‘Song to Song’ review

Last year Jason and I saw Knight of Cups, the second in Terrence Malick’s trilogy (after To the Wonder).  I disliked it so much that that I wished the main character (played by Christian Bale whom I normally like) dead, then wished myself dead; and argued for hours afterwards.  Jason thought it a wonderful view of life in all its cinematic glory.  I was frustrated at the lack of dialogue, voice-overs saying trite things about love, male fantasy cliches of women cavorting around naked, then being used and discarded, and the absence of any plot.  Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman and Teresa Palmer stood out as luminous, interesting characters but it was pointless with the protagonist walking around being self-absorbed and with no respect for them.  Oh, it was infuriating.

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Christian Bale in Knight of Cups.  Image: Slate.com

 

So there we were at the cinema last night to see Song to Song, the third in the trilogy.  Once again, Jason loved it; I hated it.

Song to Song revolves around Faye, played by Rooney Mara, who hangs around music festivals and supposedly wants to be a singer.  We never see her write or sing a note.  As a consequence she is not credible as an artist, so everything that is supposed to flow from that doesn’t hold up.  She wants sleazy producer Cook (played by Michael Fassbender) to help her but falls for musician BV (Ryan Gosling, charming and plays the piano so is almost credible).

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Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender and Ryan Gosling in Song to Song.  Image: Indiewire

Cook is a bad news bear but Faye keeps going back for more and says at one point “I thought any experience was better than no experience.”  This is just one of the bland things the characters say in voice-overs (“Open your eyes.”  “What if I don’t become an artist?”).

The party scenes look like Playboy mansion footage dressed up as art: Cook is debauched, and treats women like possessions to play with and discard.

Rooney Mara wears a blank expression for much of the film (we see glimpses of her happy with BV but they’re inane scenes of her dancing around). She is a passive, ambivalent character and as a result – without even the music to make her interesting – she’s unlikeable. If she is supposed to be a struggling artist, there is no evidence of it: Malick shows her flitting from one lover to another; and if the love affair is supposed to be the focus, I simply lost patience with her poor choices.

The only time I felt for Faye was when Patti Smith appeared, and gave her some advice. Patti Smith is fabulous and, for me, is the heart of this film.

Natalie Portman as Rhonda is strong and compelling but again is given hardly any lines and becomes a powerless figure.  There is a telling scene where a prostitute tells Rhonda that she aspires to be a teacher: she seems to have more control over her life than Rhonda, who was once a teacher but is now with Cook, and seems to envy the prostitute her independence.  Rhonda has given away more than her body.

As for Cate Blanchett, Peter Travers sums it up in his review for Rolling Stone: Malick reduces “this soaring comet of an actress to meandering around barefoot while musing about her tragic past.”

I could go on and on about the characters’ wanderings, random self-conscious dancing and trailing fingers … and the film did.  It felt so long I worried about getting deep vein thrombosis.

One thing I looked forward to though was the setting at South by South West music festival in Austin – an event that I’ve heard is super fun, and have never been to.  But we don’t see the performers (except briefly) and there is none of the joy of being in the audience at a live music event.  Anyone who has been to a concert knows that there is something special in the atmosphere of a good live show, but there is none of that euphoria in Song to Song.

Jason liked it as a dreamy contemplation of life. But to my mind, we’re capable of dreamily contemplating life ourselves; the director’s job is to forge all those incoherent bits into a film.  It is satisfying to watch a story unfold from beginning to end – however inventively told – but this series of floating scenes fails on that score.  Not only does it fail to make sense of these elements of life or turn them into something more universal; it renders the characters’ lives even more mundane.  In fact, it’s like someone telling you about their dream.

Does a film have to tell a story?  Yes, I think so.  Terrence Malick is less interested in straightforward plot than pursuing a singular vision; he is more an artist than a film director.  But that does not mean that it’s good art.

On the plus side: Patti Smith, Ryan Gosling, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett and lush, visual cinematography. And it’s always a treat to go to the cinema.

