Saturday, October 30, 2010


Last weekend two of my friends had babies! Two! One boy and one girl. I haven't met them yet but I have seen photos and I can report that they are both extremely cute. Also from all accounts both friends + their babies are healthy, which is even more important. So very exciting times. During this week another friend managed to get in a car accident- rolling her car right over on a wet road. But she emerged unscathed through the back window. And most importantly, her gelato was safe. Which is good to hear. This weekend another friend is moving house. So much news, and thankfully all good. What a week! My life seems unexciting by comparison. Though I did get a haircut (it's very short!), get my marks back from my last assignments (passed with pretty good marks) and manage to buy a bunch of new books. That is eventful enough for me!

Edited to add picture of new haircut (coincidentally I am also dressed as a flapper for Halloween in this photo)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Another rave from me here, I loved Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson, and have to read the rest of her books now. Marilynne Robinson is best known (I think) as the author of Gilead, as well as Home (winner of the 2009 Orange Prize). From what I have gleaned, her major themes are religion and domesticity. While I have heard about Gilead quite a bit I have not been tempted to read it, and only came to read Housekeeping after reading a review that described it as good-but-not-as-good-as-Gilead (as well as an encounter with it in a bookshop in a moment of weakness). 

But I am so glad that I did, because this was such a gorgeous novel, beautifully written. It's a novel of liminality, with recurring imagery of water and light and the sense of memory and dream. All these things seem to infuse the writing style itself, as well as informing the plot, characters and settings. And what are they? Two sisters are left by their mother on their Grandmother's doorstep, and cared for by a succession of relatives, their Grandmother, two Great Aunts and finally their Aunt Sylvie. Sylvie has been living as a drifter, and she and the house are something of an uneasy fit. The liminal is here in the families status as outsiders, the idea of the drifter, and the adolescence of the two girls. The whole thing is related as a memory and reads like a dream, the parts dealing with the family history reminded me a little of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in the concern with telling family history and the almost unreal quality of them. I've included a picture of the cover (from Amazon, hence the 'click to look inside') because I think it is a pretty good representation of the book and its prose style.

I have to admit though, my enthusiasm cooled a little by the end. Whether it was a combination of boredom and a rainy afternoon I am not sure. It may be that the slow plot caused me to lose momentum, although it did start to pick up towards the end, it was in a somewhat disconcerting way. I don't think the pages of reference to Cain and Abel and Noah's ark around chapter 10 helped either. Biblical allusions are used throughout the book, but very lightly, and pages of discourse on God's character seemed slightly out of place and jarring. Plus the whole Noah/flood/water thing seemed a bit heavy-handed. But I don't know if this was merely because I had fallen out of a reading mood, maybe at other times I would have felt these passages were more resonant with the rest of the book. The main character, Ruth, narrates the book, and is somewhat distant from the story throughout, but becomes more involved near the end, and I found her a little difficult to relate to in parts.

Back to the positive side: I loved this book most of the way through, it almost made me cry so many times for reasons I could not pin down, it is beautiful and shifting and cries out for a reread. So notwithstanding my difficulties with it toward the end I have to say I loved it. So here's a snippet apropos of Teaser Tuesday (hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading):

"Downstairs the flood bumped and fumbled like a blind man in a strange house, but outside it hissed and trickled, like the pressure of water against your eardrums, and like the sounds you hear in the moment before you faint.
Sylvie lit a candle. "Let's play crazy eights."
Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson

Sunday, October 24, 2010

the two scott pilgrims

I want to write a review of 'Scott Pilgrim', having recently read the graphic novels after watching the movie, but it's hard to find something to say other than "I loved it!" But I will give it a go, because after all it is a rainy Sunday afternoon, Andrew is at work and if I finish reading my current book I will immediately want to write about it instead.

Scott Pilgrim is a 23 Canadian slacker, in a band but without a job, sharing a bed with his gay flatmate, Wallace (who has a job and therefore foots most of the bills) and dating a 17-year-old high-school girl named Knives Chau, when Ramona Flowers (an American delivery girl) enters his dreams and he becomes infatuated and falls in love with her. In order to date her, he must break up with Knives and defeat Ramona's seven evil exes (hard to say which task he finds more difficult, though defeating the exes is more time consuming). It's a story about love, emotional baggage and growing up. A couple of months ago I watched the movie, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (directed by Edgar Wright), and last week I read the graphic novels, Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness, Scott Pilgrim Gets it Together, Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe and Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour (by Bryan Lee O'Malley).

