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Monday, 20 March 2017

The Good People - Hannah Kent (2016)








Hannah Kent is the author of the superb novel Burial Rites (2013), which is surely one of the great debut novels in Australian literary history. The quality and success of Burial Rites casts a long shadow over The Good People, a novel Kent was inspired to write when she was undertaking research for Burial Rites. The Good People is set in the 1820’s in a remote community in Ireland which is poised between the old ways and modernity. The novel’s characters are enmeshed in a belief system that attaches folkloric meanings to every day events, both the mundane and the tragic. The Good People is the name given to the fairy folk who live in the woods around certain trees and must be treated with respect (hence the euphemistic name, as they are anything but good). The novel’s principal protagonist is an elderly woman called Nance Roche (who based on a real historical character), who serves the villagers with her knowledge of herbal remedies, folk rituals and connection with the Good People.

The Good People is an extremely dark, atmospheric novel, which appropriately begins with the death of Nora Leahy’s husband at the crossroads near an area where suicides are buried. His demise follows the recent death of Nora’s daughter, Johanna, from a mystery illness, leaving Nora’s grandchild, Michael, whom is both paralyzed and cretinous, in her care. Nora hides Michael away from the townsfolk, rightly fearing their superstitious judgement. The Good People’s main thematic thrust is the friction between Paganism and Christianity during an era in which they very much overlap, creating a culture in which both have agency. A particular strength of the novel is that Kent does not convey authorial moral judgements, rather the reader is left to make up their own mind about the actions of characters such as Nance Roach, who is portrayed as merely acting in good faith according to ancient belief systems. Roach is a particularly fascinating and sympathetic character and the novel really comes alive when she is the principal focus. Young outsider Mary Clifford, hired by Nora to help with Michael, is also a crucial character, often acting as both the novel’s conscience and a voice of reason. Mary evokes a strong emotional resonance that creates overwhelming sympathy toward Michael and, to a lesser extent, Nora and her plight as Michael’s principal care-giver.

Kent’s portrayal of early nineteenth century Irish village life, with their earthy and colourful vernacular, the descriptions of their meager diet and most of all their complex folk rituals and superstitions, appear to be wholly authentic. Kent really is quite a gifted writer, evoking Irish rural life, with its mystical landscapes and harsh realities, with some beautifully lyrical writing. Unfortunately the pace of the narrative during the first half of the novel is at times sluggish and also somewhat repetitive, therefore I found it difficult to fully engage with the novel. The overwhelmingly bleak atmosphere is hard to take at times, particularly as a series of misfortunes befalls the villagers and the sense of foreboding becomes almost suffocating; also the cruel treatment of Michael by those who are meant to be his carers may be too much for some readers, particularly after such a slow beginning to the novel.

It is perhaps unfair to compare The Good People to Burial Rites, however there is no question that the novel suffers in comparison to Kent’s brilliant debut. The Good People is certainly no failure, Kent still writes beautifully and there are sections in the novel that are outstanding. The tone and moral landscape of the novel are also both handled deftly, as are the characterizations, in particular those of Nance Roach and Mary Clifford. Perhaps Kent is fated to be Australia’s foremost modern Gothic writer, with both her novels set in bleak but beautiful landscapes and featuring tragic tales of loss and suffering, if so then that is not such a bad thing.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Commonwealth - Ann Patchett (2016)








I’ve always been vaguely aware of Ann Patchett because of the popularity of Bel Canto (2001) with library patrons, but that remained the extent of my knowledge until now. Having just read Commonwealth for my library’s book club I researched her background and came away impressed. Patchett made Time Magazine’s list of most influential people in 2012 because she established her own independent book store in Nashville when every other book store had closed due to the impact of online book sellers such as Amazon. Superficially this doesn’t seem like much of an achievement, however Patchett took a stand against the erosion of book stores as cultural hubs that help promote a literate community, and that is particularly significant.

Anna Patchett has impeccable literary tastes, name-checking the likes of John Updike, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth as her main influences. Commonwealth does have some Updike infused into both its style and the ensemble cast of characters coping with the long term ramifications of two marriages coming to an end. Essentially Commonwealth is a minor saga involving blended families compromised by the upheaval of divorce. The novel begins in a dynamic fashion when Bert Cousins, a district attorney, gatecrashes a christening party at Fix and Beverly Keating’s house somewhere in the suburban wilds of Los Angeles. Bert’s presence at the party, the giant bottle of gin he brings and the kiss he plants on Beverley’s lips change both family’s futures; thus beginning an examination of the psychological fallout of divorce on both the children and the adults.