What terrible films have you seen recently?

 

Book Club Takes Hong Kong

More Hangover than handover, the Adelaide Book Club visited Hong Kong last month, so I thought I’d share some of our highlights, and a reading list.

(A pause here to acknowledge that with our book club being how it is, the actual reading list comprised Elle, Vogue and Who magazines.  But nominally our book of the month was Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan, which I reviewed here).

I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Hong Kong on and off for the last ten years and become familiar with its bright lights, sights and smells (and smog, humidity and impatient pressing of the close-doors button in lifts).  I love the Donkey Kong high-rises and the view over the harbour, and there is an abundance of bars and restaurants to indulge in, with new places opening all the time (too many, and too much indulgence, you could say).  Where to start?

The Jade Market

We went from the airport straight to the Jade Market, to catch Irene of stall 278 before she left for Japan to stock up on pearls.  Nothing if not dedicated, we shopped here for two hours before checking into the Conrad!  Sandy’s Pearls (around stall 400) is also very good.

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Shopping hard at the Jade Market – hotel check-in can wait…

Le Garcon Saigon

We had a great dinner here on the first night.  It’s in the Star Street precinct with I really like: old-school factories mixed with independent Western boutiques (increasingly so, and some might say it’s losing some of its original character, but for me the balance is still okay).  French-Vietnamese with a buzzy atmosphere, outdoor tables and people watching.

We took a walk down Queen’s Road East after dinner and ended at Lee Tung Avenue – prettily decorated with red lanterns – and had a negroni at Ophelia.  This is a luxe bar with a peacock theme and glamorous dancers in cheung-sams performing and posing.  I don’t think I could spend too much time there, but it’s very Hong Kong.  Another bananas bar by the same people is Iron Fairies, 1 Pottinger Street, Central (on the corner with Hollywood Road) – I recommend the watermelon daiquiris.

Sevva

A favourite roof-top bar, with a great view of the harbour and the light-show at 8pm.  We had a pitcher of Sangria, possibly a mistake – I would recommend the lychee martinis next time.

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At Sevva

Ho Lee Fook

A fun restaurant in Central, with great food.  Asian fusion with Momofuku influence, wonderful flavours.  The prawn toast and XO noodles are a must.  No bookings (unless over 6 people) but they’ll drink sake with you while you wait, or you can take a drink on the terrace at Chom Chom across the street – we had a delicious mint chilli cocktail there.
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At Ho Lee Fook.  Kathy and Nicola each bought a lucky cat to take home, so they are sure to have good fortune this year!
Sunday brunch here is a must.  Free-flowing champagne, impeccable Japanese food and a fun crowd – what’s not to love?
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Zuma – the best Sunday brunch.

Cafe Gray Deluxe

I love this restaurant.  It has a fabulous bar overlooking the harbour, beautiful fit-out and the food is always great: I am still dreaming about that steak (I don’t eat much meat and rarely order steak but this was perfect).  Highly recommended for a special night out.

… and now for rest and recovery … and that means books!  I haven’t read as many books set in Hong Kong as I would like, but these stand out:

Myself a Mandarin

by Austin Coates

A charming, funny memoir of Austin Coates, who was appointed a magistrate in Hong Kong unexpectedly in 1949.  I found this book thanks to Simon Winchester, who mentioned it in The River at the Centre of the World.  Highly recommended.

The World of Suzie Wong

by Richard Mason

A classic.  A story of a man who meets a woman on the ferry from Kowloon and stays in a hotel/brothel in Wan Chai.  It has some wonderful descriptions of old Hong Kong and romance at its heart.

Fragrant Harbour

by John Lanchester

This novel does a great job of evoking Hong Kong from the 1930s to the 1990s, starting with a young man who travels there from England for an adventure.  Through him you have the first impressions (eg the blunt frankness of the Cantonese language, the smells of the harbour) and we then meet other characters and see Hong Kong through their eyes.  Well-observed.

