Monthly Archives: May 2016

Summer Reading by Hilma Wolitzer

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Summer Reading by Hilma Wolitzer is the story of three women, who are loosely connected through their community in the Hamptons. Angela is retired and leads a reading group, of which Lissy is a member. Lissy is a trophy wife who spends her summers in the Hamptons, and Michelle cleans house for Lissa. Michelle is a local and is very aware of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ divide. The three women aren’t friends and don’t have much in common.

Lissy’s reading group are known as the ‘Page Turners.’ I haven’t read any of the books on their summer reading list, although I would like to. The books included, Can You Forgive Her, by Anthony Trollope, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert and Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Lissy is dyslexic, but wants to improve herself by reading good literature, however the other members are more interested in gossiping about people they know.

Funny that. I joined a book group once, and left after a few months as the group talked about the book for five minutes, then started on their husbands and children. Oh well.

Angela, Lissy and Michelle all have relationship issues, all of which were neatly tidied up by the end of the book. Their backgrounds were interesting, but I felt as if these three characters were too separate for the stories to work together to make a whole. I think I would have got more from Summer Reading if I had read the books the characters were reading, as I suspect their issues were similar to the issues faced by the heroines in their reading list.

What did interest me were the questions I always wonder about when I read about Literature. For example, what is Literature? Who gets to decide which books get to be called Literature? If anyone actually knows, I would love to know for sure. The deciding of things about Literature seem to me to be subjective.

Anyway, one character’s ‘go-to-book’ is Villette, which I own in a child’s abridged Dean’s Classic version, but have never read. I’m fairly sure Villette is considered to be ‘Literature’ and I think I’ll read it soon.

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Summer Reading makes good summer reading. The references to good books make this book feel more worthwhile than reading trash, (books that you don’t mind taking to the beach),  but the stories are uncomplicated enough to enjoy without too much effort.

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The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks

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The Steep Approach to Garbadale is the third novel I’ve read by Iain Banks, and my favourite so far of his books. I started with The Quarry a few years ago and nearly gave it up because I couldn’t get interested in the story, but by the end of the book I had been well and truly caught. Next for me came Espedair Street, the tragic-comic story of a one time rock-god.

The Steep Approach to Garbadale is the story of the Wopuld family, whose ancestor created an enormously successful game called Empire!, which is known as Liberty! in the USA. At the time the story takes place, the family run the business which has made them all rich, and are considering an American company’s offer to buy them out.

The main character is Alban McGill, who had worked in the family business before leaving, disillusioned, after the rest of the family voted to sell 25 percent of the company to the Spraint Corporation some years ago. Since leaving the family business, Alban had sold all but a token amount of his shares, and worked as a forester. Alban lives in a group house with friends whose low socio-economic status provide an interesting contract to Alban’s family’s fabulous wealth.

Alban is a man whose past has deeply affected his present. He is a good bloke, caring and kind, with good morals and values, but he cannot commit to his girlfriend, who doesn’t actually want much from him.

Alban’s commitment issues are caused by his mother suiciding when he was a baby, and a teenage romance he had with his cousin Sophie which he never got over. It doesn’t help that the Wopuld family act more like business partners than as a family. An example of this is Alban calling his grandmother, who is a controlling witch, by her first name, Win. (The connotations of his grandmother’s name are a clue to her character).

The present day story begins with Alban’s cousin, Fielding, tracking Alban down to ask his help to convince other family members not to sell their shares to the Spraint Corporation, in order that the business can remain a family business. Alban agrees to help Fielding and they start to do the rounds of the family. There are dotty Great-Aunts, black sheep and cousins, aunts and uncles galore.

The story moves around in time, telling of Alban’s childhood, the ill-fated romance with his cousin, travels around the world as a young man, and of his time working for the family business.

By the time I had read three-quarters of The Steep Approach to Garbadale, I was busting to know the answers to the following questions;

  • Why did Alban’s mother suicide?
  • Why was Alban’s grandmother so cruel?
  • Why did I want Alban to end up with his cousin Sophie, when his girlfriend was so right for him?
  • Would the family sell Empire! to the Spraint Corporation?

I got the feeling that Iain Banks used his characters in this novel as a mouthpiece for various issues he feels strongly about, for example, the War on Terror got a caning as did American capitalism, which Alban likens in a speech to his family to Imperialism. The approach to religion was interesting too, as Alban recognises his love for Sophie has similarities to a cult religion.

