Books that fail to sizzle

Some summers ago while at our local village swimming pool a lady, unknown to me at the time, came up and said, ‘That book changed my life!’

‘That book’, the one that I was reading at the pool edge, was The White Earth by Andrew McGahan and I was about half-way through.

I looked up at this lady, who has since become a good friend, and replied, ‘I’m delighted to hear that because while I’m enjoying many aspects of it, I’m still waiting for the climax to occur and for something to really pull me into this story.

Following this exchange, I anticipated finding the essential and powerful message of this text. So, if I had been dawdling to this midway point, I was now motivated to pick up the pace, find the climax and enjoy the denouement and resolution.

It didn’t happen…

What went wrong?

This book, published in 2004 was a winner:

  • Festival Awards for Literature (SA), Dymocks Booksellers Award for Fiction, 2006: shortlisted
  • International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 2006: longlisted
  • Commonwealth Writers Prize, South East Asia and South Pacific Region, Best Book, 2005: winner
  • Miles Franklin Literary Award, 2005: winner
  • The Age Book of the Year Award, Fiction Prize, 2004: winner
  • Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, Best Fiction Boo, 2004: shortlisted
  • The Courier-Mail Book of the Year Award, 2004: winner

How could I NOT find the satisfactory experience of this book that others had?

From the outset, I was captivated by the depiction of the quintessential Australian landscape. The very title of the book and the unfolding story-line in the first chapter created great expectations! I loved the oxymoron created by the image of the title, The White Earth and the raging fire that had such tragic consequences in the very opening pages.

Also talking about great expectations, moving on in to the story there was a Dickensian quality with the old dilapidated house at the centre of this tale with its mysteries and flash backs, you could almost sense the shadowy presence of Pip, Estella and Miss Haversham (another book and author I admire).

There were all the ingredients of epic storytelling including evocative descriptions of the landscape, such iconic figures as a doomed explorer searching for an inland sea, shepherds driven mad by isolation, a damaged survivor of Changi, mission Aborigines and even a bunyip.

I have often been charmed by this genre of prose and would name Voss by Patrick White, The Secret River by Kate Grenville and Landscape of Farewell by Alex Miller as examples of books around this subject that I have been captivated by.

Each of these books explore aspects of the unsettling period that denotes white settlement and colonisation in Australia and share similarities with The White Earth.

The supernatural aspect of McGahan’s tale where the ghosts of black and white haunt the landscape is echoed in Landscape of Farewell. The past haunts the characters in Miller’s book and his prose puzzles out the mystery of that haunting. Memories of Max’s childhood take over his dreams, and he gives these dreams an equal place in the narrative.

As a consequence, as the story moves forward it goes further into the past.  Its narrative structure carries Miller’s argument that history works by a strange interweaving of the present with the past. Likewise in McGahan’s book, the story switches back and forth between John’s past and William’s present. All the characters, including the house and the land, are harbouring secrets that will eventually be uncovered.

Similarly, White’s tale about Voss (based on the life of Ludwig Leichhardt) explores metaphysical aspects of relationship and communication. Interestingly both McGahan and White have the Darling Downs as a central location in their stories.

Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River is “dedicated to the Aboriginal people of Australia: past, present and future” and its genesis came from research regarding one of her ancestors, Solomon Wiseman and when he arrived on the Hawkesbury and started the business of ‘settling’. Initially intended to be a work of non-fiction about Wiseman, the book eventually became a fictional work based on her research into her ancestor but not specifically about him.

So I come to accept that reading and learning about the tragedy of the confrontation between aborigine and white settlers is a topic that I don’t shy away from. Although unsettled about the reality of this brutal epoch in our history, I am happy to engage with a book that captures with a language and storytelling that resonate with me.

McGahan maintains a sense of menace throughout his book and I felt like I was existing on the edge of a precipice, wondering whether I would plunge to the depths but find the awakening of enlightenment that would result. This would have be the defining moment for me to acknowledge that this book has been a great read. I was left teetering…

So, unlike my friend and many others, as I confessed at the beginning of this blog, this book did not provide me with a reading experience that I found powerful, unforgettable, and deeply engaging.

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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.