September book group

What? Book group night again already!

Time does not seem to have flowed with a rhythmic ripple through the intervening hours and minutes, but has hurtled through this short epoch of space. Little pieces of ‘self’ seem to have come adrift as this trajectory created bumps and collisions with objects and forces along the path of this journey.

But fortunately, it IS time to gather around words that share the capricious workings of fate of another’s journey. This never seems to fail to bring me back to a truer sense of perspective.

But before I ration out opinions about this month’s book, let me show you how wonderfully our host, Annie spoiled us:

Moet. Strawberry Cupcakes. Chocolate Coated Strawberries.T’was all good.

Now to the discussion.

I have wondered how the ‘universe’, or however you would like to describe the forces beyond ourselves, collates the sequences of life events. I’m not talking about the larger and meaningful events in life, but the smaller arrangements of information and experiences that we come across.

Our reading list for the year is compiled by firstly book group members selecting  their preferred hosting month and then the book title is added as the ‘host’ decides on her book.

There are no parameters given in terms of subject matter, or even the era of the chosen book.

Last month, we were all captivated by Alice Pung’s, My Father’s Daughter telling of the experience of living through the Pol Pot Regime and subsequent leaving this country of origin and resettling in Australia. (Refer to my August Book Group Blog.)

This month, it was one of Australia’s best-loved comedians, Anh Do’s memoir that we were invited to discuss.

So, here we ended up with two consecutive stories of people risking all, including life, to escape their countries of birth to find a gentler, more forgiving community to play out their stories in.

This literary subject matter, coupled with the too often ‘news’ stories of people perishing at sea in boats that are not worthy of carrying precious lives to new lands, are colliding.

What does this mean? What should I do…

There, but for the grace of God, go I.

Given all the disturbing stories we hear in the press, this month’s book title, The Happiest Refugee, seems almost oxymoronic.

I am providing you with the first section of the Prologue, as it captures an essential sentiment of the book. This sentiment becomes particularly profound after finishing the book: how does a family who have shared the experience and trauma of escaping their country of birth, risking all, get to this point of dysfunction.

Anh Do, who most would know as a comedian here in Australia, tells the story of his family’s flight from Vietnam in a comedic yet poignant way as he reveals how they nearly didn’t make it to anywhere. Their subsequent arrival and descriptions of resettling as refugees is heartwarming. Instances such as clothing allocation where Khoa (Anh’s younger brother) is dressed in girls clothes when they first arrive due to some initial confusion about gender, is told with warmth and love of this country. The description of the family’s first visit to a St Vincent dePaul store makes you laugh through your tears as 50 cent fur coats are cherished.

There are countless episodes through the book of efforts the family undertake to create a life they wanted. Talk about enterprising: there’s the duck farm, the sewing industry, the fighting fish business just to name a few. When one enterprise failed to deliver all they were hoping, a new one was created.

Anh’s Mum, is totally inspiring with her efforts to make the best opportunities for her children. You will chuckle about the gold necklace story that when sold to raise money for the family, Mrs Do told the buyer that it had ‘been through a very difficult passage’. (Think pirates, think hiding an item from ruthless people who were ready to cut off a finger to gain a gold ring). Anh’s Mum is an extremely generous woman who even when they had little for themselves, would share the limited resources with others.

Despite continual setbacks, there was never a time that any of them sat back and said ‘woe, woe is me!’ They worked together with their extended family who included characters such as Uncle Six.

But, even within this strong sense of familial duty and ties, cracks appear and individuals fall out of rhythm with the larger family mechanism. Relationships are tested and broken.

What rules in the end? Individual guilt?

There are so many inspiring and happy stories within this memoir that charts the passage of this family from Vietnam to a gentler life here in Australia.

But we started with the prologue, telling of a meeting between father and son after a period of nine years.

And here’s the thing.

Despite experiences that you would think binds all participants together, there are individual characteristics within the band of people that make this future journey together impossible.

In the end, heartbreaking for Anh.

It seems he wrote this book for his Dad to remind him of what a remarkable contribution he made to his family in assuming responsibility, not as the elder, but as Number 3 son as he brought his family, at great risk, out of a country that couldn’t satisfy their wants.

