Thursday, March 31, 2011

March Reading Roundup

March was a slow month for Aussie fiction, because out of nowhere I decided to finish the Martin Beck series written by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.   Most people are familiar with The Laughing Policeman, most likely because in 1973, there was a movie made based on this book starring Walter Matthau and Bruce Dern, but the whole series is genius.  I took time out to get this movie from Netflix and was appalled at what the screenwriters and everyone else concerned did with the original story.  And while I'm digressing anyway, here's another bad news flash: I read today at It's a Crime (or a Mystery) that Disney is "rebooting" Agatha Christie's Miss Marple -- making her younger AND putting her in America.  I'm not so sure that's a good thing, a) because why mess with perfection and b) although it might get people interested enough in Agatha Christie because of this to pick up her books, they might get turned off because the Miss Marple in the books will most likely bear no relation at all to the Disney version.  Call me a purist, but I don't get it.

Okay. Digression over. Here's the roundup:

The Australian Authors Challenge 2011
Breath, by Tim Winton
Wanting, by Richard Flanagan
Wonders of a Godless World, by Andrew McGahan
Scream Black Murder, by Philip McLaren
Last Drinks, by Andrew McGahan (read, not yet reviewed but posting soon)

Scandinavian Crime Fiction
The Fire Engine that Disappeared, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
Murder at the Savoy, by  Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
The Abominable Man, by  Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
The Locked Room,  by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
Cop Killer by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
The Terrorists,  by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

British mystery/UK Crime Fiction
  The Mystery of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie

The Anatomy of  a Moment: Thirty-five Minutes in History and Imagination, by Javier Cercas (read, not yet reviewed, but posting soon)

other book related stuff:
1) My book group this month read Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer -- which we liked, but which sort of divided us over impressions of Chris McCandless

2) Added to the Amazon Wishlist:
Books Burn Badly, by Manuel Rivas
The Devil's Disciple, by Shiro Hamao
River of Shadows, by Valerio Varesi
Ashes to Dust, by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir 
Bunker, by Andrea Maria Schenkel
Crimini: The Bitter Lemon Book of Italian Crime Fiction, by Giancarlo de Cataldo

3) ARCs: I passed on the LibraryThing Early Reviewer choices for February; but received a number of books including Kamchatka, by Marcelo Figueras, which I will post in May after its release (but it's really good!) 

4) Books bought this month:

The Consorts of Death, by Gunnar Staalesen
Ice, by Louis Nowra
Under the Snow, by Kerstin Ekman
An African in Greenland, by Tete-Michel Kpomassie
Ice Trilogy, by Vladimir Sorokin
Arctic Labyrinth, by Glyn Williams
The Blue Light Project, by Timothy Taylor
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, by Edgar Allan Poe
On the Proper Use of Stars, by Dominique Fortier

5) Book Purge, Round two: another 6 boxes of books split between my local friends of the library, goodwill, Bookmooch,, Paperback Swap, and my friend Annette

6) as of right now, currently reading Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and Frozen Assets, by Quentin Bates.
that's it for now. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

*Breath, by Tim Winton

Picador, 2009
218 pp.

Tim Winton has long been one of my favorite authors, and he hasn't let me down yet. His novel Breath won the 2009 Miles Franklin award, beating out its competition: Wanting by Richard Flanagan, The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (both of which I've read) Ice by Louis Nowra (which I own but haven't yet read), and The Pages by Murray Bail. In Breath he explores a number of topics, none the least of which is the choice between whether it is better to live an "ordinary" life or to walk on the wild side and live on the edge of danger, both of which may have repercussions. 

As the novel opens, a paramedic and his partner are called out to a house only to find that a teenager has hanged himself. The partner thinks it's suicide, but the paramedic knows from things left behind in the boy's room that this is much more than meets the eye. There's the smell of pot hanging in the air; the faded bruises on the boy's neck are a background to fresh ligature marks. The paramedic has seen all of this before, earlier in his own life. 

Thus begins Bruce Pike's narrative of his teen years in Sawyer, a small mill town in Western Australia, a place where  "people seemed settled -- rusted on, in fact. They liked to be ordinary. They were uncomfortable with ambition and avoided any kind of unpredictability or risk".  Nicknamed Pikelet, he was  the only child of two "ordinary" parents with "codgers' interests,"  emigrants from England who are, like the town he lives in, "fixed and drab." Bruce meets Ivan Loon (Loonie), son of the local pub owner, who is more outgoing and has more of a risk-taking type of personality, even though there is a deeper sense of vulnerability somewhere inside him. From the moment they met, they became both friends and rivals, diving down into the river holding their respective breaths, each trying to outdo the other.  From that day on, says Bruce, "it was the beginning of something." 

