I’ve been reading a lot lately, probably because I’m not writing en ce moment (more about that later, or soon, I hope. There are a couple of reasons for it and one is that my daughter is up against her Year 12 exams, beginning Cup Day, so maman has been in attendance, on the couch with her, helping to drill her on Biology, History mostly, also talking through English stuff and some French. I’ve never been a ‘helicopter parent’ but my blades are rotating pretty fast at the moment. It’s exhausting.)
But I’m reading. Lots. Here’s what I’ve been churning through recently.
I wanted to re-read Engleby, to look at an unreliable first person narrator. I loved reading this book the first time, the slow revelation of things is, well, revelatory. And reading it the second, while being a ‘knowing’ reader, still, it was a great read and I could observe better ‘how he did it’.
Monkey Grip I picked up again, and read about half, after seeing the doco about it, also the Jennifer Byrne interview with Garner, both shown on the ABC recently. The doco doesn’t look like it’s still available, but here’s the link to iView. The interview with Byrne is here: Interview with Helen Garner.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North I reread last week or the week before, to see whether I’d missed something the first time, or read it in the wrong mood, or came at it wrong, or … When I first read it, I felt it was something I couldn’t drill down into. The love story didn’t resonate with me, and the character of Dorrigo Evans also didn’t resonate. I admire this book immensely, and I admire Flanagan for writing it. At times the prose is beautiful, and there are also times when I was drawn into the story, the characterisations and the action. But sadly, again, for me, it was the war stuff that touched me and not the love stuff. Which makes me feel that I only experienced half of the book. The parts with the Japanese and Korean ex prison camp guards; the other Australian soldiers working on the railroad – these were the characters that I enjoyed reading. But Dorrigo, his uncle, his uncle’s wife (a pretty unbelievable relationship); Dorrigo’s fiancée and later wife. Yeah, I don’t know. The other thing I noticed more this time was Dorrigo’s literariness; I just couldn’t buy it. It just didn’t feel right. He seemed like Flanagan’s mouthpiece in a way that was too jarring. I feel I’m disappointed in myself for not loving this book, but I’m glad it won the Booker and I really really do admire it, I just couldn’t love it.
I’ve been hearing about Joan London for a few years now, which only goes to show how behind I was with Australian literature. I first came across her I think when I read Charlotte Wood’s Writers Room interview with her, a couple of years ago, and that interview revealed an intelligent serious writer whose work I knew I wanted to look up. I went and saw London interviewed earlier this year (as part of the MWF) by Jane Sullivan, and London presented as someone quiet and thoughtful, and intriguing.
The Golden Age is a beautiful, beautiful novel. I loved it, thought it wonderful. All the superlatives. It’s quiet, there is no rollicking, and the prose is very literary yet it’s not at all dull and while the subjects are a bit dire (children and polio; immigration and WW2), it is not a book that wallows in misery (as this review so wonderfully puts it: Tegan Bennett Daylight’s piece in the Sydney Review of Books.) I think I agree with Tegan about the ending, but it doesn’t really matter. The book is wonderful. The characters are wonderful. It’s well worth it.
Enjoying The Golden Age so much (and having read it across two days during the holidays) I went and got my copy of Gilgamesh, that I bought second-hand a while back. The cover above left is the one I have, but the one next to it I saw online and thought interesting, as it’s ‘another train cover’ like The Golden Age. I read Gilgamesh in a day, and I love that I read them back to back as it was as if I stepped into London’s worlds for a few days and it’s a trip that I will remember. I recommend Gilgamesh with quite a bit of fervour as well. It’s original, unusual and kind of bold (maybe back when it was published, bold was considered okay?) Anyway, I look forward to what London does next.
I’ve been working my way through the above tomes over a couple of months, interspersing them with my fiction reads. The Rushdie is interesting. I had heard, a while back, criticisms of it for being self indulgent and pompous and narcissistic even, for the use of the third person (he writes of ‘Rushdie’, ‘the author’, ‘Salman’ and so on). Also, I think I remember criticism around him being unkind to other people who he names (he is not shy in naming everyone, except possibly the MI5 types and police who are charged with his security arrangements). You get to read about people’s illnesses and deaths, including Nigella Lawson’s husband’s death and at times it does seem voyeuristic and I wonder whether they gave permission or not. Apart from this, though, I’m finding it interesting if a little long. From a writing perspective, it is fascinating to read of how his books have evolved, about the circles he moves in (his friends, and the people he’s met; it’s gossipy and I can’t help but love it).