The Expatriates

by Janice Y. K. Lee

This novel from the point of view of three American women in Hong Kong captures the expatriate experience in all its superficial glory.  Told with compassion and an eye for the small details that make up Hong Kong life, I found it sad but compelling.

If you have any recommendations for books set in Hong Kong, please let me know!

 

Baileys Prize 2017

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced on 7 June.  Here is my quick and incomplete guide to the shortlist.

The shortlisted books are:

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant

The Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan

I’ve read four of the list (pictured below – missing my copy of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, back in London but probably my favourite of the list).

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Just add Baileys!

I am intrigued by First Love and have heard mixed reports of The Sport of Kings.  My thoughts on the four I’ve read … :

The Power

Women have the power to electrocute you with their hands.  This gives them swagger and confidence; men are afraid to walk the streets at night.  Gender wars and global upheaval ensue, reverse-echoing current geopolitics (men must stay at home, genital mutilation, etc).  Alderman seems to say: women would behave in the same way as men, given the chance.  Muscular, engaging writing and interesting characters.  The story is science fiction (which I don’t tend to enjoy because of the extra leaps of faith it requires) and works at a macro level, so I wasn’t ‘in’ its world.  But a very strong book.  I would not be surprised if it won.

Stay With Me

Yejide and Akin are married in 1980s Nigeria and trying to have a baby.  Traumatic events occur, without being sensationalised.  This is a gentle book, despite the emotional punch.  The writing does not draw attention to itself but presents the characters with sensitivity and compassion.  It took me a while to get into and I did not love it overall – I couldn’t get traction or immerse myself in the story – but I admired its originality and sense of place.  A quietly strong book.

The Dark Circle

Beautiful writing, sympathetic characters sent to a sanatorium with tuberculosis, and an interesting moment in history – 1949-51 – I wanted to love this more than I did.

Well-crafted, I liked brash Lenny and Miriam in London, but the parts with bored, ill sanatorium patients dragged and I never got attached to the characters (although Persky the American was fun).  The story felt contrived at times, pressing on the reader the symptoms of TB and historical treatment of the disease.

But – beautiful craftsmanship, each sentence honed and polished, thoughtfully written, intelligent and (I’m assuming) historically accurate.  There is much wisdom here, but it’s put as the characters thinking, which was sometimes a stretch.  For example, Hannah the German (“Germany had an innate dislike of chaos and untidiness”) reflects that “in the spirit of the British there was, she felt, a kind of human glitch, the system could handle a sense of humour …”

The patients analyse Metamorphisis and its parallels to their situation and the Jews (waking up one day and being in a body that is treated as though one might as well be an insect).  This was interesting but I found it a little clunky.

The sanatorium part ends and soon after that I thought the story came to a natural end, without a neat resolution but the tension in the story (who survives) is answered.  But then there is a long tail as the story goes on for 40-odd pages, following the surviving characters into old age, which I didn’t need.  Perhaps it’s ‘completing the circle’ or to satisfy the readers’ curiosity, but I thought it weakened the novel.

I so wanted to like it more!  I plan to read more of Linda Grant as she’s hugely talented and maybe with a story that’s more about the characters and less about an ‘issue’ I’ll have more luck.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Madeleine Thien - Do Not Say We Have Nothing

A devastating story, beautifully told.  It may inspire you to listen to Bach, Shostakovich or Prokofiev anew and deepen your compassion for all the people of China who lived through the Cultural Revolution, and their children.  It’s long and intricate – I needed a cast of characters at times – but it weaves together whole lives with care and delicacy and the characters feel real.  Accomplished, this feels like the novel Madeleine Thien was born to write.  Highly recommended, with a tissue caveat.

This is my pick for the prize!  Who do you think will win?

 

 

Infinite Jest

Thank you Jen P of The Reader’s Room for hosting an Infinite Jest buddy read on Litsy – this was the perfect way to read the book that’s sat dauntingly on my shelf for years.