Despite the often difficult scenarios painted, this book seems a light, comedic read, but I challenge you to read between the lines to find the heartfelt plea from a son to his father to resolve issues and share again with the larger family.

If you’ve read this book, would love to know what you think.

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August book group

The air is palpable with words.

It is book group night and the participants of B.A.B.E.S are in good form.

We’re meeting for the first time at the newly renovated home of one of our members.

It’s cold out.

A toasty fire is beckoning us to gather around the radiant timbers.

The ‘bubbles’ are chilled – the flutes lined up in precise military lines ready to obey the ‘fill-me-up’ command.

Foods designed to tempt even the most diet-resilient, lay enticingly spread before us.

Sublime.

Our regular solving of issues big and small is only given a fleeting opportunity because we all want the discussion to begin. Her Father’s Daughter by Alice Pung has had an impact on us all.

Not unlike The Joy Luck Club and Wild Swans, this memoir unravels the generational story of a family to reveal a shocking epoch in history, one that we have lived through, but if you’re like me, was dismayingly unaware of at the time.

The book commences with the protagonist’s search for the family history of her Chinese Cambodian parents. Firstly set in China, links to grandparents are sought by this first generation Australian born.

In addition to this, the plot reveals a father’s concern for his daughter’s welfare in regards to her safety, her career, her future. Is he being overly protective in a natural fatherly way, or is there something else causing these philosophical differences in regard to contemporary life styles?

The setting then shifts to Melbourne and draws the reader into a sense of empathy about familial relationships and creates an expectation that the remainder of the story will show some resolution to this age-old dilemma.

The plot, to this point does not prepare you for the following installment.

I love an unexpected twist in a book, but I was not expecting to be ‘gutted’ by what I read next.

It is only as we learn about the horrendous experience the family has endured in their home country of Cambodia that the banality of what we, in contemporary Australia, regard as important in our day to day life, becomes evident.

Alice Pung’s language in this book is uncluttered yet masterful.

Rather than retell the story (you should all read this book), I’m going to share quotes that I found poignant.

Observations about life differences in Australia and China:

The next time her father calls, he tells her about the bushfires raging through Victoria’s summer, while she is in the middle of a frozen Beijing winter. The fires are reported in the China Daily, but not on the front page because of the everyday man-made horrors constantly happening here. Mines are collapsing, schools are tumbling down, trapping only-children inside. Milk for babies is poisoned, killing more only-children. p16

Children…are climbing on top of what look to be rubbish mounds. She watches this, surprisingly, without any smear of sadness. She has seen more miserable children howling in toy stores in Australia. These kids in Jieyang probably know the limits of their unfulfilled wants. They can see the corners of their universe, even though they have probably known for a while that the earth is not a flat square block and that heaven is not a circle floating above them. p23

Observations about her parents:

Their main priority in life was to be left alone. p178

From the moment he arrived in this country with one empty suitcase, he was bent on filling it up, like Mary Poppins’ infinity bag. p184

Her father handed her the mobile. It was strange, having her loud mother condensed into this little block of vibrating metal and plastic, just as loud if not louder because you had to put the phone up to your ear. p207

Observations about love and marriage:

When he said I love you, he meant it with absolute conviction at that moment. It was a feeling that swelled and needed release. p52

She had read somewhere that marriage was not a passion-fest, that it was more like a small partnership formed to run a tiny, quite mundane and often not-for-profit business. p180

When Kuan saw his fiancee Sokim again, he didn’t make love to her. They sat up all night making melancholy. He couldn’t even look at her face, so he spent the night staring at her left temple, staring at the blue-vein tree there. p396

Observation on Cambodia and her Father’s experiences:

She felt that this country was something precious – as brutal, as split open as a pomegranate, with hot breath and a million red and buried eyes. A country she would never understand, but that had shaped her father and made him who he was. The real miracle in this, she realized as she watched him standing there in the heat holding a straw hat to his head, was not that he had lived. The real miracle was that he could love. p487

My Father’s Daughter is compelling reading.

Make this the next book you pick.

Will you?

Dark, dark, dark

Those of you who have read my earlier blogs will know that over the past dozen years, it has been my privilege to have shared in two separate book groups – both quite different in their membership and dynamics.

