Saturday, December 1, 2012

January 2013

Reviews of January's books .

The Hobbit is a classic hero quest story. It has become the inspiration and template for the modern fantasy genre. And it is an adventure that is filled with wonder, magic, action and vividly memorable characters. These are impressive accomplishments for any story. But considering the fact that The Hobbit was originally intended to be a simple children’s tale, the success of the book is all the more pronounced.

Potential readers who are interested in the entire Lord of the Rings saga would do well to begin their journey with The Hobbit. Although the Lord of the Rings books loosely follows the overall structure of The Hobbit, there is a distinct difference in tone, mood and accessibility. The Hobbit is a simpler tale than The Lord of the Rings. It isn’t nearly as epic. But it is a more efficient, more humorous, more pleasing story.

Go to the Frick Collection in New York and compare Holbein’s great portraits of Cromwell and More. More has all the charm, with his sensitive hands and his “good eyes’ stern, facetious twinkle,” in Robert Lowell’s description. By contrast, Cromwell, with his egg-shaped form hemmed in by a table and his shifty fish eyes turned warily to the side, looks official and merciless, his clenched fist, as Mantel writes, “sure as that of a slaughterman’s when he picks up the killing knife.” One of the many achievements of Mantel’s dazzling novel, winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, is that she has reversed the appeal of these towering rivals of the Tudor period, that fecund breeding ground of British historical fiction as the American Civil War is of ours.

Thomas Cromwell remains a controversial and mysterious figure. Mantel has filled in the blanks plausibly, brilliantly. “Wolf Hall” has epic scale but lyric texture. Its 500-plus pages turn quickly, winged and falconlike. Trained in the law, Mantel can see the understated heroism in the skilled administrator’s day-to-day decisions in service of a well-ordered civil society — not of a medieval fief based on war and not, heaven help us, a utopia. “When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power,” Cromwell reflects. “Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world, and like spells, they only work if people believe in them.” Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” is both spellbinding and believable.

There was no mention of more sex or bungee jumps. A palliative nurse who has counselled the dying in their last days has revealed the most common regrets we have at the end of our lives. And among the top, from men in particular, is 'I wish I hadn't worked so hard'.
Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She recorded their dying epiphanies in a blog called Inspiration and Chai, which gathered so much attention that she put her observations into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.
Ware writes of the phenomenal clarity of vision that people gain at the end of their lives, and how we might learn from their wisdom. "When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently," she says, "common themes surfaced again and again."

Friday, November 9, 2012

November 2012

  • If This Is a Man ( United States title: Survival in Auschwitz) is a work by the Italian-Jewish writer, Primo Levi. It describes his arrest as a member of the Italian anti-fascist resistance during the Second World War, and his incarceration in the Auschwitz concentration camp from February 1944 until the camp was liberated on 27 January 1945.

    It is prefaced by this poem
  • If This Is a Man
  • You who live safe
  • In your warm houses,
  • You who find, returning in the evening,
  • Hot food and friendly faces:
  • Consider if this is a man
  • Who works in the mud,
  • Who does not know peace,
  • Who fights for a scrap of bread,
  • Who dies because of a yes or a no.
  • Consider if this is a woman
  • Without hair and without name,
  • With no more strength to remember,
  • Her eyes empty and her womb cold
  • Like a frog in winter.
  • Meditate that this came about:
  • I commend these words to you.
  • Carve them in your hearts
  • At home, in the street,
  • Going to bed, rising;
  • Repeat them to your children.
  • Or may your house fall apart,
  • May illness impede you,
  • May your children turn their faces from you.
(from Wikipedia)

On page one of this Jennifer Egan's 'Look at  Me', Charlotte Swenson, a model, goes through the windscreen of her car and smashes every bone in her face.

After total reconstructive surgery, with 80 titanium screws holding her new face on, she looks more or less normal – but no longer anything like her old self. Her modelling career seems finished; but she has the chance of a new career as one of the faces on a new reality website.
It's impossible to sum up this sharp, clever, complex, satirical novel in a few plotlines; but other significant characters include another Charlotte, teenage daughter of Swenson's old schoolfriend, alienated, disaffected and ready for an affair with her new maths teacher; and Moose, the younger Charlotte's uncle, an academic who nearly blew up all his students, and who believes that Western civilisation truly began when the invention of glass let in the light, and is declining now that we see nothing but surfaces.
First published in 2001, Look at Me now appears alarmingly prescient. Since it was written, our obsession with appearance has grown and so has our fascination with reality shows – not to mention the dark undercurrent of terrorism within Western society. I can't do this 514-page novel justice in 250 words. It's funny and serious, dry, sly and wry. The writing is as pin-sharp as the perceptions. (from The Independent')

