Saturday, 31 December 2011

Imperfections of memory

The last book I read this year is Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending (2011). It is a brief novella, at a mere 150 pages, but it contains a depth of meaning and beautifully concise writing that makes it a wonderful book to end the year on.
The story is divided into two parts. In part one Tony Webster remembers his school days with his friends Alex, Colin and the enigmatic Adrian Finn. The first three were “essentially taking the piss, except when we were serious” while Adrian was “essentially serious, except when he was taking the piss.” They were pretentious and enjoyed pointing out when things were “philosophically self-evident.” They went their separate ways at university where Tony found a girlfriend, Veronica, with whom he had an awkward first relationship.
In part two, Tony is a single man in his 60s. He has lived an ordinary life, had a commonplace marriage and an uneventful divorce allowing him to remain close friends with his ex-wife Margaret. Tony revels in the ordinariness of his life, which is disrupted when he receives a letter from a solicitor. The letter advises Tony that Veronica’s mother, whom he has not seen in over 40 years, has died and left him something in her will. Suddenly he begins “looking back over how my life has unfolded, and considering the paths untaken, those lulling, undermining what-ifs, I never found myself imagining”. Tony admits his memory is unreliable and he ruminates on the fallacies of memory, particularly as one ages.
I won’t describe the story in more detail, for fear of spoiling it. What I will say is that this is a brilliant book and well worth reading. It is brief enough to be read in one or two sittings. Barnes’ writing style reminds me of Ian McEwan, and there are some passages that are so enjoyable that I look forward to re-reading this novella again. (I particularly loved the bit about the ‘hand-cut chips’).
The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker Prize this year, and deservedly so. It is the first Booker prize winner I have read in a long time that I have really enjoyed.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

A few clowns short of a circus

I read Sara Gruen’s book Water for Elephants (2006) a few years ago, but I have just watched the film version so thought I would share my thoughts on both.

The elderly Jacob Jankowski is reflecting on his life and tells his story in a series of memories. He remembers the 1930s, when the depression was devastating Americans. Jacob was studying to be a veterinarian when a family tragedy struck and he was forced to leave home prior to graduation. One night he jumps on a train only to discover it belongs to the Benzini Brothers circus. Uncle Al, the owner of the circus, hires Jacob care for the animals. Al is brutal and when he cannot afford to pay wages or when he is displeased with his workers, he has them ‘red-lighted’ – thrown off the moving train.

Jacob meets August the circus ringleader who harshly treats the animals and his keeps his wife Marlena, an acrobatic circus headliner, under his thumb. August is particularly brutal with Rosie, the elephant that is part of Marlena’s act. Jacob sees himself as the protector of both Rosie and Marlena. Over time, Jacob falls in love with Marlena, leading to a confrontation with August. The story builds to a climax in which an incident occurs at the circus.

The book was an enjoyable, lightweight read. I loved the setting in the depression era, the melodrama and the other-worldliness of life in the circus. I found the character of Marlena annoying though. She seemed to be continually crying and was not as strong as I would have expected for someone who had endured the hard life her back story projected. She could have been much more vibrant and written with more depth, which would have made the love story more realistic and heartfelt. I don’t see what Jacob saw in her.

The film Water for Elephants (2011) stars Reese Witherspoon (Marlena), Robert Pattinson (Jacob) and Christoph Waltz (August). It is directed by Francis Lawrence, best known as a music video director, with a surprisingly old fashioned feel. The movie cuts out some of the characters in the book (like Uncle Al, making August the owner/operator of the circus) and focuses primarily on the love story angle. There were some elements I enjoyed in the film – the setting up of the big top, the minor carny characters (although it would have been great to see more of them), and the training of Rosie. Waltz, who seems destined to play the bad guy, is menacing and charming in equal measures and quickly becoming one of my favourite actors. But I didn’t believe Pattinson’s character and thought both he and Witherspoon were miscast. I also thought the climactic incident at the end could have been staged more clearly and been made more dramatic. A great DVD for a cloudy Saturday afternoon though. 

Monday, 19 December 2011

What floats your boat

Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us (2009) by Daniel H. Pink is a New York Times best seller which quashes outdated notions of what motivates people.

