Saradha Koirala

Category: Reviews

Stories that shaped the world

BBC Culture has just published a list of The 100 Stories that Shaped the World from international writers’ contributions. I was stoked to be one of the contributors! Check out the whole list at BBC Culture and read about my top 5 here: 

  1. Leaves of Grass.jpgSong of Myself (Walt Whitman) and, indeed, Leaves of Grass as a collection, reads like a Humanist manifesto that celebrates a love of land, freedom, self and the connections between these. Whitman embodies a universal and omnipotent “I” into which readers can place themselves and have done over generations. It’s very much an epic poem, but plays with structure and language, the long lines moving with the breath, and surprising, explicit imagery. The shift away from traditional spiritual reflection – rumination on the connections between nature, God and the human mind – marks an important change in how we view the body and physical world. The many references to Song of Myself in pop and high culture over the years are testament to its potency, endurance and relevance. (number 87!)

 

  1. HowlHowl (Allen Ginsberg) marked a cultural shift, not just in literature (although this is hugely significant), but also in the way people view literature and art as something powerful and dangerous. The poem spoke to a group of marginalised writers and musicians and challenged the expectations of language and ‘high art’. Post-WWII when people were feeling either a strong desire to settle into familiar comforts and gender stereotypes, or anger at the establishment, Howl opened a gate for freedom of expression and allowed discussion, anger, excitement and all kinds of love out into mainstream society, subverting and questioning the norms. The Howl Obscenity Trial (1957) sent a message to the world about just how powerful language can be and the idea that a poem could incite legal action is thrilling. (number 53!)

 

  1. To kill a mockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) has been read and studied year after year in high schools and today, nearly 60 years after its publication, it’s still a deeply loved book by people of all ages. The links to American history and race relations are both specific to the Deep South in the 1930s and hugely relevant to today’s society. The themes of prejudice and empathy are quoted and referred to time and again to highlight aspects of our own society that need examining. To Kill a Mockingbird documents important historical ideologies that must never be forgotten as well as asking us to examine the way we treat all members of our communities. (number 27!)

 

  1. Romeo and Juliet.pngRomeo and Juliet (William Shakespeare) is considered a deeply romantic play, but there is less to learn about love here than there is to learn about the petty differences that keep factions of communities separated. The tragedy is in the secrecy of the love between Romeo and Juliet and it’s a constant reminder to always questions our prejudices, whether they be newly formed or ancient grudges. This play has also been studied and read in classrooms for generations, influencing the way people view human behaviour and highlighting those aspects which are centuries old; deeply engrained notions of love at first sight and the lengths some will go to. Of course, Shakespeare has also influenced literature and pop culture in more ways than we can count. (number 13!)

 

  1. The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood), a powerful cautionary tale, has never felt more relevant. Ideas around the treatment of women and the dystopian society created are perhaps extreme, but feel like a plausible future for societies where women are continually being marginalised and their bodies legislated. The novel is a harsh indictment of gender stereotyping and patriarchal societies, reminding us how important it is to empower women to be agents of their own destinies and not allow their voices to be silenced. People have turned to Atwood’s horrifying view of the future time and again when reflecting on the current status of women in society. (number 16!)

Stuff I’ve Been Reading on the Train #2

I’ve recently moved house, but thankfully this hasn’t compromised my reading on the train time. As term 2 gets underway, I thought it timely to update you on my commuter reading habits this year. (You can read about the stuff I was reading last semester here).

Goodbye, Perfect – Sara Barnard

Goodbye, PerfectI felt very invested in the action of this YA novel. Narrated by Eden, whose usually “perfect” best friend has run off with the hipster music teacher, the old “trying to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped” tension was developed in a way that rang disturbingly true. Eden was a lovely nuanced character too, in foster care with a family who carved out a symbolic piece of garden for her to work and dealing with her own own feelings of imperfection.

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

Who doesn’t love Austen? I’m looking forward to teaching this next term.

I am Thunder – Muhammad Khan

I am ThunderThis is not my favourite recent YA novel, but I was drawn along by the tension and themes that feel important in understanding Islamic points of view. The main character struggles with controlling parents and, as a result, gets swept up into a world of extremism. The characters don’t quite feel real at times, with some clunky teenage dialogue, but the action progresses at a good pace and the choices and conflicts for the main character are important to consider.