By the conclusion of The Steep Approach to Garbadale, I felt deeply satisfied with the way the stories and questions were resolved. The only things left to say are, I wish Empire! was a real game, and I’m looking forward to reading another Iain Banks novel.

 

 

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Wild by Cheryl Strayed

wild.pngIt’s a funny thing. I loved Wild by Cheryl Strayed, the author’s memoir of her 1100 mile hike along the American Pacific Crest Trail. Wild left me feeling happy and uplifted and all of those beaut things, but I was not left with the urge to buy a pair of hiking boots, spray myself with insect repellant and stride off into the bush.

The funny thing is that after reading a novel called The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce last year, all I wanted to do was walk out of my front door and up the street to the main road, before deciding whether to turn left or right, then keep on walking. The only thing stopping me from starting a journey of my own, in my slippers, was knowing I had library books to return.

Despite me not feeling like making a physical journey of my own, Wild is a great story. The author, Cheryl Strayed was 26 and a relatively inexperienced long distance hiker when she decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), alone, from California through Oregon to Washington State. Hikers cross deserts, climb up and down mountains, and suffer through blazing heat and freezing snow while they are following the PCT. Cheryl Strayed made her trip wearing boots which were too small and carrying a backpack so heavy and cumbersome, she called her backpack ‘Monster.’

Cheryl was struggling emotionally with the death of her mother, the subsequent breakup of her family and the end of her marriage when she decided to hike the PCT. She had also been using heroin, and while not an addict, was dangerously close to losing control. Her  decision to hike the PCT was not well planned, she was underprepared, short of money and emotionally unstable, but the trip turned out to be the making of her.

Despite her sadness, Cheryl’s writing never made me feel as if she was inviting my pity. Instead, I laughed with her during her adventures and enjoyed the trip, feeling as I too was dodging rattlesnakes and watching out anxiously for bears or other humans.

The description of Wild is ‘A Journey from Lost to Found,’ which obviously describes the author’s mental and emotional journey, rather than the physical hike along the PCT. Cheryl Strayed is brutally honest about her own faults, and tells the whole world of her infidelities and other behaviour which most people would never share. She certainly made some stupid choices, and was lucky to come out of that time in her life without further damage.

However, all of the above led to a book which I really enjoyed. Those who enjoy ‘self-help’ type books would probably get something from Wild. I’ll probably watch the movie, which starred Reese Witherspoon, and am particularly looking forward to seeing the scenery.

 

 

 

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Keeping the House by Ellen Baker

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Nothing says ‘women’s fiction’ like a picture of a clothes peg and a floral stripe on the cover of a novel.

I got about a quarter of the way through Keeping the House by Ellen Baker and gave up because I was bored.

By the time I left the characters to their own devices, the story was flipping back and forwards between a young married housewife in the 1950’s who had fallen in love with a dilapidated house and the former occupants of the house.

Unfortunately the story was slow, the characters annoying and the scandals not juicy enough to amuse me.

While I didn’t finish the story, I did flick to the end of the story to read the chapter headlines throughout, which provided marriage advice from magazines from the 1930’s to the 50’s. For example, a chapter where the young housewife squabbles with her husband because he wants to go fishing on the weekend with his mate starts with the following advice:

‘Happy family relationships are part of my responsibility; therefore – I will save enough energy to do the job of being a happy and helpful hostess to my family day after day. –The Modern Family Cook Book, 1942.

At least the advice was entertaining.

 

 

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Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick

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I chose to read Robert Goolrick’s novel, Heading Out to Wonderful, based on the title. I think the great appeal was the word ‘wonderful,’ although I quite liked the cover too. The story is set in Virginia and after I finished reading I Googled photos of Virginian landscapes, which look surprisingly like the artwork on the cover.

Heading Out to Wonderful is the story of  Charlie Beale, who arrives in the little town of Brownsburg in Virginia shortly after World War Two. Charlie is a butcher, who, for some unexplained reason, has a suitcase full of cash. This suitcase full of cash annoyed me the whole way through the story. If any aspiring authors are reading this, remember the most important rule; if a character is shown to have a butcher’s knife in the first chapter, the reader has to learn why the character has the knife, and what the character does with them. In this book, Charlie is a butcher, so far, so good, there is a reason and a use for his knives. But the cash? I have no idea. Did Charlie rob a bank? Or did he win the money gambling? Was it an inheritance? I wish I knew.

