Saturday, November 23, 2013

Sometimes I Judge A Book By Its Cover

I looked forward to reading The Signature Of All Things, I think mostly because I am a sucker for a gorgeous cover. I read it a few weeks ago and originally wasn't going to blog about it, but I changed my mind.

I don't tend to post about books unless I really liked them, and my feelings towards this book changed a number of times. I never disliked it, but it was a question of whether or not I liked it enough to blog about. In the days after having read it, I began to retrospectively enjoy it more and more. In many ways it is a quiet book, and it took a little space for me to fully appreciate that.

Elizabeth Gilbert has been branded, for better or worse, as the author of Eat, Pray Love. I am sure there are plenty of people out there who will snobbishly never read this book because of that fact. And I am almost as sure that those same people would be horrified to hear that Gilbert's writing  reminded me of A. S. Byatt at times. It was a lighter read than Byatt,  but the sense of the world created, the pace of that world and the people who populate it was similar to The Children's Book or Morpho Eugenia. It was really nice to sink into that world each time I opened up the book.

I thought this was a really lovely book. It said some things about women and society and ideas in a subtle way which I liked, and overall it was a nice read. It was uite well paced and skillfully written, and has a beautiful cover.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?


The last book I posted about here was Lolita. A book all about cleverness and mental dexterity and quite proudly not about emotion, sentiment or meaning. In comparison,  The Lowland made me feel so deeply that I am struggling to find the words to explain it. I can say that I am sure the power of the book lies in Lahiri's ability to manipulate a reader's feelings, just as Nabokov's genius is in his ability to manipulate language. I read a lot of it while traveling to and from work, and there were several occasions when I almost cried on the train. It was so sad but it was so beautiful that I couldn't put it out of my thoughts, I had to keep reading.

Another book I found myself comparing The Lowland to was Barracuda. Both books are, among other things,  about a character who has done a terrible thing. Something that some may find unforgivable. Both characters try to live with this new, terrible version of themselves, and this forms a large part of our understanding of their respective natures. What I found so striking about this parallel is that the two characters in question take divergent paths from this point - one to healing and a sense of peace and self worth, the other to the brink of suicide. I found both responses utterly believable, which only made the question "what would you do if it were you" all the more urgent.

Since this is a post of comparisons I will add a final one: Edith Wharton. Lahiri's  and Wharton's characters seem bound equally by fate and social conventions in the decisions they make and the paths they choose. This, in my opinion makes everything even more tragic. As a modern reader, it is possible to see another way, another choice. To see this and know the protagonist cannot adds a piquancy and a sadness to the experience. So in summing up I suppose I can only reiterate how beautiful The Lowland is, and how much it gave me to think about. It was an absolute treasure of a book.

Five melancholy teardrops out of five.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Not THAT Sort of Girl

When I first read Lolita, over 10 years ago, I loved it so much that I declared it to be my favourite book.  I added it to my Classics Club list because I was curious to see whether or not I'd still feel the same way about it almost a decade and a half later.

The verdict is in: I don't. I had a lot of fun re-reading Lolita  and I think it's fantastic. I still appreciate all the things I originally loved about it but I'm after a different reading experience these days. Lolita is a book of tricks and games. The sounds of the language and the rhythm of the words are truly brilliant. It's like every word is edible, delicious, delectable.

What Lolita lacks, however, is a sense of purpose beyond the play. As Nabokov explains in his afterword, there isn't supposed to be one, but that didn't stop me wanting it. I think the book could have been truly spectacular if Nabokov had decided to add yet another layer to it. At times I grew a little tired of the trickery and wanted something I could ponder, or something I could feel besides wry appreciation.



Tampa has been touted as the new Lolita. The only thing they have in common is that the narrator is a paedophile. Which might sound striking if you haven't read them, but in an odd way, this is almost irrelevant. I could go on a big discussion comparing them but the more I think about it, the more they are trying to do completely different things as works of literature. So I will conclude by saying that I liked them both for totally different reasons, and I'm not sure I could say which I preferred.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Long And Short Of It


Here is my review of Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas: Wow. Fucking wow. Fucking AMAZING.