Persepolis (books 1&2) – Marjane Satrapi

PersepolisPersepolis 2I enjoyed teaching this last term. Satrapi’s Graphic Memoir is another often neglected worldview – the effects of the Iranian Revolution on the population and, in particular, how these event shaped a childhood. Satrapi doesn’t portray herself as a perfect character, but she’s hugely likeable and struggles with all the normal teenage issues on top of bigger issues, such as faith, war, political beliefs and loss of family members. So many excellent scenes and the visuals are charmingly simple and affecting.

Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow – Yuval Noah Harari

Homo DeusI’m now currently reading Harari’s Sapiens, which is the back story in some ways to this. Homo Deus looks at where homo sapiens have come from and where we are potentially going, in a world where things like Google know more about us than we know ourselves; where we strive for immortality; where we’re creating artificial intelligence beyond our own abilities. Harari makes connections between topics that you never see coming, but are so convincing when they’re drawn together. This was an intense reading experience, as I couldn’t stop thinking about it and almost every conversation I had at this time seemed to be able to link to an idea from the book.

Take Three Girls – Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell & Fiona Wood

Take Three Girls.jpgThree YA authors each create a character who’s figuring themselves out and developing a relationship with the others. It’s not uncommon these days for YA novels to flick point of view every chapter and sometimes this feels pointless, especially if the voices are not particularly distinct or add interest to the story. But this works really well as the authors have their own voice and style for their characters and they interact beautifully. The book looks at some important ideas and the girls are drawn together initially by a “Wellness” class – a clever device for allowing them to be cynical and then accepting of self-care and relationship lessons.

The Shepherd’s Hut – Tim Winton

The Shepherd's HutI read this straight after hearing Tim Winton introduce his character and talk about toxic masculinity. I’ve loved Winton’s work for ages, and hearing him talk is so moving, as he’s a powerful blend of humble, intelligent, heart-felt and funny. The Shepherd’s Hut follows Jaxie Clackton as he attempts to cross the saltlands of Western Australia, escaping the home that has nothing left for him. He’s a deeply troubled boy, but I felt incredibly warm towards him and hoped only for his safety. The voice is authentic and consuming and the landscape – so often a character of its own in Winton’s work – stark and uncompromising.

Men Explain Things to Me – Rebecca Solnit

Men Explain Things to Me.jpgSolnit has become my go-to on US political commentary recently, but it was also useful reading her essays on the back of Winton’s talk, as she reiterates the problem of the patriarchy, reminding me that these ideas and facts need to be voiced by everyone, before change can happen. She’s scathing and funny, but hits you with the reality of a society where it’s all too common to silence women.

The Natural Way of Things – Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things.jpgThis had been on my “to read” list for a while and I’ve been wanting to read more Australian writers since moving here. This might not have been a good place to start! I was engrossed entirely and compelled to finish to ensure everyone ended up okay, but it was a rather harrowing read with very little sense of hope. The detached almost dreamlike narrative was appropriate for the characters who, given their circumstances, were trying to escape mentally and physically, but felt a bit too removed at times. As with Winton’s work, the Australian landscape is characterised as a harsh and unforgiving factor to be endured or overcome. Don’t let me stray too far into the outback, okay?

Windfall – Jennifer E. Smith

Windfall.jpgI read this as much needed fluffy light relief and it did the trick. It’s very much a teen love story, which I’m not usually a fan of, but there are some beautiful moments and incredibly well-written dialogue. I admire an ability to capture authentic teen voices and show the rapport and easy connection between characters with clever banter. Teenager wins the lottery, but realises love is the real  prize in life. Aww.

Lonesome When You Go – on tour!

 

Lonesome When You Go is on tour this week around some of NZ’s top children’s book blogs!

The tour comes hot on the heels of Lonesome receiving a Storylines Notable Book Award – one of only two Young Adult novels this year! It was such a great ceremony to be part of and I personally had an amazing weekend in Auckland catching up with family and meeting some of the other wonderful writers, publishers and supporters of NZ literature.

Lonesome at StorylinesThe tour includes interviews with me and began yesterday with a review at Kids Books NZ. The schedule for the rest of the week is:

Lonesome When You Go is published by Makaro Press and can be found and purchased here!