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I cannot capture in a review what Infinite Jest is and why I love it.  Here is a philosopher at work; but also a great wit and exquisite writer.

It sounds strange to say that he ‘gets to the heart of the matter’ when the book is this long but David Foster Wallace pulls from a myriad of conversations, tennis drills, night walks, family dinners and drug busts the essence of what it is to be human.

He does much more besides: predicts the future, gives voice to the marginalised, and entertains.  One footnote alone had me laughing for hours.

It’s the story of the Incandenza family and a cast of characters, many and varied – mainly set in a tennis academy and a nearby halfway house for recovering drug addicts.  Hal is a tennis prodigy and when the book opens he is in a college interview with Uncle C. T. Travis speaking for him; he has “already justified his high seed in this week’s not unstiff competition…”

And from the opening pages – with echoes of P. G. Wodehouse and Douglas Adams’ humour – I was hooked.  1,000 pages and there is not a pat sentence, much less a cliche, among them.

DFW skewers, variously: fast talkers, film students, sports jocks, conscientious mothers, white-haired AA veterans (‘crocodiles’), politicians and spin doctors.  He is so observant, the humour so spot-on, that I laughed out loud throughout much of the book, and re-read passages for fun (the last thing you think you want to do with a book this length).

But what has stayed with me is the compassion for the addicts, the deformed, those on the fringe.  The residents of Ennet House are in a battle for survival and he makes heroes of all (or most).  An acne-prone student engineer, invisible to most, becomes the star of his own story.

Mario Incandenza, a homodontist dwarf with an extra-large head and permanent smile, who stands on a lean, is almost exaggeratedly deformed but emerges as the book’s wise sage and most poignant character.

Milan Kundera says the job of a novelist is to describe: “compassion for the ephemeral, salvaging the perishable.” (The Curtain).

DFW takes great care in describing the lives of each of his many characters.  I felt the anxiety of waiting for a drug dealer with Erdedy: “He had never been so anxious for the arrival of a woman he did not want to see” and could picture the child Hal “holding out the mold, seriously, like the report of some kind of audit.”

Each paragraph shines a light on an aspect of human existence, so that by the end you feel like a country has been brought to life in all its messy glory; he has carefully woven a theory of the meaning of life.

Some say it is self-indulgent but I disagree – it is rather, a generous book in which not one word is wasted.  DFW was having fun (I hope); perhaps showing off (who cares) but I had the sense he was trying urgently to communicate something essential about life: that everyone’s life is an absurd struggle, but each has value, if we would stop and cherish the small fleeting moments.

Albert Camus said that life loses meaning when we start doing things by habit and see ourselves as machines or drones, and that:

“There is only one serious philosophical question and that is suicide.”

Tennis is a metaphor for life: the beauty of the game, but also the repetitive drills the juniors undertake; they will become part of the entertainment machine if they make it to ‘the Show’ – but only one or two will, making the endless practice absurd.  Jim Incandenza’s father says to him: “Jim, brace yourself against my shoulder here for this hard news, at ten: you’re a machine a body an object, Jim.”

Schtitt explains tennis to Mario in one of my favourite passages: DFW soaring into highbrow maths theory with a continuum of infinities: each shot in tennis leads to infinite responses, but they are contained by the skill and imagination of the player, “ie by oneself” so that tennis is “life’s endless war against the self that you cannot live without.”

Mario: “And then but so what’s the difference between tennis and suicide, life and death, the game and its own end?”

Schtitt answers, “the chance to play.”

Kate Gompert, severely depressed, in a later scene, says “I don’t want to play anymore.”

DFW has compassion for the down-and-out and empathy for the suicidal.  He does not shy away, and respects those experiences as much as Orin punting a football or Pemulis scoring DMZ.  The fact that DFW took his own life in 2006 makes these sections extra poignant.

Addiction is a major theme.  We see Americans’ addiction to entertainment – DFW eerily prescient regarding a future in which people can programme their own TV and watch themselves.

