Mad March

Here is a snapshot of life in Adelaide – I had the pleasure of a friend from London Book Club visiting last weekend, so was able to share with her all the craziness that is Mad March!

Adelaide Writers’ Week is one of my favourite events – it’s free, held in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Gardens among the trees, and attracts big-name authors and new (to me) discoveries.  It is part of the Adelaide Festival – this year’s highlight for me will be Neil Armfield’s The Secret River, adapted from Kate Grenville’s book and staged in a quarry.  At the same time we have the Fringe (the world’s second-largest annual arts festival).  Then there’s the Adelaide 500 V8 supercar race (don’t mention the road closures) and this weekend is Womadelaide. Whew!

On Saturday I ducked into Writers’ Week to hear Nathan Hill discussing his fabulous novel The Nix.  I’m thrilled to hear that it’s being made into a movie with Meryl Streep. He was super engaging and I love the book so far – funny, with a sense of playfulness that reminds me of (but is easier than) David Foster Wallace.

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Nathan Hill and Steven Gale

We were lucky enough to have a dinner booking at Peel St – having been away last year, I’ve so missed their blend of casual atmosphere and exceptional, fresh food. Heaven!  Then onto the Riverbank Parc Palais for a larger-than-expected frosé.

 

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Cimone, me and Alex on the riverbank (Adelaide Oval behind us).

Sunday and back to Writers’ Week for stories based on true crime, with Graeme Macrae Burnet discussing the Booker-shortlisted His Bloody Project and Hannah Kent with the follow-up to her outstanding debut Burial Rites, The Good People.  Entertaining and articulate, definitely worth the early start (two macchiatos later!).  Graeme Macrae Burnet was signing his book with a fingerprint, so of course I had to break my book ban and buy a copy.

Next up, the Art Gallery of South Australia for the incredible Versus Rodin exhibition.  Leigh Robb has done a beautiful job with her first major exhibition in her new role as Contemporary Curator.  She has juxtaposed the Rodin works with modern paintings and sculpture – by artists such as Sarah Lucas, Antony Gormley and Louise Bourgeouis – on the theme of the human body.  It’s on until 2 July – come and see it!

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‘Finger Churches’ by Dennis Oppenheim

Next up was 2KW for a rooftop drink and tapas (= Sol Sessions).

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2KW Sol Sessions

Then onto a Fringe Show, the fabulous, talented and funny Hugh Sheridan with the California Crooners.  So, so good!  I have been spoilt with live music in the past and some artists cannot be compared (Bruce Springsteen) , but the Crooners gave us such a fun, relaxed night of entertainment – a wonderful show.  We were too busy dancing so my photos are all blurry – but here is the pretty setting on the Torrens, looking back to the Riverbank Palais (see earlier frosé).

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River Torrens, looking south from Adelaide Oval. 

Monday and time to meet another author – the wonderful and engaging Jessie Burton, discussing The Muse – one of my favourite books of 2016.  More coffee needed…

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Alex was departing Monday night so how to fit in all of South Australia’s famous wineries?  Luckily, 10 minutes from the city is Magill Estate, home of one of our most iconic winemakers, Penfolds.  We did a tasting, followed by lunch at the Kitchen – absolutely superb and the Express Lunch is amazing value at $35 for 2 courses plus a glass of wine.  We had duck bao for entree, perfectly roasted, crispy duck leg with pumpkin for main and a chocolate dessert… Mondayitis begone!

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Not my usual Monday lunch: the chocolate dessert at Magill Estate Kitchen, before we demolished it.

And that’s all for one weekend!  Next up: more Festival reports, and why today’s book haul had a Japan theme….

DiverseAThon

I’m playing catch-up today with a long overdue post.  I joined DiverseAThon in January – a great prompt for me to read more books by diverse voices.  I do read widely, including many books in translation, but when I looked at my shelves I realised these are mostly European (and mostly men).  Here’s to broadening my reading horizons.