The Lonely City – Olivia Laing

the-lonely-cityA couple of months ago I was looking up my book, Lonesome When You Go (as you do), and was directed to a Loneliness Quiz. It was the end of a tough year having moved to a new country and struggled to make meaningful connections or feel at home. I scored very highly on the quiz and my results suggested I should be concerned for my well-being. It made me feel even sadder, but prompted me to really examine the issue – what is it that makes me such a solitary creature? Am I okay with it? Will it pass? And why, in this huge city full of writers, musicians, artists and people with similar backgrounds to me have I continued to find connection and friendship so elusive and difficult?

During that tough year I found myself reading about all sorts of things, from Synchronicity to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; books on Mastery, depression, loss, love. Both fiction and non-fiction books seemed to be all about searching for meaning and understanding ourselves and our relationship to others.

Most pertinent of all of these was The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. With the subtitle ‘Adventures in the Art of Being Alone’ and a purple night sky cover (a similar image to my phone’s background: the sky I snapped on my 35th birthday, as it happens), this book was already a favourite.

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Lonesome Moon: The night sky on Saradha’s 35th birthday

Laing ruminates poetically on some of my own queries and, in particular, the nature of loneliness through her own experience of living heartbroken in New York in her mid-thirties. She ponders the way society views loneliness and questions the belief that “our whole purpose is as coupled creatures, or that happiness can or should be a permanent possession.” I often hear it said that humans are social creatures, our purpose is to connect with others and thus be fully realised ourselves. The fact that this isn’t always possible can be troubling, but I found comfort in Laing’s acceptance of this state and discussion on how it can serve a purpose of its own. She asks “What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being?”

Quoting Virginia Woolf, Laing writes, “Woolf described an inner loneliness that she thought might be illuminating to analyse, adding: ‘If I could catch the feeling, I would: the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world.’” Suggesting that there’s more to this feeling than a lack of something. It can perhaps be used to enhance our experience of reality.

Through her solo exploration of New York City, Laing focuses on the artists who have walked and documented the same streets. Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz all feature heavily and are connected through their shared experience of difficult childhoods, being outsiders and making art that examines loneliness felt amid a crowded city. The link between art and loneliness is strong and Laing’s fascination turns it into an art form itself.

Sometimes a book comes along that makes you feel better about being the you you are. Just as Susan Cain’s Quiet cemented my understanding of my own introversion some years ago, The Lonely City made me feel remarkably less alone; less worried about a state that, whether or not it’s fundamental to my very personality, will come and go and always lead to something creative or examinable. I’ve definitely been working on it, but see it now as less a failure to experience and more an experience all of its own.

(I just did the quiz again and have gone down from extreme loneliness, to moderate loneliness. I’ll be okay.)

 

Paterson.

red-wheelbarrow

Did we depend on you too much, old red? / The rain water soaked through / And the chickens / Where are they now?

Things you probably already know about me:

  1. I like poetry – not just the words, but the poetry of circumstance, scenery, synchronicity, people
  2. I like to make reference to William Carlos Williams poems, especially in my Instagram feed
  3. I value gentleness and am on a quiet crusade to revolutionise the world thusly.

this-is-just-to-saySo you’ll not be surprised to learn that Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is my new favourite movie.

It’s a poem in itself structured with stanzas like days of the week, repetition that imbues deeper meaning with each encounter, a homage to the poetry of lives being lived without judgement or drama. There’s ambiguity, subtlety and I’m sure it would reward re-watching, just as there’s always more to be gleaned from re-visiting a good poem.

Paterson drives the bus in Paterson, New Jersey – the home of WCW and Allen Ginsberg. Lines of poetry pace through his head as he walks to work and he writes them in his notebook sitting at the wheel in the morning.  It’s a quietly persistent art form that exists in his every day – the conversations he overhears, the familiar scenes of his home town – contrasted perhaps by his quirky and lovely Laura who expresses her artistry by staying home painting the curtains, the walls, decorating cupcakes and buying a “Harlequin” guitar to match her aesthetic. The bold black and white is hard to miss, but she’s just as gentle and poetic as Paterson and the sweetness of their relationship is one of the most heartening aspects of this film.

