Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Kitchen Sink

After having finished When God Was A Rabbit I wasn't able to settle on a new book for a while. It was just too wonderful. Too, too bloody wonderful. I finally kicked on with a couple of travel memoirs, and then a couple more kitchen sink dramas, with mixed results.

The first memoir was Searching For Women Who Drink Whisky by Miranda Kennedy. Kennedy's approach to writing about her experiences living in Delhi is refreshing - rather than a list of "I saw this, I met them, I did that" she used a lens of Indian women's lives through which to focus. I would have liked it to go a little deeper, but but I still enjoyed it. The ideas she raises about women's liberation and traditional roles for modern women are thought-provoking, and a little distasteful.

No Chopsticks Required by Katrina Beikoff didn't seem to go very far beyond the surface, but I'll admit that I didn't finish it. I think it would have been fine if I hadn't just read a rather good travel memoir, but because I had, I needed something to do more than fill in the mental gaps of space in my brain like a magazine in the dentist's waiting room fills in time. Really, it was just someone grappling with language difficulties, unfamiliar surroundings and Shanghai's extreme pollution and the only thing that made it different from the thousands of other travel memoirs out there was the odd big word or two. I am coming across a tad too grumpy - I would definitely recommend this to someone with an interest in or connection to China, or to someone who needs a "holiday read" (euphemism for "no effort required"), even though I didn't love it myself. It was ok.

Cuckoo by Julia Crouch was also "ok". I had high hopes for this kitchen sink psycho drama, and I really loved reading it but the ending was a big fat lard lump of disappointment. Not only was it weak and a tiny bit confusing, but it opened up a lot of other holes in the plot when I tried to figure everything out. AND made me notice things about the central character that were uneven, which I had been quite happy to ignore while the story was rollicking along. Another one for the "holiday read" pile.

Too Close to Home, Georgia Blain. This book took me three days instead of two to read because it made me sad and uneasy, so I needed to put it on stop for a little bit. It really did get to me. Part of what I loved was the Sydney and Australia references, which might make it too specific for other audiences, especially some of the references to Australian politics. I don't think so though.

I'm now trying some history once again, but there is a new fiction title on my horizon that looks like it might be 2011's answer to The Nineteenth Wife.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Ha Ha Ha

I have recently read three very funny but wildly different books: Wigs On The Green (Nancy Mitford), Sexually, I'm More Of A Switzerland (David Rose) and When God Was A Rabbit (Sarah Winman).

Wigs On The Green has been out of print for decades and has only just become available again in the last few months. It is a pre-World War II satire on Nazis and fascism and political fervour, so it isn't hard to imagine a few raw nerves being touched. I found it curious; in some ways it is even fluffier than Mitford's other novels, yet the underlying sentiment is far more serious than this lightness might suggest. It is definitely worth doing some background reading on it first, at least the introduction which in my edition is written by Charlotte Mosley. I really like the idea of deadly serious messages being delivered in seemingly flippant ways, and by making certain characters and ideas appear utterly ridiculous, Mitford does this splendidly. The book's biggest flaw is that it's too short.

I've been reading the other two books simultaneously, because Sexually... is a collection of personal ads from the London Review of Books and therefore something to be dipped into. I'd really like to read a section of the personals in the paper itself, to get an idea of how typical these ones are. They are sometimes completely bizarre, often hilarious and at other times totally incomprehensible. Really, the best thing for mw to do is give some examples:

This advert may well be the Cadillac of all lonely hearts adverts, but its driver is the arthritic granddad with a catalogue of driving convictions. Arthritic Granddad (67) with a catalogue of driving convictions including "Driving whilst trying to turn the dang wipers off", "Driving whilst wondering if his urology appointment has come through", "Driving whilst "Hey! Isn't that where your Aunt Maude's first husband lived after the divorce came through? He's settled in Jersey now. I could never stand him - he used to do this thing with his teeth..." " Would like to meet someone who knows how to stop the oven from beeping. Box no 9729

I walk the line between indifference and, meh, whatever. If you're going to write do it quickly. The OC is on in half an hour. Woman. Thirties. Box no 5710

The finest mind in the academic world conceived this ad, but it was his secretary who took two and a half hours out of her day to collate his angst-ridden ramblings, phone the LRB and pay for it with her own money. He's basically looking for an affair with a twenty-something idiot tart who needs good grades. I'm looking for a better job, a decent pension package, and a man to 50 who's great in bed and doesn't make condescending comments about every damn book I read. Man, 57. Or his secretary, 43. Box no 1207

Casanova began his career as a librarian. I've begun mine as a museum curator, which is more or less the same thing except it involves old bones and stuff instead of books. And there is a designated picnic area in a museum whereas libraries don't like you bringing in food. And we have fun maps you can colour in as you go around. And help points for the disabled. Man, 24. Museum curator and potential Casanova. Box no 7971

To be honest, it almost makes me want to be single so I can give it a crack.

And now to When God Was A Rabbit. Funny, funny, funny! Yet also terribly sad and beautifully written. It is Winman's first novel and she really is an excellent writer with a fantastic ability to draw characters. There were several awkward moments when I laughed out loud while reading this book in public. There is a lot of sub-par writing out there, so I find it really heartening to read something of this quality.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Strike Two!

My second teen book! It was Tortall, a collection of short stories by Tamora Pierce. I just loved her stuff when I was a teenager and it was fantastic to go back to her work and realise that I still love it. Some of the stories left me wanting to know and read more which is a frustrating aspect of short stories, but also the sign of a good writer being able to hook you in on very little.

While I was reading it, and enjoying the rich imaginary worlds and nicely rounded characters, I realised that the reason I often don't like teen fiction is that it seems to me to be somewhat anaemic. Perhaps because younger readers are not expected to pick up on subtleties of character, structure or style they are often absent. It is possible that I am being unfair, given the very small sample size I am basing all this on, but I figure blogs are supposed to be all about ill-informed agro rants so I might as well go with it.

Another Big Tick area for this book goes to the strong female leads. At times it is a tiny bit too obvious (pssst: HERE IS A GIRL, DETERMINED TO DO SOMETHING NONE OF THE VILLAGERS THINK SHE IS CAPABLE OF. What will happen?), but generally, I think it's fantastic and certainly something I remember as being a large element of my enjoyment in reading the books when younger.

I think it's a real shame there aren't more books for teens of this calibre available, especially for girls, although I read a lot of adult fiction as a teen because of this situation and maybe that isn't such a bad solution. Speaking of adult fiction, I am going to stick to that for a while now.