Patchett handles the plot arc mostly with aplomb and her writing style, which is clean and unhurried, takes the reader right into the emotional heart of the action. Despite these positives the novel's greatest undoing is that there are simply too many characters that crowd out the narrative, giving little room to explore any one character in any great depth. The closest the novel comes to a main protagonist is Franny, Fix and Beverley’s child, whom we first encounter as a baby at her christening. Franny is a likable but slightly banal character whose life has been made complex by her upbringing and the fallout from a significant tragic event that took place during one of the endless summer holidays the six children spend, mostly unsupervised, together. Commonwealth is aptly named as it doesn’t just explore the inevitable dysfunction that arises when step siblings are forced together, but also more importantly the mutual benefits of their shared circumstances, particularly when they are adults and need to lean on each-other to help them through their parents typically tragic endgames.

Franny is also at the heart of the novel’s other main thematic thrust: the moral implications of using actual real life events to furnish a novel of both characters and plot. Pratchett has some fun creating a drunken and washed out writer called Leon Posen. Posen appears around the middle of the novel and almost instantly makes a sometimes sluggish narrative much more interesting. Franny’s relationship with the aging writer brings out stories from her childhood and Posen adapts it for his comeback novel after being silent for over a decade. Through Posen Patchett explores the moralistic grey areas of novels, such as who owns a story once it is in the public domain? After all you can’t copy-write childhood memories; this is a problem that Franny’s brother Albie, one of the other stand-out characters, is faced with when he reads the novel and recognises his childhood, and in doing so discovers circumstances that he was unaware of simply because he was both the youngest and most reviled sibling.

Commonwealth left me with feelings of ambivalence because I found it to be tedious at times and bloated with characters that I found difficult to relate to, and also the last third of the novel left me cold, despite some well written scenes. Curiously however Commonwealth also impressed me just enough for me to say that I actually enjoyed it and entertain the notion that for certain readers who desire a novel to help while away the hot summer months it would be a very satisfying read indeed, and that’s not a bad thing at all.

Monday, 20 February 2017

WA’s Mostly Books








Last week I found out that one of my most favourite ever second hand book stores was closing down. It came as no surprise because the owner, a charming and slightly eccentric English gentleman by the name of Don, is most probably somewhere in the region of 80+ year’s old. When I first visited Mostly Books (as it was called way back then...) back in the 1990’s it was a sight to behold. Book shelves were arranged in a haphazard fashion and there were all kinds of curios and antiques scatted around the shop. Don had a specific ‘head’ section, where you could find Castaneda, Kerouac, Burroughs and all kinds of weird obscurities. There were books piled up everywhere and frankly, it was heaven. The current shop is a smaller version of its earlier incarnation, with Don sat in the very middle up on the second level, surrounded by shelves of books and weird objects. Entering the shop is like finding a nook attached to the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, and if you are not careful you’ll never find your way out again. Sadly however, it will all be over within a couple of months. All fiction is just $1 and all non fiction half price.

Most people reading this post would not live in the area (Bayswater, Western Australia), or even in the same country, but that doesn’t matter, the important point to consider is that book stores are not just businesses, they are significant cultural hubs that need supporting. Most of the chain book stores have disappeared, but at least many of the small independent shops have hung in there. Go to your local book store, don’t shop online, it’s totally soulless; ‘convenience’ and cheapness are not valid signifiers of a life well lived, or well read. Go talk to and get to know your book store staff, talk to the owner if you can, you’d be surprised what it adds to your life. I’ll never forget Don telling me stories about how during the London Blitz he and his friends would not go to the bomb shelters but instead would go up onto the tops of buildings to watch it all unfold; he said that it was a terrible beauty, but that they never felt scared. Sounds like it would make a great scene in a book...

Here’s a list of books I lugged out of the shop with me, all eighteen of them:

Japanese Short Stories - Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1961)

Masks - Fumiko Enchi (1958)

Helliconia Spring - Brian Aldiss (1982)

Helliconia Summer - Brian Aldiss (1983)

Helliconia Winter - Brian Aldiss (1985)

Imperial Bedrooms - Bret Eastern Ellis (2010)

Atlas Shrugged - Ayn Rand (1957)

The Martians - Kim Stanley Robinson (1999)

Winsburg, Ohio - Sherwood Anderson (1919)

The Complete Short Stories - Oscar Wilde (1980)

So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish - Douglas Adams (1984)

