Apples and Olives

For some reason over the last few months we have studied books written by male authors almost exclusively. This is probably just coincidence, but there has been a notable absence of female writers on our shortlist. This month we attempted to redress that with a couple of very different books authored by women.

I tend not to read memoir or biographies very often; first of all because the market is stuffed to the gills with them, and to be frank most of the subjects are of little interest to me. A sportsman writing (or ghost-writing, very often) their autobiography when still in their mid-twenties seems to me to be a highly cynical attempt to cash in on their popularity rather than having anything interesting to say. There are always exceptions to this, of course, but I approach such books with a degree of caution.

So when reading Magda Szubanski’s memoir Reckoning I was please to find my fears were unfounded. For a start, she can really write. I had little knowledge of her work as a comedian and TV personality before reading, which put me at odds with the other members of the book club, but I found it a candid and humorous read nonetheless. The crux of the book deals with Szubanski’s complicated relationship with her Polish father and his years spent under Nazi rule in Warsaw in World War 2. She struggles to come to terms with her identity, mostly because of her father’s reluctance to explain his formative years and its effect on him as man and father. Her other struggle with identity was dealing with coming out as a lesbian in the still hostile atmosphere of 1980s Australian society, particularly from those in the television industry.

This twin struggle gives the book its emotional weight, and there are some very tender and moving moments at the books conclusion when Szubanski begins to come to terms with her background and sexuality. As I said earlier, she has a talent for writing and a frankness that is admirable, exploring her own flaws with great insight and a constant dry wit. The celebrity pile of self-absorbed tittle-tattle books of gossip are already groaning under their collective weight. Thankfully Szubanski’s book eschews this mundane frivolity and the result is all the better for it. A welcome addition to the genre and I shall endeavour to seek out more of these sorts of biographies in future.

A bugbear of mine in book discussions is the criticism of a book as being ‘depressing.’ Firstly, everyones idea of what constitutes depressing is completely different – having suffered from it throughout my adult life I can say most peoples ideas are probably way off beam – and more importantly, a book which deals with such issues shouldn’t be criticised for doing so. Life is pretty depressing at times, and it would be dishonest to not say so, so the argument that it is something of a black mark against a book I have little time for.

This made Elizabeth Strout’s collection of intertwined short stories Olive Kitteridge something of a conflict for me. The eponymous hero  of the book is certainly a character who is pretty intolerable at times. She is selfish, neurotic, judgemental, and and at times quite nasty, with seemingly little self-awareness of these traits. This comes sharply into focus through her relationship with her son, who after entering therapy delivers some home truths that Olive is completely unaware of. She is completely immune to this side of her personality, and hostile to the criticisms that come her way. Which makes her a frustrating character to read.

Frustrating yes, but always fascinating. And this is my argument – to dismiss the book as depressing because of Olive’s character ignores the brilliance of the writing. Strout has created a woman who is compelling to read about and never boring. The structure of the book, with Olive appearing in some capacity in virtually all of them, makes you eager to see when she will crop up next. Indeed, the weakest of the stories are those where she is reduced to little more than bystander. I found myself turning the pages wishing to get back to Olive, to find out more about her and look for explanations of her flawed character. That feeling can only come when a character explodes off the page and into the reader’s consciousness, warts and all, demanding that their story be told. If the writing is weak, this just doesn’t happen. That it did so powerfully here is a testament to Strout’s strength as a storyteller.

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First Novel Phenomenon

We took on two first novels at book club this month, and both caused something of a sensation on release. Very different books, and one in particular had an enormous effect on my teenage years when I read it many years ago.

I remember when Zadie Smith’s White Teeth came out at the beginning of the century and the buzz it caused. This tale of the lives of two wartime friends, one Bangladeshi and the other English, and their sprawling families, was a smash on release and made a superstar of its author. I never had much of an inkling to read it at the time, never being one for the popular read, so it passed me by. It is an amazingly accomplished work for a first novel, particularly from a writer aged just 25, and contains a cynical humour and pathos that I really liked. The themes it explores are weighty and really relevant to today’s society too.

