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Archive for August, 2010

The thing about The Book Thief — and no doubt a reason for its phenomenal sales success — is that it reminds you of how satisfying plain old good story-telling is.  Narrated by Death, it is the tale of little Liesel Meminger who finds herself given to foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann.  On her way to this new home the brother who was supposed to arrive with her dies on a train.  It seems poor Liesel is surrounded by the death and disappearance of those closest to her.

At first, Liesel struggles to settle into this new home, but soon her new Papa, Hans, wins her over.  He is a wonderful character, kind and generous.  He survived WWI and now seeks to help repay a debt of gratitude by hiding a Jew, Max, in their basement.  A wonderful friendship grows between Max and Liesel.  A slow learner, Liesel gradually learns to read with the help of Papa and the encouragement of Max.  In turn, Max paints over his copy of Mein Kampf and creates his own stories for Liesel who has developed quite a penchant for stealing books.

Death is a great choice for a narrator.  It opens up some pretty interesting areas that one could explore.  Zusak allows him some personality without letting it get in the way.  We learn in the opening pages that Death always notes the colour surrounding the souls of the dearly departed.  This gives us some quite poetic descriptions of the skies in the moments he does his work.  Elsewhere, however, including the Prologue, I found the language a little stilted, as if Zusak was struggling to get into the unique voice of his narrator.  But who knows, perhaps this was done on purpose – perhaps Death’s voice is supposed to be stilted.  For example:

(p37): “He came in every night and sat with her.  The first couple of times he simply stayed – a stranger to kill the aloneness.”  [emphasis added].

Or this: (p59):

“… he paced around, gathering concentration under the darkness sky, with the moon and the clouds watching, tightly.”  [emphasis added].

(Death also has quite a devotion for starting new paragraphs!)

Quibbles aside, there are some wonderful scenes.  We have Liesel’s description of Hans playing the accordion.  Max’s nightly dreams of his boxing bouts with Hitler are very humorous and quite poignant – when he finally lands a punch on the Fuhrer he aims for only one thing: the moustache!  We also see Liesel retrieving a book from the book bonfire celebrating Hitler’s birthday – a very touching moment; (having seen the wonderful memorial in Berlin in which a vault of empty book shelves disappears down into the pavement to mark all the lost books, this is quite a scene).  Later, Liesel reads to all her neighbours when they huddle together in a basement during air raids.  Her neighbour, and best friend, Rudy, aids and abets her thievery.  He was captivated by Jesse Owens’ success at the Berlin Olympic Games and uses some charcoal to black himself up and run a race in homage to his hero.  Later in the book, the two of them go off to steal some fruit from nearby farmers – the first year, at the start of the war, there’s loads of apples to take, but the next year, the trees are like skeletons and the take is hardly worth it.  We also have Max declare to Liesel that Mein Kampf is “the best book ever” — not because it is a good read, but because it saved his life.  Liesel gives Max daily weather reports – for it is months since he has seen the sky; he revels in her descriptions, such as the ‘rope of cloud’.

The power of the story lies in the ability for us to see the grave injustices of the Nazis through the eyes of Liesel and the people she loves – Papa, Mama, Max, Rudy.  Along the way, one of the central ideas of the book is espoused: the power of words.  Max’s ‘The Word Shaker’ story, given to Liesel, is especially powerful.  So too is the madness of war, the horror of what people are capable of.  These cartoons and other stories within the story are quite post-modern.  I can see in future e-book editions, the trees which grow Hitler’s words fluttering on the (electronic) page.

I mentioned some of the more frustrating language above, but there are, of course, far more examples of wonderful writing and very lyrical images.  We have “metallic eyes [clashing] like tin cans in the kitchen” (p113); a description of the Great War as “a conversation of bullets” (p189).  There is also nice humour throughout, some of it quite black, such as the Jews being marched to “Dachau, to concentrate” (p415); and one of Hans’s LSE associates who complains, “Just once I want to be there when they [bomb] a pub, for Christ’s sake.  I’m dying for a beer.”  (p462).  Furthermore, Zusak’s use of German, and his translation into English, is pitch-perfect.

The Book Thief deserves its commercial success.  Its language is simple.  It’s such an engaging story that the small motes of strangeness in the narrative and editing are quickly forgotten.  What we are left with is a great read, with great story-telling at its heart.  And great story will win out every time.

Sue at Whispering Gums has a lovely review here.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Picador

ISBN: 9780330423304

584 pages

Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow, (aka: Personal Library).