The End.



And here is the same review again, in a few more words:

 I read it a couple of weeks ago and I can't stop thinking about it. I can't stop talking about it either but I am struggling to choose my adjectives, because all the ones I want to use sound like impossibly overblown hyperbole. Also, the kinds of words I am tempted to use are "visceral", "heartbreaking", and "searing" which make it sound like a difficult and dreary read when in fact it is so vibrant and tender and beautiful that I couldn't get enough of it. Never have I been more glad that a book was over 500 pages long.



I think the way Tsiolkas uses language is fantastic but what I really love is how he manages to get right to the heart of a matter, beyond layers many of us never even notice are there. I feel he has managed to write a novel both intimate and far-reaching. I was gripped from the very start and I loved every bit of it. It made me think AND feel. Barracuda is one of the most wonderful, deeply moving books I have read in a long, long time and I cannot urge the reading of it strongly enough.

It is such a treat to read a book so utterly well crafted yet nevertheless full of energy and vim. Tsiolkas has an excellent reputation in Australian literary circles which can only increase with this novel. My only hope is that when I write my review of his next book, Google will have caught on and not put a little red line under his name when I type it.

And just one final adjective before I sign off: breathtaking.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Tampered With




Tampa. This is a word heavy with meaning in the Australian political landscape. It's an odd little aside that the recently published and hugely controversial book Tampa (Alison Nutting) must have caused a faint stirring of unease in many Australian minds at first hearing of the title. I certainly sensed dangerous territory before I actually knew what the book was about. I highly doubt Nutting is aware of the Australian context but it's rather tidy that such an unrelated incident has added to the swirl of foreboding and uncomfortableness  - in my mind at the very least*.

The book itself is controversial because it is the story (in first person narrative) of a predatory, female paedophile. Lolita in reverse. I was keen to read it because I had an excellent discussion with an enthusiastic and passionate bookseller who completely sold it to me. I also thought it would be interesting to compare with Lolita, which is on my list to reread.

I found it surprisingly easy to read. Despite the very weighty issues that are associated with the book's content, Nutting has quite a breezy, light style of writing and I read the novel in a couple of days. I wonder if this style is part of the problem many readers have. What I mean is that it's flippancy and palatableness in terms of style sits uneasily with the disgustingly distasteful nature of the content. In this sense I can see similarities to Lolita although from memory (I read it in 2000) there is far more intellectual clout in terms of wordplay and literary trickery in Lolita.

I think the book is worth reading. I would even go so far as to say I enjoyed it. I think it raises interesting, uncomfortable question about power, consent and gender. Yet it also had me considering the value of fiction as a method of truth-telling. I honestly don't think I could stomach a memoir that dealt with this stuff, but knowing it is fiction made it bearable. Possibly the only way topics like this can be explored is through the veil of fiction and I really think explorations and discussions of such taboo subjects can only add to our understanding of people and the world.


*Tampa is the name of a boat carrying refugees that was turned back from Australian waters in 2001. The "Tampa affair" has turned out to be the opening chapter in a long and ongoing, highly emotional and fraught saga on refugee policies and treatment of refugees by the Australian government.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

One Schtick, Two Books

I have recently acquired two cookbooks based on TV shows. Oddly enough, I haven't really watched either of the shows in question. Normally, I wouldn't have even bothered to look at such books if I wasn't a fan of the accompanying program but I think I have been converted - just like when I discovered it's possible to love a soundtrack without ever having seen the film.

Last night I made the second recipe from The Little Paris Kitchen. I'll be honest - I had watched one episode of this and found it fairly forgettable. I would only think to watch further episodes if I were on a plane and the only other viewing options were Milo and Otis or Deal or no Deal.