I totally believe poetry is the antidote to a high-conflict society, where everything makes us mad and nothing is ever good enough. The calm world of Paterson reminds us, but doesn’t indulge that we have been conditioned to expect drama and conflict in movies and in life; secrets being kept, relationships falling apart, tempers flaring (spoiler: the bus doesn’t burst into flames). Life doesn’t have to be like that. Instead we can simply do our jobs, be kind to each other, walk the dog and look at the world through a poet’s eyes. How lucky is that?

Love stories in blue covers and alternating narratives

Despite the different themes and agendas, these two new YA novels from Pan Macmillan do have things in common, including both being told in alternating chapters from each character’s point of view.

minaDeep blue.jpgWhen Michael Met Mina by Randa Abdel-Fattah  is set in Sydney amid the refugee debate, the alternating narrative between the two main characters reiterating the idea that there are two sides to every story – even if one side is clearly influenced by ill-informed, Islamophobic parents and easily swayed – and ultimately showing a more compassionate way to live.

Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley is set in a whimsical second bookshop where people hide letters to loved ones in significant copies of texts and secretly grieve for those they’ve lost.

The first novel is politically charged, topical and raises serious concerns about social justice and the dangerous views held by those who don’t welcome refugees and migrants to Australia’s shores. The second references some of my favourite books and poems – Great Expectations, Cloud Atlas, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock – and shows how these shape our understanding of love, death, knowing and how they can draw us closer to each other.

Both novels show the developing relationship between two teenagers. There’s Michael, proudly standing by his family and their ‘Aussie Values’ but attracted to Mina who arrives at his school from Afghanistan, via Auburn. Mina’s initial dislike of Michael is completely understandable given his views on immigration, but she stands her ground and is determined to show him another perspective. The other novel has Henry and Rachel, best friends for years, briefly estranged and inevitably destined to be together. There’s the complication of Amy – demanding, beautiful, unobtainable – and the lost letter Rachel wrote declaring her love, but ultimately this is a charming journey of friendship and love.

Rachel and Mina are both grieving for lost siblings. It’s difficult to talk about for both of them and their losses makes them more complex than others can comprehend. Rachel helps us understand more about the dead and develops her own ideas about souls and memory in relation to what she reads. I love that David Mitchell’s transmigration of souls comes into this book in a way that changes a character’s understanding of the world.

I feel like every time I finish reading a book my understanding of life is altered just a little more and through this understanding, living becomes just a little bit easier. I think Rachel and Henry would like that idea. Words in Deep Blue gently helps readers navigate the unexpected changes and losses of life without ever feeling preachy or forced. There are more specific understandings that we gain from books too and When Michael Met Mina shows us what it’s like to have to move to a new country out of fear and embark on a dangerous and horrifying journey, hoping for safety. Michael learns about this through getting to know Mina and it’s an important lesson for all of us.

When Michael Met Mina has a strong purpose and a point of view that shifts in the way the author hopes others will also shift their perspectives. The high school dynamics are believable and real difficulties of Mina’s family are held up as a way to examine current society.

Words in Deep Blue is a more timeless story and although the cast of characters are still distinct people the messages are much more subtle. They are patient with each other, kind when they’re called on and most appealingly they all read, talk about what they read and look at the world differently depending on what they read.

Both hold important messages; both books highly recommended.

The Best of Adam Sharp – by Graeme Simsion

I spent my Saturday finishing reading The Best of Adam Sharp. On Sunday I caught the train to Yarraville to attend the book’s local launch in the chilly-but-welcoming Masonic Hall. Yarraville is adorable, I had no idea. The hall was full of intimidatingly accomplished writers whose first novels have been optioned by Sony or Universal. The launch began with a reading from Jane Rawson, a novelist whose debut is purportedly “Australia’s most underrated book” As I drank my cup of sav, held in still-gloved hands, I wondered if that is in fact the greatest literary accomplishment I’ve ever heard of.

It was wonderful listening to Graeme talk about his writing – the rush to fame The Rosie Project brought him and the philosophical way he’s had to deal with Hollywood and oddly out of touch US publishers.  The descriptions of the writing process for The Best of Adam Sharp made the novel all the more real and I even squirreled away some tips for developing an original plot.

