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.

Books versus movies, final round

Q. When is a science-fiction book not a science-fiction book?

A. When it’s made into a hollywood love story movie.

Do you know what book I’m referring to?

Actually, the jury is still out on what genre this book falls into.

Wiki reveals: Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginary but more or less plausible content such as future settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, aliens and paranormal abilities. 

So while the premise is unarguably attached to the science fiction notion of time travel, the themes this book explores are more attached to the ‘touchy-feely’ human experiences of relationship, family, love, trust.

It is reported that the catalyst for Audrey Niffeneger to write this book was centred around failures and experiences in her own relationships. Perhaps her time travel theme came from her feeling of displacement in uncomfortable personal relationships.

Let me say up-front, I am in awe of Niffenegger’s skill to create this complex time-travel tome and her ever-giving and forgiving heroine Clare (alter ego for Audrey?).

Hmm, The Time Traveler’s Wife, not the Time Traveler.

Clare Abshire is one determined and spirited young lady. Could you imagine how you would feel as a parent if you knew your very young daughter was meeting up with a naked man in your field?

Just when did the concept of ‘stranger danger’ become the No. 1 talking point and the raison d’être of vigilance about knowing where our kids are become the prime thought of the day.

Are you old enough to remember the days when you just had to be indoors by sun-down? We do live in a different world now…maybe. There is room for debate. Is the world different, or is our knowledge of the world different? A topic for discussion another day.

Clare Abshire, The Time Traveler’s Wife.

You know, I can’t even imagine how Clare managed to live her day to day life with ‘time travelling’ Henry popping in unexpectedly over a period of 12 years before they actually meet in ‘real time’. Clare certainly displays an air of resignation to her involvement with Henry as shown when Gomez repeatedly urges her to not marry Henry, she tells him, “I have no choice… I’ve seen my future; I can’t change it, and I wouldn’t if I could”. She reiterates that statement many times throughout the novel, because she wants to believe that having no choice means making no mistakes: “I never chose Henry. He never chose me. So how could it be a mistake?”

What is Niffeneger saying, she felt powerless in her relationships to make choices?

This book is deep and far reaching. It explores a whole range of issues and the reader has to work hard to keep up with the pace created by the narrative changes and the time traveling (happy to admit that I struggled often to keep the time line in focus.)

So how does this science fiction book make it on to the BIG screen as a Hollywood love story?

Not well, I’d argue.

There are many material differences between the book and the movie. Here are a selection:

  • Henry loved to run in the book, and it isn’t a main point in the movie.
  • Henry dates a girl named Ingrid, who ends up committing suicide.
  • Clare’s mom is very depressed, and dies in the book.
  • In the book, Gomez hits on Clare.
  • Henry’s foot has to be amputated in the book and becomes the catalyst for his death.
  • Clare decides to look for a house for herself, because she didn’t want Henry to tell her which one the house would be.
  • In the end of the book, Clare sees Henry as an old woman, right before she passes away.

Hollywood audiences demanded a soft, happy ending!

Not right!

If you want to bring a book to the BIG screen, tell it how it is. Don’t make up a new ‘audience friendly’ happy ending.

If you only saw the movie of The Time Traveller’s Wife, you have missed out on significant storyline and the characterization that richly populates the text of this book.

The book, is the winner by far!

Books versus movies, round 2

I am excited by both of the next books and subsequent movies that I’d like to share with you about, but I don’t know which to start with.

Hum, de, dum…okay I’ll go with Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd.

I love it when one book bridges the quite different composition of two book-groups!

This wonderful book did. From two completely different spheres in my world, this book came with exciting recommendations.

If you haven’t read it, race out to your favourite book shop and buy it now!

It is exquisite: it brings you joy, it brings you sadness, it brings your LOL moments, it brings you hope!

Wiki reveals:

The Secret Life of Bees is a 2002 historical novel by American author Sue Monk Kidd. Set in the American South in 1964, the year of the Civil Rights Act and intensifying racial unrest, Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees is a story of coming-of-age, of the ability of love to transform our lives, and the often unacknowledged longing for the universal feminine divine. Addressing the wounds of loss, betrayal, and the scarcity of love, Kidd demonstrates the power of women coming together to heal those wounds, to mother each other and themselves, and to create a sanctuary of true family and home. 

The book’s premise is about Lily’s search for a connection to her mother who died in a tragic accident when she was a toddler. Set in South Carolina in the 1960s, this book explores race, love and the idea of home in difficult times. It is a beautifully written drama that keeps the pages turning–yes you have to work through all the trauma and disappointment, but in the end you close the cover with a satisfied sigh, ‘all is well in this world’.