So, what diverse reads did I have on my shelves at home?

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DiverseAThon reads

Still pretty mainstream, but a good start.  I’m going to aim for more diverse reads this year and keep reading in translation (books in translation perhaps a blog post in itself).

Some quick reviews:

Shelter by Jung Yun:  A pity I can’t show you this one because the cover was beautiful! (different to the one in the link).  This was a drama centering on a Korean-American family.  It was challenging as I did not warm to the characters, but real and compelling: I wanted to know what would happen next.  I must say, I didn’t enjoy it, but it has stayed with me as an honest, strong, well-written book.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty: I absolutely loved this.  Strong, fizzing, inventive prose and on-point commentary about racism and Amercia.  Beatty skewers, subverts and glorifies in race issues and America’s uncomfortable past and present.  I laughed out loud, stopped to think and otherwise just enjoyed the ride.  Highly recommended.

The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla.  An excellent collection of essays – fresh writing, highly readable.  An important book if for no other reason than to open our minds, remind us what a diverse world we live in but bring home that things like humour, wanting to connect and the magic of a good haircut are universal.  But mostly just a great read!  Darren Chetty writes a wonderful essay on teaching children to write using characters from their own background – the resulting stories are stronger with more emotional engagement.  Varaidzo, Miss L (on being cast as ‘the wife of a terrorist’) and Salena Godden were also highlights.  A shout-out to the London Book Club for this winning Secret Santa gift!

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue: this is where my DiverseAThon went off the rails … I was 40 pages in and really enjoying this – it’s warm, engaging and transports you to New York with some lively characters.  Then I saw that Litsy was doing an Infinite Jest buddy read (excellently hosted by Jen P of the Reader’s Room) – this has long been on my TBR, so I jumped at the chance to read it in the company of friends. Starting a week late, I dived in and … wheee yo mamma!  That’s for another post…

I’m also doing Book Riot’s Read Harder challenge – who wants to join me?  Another fun excuse to read out of my comfort zone and find new authors to fall in love with.  Although at the rate I’m going, I’ll have to make Infinite Jest fit into all of the categories. 😉

And yes, I know, I have not updated on my holiday reading from December/January.  Yikes!  While I think about how many blog posts I need to catch up on and all the books I’ve read over summer, and all the books still to read, here is a photo of Carrickalinga Beach.

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Carrickalinga Beach, South Australia.

What have you been reading?  Do you have any diverse or Read Harder recommendations?

A Bookish Christmas

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When is a book haul not a Britney Spears-style “Oops, I Did It Again” splurge but a plan for the future?  Let’s call it Christmas shopping.

Behold my treats in store for family and friends (= excuses to run amok in Waterstones):

For my husband: The Dream Songs by John Berryman – this has been referenced by the Hold Steady and Nick Cave among others (music is to my husband as books are to me) and seems to be essential poetry.  White Rage sheds light on the state of American politics which will interest him, especially at the moment.

For Mum: Hot Milk is beautifully written, poetic and evocative – I can still feel the arid sun of Spain after reading it – and has a mother-daughter relationship.  It portrays the mother as a troubled hypochondriac so that might be awkward?  Mum also loves Salley Vickers so Cousins is my back-up plan.

For Dad: The Devotion of Suspect X is new to me this year – I love the easy style and the idea of crime as a maths problem and the detective, physicist and mathematician sparring with each other – this should appeal to Dad, who is an engineer and crime fan. Black and Blue with Ian Rankin’s dry humour and Edinburgh setting also fits the bill, or the latest in the Rebus series Rather be the Devil.

I Contain Multitudes ticks the science box.  Ed Yong is wonderfully erudite and curious and writes like a dream – this inspired me to eat widely, open the windows and clean the bathroom less.

For our god-daughter (aged 12): Murder Most Unladylike recommended by Adventures with Words.  She likes funny books and this sounds like a good feisty heroine. Girl Up is an important book for future fesity heroines: funny, accessible and inspiring advice from Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism project.