Whether you read the book or watch the movie first, encountering adaptations is always strange. Everything is so familiar until something comes out of left field and subverts your expectations. In this case everything starts off very much the same, but the book and movie increasingly diverge, a fact partially explained by the fact that the movie was optioned after the release of the very first book, and largely completed before the last was released. Apparently the film ending was going to be different but they changed it at the last minute to match more closely to the book. But I did not feel that all this spoilt my enjoyment of the books at all- for the simple reason that I liked them better than the movie. 

Don't get me wrong, I did enjoy the movie. It was a lot of fun, they translated the comic-book/video-game sensibility really well to the screen and the story was told well. But the limitation of a movie is that it just doesn't have as much space and time in which to tell that story as, in this case, a 6 book series (even if they are very short). Things made more sense in the book, even though the movie has a neater narrative structure, and there was a lot more room to expand on the rest of the characters, as well as on Ramona and Scott's relationship. Plus I liked the Kim Pine character, and she seems to have more space in the books. I just found the books more satisfying than the movie. At the end of the movie I turned to Andrew and he was clearly blown away, he thought it was the best thing ever. I enjoyed it, but I didn't really get that (maybe because he is more of a gamer than me, so he really loved those references). But at the end of reading the books I just wanted to turn around and read them again. 

Things aren't easy for Scott and Ramona, and their relationship isn't perfect, but at the end of the last book I was left with a warm glow and a feeling that they had both grown as characters. I haven't had so much fun with a book in a long time, and I haven't read any graphic novels for ages, so I thoroughly enjoyed it. A worthy addition to the book-shelf!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

on art

There's an age-old debate about the importance or usefulness of art- why do we bother with it? This last week I happened across a couple of quotes that talk about that in different ways:

"One remark that I remember in particular had to do with his identity as a craftsman: he wanted to make solid objects that were concretely useful to the people who knew them. As a craftsperson myself, I love this outlook on art: it's not some enervated "extra" of no real value to life, but a solid, utilitarian object, like a chair or a toilet. It's not that people "can't live without" art; people can live without chairs and toilets, too. But the presence of art has a concrete benefit; I appreciated Bergman's reminder of that."
- Evening All Afternoon, on an interview with Ingmar Bergman

"These, with keen edges and smooth curves, were forms in modern prose which the lichened colleges presented in old poetry. Even some of those antiques might have been called prose when they were new. They had done nothing but wait, and had become poetical. How easy to the smallest building, how impossible to most men."
- Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native

Friday, October 15, 2010

goldengrove unleaving

Childhood books part 3

When I was a kid, I tended to prefer happy endings, and as I said before I even liked books where nothing too bad happens to the main characters. In fact, I think I still do! But there are some exceptions to this rule. I think I have come to appreciate sad books, and there are a bunch of books I read as a child that helped me to do that. There are so many degrees of 'sad', so many different feeling books, but I think there is something of a theme: the books I found most sad and discomfitting as a child are about growing up and about death. Here are some that I loved even though they made me sad:

The Little PrinceAntoine de Saint-Exupéry
When going through the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die with some friends, we came across this book. Neither of them had read it. That made me realise that this is a book that I think everyone should have read. How can you not have read The Little Prince? As Vizzini would say: inconceivable! It confused me as a child, but it still managed to be enchanting, and of course very sad. It's not quite a children's book, it's about love and death and humanity and such. It is difficult to explain this book, let me quote it to you: "One sees clearly only with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eyes."

The Last Unicorn- Peter S. Beagle
I think I may have talked about this book before. But what can I say? It is a favourite of mine. The titular unicorn in the world realises she is alone and goes in search of other unicorns, only to find she is the last, as all other unicorns have been captured by King Haggard. I don't think this is a children's book as such, it's a fantasy book, and one I read as a child. Again, love and aging and contemplating mortality. But in the most beautiful way.

Peter Pan- J.M. Barrie
Famously sad, a children's book that doesn't talk down to children (that's how I felt about it at the time), which is actually very rare. I remember reading it vividly, walking up and down through the botanical gardens (I was on some family outing at the time, neglecting everyone shamefully because I couldn't put down the book). It was one of those books that has a hold on you for a long time after you finish it. I wasn't sure if I liked it but it was certainly powerful. The idea of growing up as a thing which you both desire and fear is pretty strong for a kid I guess. 