At the last gathering of my current B.A.B.E.S (Bubbles And Books Every Session) group, the conversation turned to books read prior to my joining.  I came home with a bundle of ‘extra-curricular’ reading to indulge in. Now perched on my teetering ‘stack’ awaiting my attention is:

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Home by Larissa Behrendt

The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman by Louis de Bernieres

A Life by Design by Siobhan O’Brien

Little Sister by Moya Sayer-Jones

Salt Rain by Sarah Armstrong

All different.

Where to start?

The sticker on the front of the book announcing that Salt Rain was a Miles Franklin Literary Award short listed book for 2005 beckoned me.

So, I started the book Saturday afternoon and finished Sunday afternoon.

Granted, it is only 215 pages, but even so I was compelled to find the secret lying behind the life of this dysfunctional family.

From the opening line:

The rain began as the train pulled slowly up the coast, through the small towns and dairy farms.

Iconic Australian landscape with the symbolism of rain evoking immediately the knowledge that this story will be about cleansing from the effects of some sort of trauma had me hooked.

Gritty! Yes! I love reading about how others respond to difficult circumstances in their lives.

These recurring literary characters who operate outside acceptable human boundaries and cause tragedy to unfold In the lives of those around them fascinate me.

This book works on many levels.

The language is rich with imagery that I strongly relate to: my upbringing on a farm and its local community events such as the local show and my current experience of living amongst a rainforest.

The regular cooking references and the country, especially at show time, blend beautifully. There is a ‘code of conduct’ in regards to how things are done. Armstrong is able to create salient knowledge of rules through her language:

Petal picked up one of her biscuits…and took a bite…’Brown sugar shortbreads. My mother makes them too.’ She walked over to the table. Julia had forgotten to press a fork into the top of the pale discs.

Such a simple observation that raises lots of questions. As the story unfolds we learn that Mae hasn’t been truthful in her depiction of farm life. Has Mae embellished the finish on the biscuits as she has done with the truth about her youth, or alternatively is Julia rebelling against the reality of farm life as she experienced and knowingly does not press the fork into the back of the biscuits?

Julia’s rebellion is most evident in her quest to restore ‘natural order’ to the farm that has been the scene of destruction for their dysfunctional family.  Her fervent planting of native trees to hide the fact that this property was once a dairy is her attempt to obliterate the past and all the hurt associated with it. I do question though, her struggle to achieve this. In my experience, the rainforest or the ‘natural order’ are ready to take over without warning. You have to be vigilant to stop it taking over. But that’s a whole other exploration of life as we, or I know it.

As a literary device, the weaving of stories old and new to present Allie with confusion and contradiction about her Mother’s life and the story of her heritage also works well.

The suggestion of the ‘balloon man’, initially conjures up images of fun and frivolity and in Mae’s case, either inextinguishable passion or sadly the fickleness of itinerant workers.

About the only element that didn’t add up for me were the ages of Mae and Julia. The calendar dates do add up of course, with Mae being 29 and Julia 27, but their characters both seemed much older and in Julia’s case much ‘crustier’ than a relatively young 27.

Spoiler alert. If you are intending to read this book, please come back to the blog later.

After Allie’s exploration of the facts surrounding her mother’s ‘first love’ and her wanting to be close to her absent mother through closeness with Saul, It is confronting and uncomfortable that Allie and Saul do sleep together. For Allie it is the playing out of girlish fantasies about the purity of first love. Sadly, having been aware of her mother’s bartering of her sexual favours for tradesmen and goods, the idealism of teenage years and long lasting relationship has been tarnished.

For Saul it is the ‘fantasy’ consummation of his relationship with Mae.  To mend his heartbreak over Mae, Saul left the valley in search of better things, had an unsatisfactory subsequent marriage, but then returns to the valley he grew up in. It seems that Saul has extinguished all his desires and need to be someone in this world. He’s living back at home, working difficult hours and having dinner with Dad and Stepmum every night. That is, until Mae’s daughter turns up.

Aaaarrrggghhh! Don’t do it!

And again here is where I struggled with the ages of the main players in this story. Saul would have been about 29, Allie as we know turned 15 through the story. In even 10 years, the age difference would not have been much of an issue…well certainly in 20 years it would not have been any issue at all. But it wasn’t about the age difference, it was about relationship and characters who operate outside acceptable human boundaries. Allie thought/hoped that Saul was her Dad.

