Sunday, October 30, 2011

This is Peter Garret's comments about 'Cloudscape' on the First Tuesday bookshow. Look, it stacks up fantastically, Jennifer, and when you asked me which book I wanted to recommend, I recommended this one because when I first read it, I loved it. I thought I'd read a great Australian novel. And I like Tim Winton's writing a lot. But coming back to it the second time has been an extraordinary journey. It's better than I imagined and there's much more in it than I imagined. I think it's a true classic. And to be honest, it's great literature which is very readable, and it touches chords deep inside all of us, I suspect, and difficult to find the words, really. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience sitting around in a week or two in January and getting into it again.

The publisher of 'Billy Bathgate' wrote this. 'In 1930's New York, Billy Bathgate, a fifteen-year-old high-school dropout, has captured the attention of infamous gangster Dutch Schultz, who lures the boy into his world of racketeering. The product of an East Bronx upbringing by his half-crazy Irish Catholic mother, after his Jewish father left them long ago, Billy is captivated by the world of money, sex, and high society the charismatic Schultz has to offer. But it is also a world of extortion, brutality, and murder, where Billy finds himself involved in a dangerous affair with Schultz's girlfriend. Relive this story through the title character's driving narrative, a child's thoughts and feelings filtered through the sensibilities of an adult, and the result is E.L. Doctorow's most convincing and appealing portrayal of a young boy's life. Converging mythology and history, one of America's most admired authors has captured the romance of gangsters and criminal enterprise that continues to fascinate the American psyche today.'
One reviewer said "[M]esmerizing reading that soars from the shocking first scene...through episodes of horror, hilarity and sudden, deepening insights." Publishers Weekly

Monday, October 10, 2011

According to one reviewer 'Wild Swans' is
'Bursting with drama, heartbreak and horror, this extraordinary family portrait mirrors China's century of turbulence. Chang's grandmother, Yu-fang, had her feet bound at age two and in 1924 was sold as a concubine to Beijing's police chief. Yu-fang escaped slavery in a brothel by fleeing her "husband" with her infant daughter, Bao Qin, Chang's mother-to-be. Growing up during Japan's brutal occupation, free-spirited Bao Qin chose the man she would marry, a Communist Party official slavishly devoted to the revolution. In 1949, while he drove 1000 miles in a jeep to the southwestern province where they would do Mao's spadework, Bao Qin walked alongside the vehicle, sick and pregnant (she lost the child). Chang, born in 1952, saw her mother put into a detention camp in the Cultural Revolution and later "rehabilitated." Her father was denounced and publicly humiliated; his mind snapped, and he died a broken man in 1975. Working as a "barefoot doctor" with no training, Chang saw the oppressive, inhuman side of communism. She left China in 1978 and is now director of Chinese studies at London University. Her meticulous, transparent prose radiates an inner strength.'

This is one reviewer's take on 'life of Pi'.
What is there to say about a novel in which a young boy shares a lifeboat with a fully grown Bengal tiger named Richard Parker? If the book is Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, there’s quite a lot to be said. This is definitely one of the most unusual novels of the year (if not the most), yet the story it tells is so profound and moving that the more enlightened readers will get behind its many oddities to the message at its core.

Life of Pi is a simply extraordinary book that actually has something to say about life, yet it’s not preachy or overbearing. It’s just a strange, fascinating and remarkable tale that may even, as its prologue predicts, make you believe in God.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Two good books to get your teeth into this month!

