Monday, December 27, 2010

A Rag Tag Bunch

Despite my personal goal of posting here at least once a fortnight I notice a month has passed since my last post. Oopsie. In consequence I have a an odd mixed bag of books to blog about.

Yesterday I finished another Mary McCarthy: A Charmed Life. The book has a sense of impending sadness and desperate hopelessnesss running through it; reading it is like watching dark storm clouds gathering overhead. The way McCarthy builds this momentum is impressive. It is so gradual as to really only be noticeable in the last couple of chapters but the final paragraph is still a hell of a shock. The ending is like a mighty crack of thunder and it left me sad, shaken and pensive.

McCarthy is a fantastic writer. She is Richard Yates as a feminist with a social conscience. Several times I almost forgot what I was reading and thought it was something by Yates. I suppose it is the language they use coming from a similar geography and time period. Yet while Yates seems to write the same morose, self-pitying story in each of his novels, McCarthy's work manages to illuminate richer and more diverse characters while simultaneously developing themes (for example: double standards between the genders) worthy of further exploration.

Moving backwards through time, the penultimate book I finished was Romanno Bridge by Andrew Greig. It's a crime novel and the mystery at its heart is a tangle of half truths and rumours surrounding the Stone of Destiny that was stolen from Scotland by the English army in the 13th century. The theory that the stone placed in Westminster Abbey was a fake sets off a hunt for the true stone. There is a lot of drama, a bit of violence and a couple of car chases. An engaging story, but my main quibble would be that far too much time is spent in reference to events in a previous novel by the author. They could have been dealt with less cryptically in order to provide some back-story for the characters. It got a bit tiresome after a while and seemed irrelevant. But it was like a fly buzzing - a very minor irritation that didn't matter overall or seriously mar my enjoyment.

And finally: Backwards In High Heels; The Impossible Art Of Being Female (Tania Kindersley and Sarah Vine). It has taken me about a year to read this book. Although it becomes a bit prosey and autocratic in places, for the most part is was a comforting, calming, delicious delight. It isn't really designed to be read in a single stretch but I did read it all in order, albeit with several rather long hiati (hiatuses?) between sessions. It was funny and sweet and generally quite astute. It also has a few recipes in the back and the one I tried the other day was delicious.

Speaking of recipes, I am browsing my way very slowly through a few cookbooks while reading other stuff. The two that keep ending up in the bedroom are The Cook And The Gardener (Amanda Hesser) and The Country Cookbook (Belinda Jeffrey). These two books are a lovely, soothing type of read. They are both in the format of a year long journal about food and cooking. Interspersed with the recipes is an almost-story of the surrounding environment, changing seasons and further musings about food.

Last night I adapted Jeffrey's "Slow-Cooked Red Capsicums and Tomatoes" by adding some ling fish, preserved lemon and black olives. I've cooked one or two things from Hesser's book as well, including a great thyme, leek and goats cheese combo which has practically become my signature dish so I know that these books are useful as well as pretty. Just like me!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Milestone!

I have just read a book in a day, which always makes me feel like a superhuman over-achiever. It was a teen fiction novel by John Stephens called The Emerald Atlas, which apparently is getting rave reviews overseas but is not going to be published in Australia until next year. Reading young adult or junior fiction has been an obstacle for me for quite a while now. I know that it is something I ought to be reading, at least a little bit, but it just feels that much less exciting than other stuff. And having spent so long studying, the thought of reading as a duty or a chore is spectacularly unappealing. So... yay me!

Now on to the book itself: I enjoyed it. The basic structure seemed a bit like overused carbon paper - three siblings, missing parents, a prophecy, a magic book... sort of a Harry Potter /Lemony Snickett mashup. Once that issue has been dealt with though, it's a great story. It isn't at all heavy-handed on the "teen issue" front but it does show children being capable. So if you are aged between about 10 and 14 I suggest you give it a shot.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Book Drought

I feel like I have nothing meaty to read. There is... you know... stuff to read but it all feels like filler.