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Every time a new Tim Winton novel comes out I somehow find myself thinking, Ah, another story set in a coastal town in Western Australia, with a small cast of off-beat, earthy (yet never quirky), and slightly ‘broken’ characters, many of whom are known by their nickname, written in trademark ‘muscular’ prose with warm humour, and always, always the use of the word ‘saurian’ – an ever-present friend that has become so much of a trademark that it borders on a tic*.  Oh, and, of course, the Miles Franklin Award sticker on the front cover!  Perhaps this is why it has taken me some time to come around to reading the wonderful Breath.  That pretty much sums him up doesn’t it?  Well, the answer, as it turns out, is both yes and no.

Reading Winton is an engaging, physical experience.  You not only see the environment and people he depicts, you feel them.  In the Miles Franklin Award-winning (I warned you!) Breath, the prose is pared back to raw essentials – and what wonderful essentials they are.  There are no bells and whistles here; this is the antidote to those who dislike (or are at least a little weary of) the pyrotechnics of Dave Eggers, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Safran Foer and their ilk.  Instead, there is a precise economy.  The result?  Writing that reaches a new-found power.

It is fair to say that it ‘sings’ – and I use that word deliberately, because I relished the way in which the senses are so engaged, particularly sound.  Breath is such an aural experience, perhaps no surprise for a writer whose last novel (also a Miles Franklin winner) was entitled Dirt Music – if you can make music out of dirt, then think of the music you can make out of everything else!  The earth ‘hums’, oars creak in their rowlocks, wattlebirds ‘buzz’, kids’ bikes ‘whirr and clatter’, styrofoam surfboards ‘squeak’.  And then there is the ocean, the roaring surf, whose repeated descriptions over the course of a book might veer toward sameness in lesser hands, but Winton sustains the dynamism of the seascapes beautifully.  We get an early taste, and, like Bruce Pike, out narrator, we are hooked (p27):

Waves ground around the headland, line upon line of them, smooth and turquoise, reeling across the bay to spend themselves in a final mauling rush against the bar at the rivermouth.  The air seethed with noise and salt; I was giddy with it.

Later, Bruce tells of the first time he surfed ‘Old Smoky’ – the offshore giants that only get going in huge storm swells, (p113):

… the sight of the thing pitching out across the bommie drove a blade of fear right through me.  Just the sound of spray hissing back off the crest inspired terror; it was the sound of sheetmetal shearing itself to pieces.  The wave drove onto the shoal and the report cannoned across the water and slapped against my chest.

There is such energy in these passages; the writing whizzes us forward as if we are on (or watching!) those waves too.  And even when Winton does not describe the sound of something, such as the dour local baker’s ‘loaves like house bricks’, you still hear them in your head, clunking down onto the shop counter with supreme finality.  Elsewhere, Pikelet remembers (p67) coming home “at dusk with my ears ringing from the quiet.”  Music, it seems, is everywhere.

We first meet Bruce as a 50-year-old paramedic when he’s called out to what looks like an apparent teenage suicide.  But he sees through the dressed up situation to the truth that the mother wants hidden and his paramedic partner cannot see.  We then return to Bruce’s childhood growing up in Sawyer, a sleepy coastal town (I warned you!), where he is known as ‘Pikelet’ by his daring sidekick Loonie.  Pikelet and Loonie make fun by diving into the river and holding their breath, holding onto the ‘saurian’ tree roots (bingo!) on the bottom.  They also hold their breath and hyperventilate until their vision becomes tunnelled and they see stars.  But it is the surf that enthrals them and soon they find themselves in awe of ‘Sando’, a mid-30’s surfer dude married to the moody Eva.  They learn to surf and see Sando, a man who rides the biggest waves, as a God; and they become his disciples.  Sando soon takes them to offshore and distant breaks which, by turns, get larger, more thrilling, and more dangerous.  They become addicted to the thrill, obsessed by it.  For Pikelet, there is in surfing “the outlaw feeling of doing something graceful, as if dancing on water was the best and bravest thing a man could do.” (p29).

Interestingly, in these opening pages of Bruce’s childhood, we see Loonie much more clearly.  Loonie takes centre stage, “greedy about risk”, whilst Pikelet is slightly more circumspect and unsure of himself.  I enjoyed this slow revealing of our narrator – we get to know him far more gradually than we do Loonie who bursts onto the scene and demands attention.  The most we get on Pikelet is his reminiscences of his very first – and unforgettable – wave (p40):

And though I’ve lived to be an old man with my own share of happiness for all the mess I made, I still judge every joyous moment, every victory and revelation against those few seconds of living.

