Travelling in a Strange Land and Please Look After Mother

Sometimes you read two books at random and discover a theme.  And so it was with these two books – time for a double review!

Travelling in A Strange Land by David Park and Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin, translated by Chi-Young Kim, are moving stories about parenthood but told from different points of view.

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Please Look After Mother is an exquisite novel set in Seoul. A family searches for their mother, who has gone missing.  We hear from each of her (now adult) children, who realise the sacrifices their mother made and piece together her life.

The writing is crystal-clear – thoughtful but fluid. Shin gives her characters space to reflect, but on each page there’s a tension or event to propel the reader forward. It’s infused with South Korean culture yet there’s so much we can all relate to (especially regarding family dynamics and obligations).

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In Travelling in a Strange Land a man called Tom drives through snowy roads, thinking about his son and wondering whether he has been a good father.

Park’s strong, assured writing propels us firmly onwards even in slower parts.  At first the endless snow, with Tom circling around the issue but not coming to the point, frustrated me, but it mimics his state of mind, which is frozen; he looks at the snow rather than confront his memories.

It picks up and becomes a very moving, honest portrayal of parents at a loss over their son. Towards the end, the poetic writing soars and the emotions of the father feel so real it’s heart-breaking.

As to parenthood, in both cases they have been good parents: the irony, or perhaps the evidence, of this is that their children have taken them for granted.

Both books have beautiful, heart-breaking, redemptive endings.  Their major achievement is that the final scenes are sublime and dramatic, but it’s earned – it feels true to the characters.

I won’t give away the stories, but in both, the characters reach a point between sacrificing everything for others and being selfish, and land on compassion.  It feels hopeful, I think because it taps into something human in all of us: we’re not perfect when it comes to caring for our families and others, but our sense of compassion will prevail.

It’s rare to find two books with such memorable endings – I recommend both.

Have you read either of these (or other books with inadvertant themes)? Let me know what you think!

‘Asymmetry’ by Lisa Halliday

 

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My reading spot at Kangaroo Island – bliss!

‘Asymmetry’ was a delightful surprise – I went into it knowing little except that Lisa Halliday had based part of it on her relationship with Philip Roth many years ago – but it transcended this.  I loved it, kept thinking about it afterwards and have been recommending it to everyone!

It’s a novel in three parts, connected by themes and motifs – like different movements of the same piece of music, it feels coherent.

In the first part, Alice has a relationship with a much older, famous writer, Ezra.  The second part is the story of Amar, an Iraqi-American economist on his way to find his brother in Iraq, detained at Heathrow airport while the officers make ‘general enquiries’.  Amar looks back on his life, with some parallels to the first story: the US invasion of Iraq, religion (Ezra is atheist, Amar is quietly religious); sleeping on the roof (something both Alice and Amar do in hot weather), music, hospital (Ezra visits hospital as an old man, Amar works in a children’s hospital) and others.

In the third section ‘Coda’, we hear about Ezra’s life and philosophy in a comical scene, as he is interviewed for BBC’s Desert Island Discs.  I found his flirtation with the presenter laugh-out-loud funny, but I loved that in the #MeToo context this could also be an uncomfortable read. Either way, it opens up much to discuss.

I loved the fresh writing – it’s skilful and considered but not overdone.  Halliday has a natural style and wears her intelligence lightly.  She has spoken of trying to attain a lightness or leggerezza as Italo Calvino refers to it and I think this shows – there are many ideas at work, and much to read between the lines, which makes it a rich and rewarding read, but it’s done with a light touch.  And most importantly, it’s a good, entertaining story.

The characters are firmly drawn.  I loved that Alice has agency though she is young and inexperienced: Ezra is a flawed, magnetic charmer, but he does not overtake the story – they bounce off each other.  There is a delightful tone and real affection in their scenes, but also the frustrations and odd problems of a relationship with a much older man.  It is an intimate story and mostly takes place in Ezra’s apartment.  I loved the small details that make you feel like a fly on the wall, for example Ezra asking Alice to stop at Zabar’s on her way to his apartment, to pick up his Mylanta.

Ezra is also a mentor for Alice and there is a lovely, unforced dialogue between them about what a novel should be about.  Alice asks if it should be about ‘the important things …  war, dictatorships, world affairs.’  Ezra says it is more important that it be well-written.

