Thursday 26 March 2015

Reading, Writing and the Value of Libraries

The promise of books to come...

A few days ago I noticed that I’d made my hundredth post with my review of Greg Egan’s Axiomatic. When I started this blog way back in September of 2011 my motivation was to get myself into the habit of writing to help me pursue my aim of writing fiction. So far the experiment has worked beautifully and not only has my discipline improved but also so has my writing. During that time I’ve read and reviewed 74 books and written who knows how many words. I’d have to say that the best book I’ve read during this time is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest - it’s a crazy masterpiece. If I can produce anything half as good then I’ll be well pleased.

Lately I've been buying books perhaps a bit too regularly (from brick and mortar book stores, not those unspeakable online 'shops'), so they've been piling up and it has reminded me just how pleasing and comforting it is to have them around. It is not just for their ascetic appeal either; it's also the promise of what they hold. For as long as I can remember books have been present in my life. It's no accident that I work in a library. Every day I'm surrounded by books at work and at home. Where did this appreciation for books and the written word come from? Two places I believe. When I was growing up there was the influence of my older brothers, who always seemed to be reading and therefore gave me the impression that books were important and were a noble pursuit. The second and most important reason is because of the existence of libraries.

I grew up in a large country town in Western Australia's south west and because of the library situated in the town centre my parents were able to bring home seemingly limitless amounts of books. They weren't readers themselves, but were smart enough to recognize the importance of reading for a young person. They were not wealthy, so if it wasn't for the library I would not have had as much access to books. Studies have indicated that access to books in the home leads to greater rates of literacy for children, even if the books are not read all that often. Libraries allow parents and children access to books regardless of their economic circumstances. This is just one of a multitude of important services that libraries provide (don’t get me started!).

Here in Western Australia the conservative state government has been cutting funds to the library system, so much so that there is a strong possibility that important services offered by country libraries may be seriously affected. At the time of writing it is unclear what the outcome will be. About eight years ago the same state government announced that it was cutting funding to metropolitan libraries. The backlash from the public was so significant that before we even received pamphlets and car bumper stickers at my library to help counter this measure the government back flipped and the cuts were cancelled. Libraries in other countries have not been so fortunate. In the U.K during the post sub-prime economic slowdown many libraries were closed. Some were reopened by volunteers and squatters who could not tolerate the loss of such an important public resource.

Personally I regard the closure of libraries to be a sign of civilization in decline. Access to knowledge, regardless of economic circumstance, is fundamental. Having a highly literate society should be the aim of every government. As I sit and contemplate just what I will read next I feel grateful that I grew up in a society that valued literacy and that the adventure and value of literature and knowledge was instilled within me at an early age. Where-ever you may be in the world take a moment to think about the health of your library system. The value of libraries is immeasurable and it is paramount that this is not forgotten. Don’t let them fall by the wayside in this age of economic rationalism; they are simply too important to disappear.

Friday 13 March 2015

The Snow Kimono - Mark Henshaw (2014)

Until the publication of The Snow Kimono Mark Henshaw was one of those writers who had produced a brilliant debut novel and then had disappeared, well, almost. In 1988 Out of the Line of Fire received rave reviews, sold well and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. Apart from co-writing two crime novels under a pseudonym in 1997 and 2007 Henshaw all but disappeared off the literary map. Now freshly retired from his job as curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Henshaw has written a novel that continues Out of the Line of Fire’s experiments with meta-fiction and examines the very nature of storytelling itself.

The Snow Kimono begins in Paris with protagonist Auguste Jovert, a retired police inspector whose past is catching up with him via a letter from a lost Algerian daughter. Enter Tadashi Omura, a Japanese neighbor who befriends Jovert and shares stories from his past about his problematic friendship with narcissistic writer Katsuo Ikeda. The narrative consists of stories within stories, exploring themes such as the nature of perception, ‘truth’ and identity. At one point I wondered whether I was in fact reading a transcript from one of Ikeda’s novels and in hindsight I’m still not exactly sure. Metafictional clues are offered when Jovert pores over maps of Algiers, trying to make sense of the complex street-scape of cul-de-sacs, dead ends and blind alleys. There’s also a section in which Omura’s father’s obsession with Japanese jigsaw puzzles is featured, which is essentially both an analogy for The Snow Kimono itself and a means to explore the themes of perception and subjectivity. 

The Snow Kimono is complex but beautifully written, with a spare and poetic style that is very Japanese, despite Henshaw being Australian born. The sections set in Japan are particularly resonant, with descriptions of nature that acts as a metaphor for a character’s state of being. There is often a profound sense of foreboding, that all is not as it seems; which is compounded by events and outcomes that are often only hinted at. Henshaw’s obtuse way with narrative does have its drawbacks however; although initially absorbing, the novel’s fragmented narrative resulted in a degree of alienation from the characters and a nagging frustration from trying to put all the pieces together. Whilst Henshaw adroitly resolves many of the mysteries at the heart of the novel, he also casts doubt on aspects of the narrative that were thought to be already understood. The result is that The Snow Kimono is a novel I admired rather than enjoyed; although I’m beginning to suspect that I’ve read too many self aware fragmented novels and I’m in need of the simple joys of a linear plot.