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.