Lovesong- Alex Miller

Courtesy of Allen and Unwin.

I started reading Lovesong by Alex Miller because I had tickets to see him speak at The Wheeler Centre. I must confess that prior to the event I had never heard of him. But, I am always keen to find new authors whose work I will love so I jumped at the opportunity. It turns out that Alex Miller is a two-time winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award. It could be argued that to win the prize once is a fluke, but to win it twice suggests some that can write. While not being one of the book that won that prestigious accolade, Lovesong has not been entirely missed by the various literary awards about the place. It was the winner of several prestigious awards including The Age 2010 Book of the Year and the 2011 NSW Premiers Literary Awards- People’s Choice Award.  Clearly this is a ‘great’ book.

Ken is a ‘retired’ writer living in Carlton with his grown up daughter. He has just returned from Venice when he discovers that one of the old shops in the local shopping strip has been turned into a pastry shop run by an Australian man and his exotic North African wife, and their five-year old daughter. His story teller’s antennae is up releasing that these people must have a great story to tell. He befriends John and begins to draw out their incredible story, and so we get the story of Sabiha, and John, and their life in the industrial arrondissement of Paris.

Miller’s is a talented and skillful writer. The tone of the story changes between the slow, almost dreamlike pace of the Paris story and the plain-spoken story of life in Carlton. The story of John and Sabiha is one about love, hopes, dreams and the pain that is caused by dreams going unfulfilled. In this case, Sabiha’s dream is to be a mother of a daughter. When, after sixteen years of marriage she is still without her child, she takes drastic action to remedy the situation, with consequences for all concerned.

This is a beautiful book. Miller has drawn all his characters, including the minor characters, with empathy. There were times when I didn’t like or approve of Sabiha or her actions. But, I remained committed to following her story to the end, and I was well rewarded when I got there. This book is excellent, admittedly not ‘high action’, just a good story about two people trying to make a life together.

 

The Sense of an Ending- Julian Barnes

I read the other day that the Man Booker Prize  for 2011 had been awarded to The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. It occurred to me that I had the book in ‘My Tower of Shame’, I decided it was time to see what the fuss was about. The only thing that stopped me reading this in one sitting was that I had to go to sleep to get up for work the next morning. Unlike some books that win various prizes, that when read leave you wondering what the judges were thinking, this book is excellent.

It is in a sense a memoir, but not. It is about history, the personal kind, and the fallibility of memory for the reliable retelling of our stories. It is the story of Tony Webster, now in his sixties. He is remembering the key moments in his youth. His friendship with boys he met at school, and most notably that of Adrian, the boy who came to the group late, and whose high opinion the other sought. He remembers the first woman he loved, and the lasting effect that his own interpretation of the memories of that time have had on him. It is also about suicide, and divorce and being a father, and of life continuing on and on to its inevitable conclusion. He talks about how when we are young, we are ‘still waiting for life to start, not realising that it has in fact already begun’. Then in our middle age we realise that the opportunities to effect any real change in our lives has gone, and that this is probably ‘it’.

I just finished reading this morning, and I confess that a lot of it has probably gone over my head, and I won’t get it until after, when I’ve had a chance to ruminate and mull over it. But, that in itself is a measure of how superb this book is. So many books are fine, and a good way to pass the time and escape from reality for a while. There is nothing wrong with that, in fact it can be a pleasure in and of itself. But, great literature is the kind that stays with you for months, if not years later, while you try to figure out the enigma of it.

A great book and a worthy winner, and at no more than 150 pages a quick and satisfying read. Well worth picking up.

The Coffee Story- Peter Salmon

  The Coffee Story by Peter Salmon is a death-bed confessional of Teddy Everett, the last of a dynasty of coffee barons. It recounts his coffee story, or rather a number of significant moments in his life with and around coffee.  It is story about the bitterness of regret and the feeling of being a traitor. Over the course of the novel, we learn that Teddy has had two wives, was raised in Ethiopia, just before the Italians came and lived in Cuba, just before the revolution. Over the course of his life he has been an important man, linked with the likes of Howard Hughes and William Hearst.  But now, he is dying of lung cancer in a prison hospital, and making his final confession, to no one in particular. This is his coffee story.