He wasn’t, and here’s the dark, dark, dark.

Allie’s grandfather was her Dad. She shared her mother’s Dad.

Dark, dark, dark.

Book versus movie, round 1

‘In the beginning was the word’…and the word was good.

We savour it, we roll it around in our minds and often on our tongues as we seek to squeeze every trickle of literary goodness from our favorite books.

When we read a book we create our own perfect ‘internal movie’ version of the characters, the scenes, the emotions. Taking a loved book to then create a movie adaptation is serious business.

It’s reported that in the late 1930s thousands of readers of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind demanded that charming southern rogue, Rhett Butler be played by yankee, Clark Gable. And they were right! The readers had gauged the flavour of this character very well indeedy!

The economy of a movie is far different to that of a book. By this I mean a couple of things:

  • It would be near on impossible to include all text and scenes from a book and adapt them into a movie plot. Time forbids this with the approx. 90-120 minute length of a movie.
  • A book can expand and explore multi-layers of action and dialogue both internal and external within a small patch of text. It is much more difficult to get inside the head of a character and their motivations in a movie.

What do we think so far?

Here are three book versus movie experiences I’ve had. In each instance I have read the book first as part of my B.A.B.E.S. group, in fact I cannot recall an instance of seeing a movie and then deciding to read the book.

While enjoying the book Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, I found it to be confronting and quite dark in terms of the brutality meted out to the circus workers. My experiences of the joy and colour associated with circuses I attended as a child were challenged. The reality of how hard this life was for those working to bring this spectacular event to audiences was difficult to read about.

Of course the main action of the book was set in the 1930s and it was tough for everyone, but the lack of respect for individuals and the privations suffered were appalling. Gruen researched her book thoroughly, apparently and incidences such as when Uncle Al (the owner) had unwanted workers ‘red-lighted’ were disturbing.

If that weren’t confronting enough, the few privileged circus people ie. Marlena and August are entwined in an abusive relationship. This then becomes a love triangle with Jacob and Marlena finding a rapport, gentleness and love that her marriage to August is lacking.

The book was filled with details of the circus workers, some of them so sad and heart wrenching ie. Camel, Kinko and Queenie and who could forget about the detailed description of Barbara the stripper and her dangling breasts.

We miss all of this gritty background in the movie and Uncle Al is eliminated completely. The script is pared right back to concentrate on the central themes of a man’s moral compass, self worth, mental illness, illusion versus reality.

The movie then, almost isn’t about circus life during the depression. By taking out all of this extra detail, the themes explored could be set anywhere.

Having said this though about everything the movie is missing, it does give something in return. The opening scene of the men manually raising the Big Top is magnificent and for me, recreated the excitement felt as a child when attending a circus performance. This then is the strength of the movie, it gave back to me the happiness, marvel and splendor I had personally experienced. The visual experience enjoyed in the movie was a winner.

So now when I reflect on Water for Elephants, I find the experience of reading the book and then watching the movie blend to create a complete experience. Having all the detail of the book already enmeshed in my mental library, I found the movie despite missing many elements enhanced the whole.

The experience of only watching the movie in this instance would not give the same comprehensive picture of circus life during the depression with its associated grittiness.

“Never judge a book by a movie.”

Enough for today, book versus movie, round 2 tomorrow.

Do good books make good movies?

Do you ever stop to really question whether you should see the screen adaptation of a book you’ve read and loved?

I think it would be fair to say that you would rarely ever read the book after you’ve seen the movie. But we often head off to the cinema after we’ve read a book only to come away disappointed.

Why do we do this?

I know I’m a very visual kind of person and always create images in my mind while reading a book. I recall through the early 90s seeing a minimalist stage production of Pride & Prejudice. Boxes stacked in strategic spots across the stage were all the props in the set. Even with the then emerging William McInnes playing Mr Darcy it was just wrong, ALL wrong.

A book is a shared conversation between a writer and a reader, and every conversation is different. It is up to the reader to re-create the writer’s story, furnishing the visual characteristics of people and places, giving the emotional engagement between the characters importance or not. The reader’s mind is the theatre in which a novelist’s dialogue is mounted, creating a very individual performance according to the information that a reader brings to the experience.