Things begin to ratchet into higher gear when the two boys eventually cross paths with Bill Sanderson (Sando), an internationally-known champion surfer in his mid-thirties and Eva, Sando's wife. Sando is an odd character --  an aging hippie who smokes dope, reads Castaneda and does Zen meditation, yet has a hard time being comfortable with simply sitting still.  As their hero worship grows for Sando, he takes them out on surfing excursions that challenge them to and sometimes beyond their limits, each expedition more difficult and dangerous than the last. They become addicted to and intoxicated with the thrill and the danger, and Bruce  notes at one point that "years before people started speaking about extreme sports, we spurned the word extreme  as unworthy."  As a result of being caught up in the adrenaline rush of hanging with Sando, he begins to pull further away from his ordinary life, but eventually finds himself having to come to terms with the consequences of this new lifestyle, as does Loonie.  
Bruce realizes that in surfing, men do something "beautiful," and that in  fooling with death,  there is an "outlaw feeling of doing something graceful, as if dancing on water was the best and bravest thing a man could do."  But therein lies the dilemma: caught between the beauty of it all and the destructive forces that can bear down and take them out  in an instant, each boy ends up having to ultimately make choices for himself that will have some major consequences, some of which are devastating. 

Bruce's narrative asks some tough questions. For example,  how far might someone be willing to go to give meaning to his or her life? At what point do you need to put the brakes on and impose some kind of limits? What has to happen before you can stop and take a breath now and then instead of constantly being at the point where you are having to gasp for air?

Breath is a good read, written in a simple style that manages to also be very descriptive without going into too much unnecessary detail. Bruce's recollections are very controlled, but Winton's characters deliver an eloquent range of emotions that for the most part make them  seem real and alive. And you don't have to be a surfer or even like surfing to become caught up in the scenes in the ocean. These are written so vividly that you'll find yourself picturing the scenes in your head, and like Bruce and Loonie, find yourself caught between the beauty of feeling so alive and the hidden dangers of nature and the constant craving rush junkies need for bigger and better thrills during the lulls.  

Highly recommended, especially for people who like quality fiction, and those who enjoy fiction from Australia.

fiction from Australia

Saturday, March 19, 2011

offer on the table: Gould's Book of Fish, by Richard Flanagan (sorry, US only due to weight)

Grove Press

I recently bought and just received the first edition hardback of this book (the one where each chapter is in a different color type), so I would like to find a new home for this edition. It's still in very nice shape, no spine creasing, no writing, marks or folds anywhere.  If you'd like it, just be the first to leave a comment, and then send a separate email with your address. 

Please give this book a good home!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Man Asian Literary Prize winner is Bi Feiyu!

The Man Asian Literary Prize has gone to Bi Feiyu for Three Sisters! I have to admit that although I have all but one of the shortlist novels, this was the only one I've actually read, so I didn't have a particular favorite in mind. 

Well, now that the waiting is over, congrats to the author (like he'd ever see this post, but hey, why not say it anyway) and to all of the other shortlisted authors as well.

Friday, March 11, 2011

*Wanting, by Richard Flanagan

Atlantic Books, 2010
originally published 2008
252 pp

"You can have whatever you want, only you discover there is always a price. The question is -- can you pay?"

So writes Charles Dickens in one of his notebooks, reflecting the main theme of this novel -- human desires and the consequences of acting on or denying them.

Wanting is set during two different time periods and in two different countries, with two separate narratives.  The link from the past to the novel's present is Lady Jane Franklin, wife of Sir John Franklin, who served as Governor of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) and then later died while on the ill-fated Northwest Passage expedition.  Throughout this novel there is a particular recurring theme, that of "wanting," and disciplining the heart -- and the question often revisited is this one: what is it that constitutes being a "savage?" According to Dickens, in a conversation with Lady Jane, the distance between savagery and civilization is "the extent we advance from desire to reason," keeping our passions and basic human natures in check.  The question first arises between Dickens and Lady Jane as she reads in the London Illustrated that according to a group of Eskimos that spoke to explorer/surveyor John Rae, some members of the Franklin Expedition had resorted to cannibalism.  Seeking Dickens' help to uphold and defend her husband's honor, Lady Jane remarks that she knew some "similar savages," when she was in Van Diemen's Land.