And the movie, it’s a little like the book reader’s request for Clark Gable to star in the movie of Gone with the Wind. The actors were almost better than a perfect match for their characters. I would say the movie was a little softer than the book, but with Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson (don’t you love her music!), Sophie Okonedo (did you recognize her from The Slap) and Dakota Fanning, it was brilliant!

Read the book first and then savour the movie.

And my final book (maybe) in the book versus movie debate, will be tomorrow.
I’m excited, are you?

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.

Subterfuge, books that sneak under the radar

How do we come to read books that we ordinarily would try to avoid? 

Simple.

Book groups.

As shared yesterday, my avoidance of literature that uses war as the setting or background started many years ago. Over the past couple of years though, four books in particular have crossed ‘no-man’s land’ and entered my sphere of reading experience:

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne (2006)

The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig (1982, published posthumously)

The Zookeeper’s War by Stephen Conte (2007)

The Book Thief by Markus Zusack  (2005)

When The Boy in the Striped Pajamas was handed to me by one of my first book group ladies, I had no prior knowledge of the book. The naive premise as shown in the opening chapters with young Bruno arriving home from school and finding his home is being ‘packed’ as they are all going on a ‘great adventure’–his father’s job requires them to relocate’, didn’t prepare me for the story to come.

Bruno’s world has been privileged, he has been taught to be polite, respectful and kind–all the attributes you would want in a young boy. He was full of mischief (in the typical way of 9 year olds) and is totally engrossed in his world of exploring, playing with his friends, having fun, but not going into rooms ‘–such as Father’s office, which was Out of Bounds At All Times And No Exceptions--’

We learn ‘the Fury’ has been to dinner and that there are ‘many visitors to the house–men in fantastic uniforms, women with typewriters that he had to keep his mucky hands off–’ 

Then Bruno’s world is turned upside down–he has to leave the home he loves, the friends he loves, the life he loves as his Father has ‘A job that needs a very special man to do…’ his mother asks, ‘You wouldn’t want Father to go to his new job on his own and be lonely there, would you?

A picture of genteel society and a happy home life are painted, but balanced with the dark underside of this story, the book as a whole is quite shocking. 

While there has been criticism about the plot being improbable and that the story actually profanes the reality of the death camps in World War II, historians such as Kathryn Hughes argue that ‘Bruno’s innocence comes to stand for the wilful refusal of all adult Germans to see what was going on under their noses.’

Similarly in The Zookeeper’s War, where Conte writes about an Australian woman, married to a German zookeeper, during the Fall of Berlin, the author points to the general populace’s ignorance of Nazi atrocities.  He argues that they didn’t want to know. 

Choosing the backdrop of the Zoo to showcase the message was for me a powerful ploy. In this book, more than in any other, I really saw how the day-to-day life of civilians were affected by the presence of war throughout their country. Most were just trying to survive by keeping their heads down and minding their own business.

This type of attitude of course, doesn’t leave any room for heroism in times of great adversity such as war. We know the inspiring stories of people such as Oskar Schindler who put their own lives at risk to save others.

This is an underlying theme of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, where he shows the strength of individuals and the many complex motivations for actions they take.

Having Death as the narrator of the book was an intriguing device as he shows Death to be sympathetic to mankind and disliking of all the despair and destruction brought upon humans by War. I would have imagined Death enjoying and being friends with War so just the very contrariness of this opens the reader to a whole new level of understanding.

Death’s final pronouncement at the end of the book that he is ‘…haunted by humans’ shows his sympathy for the humans whose souls he carries. Death cannot reconcile the astonishing cruelty and compassion of which humans are simultaneously capable of.  

And so we come to The Post Office Girl, Stefan Zweig’s possibly unfinished novel which was published posthumously. Written in the 1930s as Zweig was driven by the Nazis into exile, the manuscript was found amongst his papers after his suicide in 1942.

The year is 1919 and the protagonist, Christine Hoflehner, an Austrian Postal clerk feels as defeated as her country, the war has ended but poverty has not: “Now it’s creeping back out, hollow-eyed, broad-muzzled, hungry and bold, and eating what’s left in the gutters of the war.

Some describe this as a ‘Cinderella’ story–but the Prince doesn’t actually come and find her!  The story is fierce, sad, moving and ultimately, frightening as we journey with Christine and then Ferdinand as they spiral downward in Zweig’s portrait of a world coming horribly to an end.

So there we have four books, each of which have approached the subject of war and its resulting damage with a different and original premise.

I’m pleased to have read them all.

Thank you Book Groups!