The nuances of a book can rarely be recreated in a movie adaptation.

A movie is literal. The creative work that your mind employs with a book is all done for you in a movie. The scene is depicted, the characters are defined in the way they look, they way they react and the way they speak. There are limited options for you to interpret the outcome of scenarios in movies.

So, what do we think? Do our favourite books make good movies?

Vote in the poll below to indicate your opinion and tomorrow we’ll look at several books that I’ve enjoyed and weigh them against the movie adaptation.

Vote NOW.

I refuse to engage with this subject again

I made a conscious decision in the early 1980s not to actively seek out literature or movies, or any material for that matter, that dealt with war.

By about 1983, my tender soul screamed that I had engaged ENOUGH with this subject through various media:

Schindler’s List (Ark as book was originally published in Australia) by Thomas Keneally

Sophie’s Choice book by William Styron and movie starring Meryl Streep

Holocaust TV miniseries starring Meryl Streep

The Deer Hunter movie starring Robert de Niro

Gallipoli the Australian movie directed by Peter Weir

That was it–war was ugly and confronting and while I recognised that it has always been part of our history, I didn’t need to submit my senses to repeated reminders.

In the years since, I haven’t watched movies such as Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Good Morning, Vietnam, The Last of the Mohicans, Braveheart. 

War books, movies, miniseries, they were all no-go-zones for me from here on.

While I managed to stay true to my decision for a long time, participating in book groups for this past decade, challenged this choice. Well to be accurate, these books slipped in, like, ‘under the radar’ of my war literature evasion.

Japanese subterfuge in World War II nearly caused the Americans to lose the war. Literary subterfuge has nearly caused me to lose my determination about the media exclusion zone.

These books I’m referring to weren’t about war…they were about zoos, girls who work in post offices, books and about boys playing in their pyjamas! Weren’t they?

Apparently not. Let me tell you all about them, tomorrow.

Ps. Just between you and me, a couple of movies were knowingly allowed under the radar, Schindler’s List, of course, in 1993, The English Patient, Saving Private Ryan and the Australian movie Beneath Hill 60.

Books that make you LOL

When was the last time that you couldn’t stop yourself from laughing out loud as you were reading a book?

Come on, never! I can’t believe it.

Where would we be without side-splitting humour? Stating the obvious, in a sad, sad space.

It’s refreshing to ‘poke fun’ at ourselves, to take the seriousness out of our focus for a time and devour big slabs of rich, sweet, gooey literary laughter.

So where do we start?

Here’s a 21st century issue. Self-diagnosis. We’ve only thought of doing this, right, because of all the information available at our finger-tips through the www.

Who of you haven’t ‘Googled’ symptoms that you are looking to fit a disease to?

Is this new? No.

How about this as an insight to our humanness:

There were four of us — George, and William Samuel Harris, and myself, and Montmorency. We were sitting in my room, smoking, and talking about how bad we were — bad from a medical point of view I mean, of course.

We were all feeling seedy, and we were getting quite nervous about it. Harris said he felt such extraordinary fits of giddiness come over him at times, that he hardly knew what he was doing; and then George said that he had fits of giddiness too, and hardly knew what he was doing. With me, it was my liver that was out of order. I knew it was my liver that was out of order, because I had just been reading a patent liver-pill circular, in which were detailed various symptoms by which a man could tell when his liver was out of order. I had them all.

LOL material from Jerome K Jerome in Three Men in a Boat (1889).

Ha, ha, we’re not alone are we!

Then there’s the ‘cheek-popping’ anecdotes about creating stew out of the left-overs and Montmorency’s (the dog) contribution of the rat and also the spectacle of these three men trying to open a tin of pineapple where:

Harris got off merely with a flesh wound…We beat it out flat; we beat it back square; we battered it into every form known to geometry — but we could not make a hole in it.

Although written originally as a serious travelogue, the comic anecdotal segments of this text have placed it squarely in the comedic genre.

Another hilarious text of this era is The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde (1894).

There are LOL bits right from the beginning:

ALGERNON: Did you hear what I was playing, Lane:

LANE: I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir.