Marathe, a Quebec terrorist, and Steeply, a spy, discuss this.

“Now what has happened when a people choose nothing over themselves to live … A USSA that would die … for the so-called perfect Entertainment.”

The Entertainment refers to the film “Infinite Jest” made by Jim Incandenza which is reportedly so addictive that anyone who watches it will die.

Hal muses towards the end of the book: “We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. … A flight-from in the form of a plunging-into.  Flight from exactly what?  These rooms blandly filled with excrement and meat?”  Meaning running from the monotony of life.  But one cannot escape one’s own life.  And we are back to tennis and Schtitt: “life’s endless war against the self you cannot live without.”

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Steeply and Marathe (picture from Yorrick Entertainment, design by Chris Ayers)
Communication is another theme: Hal is precocious with language but his father believes he cannot speak; Gately is mute at one point; Marathe has translation issues; Joelle is ‘apparently mute’ earlier; Orin lies.

The way we survive and make life bearable is by communicating with others, and how we connect with family and each other.  Hal and Orin’s phone conversations are some of the funniest passages in the book, true and touching.  Ennet House is a family of sorts.

DFW also makes almost a cult of deformity, notably with the Union for the Hideously and Improbably Deformed, started by a woman insulted by Winston Churchill.  Madame Psychosis’s radio show, where she reads out the PR circular for the union, has a wonderfully off-beat, Lynchian black humour: “Come all ye hateful.  Blessed are the poor in body, for they.”  This running theme shows DFW’s exaggerated quirky brilliance – combining comedy with sadness – that is so affecting.

The great pleasure of the book comes from its language.  It is virtuoso and covers every tone, every register.

A street in Boston: “rained-on sienna-glazed streets … cars sheening by with the special lonely sound of cars in rain.”

Avril on Hal’s friends: “reptilian Michael Pemulis and trail-of-slime-leaving James Struck, both of whom gave Avril a howling case of the maternal fantods.”

The drug DMZ: “the single grimmest thing every conceived in a tube.”

Joelle in a moment of ecstacy: “deveiled and loved, observed and alone and sufficient and female, full, as if watched for an instant by God.”

Johnny Gentle, Famous Crooner, “suddenly swept to quadrennial victory in an angry reactionary voter spasm.”

It goes on and on; every line is quotable and the endnotes are gold.

The ending is much debated and left me dazed and confused, but I would not have expected DFW to tied it up neatly.  It left me wanting more.  And it leaves other books – good, award-shortlisted books – seeming basic by comparison, or too perfect, vetted and boring.  (DFW warned against the ‘tweed breeze’ of taught literature in an essay).

I’m left wondering how DFW could live with all those words, all those ideas, inside his head, with – I’m sure to him – an imperfect ability to communicate them to others – and yet the absurdity of trying to every day.  Sadly for all of us, he could not.  He burned too brightly.

It is said that IJ is the defining book of the 1990s.  I loved the nostalgic 1990s feel.  And but so it also made me wonder, what will be the defining book of the new millenium?

 

Japan with Children (and Books)

Japan is one of our favourite, but all-too-rare, holiday destinations.  So smart, so polite and well-ordered, such care taken with everything from handing you a business card to presenting a plate of sushi as a work of art.  But I also love the quirky personality of Japan: its hidden bars, pop-rock-cutie fashion and dark crime novels.

We spent four days in Tokyo with Zoe (7) and George (5).  I took some Japanese books (aka ‘destination reading’) forgetting that chances to read when holidaying with children are pretty slim.  Some highlights below – bookish and otherwise!

 

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View from our room at the Prince Park Tower Hotel, which had long Murakami-esque corridors.

HARAJUKU

We loved Cat Street.  Had a great coffee and cronuts at The Roastery.  Also excellent burgers and salads at Golden Brown Burgers (recommended by Monocle).  Don’t be put off by the ‘burger’ aspect – these were nutritious, with wonderful fresh salads also on the menu.