The question I must ask then is, when does a book become more pleasurable than disturbing?

Epiphany

[hi-pif-uh-nee]

I am often astounded how connections are made through the universe. When I posted my blog about James Joyce a couple of days ago, I did not have a clear picture of where it was going to lead.

If you have followed the subsequent thread, you may be musing how Enid Blyton came to be the next topic. Was it inspired by the binary nature of our lives: yin and yang, light and shade, black and white or specifically in this instance, literary versus popular?

Possibly. Maybe this is how the universe works: juxtaposition, enabling opportunity for learning and enlightenment through contrasts.

Now while this following disclosure is not strictly literary or related to books, it is a fitting example of how we shouldn’t discount any opportunity for learning and growth.

Since my Joyce blog, I have had the concept of this literary device ‘epiphany’ rolling around in my being, enchanting me.

My twelve year old and I sat down to watch an episode of Bones last night. For those not familiar, Dr Temperance Brennan is a forensic anthropologist with eccentricities and attachments to things other than living humans and who helps the FBI solve murder cases. The victim in this case displayed many similarities to Dr Brennan and this caused an epiphany for ‘Bones’ to see how her life was unfolding, what the future was likely to hold and importantly what she was withholding herself from.

I was deeply engaged with this life-changing moment for this character, felt the significance and thought I should share with my son. The question to my twelve year old was, ‘Do you know what an epiphany is?’

His reply, ‘Yes, Homer had one in The Simpson’s Movie.’

What! This literary device belongs to the cerebral world of literature not some animated TV sitcom!

I laughed out loud.

A superficial check into the genesis of this word reveals that it originally referred to insight through the divine. Today, this concept is used much more often and without such supernatural connotations.

It is claimed that the word’s secular usage may owe some of its popularity to James Joyce, who, as we know, used the device in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and also within each short story of his collection Dubliners as his protagonists came to sudden recognitions that changed their view of themselves or their social condition and often sparking a reversal or change of heart.

So not only are these revered literary characters experiencing epiphanies, so too are Dr Temperance Brennan and Homer Simpson! In fact it seems Homer has had more than one epiphany thanks to interaction with the Inuit Medicine Woman (a.k.a. the ‘boob lady’ as described by Homer).

So, back to the debate about Enid Blyton’s books that painted an idyllic vision of rural England.

Enid Blyton is still the world’s most prolific storyteller for children. Her books are about children in jeopardy, children empowered, children winning through and I again contend that the insights available to young readers and the reading habit formed should not be overlooked.

I am in deep admiration of this literary device, epiphany and the many possible sources of this life-changing revelation.

James Joyce, to read or not

The name of author James Joyce will undoubtedly crop up on most Ultimate Book Lists with the book cited, Ulysses.

First serialised in an American journal from March 1918 to December 1920, it was published in its entirety in 1922. Regarded as one of the most important works of Modernist literature, Ulysses is approximately 265,000 words in length,  and uses a lexicon of 30,030 words (average count for a novel is 80,000-120,000 words).

As a tribute to the significance of this book, Bloomsday is celebrated annually on June 16 in Dublin and elsewhere. The day was invented in 1954 on the 50th anniversary of the events in the novel.

This book is not for the feint-hearted. To actually start and finish Ulysses for many readers, would be like taking medicine for some ailment: you know it’s good for you, it’s difficult to take, but you’ll be better for having made the effort!

I have glimpsed into Ulysses but have not made the effort to complete the task so, in no way, can venture to express an erudite opinion or even give you an idea about its structure and meaning.

Here’s the thing though, when the name James Joyce crops up in relation to Ulysses I am fearful that any other texts by him are completely overshadowed and then consequently overlooked by readers.

This is a shame.

I have read Joyce’s, The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man which was written prior to the Ulysses tome and published in 1917 after having been serialized from 1914 to 1915.

This semi-autobiographical novel, tells the story of Stephen Daedalus and his ‘awakening’ as he questions and rebels against the Catholic and Irish conventions that have imbued his life.

Now while there is a lot to discuss about this book in terms of its style and themes, to do this justice would involve a much lengthier piece than warranted by my blog.

So, where to now?

You may have noticed that I’m working backwards through Joyce’s collection and so we come to his short stories, published in a book titled Dubliners–these stories are sublime and EVERYONE should read them.

Interestingly, Joyce submitted this book 18 times to a total of 15 publishers from about 1905 and was finally published in 1914 after many stops and starts.

Dubliners depicts the Irish middle class during the time that Irish nationalism was at its peak. This search for national identity put Irish history and culture right in the epicenter of various converging ideas and influences.