Immigration and the assimilation of immigrants is a political hot potato no matter which side of the world you are on. The efforts of Samad and his family to integrate into British society form the backbone of the novel. Putting down roots is a major metaphor (hence the White Teeth title) and all the first-generation immigrants in the book face a struggle in trying to do so.

The second generation find it even more difficult; the children of Archie and Samad, despite being born in Britain, seem to have no further connection to their country of birth than their parents. They also turn against the influences of their parents in an attempt to find their own way – Millat being the most extreme of these, a rebellious womaniser who ends up being radicalised into an Islamic fundamentalist. The quest for assimilation ends up alienating the children from their parents.

These themes are woven expertly into the book by Smith, and shot through with the off-beat humour already mentioned. Despite being 15 years old the book remains really relevant today, as sadly many countries in the world face real problems from homegrown terrorism. In fact I would call the book very prescient in that way.

That’s not to say it is without its flaws – the ending of the book feels rushed and ties up the loose ends in an abrupt fashion. This was an almost universal criticism. The writing style changes and it feels jarring, as if Smith didn’t quite know how to pull everything together and got into a panic. Which is a great shame as it mars what up until then had been an enjoyable read.

I first read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies as a 10 year old at primary school, which in hindsight was a brave decision on the part of my teachers. The violence and savagery of the book has stayed with me ever since, and it was fascinating to re-read after all these years and assess my feelings about it from an adults perspective. I would now say this is one of the finest books I’ve ever read.

Why? Well, first and foremost it is a brilliantly written adventure story. Place a group of teenage boys on an uninhabited desert island and see what happens. The possibilities are endless, and Golding takes us down some very dark roads and into the shadows. As a kid this was the first book I’d ever read that opened my eyes to the dark potential of what my peers and I were capable of, and this thought was overwhelming and a little frightening. As the group dynamic begins to disintegrate and Jack and his band of hunters escape into the forest, the tension ratchets up notch by notch. Something terrible is going to happen, and its inevitability is both depressing and exciting. Once Simon and then Piggy are killed in acts of mindless savagery the destruction is complete and civilisation has been destroyed.

It was the sheer plausability of this scenario that got to me then and still discomforts  me now. How far away are we from total destruction? Would a group of boys today behave in such a manner? I think I know the answer, and it is a troublesome thought.

I think the books unique brilliance is its utter refusal to allow any sentimentality about childhood to enter the narrative. I think it is almost inevitable for this to happen when adults write about children – its hard to reminisce without becoming a little misty-eyed. This is the only novel I can think of which does so, and with complete success. I think it is peerless in its field and should be sought out and read by all.

 

Struggle

I think every reader has an author that they struggle to get on with. In some cases it’s difficult to know why – it could be the writing style, the subject matter, the language. It’s particularly hard for me if the author is one of the so-called ‘classic’ writers in the literary canon. I feel dispirited with my travails, and worry if there is something that I am just not getting that is so blindingly obvious to others. This problem reared its head on our first book club choice this month, but I soon found I was not alone in my difficulties.

I first encountered Joseph Conrad at university, when I studied Heart Of Darkness as part of a modernism module. I remember finding the book, despite its brevity, pretty dense and impenetrable on first reading. As time progressed I began to appreciate its merits more, its comment on important themes of imperialism and racism, especially with the knowledge that it inspired one of my favourite movies Apocalypse Now. But I never shook off my trepidation of Conrad’s work, and I’m sad to say that reading Nostromo for this month has done little to dispel my fears.

Interestingly I was one of only two people who manged to finish the book. Everyone who failed gave up around the same point, a third of the way through. I can understand this completely, because the opening of the book is a morass of scene-setting and background, setting up the geography and politics of the fictional island Costaguana. This stuff, whilst important, is dry to the point of tedium. I was waiting to hear more of the exploits of the hero Nostromo and his attempts to smuggle silver out of the city of Sulaco. Frustratingly for this reader at least, Nostromo is relegated to a peripheral role in the novel. For me, just when the action starts to get interesting, we return to another diatribe about mining or revolutionary politics. I greatly admire the art of creating a world that is believable and Costaguana is convincingly drawn, but sometimes this stuff impacts on the story, which after all is what we are here for.