There was an intriguing connection for me here too – Graeme sent me a signed copy of The Best of Adam Sharp after finding my book and recognising the Dylan reference of the title. I liked that link a lot. It’s the kind of thing that musical references should do and is hugely fitting when thinking about The Best of Adam Sharp – a book so imbued with the sentimentality, nostalgia, subtext and at times obsession that songs and their lyrics can be responsible for in our lives.

At one point Adam recalls his dad’s advice after he’s been caught out, “Think about what you sing in the shower” and I’m reminded of my Grandad (who passed away a year ago today) whose mood and thoughts could apparently be traced easily to the tune he was whistling. The songs in our heads are not set to random and they are liable to tell tales on us.

But of course we will cherry-pick the lyrics that have the most significance for us, Adam reminds us. We can connect with a song on even the most tenuous level if we are truly and desperately looking for a connection.

I really enjoyed The Best of Adam Sharp. The soundtrack made me feel like Lonesome When You Go had found its nostalgic and somewhat rueful parent; the scenes in France felt cinematic, making me want to be there, perhaps not for the drama but definitely for the wine; and the themes of second chances, what if, longing for something that never quite was could bring tears to your eyes.

Dylanesque symbolism for this theme crossed my mind briefly as I waited on the Yarraville platform for the train home.

‘Sylvie the Second’ Blog Tour – Interview with Kaeli Baker

sylvie cover copy.jpgSYLVIE THE SECOND is a daring new YA novel from Wellington publishers Makaro Press (Submarine imprint). Like Sylvie, it’s finding its way to being more visible and has even been spotted on the shelves at Whitcoulls next to teen favourites Johns Green and Boyne!

The book deals with some difficult but important issues that also need to be made much more visible in our society. I hope it will start some good discussions with young people and their families about what they experience and how they cope with the pressures and expectations of growing up.

 

I talked to author Kaeli Baker about teenagers, writing in airports and her own hopes for Sylvie:

SK: This novel tackles tough but very real teenage issues. What kind of reader did you have in mind for this book?

KB: I guess I was aiming for teens, particularly girls, who are struggling a little with finding their way, their voice, their values… So, basically teenage girls in general! Being a teenager is hard enough and then when you add extra stress to the mix (and everybody has extra stress in one way or another), it can become even more difficult.

SK: But there are some positive moments in this book too and the ending was particularly heartening. What do you hope readers will take away from it?

KB: Most of all I hope that readers will put the book down after the last chapter with a renewed sense of hope and faith in friendships, a clearer sense of how they are willing to be treated by their peers and where their limits are, and a little more confidence in seeking support if they need it.

SK: There must have been some difficulties in writing this – trying to give a sense of hope and ‘normalcy’ to Sylvie’s life, but not underplaying the very damaging and traumatic events she is experiencing. How did you handle this balance?

KB: I think Belle and Adam were significant for keeping the balance of normalcy and hope in Sylvie’s life. I felt like it was important to confront Sylvie’s hardships and trauma, but also give a nod to her resilience. Even when things are going wrong she gets up every day and has a goal in mind – to get through it. It’s just that some of the ways she learns to cope aren’t healthy. I think that if she didn’t have such a loyal friend in Belle, especially, things could’ve been much worse.

The brief interactions with strangers was another way in which I tried to weave some hopefulness into the equation. The woman on the bus, the little girl and the guy on Christmas day… Even Alannah, the doctor. Often we influence other people without even realising it. Our interactions can be so valuable and we give away pieces of wisdom all the time without realising that anyone’s heard it. I wanted to convey that, and also provide some faith in humanity – there are a lot of nasty people in Sylvie’s life, for whatever reasons, and I felt like it was important to remind the reader that most people are good, and not out to hurt them. As a teenager, as a woman, and in fact just as a human being, it can be hard to trust that sometimes.

SK: What other difficulties did you come across?

KB: The self-harm was something I thought a lot about. I didn’t want to glamourise it, or offer it as an effective strategy for Sylvie to cope with her distress, but I did want to address it head on since it’s a real method that some people use. I guess I wanted to write about it fearlessly but sensitively at the same time. Sylvie’s regret is clear throughout – she knows it’s not a solution for her. In saying that, I was cautious not to come off as preachy. I found it one of the most difficult things to balance.