It ends beautiful poised, with Alice starting to think about her future.

I started the second part with some trepidation, expecting a bleak refugee story.  But Amar is friendly and straightforward, and a strangely calming character to spend time with.  The scene where he is detained is skillfully done: you emplathise with him immediately and feel he’s been unfairly singled out – but it’s a nuanced portrayal of border security and Halliday doesn’t demonise the officers themselves (at one point, Amar starts to feel ‘filial affection’ for Denise, who has been back and forth with his passport).

The assured writing about his time in Baghdad, London and America brings to life his unique story – but there are also ‘everyday human’ aspects which have parallels with Alice, like sleeping on the roof in summer.

At first glance the stories are unrelated but the switch to Amar’s story does not jar – why not?

To me, the stories feel connected.  (Even if they did not, all three sections are so accomplished that they would be a joy to read on their own merits.)

They’re set in a similar time (the 2000s); Alice and Amar are a similar age and grew up in America.  There is a sense of two people who are both ‘young Americans’ living through the Bush era but whose stories differ.  Both are ‘on hold’: Alice, because of her relationship with Ezra – when asked if she plans to have children, she cannot contemplate it while she’s with him – and Amar literally in a waiting room.  Both conduct themselves with a calm quiet and dignity.

The stories illustrate that, regardless of backgrounds, humans share similar concerns: what to do about having children; who to love; whether to believe in God (or any faith); family, and music.

There is also a nice (a)symmetry: one story is intimate, a couple in an apartment ordering take-away, the other about America at war with Iraq.  The two stories side-by-side make you think: the war does put things into perspective – for example, there is a comment about people squandering peace, shopping at Waitrose – but the ‘smaller’ story holds its own.  To me this question of whether art should be about the smaller stories or world affairs, is the key to the novel. Halliday leaves it open for the reader to form their own view.

The ‘Coda’ at the end is delightful, poignant and self-aware – and a reminder that we are all heading towards death in the end.  Ezra – someone who fully participates in life – is flirting right to the end.  He also refers back to the discussion he had with Alice about novels and writing and reveals more about the links between the two (blink and you’ll miss it) – but even without this, the stories felt coherent to me.

A beautiful book – a joy to read, engaging and it make me think.

 

My Top 10 Books of 2018

Here are my top ten books of 2018.  Needless to say, it was impossible to narrow it down!  In alphabetical order by author.

Milkman by Anna Burns

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A little wordy but I loved the lyrical sentences and Irish humour.  A book I kept thinking about long after I’d read it.  Thrilled to see it win the Man Booker Prize.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Edo-Lodge

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A must-read.  Edo-Lodge is a superb writer, and sets out the race issues that concern her (and must concern all of us) in an ordered way.  Invigorating and essential.

The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson

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Wonderful!  My first time reading the story of Odysseus on his quest to return home to Ithaca and his wife Penelope.  An excellent translation, lively and direct.  I loved the themes of fate, revenge and hospitality – a feature of (ancient) Greek culture – and the human capacity for friendship and war.  My full review is here.

Crudo by Olivia Laing

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A tour-de-force.  Kathy is fiercely independent but getting married; Laing juxtaposes this with the events of 2017 and transports Kathy Acker to current (apolcalyptic) times.  A short, poetic, bracing read.

Normal People by Sally Rooney

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A compulsively readable story of Connell and Marianne set in Ireland in 2011 – 2015.  Acutely observed, clean writing; their conversations, mistakes and joys ring true.  Deserving winner of the Costa Novel of the Year Award.

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose

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Inspired by Marina Abramovic and honours her work in a beautiful novel.  Deserving winner of the Stella Prize (and other awards) – I loved it!

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated by Srinath Perur

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An elegantly, written spare novel about a family and the nuanced dynamics when one brother’s business becomes successful.  Much happening between the lines – deft and thought -provoking.  See also our podcast Top 5 Books from July.

Winter by Ali Smith

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Taking A Christmas Story as a jumping-off point in the second of her seasonal ‘Brexit quartet’ novels, I loved the witty, contemporary story and Shakespearian wordplay.  A joy to read.  This (and The Shepherd’s Hut, below), were also in our Top 5 Books in July.