I came across this book at the 2011 Melbourne Writers’ Festival when I attended a couple of sessions when the author read from his book. (He was good enough to sign my copy afterward too.) I was intrigued by the interesting writing style employed by Salmon. It is a rambling, conversational style of writing. During the Q & A, Salmon said that he quite deliberately set out to tell the story in the voice of someone who is not a writer, and so not conforming to ‘accepted’ narrative norms. The story is non-linear for a start. Moving from thought to thought in a haphazard way, often sliding off into tangents, regularly repeating some sections of the story (especially parts which turn out to be of vital importance to him), sometimes stopping abruptly to bring us back to the present and his current set of circumstances.

The book is also full of sex, but without any sentiment behind it. The frequent sex scene are very direct and use quite strong, yet dispassionate language to convey. Sex does not equal joy, or love, or affection to Teddy. In fact he is far more eloquent and sensual when in talks about coffee, and the pleasures that a good cup of coffee can bring.

I liked this book. Although to be honest, I didn’t loooove it like I wanted to. I think that on a certain level I liked the idea of the book and was excited by the attempt to try something new in terms of writing style, more than the actual book itself. I admit there are times when the chopping and changing of the story is a little annoying. But, it is worth persevering, because I think that the point of this book is that it is meant to be read/viewed as a whole, something that you can’t do until you actually finish it. It is good, and like a good strong cup of coffee, although bitter, and if you’re like me a drink it without sugar, it can be a little rough sometimes. But the feeling you have afterward is worth every word.

Water for Elephants- Sara Gruen

Cover of "Water for Elephants: A Novel"
Cover of Water for Elephants: A Novel

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to write this one up. I read Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen several months ago, before seeing the film starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson. I was lucky enough to score tickets to the Australian Premier of the film, from one of my good friends, Tara.  Where possible I like to read a book, before seeing any film, television or theatrical version of it. I like being able to make up my own mind about what characters and places look like, before seeing whether a director sees them the same way.

I have to say that this was one of the rare instances where the film improved upon the book. Although the book was okay, it felt like it was a couple of drafts away from perfection. The process of turning it into a film stripped away unneccesary extra characters and the annoying retirement home subplot of the novel, leaving behind what should have been a great story.

Water for Elephants is about a circus traveling through America during the Great Depression. Jacob Jankowski is a veterinary science student at Cornell University, about to take his final exams, when he learns that his parents have died. To add to the blow of loosing his parents, Jacob also learns that their house and all their possessions are now owned by the bank. Penniless, homeless and unemployed, Jacob takes to the rails in search of a living. On boarding the first train that comes along, he finds himself having joined the Benzini Brother Most Spectacular Show on Earth. He also meets Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star, married to the charasmatic, but often cruel animal trainer.

As I said this book could have been so much more than it was. The subject matter alone should have been enough. But, for some reason, it just doesn’t quite hit the mark. There is no doubt that Gruen has filled her circus with all kinds of interesting characters, and has drawn an authentic picture of the prohibition era. But, it just misses something.

Although not awful, and a reasonable read, I would save this one for when you have nothing else to read.

When God Was a Rabbit- Sarah Winman

     I had seen When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman on various recommendation lists in my favourite book shops like Dymocks and Readings, and also on my favourite book websites from Book Depository and Amazon, through to Library Thing and Good Reads.  It’s pretty hard to resist temptation like that. I’m glad I didn’t. This book is awesome, even if not always an easy book to read. It tells the life story of Elly,  her family, her best friend Jenny Penny, and God, her rabbit, of course. The story is told in two parts. The first part is through her eyes as a child in england in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The second half jumps forward to see her fully growing up and heading toward the new millennium.

What this book is about is the importance of family. Not just blood family, but the collection of people who come into our lives and make a lasting impact, for better or worse, but usually for the better. These are the people from whom you (we) can be separated from, sometimes for years without contact, but knowing that they are out there is enough. When you meet them again, there is no doubt that they are still ‘your people’.

As a side theme, it also explores the BIG questions about god, spirituality and the existence of miracles.  Elly’s parents are liberal-minded children of the 60’s and tend to scorn organised  religion, meanwhile her early teachers try to instill in her the basics of christianity, but discourage her from asking questions about it.  Castigating her childish curiosity as blasphemy. As I said this theme is returned to continually throughout the book, the different way that people find to understand the workings of the universe, and to cope with the challenges that life throws at us are explored fully.