Saturday, September 29, 2012

October Meeting

From a New York Times review of 'Close Range - Wyoming Tales 1
'The strength of this collection is Proulx's feeling for place and the shape into which it twists her characters. Wyoming is harsh spaces, unyielding soil, deadly winters, blistering summers and the brute effort of wresting a living out of a land as poor as it is beautiful. Its natives -- as distinct from prosperous newcomers -- are battered like cannonballs shot from a cannon, as dangerous upon impact and, essentially, as helpless. Character is not fate. Fate is character and landscape is fate. One young man gives up college and goes back to ranch work when his decrepit truck dies and there is no way to cover the distance.
This is splendid material, set out with pain and compassion but above all with a shrewdness of observation that brings the harsh upland life to us in the traditional way that stories are brought: a stranger comes to the door and tells us of a place we do not know. The comfortable America of a rising stock market and a falling awareness of whatever lives outside its concerns cannot even conceive of it. Proulx knows what she could only know not just by living in Wyoming but by the infrared that allows a very few writers clear sight in the dark of the imagination.'

This is part of AS Byatt's Guardian article about writing 'Possession'.
 'I had been thinking about such a novel for at least 15 years, and it had changed a great deal in my head during that time. Unlike anything else I have written, it began with the title. I was sitting in the old round reading room in the British Museum, watching the great Coleridge scholar Kathleen Coburn pacing round and round the circular catalogue, and I realised that she had dedicated all her life to this dead man. And then I thought "Does he possess her, or does she possess him?" And then I thought there could be a novel, "Possession", about the relations between the living and the dead. It would be a kind of daemonic tale of haunting.
I then realised that there was a blunt economic sense to the word. Who "possesses" the manuscripts of dead writers? I turned this over in my mind, and quite a long time later I realised that "possession" also applied to sexual relationships. At that time I was working on the wonderful letters of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and I had the idea of two pairs of lovers, one modern, one high Victorian, possessing each other in all these senses.
My original plan had been to write a kind of experimental novel, a ghostly palimpsest of literary, theoretical and intrusively biographical texts, behind which the lovers and poets could be glimpsed, but not seen clearly. What changed everything was my reading of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, with its parodic medieval detective story. My husband's friends in the City were all engrossed in this book, and interested in all the medieval theology it contained. The secret, I saw, was that if you tell a strong story, you can include anything else you need to include. So I started inventing a detective story like those I read in my childhood.'

Monday, August 13, 2012

August 2012

From the Observer reviewer:

When he travelled with a donkey in the Cévennes mountains of south-central France in the 1870s, Robert Louis Stevenson took a revolver with him, in case the locals were unfriendly. In her new novel, Rose Tremain vividly evokes the same verdant and recalcitrant region. At the heart of her story are a French brother and sister, Aramon and Audrun, born after the second world war: the progeny of a generation traumatised by loss and accusations of collaboration with German occupiers. By the time the siblings reach late middle age in the early 21st century, when the novel is set, "thousands of Cévenol people had seemed to forget their role as caretakers of the land. Diseases came to the trees. The vine terraces crumbled. The rivers silted up. And nobody seemed to notice or care."
Tremain's present-day story wittily revives Robert Louis Stevenson's fears: perhaps foreigners still have good reason to arm themselves when they venture into the wilds of the Cévenol.
By Tremain's standards, this is a dark book, almost stripped of the humane optimism that characterised The Road Home, winner of the 2008 Orange Prize. Instead, Trespass evinces a steely grip on corrupt human nature, in all its ugliness and inadequacy.

 This review is  by Edwin Percy Whipple, a contemporary of Thackery:

Vanity Fair, though it does not include the whole extent of Thackeray's genius, is the most vigorous exhibition of its leading characteristics. In freshness of feeling, elasticity of movement, and unity of aim, it is favorably distinguished from its successors, which too often give the impression of being composed of successive accumulations of incidents and persons, that drift into the story on no principle of artistic selection and combination. The style, while it has the raciness of individual peculiarity and the careless case of familiar gossip, is as clear, pure, and flexible as if its sentences had been subjected to repeated revision, and every pebble which obstructed its lucid and limpid flow had been laboriously removed. The characterization is almost perfect of its kind. Becky Sharp, the Marquis of Steyne, Sir Pitt Crawley and the whole Crawley family, Amelia, the Osbornes, Major Dobbin, not to mention others, are as well known to most cultivated people as their most intimate acquaintances in the Vanity Fair of the actual world. It has always seemed to us that Mr. Osborne, the father of George, a representation of the most hateful phase of English character, is one of the most vividly true and life-like of all the delineations in the book, and more of a typical personage than even Becky or the Marquis of Steyne. Thackeray's theory of characterization proceeds generally on the assumption that the acts of men and women are directed not by principle, but by instincts, selfish or amiable--that toleration of human weakness is possible only by lowering the standard of human capacity and obligation--and that the preliminary condition of an accurate knowledge of human character is distrust of ideals and repudiation of patterns. This view is narrow, and by no means covers all the facts of history and human life, but what relative truth it has is splendidly illustrated in Vanity Fair. There is not a person in the book who excites the reader's respect, and not one who fails to excite his interest. The morbid quickness of the author's perceptions of the selfish element, even in his few amiable characters, is a constant source of surprise. The novel not only has no hero, but implies the non-existence of heroism. Yet the fascination of the book is indisputable, and it is due to a variety of causes besides its mere exhibition of the worldly side of life. Among these, the perfect intellectual honesty of the writer, the sad or satirical sincerity with which he gives in his evidence against human nature, is the most prominent. With all his lightness of manner, he is essentially a witness under oath, and testifies only to what he is confident he knows. Perhaps this quality, rare not only in novel writing, but in all writing, would not compensate for the limitation of his perceptions and the repulsiveness of much that he perceives, were it not for the peculiar charm of his representation. It is here that the individuality of the man appears, and it presents a combination of sentiments and powers more original perhaps than the matter of his works. Take from Vanity Fair that special element of interest which comes from Thackeray's own nature, and it would lose the greater portion of its fascination. It is not so much what is done, as the way in which is is done, that surprises and delights; and the manner is always inimitable, even when the matter is common.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

July meeting

Before I Go to Sleep is a first novel by an NHS audiologist who wrote it in between shifts at London's St Thomas's Hospital, it's exceptionally accomplished.
After surviving what she believes was a car crash, Chrissie developed a form of amnesia which has left her able to store memories for only 24 hours. Every morning when she wakes she has forgotten the circumstances of her life and must relearn them from scratch: who her husband Ben is, where they live, whether or not they have children.
The novel takes the form of a journal she is encouraged to keep by a Dr Nash, who has, without Ben's knowledge, taken an interest in her case. It becomes a lifeline to her past; though of course she has to be reminded every day that she is writing it, or she would never know it existed.
The journal helps Chrissie discover things she has forgotten – for example that she once published a novel. Ben has concealed this and other key facts from her. Why? Is he a saintly carer, feeding her a sanitised version of her life that will not upset her? Or is he manipulating her perception of a world which, without memory to help her decode it, seems to hide innumerable vast conspiracies?
The structure is so dazzling it almost distracts you from the quality of the writing. No question, this is a very literary thriller.

The government contains only the sneering rich and serves only the sneering rich. They loathe the poor and have ensured they cannot escape poverty and receive only the minimum of education and state support. The health service has been destroyed and those who cannot afford private care are crammed into ancient filthy hospitals where they go simply to die. Any protests are put down with brutal force. No, I'm not talking about the next few years of Cameron and Clegg's reign of terror. I'm not even talking about the future as envisaged by the Tea Party. I'm talking about Ursula K Le Guin's 1975 Hugo award winner, The Dispossessed, and her vivid descriptions of the dystopian world of Urras.
The inequality on Urras has naturally provoked a great deal of anger. 150-odd years before the story opens there was a huge revolution – but instead of taking the more usual step of hanging their oppressors from lampposts, a large number of the revolutionaries fled to set up their own ideal society. Close to Urras (I know! It's the funniest planet name since Uranus) there's an almost inhabitable desert world called Annares where the idealists set up an anarchistic society based on principles of shared wealth, shared responsibility and shared bedrooms. Superficially, the society works. Incredibly, the people on Annares don't even mind sleeping in dorms. But at the time the book opens, things have calcified. The revolution is no longer moving forward. New ideas are frowned on and feared, while greedy, self-interested people (derided as "propertarians" in the language the inhabitants have invented for themselves) have started to hog power. Discontent is brewing.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

June meeting

Grant Gillespie's debut novel isn't just called The Cuckoo Boy because it's about an awkward adopted child who wears down his parents and is implicated in the death of a sibling. Gillespie is attempting to re-energise the cliché by using it to ask questions about chance and intention, and good and evil.
Late on in the book, when most of the world has already made him a pariah, James, the strange hero, says: "Cuckoos lay their eggs in other bird's nests. The chicks look really silly. I've seen them in books … a big baby bird and a really small one trying to feed it. They have to catch even more worms than ever. The mother bird's babies die. They get pushed from the nest … Is that murder or is it an accident?"'