ALGERNON: I’m sorry for that, for your sake. I don’t play accurately–any one can play accurately — but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life.

And:

ALGERNON: I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I...

Witty dialogue in this text flows freely, leading to many LOL moments.

Humour and satire of manners is not confined to literature of the 19th Century. One of my LOL experiences was with Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday (2007).

This book was added to my reading catalogue through my first book group.

The premise itself is droll enough when Torday has English Fisheries Scientist Dr Alfred Jones asked to help create a salmon river in the highlands of the Republic of Yemen (considered to be one of the poorest Arab nations). Jones is understandably reluctant and skeptical, but in true ‘Yes, Minister’ style he is persuaded to figure out how to fly ten thousand salmon to a desert country — and persuade them to swim there.

Enjoy this scene with me. It is the detail of an interrogating interview related to the attempted assassination of the Sheik who is wanting to create the salmon farm in his home country of Yemen. The incident takes place on the banks of a river in Scotland where the Sheik has come to love his fishing and where his fishing guru, Colin has just ‘hooked’ the would-be assassin:

I heard Colin say, ‘Aye, I seen him come up the glen on the other bank, but I had just had a tug on my line from a fish, so I didn’t take much notice for a wee minute. Then I knew he was wrong. His kilt was a Campbell tartan. There’s nae Campbells in this glen. They were all chased away many hundreds of years since. So I left my fish for another day and came and cast my hook at the wee man, instead.’ Then he laughed and said, ‘He didn’t put up as much of a fight as the fish would have. I had him on the grass in three minutes.’

He, he, he — Yes, Minister meets Monarch of the Glen.

I found unexpected pleasure in reading this quirky satire that explores the elements of hypocrisy and bureaucracy, dreams and deniability, and the transforming power of faith and love.

Humour is infectious. Laughter binds people together and increases happiness and also triggers healthy physical changes in the body. Humour and laughter strengthen your immune system, boost your energy, diminish pain, and protect you from the damaging effects of stress.

So, here’s my suggestion, rather than ‘Googling’ your symptoms to find which disease you have, read a funny book and LOL.

Finding yourself in a Thomas Hardy novel

I can almost feel tear drops forming ready to splash down on my keyboard as I contemplate the content of this blog.

Every year our Book Group aims to cover one classic. Last year Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf gave some of our ‘clubbers’ absolute grief to read but all (well most…) agreed it was worth the effort in the end.

This year’s classic has not been named as yet, but Thomas Hardy (you will find much loved Folio Society editions of his books on my bookshelf) remains one of my favorite authors of all time.

Sigh.

You might ask why I love his work so much when it is viewed by most who encounter this prose as being intensely pessimistic?

Hardy, who really considered himself as a poet at heart, wrote about and explored tragic characters who were struggling against their passions and social circumstances.

While I strongly believe I’m an optimist who can find beauty in the minutiae of life, the human condition with all the complexities and idiosyncrasies that Hardy captures in his novels really does resonate with me.

Hardy says ‘The business of the novelist is to show the sorriness underlying the grandest things, and the grandeur underlying the sorriest things’ and this he does with stunning skill.

I have read most of Hardy’s novels at least twice. The first read takes you (or it did me) on that spiral trajectory down to a place of sublime sadness and despair about the world he has chosen to depict.

The second reading has me repeating ‘if only…’ as you encounter each crossroad in the journey of the characters. You already know and feel the pain of each choice made and its consequence. It makes me want to jump through the pages of the book, grab the poor soul about to make the indifferent choice and heed them a warning, ‘don’t do it, don’t do it!’

Fortunately though, for all of his pessimism and his revealing of how flawed humanity is, Hardy writes beautiful prose.

Look, for example, how Hardy writes about his protagonist, Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge:

His measured, springless walk was the walk of the skilled countryman as distinct from the desultory shamble of the general laborer; while in the turn and plant of each foot there was, further, a dogged and cynical indifference personal to himself, showing its presence even in the regularly interchanging fustian folds, now in the left leg, now in the right, as he paced along.

Who’d have thought that you could gain so much insight to a character just from the way his gait is described!