A Spy in the House of Love - Anais Nin (1954)

The Reality Dysfunction - Peter F. Hamilton (1996)

Complete Stories - Flannery O’Connor (1971)

Extro - Alfred Bester (1974)

Thirst for Love - Yukio Mishima (1950)

Tales of Power - Carlos Castaneda (1974)

The Heart Keeper - Francoise Sagan (1968)

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

The Last Painting of Sara De Vos - Dominic Smith (2016)








It has been so long since I finished reading The Last Painting of Sara De Vos that I wondered whether I could give it an adequate review, however it is such a fine novel that I thought I must write about it, even if it’s in a limited way. The Last Painting of Sara De Vos was the final novel read for the library’s book club for 2016 and despite some tough competition it was voted by members as the best book of the year. The novel is certainly a deserving winner, featuring a compelling narrative rich in period detail, with convincing and nuanced characters. Dominic Smith is an Australian writer who has lived for many years in Texas, which is perhaps why he is not that well known in Australia, however I’m sure that this novel will reward him with much more exposure in his native country.

The Last Painting of Sara De Vos has three narrative strands, one set in 1950’s New York in which wealthy lawyer, Marty de Groot, eventually discovers that a beautiful painting by obscure Dutch Golden Age artist Sara de Vos, owned by his family for 300 years, has been swapped for a fake. Both de Groot and the painter of the fake, a young Australian called Ellie Shipley, feature in the sections set during the year 2000 in Sydney, Australia. The third narrative strand is set in seventeenth century Holland and features the artist Sara de Vos, the only female painter admitted to the prestigious Guild of St Luke’s at the time (de Vos is an imagined painter based on Judith Leyster, one of only 25 female painters accepted into the guild over all). Male artists dominated landscape painting during that era, so there is a mystery surrounding both how the de Vos painting came to be and the details of her life. Smith weaves these narrative strands together beautifully; there is never a moment of incongruity and he evokes each period setting with great authenticity, in particular 1950’s New York and 1630’s Holland.

Perhaps the main strength of The Last Painting of Sara De Vos is its great thematic depth, exploring notions of personal identity, the significance of cultural circumstance and the sometimes tragic vicissitudes of life. Both de Vos and Shipley struggle to make headway in male dominated professions and take risks that transform their lives in both negative and positive ways. Notions of authenticity and forgery are given an extra dimension when de Groot, in his efforts to locate his stolen painting, creates an alter-ego; creating a fake self to fool Shipley and in doing so ironically presents a real life counterpoint to her own artistic forgery. In one of the novel’s dry comic turns a party at the de Groots residence features a bunch of ‘Beats for hire’ to liven up proceedings and perhaps provide a distraction for swapping over the paintings. The novel is full of such multilayered detail and nothing is wasted, in particular Smith’s portrayal of the art world, with its odd characters, obscure rivalries and the arcane intensity of artistic technique, a subject Smith researched thoroughly.

The Last Painting of Sara De Vos is an almost seamless novel in terms of plot and execution, but perhaps its greatest strength is its characters. The parallels drawn between Sara de Vos and Ellie Shipley, intentional or otherwise, give both characters added dimensions. Marty de Groot plays a fine supporting role, developing from an entitled and vengeful man into a compassionate and forgiving old man. There are also numerous minor characters that shine in their own way, in particular the idiosyncratic private detective de Groot hires when the police fail him. I’m sure that Smith worked long and hard at piecing together such a well crafted novel, but it doesn’t show at all; in fact he has pulled off that relatively rare feat, he has written a novel that is both complex and subtle, yet is also welcoming and rewarding for the reader, just the perfect read for book clubs really.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Best & Worst Books of 2016



Some of my books, resting quietly.





Looking at the list of books I read last year my first impression is that they are an odd bunch. The combination of books I read of my own volition and those that I read for the book club make strange bedfellows. Among the novels read for the book club Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata (2016), Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977) were among the best, but the most satisfying novel was undoubtedly Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara De Vos (2016) (I’m yet to write a review...). My library’s book club voted it their best book of the year and although it was not my personal choice for best book it was certainly close. As for the worst book of the year the book club agreed with me absolutely: Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (2015) was the most reprehensible novel I’ve read since Howard Jacobson’s dreaded The Finkler Question (2010).