But back to the book itself: It's rather nice and I am keen to try lots of the promised treats it contains. Puy Lentil Salad with Goat's Cheese, Beetroot and Dill was a big, fat-arsed winner. I was too lazy to make the dill vinaigrette so just added fresh dill and a splash of white vinegar to the bowl and it was so good; a brilliant balance of sweet, earthy, creamy and crunchy.



I had never even heard of Spice Trip when Tallboy brought the book home, and still haven't seen any of the program at all. By directly comparing these two books I can say that I like The Little Paris Kitchen quite a lot and that I obsessively love Spice Trip. I have only made one thing from Spice Trip (delicious, easy, exciting flavours) but I have spent a lot of time dreaming and drooling over the pages. There seem to be so many things I want to try; things I had never heard of or imagined but suddenly feel I need in my life quite badly. I made Steak with Grilled Vegetables and Cumin and Garlic Yoghurt a few weeks ago but I will not be stopping there. I have my eye on Black Cherries in Red Wine and Pepper with Sweet Yoghurt but I seem to see something else fabulous every time I open the book, so i suspect I will be raving abut it for some time to come.


Sunday, August 25, 2013

A few thoughts.

One of the most beautiful books I can recall reading in the last four or five years has got to be Tinkers by Paul Harding, so I am very excited to be reading his second novel Enon. Like Tinkers, it's fairly short. Also like Tinkers, I will be taking my time to read it.

So far, it's been on the go for 6 days and I am only up to page 76. I just want to enjoy the process, and the best way to do that seems to be allowing time for the ideas and words to float around in my mind. There has been a lot of book-in-lap-and-gazing-out-the-window going on during my train rides to and from work this week.

What I think I like best about Harding's writing is his ability to slow down time. He makes everything feel simpler, clearer, more beautiful and less frenetic. He allows the reader to pause and muse and contemplate as though there is no timetable for which one is answerable (I haven't missed my stop on the train yet but we shall have to see what the rest of the week holds).

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Well, this is awkward...

I have been doing plenty of reading recently, but didn't quite feel like writing about any of it. I'm now in a bit of a quandary over whether or not I should mention these books on the blog at all, or just pretend the previous month never happened. The last time I was faced with a dilemma like this was the school swimming trip in year four. One of the teachers found a pair of underpants on the ground and waved them about like she was stranded on a desert island and trying to attract the attention of an overhead rescue plane. "Who do THESE belong to? Everyone? KIDS!! EVERYONE!!! I have found some undies and THEY MUST BELONG TO SOMEBODY!" *waves embarrassing underpants extremely vigorously from the end of excessively straight arm*

On that particular occasion, the humiliation of owning up was too great, so I kept quiet and went commando for the afternoon. TODAY I am a far more mature and together person so have decided on the nobler course of action. More importantly, the situation does not involve undergarments so I will give you a brief (ha ha. I am hilarious!) run down of what I have been reading lately.

Cooked; a Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan
Full of super fascinating facts and ideas. It inspired me to preserve some limes. Yesterday was three weeks from preserving day so I opened up the jar and was pleased to discover it worked! I shall now spend the next 12 months trying to think of recipes that could do with the addition of the world's saltiest ingredient. On a critical note, I felt he tried to force a structure on the material that didn't really work and that irritated me at times but not enough to stop reading.


Out of Shape; Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit by Mel Campbell
I felt this book asked a lot of great questions, but didn't really explore the answers to my satisfaction. So it certainly gave me a lot to think about and I think it was a great subject to tackle. I really enjyed reading it but did feel left wanting more.


(Quarterly Essay 50) Unfinished Business: Sex, Freedom and Misogyny by Anna Goldsworthy
Brilliant, spot on, thought provoking. I appreciate Goldsworthy's ability to look at situations in an unbiased, clear-headed manner, and draw thoroughly excellent conclusions from her material.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Can You See the 'End' in 'Friend'?

Just between us, I loved Just Between Us in that want-to-stroke-the-book-when-not-reading-it kind of a way. It is a collection of essays and short stories on the nature of female friendship, and how and why it can go wrong. So many of the pieces resonated with me and mirrored my own experiences that I felt hungry to keep reading more.