The stories are written and presented to show the progressive journey and gaining of wisdom from childhood, through adolescence and then maturity. Or in the abstract, the progressive gaining of knowledge from a state of harmony that leads to conflict or epiphany and then reintegration with that you may have been trying to escape.

These are the stories as presented:

The Sisters–After the priest Father Flynn dies, a young boy who was close to him and his family deal with it only superficially.

An Encounter–Two schoolboys playing truant encounter an elderly man.

Araby–A boy falls in love with the sister of his friend, but fails in his quest to buy her a worthy gift from the Araby bazaar.

Eveline–A young woman abandons her plans to leave Ireland with a sailor.

After the Race–College student Jimmy Doyle tries to fit in with his wealthy friends.

Two Gallants–Two con men, Lenehan and Corley find a maid who is willing to steal from her employer.

The Boarding House–Mrs. Mooney successfully manoeuvres her daughter Polly into an upwardly mobile marriage with her lodger Mr. Doran.

A Little Cloud–Little Chandler’s dinner with his old friend Ignatius Gallaher casts fresh light on his own failed literary dreams. The story reflects also on Chandler’s mood upon realizing his baby son has replaced him as the centre of his wife’s affections.

Counterparts–Farrington, a lumbering alcoholic scrivener takes out his frustration in pubs and on his son Tom.

Clay–The old maid Maria, a laundress, celebrates Halloween with her former foster child Joe Donnelly and his family.

A Painful Case–Mr. Duffy rebuffs Mrs. Sinico, then four years later realizes he has condemned her to loneliness and death.

Ivy Day in the Committee Room–Minor politicians fail to live up to the memory of Charles Stewart Parnell.

A Mother–Mrs. Kearney tries to win a place of pride for her daughter, Kathleen, in the Irish cultural movement, by starring her in a series of concerts, but ultimately fails.

Grace–After Mr. Kernan injures himself falling down the stairs in a bar, his friends try to reform him through Catholicism.

The Dead–Gabriel Conroy attends a party, and later, as he speaks with his wife, has an epiphany about the nature of life and death. (At 15–16,000 words this story has also been classified as a novella)

The language and style used by Joyce in his short stories describe Dublin in a natural and realistic way. He doesn’t use exaggeration in his prose to create an effect, instead he presents his characters and setting in a simple way with close attention to detail.

Let me share a few examples of this sublime prose to show how Joyce paints a powerful picture by the use of a few simple words:

From The Sisters:

He began to puff at his pipe, no doubt arranging his opinion in his mind.

From Eveline:

SHE sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue.
Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her
nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired.

From Two Gallants:

THE grey warm evening of August had descended upon the city
and a mild warm air, a memory of summer, circulated in the
streets. The streets, shuttered for the repose of Sunday, swarmed
with a gaily coloured crowd. Like illumined pearls the lamps
shone from the summits of their tall poles upon the living texture
below which, changing shape and hue unceasingly, sent up into the
warm grey evening air an unchanging unceasing murmur.

From A Mother:

After a swift struggle of tongues Mr. Holohan hobbled out in haste.
The room was silent. When the strain of the silence had become
somewhat painful...

From Grace:

A pale, oval face came forward into the light. The arch of its fair
trailing moustache was repeated in the fair eyebrows looped above
pleasantly astonished eyes. Mr. Fogarty was a modest grocer.

From The Dead:

A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end,
on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great
ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust
crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a
round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of
side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow
dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green
leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches
of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which
lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with
grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped
in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall
celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a
fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American
apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one
containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed square
piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it
were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn
up according to the colours of their uniforms, the first two black,
with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with
transverse green sashes.

Gabriel took his seat boldly at the head of the table and, having
looked to the edge of the carver, plunged his fork firmly into the
goose. He felt quite at ease now for he was an expert carver and
liked nothing better than to find himself at the head of a well-laden
table.

“Miss Furlong, what shall I send you?” he asked. “A wing or a slice
of the breast?”

I have given you a much larger snippet from this last story in Dubliners as it is my favorite. This scene particularly, is rich with imagery and nuance as Joyce presents his view that life in Dublin is flat, grey and unfulfilling — the centre of the living dead.

Without going into detail, the protagonist, Gabriel experiences an epiphany and comes to realise that the future is inextricably bound with the past. There is a unity between the living and the dead that allows for an acceptance and more importantly, an appreciation of life in Dublin and the richness it holds from its nationalism, religious conviction and its own individual language.

Have you enjoyed those snippets? Are you encouraged to read Dubliners?

I hope so.