Great Expectations really needs no introduction. However, an extract from this unknown reviewer in 1861 gives some idea of its immediate reception. 'In Great Expectations, on the contrary, Dickens seems to have attained the mastery of powers which formerly more or less mastered him. He has fairly discovered that he cannot, like Thackeray, narrate a story as if he were a mere looker-on, a mere knowing observer of what he describes and represents; and he has therefore taken observation simply as the basis of his plot and his characterization. As we read Vanity Fair and The Newcomes, we are impressed with the actuality of the persons and incidents. There is an absence of both directing ideas and disturbing idealizations. Everything drifts to its end, as in real life. In Great Expectations there is shown a power of external observation finer and deeper even than Thackeray's; and yet, owing to the presence of other qualities, the general impression is not one of objective reality. The author palpably uses his observations as materials for his creative faculties to work upon; he does not record, but invents; and he produces something which is natural only under conditions prescribed by his own mind. He shapes, disposes, penetrates, colors, and contrives everything, and the whole action is a series of events which could have occurred only in his own brain, and which it is difficult to conceive of as actually happening. And yet in none of his other works does he evince a shrewder insight into real life, and a clearer perception and knowledge of what is called the world. The book is, indeed, an artistic creation, and not a mere succession of humorous and pathetic scenes, and demonstrates that Dickens is now in the prime, and not in the decline of his great powers.'

Bernard Schlink's "The Weekend' takes us into some dark territory. This is a review by "The Guardian'.
How do we like our terrorists now? Can a man with four murders to his credit, pardoned by the German state and released from prison after 24 years, ever be integrated back into society? Is there some fundamental shift in thinking since the events of 9/11 that has forever placed all ideologies of physical force beyond sympathy, beyond understanding?
These are the questions that draw us into The Weekend, a novel in which a gathering of family and friends come together to receive a member of the Red Army Faction terrorist group back into the everyday world of food and talk at a country house in Brandenburg. They also await an explanation. It's a day of judgment, looking back over the violent, revolutionary past in which they were once caught up in conflict with the capitalist state.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Three stories to cheer you up this month! 'Room' by Emma Donoghue and both the classic 'Trial' and 'Metamorphosis' by Franz Kafka

One reviewer says 'In some sense, Room is not so different to Donoghue’s earlier historical novels, because it is inspired by real events, turned around and retold from a different perspective. Room is based on real women and their children, confined under horrible circumstances. But the perspective of this story makes it unique – it is not the sensationalistic story of a man holding a female victim hostage, but the story of a child and his mother in an incredibly difficult situation. Donoghue’s sensitivity and humour make this story not only readable, but beautiful and compelling.

This would be a very different novel if it were told by Jack’s mother. The five-year-old acts as a buffer between the horrifying reality of her existence and the reader. We know what’s going on, but often Jack doesn’t grasp the meaning of the events he describes. This isn’t a fictionalised ‘survivor story’, but a story of the love between mother and child. Through Jack’s voice, we understand what he can’t – that his Ma would do anything for her son to get out of the room.'

According to another reviewer 'The Trial opens with this first sentence: "Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested."

It goes downhill from there.

Throughout the novel, Josef K never learns the charges against him, his lawyer is a preening incompetent who has built a mini-industry defending similarly "slandered" innocent (or maybe not so innocent -- we don't ever learn what's legal and what's illegal) men, and the reaction of the other characters in the novel ranges from mild shock to resignation to an irony that's half-comedic and half-tragic.

In the end, men he doesn't know confront him with one of the greatest of human horrors for reasons he doesn't understand and with a timing he doesn't suspect: "Was there still help? Were there objections that had been forgotten? Of course there were. Logic is no doubt unshakable, but it can't withstand a person who wants to live. Where was the judge he'd never seen? Where was the high court he'd never reached?"

Kafkaesque is a word that has become deeply rooted both in the English language and the psyche of the "free world." Having The Trial in your personal library is essential for the appearance of cultural literacy ("appearance" being a notion that fits perfectly with much of the middle of the book); but to read it is to understand how an obscure (at his death) author's last name has given birth to a powerful and enduring adjective known around the world.'


Saturday, July 2, 2011

Two cautionary tales this month: one set in the past and the other in a possible future.