That was my briefly typed thought a few days ago. I have since acted on a recommendation and picked up Arundhati Roy's The God Of Small Things. It was wonderful but very intense and deeply sad and I need a break from it, so I am back to my book drought. I finished a bio about Princess Masako by Ben Hill the other day which left me quite sad and listless, so I really need an uplifting or at least a bit cheerful book to read.

And Dorian Gray is going nowhere fast.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Let Go And Breathe

Lessons In Letting Go by Corinne Grant is not supposed to be a horror book but it scared the shit out of me. I have a bit of a tendency to hoard and this book is all about how Grant came to deal her own object obsession. It was really, really scary (but funny at the same time) to read about someone who thinks like me about things only on a more extreme scale. She turned boxes of shit into a feature wall because she couldn't deal with sorting the stuff out and throwing away the junk. I've never been that bad, but I spent the weekend worrying about whether or not I culled enough in the house move, or if I will turn into one of those crazy people like my Great Aunt Dorothy who keep jars of "Pieces of string too short to use". Despite the scariness it was fun to read. A lot of books by comedians don't turn out so well but this was the perfect combo of funny cleverness and actual storyline. Read it! (But make sure you give it away after or you'll feel like a hoarder).

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I Forgot About The Garden

In the craziness that is moving house, I have forgotten to keep Girl Booker up to date. I will be stretching my memory a little here but...

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton was a pleasant and engaging read. I feel that she has grown hugely as a writer since this volume was published, as The Distant Hours has so many more intricate layers and secret twists and turns. I am still looking forward to reading her first book, but am a little cautious about it, in case it is too much like a draft of the novel that it could be.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I was reading a historical biography. Lady Worsley's Whim by Hallie Rubenhold is one of those books about the English aristocracy written by an American. I don't think a non-English author would write a better or worse book, but they definitely write a different one. The sense of distance is important in fleshing out certain details, and dwelling on particular facts. Rubenhold very skillfully turned facts and data into a story, without making it seem naff or fluffy. It was good to read some historically accurate stuff from Regency England, as I have read so much Regency fiction.

And an update on Dorian Gray: I am stalling badly.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Staring At The Walls

I've been reading Flock, a book by Lyn Hughes due to be published in March 2011. It is about a wallpaper designer, his wife, and their daughter who grows up to become a wallpaper and interiors historian. As a result of cheerful happenstance, today I wandered past a non-fiction title in my new local library: Wallpaper. It's a tiny little thing - the perfect companion piece to briefly dip into for some extra background colour. Both books are about wallpaper, and in an Australian context.

I am finding Flock really enjoyable; I'm racing through it, yet find I need moments of staring-into-space contemplation between chapters. It is a modern Sydney book in that the narrative feels spacious and breezy, reminding me of Indelible Ink (Fiona McGregor) and The Legacy (Kirsten Tranter). However, it isn't set in contemporary Sydney. It's mostly set in the Blue Mountains in the 1960s and the 1980s. Nevertheless, I have a real sense that I am reading about fragments of my life and my experiences.

I've just finished it and it is not about wallpaper at all. It is about love.

I loved it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Importance Of Being Wilde

The British toff fiction I mentioned the other day is The Picture Of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde). I had only read the first few pages and was so in love with it that I was already thinking ahead to the Evelyn Waugh's and D. H. Lawrence's that I planned to devour, just so that I could maintain the illusion of being in that world for a little longer.

Now, however, I am up to chapter 5 and I am struggling. To begin with I was dazzled by the viscosity of the sentences and phrases that pitched and rolled flowed through my mind as I read. But now I feel I am being bogged down with annoyingly clever, pithy quips and quotes, and the substance of the book seems to have disappeared.

I have never read it before but of course know the story's basic premise. It seems to be taking an awfully long time to get there. Nevertheless I will persevere because it is a Classic, because it is not too long (finger's crossed for the Anna Karenina currently on my kitchen table), and because Wilde wrote the book before reality TV was invented, so one should be forgiving of what seems to be slow paced.