While in Tasmania (1836-1843) Lady Jane, pompous and determined to bring British values and other rather snobbish accoutrements with her, decides to embark on a "scientific experiment," and adopts a young Aboriginal girl Mathinna. It is a time in which the indigenous peoples are being hunted down and taken off of their land to make way for their colonizers, and Mathinna is living with others under the shelter of Reverend George Augustus Robinson, known as "the protector."  Lady Jane cannot have children of her own; she decides that it is, after all, the age of reason, and decides that it would be a great opportunity to try to take a "savage" under her wing and turn her into a proper Englishwoman.  The narrative goes back and forth in time between the Franklins' stay in Tasmania and an episode in the life of Dickens, when he comes to terms with his growing dissatisfaction with his marriage,  the production of the play "The Frozen Deep," and ultimately meeting Ellen Ternan.

 Not to be read as a novel of history (according to the author), Wanting leaves the reader focusing on the effects of desire.  Is it even possible for human beings to "advance from desire to reason?"  What price are people willing to pay for what they want?  On the other side of the coin, the author also examines the denial of one's desire and the often-devastating consequences it can produce.

There is a lot going on in this book and it is often difficult to read because of the subject matter in some parts.  Be warned: some scenes are very sad, some scenes will make you angry, and some will be simply heartbreaking.  Yet at the same time, it's really quite well written, and the author has no problem maintaining his main themes throughout the novel.   I'm not exactly certain why the author chose to use Dickens as a character, unless it was so he could make use of the imagery and themes of "The Frozen Deep" and what it has to say about  being "savage" vs. being civil.  I was so caught up in the story of the Franklins, Mathinna and the treatment of the aboriginal peoples that it was almost a shock to get back to England when the narrative would change. That's not to say that Dickens' story was not well told; it was just that the changes interrupted the reading flow.

Overall, the novel was a good one, a story I thoroughly enjoyed reading, and I'm happy to add it to Gould's Book of Fish on my home library shelf.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

*Wonders of a Godless World, by Andrew McGahan

Blue Door/HarperCollns
originally published 2009, Allen & Unwin, Australia
327 pp

To be quite blunt, I very nearly put this book down shortly after I started it, but good little reader that I am (and because I felt guilty I haven't posted a book to Jo's Aussie Authors challenge) I soldiered on. And I'm happy I did. As a sidebar, if you want to get anything out of this novel, you absolutely must see it through to the end. Otherwise don't bother to pick it up.

Related in true magical realism style, Wonders of a Godless World won the 2009 Aurealis Award for Science Fiction. The main character is known only as "The Orphan," a young woman who came to live at a mental hospital on an unnamed island after her mother died, and it is through her eyes that the story is related.  She lives among the hospital's patients, doing chores & helping with some of the patients in exchange for her keep.  The orphan can neither speak nor process the words of others, has no understanding of the world at large, and lives a rather quiet, uneventful and rather isolated life. Then one day, a new patient arrives, an enigmatic and catatonic stranger no one's ever seen on the island before.  Somehow, the orphan pulls it all together in her head enough to realize that he's a "foreigner," and he is labeled thusly for the rest of the novel. When he's put into the old crematorium,  which now is a small ward with only a few patients, odd things begin to happen, none the least of which is that the foreigner begins speaking to the orphan, but only inside of her head.  He takes her on a series of out-of-body type journeys into his past (he claims to be immortal and to have died several times), each time guiding her into the violence of the natural world and ultimately beyond. His effect on her (and on the other inmates in the crematorium) is definitely profound, but is this really a case of a true psychic link, or is something else going on here? Ultimately this is the decision that the reader has to make.

Wonders of a Godless World is not an easy book to read. It absolutely demands reader participation (as well as a suspension of disbelief), and believe me, the biggest amount of energy you'll expend will be on trying to suss out just who or what the foreigner might represent.   The book works very well as part environmental parable and part fantasy story, but there's so much more. What is taken away from the novel is ultimately up to the reader's interpretation. And anyone the least bit familiar with Jung might recognize the archetypical symbols scattered throughout (especially if you are carefully following the foreigner's story of his multiple deaths). No matter how you interpret it, it will definitely leave you scratching your head considering the line between delusion and reality, as well as madness and sanity.  The writing is well paced, drawing the reader deeper and deeper into the novel;  the characters are all well drawn and are mostly pitiable creatures with whom you can't help but sympathize.  The novel may start out a bit slow, and the story might seem a bit weird at first, but you will be greatly rewarded for your perseverance if you stick to it until the end.