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For my friend: The Door – her family is Hungarian so this will resonate, with the backdrop of post-war Budapest, but it’s also a rich story about female friendship with a singular older woman.  We read it for London Book Club and there was much discussion about our treatment of older people and how the story was uncomfortable but rang true.

For the Adelaide Book Club: the new Famous Five series – including Five Give Up the Booze.  I could not resist!

For meThe Master and Margarita has long been on my TBR. Vintage are reissuing the Russian classics with gorgeous covers designed by Suzanne Dean, so I’m adding this to my wish list.  Shelter has a more contemporary but beautiful cover and sounds like a dysfunctional family par excellence.  Absolutely on Music is a gift to myself – I love Murakami’s deceptively simple writing and deep knowledge of music.  This (following Do Not Say We Have Nothing) will kickstart my classical music listening for 2017.

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Also on my wish list:

Music and Freedom by the super-talented Zoe Morrison, which won the 2016 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction.

The Good People by Hannah Kent.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon, winner of the Books Are My Bag award for breakthrough author, in a strong list.

And to give: $1 can buy one local language book for a child in a developing country, via Room to Read.  And for those in the United States, #GiveABook sounds like a great initiative to provide books to children in need.

London Book Club: We each bring a book to Christmas dinner, as a gift from Secret Santa.  What to choose?

I’ll need another trip to the bookstore…..

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

Book Riot alerted me to it, Oprah celebrated it, Colson Whitehead disarmed me with his self-deprecatin30555488g humour on the Inside the New York Times Book Review podcast (on reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved as he was writing his book: “I’m screwed!”) and it’s been nominated for a National Book Award.

So, it was like a rock star had finally come onto the stage when I saw The Underground Railroad for sale in London this month:  I had to read it.

The subject-matter – slavery – was as somber as the expectations were high.  So, I’m happy to report that, whilst relentless and confronting, it is not a heavy read.  Whitehead writes with supple prose, moving the story forward (and occasionally back); the action and imagery akin to cinema.

“Cora’s grandmother was sold a few times on the trek to the fort, passed between slaves for cowrie shells and glass beads.  It was hard to say how much they paid for her in Ouidah as she was part of a bulk purchase …”

The story centres on Cora, a slave in Georgia.  Cora runs away with Caesar via the underground railroad (historically, a network of people helping slaves to escape to the north pre – Civil War).  Whitehead reimagines this as an actual railway, giving those scenes a slight Alice in Wonderland feel.  It’s just plausible enough to be realistic: no flights of fancy required.

Cora travels through South and North Carolina, Tennessee and Indiana, pursued by the slave-catcher, Ridgeway.  Stories of Ridgeway are interspersed, along with Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry and her mother Mabel.  Whitehead does this well, as an interesting digression, so it doesn’t obstruct the narrative.

Ajarry was separated from her family and we discover on page 4 that they died, but she imagines them working for “kind and generous masters” and perhaps freeing themselves.

“These fantasies gave Ajarry comfort when her burdens were such to splinter her into a thousand pieces.”

This is matter-of-fact writing – clean, beautifully edited – the tone warm and engaging, but depicts scenes of horror.

“She twice tried to kill herself on the voyage to America, once by denying herself food and then again by drowning.”

I was compelled to read on, enjoying the pace and Cora as a feisty heroine.  Whitehead achieves a balance between this and the atrocities going on all around, which stop you in your tracks at times.

I came to this book knowing little about slavery.  I had no idea of the violence, including torture; and the sinister methods in some states which used slaves as medical guinea pigs; down to the everyday examples of segregation.

I learnt how pervasive was the social norm to keep the slaves repressed.

“Antislavery literature was illegal in this part of the nation.  Abolitionists and sympathizers who came down to Georgia and Florida were run off, flogged and abused by mobs, tarred and feathered.  Methodists and their inanities had no place in the bosom of King Cotton.  The planters did not abide contagion.”