I adored this book, but as I said it is not light reading. This is not a book that can be skimmed through in an afternoon. I found I need breaks in between, to read other things. These people are real, and so there are tears and pain, balanced out by joy and laughter. But through it all, what permeates the whole story is love. Unconditional, wholehearted, sometimes painful, but always essential, love.

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Starter for Ten- David Nicholls

Cover of "Starter for Ten"
Cover of Starter for Ten

Starter for Ten was written by David Nicholls, the same author that wrote One Day.  It tells the story from the point of view of Brian Jackson, as he makes the transition into adulthood. Brian, who has been living with his mum, following the death of his father, when he was twelve or thirteen. They live in Southend, a place where few, if any, go on to higher education.

When he starts out he has fantasies that he will spend his time at university discussing literature, political philosophy and other weighty topics while using words like ‘eponymous’, ‘utilitarian’ and other big words in regular conversation. He says there are “three things he expects to happen at university- one was to lose his virginity, two was to be asked to become a spy, three was that he’d be on University Challenge.”   As for the first two, the first was taken care of before he left home, the second was unlikely, but the third…  and so we follow Brian’s clumsy exploits as he becomes part of ‘The Challenge’ team all while trying to woo the beautiful, ‘love of his life’ Alice.

This book is essentially about the often painful process of growing up, and becoming an adult, all the while trying not to lose too much of yourself in the process. Brian finds that balancing his ‘new life’ with the elements of the old that he would like to keep are especially difficult.

I enjoyed this book, however it is not in the same class as One Day. This is a good read, and an easy read, with plenty of laugh out loud moments. This will especially appeal to anyone who has spent any time at university, doubly so if you ever spent time at university being ‘outraged’ by the latest ’cause de jour’. It’s a good book, and worth picking up.

One Day- David Nicholls

I initially started reading One Day by David Nichols, because after having read a lot of heavy, ‘serious’ literature lately, I wanted something light. I had heard some discussion about it in connection with the film, starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess. I was intrigued, but suspected that it would just be a bit of light ‘chick-lit’ froth, that would be enjoyable, but hardly ‘life changing’.  How wrong I was. This is a wonderful book, and one I suspect will become a well-worn favourite to be returned to regularly like an old friend. Which is appropriate because that is what the book (and the film too I suppose)  is all about.

The main premise of the book is that we begin with the meeting of the two main characters following their graduation from university, on the 15th July 1988, which is also St Swithin’s Day. We then revisit the two characters every year for the next nearly 20 years, always on the same day. With each chapter, and each passing year, we are quickly become acquainted with what has been happening in their lives over the last twelve months.

As I said, I loved this book. The two main characters are great, with great depth. We don’t always ‘like’ them, indeed there are times when the male lead in particular makes me want to throw things at him, but we still retain a desire to keep up with the events of their respective lives, and how their friendship grows and survives through all that life can throw at any relationship.

It is also an emotional book, surfing the joys, the sadness and the in-between of these two people.Be warned, you will need to keep the tissues on stand-by on several occasions. But there are also plenty of laugh out loud moments too. Although this will probably appeal more to women than men, it is an excellent book that I would happily recommend it to anyone.

Cloud Atlas- David Mitchell

Cover of "Cloud Atlas"
Cover of Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell was published in 2004, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  It is a series of six short stories, spread across time beginning in the 1800’s and finishing in a post- apocalyptic future.

In addition to being six stories, it is also divided into two halves. In the first half we move through each story, in chronological order, moving forwards through time. Each story comes to an abrupt end, leaving the reader anxious to know what comes next, only to continue on into the next. The experience is not unlike watching television. We move from historical fiction, through to 1970’s political thriller, to a futurist sci-fi drama, with no more than the turning of a page.  A testament to how good this guy is as a writer, despite the shock of being dragged away from a story that we have become emotionally involved in, we are quickly sucked into the new world within no more than a few paragraphs.

Something else that is noteworthy is that with each change of story, as well as changing between eras and genres, each story has a new voice, they are all written from a different point-of-view.