Well, at least the author explained what Charlie did with his mysteriously gained money; he bought properties. If Virginia is truly like the photos I saw, then I can understand why, because the countryside is truly beautiful. Charlie fell in love with Virginia, the town and the people of Brownsburg, who also fell in love with him. Charlie was a charmer, which is a useful trait for a butcher. He could also play baseball better than anyone else in town, which made him even more attractive to the women of the town, acceptable to the men, and a hero to five-year-old Sam, his employer’s son.

Not long after settling in Brownsburg, Charlie fell desperately in love with the most beautiful woman in town, Sylvan Glass. Sylvan was a hillbilly, whose father sold her to Boaty Glass, Brownsburg’s richest man, to be his wife. For me the sale of Sylvan was a weak point in the novel. Sylvan’s father clearly loved her and I don’t think it was true to his character to have sold his daughter for the farm and a tractor. I can understand why Boaty bought Sylvan though. Boaty was much older than Sylvan, a Mama’s Boy, who had never been loved by anyone else. It made sense that he bought himself a wife.

Charlie and Sylvan very soon started an affair, which is consummated when Charlie stops by Sylvan’s house on the way home from the slaughterhouse. This becomes a regular occurrence even though he is nearly always accompanied by little Sam, who waits in Sylvan’s lounge room reading comics while Charlie and Sylvan go to bed together. Sam was extremely uneasy about the affair, which he knew he could not talk about even though he didn’t quite understand what was going on.

I found it hard to believe anyone would go to bed with a butcher on his way home from a slaughterhouse. If Charlie had showered, maybe. But he didn’t. Charlie would have smelled vile, like bloody meat, on every visit with Sylvan. My imagination only stretches so far, and Sylvan jumping into bed with someone who smelled like an abattoirs is beyond my understanding.

Smells aside, Charlie and Sylvan’s affair obviously couldn’t last forever. Sylvan’s husband eventually decides enough is enough and things go from wonderful to rotten.

Even though I’m complaining about the smell of the hero and the mysterious suitcase of money and the whole Charlie/Sylvan/Sam thing in this review, I liked the story and the characters. The townspeople are good and generous and Brownsburg sounds like a lovely place to live. I have to admit though, I like a happy ending and I thought I would get one from a story called Heading Out to Wonderful, but the story became a lot darker as it went along.

The title, Heading Out to Wonderful, comes from an expression a character uses when giving advice. “Let me tell you something son. When you’re young, and you head out to wonderful, everything is fresh and bright as a brand-new penny, but before you get to wonderful you’re going to have to pass through all right. And when you get to all right, stop and take a good, long look, because that may be as far as you’re ever going to go.” 

For me, the first part of this book was wonderful, and the last quarter, just okay. Based on my enjoyment of Heading Out to Wonderful though, I would recommend this novel and will read A Reliable Wife by this author as soon as I can get my hands on it.

 

 

 

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The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

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The last time Waffles recommended a book to me was probably when she was going through her Harry Potter stage. (Like most of her generation, this stage may last for her whole life). I resisted reading the Harry Potter books for a long time, but eventually read the whole lot and enjoyed them, although probably not as much as Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, which I grew up reading.

Anyway, Waffles has been strongly suggesting I read The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde for ages and again, I’ve been resisting. But when I read her review of the book recently at WafflesVeryHappy, I knew it was time to get on board. You can read her review at the following link.

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

So, for the two people left in the reading world who haven’t already read The Eyre Affair, this is a story written for people who love books and reading. Us. We are the target audience.

The Eyre Affair is set in 1985, although this is a different 1985 to the one I remember. In this version of 1985, books and reading are the life blood of society. Everyone reads. Ordinary people have conversations about the plots of classics, discuss who really wrote Shakespeare’s works and there are so many people named John Milton that their names are also numbered. This is an alternate reality that I could love.

History must have gone off on a tangent sometime in the past, because in The Eyre Affair, the Crimean War is still going on. World Wars One and Two don’t seem to have happened, so technology has developed differently. People fly in airships and planes are a rarity. Time travel is a reality. Pet dodos are more popular than labradoodles.

Not only that, books are not quite the same as they are in our world. In The Eyre Affair‘s  version of 1985, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre ends with Jane going to India as an assistant to her cousin St John Rivers, although she did not marry her him. People on the street agree that this was a poor ending to a great book and the general consensus is that everyone wanted Jane to marry Mr Rochester.

The main character is Thursday Next. (I know, right? Great name. There is also a Mr Continued Overleaf, a Landen Park-Laine and, I’m embarrassed to say, a Mr Jack Schitt). Anyway, Thursday is what we would call a police officer or detective in the Special Operations Network. Thursday’s section is SO-27, the Literary Detective Division, whose members are also known as LiteraTecs.