Pink argues that we need to move to a new era of motivation. In Motivation 1.0 we were driven by biological needs, at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy. In the revised 2.0, punishments and rewards were motivators. Now, we need to move beyond 'carrot and stick' systems because people are most engaged by intrinsic motivators. In Motivation 3.0 intrinsic motivation consists of three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

As a big believer in the value of intrinsic motivation, the ‘surprising truth’ is not that astounding for me. But I can understand that for a lot of people, trapped by a carrot and stick mentality, will find this revealing as Pink argues against tangible if/then rewards (e.g. bonuses, promotions) and for a deeper understanding of ‘Type I’ behavior based on the inherent satisfaction of an activity.

Pink’s writing style makes for easy reading although some parts are a bit simplistic. But there were phrases that caught my eye like: "We're born to be players, not pawns. We're meant to be autonomous individuals, not individual automatons' (page 107) and "control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement" (page 110). Fortune cookie wisdom? Sure, but true.

As a business text, managers can learn a lot from Pink’s arguments.  For example, Pink cautions against goals set by management and not by individuals. He writes "the problem with making an extrinsic reward the only destination that matters is that some people will choose the quickest route there, even if it means taking the low road" (page 51). He encourages managers to relinquish control and create a work environment that allows for intrinsic motivation. As a manager I have continually tried to create just such an environment and can attest to the difference in productivity, collegiality and engagement in teams that are motivated intrinsically and those that are not.

Pink is a big fan of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and continually refers to his work on flow.  I have recently read Csikszentmihalyi’s book Finding Flow and have reviewed it on this blog. Pink’s book is infinitely more readable.

The last section is a “Toolkit” designed to help readers to take action in their work, at home, and in other personal challenges through a series of motivational snippets. This section seemed odd to me as if Pink was using up leftover material.

I really loved how he summarized the book in a chapter called “Drive: the Recap” where Pink writes chapter summaries, a 100 word summary and my favourite:  a Twitter summary ("Carrots and Sticks are so last Century. Drive says for 21st century work we need to upgrade to autonomy, mastery and purpose.”). ‘Nuff said.

If you want to know more, but don’t feel motivated enough to read the book, Pink gave a talk at TED on motivation in July 2009. 

Saturday, 17 December 2011

No winter of discontent

William Shakespeare’s Richard III (circa 1591) is a play based on the rise to power of the tyrannical titular king. Richard is a limping hunchback and his deformity causes him to become a scheming vengeful man determined to overthrow his brothers Edward and Clarence to become king. In the first Act he describes his intent:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
(Richard III, 1. 1)

He succeeds in becoming a villain and will destroy anyone who stands in his way. He uses his supporters and discards them when they have no more value to him. This includes wooing the Lady Anne, after he has killed her husband and father-in-law. The body count rises as Richard picks of those in the line of succession, including children, and grows increasingly paranoid that others are plotting against him.  His opponents look to the exiled Earl of Richmond for support. The play concludes with a battle at Bosworth Field where Richard, offering his kingdom for a horse, duels with Richmond.

I had the great fortune of seeing Richard III in Sydney recently starring Kevin Spacey. Set in modern times, Richard is a tyrant not dissimilar to several world leaders who have been overturned by the people they have oppressed for so long – indeed, the program includes an article drawing parallels to Muammar Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong-il, and Bashar al-Assad.

Kevin Spacey is terrific as Richard III. He engages the audience with his roaring, mocking, wooing and scheming. It is such a physically demanding performance and he gives it his all. He is on stage for most of the three-hour performance - so fans of the actor will feel well-rewarded. Spacey is well supported by the entire cast - with special praise to the actors playing Buckingham (Chuk Iwuji), Queen Elizabeth (Haydn Gwynne), Hastings (Jack Ellis), and Queen Margaret (Gemma Jones).

It is directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) for the Old Vic Theatre in London, where the play ran from June to September 2011 before its’ global tour. The minimalist set worked effectively, with seamless scene changes from bedroom to battlefield. However the set was tunnel shaped and those seated n the aisles near the front towards had impaired views of the whole stage. We were fortunate in our seats, close enough to see sweat on brows. I particularly liked the use effective use of drums with percussion to punctuate the action.

The night ended with a standing ovation. Richard III is a delicious role for any actor, and Spacey plays tyrants with such relish. It was a wonderful night out at the theatre and a great start to my southern summer of contentment. 