Indeed, Bruce goes onto think that (p50):

More than once since then I’ve wondered whether the life-threatening high-jinks that Loonie and I and Sando and Eva got up to … were anything more than a rebellion against the monotony of drawing breath.

We follow Pikelet as he experiences the to-ing and fro-ing of the triangular relationship that he shares with Sando and Loonie.  Both Pikelet and Loonie in turn experience moments of intimacy with Sando.  When Loonie breaks his arm, Pikelet is taken out big-wave hunting by Sando; then Loonie travels to Bali with Sando and Pikelet is left behind, commiserating with Eva as she recovers from yet another knee operation.  These alternating moments of intimacy with their cult-leader are like the ins and outs of the tide, with Pikelet and Loonie increasingly at polar ends as a space opens up between them that cannot be filled.  Pikelet’s obsession needs a new home whilst Sando is away and it finds an unexpected outlet.

I’ve made much of the sound of this story, but Winton engages every sense fully.  Pikelet’s chief memory of high school is the bus ride (p44):

… the smells of vinyl and diesel and toothpaste, corrugated iron shelters out by the highway, rain-soaked farmkids, the funk of wet wool and greasy scalps, the staccato rattle of the perspex emergency window, the silent feuds and the low-gear labouring behind pig trucks, the spidery handwriting of homework done in your lap, and the heartbreaking winter dusk that greeted you as the bus rolled back across the bridge into Sawyer. 

But, quelle horreur, not content with his trademark ‘saurian’, Winton has to tread on my territory, finding a place in his pared-back prose for the dilettante (p217) as we find out more about Eva’s past aerial skiing – she turns out to be every bit the adrenalin junkie that the boys are.  All I can say is: ‘Back off Winton – dilettante is mine!’  (Ah, but the sad truth is I admire him even more now than I did before, damn him!)

‘Breath’ is, of course, a recurring motif, but it is not over-used.  There is the hyper-ventilating Loonie and Pikelet, the holding of breath beneath pummelling waves, the stop-start snoring of Pikelet’s father, the briny breath of the sea, and the unravelling obsession of characters’ relationship with breath and breathing.  We know Bruce is a broken man, but he eventually finds an outlet for his thrill-seeking in his job as a paramedic.  Others are not so fortunate.

Breath has strong autobiographical undertones – Winton nearly drowned as a youth and was always scaring himself surfing big waves.  But it seems its author is anything but broken.  This book ticks all the Winton boxes and therefore seems ripe to be characterised as ‘just another Winton’.  Yes, it is these things, but it somehow seems more than them too.  Breath’s raw energy and pared-back essence is masterful and it deserves all the praise it has garnered to-date.  I’m already looking forward to the next time I pick up a book and see the word ‘saurian’…

* Saurian: of, relating to, or resembling a lizard.

Breath by Tim Winton

Penguin

ISBN: 9780143009580

265 pages

Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow, (aka: Personal Library).

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We Are All Made of Glue by Marina Lewycka is an intriguing novel.  The story is narrated by Georgie Sinclair, a mother of two, whose marriage to Rip is on the rocks.  Into her new-found separation comes the elderly Mrs Naomi Shapiro, who lives in Canaan House in abject squalor with seven cats and fights over the red-sticker specials with other pensioners at the local grocery store.  When she has a fall and laid-up in hospital, Georgie is called as her next of kin and very soon our narrator, an aspiring chic-lit author, is drawn into the feline world of this old woman and her strange life.  No sooner has the old woman been placed into hospital has a pair of untrustworthy real estate agents conspired with social services personnel to try to oust Mrs Shapiro from her home and make a huge profit on the deal in the process as it is ripe for  redevelopment.  Standing in their way is Georgie, who faces trouble of sorts at home with her teenage son Ben who is developing into a rabid Christian fundamentalist and is spouted wild, internet-sourced theories of coming Armageddon.  She feels an unavoidable connection to the old woman, and her nosy interest in her past is where the fun begins.

This is the initial set-up for the story and like Lewycka’s wonderfully funny (and Booker long-listed) debut, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (see my review), there is a collection of laughs here too in her typically black and slapstick forms.  However, for me this early part of the novel didn’t quite reach the heights of her first.  I suspect part of the reason is Georgie’s chic-lit ambitions – we get some very funny drafts of her story entitled The Splattered Heart, but some of the narrative ‘voice’ of the real story comes in the form of this ultra-commercial, chic-lit voice too and made me feel a little queasy.  For example: Georgie begins an affair with one of the unscrupulous agents’ more honest business partners, Mr Diabello, whom she describes thus:

His smile made rugged creases in his craggily handsome cheeks.  The cleft in his square, manly chin dimpled seductively.  His dark and smouldering eyes seemed to gaze right into my soul – or perhaps right into my underwear.