Trick by Domenico Starnone, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri

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A terrific, bracing read.  Daniele is minding his grandson Mario in a Naples apartment.  He’s illustrating the work of Henry James’ ‘The Jolly Corner’ and James’ work infuses the story.  A strong, intense short novel with many layers.

The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton

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Tim Winton has surpassed himself with this novel about Jaxie, a tough but vulnerable teen boy.  Told with compassion and humour, I loved the odd couple relationship with a priest, and Winton’s peerless descriptions of the Australian landscape.  A future classic.

What were your favourite books of 2018?

 

 

How to Survive a Theme Park Holiday

We have just returned from two days at Legoland in Billund.  Theme parks are not my happy place: crowds of children, queues and dubious food. Throw in some large novelty creatures and weirdly dramatic music and I’m out.

Here are my tips for surviving the experience.

This is a non-alcoholic wine. I recommend alcohol in large quantities.

1. Consider a different holiday: Fiji, Spain, the Fleurieu Peninsula – there are so many places you can go with children.  Why a theme park?  Our kids have formed lifelong friendships over the summer at Goolwa Beach.  Not a Mickey Mouse or roller coaster in sight.

2. If that fails, go to Denmark.  Why?  Because everything is nicer there.  Legoland Billund is your best chance of cool design with a sense of humour and a friendly, safe environment.  You can fly there from London Heathrow in less than two hours (not so handy from Australia unfortunately).  Japan probably does amazing, clever theme parks too.  I feel like I don’t need to test that out, but would love to hear if you’ve been to any.

The iconic LEGO sign and evidence of retail therapy.

3.  Stay at the Legoland Hotel.  It is more pleasant to walk through to Legoland than battle the traffic and carpark.  The Adventure Rooms are a joy for kids and you can cope for one or two nights.  The restaurant buffet meals are serviceable; and there is a nice terrace with a garden and playground.   It’s quite civilised, if you go at the right time of year (see below).

4.  Go mid-week and avoid July and August.  We went in July because don’t ask, and faced crowds and 30 degree heat.  This is not ideal and I do not recommend.

5.  If something went wrong and you’re going in peak season, buy a Q Bot.  This helps with the queue scenario.  Then you’re off: all the rides you can stomach.  Woo hoo!

The terrifying Canoe ride starts as a pleasant river cruise, then drops you off a cliff. It gets us every time.

6.  Lego House:  exit Legoland as soon as possible and go here.  It’s superb.  Opened in September 2017, it’s a large, airy building dedicated to Lego and play.  There are jaw-dropping installations including a tree which took 24,000 hours to build. It’s all highly interactive. The lower ground has vintage sets and the history of Lego, which is like a business masterclass.

7. Eat at Lego House. There are restaurants at ground level with good coffee and healthy snacks, and Le Gourmet for a proper lunch.

Things are looking up. Delicious rooster tartlet at Le Gourmet.

8. Also in Billund: Lego headquarters is opening (part in 2019 and) in 2021; a tour of this would be fascinating. And if soft toys appeal, the Teddy Bear Art Museum opened in May 2018.

9. Off-topic, but my sister put me onto the IT CC cream, which has been a revelation. It replaces seven products (sunscreen, moisturiser, base, foundation, concealer, illuminator). It’s amazing! Perfect for travel.

10. Finally, have a recovery trip planned. We’re off to Kefalonia tomorrow for some sun, surf and meze. On that note, I’d better start packing!

What is your favourite theme park (if such a thing is possible)?

5 Holiday Reads

I love choosing holiday reads: books that relate to the destination, small, portable books and fast-paced crime thrillers for the flight.  Here are 5 current favourites:

Crime

The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware

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Hal is a young tarot-card reader and receives a large inheritance.  She goes to Cornwall – a large creepy house a la Manderley in Rebecca – and meets the family, but realises it’s a mistake and she’s not the real heir.  Hal is a sympathetic protagonist, and the mysteries kept me turning the page: why is she named in the will?  What is the family hiding?  I loved the settings of Brighton and Cornwall.  A great, twisty plot and fun read.

More crime:

Dark Pines by Will Dean – Scandi noir with an interesting, deaf female journalist Tuva – the start of a series which I’m excited about!

Thirteen by Steve Cavanagh – my go-to author for smart legal thrillers.  This is the fourth in the Eddie Flynn series and I think the best so far.  Un-putdownable.