And another example, this time from Hardy’s tale about Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd:

The maltster, after having lain down in his clothes for a few hours, was now sitting beside a three-legged table, breakfasting off bread and bacon. This was eaten on the plateless system, which is performed by placing a slice of bread upon the table, the meat flat upon the bread, a mustard plaster upon the meat, and a pinch of salt upon the whole, then cutting them vertically downwards with a large pocket-knife till wood is reached, when the severed lump is impaled on the knife, elevated, and sent the proper way of food.

Oh, okay, one more–this time from Jude the Obscure:

There was a quiver in his lip now and after opening the well-cover to begin lowering the bucket he paused and leant with his forehead and arms against the framework, his face wearing the fixity of a thoughtful child’s who has felt the pricks of life somewhat before his time.

Powerful prose!

No discussion about Hardy would be complete without reference to his most tragic heroine, Tess of the d’Urbervilles. In this devastating depiction of seduction, love, betrayal, and murder the human condition is laid bare and this is where the tears become BIG, gulping, SOBS!

At the denouement of this harrowing tale Tess asserts:

‘It is as it should be’, she murmured. ‘Angel, I am almost glad–yes, glad! This happiness could not have lasted. It was too much. I have had enough; and now I shall not live for you to despise me!’

She stood up, shook herself, and went forward, neither of the men having moved.

“I am ready’, she said quietly.

Tess, oh Tess, oh Tess, what a morbid sense of resignation.

John Durbeyfield’s epiphany (his suggested family lineage), experienced in the first few pages of this book seemed to set Tess’s fate in motion and lead to her ultimate destruction.

Evil has been the winner, or not?

This is where you can decide if you have found yourself in a Thomas Hardy novel.

Has Hardy passed a non-redemptive sentence on the world by writing of Tess’s demise?

I think not. Hardy has, with subtlety, shown a glimmer of hope:

One of the pair was Angel Clare, the other a tall budding creature–half girl, half woman–a spiritualised image of Tess, slighter than she, but with the same beautiful eyes–Clare’s sister-in-law, ‘Liza-Lu’.

As soon as they had strength they arose, joined hands again, and went on.

Cry, sob and feel Tess’s pain, but only for a scant moment, then perk up and look to the future and all that it promises.

Books started but not finished

‘A masterpiece’ The Age

‘An unputdownable page turner by a master storyteller’ The Weekly Times

This book is almost 6 cm (2.5 inches) thick, has 933 pages and is printed in the teeniest type. You would have to put it down, often, to rest your aching arms!

Described as:

This remarkable book can be read as a vast, extended thriller, as well as a superbly written meditation on the nature of good and evil. It is a compelling tale of a hunted man who had lost everything — his home, his family, and his soul — and came to find his humanity while living at the wildest edge of experience.

Have you guessed the book yet?

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts.

Have you started to read it?

Have you finished it?

Forgive me Shantaram Stalwarts!

I would count myself as an Indiaphile when it comes to books, I’ve read and loved among others The Far Pavillions by M.M. Kaye, Passage to India by E.M. Foster, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais, the writings of Vikram Seth. So how could I not want to read this epic tome that splashes the spicy colour and mystique of India across its pages?

Gifted to me in 2005 by friends, I knew nothing of the book apart from the fact that they had attended a Roberts event and that the sentiments imparted in person and through his writings were soothing to their souls.

I started reading immediately.

Now, seven years on, the gift card still in place as a book mark, I find that I had reached page…wait for it, 48. Impressive? NOT! I was only one-third of the way through Part 1. Then there was Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and finally Part 5.

Hello-oh!

Should I feel less than a capable reader because I failed to even make a dent on this book?

Here’s another confession. This time seeking forgiveness from Stieg Larsson devotees.

Another epic tome, 672 pages, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

My dismal effort to enmesh this novel in my reading repertoire, a scant 30 pages.

The Prologue set up a premise that intrigued me: an 82 year old receiving an exotic framed flower on his birthday. Not just this birthday, but every birthday for the past 30 years. I fully empathise with the aged detective – the ‘Case of the Pressed Flowers’ had been nagging at him for years, the one case he couldn’t solve.

I would not have been so patient with not knowing for all that time, the source of these flowers and what they meant. But how contrarian am I? I could find all the available answers to this premised conundrum if only I had persevered.