I learnt a good lesson from this book, though. It would have been easy to follow my fellow members and put the book down, and I was very close to doing so. But it is good to persevere with a book you find challenging, it’s good for the mind and can be an accomplishment. I felt I did a lot of heavy lifting with this, something I haven’t done with a book for a while. Whether I really got anything from continuing probably requires further reflection.

Another classic followed from this, and in terms of length and style couldn’t be further from Conrad. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men runs to barely more than a hundred pages, but it really packs a punch in that time. Steinbeck wrote the novelette (that hideous term again) so it could be read like a play, with minimal scene setting and heavy with dialogue. I didn’t realise this until after finishing it, so the changes in scene come across as quite abrupt and jarring, but otherwise the book is a triumph.

Steinbeck’s early work deals with the lives of poor agricultural workers in Southern California. He explores the power of male friendship in the face of poverty and the hopelessness that stems from it. The hand-to-mouth existence and the loneliness of constantly being on the road are brilliantly described, and the dreams that our heroes George and Lennie take on a tone of melancholy due to being always one step away, just out of reach. Lennie, a man of limited mental capacity, needs constant reminders that the dream is still alive and that a settled life is possible.

The novel builds to a violent act committed by Lennie, a man who is unable to take care of himself. Emotional and physical abuse forms a large part of the story, with the dangerous jealousy of Curly creating an environment of menace and a suffocating air of inevitability that wrongdoing will take place. These men are lonely, frustrated, powerless, and this toxic brew couple with the manipulations of Curly’s wife, herself suffering from broken dreams and emotional deficiencies, leads to tragedy. It seems fate that the character’s aspirations will be destroyed, and Steinbeck paints this world with terrific aplomb. The sparse length of the novel accentuates the urgency and poignancy of these men’s lives and accelerates to its shocking conclusion with breakneck speed.

An aspect of the book that is ugly to read is the explicit racism expressed towards Crooks, the stable-hand. I didn’t find it shocking, as it reflects the pre-war period when such language was acceptable. but it is still quite difficult to read. Steinbeck paints Crooks with dignity so it is clear where his affections lie, but the language does carry extreme power and led to numerous attempts (some successful) to ban the book in modern times. A position that I fundamentally disagree with. Books of such importance need to be widely read and discussed.

 

Returning the Favour

Despite the fact that I am a voracious reader, I have some huge gaps in my reading history of writers that I have never gotten around to exploring. I’m sure every reader has these – it’s almost inevitable considering the endless number of books out there. I’m ashamed to say I have some classic authors missing from my stable, including Dickens, Trollope and Tolstoy. It’s pointless to feel bad about it as no-one can read everything, but I always feel satisfaction when I cross another legendary name from my to-read list.

With this in mind I was happy with this month’s book club choices. Ernest Hemingway has been on my radar for a long time. His writing style is one I have been recommended many times, and the brevity and clarity of his language has gone down in history. So to finally read his first novel The Sun Also Rises was a great joy and has made me eager to search out the rest of his oeuvre.

The economical and understated nature of Hemingway’s prose is his greatest strength and is impossible to ignore. The sentence structure is staccato, with almost no use of punctuation – commas, parantheses, semi-colons, and so on. This gives the prose an amazing punch. This style means that the language used must be clear and concise, with each adjective used with extreme precision. It’s a very fine line to risk, but Hemingway sails through with aplomb. It really is an extraordinary quality that defines his work.

This style partly comes from Hemingway’s background as a journalist, where he had to focus on events with little room for context or interpretation. He developed what became known as the ‘Iceberg theory‘, which basically means to only show what is on the surface of a characters mind, rather than explicitly describing underlying thoughts. The facts remain above the surface, and the themes and symbolism are hidden beneath.

These ideas are pivotal to The Sun Also Rises. The main character Jake Barnes was wounded in the First World War and became impotent; the object of his love is Brett Ashley, divorcee who worked as a nurse in the war and is suffering from a form of post traumatic stress. These facts are never openly told, they are only suggested through the characters words and actions. All the characters are greatly affected by war, and drink heavily and behave badly throughout. I would consider them not quite lost but scarred by their experiences, and desperate to cling to anything that will alleviate the memory, if only for a while.Brett is an extraordinary character – promiscuous and using sex for personal gain, with the one man she truly loves unable to give her sex. Their relationship is tempestuous, incendiary for the time, and completely enthralling.