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Sex, drugs and bananas

Cheeta the chimpanzee, best known as Tarzan’s sidekick, retired in Palm Springs where he spends his time painting. At 76 years of age (the oldest living chimp), he decides to write his memoirs, Me Cheeta, of his childhood in Africa before his capture in 1932, his rehabilitation in America, his career in the golden age of Hollywood, and his retirement to an animal sanctuary.  
The first novel written by James Lever, Me Cheeta (2009) is of course a fictional account of this time in Hollywood as seen through the eyes of an acting chimp.  It appeared on the Man Booker Prize long list and was hailed as a great satire of the gossipy Hollywood memoirs written by so many has-beens/never-was celebrities. As a fan of old Hollywood films and folklore, and a lover of quick-witted, biting satire, I approached Me Cheeta with an open mind, prepared to buy into the pretense that it was written by an elderly primate.

The novel was hit and miss for me. While it is undoubtedly very clever, I was always conscious of its cleverness – reading a page or a paragraph and thinking ‘ah, very witty’ or ‘wasn’t that ingenious’.

When Cheeta moves on to Hollywood and gets his big break in the Tarzan movies, there are some genuinely hilarious moments involving old Hollywood stars. Cheeta name-drops many in his alcohol-fuelled adventures, including: David Niven, Douglas Fairbanks, Marlene Dietrich, Errol Flynn, Scott Fitzgerald, Gary Cooper, Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford, Humphrey Bogart, Rex Harrison, Lana Turner, Peter Lorre, Fred MacMurray, Red Skeleton and John Huston. Through Cheeta, we learn about their sexual peccadillos, addictions, hang-ups, and failures. Much of this is slanderous (Chapter 8 was removed for legal reasons) and laugh-out-loud funny.  I loved the subtle way he tosses names into his descriptions. For example, Cheeta handled a mousetrap “as gently as Laurence Olivier handled the madness and depression of Vivian Leigh”. Readers will get more from this if they are familiar with this period in Hollywood.

Cheeta’s most significant relationship was with Johnny Weissmueller, the former Olympic swimmer turned Tarzan. Cheeta genuinely loved Johnny. Through Cheeta’s eyes we see Johnny wanting to be more than just Tarzan but being restrained by the studios and witness his failed romances including to the volatile Lupe Velez.  But Cheeta is not a loveable monkey. He had an ongoing rivalry with Maureen O’Sullivan, who played Jane. He hated Mickey Rooney. He was prone to act out his anger (including violating Chaplin’s bonobos) and his jealousy caused him to hasten the end of Johnny Weissmueller’s marriages.

Along the way there are messages about the ethical treatment of animals in film, including Jane Goodall’s ‘No Reel Apes’ campaign. Cheeta retires to a Palm Springs sanctuary where he paints and sells his work. Having finished work on the Tarzan films in the 1940s, Cheeta’s retirement is long and uneventful. This makes the last part of the book boring and uneventful, after the promise of the earlier chapters. I wonder why Lever didn’t write it as if the memoirs were drafted earlier, say in the 1950s, so as to avoid 60 years of boring retirement.

Of course there was no one Cheeta. Several chimps and costumed humans played the part on the Tarzan films. The other characters are real, but how much of what happened in Me Cheeta was true I do not know. What I do know is that Me Cheeta is an interesting novel, an original idea, executed in a clever yet uneven way. After a strong start, the book failed to hold my attention. 

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Go fish!

The first book I read by Ernest Hemingway was his 1951 novella The Old Man and The Sea.  I initially read it a number of years ago when I went through a phase of reading books with a nautical theme (Moby Dick, Master and Commander, Hornblower etc), since then however it is a book I tend to read annually.

The story centres on the elderly fisherman Santiago and his battle to land a large Marlin. Each day Santiago and his assistant Manolin go out to sea, but for the last 84 days he has been unable to catch a fish. To change his luck, on day 85 Santiago goes to deeper waters alone, where a large marlin takes the bait at the end of his line. Santiago is unable to reel the fish in and for the next few days the man struggles against the fish. When the battle ends, Santiago returns home exhausted with the remains of the marlin strapped to his skiff.

What I love about The Old Man and the Sea is the simplicity of the story. Hemingway has cut out all the guff, and focussed on telling a straightforward tale of man vs beast. Santiago is an interesting character of whom Hemingway writes, “Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.” 

Hemingway uses punctuation sparsely, which takes some getting used to, and his dialogue is uncomplicated, almost simplistic. The way Santiago struggles against his own weaknesses and has respect for his catch is beautifully written.  Santiago understands the sea, it has been his livelihood and his home all his life. 