Who knows when I'll finish it or what i'll think of it by the end... The huge tower of books by my bed is composed of a fair amount of meaty, Serious Literature: Andre Makine, Nabokov, Richard Yates, which will take a lot of time and brain power to get through. Despite that I picked up a couple of new books today and have started reading a historical biography. When I eventually manage to finish one complete book in the middle of this mess i will feel a true sense of achievement but it could take a while so don't hold your breath.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Miss Polly Had A Dolly

Just like Miss Polly’s Dolly, I have been sick, sick, sick. A good excuse for not updating the blog for a while but being stuck in bed with a hideous cold gave me more reading time, so now I have a lot of catching up to do.

There are certain things I am quite happy to read when stuck in bed not feeling well, that I am not so keen on at other times. I started reading The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory and got almost halfway before I realised that I completely hated it. I think I was starting to get better so I became more discerning. Now that I come to write about why I hated the book so much, I realise that it is for the same reason I hated a Peter Carey I was required to read about 10 years ago. Namely, a highly unlikeable character who is at the centre of a tale told in first person narrative. There is almost nothing more excruciating than having to wade through the thoughts and experiences of someone you know you would detest in real life.

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton (due for release in November) was a great book to read while not feeling 100% “the thing”. It was very easy on the brain but actually had a lot of stuff going on. Such a book is, I feel, deceptively hard to write as well as being the most fun to read. Without going into too much detail I’ll just say that it was well layered, full of fleshed out characters and very, very Gothic. I enjoyed it so much that I am now reading her previous novel The Forgotten Garden.

Always on the lookout for an easy read when I am overtired or not well, I recently reread a book that I first came across about 5 or so years ago. Although I used to reread constantly when I was a child and teenager, it isn’t something I tend to do these days. Mostly this is down to the fact that I am gripped with a panic that I will never, ever, ever be able to read even half the books in the world that I would like to; there isn’t nearly enough time!!! At times it feels as if every single reading choice is precious and must not be wasted. I feel guilty reading something for a second time.

This time I felt compelled. It was the first time in several years that I had reread something other than Georgette Heyer, which I consider “throwaway” reading anyway. This time the book once more by the bed was The Lost Art Of Keeping Secrets (Eva Rice). All the way through The Distant Hours I’d been reminiscing about this book. The atmosphere of “1950s: cakes and crumpets for tea” was conjured equally evocatively in both novels. Maybe it’s partially down to all the books about English boarding schools that I read as a child but there’s something about this vibe that I find completely comforting and utterly entrancing in equal measure.

I am still not totally up to date with all that I've read in the last 6 weeks or so but i am going to publish and be damned. Hopefully, I will manage to get around to a full round up in the coming weeks. Currently in the reading works is a newly rekindled fetish for early to mid 20th Century British toff fiction and what - for want of a better phrase - I am going to call pulp non-fiction. Details to follow!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Tinkers and Inkers

There is nothing better than reading a book you enjoy so much that you can’t stop talking or thinking about it. It doesn’t happen nearly enough but I just love it when I am in the middle of a book that I think about idly through the day; longing for the moment when I can snatch a few minutes to read a little more. Once I have finished a book like this I am often disappointed in whatever I happen to read next. Recently, I have been fortunate enough to read two excellent books back to back.

First I read Indelible Ink by Fiona McGregor, a Sydney author, followed by Tinkers by Paul Harding, which has just won the Pulitzer Prize. Being such different books, and especially enjoyable for markedly different reasons probably helped me to appreciate each fully because I wasn’t comparing them closely and finding more favour with one than the other. In a very broad way I would have to say that I liked Tinkers for style and Indelible Ink for content.

I felt completely immersed in the world of Indelible Ink; a Sydney that makes sense to me. McGregor captures the sense of being in Sydney like no other book I can think of. Her characters are so realistic that they both reminded me of specific people I know, and felt like rounded and complete individuals know to me as real people, not just two-dimensional sketches delivering dialogue and performing actions. While I was reading it I went to a couple of places mentioned in the book and very mildly freaked out; I almost expected the streets to have changed since I saw them last, as though the book had happened to them.

Another manifestation of McGregor’s brilliant ability to create such an “on point” sense of place is the contrast in feeling between the North Shore and Inner City suburbs that she brings to life. “Crossing the bridge” is a real and metaphorical boundary to breach for Sydneysiders and it is depicted here in a way that makes real the metaphorical; it is common for residents to complain about having to “cross the bridge” (no matter which side they are starting from) and McGregor manages to colour in the spaces between such a thin sounding complaint. North and South/East/West really are two different worlds. People think differently, the streets and houses look different, the atmosphere is – somehow – completely distinct.