Although Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest and The Three Body Problem and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch were all excellent reads, the prize for best book of 2016 has to go to Patrick Rothfuss’ fantasy novel The Name of the Wind (2007). Of all the books I read across 2016 The Name of the Wind came the closest to being rated as sublime. In hindsight I think that the only reason I did not give it the top rating was because of my unfamiliarity with the fantasy genre. Currently I’m reading its follow-up, The Wise Man’s Fear (2011) and although I’m only a third of the way through it’s looking like it could gain my highest rating in 2017.

Once again I’m looking forward to another year of reading, but as usual I wish that I had more time to get through my ever growing pile of unread books, but of course the one thing that is guaranteed is that I will not stop adding to the pile of books waiting to be read! Just give me more books!

Monday, 19 December 2016

The Drought - JG Ballard (1965)








It seems to be an unlikely conclusion to make, but perhaps the most interesting and significant section of The Drought are the two essays at the back of the book. One is by Ballard himself, entitled Cataclysms and Dooms (1977), in which he ruminates over the tradition of world cataclysms in literature. Here he states that “Psychiatric studies of the fantasies and dream life of the insane show that ideas of world destruction are latent in the unconscious mind.” The second essay is by British author Will Self, entitled The Ballard Tradition (2003), in which Self notes that “...Ballard has issued a series of bulletins on the modern world of almost unerring prescience.” Self goes on the conclude that “Indeed, the time has come to entertain the notion that one of the new seasons we are experiencing - dry spring, warm winter - should be named, simply, ‘Ballard’.”  During the post war period many of the possibilities offered up in science fiction have come to pass, from advanced computer driven technologies, medical breakthroughs, astronomical discoveries and most recently significant advances in the development of robotics and AI. Unfortunately the sad reality is that one of science fiction’s dominant tropes, a post apocalyptic world ruined by humanity’s short sighted hubris, is looking more and more likely to come to pass.

As Ballard himself noted, a novel such as The Drought does belong to the rich tradition of the cataclysmic, or post-apocalyptic novel. Human pollution results in the breaking the hydrologic cycle, creating successive years of drought, causing rivers to stop flowing and then civilization itself to collapse. Dr Charles Ransom, the novel’s principal protagonist is a typical Ballardian character, a brooding loner adrift in a situation in which he is more of an observer than an actor. An appropriate ensemble of eccentric and desperate characters surround him; Richard Lomax and his sister Miranda, wealthy eccentrics who exude a sophisticated kind of denial; Philip Jordan, denizen of a dying river; the brusque Reverend Johnstone, and Quilter, Lomax’s dwarf assistant. Rather than being a portrayal of a world-wide apocalyptic event, Ballard focuses the narrative on the lakeside town of Hamilton. As the drought progresses a sometimes surreal microcosm of civilization in decline plays out within the town. Fishermen hunt humans in the semi-deserted streets with nets, lions are let loose from the zoo, Quilter lurks in the half shadows and Ransom vacillates between leaving along with everyone else to the coast or staying with the Lomax siblings in their luxurious home whilst they blithely waste precious water keeping the lawns alive. Eventually Ransom does leave for the coast only to find the last vestige of civil order, in the form of the army, is attempting to keep the teeming hoards from leaving the mainland.

The Drought provides a timely reminder that from early in his career Ballard’s ability to explore human psychology under strain from unusual circumstances, and more significantly, under supposed normal circumstances, is one of his most enduring contributions to speculative fiction. It can be argued that The Drought stands as an early example of psycho-geography. Developed by Guy Debord, a French Marxist theorist, psycho-geography is “...the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” Throughout the novel Ballard’s protagonists exist in a psychic limbo between the decay of humanity’s built environment and a natural environment rendered dysfunctional by human interference.

Although The Drought is a worthy read for Ballard fans, it is perhaps not a good place to start for novices. Often the novel seems unfocused, promising apocalyptic drama, only to have it resolve into a narrative plateau characterized by the psychological drift of Ransom. The writing is clunky at times and Ballard’s characteristically dry, almost emotionless tone is not yet fully formed, something that gives his subsequent work an almost unbearably pleasurable tautness. The novel’s endgame, although initially promising, passes by like a surreal dream during an afternoon nap on a hot day, leaving you feeling uneasy and then ultimately unsatisfied; as with most great and important artists and writers, the best was yet to come. The Drought makes up one part of a loose quartet of novels featuring cataclysmic natural phenomena; the others being The Wind from Nowhere (1961), The Drowned World (1962) and The Crystal World (1966), which is where things really start getting interesting. Meanwhile a good place to start for the curious will always be The Complete Collected Short Stories of J.G.Ballard (2009).