The book shines a spotlight on slavery in all its forms, while Cora moves from place to place and meets diverse characters, who take risks to help her.  Cora is symbol of the slave struggling to be free; and at times her story is secondary to the larger picture, of slavery at work in different parts of America.

“A plantation was a plantation; one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality.”

Whitehead’s descriptions of the violence done to slaves are to the point and lucid, but make uncomfortable reading.  Ordinary people would, for example, enthusiastically watch a hanging as Friday night entertainment.  How can humans (ordinary people, of their time) be capable of such cruelty?

At this time (with modern day slavery affecting 21 to 46 million people and racism seeping into the US election, Brexit and the European debates over refugees) – at any time – this is an important discussion.  Whitehead brings the issues to life with great clarity, without being preachy or judgmental.

“And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all.  The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land.  To kill Indians.  Make war.  Enslave their brothers.  This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft and cruelty.  Yet here we are.”

Much to think about, and I was taken from the story into the world of ideas.  The only slight drawback – worth the trade-off – was that I saw the characters as actors in a bigger story rather than feeling they were real, with flaws and ambiguities.

This is a book filled with ideas: eloquent and powerful, it will be talked about for a long time.  It is a must-read.

51chbcocdkl-_sx325_bo1204203200_India reportedly has the highest number of slaves today.  This brings me to another book I read recently, not on this topic but on the theme of running away: The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota.  It tells the story of three Indian men who go to England, fleeing dire lives (though nothing like Cora’s experience) and a woman, Narinder, who marries one of them, Randeep, to help him obtain a visa.

Sahota stays on the more intimate level of the men and Narinder, and their stories; it does not make pronouncements about immigration.  It is looser than The Underground Railroad.  But I found it immensely enjoyable and stayed up late to finish it, wanting to know what happened to the characters.  In the process I gained a new understanding of people who come to places like London, and their struggles.

The characters are deliciously flawed – you would dislike one on one page, and be on his side on the next.  Their conflicts and mistakes make them human.

It quietly raises issues that are complex and hard – what to do if you are in England illegally, supporting a family back home and desperately need work – would you accept poor pay and conditions?  In a capitalist world, every individual for themselves, when is employment exploitation? Slavery?

As a post-script, I saw that the police raided the Shiny Hand Car-wash in Carlisle recently, reporting “no offences” in terms of modern day slavery or immigration.  A far cry from Cora’s trials, but the issue has not gone away.

Is there anything positive to emerge from slavery?  No, but its survivors had children, and one of their descendants is Michelle Obama – a bright, shining star as far as I’m concerned and unafraid to have a discussion, about the White House being built by slaves or sexism in the presidential campaign.

What to read next? I’m inspired to follow up with Beloved by Toni Morrison and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.  What do you think?

 

Flash Fiction: The Collection


“There are rules,” he said.

“Rules?” asked the storekeeper. 

They stood in an army disposal store that sold all manner of things. Together they inspected the old printer’s tray.  

“For the collection. They must be found on the beach, for example.”

“A shell collection!”

He frowned.

“Every item must be different. Netting, driftwood, a coin.”

“Found objects.”  The storekeeper was proud of this term, something he had heard an artist say once. 

The man allowed it. 

“I have seventeen. But my wife wants the kitchen table back.”

The storekeeper counted. “This has eighteen spaces.”

“Another rule: never finish the collection.”

*

This is Friday Flash Fiction. Picture supplied by Claire Fuller. 

 
 

The Sympathizer

 

“He could nail the face to the canvas.”

So said Benjamin West of the portrait painter Gilbert Stuart, whose portrait of George Washington hangs in the Frick Collection.

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George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, in the Frick Collection

I was reminded of this as I read The Sympathizer the Pulitzer-prize winning debut by Viet Thanh Nguyen.  This is strong writing: Nguyen nails the words to the page.  A masculine book, but also playful, wise and darkly comic.  For example:

“A small nation could be founded from the tropical off-spring of the American GI.”