The scenes of bullfighting are very memorable, reflecting one of Hemingway’s lifelong obsessions. Its the centrepiece of the novel and the characters react in different ways, Brett falling in love with the matador Romero, the only heroic character of the novel. Hemingway found bullfighting an idealised pursuit, with a purity and authenticity so lacking in the world that he found himself in. Obviously the violence of the sport is not for everyone but his admiration for it shines through.

There is so much going on in this book that I could go on for longer. Suffice to say it is a novel that rewards multiple readings and should be considered a masterpiece of 20th century literature.

Not an easy act to follow, then. Our second choice, written over 150 years earlier, was Voltaire’s influential satire Candide. I always have a fascination with reading novels from before the 19th century, partly because I have read so few and also because of their age. Australia wasn’t even discovered when this book was written.

Voltaire was most famous for his philosophy and this satire could be seen as a rejection of optimistic thought that prevailed at the time. Candide’s mentor Pangloss is a firm believer that ‘all is for the best’ and tries to justify the various evil encounters they come across. Over the course of this fantastical and sarcastic plot, with many deaths and hardships, Candide comes to the conclusion that this belief is nonsense. There are many horrible deaths described in such painstaking detail that it comes across as ludicrous, which I’m sure was Voltaire’s aim. The writing is playful, but do not mistake that for criticism. The novel must have been seen as explosive at the time, as it criticises virtually all the European civilisations and religions. This derision resulted in severe denunciation from many quarters and it was banned pretty quickly. Such is the power of this interesting book.

On a personal level, this book club was great for me as my sister joined us, returning the favour after I attended a session of her club in Germany at the beginning of the year. The knowledge that a love of books can transcend geographical and cultural boundaries has always been part of my love of literature and it was good to see it reinforced.

Holding a Dahlia

I approached this month’s book club with some excitement, as our first choice was a book by one of my favourite writers in a a genre that I regard as my favourite. Funnily enough this book wasn’t my choice, but I’m glad it was chosen, as it gave me a chance to have a little rant about my love for this writer.

I first read James Ellroy many years ago, about the time that the adaptation of his novel LA Confidential was released on film. I was drawn to his writing based on his ability to handle pace and the joy of his dialogue, which is among the finest in the genre in my opinion. Our choice was The Black Dahlia, a magnum opus seeped in obsession and paranoia, based on an infamous case of a murdered woman in the 1940s.

In many ways it has become my favourite Ellroy novel. Whilst I like some of his later work the staccato prose, very alliteration heavy, can be a bit of a turn-off after hundreds of pages. A British author, David Peace, is another that I struggle with for the same reason. This novel has the flavour of his earlier books and is just beautifully written. The theme of obsession outlined above is never more stark than here, and Ellroy’s lifelong pursuit of it is down to the unsolved murder of his mother when he was a child, and to whom the book is dedicated. This haunts the novel throughout and injects the prose with enormous power. The two policeman involved in the case find their personal obsession with the case overspills into their personal lives, and decisions that they make have a direct impact on their relationships and careers. Again, this is classic Ellroy territory but never done better than here.

The plot itself is labyrinthine and far too complicated to go into here, but in most of the great crime novels the plot is almost transcended by the sheer enjoyment and dynamism of the writing. I had the same feeling with this book.

We move to very different territory for our second book, Timothy Conigrave’s memoir Holding The Man, the story of a homosexual man growing up in suburban Melbourne in the 1970s and 80s. This tale is well-known in this country and one of our members went to the same school as Conigrave, so it had a familiarity to most that I wasn’t privy to.

That said, I enjoyed some aspects of the book. I found the overly ‘ocker’ language grating at times, and I found some of Conigrave’s character traits a  little annoying, in particular his promiscuity and willingness to cheat on his partner. He seemed to lead a ‘have your cake and eat it’ lifestyle and his partner John came across as a saintly figure for putting up with it. Indeed, this was probably not an accident, as the depiction of John was very much in that vein throughout, the quiet thoughtful man who stands by his lover stoically.