SK: Belle is a lovely character and, as you say, a strong support for Sylvie. Is there a “Belle” out there for all of us when times are tough?

KB: I definitely think there is, in some form or other. She might be found in the shape of a friend, a family member, a counsellor, a voice at the end of a helpline or someone’s personal faith. It’s really important to remember that even when we feel like we have no one, there are still people who will help us, and things to hold on to.

SK: One thing that worried me about Sylvie was how easily she was able to get close to someone after what happened at Chris’ party. I wondered if this was her dealing with or failing to deal with things?

KB: Such a good question! It’s absolutely a sensitive situation, and everyone who has been through an experience similar to Sylvie’s will process it in different ways. So I think the answer to this question is really up to the reader’s interpretation.

Adam is an important person in Sylvie’s story in that he represents the good guy. It’s so easy to believe after you’ve been hurt that everyone is bad, and I wanted to put forward the idea that that’s not the case. Whether Sylvie letting him get close to her is a mark of dealing or not dealing is up for debate.

SK: What do you think the main differences are for this generation of teenagers compared to previous generations? Do these worry you or give you hope?

KB: I think one of the biggest differences is social media, which is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand it’s great at keeping people connected and it’s such a good platform for change. On the other hand it can be difficult not to compare yourself to other people’s seemingly perfect lives, and there are more social pressures, covert but constant bullying, sexting … I think it can lull people into thinking they’re in control, but social media platforms like Facebook and Snapchat keep all of your photos – and so can the person you sent them to. It really worries me.

Having said that, I celebrate the fact that society is now better at having difficult conversations around mental health, domestic violence, sexual assault, and other topics that are real and relevant but have historically been brushed under the carpet. There are so many amazing organisations working to help people experiencing these problems and encouraging society to keep the conversations going. Young people’s voices are being heard more now. That gives me a lot of hope.

SK: Your current work with teenagers has no doubt informed the themes of this novel, but have you always been a writer too?

KB: I didn’t set out to be a writer, but it’s always been something I enjoyed and did a lot of. I wasn’t great at a lot of subjects at school, but right from my primary school days I have memories of teachers raving about the stories I wrote. I also have journals full of poems that I’ve written throughout the years. 85% of them are absolutely terrible! It’s quite funny and also extremely cringe-worthy reading them now.

SK: And how did this novel come into being?

KB: The idea came to me one day and I immediately sat down and began writing furiously. It was like Sylvie had been waiting to tell her story for ages. It took me about a year to write the whole thing, usually after work in the middle of the night with many cups of tea.

Once I learned it had been accepted for publication the editing process was pretty full on. There were huge chunks taken out that were slowing the whole thing down and more dialogue added. It took a long time.

A lot of it was actually edited while I was overseas. I remember sitting in an airport in Birmingham editing it as a bunch of extremely heavily armed police traipsed past. That was an unnerving moment… I also did a lot of the editing in Wales, in this little stone cottage near Hay on Wye. It was quite a well travelled manuscript!

SK: Are you working on other writing projects you can tell us about at the moment?

KB: I’ve just finished up a collection of short stories and have started writing something new – a bit of historical fiction. I also have another story that I’m always adding to when the inspiration hits. I’m really never not writing. Except when I’m sleeping. And eating.

SK: What are your hopes for Sylvie – the book and the character – now?

KB: I hope that the book reaches someone who needs it. That’s all I can really ask for.

For Sylvie herself, I hope that she continues navigating bridges and finding her way. And I hope that she and Belle are old ladies sitting together on the front porch one day. With lots of cats.

Sylvie is on a blog tour! Check out these other blogs and dates for more reviews and interviews:

Mon 14 March: beattiesbookblog.blogspot.com
Tues 15 March: kidsbooksnz.blogspot.co.nz

Thur 17 March: booksellersnz.wordpress.com
Fri 18 March: bestfriendsarebooks.com
Sat 19 March: msblairrecommends.blogspot.co.nz

And leave a comment for your chance to receive a bookmark and copy of Sylvie the Second.