The Hemingway book was recommended to me by Michael Katakis at the talk I went to a couple of months ago. He said it is the biography that he and one of Ernest’s sons Patrick, like the most. I managed to find a copy online, second hand, and it arrived and I delved and it’s fabulous. It’s in the form of a pastiche of snippets of verbatim quotations from different people talking on particular areas of Hemingway’s life. The author (Brian) includes questions from himself to the people he is interviewing within the pages, as a kind of guiding beacon, yet it seems he has cut and pasted the responses from whoever of the many many interviewees he has spoken to who have an interesting or relevant response. This shapes the text into a kind of conversation, and it’s very readable, and fascinating too as you see the differences between people’s opinions and memories of Hemingway. They will talk of his notorious bullying; one person will give an account of how he was such an enfant terrible, while the next person will say he was a lamb, they never saw him being mean, and so on. In some ways it makes you feel as if you are getting as close as possible to the real man; aren’t we all made up of such inconsistencies and different contradictory sides?
I read this very quickly and while I’ve seen the expected ‘backlash’ around on the internet (‘it could have been better’, ‘it should have been better’, ‘it’s not that great’, ‘she’s not that great’) and I can’t really disagree with any of that, I will say I enjoyed it for what it was. I like her show and while the book could have been a bit better or deeper or more varied, I just don’t know how she managed to get it done at all, to the level of quality it is, while working on her tv thing and just, you know, breathing. Put it this way: It’s a much better reading experience than going to see Jerry Seinfeld in Melbourne was a comedy experience, after watching his show. All his material was tired, the jokes had been done done done (on the show, show, show) and it was a complete fucking waste of money.
Oh this book. THIS BOOK. I read this during the week, in a day. I think it was Monday? Or maybe Wednesday. A day when I had nothing else to do so I spent the whole day with Lena. It’s funny. I’ve had this book a while, and hadn’t read it. What made me pick it up and read? I’m not sure but it doesn’t matter. In some ways I enjoyed it more than the London, only because it felt richer and it took me to so many more places than Golden Age did. Unfair to compare I know, but still. I am so excited to see what Tracy does next. It is such a great debut. Different, original, gutsy. Just fabulous stuff. Read it.
This was the book done at the last book club I went to at a local bookshop. I didn’t love it, though I rate Parrett’s writing. There was something about this book that seemed undercooked. Was it the structure? Was it the character development? People in the group were split over this book. Some loved it, absolutely adored it while others were lukewarm, and one person really hated it. I was disappointed with it, expecting something different or more after Past the Shallows (which was a really solid debut. Beautiful writing.) Looking forward to what Favel does next.
This is the next book club book, the last for the year and I can’t wait. It’s getting good reviews and one of the Booker judges said it was down to this one and the Flanagan. Apparently Smith is an amazing writer. Last night I gave up on another book I was reading – I tried, I persisted, but I just couldn’t bring myself to turn the page and read any more. So today/tonight, I begin this one, after finishing the Rushdie.
I’d love to hear what people have been reading.
5 thoughts on “What I’ve been reading”
So much to say… where do I start?! *note that I should be doing what your daughter is doing right now…but we all need the odd break!*
Flanagan is on my post-exam reading list (it’s terrible not to have read the Booker prize winner the year that it’s an Aussie).
Just finished Garner’s This House of Grief – gripping, tragic, great distraction from my studies. Have been meaning to reread Monkey Grip – read it so long ago…
London has been sitting in my TBR stack for ages. Don’t know why I haven’t got stuck in but sounds like once I start I’ll want to read ALL THE BOOKS.
Lena Gaunt – I’m intrigued.
Parrett – I’m in the LOVED THIS BOOK camp. To me the characters felt slightly distant and fragile (rather than undercooked) and I liked that. And it was atmospheric – so damp and cold.
Smith – on my reading list as well.
Do read Tracy’s Lena Gaunt, Kate. It’s original and vivid and really well done. Does not read like a ‘first novel’ at all. Re the Parrett, I believe that it *wasn’t* rushed, someone at book club said Favel had worked on it for about three years. So maybe it was the structure of it, those little bite-sized chunks of text where you read them, and they were tasty but not a meal? I don’t know, but it goes to show again how different the reading experience is for all of us.
I’m about half way through Ali Smith’s How to Be Both. I was fascinated to hear about the different arrangements of the text; my copy starts with the contemporary voice/character. The way it’s written, I wonder how it would work the other way, and can’t imagine it doing so, but of course it would. Am looking forward to book club when we discuss it next week. Must hurry up and finish it but for some reason I’ve stalled. Well, I shouldn’t say for some reason. I know the reason, there are two. One is to do with Year 12 IB Biology, which is today. The other reason is something I’ll talk about soon here on the blog.
How to Be Both sounds like a great book club choice. Years ago my book club did Beautiful Boy by David Sheff and Tweak by Nic Sheff at the same time. Some of us read David’s book first, others read Nic’s – very different perspectives on the same story.
I think we all read a different book, don’t you? It’s so personal. And I even think depending on our mood, stage of life etc, even we can read a different book. That’s the brilliance of literature; each reader brings their special x-ingredient to the reading experience.