The Commissario Brunetti series by Donna Leon – if you’re lucky enough to be travelling to Venice

The Detective Armand Gamache series by Louise Penny – for a Canadian adventure.

Small Books

Crudo by Olivia Laing BOd5H5cyRZe0H1jwAmtHFg

A tour de force. Kathy, fiercely independent, is getting married.  She describes this time of change with honesty and wit: she has doubts, fears becoming mellow, loves her husband but fights and screams at him too.  Laing juxtaposes this with world events of 2017.   The idea that we fret about climate change but at the same time eat crab for dinner resonates – Laing has spoken about Twitter and the way we switch between the trivial and the unbearably significant.  This book is extraordinary, on point and fun.  It will keep you on your toes.  A must-read.

More short books:

The Passion by Jeanette Winterson: a perfect gem, set in Bolougne and Venice during the Napoleonic wars.

Moonstone by Sjón: a knockout.  Beautiful, spare story of a boy’s life in 1918 Reykjavík.

Beach Read

The End by Fernanda Torres, translated by Alison Entrekin

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Hedonistic.  The story of five old men in Rio reflecting on their friendships and approaching deaths.  It’s narrated by each in turn .  I enjoyed Torres’ style and humour.  The men feel real, if larger than life, and it’s thought-provoking about age and mortality.  Also, gorgeous cover and small book.  Love it!

Another beach read:

Less by Andrew Sean Greer: a comic novel about a writer who travels the world to avoid his ex-boyfriend’s wedding, this won the 2018 Pulitzer prize.  Amanda loved it more than I did when we discussed it on the podcast, but we both agreed it would be a great holiday read.

Non-Fiction

The Riviera Set by Mary S. Lovell

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This was recommended to me by Laura Kroetsch (former Adelaide Writers’ Week director) who always has the best book tips!  It’s the story of an Art Deco villa on the Côte d’Azur and the people who stayed there from the 1920s to the 1960s, including Winston Churchill, Gianni Agnelli and Rita Hayworth.  It sounds fabulous and is in my suitcase for our holiday next week.

More non-fiction:

Mythos by Stephen Fry: superb, especially as an audio-book, narrated by Stephen Fry himself.  The stories are wonderful and highly entertaining.  With children aged around 12 and up, this would be great for a road-trip!

New Release vs Classic

The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson

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Not an obvious holiday choice, but the poetic form is so lively and readable that it’s a page-turner.  Perfect for your Greek island holiday.  I think it’s still in hardback but perhaps on audio, or when it comes out in paperback, this is a must.  I’ve done a full review here.

More New Releases:

We’ve read some fantastic new books on the podcast, including The Shepherd’s Hut and Circe – check out our top five here.

Now it’s time to pack.  What are you reading on your next holiday?

 

 

Podcast Highlights: Top 5 Books

Our ‘Books On The Go‘ podcast is live!  Annie, Amanda and I read and discuss a book a week.  Some good, some … interesting … and some real gems. Here are our top 5 so far:

The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton

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Tim Winton has surpassed himself: this stunning novel grabs you from page one. You know immediately that Jaxie is tough and defiant, but his raw honesty comes through (all this in the first few pages). Winton tells a great yarn and makes you care about his characters. The writing is alive and inventive; Jaxie’s voice is authentic with colourful language and droll humour. Masterful. He manages to say, by story alone, much about boys and masculinity.

Circe by Madeline Miller

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A beautiful, generous novel re-imagining the goddess Circe and the myths surrounding her. Madeline Miller stays true to the stories and language, but this feels modern, with much to say about contemporary politics and attitudes to women. Circe is a wonderful character: sharp-tongued, idiosyncratic and brave. We loved the scenes with Hermes and Odysseus but there are many rich details and layers to enjoy. Heart-warming and intelligent.

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanhbag

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An elegantly written, spare novel about a family and the nuanced dynamics when one brother’s business becomes very successful. By observing the characters in turn, he shows the complex strings that keep a family in balance; and money’s power to corrupt. The tone is wonderfully engaging, the narrator charming, but he emerges as a passive character, trapped by lack of purpose. Much is happening between the lines.  Deft and thought-provoking.