The result of a story based around such lifelike characters playing out their dramas in a cityscape that so closely reflects my own home brought an immediacy to my reading of the novel. I’m not able to separate my knowledge and experience of Sydney from my appreciation of the book. I think that it would still be a great read, although perhaps not quite as gripping or all-consuming. So far I have only heard Sydney-centric feedback and I look forward to finding out how readers unfamiliar with life in Sydney respond to Indelible Ink.

Tinkers was a delight to read. I read the tiny little US edition (just before a local Australian release in standard small-format paperback). It really is impressive packaging design. Being slightly shorter, it is closer to a square shape and makes the book fell hugely covetable. Reading from it and holding it is like handling a secret little treasure.

“A literary meditation.” This was how I described the book to Tallboy and it seems to perfectly sum it up for me. It is quite easy and gentle to read but I found myself pausing to think about the images, ideas and themes explored. Harding very subtly slides them into the narrative almost unnoticeably, so that all of a sudden several ideas have slipped through that need to be mulled over. For such a short book, it took a long time to read – almost a week. But this wasn’t a struggled read; it was a very calm and pleasant perambulating read.

Once I had finished Tinkers, I wanted to read something equally literary and well written. I thought about Richard Yates as I have a volume of collected stories of which I have only read a fraction. I realised that I didn’t want the magic of Tinkers to fade so quickly, and decided to read something light and rather silly before tackling the Yates. It turned out to be a good tactic, and good old Georgette Heyer came to the rescue once again. Now I feel refreshed and ready for another meaty read.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Well, Well, Well...

Following on from a thought I mentioned in my last post... I have been reading a fantastic book that I don't really feel like writing about. The Well At The World's End (A.J. Mackinnon) is beautifully and humourously written. Upon reflection, I think because it is so vibrant, and such a yarn, I would prefer to talk about it because writing seems too passive a response to so energetic a book. In fact, Tall Boy (my partner in crime) and I have been taking turns to read passages aloud to one another and I think this enhances the enjoyment factor. It's a book full of tall tales to tell around a campfire. So without further didaction I'll merely direct you to find a copy of the book and a handy campfire ASAP. Have fun!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Crime Occasionally Pays

I don’t tend to read crime novels, yet I have found myself reading a few in recent months and quite enjoying myself. Patricia Duncker’s The Strange Case Of The Composer And His Judge is not something I would immediately or confidently classify as belonging to the crime genre, but it is about a bunch of people who mysteriously kill themselves, and about the law enforcement officers who try to solve the case. So although it is classified as “literary fiction” – probably because of the author’s previous work – it could just as easily be called crime/mystery. I loved it. I partly loved it for the slightly other-wordly atmosphere Dunker creates with her writing (reminding me of Margaret Atwood or A. S. Byatt) but I also loved it for the unknowing, and the wanting-to-figure-it-out-ness. This latter angle seems to me to be the entire point of crime fiction.

While I was supposed to be reading serious and worthy stuff like that discussed in my previous post, I became distracted by and compelled to finish A Dark Dividing, by Sarah Rayne. At first it felt like an annoying little itch that I had to finish but which kept me from reading other material; I didn’t think it was worth blogging about. … which in itself opens an interesting line of thought: how can I be enjoying something but feel it isn’t worth analysing or discussing?

Having spent 3 years being a cultural studies/popular culture tutor I am more than over the “high versus low art” debate so never fear that I am going to travel that moth-eaten, dog-eared, dull-as-dishwater path here. Whether or not the book is technically brilliant is beside the point. The reason people read crime novels is not to marvel at a beautifully structured phrase, but to get caught up in a salacious story. I suppose I was lucky enough to get both those things simultaneously in the Duncker novel but while that makes it a better book from my perspective, it probably wouldn’t make any difference to a reader who was only interested in the content of the plot.