I love the idea of a book that is written completely by women about something very important to women, but repeatedly dismissed and belittled in mainstream culture. I suppose it validated my feelings and experiences in a way that nothing else has. I have been in agonies of guilt about what to do when I felt a friendship was no longer nourishing or fun, and have struggled to figure out what the best course of action to take might be. It's a massive comfort to know I'm not the only one.

Of all the chapters in the book, Liz Byrski's essay was the most illuminating. I suspect I am going to turn her words over in my mind for some time to come. I examined all my previous friendship breakups through this new prism of knowledge and everything made a whole lot more sense. It was what Oprah calls "an Aha moment". It was like that time I replaced parsley with dill in my favourite mushroom and leek risotto (thanks for the recipe Brona) and realised how much more harmonious the flavours could be. It was, simply put, brilliant.

Friday, May 10, 2013

My Book Love

Simple but complicated question: what makes you love a book?

@randomhouse recently posed this question on twitter and I realised that there was no way I could answer it in one or even two or three tweets. In a way, this entire blog has been my attempt to answer that question, and I don't think I will ever finish answering it, as long as there are more books to be read. Nevertheless, I thought it was worth a crack here, where I have more room for verbal gesticulation.


I love a book that makes me cry, that makes me remember something I once felt just as strongly as if it were happening again. A book where I can completely and utterly feel myself in a character's shoes, and experience their emotions as my own.

I love a book where the words are so beautiful I want to pluck them off the page, turn them into a brooch, and wear them on my chest. A book where the words sound like a delicately tinkling piano, a cup of tea after a storm of tears, or the water sparkling on Sydney Harbour on a Saturday morning.

I love a book that makes me rethink the world.

I love a book that is so full of ideas I can spent hours discussing them with people.

And that doesn't even begin to cover cookbooks, which I love for the promise they hold of experiences to come. The delicious tastes to be created, the happiness and contentment that will come from sharing food with people dear to me, and the wonderful evenings of talk and good times and laughter that will be held together with food cooked from the pages of such books.

I took a break from writing this post to visit our local farmers market and discussed some of these ideas with Tallboy over coffee and croissants on the grass*. I asked him the same question and found it fascinating that his answer was quite different from mine, bringing home the point that there are almost as many reasons to read as there are people. Here is an edited version of what makes him love a book:

"The riches and the originality of the lived experience that's displayed on the page; whether fiction or non-fiction ... and it's a bonus if the book smells nice too".






*Yes, I am showing off. It was idyllic. And also I am bending the truth a little; I had an almond croissant but Tallboy had a slice of rhubarb crumble.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Star Light, Star Bright

"He owned solid things: houses, ship-loads of half-spoiled fruit, dilapidated little shops, collections of other people's battered and abandoned possessions. He could never wring from them enough money to buy the laughter and the security his mother had denied him when he was a child".

If you like that sentence then you really should take yourself off and get your hands on some Stella Gibbons to read. She has such a subtle, cheeky, cut-through way with words that are often lovely and lilting at the same time. After having read Starlight (quoted above) I can understand both why Gibbons had so many novels published, and also why all of her books apart from Cold Comfort Farm went out of print for several decades. I loved reading Starlight , and it was full of little gems where the words are put together so beautifully you stop reading to bask in them for a moment. But I found the ending deeply unsatisfying. Some of the characters had very neat and tidy endings, while for others there was no ending at all, and it felt too uneven. In trying to puzzle out the ending I realised other holes in the story-telling that just did not hold up to scrutiny.

I have now read a few of Gibbons' novels and they are a mixed bag. I am going to read as many of them as I can get my hands on because I love her approach to words, and because Cold Comfort Farm and Westwood are two supremely wonderful books. I wouldn't tell people not to read Starlight, but to be aware of what to expect. I would give the first three quarters of the book 4.5 stars, and the final quarter 3 stars. In conclusion: not too shabby, 3 and a bit stars.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Bodices and Bonnets

I seem (even to myself)like just the sort of person who would have read lots, if not all, of Jane Austen's work. In actual fact, until the other day I had not read a single one of her novels from start to finish.