As I said the book is in two halves. The first half is mainly concerned with the narrative of each individual story. The reader is vaguely aware of a ‘link’ between them, but we are absorbed in the ‘here-and-now’ of each new story. But, something happens about mid-way through the sixth story (incidentally the only one of the six that is told without any break). The book shifts from being merely a description of the events unfolding, and begins to explore some far bigger, and weightier issues. It starts to ask some big questions about freedom, about the role and nature of history, about the difference between civilisation and barbarism (and who gets to decide which is which). Following the conclusion of the sixth story, we start moving back through the other five stories (from where we left off) in reverse chronological order.

This book is brilliant. There were times when I was reading where I felt compelled to write down quotes from it, to remember later. Other times I simply had to sit and ponder the questions that this book asks of it reader. I had to leave a full day before I could even think about starting another book, because I had been so deeply affected, and didn’t want that feeling to go away.

Apparently, this book has been made into a film, set for release sometime in 2011. I’m not sure whether this will translate on to the screen effectively. But, I understand the impulse of those behind the project to want to share this with as many people as possible.

The Tiger’s Wife- Téa Obreht

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht is the story of Natalia, a young doctor in the former Yugoslavia, who upon learning the news that her beloved grandfather has died, remembers the stories he had told her throughout her life. The main stories she returns to are the story of the ‘deathless man’ and the story of the ‘tiger’s wife’.

This is a wonderful book, so full of life and whimsy, but always in the background is the tragedy of loss and hardship that comes from a land that has been if not at war, then at least preparing for war, for most of the last hundred years or more. I found this book by accident, and when I realised that it had as its backdrop the Balkan Wars that followed the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, I was hesitant, expecting it to be depressing. I am so glad that I ignored my hesitation.

While the various wars that have beset the area are a near constant feature of the landscape, it is never allowed to intrude on the telling of the stories. If anything, the book is about how life continues despite the horror of war, and that human beings always find ways to cope.

It is a country where superstition rules. To begin with we share the frustration of Natalia (and her grandfather) with the prevailing superstition that seems to grip the people, refusing to make way for reason. In many ways this superstition exacerbates that tensions between the different religions and creeds that make up the Balkan people. However, we eventually come to understand that superstition can serve a useful function in providing the survivors of horror, the means to go on.

This is Obreht’s first novel, and at the age of 26, she has already set the literary world on fire. She has won several awards about the place for her short stories, and The Tiger’s Wife was the Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2011. It is with great anticipation that I look forward to seeing what she produces next.

Breath- Tim Winton

    Breath by Tim Winton came to me highly acclaimed. It is a first person memoir of a man, Bruce Pike, remembering his youth growing up in the Margaret River area of Western Australia. He has since become a paramedic, and arriving at the scene of an apparent teenage suicide brings back memories of his own misspent youth.

The central theme is about fear. About meetings fears, conquering fears and most importantly learning that fear itself shouldn’t be feared or shunned. As the name suggests, it is also about breath, and how through most of our lives we breathe without being conscious that we are even doing it, but when breathing becomes difficult for whatever reason, it brings home just how important it is to sustaining life. The exhilaration that comes with regaining the ability to breathe comes from the joy of realising just how precious, and precarious life can be.

Pike grew up, during the 1970’s, in a small town that revolved around the local sawmill. He befriends another boy, known as Ivan ‘Loonie’ Loon, who has ‘never had the remotest thing in common…before we realized that we’d each independently perfecting the art of causing riverside panic.’ The two boys challenge each other to perform escalating feats of danger. This continues after the two boys discover what will become their life long passion, surfing.

Along the way they meet Sando, a retired professional surfer, and his wife, Eva. Sando, in his mid-thirties, befriends the boys and becomes a guru in the ways of surfing, and life. His philosophy is the life should never be ordinary. That a man must always be looking to push past the boundaries in order to truly live. That taking yourself to the physical limit, where life itself is in the balance, is the only way to get the most out of life.

The novel raises many important issues. The relationship and influence that Sando and his wife have over Bruce and Loonie, without any apparent awareness of any responsibility that that influence requires of them is at time quite frightening. From time to time, while telling his story, Pike reflects on the inappropriate nature of their mini-cult, and how the ramifications of his time with them impacts on his whole life.

This is brilliant book, richly deserving of the praise that has been heaped on it. It’s not an easy book to read though, it tackles some difficult subject matter and themes. It is worth the effort however. There are so many facets to this book, I am certain that I missed many of them on the first reading, and that this is a novel that needs to be read and re-read again and again to appreciate it properly.