Uncle Tom's Cabin- Harriet Beecher Stowe
This sums up an entire group of books guaranteed to make me cry as a kid- books about injustice. Including not only books like Uncle Tom's Cabin but even the occasional Malory Towers book. But I don't know if this counts as a sad  book, maybe it is more an anger-inducing book. Also The Little Princess by Frances Hodges Burnett, which Angela reminded me about. These are nigh-on-unbearable, but also great. 

In terms of picture books: Lifetimes and John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat are the ones that stand out. Lifetimes is a book that is about explaining the concept of death, and the reality of living, to children. I remember it was so sad because it had a picture of a dying butterfly.

Facebook has reminded me also of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson (thanks Vicky!). I read it after seeing the movie, and was so angry about the sad ending. Unfairness! Mortality! Sadness! But somehow it grew on me, and I came to appreciate it.

A couple of others that people have mentioned and that made an impression on me include  the Narnia series and Charlotte's Web

And writing this makes me realise that a lot more of my favourite books had a tinge of sadness to them:  The Lord of the Rings for instance (which may have influenced my later love of Anglo-Saxon elegiac poetry, and was probably influenced by Tolkien's interest in the same).

Anyway, those are some books that I think do sadness well, and helped to introduce me to the fact that sadness (particularly in literature) is not all bad, and can be borne, and can make something work in a way it wouldn't with a happy ending. I think my favourite type of sadness in books is a kind of gentle melancholy, and elegiac mood perhaps, which a lot of these books share. And while I may have loved Uncle Tom's Cabin, I still find it hard to bear books that make me so passionately sad and angry. 

I think that maybe the best way of describing the sadness of these books is by continuing the title quote:

It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
'Spring and Fall' by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

'Started Early, Took My Dog'

I started writing this blog post back when I read the book, but life (read: assignments) got in the way. So it has been finished in a completely different style at the last minute. But look- a proper blog post!


Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie books all seem very multi-layered- weaving together different characters and different narratives leading to the eventual denouement. In 'Started Early, Took My Dog', I found it a bit too fragmented and disconnected at first, but by the end she had once again succeeded in pulling the threads together and creating an intriguing mystery and solution (with some red herrings thrown in for good measure). The slow beginnings give way to a sense of urgency by the end of the book in a satisfying way.

Jackson Brodie appears somewhat late in the book, trying to find out the background of a girl in New Zealand who wants to discover the identity of her birth mother. Meanwhile, as a kind of reaction against a horrific scene earlier in her life, finding the child of a murder victim, an ex-cop security guard buys a disadvantaged child as a way of fixing something in the world. The narrative alternates between the police force and murder in the '70s and Jackson's investigation in the present day, detouring through his current relationship woes.

It struck me that this book does in a way what 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' promises- confronts the problem of violence against women. But without the graphic torture and rape scenes, which in my book is a good thing. Violence happens a lot in this series (it's a crime series after all), in a lot of varying ways and degrees, with the impact felt over time. It's a more realistic world than the Stieg Larsson books- fewer serial killers for one thing. Although having said that, much of 'One Good Turn' felt somewhat farcical. But the effects of crime are never far away, indeed our hero is still haunted by the long-ago murder of his sister. I don't know if that description is very enticing, but can I just say these books are much better than Steig Larsson's, and very different!

One characteristic feature is the (quite dark) humour of these books. Perhaps very dry is a better word than dark, it's not exactly morbid but it does make humour out of some of the less cheerful aspects of life. The hero is far from infallible, and not exactly at the centre of the story all the time, but the characters in general are likeable-but-hopeless types. In fact one of my few criticisms of this series is that the characters have perhaps too much of a tendency towards the same voice. 
On the whole, while I enjoyed the book I found it to be a slow starter (after an attention-grabbing opening chapter), and certainly the character development is much more comprehensible if you have read the earlier books in the series. I think 'One Good Turn' is still my favourite, but if crime, English manners and humour are your thing, you should check this series out.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

apropos of famous first words

A while ago I wrote a blog post on memorable first lines in novels, today I found out that American Book Review has compiled a list of the top 100! From a quick glance at the beginning a couple of the ones we talked about are in there, but there are many, many more. 

I'll leave you with one that wasn't in that blog post, but is on the list, and well worthy of it too:

"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. —Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)"

Check it out here.

Monday, October 11, 2010

spring is sprung

Assignments are finished, summer is icumen in, and I can almost believe I'm on holidays... Time for some more reading, blog-updating and miscellaneous adventures. Oh, and work of course. Difficult to forget that one.

So here's an October update, with links!
The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hungry- a food blog about Sydney restaurants, with a great name.
Something from xkcd to put this whole blogging thing in perspective...