I have just finished reading Kerry Greenwood’s latest Phryne Fisher novel, Dead Man's Chest, which is due out in October this year. I came across this series of books (about a rich and glamorous private detective in 1920s Melbourne) as a teenager and read as many as I could get my hands on. After a while, I found the formula became too clunky and repetitive and I stopped reading them.

I decided to give this one a go out of respect for my earlier enjoyment. I found the first few pages a bit trite and trying but at some point I looked down and realised I was almost halfway through the book and had barely noticed the time passing. The problem I have with these books is also what makes them work so well; they are pure and utter wish-fulfilment. This can be fabulous if you let it, but boring, annoying and too implausible for words if you find yourself unable to switch you brain to a “fantasy only” setting. The ratio of food scenes to crime scenes in these books is about 10:1. If you feel like being pedantic there is a lot to find fault with. Although Greenwood tackles the element of escapism with the subtlety of a 7ft drag queen gangster wielding a sledgehammer, it is still possible to find an escape in her novels, and I really did enjoy myself while reading this one.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

I Love Paris In The Fall

While In the middle of Sprig Muslin and The Group I had been in a second hand bookshop and unable to resist buying a copy of The Paris Review Interviews; Women Writers At Work which I promised myself would be the next on my reading list. Fortuitously, one of the authors interviewed is Mary McCarthy and she was writing The Group at the time of the interview. Reading her discussion of it as a work in progress just hours after I had finished reading the book itself was fascinating; it gave me a lot to think about.


She describes the book as fundamentally about progress. I had read it as such a personal sketch of each character's life journey that it was a surprise to find the intent behind the book had been so impersonal. However, I saw at once that this less sentimental approach makes all kinds of sense to the reading and understanding of The Group. It ties everything together thematically. I also think it makes McCarthy's writing all the more impressive to have been able to breathe such lifelike qualities into characters that she was using for such a particular purpose.

There is plenty of interest in this interview not about The Group. Just as she says The Group is about "progress", McCarthy labels another of her books as being about "doubt". It was intriguing to note that such broad yet particular themes appear to be at the base of various of McCarthy's novels. It is not clear whether she set out to write about a particular emotion or idea, or whether she subsequently categorised her novels thus upon completion.

Dorothy Parker is another author who is interviewed in this collection. I have long been a fan of her writing, but found I couldn't read this interview all at once. Her self-deprecation comes through so clearly that it becomes rather heavy to bear. It is quite a similar experince to watching Madmen: utterly addictive but completely wince-worthy at the same time. It's like eating something delicious yet very sharp and sour; even though it is enjoyable it is also impossible to go for too long without a breather.

While it is difficult to read all these interviews in sequence, they are probably all going to be fascinating pieces. I must confess that even in the middle of McCarthy's interview which I adored reading, I put it off for several days to read a crime novel - something completely out of my normal sphere. It distracted me so thoroughly that I had to finish it before returning to the interview. I will venture to read more of the interviews one at a time in the coming months.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Browning Pages

This week I am reading two quite old books interchangeably; The Group by Mary McCarthy and Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer. The Group was originally publishing in 1962 and I am reading a yellowing, spine-cracked 1966 edition. My edition of Sprig Muslin (1958) is from 1968. Both books have that lovely soft, floppy feel, and a page colour that is the book equivalent of lamplight to a new book’s florescent bulb.

I began the week stridently obsessed with reading The Group, billed in it’s 2010 reissue as a mid century precursor to Sex and the City. McCarthy’s language is bitingly sharp; she is ruthlessly perceptive and the novel is hilarious both for the snappy character sketches and for the now ludicrously archaic sticky social situations with which the characters must grapple. I became totally absorbed in each character’s problems which are so realistically heart-wrenching that I had to set the book aside for a rest.

My chosen antidote was, of course, one of Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels. All her books in this genre are full of floaty dresses, calling cards, bafflingly complicated social conventions and young scallywags who by the book’s end have been tamed into marriageable material. It’s completely absurd which is why I love it. Even though a sporadic dose of Heyer can soothe and relax me as nothing else, I can’t take too much all at once. I am thoroughly enjoying Sprig Muslin, but I am already looking forward to something with a little more intellectual meat.