The Passion by Jeanette Winterson

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A brilliant, pithy book set in Boulogne and Venice during the Napoleonic wars. Winterson gets to the heart of being human: to play the game of life, you have to gamble your “valuable and fabulous thing” – your heart. Henri is Napoleon’s chicken chef; Villanelle falls in love with a woman at a Venice casino. Strong, poetic writing. Villanelle is original and spirited, Henri touching and the Bonapartes described with fairness and wit.

Winter by Ali Smith

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Sophia waits in Cornwall for her son Arthur to join her for Christmas. Taking A Christmas Carol as a jumping off point and rejoicing in Shakespearean-like comic dialogue, Ali Smith is an enchanting story-teller. She shows the absurdity of human behaviour, the power of resistance and the beauty of art and nature. Characters are real, the humour dry and the prose is masterful, light, richly layered, but not showy. We loved this.

There are some that almost made this list, which I’ll sneak into my next post on holiday reads. 😉

We’d love you to read along with us!  Up next:

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Wise Children by Angela Carter

News Of The World by Paulette Jiles

Crudo by Olivia Laing

What are your favourite books of 2018 so far?

The Odyssey

Homer’s The Odyssey has long been on my list of ‘Classics to read’ (as opposed to my list of ‘Classics I will not read’ – hello and goodbye, Moby Dick).  It’s the original quest, an epic story and referenced everywhere.  I worried it would be an ancient, dry text, but the new translation by Emily Wilson is wonderful!

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Wilson has stayed faithful to the story and used the same form as Homer.  The language is lively and direct.  The rhythm takes you back to Homer’s time, but the pared back style feels contemporary.

I love the idea of the story being re-told, as it would have been done many times as an epic poem shared orally, before it was first written down.

Odysseus is on a quest to return home to Ithaca and his wife Penelope.  He endures many setbacks:  the Trojan war, battles with Cyclops, the loss of most of his men, and then, before he can reunite with Penelope, he must defeat the suitors who have vied to marry her in his absence.  His uses his strength and wits, but the gods and goddesses also play a role.  Some, such as Athena, help him.  Others, like Poseidon, make his journey difficult.  Hermes the messenger is a great, sassy character.

It’s a terrific story – full of drama, characters who are larger than life, gods who behave like bickering families and mortals who must be godlike in their heroism to succeed.  I actually did not know how it ended until I read the book, so I found I kept turning the page to find out what happened next.  The translation is so clear and has great energy.

Here is Menelaus speaking to Telemachus (Odysseus’s son) and Pisistratus:

“No mortal, my dear boys, can rival Zeus.

His halls and home and property are deathless.”

And telling them of his suffering:

“I cannot eat or sleep, since no one labored

like him – Odysseus.  His destiny

was suffering, and mine the endless pain

of missing him. …”

Heroism is a key theme.  Odysseus  was victorious at Troy, but he relies on his wits more than brute strength to overcome the challenges he faces on his journey.  He is capable of violence and shows arrogance in the scene with Cyclops (to his cost).  But he shows great perseverance and keeps his head.  Penelope is loyal (refusing the suitors’ advances, waiting for Odysseus) and intelligent.

Fate is another theme – the gods are powerful, although they can’t dictate everything that happens: for example, Odysseus might be ‘fated’ to survive the journey so Poseidon cannot kill him.  The mortals like Odysseus can control their fate to some extent, but the gods hold the reins.  They seem to co-exist.  The mortals live on the basis that some things are pre-destined or ‘fated’, but still they strive to do what they want.

I also liked the sense of balance and ‘good life’ that the characters showed (I’m sure there is a Greek word for this).  They might be fighting battles, wreaking revenge, sailing the high seas, but they also show hospitality, always stopping to eat bread, olives and meat, drink wine, take baths and share stories.

Here is Circe addressing Odysseus:

“I know you and your men have suffered greatly,

out on the fish-filled sea, and on dry land

from hostile men.  But it is time to eat

and drink some wine. …”

It give you a good idea of how the Greeks lived in ancient times, but the story has universal themes – which explains its longevity.  We still show hospitality to visitors, persevere in the face of struggle and have a capacity for both friendship and war.

These are amplified in The Odyssey (in a way that we have come to associate with Greek ‘drama’) – it does now shy away from love, hate or revenge in extreme forms.  This makes it memorable.

I highly recommend it.  Now I just need to sail to a Greek island!