And so on.  Maybe this is so over the top that it is meant to be read as a satire on the drivel that Georgie is trying to pen, but it made me cringe rather than laugh.

Where the story excels is when Georgie delves into the history of Mrs Shapiro, for it soon becomes clear that not is all it seems with the old lady.  Into the mix is thrown a Palestinian handyman, Mr Ali.  He has two teenage Arabic relations who Georgie allows to take up residence in the house with the goal of repairing it after Mrs Shapiro has another fall and is placed into an old persons’ home against her will by the evil social worker, Mrs Goodney.  When Mr Ali recognises a photo of a place in Israel on the wall, we have the beginnings of a great story, for both he and Mrs Shapiro have a past from either side of the Jewish-Palestinian divide.  In beginning to tell Georgie of his story, Mr Ali says, “Of course, everybody knows about the sufferings of the Jews. … Only suffering of Palestinian people nobody knows.”  If this is not enough, we then have an Israeli man, Chaim Shapiro, arrive claiming ownership of the house.  What is his relationship to Mrs Shapiro?  Does he have a rightful claim to the house?  Do any of them?

In the meantime, it is agreed that Chaim and Mrs Shapiro will share the house with the two Arabic youths, despite the mistrust between them, as Georgie noses further and further into the histories of all these characters and the intersections of their histories and peoples.

But can they live together?  Thinking of the articles on adhesives she edits to earn an income, Georgie concludes (p359), “If you could just get the human bonding right, maybe the other details – laws boundaries, constitution – would fall into place.  It was just a case of finding the right adhesive for the adherends.  Mercy.  Forgiveness.  If only it came in tubes.”  To some this will read as a trite over-simplification but Lewycka has dared to dream and find some common-ground where there seems none.  Others may dislike it, but I salute it.  There is a better, more focussed adhesives metaphor shortly thereafter, when we have Georgie’s musings on adhesive ploymerisation (p381):

[It] depends on sharing.  An atom which is short of an electron looks out for another atom that’s got the right sort of electron …  then the atom grabs the electron it needs.  But no theft or nastiness is involved.  The two atoms end up sharing the electron, and that’s what holds all the atoms together in one beautiful long endlessly repeating dance – the beauty of glue!”

The notion of peace is further reinforced when juxtaposed with Georgie’s own family when Ben suffers a seizure and is hospitalised.  We find him surrounded by his sister Stella, Rip and Georgie.  Stella takes her parents to task for their childish fighting, telling her mother, “Doesn’t matter who started it.  We’re fed up of it.”

There are still laughs to be had, including the hilarious end to Canaan House after a BBQ celebrating the DIY-ers’ completion of the ‘penthouse suite’.  But we fortunately have a far more solid and meaningful foundation for them than the initial set-up of the novel hinted at.  The story is perhaps a little overly indulgent in some of the back-stories – some of Georgie’s interaction with her parents might be superfluous for instance.  But most of the seemingly loose ends are tied nicely together by the end.  So it is an odd fish this book.  There is, I imagine, something in it for everyone, which is both a weakness and strength.  It is thoroughly enjoyable and readable, very ‘light’ in terms of literary pretence, perhaps one that women might get more out of in terms of some of the humour.  But I can’t help thinking it could have been even better had the focus been just a little sharper.

We Are All Made of Glue by Marina Lewycka

Penguin

ISBN: 9780141030999

418 pages

Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow, (aka: Personal Library).

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Confession time!  Sue over at Whispering Gums rightly took me to task a few months back after she perused my ‘Favourite Reads’ only to find no Dickens.  The reason?  Even more shocking than not having him on my list was the fact that, as I quipped to Sue, the closest I’d come to reading Dickens was the thoroughly enjoyable Jack Maggs by Peter Carey(!)  (Jack Maggs is Carey’s Dickensian homage based around Magwitch—the convict who spooks Pip in the opening pages of Great Expectations.)  Now, my single brush with Dickens is not completely true, for in primary school did put on a musical production of Oliver one year, in which, thankfully, I had only a bit part.

I’m not really sure how my lack of Dickens came to pass, though I had for some years been operating under the (very false) perception that I did not need classic realist tales, so engrossed was I in my favourite magic realist genre.  I am a dilettante after all.  But, as Sue will be glad to hear, I am very fond of Jane Austen!  So it is a little strange that I hadn’t got round to Dickens.  In any case, what can I possibly add to what has already been written on such a great book?