The novel ends in tragedy as both men end up contracting the HIV virus and the book concludes with John’s death. Despite the inevitability of this I found the conclusion quite moving. There were also some moments where the homophobia of some of their family members was really shocking. They had a tough time being accepted as a couple and even after John’s death Tim was only described as a ‘friend’ in death notices. Whilst this can only evoke anger, it does show how far society has come, even in 20 years or so. Which in the end can only be an uplifting message.

The only other warning I would give is that the book contains graphic sexual content, I would say it is astonishingly frank in places. I admire anyone who is willing to divulge such personal things to the world, I could never do it. I didn’t have a problem with the content but some of our members thought it was a little over the top. I disagree – always tell the truth, and you can’t go far wrong.

Crying for Ivan

So, after my sojourn into the world of a German book club, we regathered for our January meeting with me suffering from a bout of jet-lag. I finished our first pick, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, in a hazy 24 hour period after getting off the plane. Ordinarily reading under such conditions would be a hindrance but with this complex tale it may have been a help…

It is almost impossible to know where to begin with this postmodern novella, such is its chaotic nature. It’s a week since I finished it and I still think of it with confusion and disorientation. The plot as I understand it is about a woman, Oedipa Mass, who may or may not have unearthed a vast global conspiracy between two mail distribution networks after being named executor of her ex-boyfriend’s estate after his death. If this sounds utterly bizarre, you’d be right. This is merely a jumping-off point for a series of loosely linked subplots, mostly involving alcohol, hard drugs and soaked in paranoia.

The point I guess is the reader is completely unsure if he is reading the truth, a fabrication, or simply the ramblings of a drunk, hallucinating mind. The cast of characters runs long, and all are eccentric to say the least – the one that sticks in the memory is Oedipa’s therapist, who we are told undertook his internship in a Jewish concentration camp, inducing madness into his patients. All of this leads to Oedipa believing she has discovered evidence of a shadowy underground postal service called the Trystero. Or it is a hoax designed by her ex. Or a figment of her imagination.

If you’ve got this far you are probably scratching your head, and I don’t blame you, it’s that kind of book. As a postmodern text it also contains a number of cultural references that may go unnoticed which adds to the frustration. I’d recommend this book without hesitation mind – I’ve certainly never read anything like it. It’s very challenging and probably requires a number of readings to peel back the layers, but I feel that taking on the task will give rich rewards.

Back on terra firma, our second choice was a brutal portrayal of a single day in a 1950s Russian gulag. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is an extraordinary account based on the real experiences of the author, who was sentenced to eight years hard labour after World War 2 for supposed ‘political’ crimes after criticising Stalin in his writings.

That the book was published at all was a major surprise, because never before had an account of Stalinist repression been openly distributed. It was a huge success and sold out immediately on publication – it must have been a huge shock to read for a repressed society at the time.

The plot as it is focuses on 24 hours in the life of Ivan Denisovich. The matter-of -fact authoritative oppression of the prisoners winds through the narrative on every page, as does the sheer bitterness of the cold winter and the desperate attempts to keep warm. The longing for small pleasures such as a piece of bread or a cigarette really encapsulate the desperate conditions these men lived and worked under. Our protagonist hides a small piece of bread in his mattress and this small crumb of comfort, if you will, sustains him through a back-breaking day of hard labour. The men snatch brief moments of free time whenever they can and savour every moment when they aren’t under the watchful gaze of the guards. Time really is precious here.

Despite the harsh conditions Solzhenitsyn injects the prose with a dry wit and an optimistic outlook which comes across as very inspiring. His dismissall of the regime as ‘one man works, the other watches’ is not only amusing but a sharp analysis of the almost nonsensical bureaucracy and hierarchy of the coommunist system. Indeed, a similar line springs to mind when seeing the hordes of construction workers seemingly doing nothing on building sites most days.

There is no positive conclusion or final judgement and I guess that’s the point – every day a relentless struggle, finding comfort when you can, and counting the days as the drift slowly by.