Yoyogi Park was beautiful to walk through and we would love to see Tomigaya (the area just on the other side of the park from Harajuku), which sounded fun and Brooklyn-esque and was featured recently in New York Times.  I think I need to open a file “Things to Do When We Return to Tokyo sans kids”.

We had a sushi dinner at family-friendly Itamae Sushi – it was excellent.  There are various locations; our closest was near Shiba Park.

Books: Tokyo Precincts and Tokyo Style Guide have some beautiful ideas for neighbourhood walks.

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A Sunday stroll in Ginza

 

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We spent two hours shopping for stationery at Loft, then went next door to Muji for another suitcase. 😉

We adored Matsuya department store and could have spent longer.  Lunch tip: we bought bento boxes from the Food Hall and took them to eat on the rooftop (level R in the lift). Very relaxed.

Book: I could not help thinking of Out by Natsuo Kirino, which features factory workers who make bento boxes, and a grisly murder.

FISH MARKETS

We did a tour late morning – would be good to make the 4am commitment and see the tuna auction (another one for the file).  There is talk of moving the fish markets to a new location, so it might be one of the last chances to see the original.

A fabulous lunch at Tsukiji Edogin – it’s a five minute walk from the fish markets with excellent produce and space for 9 of us (we had met up with friends from Sydney), and they take bookings.  I highly recommend it if you have a group but want to go local.

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Winning lunch at Edogin with Penny, John and Gia

Our wonderful nanny minded the kids for us so we escaped with friends Penny and John for a fabulous dinner at Sushi Tsubaki (another Monocle recommendation) with a cool chef, wonderful traditional sushi, amazing fresh fish and flavours.

SHIMODA

Next stop, Shimoda on the Izu Peninsula.  Note to self: bring your international driver’s licence (Japan is strict on the paperwork) – a car is recommended.  Also, when renting a house, remember that coffee is number one priority!  We had to resort to the 7-11 down the hill, which had that filter style that tastes like someone has put coffee dregs into old dishwater.  Our wonderful host came to the rescue with some pods on the second day.

You need to seek out the cool spots in Shimoda and (ideally, with a car, which you will have because you’ve taken my advice) beyond.  (e.g. a surf shop on our way out which served fantastic coffee; Perry Road near the harbour).

I’m not sure we have quite nailed that area yet but Jason found it super chilled and relaxing so it’s a thumbs up!

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Iritahama Beach

Books:

Thanks to The Readers podcast – Simon and Thomas discussed Japanese books in one episode and the listeners had some great recommendations…

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker

Beautiful and subtle, this was too oblique for me.   Slow-moving, with an unsympathetic protagonist and his lover, a tragic figure.  Nuanced writing, thoughtful and humane.  There is much to think about and space to read between the lines.  I would appreciate it more reading quietly on a train going through the snow country of the title (instead of at the beach with children!).

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe, translated by E. Dale Saunders

Contrary to the title, not a beach read!  A man is held captive in a woman’s house to help dig out the sand dunes that the house is buried in.  This had a nightmarish quality, both with his failure to escape, the heat and the sand (in his food, hair, clothes).  Interesting and poetic, with descriptions of thirst and being trapped by sand all too vivid.  I admired it.

Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino, translated by Alexander O. Smith

I really enjoyed this detective story set in Tokyo.  It has an interesting premise (a wife suspected of murdering her husband from afar) and engaging characters: the likeable but flawed Detective Kusanagi trying to solve the mystery with the help of his physicist friend Yukawa.  I loved The Devotion of Suspect X too, and am keen to read more by Keigo Hugashino.

Fear and Trembling by Amelie Nothomb

I loved this novella about working at Yumimoto Corporation in Tokyo.  Amelie Nothomb has a wonderful, dry sense of humour but also a deep understanding of Japanese culture.  Her empathy for her Japanese colleagues and ability to laugh at herself make for terrific, laugh-out-loud comedy and an at times poignant study of the constraints of life in Japan working for ‘the company’.