Fishing has never appealed to me as a recreational activity or sport. I would not have the patience to sit calmly and wait for a nibble on my line. For this reason, I had expected that the story would be dull and that I would be thankful that it is such a short novella. But I was surprised to find the story to be so engaging. I would recommend setting aside an hour or so to read the book in one sitting. 

Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize in 1952 for The Old Man and the Sea, and when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. 

It was made into a movie in 1958 starring Spencer Tracey as Santiago. I have not seen it, but cannot imagine that it would reach the depths of meaning in the book. 

Friday, 2 December 2011

Villain or Victim?

Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite writers. I love her poetry, her non-fiction, her speeches, her tweets, and especially her novels. I was introduced to her work through her amazing 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale but my admiration for all things Atwood was solidified with Alias Grace (1996).  

Based on real life events in 1843, this is the story of Grace Marks, a 16 year old servant, who was convicted of murdering two members of the household in which she worked.  Thomas Kinnear, Grace’s employer, and Nancy Montgomery, Kinnear’s housekeeper, were killed. Grace has been convicted although she does not remember the murders. Dr Jordan is sympathetic to Grace and attempts to uncover her memory of the crime. The novel unfolds piece by piece as the reader tries to decide whether Grace was actually guilty of the crime or a naïve innocent who was also a victim.

Atwood is a compelling storyteller and she uses her talents to craft a portrait of Victorian times in Canada. From the way she uses language, to her depiction of domestic life and descriptions of the new science of psychiatry, Atwood adds layers to the novel. Feminist undertones appear in the exploration of the impact on women of poverty, repression, violence, sex and mental health. 

Alias Grace reads like a 19th century classic and a modern day who-dun-it. The story builds momentum at the halfway mark and becomes a real page turner. It is an understatement to say the book is well written – it is Atwood after all. Delightful turns of phrase are littered throughout. Her humour is evident, even in dark moments. She switches point of view from Grace’s first person narrative to Jordan’s third person account convincingly.

Atwood has clearly researched this case well. I particularly loved how each chapter begins with a piece of the factual account – an excerpt from the trial, a newspaper clipping, or a quote from one of the parties. I also liked the fact that the question of Grace’s guilt or innocence is not resolved by Atwood – she leaves it up to the reader to determine. This novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Canadian Giller prize.

My reviews of Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and Oryx and Crake (2003) are also available on this blog. 

Monday, 28 November 2011

Courtesans in kimonos

Arthur Golden’s novel Memoirs of a Geisha (1999) was a New York Times bestseller for over two years. While I bought the book at the time, there was such hype surrounding it that I chose not to read it until many years later when I grabbed it off my shelf. Geisha’s popularity is immediately apparent: a rags to riches tale set in an exotic locale, steeped in mystery of an ancient Japanese custom.

Told in the first person, the story is narrated by Sayuri, a retired geisha reflecting on her life. Born in a poor fishing village, Chiyo (as Sayuri was known as a child) and her sister Satsu are sold to an okiya, a boarding house for geisha. The girls are separated and Chiyo is sent to an okiya run by a trio of unpleasant women: Granny, Mother and Auntie. It also houses the cruel Hatsumomo, a popular geisha who brings funds into the okiya. 

Despite continually plotting her escape, Chiyo trains to be a geishas alongside Pumpkin. Later Chiyo is taken in as a protégé to another geisha named Mameha. Over many years she struggles to learn the art of being a geisha, has her virginity auctioned off to the highest bidder, and tries to find love with a man known as the Chairman.

Golden creates a fascinating world of ritual, art and culture that I found absolutely engrossing. I understand he interviewed real geisha to inform the novel. I don’t know or care whether it is factually accurate, because it was an engrossing and entertaining book from start to finish.

In Sayuri Golden has an interesting protagonist who experiences such broad emotions, from grief to jealousy, love to bitterness, and the reader follows her journey desperate to know her fate. I also loved the delicious bitchiness of Hatsumomo. The Chairman was the only character I felt was a little two-dimensional and in need of more depth.

In 2005 a film was made of Memoirs of a Geisha starring Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, Michlle Yeoh, and Ken Watanabe. Filled with beautiful costumes and stunning cinematography, the incredible cast (particularly Gong Li) makes this an enjoyable film. Despite its visually stunning appearance, the film is unable to bring out the richness of Golden’s story and as such I would recommend the book over the film. 