 'Hailed as the finest crime writer in Australia, award winner Peter Temple is now being recognized worldwide as a master of the genre. With The Broken Shore, he delivers his most powerful novel yet—a chilling tale of murder in a community where tensions over race, class, and politics have reached the boiling point. Shaken by a recent scrape with death, his physical and emotional scars still raw, detective Joe Cashin is posted away from the Homicide Squad to the quiet South Australian town where he grew up. But his hometown offers little in the way of a tranquil recovery; Cashin is soon embroiled in a highly publicized murder investigation. Prominent local businessman Charles Bourgoyne was brutally attacked in his own home, and three Aboriginal boys have become the lead suspects. When a shootout erupts between them and Cashin’s team, the truth itself becomes a moving target, and the evidence raises more questions than it answers. As the secrets of the Bourgoyne family begin to unfold, Cashin unravels a web of deceit while confronting his own haunted past. Racing to a riveting conclusion, The Broken Shore will transfix you at every turn.'

Saturday, March 31, 2012

'Johnno is a beautifully written elegy to a lost friend and a vanished city. Dante, the narrator, remembers his boyhood friend, Johnno, and the Brisbane of their post-war youth, which he paints in loving detail. He recaptures the heat, the lush vegetation, the pubs and the public library, the back yards and the brothels of a city that with World War 2 had just come into the big world and was about to lose its particular ragged charm and become a modern city just like any other. Johnno is the book that put Brisbane on the literary map, and in a sense that is just what Malouf intended.'

'The Boat raises the bar for Australian writing.' PETER CRAVEN

'Nam Le is . . . a disturber of the peace.Consider the subjects of his stories: a child assassin in Colombia ('Cartagena'), an ageing New York artist desperate for a reconciliation with his daughter ('Meeting Elise'), a boy's coming of age in a rough Victorian fishing town ('Halflead Bay'), before the first atomic bomb falls in Japan ('Hiroshima'), The suffocations of theocracy in Iran ('Tehran Calling'). This astonishing range is topped and tailed by accounts of the uneasy reunion of a young Vietnamese writer in America with his ex-soldier father, and by the title story – the escape of a group of exhausted refugees from the Vietcong in a wallowing boat.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

This review is taken from the NY Times

'Cunningham has taken on the classic plot of the uninvited or unexpected stranger or guest whose arrival brings chaos, self-knowledge, tragedy, the ruin of one kind of life that may or may not lead to something better. Cunningham is drawn to simple, potent plots (think of the triptych in “The Hours”), saving his energy for the hearts and minds, the groins and guts, of his characters. Yet he makes you turn the pages. He tells a story here, but not too much of a story. You aren’t deadened by detail; you’re eager to know what happens next.
Cunningham writes so well, and with such an economy of language, that he can call up the poet’s exact match. His dialogue is deft and fast. The pace of the writing is skilled — stretched or contracted at just the right time. And if some of the interventions on art are too long — well, too long for whom? For what? Good novels are novels that provoke us to argue with the writer, not just novels that make us feel magically, mysteriously at home. A novel in which everything is perfect is a waxwork. A novel that is alive is never perfect.
“By Nightfall” is an interior work that externalizes its agonies. Cunningham puts us inside a man’s head, allowing us to look out at his life, which is more satisfying than using events to let us look inward. It’s not only that we understand Peter or sympathize with him; in some ways, we become him. We know, in part, what’s going to happen, in that fateful, fearful way we know things about ourselves once we’ve started down a particular road. And the particular road here is desire.'

Amateur sleuth Isabel Dalhousie is a philosopher who also uses her training to solve unusual mysteries. Isabel is Editor of the Review of Applied Ethics – which addresses such questions as ‘Truth telling in sexual relationships’ – and she also hosts The Sunday Philosophy Club at her house in Edinburgh. Behind the city’s Georgian facades its moral compasses are spinning with greed, dishonesty and murderous intent. Instinct tells Isabel that the young man who tumbled to his death in front of her eyes at a concert in the Usher Hall didn’t fall. He was pushed.