So, do you have to finish a book that you don’t find engaging?

I guess it really depends on the outcome you want to achieve. If the book is selected for your book group, you should give it an attempt. I’m sure that you would like all group members to trust you and give any book you selected a reasonable crack.

But I would qualify this by saying, we are privileged to have stacks of books to choose from across the genres and the ages. If you find that a book does not satiate your literary juices, leave it and go on to the next one on your short-stack.

Life is too short to read books that don’t embellish your existence or soothe your soul.

What makes a book good

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, published 1813

Pride and Prejudice would have to be in the Top 10 of my all time favourite books.

Now I know that Jane Austen is not everyone’s ‘cup of tea’, in fact, some would argue that the premise in her books is like a ‘storm in a tea cup’. Compared to the bigger external issues that can be dealt with in literature, that may be so. We mustn’t ever forget though, that if you are IN that ‘tea cup’ the storm can be frighteningly real!

If you are not familiar with this classic, it examines both internal and external conflicts: the negative societal pressures and our internal biases that lead us to make mistakes. Elizabeth and Darcy have to overcome these before they can allow themselves to fall in love and marry.

Although written to depict life in the early 19th century, modern interest in the book has resulted in a number of adaptations and an abundance of novels and stories chaneling Austen’s memorable characters or themes.

This brings me to a book we recently read for book group.

(Honestly, it should have been one of those night’s that I had another engagement!)

A little bit of background first though.

Some books our group had covered prior to this were: Bereft by Chris Womersley, Snowflower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See, Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey.

I’ve read and enjoyed gentle novels such as 84, Charring Cross Road by Helen Hanff and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. I quite like though, what I call ‘gritty’ or ‘edgey’ books but the consensus was that a ‘softer’ book was required for the upcoming book group meeting.

The book chosen was The Girl in the Steel-Capped Boots by Loretta Hill, published in 2012.

I could almost feel Jane Austen turning in her grave as this new author tried to ‘channel’ Austen’s Pride and Prejudice premise.

Firstly, there are plenty of references throughout the book to places and names that invoke Jane Austen, e.g. Wickham, Bath.

The protagonists Lena and Dan are poor facsimiles of Elizabeth and Darcy.

This is how Lena describes Dan at first acquaintance:

‘…if only tall, dark and obnoxious…That’s what Barnes Inc staff called Dan Hullog – Bulldog. Apparently, once he got it between his teeth, he didn’t let go – a perfectionist with impossible standards. Apparently, he had an overly critical eye and a penchant for finding the tiniest flaw in anything.’

Sound familiar with how Mr Darcy is considered a:

‘…fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien” but then ‘…he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased…having a most forbiding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.’

And then the similarities with the initial interactions between Lena and Dan:

‘She walked over to the bicep-building machine and perched on its worn vinyl seat. Dan went back to ignoring her.

Can you conjure up the ball scene in Pride and Prejudice where Darcy chooses to ignore Elizabeth as a dance partner.

Lena is portrayed as an educated (but with question marks over her qualification) city girl sent to outback Australia to prove her worth. As a female engineer in this environment, she is considered second class. Much the same as The Bennett’s social standing in their community, not quite good enough.

Both books develop the internal and external conflict to arrive at the same conclusion, both sets of protagonists are able to move beyond their pride and prejudice.

Elizabeth is accepted by Darcy and others (except Lady de Burgh) as someone worthy to share his life.

Lena is accepted as a qualified and capable engineer by Dan and others and is able to feel comfortable that she has fairly earned her degree.

Ahhh, isn’t that lovely.

I could make other comparisons between the characters and events in each book, but I think you get my point.

Both authors, using the same premise have resulted in books that to my reading pleasure are vastly different.

Jane Austen, using the society mores in which she has grown up in, uses rich and witty language to create a text that engages me as a reader.

Loretta Hill, using her own experience as an engineer in the Pilbara, failed to excite me with her language and scene depictions.

I do consider Pride and Prejudice to be a good book.

I do NOT consider The Girl in Steel-Capped Boots to be a good book.

Opinions and reading pleasures are personal.

What makes a book good? What do you think?

Nb.A quick search of reviews for the latter book will show you that there are plenty of others who loved the book. Just not me.