Adventures in a German Wonderland

I’ve recently returned from a trip to the UK for Christmas and one of the highlights of my trip was spending a weekend visitng my sister in the German city of Cologne. Best of all was recieving an invitation to participate in her January book club, which I accepted without hesitation.

I was interested in attending for a number of reasons. Most of all was my curiosity about how this book club would differ in dynamic from my own, particularly as about half the group are native German speakers reading a book in their second language, which poses extra difficulties that we do not have to deal with. Because of this, the book club has a rule that every choice has to be written by a native English speaker, which rules out a vast swathe of European and African authors. This is a shame, but the reasoning behind it is to keep anything which may be too challenging from being chosen. I can understand this, but it still seems a shame.

The other main difference is that my sister’s group are much more organised than our ramshackle group. They already have the dates and choices made for the whole of 2016, which is a far cry from us, who generally only work a month or two in advance. My sister put this down to the usual German efficiency, which raised a smile. I guess it is good to know choices ahead of schedule for planning purposes, but I’d be surprised if this level of organisation ever becomes a trait of my book club!

The friendship of the German group is something that I envied as the evening wore on. The group was started about three years ago when the organiser put an ad in his local paper, and after early teething problems they have had the same core of regulars for a long period. This is something that we have struggled to overcome – this is partly because our club was set up on the Meetup platform, which allows anyone to join and attend meetings. We have a large number of people who turn up for one meeting and then never attend again, or come once a year. This is perfectly fine, and allows for fresh perspectives every month which keeps us on our toes. We do have a group of four or five regulars who turn up every month and are active socially outside of the meetings as well, and that’s great. Familar faces allow a club to have a stable nucleus and make meetings more comfortable, and I wish we had more of them. The German book club is currently closed for new members and so they have the same people every month, and they have a really nice rapport with each other. And this familiarity hasn’t lessened the strength of debate, judging by my visit.

This comforting feel is exacerbated because the group meets in a member’s flat, rather than the pub. And everyone brings a bottle of something or some food (exceptional food going on what I ate that night!) which is rather lovely.

The book that was chosen for this month, my sister’s choice in fact, was the famous children’s classic Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. I was sure that I had read this novel as a child, but after completing it this time I’m not so sure. The book has become a large part of the public’s consciousness, with numerous adaptations, films, plays, and of course the famous illustrations that accompany the prose and have been drawn by some of the great illustrators of the age. My memories of it are more likely drawn from some of these sources rather than the original text.

What to say about it? Well the novel is a blend of literary nonsense containing puzzles, wordplay, riddles, parody, logic problems, you name it. Most of these puzzles seem to have no clear solutions as Alice negotiates Wonderland, most famously the Mad Hatter’s riddle and the Queen’s croquet game. Logic, or the lack of it, is the theme. Anything is possible, and Carroll plays with language to express this point. Many words have multiple meanings and interpretations, and nothing is ever what it seems. Alice uses the word ‘curious’ throughout to describe her experiences.

Of course, at the novel’s conclusion we find out that Alice was having a dream the whole time, so the characters of the world of Wonderland are mixed in with aspects of Alice’s subconscious. This adds to the slightly hallucinatory feel of the novel, as does the Caterpillar’s mushroom, which Alice nibbles on to control her fluctuations in size. These changes in size and her confusion with them may have been used by Carroll as a metaphor for puberty and the fears of growing into adulthood.

These word games and riddles caused frustration in some of the group. I think this novel must have been very difficult to translate and as such some of the puzzles either lost their meaning or, because they are steeped in 19th century Victorian culture, made little sense. I found some of the wordplay a little hard to grasp, so someone reading this book in their second language must have found it very tough.

This is not to say that the English speaking of the group was basic. I was staggered by the quaity of the English of all the group, which was probably better than my own. I have enormous respect for anyone who can speak another language and am in awe of it to be honest. My sister speaks two languages fluently and it still amazes me when she conducts a conversation in German. I frankly feel inadequate and a little rude not being able to have the ability to speak to a German in their own language, particularly when they were such welcoming hosts. It is something I would like to address.

So it was a novel that I enjoyed, a playful, somewhat anarchic read. And the warmth shown to me by my German friends will linger long in the memory. Wunderbar!