The humour hides unspeakable horrors, in the way that Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five is funny, until you realise it is walking the line between laughter and tears, and skirting around the shocking events of war that the characters cannot face.

The narrator here and the Sympathizer of the title, or the Captain as he is also known, is a spy in the Vietnam War.  He is also a ‘bastard’, born to a French father and Vietnamese mother.  So the mask of cynicism such as that worn by Billy Pilgrim is more than a defence mechanism:

“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.”

How is that for an opening, by the way?

Again later, when the Captain is recruited to work on a movie by a director he calls  ‘the Auteur’ (which I now realise is based on Apocalypse Now  – would be worth re-watching the film):

“But most actors spend more time with their masks off than on, whereas, in my case, it was the reverse.  No surprise, then, that sometimes I dreamed of trying to pull a mask off my face only to realise that the mask was my face.”

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Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now

War is a significant theme of the book. Whilst he may be in ‘two minds’ as to how it affects him, the Captain vividly describes the experience of having his country – and its families – torn apart. He escapes to America, but writes to Aunt (his contact in Paris) of his longing for Vietnam:

“We did our best to conjure up the culinary staples of our culture, but since we were dependent on Chinese markets our food had an unacceptably Chinese tinge, another blow in the gauntlet of our humiliation that left us with the sweet-and-sour taste of unreliable memories, just correct enough to evoke the past, just wrong enough to remind us that the past was forever gone, missing along with the proper variety, subtlety and complexity of our universal solvent, fish sauce.  Oh, fish sauce!” 

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Some of my favourite Vietnamese food, from Gondola Gondola in Adelaide (pic Glam Adelaide)

War also exposes the ambiguity of right and wrong, even as some cling more tightly to their convictions (Captain is a Communist sympathizer, but it becomes hard to tell who is ‘right’, when his victims show humanity and his mentor inflicts cruel torture).

Nguyen explores guilt and innocence, as well as loss of innocence.  The Captain is interested in the concept of ‘original sin’ and carries Catholic guilt with him, but also considers himself, if not innocent, at least adhering to his own conscience, until events take their course.

“The emotional residue of that night was like a drop of arsenic falling into the still waters of my soul, nothing having changed from the taste of it but everything now tainted.”

War deals in matters of life and death, and the characters who travel to America survive in different ways.  Some live in spite of themselves; others rebel against their culture, such as the General’s daughter, while the Captain adapts, embracing the American traditions, speaking their language, smiling when insulted.  As he says in the beginning, “I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.”

The Captain’s adaptability is tested, though, and at times he longs for his country, his mother, and struggles to see who is right on either side of the war.  Even someone who plays both sides all day long needs a place to call home.  There is a line which touches on this, again coating it with humour – from a guidebook on the Philippines:

“The book’s description of the archipelago only made my mind salivate further, for it was ‘old and new, East and West.  It’s changing by the day, but traditions persist,’ a description that might have been written to describe me.”

The Captain can laugh at himself.  This is what makes him so charming and for me was the saving grace, because the book is confronting and would be too violent or depressing were it not for Nguyen’s light touch.  But there is an underlying sadness and disillusionment too, as the Captain knows that ‘traditions persist’ but the country of his youth is gone.

Nguyen weaves these themes and more through the story.  But the stand-out for me is the language.  It is alive on the page, vivid and visual – I can imagine this as a film.  I loved the wordplay and found, as I was checking for quotes, that I could keep going endlessly because the prose is so strong.  It feels like Nguyen is having fun, but is angry too.  He succeeds in striking a personable tone while balancing rage with wit, a huge achievement.

I was inspired to read this as a summer read-along with The Readers. Thank you, Simon and Thomas!  I would not have picked it up otherwise.

As a post-script, Nguyen’s latest book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War has been longlisted for the National Books Awards for non-fiction. Watch this space!