Thursday is recruited into a Spec Ops 5 investigation of a dastardly criminal, Acheron Hades, who has been kidnapping characters from much loved books and holding them ransom. When the kidnapped characters are removed from the books, the story changes. If a main character is removed, the story ends. When Hades steals the original manuscript of Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, the entire world is horrified that the story might disappear entirely. (I might have to read Martin Chuzzlewit soon, in case this comes true).

Anyway, Thursday, along with some of her more unusual family members and a truly dedicated group of fellow LiteraTecs and other Spec Ops officers, enjoy the best adventures of all time as they fall in and out of poems, stories and books.

Despite all of these reasons to like The Eyre Affair, I didn’t think I would until Thursday somehow fell into the scene in Jane Eyre where Jane and Mr Rochester meet for the first time in the lane. Somehow, I believed every word. I laughed aloud when Pilot, (Mr Rochester’s dog, for the those of you who have not read Jane Eyre) licked Thursday’s face. Thursday threw sticks for Pilot, which he loved, because usually he only got to do what was written in the book.

The story got a bit complicated at times, and I’m fairly sure a lot of literary references went right over my head. It didn’t really matter though, because the story moved so quickly that I just went along for the ride. This is the most fun I’ve had reading in ages.

So, thank you very much Waffles. I really enjoyed The Eyre Affair. Now I’m looking out for Lost in a Good Book.

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My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

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A Melbourne newspaper reviewed My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout yesterday and said wonderful things about the story. Exquisite. Masterful. Etc. I expect the reviewer is better qualified to write a review or critique than me, but I didn’t like the story or style at all. I loved Olive Kitteridge by this author, so I am feeling doubly disappointed.

The narrator, Lucy Barton, is in hospital recovering from a major operation or illness, (I forget which) and is laying around reflecting on her life when her mother shows up to sit with her.

Lucy has not seen or been in contact with anyone in her family in years. Her family lived in poverty when she was a child, partly because her father was traumatised during the war. Growing up, Lucy felt different to her peers, always dirty, hungry, and with no knowledge of popular culture, as her family did not own a television. They lived in the garage of her uncle, (or great uncle, again, I forget which) until he died and they moved into his house.

The visit gives Lucy and her mother the opportunity to talk and reconnect, however they never manage to talk about anything more important than what happened to a neighbour who left her husband for another man.

At the time of her operation, Lucy is married with two young daughters. She doesn’t work outside of the home but knows herself to be a writer on the strength of having had two stories published in magazines. Somehow she then manages to write and have My Name is Lucy Barton published, but I didn’t believe in her character as a person or as a writer.

Lucy tells her story in sentences which are short and undescriptive. I was left hanging whenever I wanted to find out more about her past, such as the ‘snake in the truck’ episode during her childhood, which to me was a story that needed to be told in more detail. Lucy’s father shot two Germans in the back during the war, but we don’t find out any more about that either, or the nature of his trauma. These are events that shaped Lucy’s life, but despite the advice she is given to be honest in order to be a writer, the character holds back, teasing the reader with a story but never telling it.

If there is more to My Name is Lucy Barton then the message is too cryptic for me, because I didn’t get it.

 

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Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah

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I realised recently that I rarely read books by African authors. I nearly always read Australian, English and American authors, whose books are usually set in those countries. More fool me. I’ve been missing out.

Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah showed me exactly why I need to expand my reading horizons. There are whole worlds out there that I know nothing about. Whole countries, peoples, cultures and histories that I can learn about from my favourite thing, stories.

Ishmael Beah is known for writing a bestseller called A Long Way Gone, which is a memoir of his home country of Sierra Leone, the civil war and child soldiers. I might be one of the most unaware people of our time, but before reading Radiance of Tomorrow, I didn’t even know if Sierra Leone was in Africa or South or Central America.

It took me ten or so pages before I began to connect with the style of this novel. The surroundings, nature, even inanimate objects have their own stories which are described in detail, such as trees which entangle each other and paths that are starved for warm bare feet. At first the style seemed overly decorative to me, but once the characters began to emerge and I began to understand that the people of Sierra Leone are storytellers, it all made sense. The people’s whole way of life is stories, the stories of their past that the elders pass on to the children, the stories they tell themselves to be able to manage their present, even the stories they know in their hearts but don’t tell. By page 24, I was so emotionally connected to this story that I had a little cry.