Personally, I was blown away by this book, despite my initial reluctance.  There are so many levels at work here, and it's difficult to discuss without giving anything away, but I can tell you that if you want something very different from normal reading fare, you might wish to give this a try. It won't work for everyone, but it definitely resonated with me (why, I'm not sure yet), leaving my head spinning with a number of possibilities as to what it all meant after I'd finished it.  I know I'm coming back to this book again someday; considering I wanted to chuck it at first, that says a lot.

fiction from Australia

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Snowdrops, by A.D. Miller

Doubleday, 2011
262 pp.

If nothing else, this has to be one of the most atmospheric novels I've read in a long while.  Set in Moscow in the last decade, Snowdrops is framed as a letter to the main character's (Nicholas Platt) fiancée, an answer to her question of why he never talks about his time in Russia or why he left there. He's writing it down so he wouldn't have to watch the fiancée "make an effort to put a brave face on things," and maybe because he wants to come clean about his past.  

There are really three threads of plot that compose this novel.  Tired of England and the ho-hum life he sees all around him, likely afraid that he'll end up like his parents,  Nicholas, an attorney, takes a job in Russia where at present the firm is acting for a consortium of banks who are about to lend money (a mere five-hundred million dollars) to Narodneft, the state energy company.   Narodneft and an unknown logistics firm are planning to build some sort of floating oil terminal in the Barents Sea. The company is ready to list shares in the NYSE so everything needs to at least look kosher. Nicholas and his coworkers sense that there's something not quite right, but they do what they're hired to do anyway. The firm's contact is known only as "The Cossack," who is a rather shady character at the heart of the deal.   Thread the second: while at the subway one day, Nicholas stops a purse snatcher, and meets the intended victim Masha, along with her sister Katya. Nick finds himself quite infatuated with the furtive Masha, and eventually they get together.  Masha and Katya have an aunt, Tatiana, who lives in what is now a prime piece of real estate, but the girls have been trying to convince her to move out and sell the flat, which is worth a fortune. Nicholas has agreed to help with the legalities of the transaction, but as he will find out soon enough, and as he hints in his narrative, there's more to these girls that meets the eye.  And finally,  Nick is also involved with his elderly neighbor, who has asked for help in locating a missing friend.  The friend's apartment is occupied, but it's not by the friend. 

Miller's Moscow is a place where money can buy the most outlandish forms of fun, sex, and pleasure (all neatly detailed in Nick's narrative); it's an environment where it's difficult not to become enmeshed in the atmosphere of corruption that permeates the place, and it's a city where what might seem to be a  lack of morality for some is a normal way of life and a way to survive for others. Above all, it's definitely not a place for the faint of heart.  As one of Nick's friends puts it: like Lariam. You know, that malaria medicine that can make you have wild dreams and jump out of the window. You shouldn't do it if you're the kind of the person who gets anxious or guilty, Nick. You shouldn't do Russia. Because you'll crack.
But by the time this advice is offered, it's a bit too late for Nick:  his lack of common sense and moral compass seem to have been hijacked somewhere along the way as he becomes swept up both in events and in living in Moscow. I can sort of understand Nick in that light. It doesn't mean I like him.

Snowdrops is one of those books where the reader knows exactly what's going on, or if not exactly, has a sort of premonition that there are bad things brewing. What I liked about this novel is that the author managed to set up the situation by dropping hints here and there that all is not what it seems, so that the reader has the anticipation of watching things unravel as the story progresses. I also loved his descriptions of life in Moscow and of a society gone a bit crazy.  On the other hand, the story is dark and often claustrophobic -- there were times when I couldn't wait to put the book down and take a breath of fresh air.

What I didn't find at all plausible was the letter format -- way too much dialogue for a letter; way too much descriptive language; although Nick needed a vehicle for telling his story, it didn't work for me. But overall, Snowdrops is a good read; the scenes depicting a nearly-lawless Moscow are probably the best part of this book.  The plot is a bit obvious in several places, but you will definitely find yourself turning pages to see what happens.

March -- The Aussie Author Challenge

This year I've taken on three reading challenges: the Chinese Literature Challenge, the Nordic Book Challenge and the 2011 Aussie Author Challenge.  The first two are going well; I haven't even started on the third, so it's time to get a move on.

Possible titles this month include:
The Yandilli Trilogy, by Rodney Hall 

Wonders of a Godless World, by Andrew McGahan

Riders in the Chariot, by Patrick White
Scream Black Murderby Philip McLaren

Breath, by Tim Winton

and whatever else I can find sitting on my shelves.

It should be a good month -- and I'll finally be able to post something at the challenge website!