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Escapist Books

The last time I looked at the news, there was an earthquake in central Italy and women being stripped on the beach in France.  And my son asking “who is that little boy?” (the 5 year-old devastated Syrian bombing victim).  Even some of the books I’ve read lately have taken an unflinching (brave, and beautifully written) look at war and oppression – I’m looking at you Girl at War and Do Not Say We Have Nothing.  Agh!  We need to escape sometimes: VEEP and Lillehammer are my television souffles, but I do like a good book.  Simon and Thomas of The Readers podcast have read my mind and discussed escapist reads recently.  I was inspired to make a list …

Two rules are at play: 1) it can be as light as light as can be, but must be well-written.  I want to feel inspired by an author smarter than me, not cringe at cliches or clunky phrasing: No 50 Shades of Gray. 2) nothing too challenging. No War and Peace or Narrow Road to the Deep North (both excellent though).

It’s a tricky balance – I have huge respect for authors who manage it. On the other hand, I agree with Thomas – any book that draws you in and entertains you can be a good escape.

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  1. P.G. Wodehouse: fail-safe, timeless, always lifts my spirits.  In the words of Evelyn Waugh, his “idyllic world can never stale”.  Harmless but genius writing.  This article in the New Yorker explains some of the appeal. We visited Sydenham Hill Wood recently and the guide map said “The Pond .. supports dragonflies and newts” – just the word newt made me laugh, conjuring up Gussie Fink-Nottle.  You must read his speech at Market Snodsbury Grammar School, in Right Ho, Jeeves.
  2. Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy): escape to outer space, brilliantly conceived. Funny, masterful, another genius.
  3. A good detective story: Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers for classic English crime.  Recently I’ve discovered Judith Flanders, who does a great a great crime caper (Murder of Magpies).  Boris Akunin has been compared with Sherlock Holmes but has a comic Russian element.  And Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series (starting with Death at La Fenice) blends crime, Venice and food – what’s not to love?  A good setting can be key.  By good I mean not war-torn; ideally a grand hotel by the sea, a bucolic village or a cultural European capital.
  4. Another recent discovery: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner.  I felt like I was holidaying in a resort by the lake (funny, that), breathing crisp mountain air and Edith was in my ear whispering her observations about the guests.  There is some depth and sadness, but it’s treated with a light touch.  The quality of the writing is absorbing enough to block out the read world.
  5. Speaking of mittel-Europe, Stefan Zweig – he wrote during troubling times but he illuminates small incidents, details and characters with a humane sensibility and a reassuring tone – as if someone is simply confiding a story. My favourite is The Royal Game, a novella that takes place on a cruise: short in length, an escapist setting, tick, tick!
  6. 41NEReoBC6L._SX304_BO1,204,203,200_The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjoberg.  Sjoberg collects hoverflies on a remote island in Sweden. Somehow this is one of the most comforting, wise books I have read. I highly recommend it.
  7. Which brings us to Scandinavia: Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book is everything.
  8. Another means of escape is a sweeping story to immerse yourself in.  Some of my favourites are: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (so excited for her next book The Good People due in October); The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. All have a strong sense of place too, so you really can enter into another world. Bliss!
  9. Actual travel, anyone? I love the travel writing of Dickens, and the slim volume On Travel is full of insights and funny scenes, with his sense of theatre and comedy. Edith Wharton’s Cruise of the Vanadis is a beautiful book and cover.jpg.rendition.460.707leisurely escape – relax with a coffee and enjoy the Meditterranean islands and Wharton’s eye for detail. Bill Bryson’s early travel writing is clever and entertaining. And for 1970s New York, the The Andy Warhol Diaries are a revelation: fun and name-droppy to dip in and out of, or a full literature experience with Warhol as the protagonist.
  10. Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: John Wood’s memoir about starting Room to Read is an antidote to the ‘world problems are overwhelming’ blues.  Wood – a self-confessed library nerd and avid reader – is funny, engaging and optimistic. The message: world change starts with educated children.  The good news?  He is on it.

What are your favourite escapist books?