Radiance of Tomorrow begins with an elderly woman, Mama Kadie, returning to her village after the Civil War. When she arrives in Imperi, the only other person about is her equally elderly friend, Pa Moiwa. Nearly all of the villagers were killed when Imperi was invaded during the war, but eventually other survivors return too. Many of those who return were maimed in horrible ways by child soldiers. Some of the returnees were child soldiers in the war. The first thing they do is bury the dead and repair their ruined homes.

The villagers also try to recreate their old ways, such as everyone in the village meeting at night to tell and listen to their traditional stories. Their communal evenings start with someone asking, “Story, story, what should I do with you?”, to which the listeners respond, “Please tell it to us, so we can pass it on to others.”

Life becomes difficult in other ways, with a mining company beginning operations in the area. The mining company brings with it misery and tragedy from the very beginning. Children are killed by massive vehicles roaring through Imperi’s main street and the water supply is poisoned. Girls are raped and murdered by men working for the mining company.

Eventually most of the men from the village are forced to try and gain employment with the mining company. Not surprisingly, very little regard is paid to safety and there are a great many deaths amongst the workers from the village. These deaths are hidden and unacknowledged by the mining company. Nobody has the authority to hold the mining company to account except the villager’s representatives, who are taking bribes from them.

Village life is also suffering because the school does not have supplies and the teachers are not being paid. Someone in authority makes a rule that children are not allowed to attend school unless they wearing expensive school uniforms, which barely any of the villagers can afford. The principal appears to be pocketing the school’s money.

My review might make this book sound miserable, but it is not. The title, Radiance of Tomorrow, comes from a sentence in the book, “For what is yet to come tomorrow has possibilities, and we must think of it, the simplest glimpse of that possibility of goodness.” The characters embody this quote, they are full of hope and goodness, even those who have done terrible things during the war.

One last quote, “miracles happen every day when we truly acknowledge the humanity of another or just have a simple, pure conversation with someone else.” After reading Radiance of Tomorrow, I felt as if I had a conversation with Ishmael Beah, and that I learned a lot from it.

 

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The Rumor by Elin Hilderbrand

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The only thing that I didn’t like about The Rumor by Elin Hilderbrand was the American spelling of ‘rumor’ on the novel’s cover. In Australia this would generally be spelled ‘rumour,’ but I expect our market is too small for the publisher to make any money from printing an edition just for us.

However, American spelling in the body of a book doesn’t annoy me at all so I got over this minor irritation quite quickly.

Anyway, as anybody who read my review of Elin Hilderbrand’s novel, Winter Street would know, I have a bit of a crush on Nantucket, and want to visit the island almost as much as I want to visit Prince Edward Island. When (and if) I do visit Nantucket, I’ll spend a summer’s day on Nobadeer Beach, alternately people-watching, boogie-boarding and reading an Elin Hilderbrand novel, followed by a dinner of lobster salad from one of the multitude of restaurants that serve this particularly delicacy. I’ll finish my day with a walk along a beach where I can watch the lights flashing from the Sankaty Head lighthouse.*

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Anyway, back to The Rumor. This story is about two women, Madeline and Grace, who have been best friends forever. They know everything about each other, their children are sweethearts, and their husbands are forced to entertain each other. Grace’s husband, Eddie, is a real estate agent and Grace and Eddie live a luxurious, glamorous life, while Madeline and her husband, Trevor, struggle financially but have a relationship which Grace envies.

Below the surface though, things are not what they seem. Grace is an indulged, stay at home wife who is having an affair with her gardener, while Madeline, who is a novelist, is struggling to think of a plot for her next book after already spending her advance.

Madeline is inspired by Grace’s affair (uh oh) and starts writing a book that looks like being a bestseller, but she fails to change the identifying details of Grace’s affair (double uh oh). Meanwhile, Eddie is desperately short of money and although his painful heartburn acts as his conscience, he forms a prostitution ring made up of his real estate business’ cleaners to rake in some cash.

Seriously, what could go wrong?

Regular readers of Elin Hilderbrand will recognise characters who have featured in other novels, which give the reader a sense of belonging to her version of Nantucket too. Everybody in the community know, or guess at everybody else’s business constantly, so not surprisingly wild rumours go around the island about all of these characters in The Rumor.

Things work out as they are meant to, however, and if the resolutions were a little predictable, then that didn’t bother me at all. The Rumor is a perfect beach read.

*In my dreams…

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