I’m not sure whether it was some kind of subconscious decision on my part, but I began reading The Drought during the last month of the US presidential campaign. I’m sure that Ballard, who died in 2009, would have been fascinated by the election and the manner in which it was conducted. The concept of a ‘post truth’ era and the osmotic bleed between the hyper-realism of both cyber and broadcast media and what passes for ‘reality’ these days would have stimulated him enormously. As his daughter noted recently in an essay for The Guardian, we are living in Ballard’s world now (with some Philip K Dick thrown in for good measure I believe...). Perhaps the most unerring and frightening aspect of this era is the retreat into the irrationality of conspiracy theories, in particular those of the climate change deniers, whose voices are nightmarishly becoming louder and louder. The conspiracy theorist displays a special kind of narcissism that allows a retreat into the safety of the ego, from where they can proselytise what they believe to be the ‘real truth’, a ‘truth’ that irrationally counters the carefully researched scientific conclusions of the majority. It makes them feel special and powerful, giving them an agency over the world that they would not otherwise have; I’d almost feel sorry for them if it wasn’t so horrifying. Significantly the climate change deniers only confirm Ballard’s theory that ideas of world destruction are innate within the human psyche (or, pointedly, just those of the insane?). Meanwhile as I watch in horror climate change deniers do all they can to protect and reassert the status quo that is ultimately only steering humanity toward an apocalyptic future of its own devising, I’m going to prepare myself further by reading Ballard’s The Drowned World.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The Gustav Sonata - Rose Tremain (2016)








After finishing the first section of The Gustav Sonata I found myself wondering about just how many novels have been inspired by WWII. The war had such an impact on humanity that there is perhaps no end to the events, themes and existential issues that can be explored by novelists. The Gustav Sonata approaches the impact of the war in an unconventional manner, exploring the effects the war had on characters living in the neutral country of Switzerland. Although it is certainly not particularly innovative, The Gustav Sonata is quality literature and exactly the kind of novel that book club members love to read, so much so I also took some time to wonder whether there is a particular formula that novelists adhere to in order to attract the attention of the book club hoards that mill about in lounge rooms, cafes, pubs and libraries throughout the world.

The novel begins in post war Switzerland, a period of particular austerity for young Gustav and his mother, Emilie, who only just makes ends meet by working at a local cheese factory (accordingly she often smells strongly of cheese). Emilie tells Gustav that his father died because he helped to save Jews during the war. Emilie also tells young Gustav to be more like Switzerland itself: neutral, separate and strong. Gustav’s rather grey world improves when he befriends Anton, a child prodigy pianist and the son of Jewish parents who were sheltered from the horrors of the war by being Swiss citizens. Gustav and Anton initially share a fragile friendship, which then deepens across their shared childhoods. During the second part of the novel Tremain explores the lives of Gustav’s parents both before he was born and before the war. This section deftly provides a significant backstory and also further explores the novel’s major themes, in particular family dysfunction and how it often shapes the psychology of the individual. Gustav’s father, Erich, is a particularly well drawn and sympathetic character whose moralistic outlook is not shared by Emilie. Their marriage is blighted by differing perspectives and circumstances, providing ample narrative fodder for exploring the human psyche under pressure.

The third section explores Anton and Gustav’s lives as adults' right up to the early twenty-first century. Here the disappointments, tragedies and bitterness of the past haunt their lives. Gustav owns and runs a hotel in the town of his birth and still works hard to earn the love of his mother, which is often contingent and therefore rarely forthcoming. Anton lives a dissatisfied life as a piano teacher, having never had the nerve to succeed on stage. After an opportunity too good to be true takes Anton away from Gustav and their backwater town Gustav faces a life even more bereft of meaning. In other hands such existential bleakness could be over-bearing and exhausting, but Tremain’s classy, erudite style carries the narrative beautifully, allowing the reader to connect emotionally with the characters. When the final denouement comes it packs quite an emotional punch and it is here where the darker themes explored throughout the novel resolve into something like catharsis.

Tremain is certainly a skilled writer, exploring human temperament, morality, familial dysfunction and the complex nature of love, with subtlety and class. In an interview Tremain gave the following advice to writers: rather than writing about you know, try writing about what you don’t know. The same could be said about what you choose to read. The Gustav Sonata is a great example of the value of belonging to a book club; I simply would never have read the novel of my own volition, instead I was forced out of my comfort zone and into the splendid little world of a Rose Tremain novel. Although the novel will not go down as one of the most memorable books I have ever read, it was certainly worthy of my valuable reading time, and perhaps yours too.