But on this day, it felt like the world might really come to an end. It was frightening and exciting at the same time. It was a day of heightened senses and emotions. The perfect day, in fact, to set a pivotal scene in a book.

My reviews for Moriarty's other books - only one more to go!
Unless she writes a new one soon.