Bullfight and The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue, translated by Michael Emmerich

I love Yaushi Inoue’s beautifully spare prose and the way he reveals characters slowly, leaving us to think about where our sympathies lie.  Small but perfectly formed, these are cut like crystal.  Highly recommended.

And I could do a whole post about Haruki Murakami (I read Wild Sheep Chase while I was away, and found the most beautiful little book called Haruki Murakami Goes to Meet Hayao Kawai – inspiring).

Do you like reading for holiday destinations?  I have another one coming up (Barcelona), which has me thinking about books in translation generally.  Maybe for another post!

Now back to Inifinite Jest….

Salt Creek and The Secret River

Let’s talk about confronting books.

Last month I read Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar and saw the stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River.  Both deal with English settlers in Australia and the treatment of Aboriginal people (and their land).  They were different experiences – the play more visceral, the book more reflective – but with many parallels.

The Secret River was an incredible production, staged in Anstey Hill Quarry, 20 minutes’ drive from the centre of Adelaide, as part of the Adelaide Festival.

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Pre- theatre drinks at The Secret River with my sister Madeleine

A young English family, the Thornhills, try to make a new life in Australia, too poor to travel back home.  They settle on the Hawkesbury River after hearing that land is ‘available’ there.  This land is inhabited by Aboriginal people, who are suspicious and baffled by the strangers.  Their clothes, English habits and attempts to tame the land are almost comical and this effect – how foreign Australia seemed to the English – is powerfully brought to life in the quarry setting.

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Nathaniel Dean and Ningali Lawford-Wolf, The Secret River.  Photo credit: Sydney Theatre Company

Each hopes the other group will move on.  The English family is sympathetically portrayed but there are some cruel and unhinged characters down the river.  On the other hand, we see the Aboriginal families hunting, at home on the land, and the children playing together with humour and innocence.

Tension builds as the two groups cannot communicate with each other or coexist.  The menace of the bullies downriver creates a dark undertone.

During the first half I found myself resisting the story.  I knew how it ended (shamefully for white Australians) and did not want to relive it.  But the climax was moving and powerful.  The effects used to show the violence, mixed with the chilling “London Bridge is Falling Down”, made for superb theatre: it showed in one scene a whole history of imperialism and bloodshed.

The narrator, Ningali Lawford-Wolf, said something at the end about ‘witnessing’ what happened, lest it be forgotten. She was speaking about a character in the play, but I took it as an answer to my question: why watch uncomfortable theatre?  Because we need to be witnesses to history.

Salt Creek tells the story of English settlers taking land on the Coorong, South Australia.  The setting, 129 miles from Adelaide, is isolated even today and was at the end of the earth then.  They try to cling to their old social mores and rules but the father’s ventures (cattle, then sheep) fail.  Worse, they ruin the plants and waterholes used by the Aboriginal custodians of the land for thousands of years.  Civil life disintegrates.

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Again we see the desire by the wife to return to England or at least to the city, and the husband dreaming of fortunes to be made.  We follow the story through Hester, their daughter, who is trapped there by circumstance.  Slowly they come unstuck and, despite good intentions, cannot live with the Aboriginal inhabitants.

I found this slow to start, but ended up enjoying it.  The thoughtful writing, immersion in the desolate landscape and determination of Hester kept me reading.  The isolation, and the cruelty of the settlers depressed me – the father in particular was extremely unlikeable.  But the journey of Hester is interesting and her conscience about what happened to the Aboriginal people (many died or became ill from imported diseases, their children removed and sent to missions, sacred sites ruined) is something to reflect on.  It was not her fault exactly but there is a sense of wrongdoing.

I read Salt Creek as part of the Read Harder challenge: a book set within 100 miles of your location (near enough, I hope!).  We spend our summers at Goolwa Beach, where the Coorong starts, so the location did resonate with me.  Goolwa was famously the setting for Storm Boy, a classic book by Colin Thiele and 1976 movie (now being remade).