Famous for his characters (and caricatures?), I think one goes in expecting over-the-top characterisations, yet I was very glad to find myself enjoying all the characters that Dickens establishes and defines so well and with such flourish.  It is no wonder his characters are some of the most memorable in literature.  Yet for all of the sense of character, for me Great Expectations is a wonderful illustration of plot and structure.  It is here that Dickens so excels, with an intricate—and yet completely controlled—plot.  Yes, there are some happy co-incidences here and there, but they are easily forgotten.  The three-part ‘stages’ of Pip’s expectations are equal in length and perfectly balanced.  Straight from the off we are introduced to a character who might seem a bit player in the form of the convict Magwitch, to whom Pip offers some food and drink, and yet it is these characters, so expertly stage-managed within the structure of the story, who go onto play very important roles in Pip’s life.

WARNING: SPOILER ALERT – FOR ALL THOSE WHO HAVEN”T READ IT (WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING WITH YOUR TIME?!):

In each stage we see a very different Pip, from the boy ‘raised by the (Rampaging!) hand’ of his very much older sister and her blacksmith husband Joe Gargery, who comes into his ‘great expectation’ of inheritance at the end of the first stage, to the snobbish, ungrateful, devil-may-care Pip, carelessly living beyond his much increased means in London in the middle stage, to the final stage in which he realises the errors of his ways, and begins to redeem himself by admirably assisting his good friend Herbert Pocket.  Along the way he also finds the truth behind his benefactor and his wealth vanishes before he finally comes to rest in a comfortable position.

Great Expectations is a bildungsroman story—i.e., the tracing of a youth growing into adulthood, gathering wisdom along the way, but it has very definite thrills and action sequences.  Set against the highly stratified and rigid class hierarchy of Victorian England, we follow Pip’s internal struggle with his guilt over jumping up the social ladder and the ill-treatment of those he left behind.  The story pretty much has a bit of everything, with the rise and fall of Pip’s wealth, his attaining of wisdom, his finding and losing and finding again of love,  whilst all around him the lives of very rich cast of characters evolve, including the slighted (and simply wonderful) Biddy who finds love, the rise of Magwitch (as a convict done well in our very own Australia, we should be so proud!), the memorable Mr Jaggers, who seems to act as lawyer to just about everyone—and why not?, for he’s seems unbeatable in any argument!—to the deceitful and cloistered Miss Havisham and her adopted and seemingly heartless Estella.  The list goes on.  And in each of them is traced out an arc of growth or retardation.  The book even has two different endings offered(!), with the original and discarded ending offered after the revised, refined, far more enjoyable and, dare I say it, more ‘Hollywood’ ending.

Last, but by no means least, there is the language.  The prose’s exuberance and vitality is so overwhelming it almost threatens at times to be a little too much, but it never is.  Instead, we are totally entranced by Pip’s (very erudite!) narrative of this wondrous and eventful story.  Humour abounds, with wry observations such as ‘one always feels better when one has a lot of stationery’ (how true!), to the more overt: take Trabb’s Boy’s mimicking of the pompous Pip when he returns a gentleman to the village he grew up in, as well as the delightful Mr Pocket lifting himself up by his pulling his own hair.

The evocation of place is another highlight – particularly when that place is either a very old house(!) or anything to do with London.   Early on (p14), we get a taste of Pip’s abilities to describe a scene:

Now I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spiders’ webs; … On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy, and the marsh-mist was so thick, that the wooden finger on the post directing people to our village—a direction which they never accepted, for they never came there—was invisible to me until I was quite close under it.  Then, as I looked up at it, while it dripped, it seemed to my oppressed conscience like a phantom devoting me to the Hulks.

It is also quite moving at times too, none more so than Magwitch’s death (p436):

‘Dear Magwitch, I must tell you, now at last.  You understand what I say?’

A gentle pressure on my hand.

‘You had a child once, whom you loved and lost.’

A stronger pressure on my hand.

‘She lived and found powerful friends.  She is living now.  She is a lady and very beautiful.  And I love her!’

With a faint effort, which would have been powerless but for my yielding to it, and assisting it, he raised my hand to his lips.  Then he gently let it sink upon his breast again, with his own hands lying on it.  The placid look at the white ceiling came back, and passed away, and his head dropped quietly on his breast.

Wonderful, and what great use of ‘passing away’ to refer to his gaze and, of course, his life.  I am so very glad I finally got around to reading it.  With thanks to Sue for her rightful prompting, it is left only for me to say: a classic.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Vintage

ISBN: 9780099511571

460 pages

Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow, (aka: Personal Library).

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