The Observer wrote about Gunter Grass's classic 'The Tin Drum'
' "Granted: I'm an inmate in a mental institution…" So begins Oskar Matzerath, narrator of Günter Grass's 1959 debut. With the help of one of his titular drums, Oskar recounts – not always reliably – the extraordinary events of his first 30 years: arresting his own physical development on his third birthday by throwing himself downs the stairs; "singshattering" glass with his otherworldly voice; impregnating his father's second wife; his key role in the deaths of his parents; finding independence as a stonemason, then later an artist's model and recording artist in the German postwar economic miracle.
Set primarily in Grass's native Danzig, the shadow of Nazism hangs heavy over the first two-thirds of the book, with Kristallnacht, the fall of Poland and ultimately the Soviet capture of the city all refracted through Oskar's eyes, as is the plight of German refugees struggling westwards ahead of the Red Army.
But it's Grass's dazzling use of language that sets The Tin Drum apart, as he spins a dense verbal web alive with wordplay and innovation. It's no coincidence that Oskar enjoys a stint with a jazz band, as there is an uninhibited, free-flowing musicality to the telling of his life story.'

The publisher had this to say about Margaret attwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale'.
'Offered is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets where signs are now in pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant because, in an age of declining births, Offered and other Handmaids are only valued if their ovaries are viable. Offered can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now....
Funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing, The Handmaid's Tale is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force.'

Happy reading!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Two interesting and much praised books this month.

According to one reviewer 'the novel is extremely short. It would be possible to polish it off in an afternoon, but reading it that quickly one would fail to take in the complex beauty of Coetzee’s prose.

Within a paragraph Coetzee evokes the emotion and imagery that could easily fill pages by a less succinct writer, but again, the flow is still flawless and it never feels like you’re being forced into appreciating the story.

It takes place on a border hamlet of a vast militaristic and nameless Empire. The

main character is a figure of authority in that little town. The chief fear of the Empire is that the natives who are referred to by all the imperial citizens as “barbarians” are trying to push the Empire out of their lands leading the Empire to launch a preemptive strike, and from that initial fear stem all of the conflicts and relationships found within the novel.

I encourage you to read the novel and analyze it for yourself. 'Waiting for the Barbarians ' is one of the finest pieces of literature I have ever read. I recommend it to anyone.'

According to the blurb on the back of the book, Peter Carey's 'Parrot and Olivier in America' is a 'dazzlingly inventive and endlessly entertaining novel about freedom, art, friendship and the birth of modern America.

Olivier is a French aristocrat, the traumatised child of survivors of the revolution. Parrot, the son of an itinerant English printer, wanted to be an artist but has ended up as a servant.

When the young Olivier sets sail for the New World - ostensibly to study its prisons, but in reality to avoid yet another revolution - Parrot is sent with him, as spy, protector, foe and foil.

According to Jennifer Byrne, 'once this novel grabs you, it holds you. Heart as well as brain.'

Happy reading!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

An Australian and American classic this month.

The Sun Also Rises is a 1926 novel written by Ernest Hemingway on the experiences of the generation that came of age during World War I, later known as the Lost Generation.
The basis for the novel was Hemingway's 1925 trip to Spain. The story centers around a group of American and British expatriates who travel from Paris to the Festival of Fermín in Pamplona to watch the running of the bulls and the bullfights. The setting was unique and memorable, presenting the seedy café life of Paris, and the Pamplona festival, with a middle section devoted to fishing in the Pyrenees.
The main theme is the notion that the lost genera
tion, decadent and dissolute, was irretrievably damaged by the war. Additionally, Hemingway investigates the themes of love, death, renewal in nature, and the nature of masculinity.

'Born in 1894, Facey lived the rough frontier life of a sheep farmer, survived the gore of Gallipoli, raised a family through the Depression and spent sixty years with his beloved wife, Evelyn. Despite enduring hardships we can barely imagine today, Facey always saw his life as a 'fortunate' one.
A true classic of Australian literature, his simply written autobiography is an inspiration. It is the story of a life lived to the full - the extraordinary journey of an ordinary man.'

Happy reading!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Two modern classics this month.