I am really not sure why I never read any Austen. All I can think is that once I discovered Edith Wharton I tended to hang about the back shelves of the library, and my browsing wanders never made it up to 'A'.It does seem an odd fluke that I made it all the way through an English degree without having read any (And yet I somehow managed to be twice-assigned Gulliver's Travels; the reading of which, in my opinion, is best described as the literary equivalent of extended teeth grinding).

It will come as less of a surprise than fries on a McDonald's menu for you all to learn that I loved Persuasion. I cried. Readers of this blog know that many, many books make me cry, but Persuasion made me cry at least three times. It also made me sigh wistfully on numerous occasions. There doesn't seem a lot of point in writing much about a book that is 200 years old and has already been read by basically everyone except me, so all I will add is how much I enjoyed the experience of being able to read something so old with completely fresh eyes.

Friday, April 5, 2013

A Meditation on 'Sex, Drugs and Meditation'

A very big chapter in my life's story is the PhD that I spent four years working on, only to give up prior to completion. It was the most difficult, emotionally ghastly experience I have ever been through and it dragged on well past the four years; I spent time on indefinite leave trying to decide what to do, and then even more time coming to terms with the fact that I had had to walk away from my dream. In recent days, I have been thinking about this experience, and feel truly lightened; I think the grieving process is finally at an end.

A large part of what made me realise this was the book I read a couple of weeks ago: Sex, Drugs and Meditation by Mar-Lou Stephens. I was lucky enough to attend the book launch last week which was 127 kinds of fun. As Mary-Lou talked about the book, and the experiences that led her to write it, I was struck by how she had come to terms with difficulties and dramas in her own past. She seemed to have reached a place of genuine peace and acceptance of the past; she was completely un-bothered by what had obviously been hurtful and upsetting events. I loved the book because I recognised myself in it, even though my story on a factual level is completely different. There was an emotional truth to the book which really resonated with me. As well as enjoying the story as I read it, I have had the benefit of being able to spend a fortnight quietly reflecting on things and that feels like a real gift. Also, I usually get more traffic on this blog when I include the word 'sex' in the title to my post so Sex, Drugs and Meditation really is the gift that keeps on giving.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Gentry Does It

I am sitting on my bed typing this in the soft warm glow of a lamp on a dull Sydney afternoon. I have been anticipating this blog post for a couple of weeks, because the book I have just finished reading was a long, delightful journey which I couldn't wait to transcribe. A book heavy with fact and detail told with the lightest touch you can imagine.



Gentry; Six Hundred Years of a Peculiarly English Class by Adam Nicolson was more History than Anthropology. Although I was hoping for Anthro when I selected it, I was not in the least bit disappointed. By using the frame of twelve English gentry families in a chronological parade, Nicolson explains significant historical events through small details; using the families' personal circumstances to demonstrate the bigger picture. I certainly got a sense of what 'gentry' means, which is the stated purpose of the book, but even more interesting and valuable was what I learnt about English History. Events such as the Wars of the Roses, the sugar and slave trade, and the Industrial Revolution now make sense to me as more than just a list of facts and dates. And it is all fascinating.

I was also able to make sense of the English obsession with class. Nicolson's contention is that the flexible and unstable nature of the definitions of gentry made for constant questioning, examining, assessing and re-assessing by people involved both directly and indirectly with the English gentry. This insight was marvelous; so many books I have read suddenly made a whole lot more sense. It's like I fitted the last piece into 50 puzzles all at once. The sense of satisfaction one gets from finishing the puzzle is how I feel now that I have read Gentry.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Unequalled

An Equal Music by Vikram Seth is a dreamy, melancholy, hauntingly sad, achingly beautiful story about a man who is a professional musician with a string quartet, and what happens when his past love turns up after several years of silence. It is about music, and love and loss. It makes me think of something my sister said when she was about six: "Why is it that sad music is always so soft and beautiful?".