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Goolwa Beach

What are your favourite confronting books?

Read Harder

I’m doing Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge 2017 for the first time this year, with some of the (always-inspiring) London Book Clubbers.

We have 24 tasks to complete, so it equates to two per month (although one book can cover  more than one task).  Like DiverseAThon, it’s great way to expand my reading.  Fantasy and comics will be new to me, and Roxanne Gay has set a task to read a book published by a micropress, which will be fun to seek out.

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Read Harder Challenge 2017 tasks

Here is my progress so far…

Read a debut novel:  several of my 2017 reads have been debuts: Shelter, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, The Nix and The Dry by Jane Harper

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Reading The Dry at Adelaide Airport

I really enjoyed The Dry, a thriller set in rural Australia.  A smart protagonist and some realistic local characters, with a strong, well-paced story.  Harper does a wonderful job of creating the atmosphere of a small country town, both the landscape and a community on edge.  Recommended.

Read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative: both The Good Immigrant and Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue qualify – I reviewed The Good Immigrant (excellent selection of essays) in an earlier DiversAThon post.

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Behold the Dreamers is a warm, engaging story about Cameroon immigrants to New York.  The characters are sympathetic and Mbue does not shy away from the difficulties they face, the stress of job insecurity and the strain this puts on a marriage.  For me, it lacked dramatic tension, as we know what happened to Lehman Brothers, and it was a little too earnest, but I liked having Jende and Neni’s perspectives.  Thought-provoking and good, honest writing.

Read a book published between 1900 and 1950: Fantastic Night by Stefan Zweig.

A wonderful collection of Stefan Zweig’s stories.  His writing is elegant, philosophical and humane.  Zweig was extremely erudite but wore his knowledge lightly.  He conjures up beautiful turn-of-the-century European settings and a time when people travelled, for leisure and then necessity.  The bittersweetness of past loves, the fears of war and a reverence for forgotten greats (a bibliophile, an actor) drive these tales, told with warmth and style.

Read a YA or middle-grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+.  I have to thank Jamie Klingler of the London Book Club for this one: the audiobook of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, read by Lin Manual Miranda.

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An excellent book – poignant, true and funny. I laughed, I cried and absolutely loved Miranda as a narrator.  A winner!

Read an LGBTQ+ romance novel: Nightwood by Djuna Barnes.  I’ve had this on my TBR for years, ever since I read about Djuna Barnes in a biography of Peggy Guggenheim, so in between the 1,000+ pages of Infinite Jest I thought I’d do this as a ‘quick’ read and tick it off my list.  Wrong!  Only 208 pages but oh so dense!  My review below…

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Sublime but elusive, the story of the doomed love between two women, told in vivid prose.  Paris is seedy, the characters flawed and Gothic.  Barnes’ writing gleams: her poetic wordplay and wit reminded me of Shakespeare; the confessional tone pre-dates Camus’ The Fall, and the Woolf comparisons are apt too.  Strong, dense, it refuses to be matter-of-fact, but feels searingly honest.

Read a book where all point of view characters are people of colour.  I have something quite different for this one.  Our Adelaide Book Club is going to Hong Kong in June, so in preparation this month we have read Crazy Rich Asians (about to be made into a movie).

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This has been called Dynasty on steroids and the next 50 Shades of Grey.  If you’re a fan, you’ll love it.  Some of the praise is overblown (it’s no Pride and Prejudice or Evelyn Waugh), but Kwan meticulously describes the lives of the super-rich in Asia, and the materialism and prejudices of those places, with accuracy and humour.  One-dimensional characters, every luxury brand name-checked.  A bit superficial for me, but very good for what it is.

And here is my Read Harder TBR stack!  I’ll leave you to guess what tasks these relate to.  Next, I’ll be immersing myself in Japanese books for our trip to Tokyo in April. Yay!  Sayonara for now…

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