'The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco, which sold 50 million copies worldwide, is an experimental medieval whodunit set in a monastic library. In 1327, Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate heresy among the monks in an Italian abbey; a series of bizarre murders overshadows the mission. Within the mystery is a tale of books, librarians, patrons, censorship, and the search for truth in a period of tension between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire.'

'Equal parts comedy and autobiography, Portnoy's Complaint endeavors to explore Roth's own cultural identity and stemming anxiety as a Jewish-American. Considered to be his most popular novel, Portnoy's Complaint is a masterful work of American fiction that remains the acme of one of the world's greatest living novelists.

When Portnoy's Complaint was first published in 1969 it was a work of boldness that addressed the sexual revolution and challenged the mores of the previous generation. The work is obliquely lascivious (even by today's standards) and remains absurd and hilarious to this day. Roth's comedic prose has been likened to the tangential comedy stylings of Jewish comedian Lenny Bruce. Philip Roth's work also expresses an anxiety that seems part of an uniquely American perspective during the years in the heart of the Vietnam War.'

Happy reading!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Two 'classic' books this month. One moderate in length and the other HUGE! Better get reading now!

'Vikram Seth's novel is, at its core, a love story: Lata and her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, are both trying to find -- through love or through exacting maternal appraisal -- a suitable boy for Lata to marry. Set in the early 1950s, in an India newly independent and struggling through a time of crisis, A Suitable Boy takes us into the richly imagined world of four large extended families and spins a compulsively readable tale of their lives and loves. A sweeping panoramic portrait of a complex, multiethnic society in flux, A Suitable Boy remains the story of ordinary people caught up in a web of love and ambition, humor and sadness, prejudice and reconciliation, the most delicate social etiquette and the most appalling violence.'

"It's Los Angeles in the 1930s. Someone has been blackmailing ailing oil
magnate General Sternwood, so he calls in 33-year-old private investigator Philip Marlowe
to find out who it is and how serious a matter it might be. In short order, Marlowe meets the General's daughters -- wild teenager Carmen, and inveterate gambler Mrs. Regan, whose husband has gone missing for several weeks -- both beautiful
and both trouble. Soon, the Sternwood's young chauffeur turns up fatally shot, and the trail leads through a bookstore that deals in fancy, locally-produced pornography and the nightclub of smooth tough guy Eddie Mars. "
"This is one of the key works of noir crime detective fiction. Set in LA in the 30's, it approaches perfection in its detailed presentation of the seedy underlife of the rich and famous."

Happy reading!

Monday, January 31, 2011

February 2011

Plenty or reading to keep us busy this month!

Howard Jacobson's 'The Finkler Question' was the winner of last year's Booker prize. According to one reviewer 'This charming novel follows many paths of enquiry, not least the present state of Jewish identity in Britain and how it integrates with the Gentile population. Equally important is its exploration of how men share friendship. All of which is played out with Jacobson's exceptionally funny riffs and happy-sad refrains....Jacobson cunningly crafts sublime pathos from comedy and vice versa. As such, he is the literary equivalent of Tony Hancock, illuminating the conflict, anger, love and dependence created by friendship while wincing at the ignominy and absurdity of the characters' predicament.'

Another prize winner is Orhan Pamuk. 'The Museum of Innocence' features 'Kemal, a wealthy Istanbulli playboy, (who) spends a decade besieging his beautiful young cousin and then, after certain tragic events, devotes the rest of his life to creating a museum in her memory, stocking it with panties, nutcrackers, china dogs, 4,213 cigarette stubs and sundry other trifles recovered from their moments together' One reviewer enthuses 'Before anything else, it is simply an enthralling, immensely enjoyable piece of storytelling.'

Kingsley Amis’ novel Lucky Jim is a modern British classic. Written and set in the early fifties, the title character Jim Dixon is a history lecturer at one of the modern provincial universities, who is frustrated by the academic banality of his job, and trapped in a suffocating pseudo-relationship with a woman he is completely uninterested in.

Defiantly in favour of jazz, beer and pulling faces, the hero of "Lucky Jim" struggles through 1950s Britain in a rage at the pretension around him.

Happy reading!