I went to see a chamber music concert a few weeks ago and found myself thinking about An Equal Music. Perhaps here is the point at which I should mention that I read the book about seven years ago. It has been haunting me ever since. If that is not the sign of a fantastic book then I don't know what is. I have had half a dozen conversations about it since the concert, and I can't help but gush and enthuse in every one of them as though I had finished reading it last week.

My incomplete memory of the details is no hinderance to thinking about it often, and with affection and appreciation. I still retain a memory of the basic plot outline, and along with that some very vivid emotions and a few mental pictures: the Serpentine in Winter, a face in a red double decker bus window, an eventide sky of indigo blue. It really is the most wondrous read and I feel my life has been enriched because I read it.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Burial Rites - The Review




I started reading Hanah Kent’s Burial Rites on a Friday evening, and finished it on Saturday morning having reluctantly paused to sleep but other than that having barely moved an inch. When I did finish it I sat very still and waited for my emotions and my imagination to come back to me. I was so utterly swept away by the scope of darkness and humanity and simplicity and complexity and pain and beauty of Burial Rites that it took me a while to come back to earth. It is one of the most moving and beautifully written books I have ever read. I wanted to eat the words up with a spoon and swallow them whole.

I don’t tend to review books on this blog that I don’t like, but normally I am quite unbothered about whether anyone takes my thoughts to heart and decides to read something I have blogged about or not. This is different. I want everyone to read this book so badly that it makes me want to cry. It is wonderful on a scale that features A S Byatt and Edith Wharton and Richard Yates. Seriously, this is an incredible read. The language is delicate and the story is bloody and dirty and sad and it is an overwhelming, fantastic combination.

Often when I read a book that I love, I think about the people I know who I think would like it. My most bookish and literary friends came immediately to mind with Burial Rites, but the more I thought about it, the more people came to mind; the friend who normally only reads Sci Fi, the friend who doesn’t have much time to read, the old boss who likes books about cats and Grandmothers solving crimes, the ex-flatmate who prefers non-fiction… It is such a beautifully realised story that anyone who appreciates good writing cannot fail to adore Kent’s book. That means YOU!!

Friday, January 25, 2013

What Not To Read

Lately, I seem to have been reading a lot of throwaway fiction. Unlike many book-type people, I don't de-value this sort of stuff as less worthy or less important than tortured Russian novelist's work or wordy tomes about existential angst. Nevertheless, I cannot really be bothered blogging about the easy stuff. It isn't that I am ashamed of what I have read, it's just that there isn't much to say about it.

The purpose of such writing is something I absolutely champion; an escape, a pursuit of fun, a way into reading and literature and thinking about ideas for people who may otherwise be intimidated. I think there should be as much of it in the world as we can possibly squeeze in. But to write here about the books I have read lately would feel like describing a massage in great detail: an excellent experience that nobody else is remotely interested in.


Lucky for the internet, I eventually got sick of the easy stuff, and gave me brain a little workout with Courtiers: The Secret History of the Georgian Court by Lucy Worsley. It was one of the best history books I can remember reading in a long time. The focus is on a period of English history that I knew very little about but having finished the book I now have a very satisfied sense of having a sound feel for events and people from the court of that time.

The book was written in a very engaging and lively way. I carried it everywhere for a coupe of weeks in the hope that I would have a spare 5 minutes to read another page or two.

As well as being informative, and employing a very approachable writing style, I just loved Worsley's content choices. Specifically, she uses a mural in Kensington Palace to pick her subjects for study, and by choosing both servants AND nobility, she is able to produce a picture of how the different strands and strata of society functioned interdependently. She is also able to examine the different roles different people had, which added so much to the richness of the book; it became a whole lot more than a list of the rich and famous, and who they were all having affairs with. It actually made the book anthropological as much as historical which I think is what made me so delighted by it.

I give this book five King Georges out of five.