Summer Reading

Over the last few weeks I’ve managed to work my way through some of the ever-increasing pile of books by my bed. Here’s what I thought:

Stuff I’ve Been Reading, by Nick Hornby

stuff-350x520

I’ve written a full review of this for Lumiere Reader, which you can read here. This is the first book I’ve read in ages that actually had me laughing out loud. It’s like having an intelligent and amusing conversation with someone about books while they’re still pottering around living their domestic life. I imagined Hornby rabbiting on about the wide range of topics he found himself indulging in on a monthly basis while I sat at his kitchen table drinking tea and watching his family run riot about the house. The book is technically a collection of book reviews, and as interesting as the books he reads sound (the index of Stuff I’ve Been Reading makes a great list to add to the bedside pile) the circumstances under which he reads them – or neglects to – are the witty and thought-provoking moments.

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

73.Eleanor Catton-The LuminariesI studied Creative Writing with Ellie in 2007 and played pool with her just last week. She’s absolutely one of the most intelligent and interesting people I’ve had the pleasure of talking to. However (or, therefore) I was quite daunted by The Luminaries and had reserved quite a lot of time and mental space to absorb it into my life. On one level it’s actually a very easy read with the details and story moving along in spiralling and satisfying motions and the plot itself really just covering a few specific but mysterious incidents. The details are incredibly thorough and the world of soggy and difficult Hokitika vivid and plausible, if a little incongruous with my Nelson summer holiday. On another level, I fear I just didn’t get it. There are so many clever devices at play here with structure and language and character that in all my simplicity I could only focus on one at a time. I did let myself trust the author – I think the best authors are those who can gain the reader’s trust quickly, as Ellie does – to take me through the details of the character’s interactions and lead me to that satisfying final image.

Incendiary, by Chris Cleave

n143968This is an older novel, from 2005 and focussing on an issue I guess I haven’t thought much about in the past year or two. Written as a letter to Osama Bin Laden from a woman who has lost her husband and young son in a stadium bombing, the naivete of the voice really humanises a situation that can so quickly become about politics and clandestine negotiations. The narrator is incredibly forgiving of all the distraught and difficult people she encounters immediately post the incident and her ‘fish fingers and track pants’ life is tragic, but only to those who encounter her. She’s a strong character with a very well-crafted voice. There are moments that are surprisingly funny, given the trauma of the situation and the events of her life rise to an implausible yet still some how heart-in-mouth final moment.

Autobiography, by Morrissey

Morrissey_Autobiography_cover“I will never be lacking if the clash of sounds collide, with refinement and logic bursting from a cone of manful blast.” says Morrissey  describing his realisation that he must make music. His writing is fantastic in his poetic style and immediacy of key moments and conversations. I love his descriptions of the clueless Morrissey and Marr signing everything they’re handed without question and being gobsmacked by the industry they find themselves in. The early part of his life is told in a tone of wonder and awe, even despite the  ruthless teachers and blatant homophobia of Manchester in the 70s. The characteristic “misery” creeps in later with a whiff of cynicism. It makes sense that Morrissey’s writing would be so engaging and he’s one of my favourite lyricists, but it’s also fascinating to learn more about his thoughts and experiences from his own point of view.

The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

BARNES

A book about aging, regret and the mutability of the past. Middle-aged Tony Webster lives an unremarkable life, quietly getting on with it and content with his lot. But as he looks back on his teenage and university years, things start to replay and shift in his memory.

An unexpected bequest from the mother of an ex-girlfriend sets things unravelling – Tony just “doesn’t get it.” Until on the last page he does.

Barnes is an amazing craftsman, keeping the story smoldering gently to the end. His meditations on aging and remorse – etymologically, Tony points out to “bite again” – ring true, and the fact that the past will eventually bite back becomes “philosophically self-evident.”

This book is proof too that a well-edited and concise piece of writing (the book is only 150 pages) can evoke an as convincing – or even more so – world as a 600 page tome. The descriptions of the adolescent friendships – their rituals, phrasings and preoccupations – in the first half of the novel are utterly plausible and I suspect drawn heavily on Barnes’ own philosophising, self-assured youth.

Perhaps the older man looking back on the mistakes of his youth is an obvious narrative form and indeed I’ve read a few of these recently, but this is far from formulaic or even at all predictable. The story itself is so subtle, it’s the telling of it that is so absorbing.

More here: www.julianbarnes.com