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Making amends

Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) begins at a stately home in the English countryside in 1935. Young Briony Tallis witnesses an interaction, between her older sister Cecilia and the housekeeper’s son Robbie, which she misinterprets. Briony accuses Robbie of a crime, tearing the family apart. A few years later, the older Briony realises that she blamed the wrong man and begins a lifelong quest for atonement.

McEwan deftly creates Briony and understands her worldview at age 13, on the cusp of adulthood, where her overactive imagination brings about her misunderstanding. He perfectly captures her immaturity and naiveté. As she ages, McEwan allows us to share Briony’s thoughts while she comes to terms with the consequences of her actions.

Throughout the book McEwan directly references a number of other authors and his storytelling is reminiscent of EM Forster and Virginia Woolf. Like Adela Quested falsely accusing Dr Aziz of impropriety at the Marabar Caves, Briony’s actions have ruined many lives. While she seeks forgiveness, how can she ever compensate for her wrongdoing?

Complex themes are explored in Atonement: love and desire, childhood, imagination, family loyalty, war, guilt and shame. McEwan’s descriptive writing draws the reader in and allows full immersion in the summer heat wave, Dunkirk and wartime London. Long after turning the last page I found myself thinking about Atonement.

In 2007 Joe Wright directed the film version of Atonement starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan and Romola Garai. It won the BAFTA for best film and was Oscar-nominated for Best Picture. The cinematography is beautiful and there are excellent performances by the young cast. I would recommend reading the book first to experience McEwan’s brilliant writing and the depth of Briony’s character. 

Ian McEwan won the Booker prize for Amsterdam (1998). I would also strongly recommend his other work, including Enduring Love (1997) and The Child in Time (1987).

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Just go with it

Have you ever found yourself so engrossed in an activity that you haven’t realized how much time has passed? You are so completely immersed in what you are experiencing – be it a conversation, creating artwork, a complicated business transaction, or reading a really good book – that you experience the energized focus of flow.

Hungarian psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the founder of flow theory and has written a number of books on the subject. His 1998 book Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life is an interesting exploration of his theory applied to work, leisure and relationships.

Csikszentmihalyi argues that “we haven’t learned how to spend our free time in a meaningful way” and that we need to use our leisure time effectively. Flow is present when we engage in a hobby or sport (active leisure) but not when we watch TV (passive leisure). Passive leisure is problematic when it takes up all of our free time. He writes “to make the best use of free time, one needs to devote as much ingenuity and attention to it as one would to one’s job.”

While Csikszentmihalyi’s book is interesting, I did not experience flow while reading it. I picked it up and put it down over many weeks. I had expected the book to provide practical advice to readers about how to “reclaim ownership of our lives”, but I found that it was more an explanation of flow than of how to increase the flow in our lives. Ultimately, the message I got was watch less TV and take up a meaningful hobby.

For those interested in learning more, Csikszentmihalyi gave a talk at TED which is available online.

Monday, 14 November 2011

The River's Edge

In 1992 a 14-year-old Dublin girl told her parents that she had been raped by a friend of her father and became pregnant. The girl and her parents planned to travel to England secure an abortion for their child, as abortion was not available in Ireland. The parents informed the Garda of their intentions and inquired about the best way to collect DNA evidence that could be used in the prosecution of the rapist. The Director of Public Prosecutions became involved and the Attorney General obtained an injunction preventing the girl, now known as Miss X, from leaving the country to have an abortion. The public outrage on both sides of the abortion debate was intense resulting in a media frenzy and political commentary. Eventually, the case of Attorney General v X established the right to obtain an abortion if the pregnant woman’s life was at risk. Because Miss X was suicidal, she was permitted to travel to England for the abortion, but miscarried before this eventuated.

This case serves as the inspiration for Edna O’Brien’s 1996 novel Down by the River, challenging the church, the state and the people to confront the abortion debate. Young Mary McNamara lives in rural Ireland with her parents. Her mother dies leaving her unprotected from the advances of her father. She becomes pregnant and, ashamed of the incest and concerned that the child will be a ‘freak’, Mary attempts to take her own life by drowning in a river. A neighbour, Betty, prevents the suicide and arranges to take the girl to England to have an abortion but they are forced to return to Ireland where Mary is taken into the custody of the State. Mary then becomes public property with everyone having an opinion on what should happen to her.

O’Brien writes in a beautifully poetic way and I enjoyed her descriptive prose (e.g. ‘a filigree of ash’). But the novel left me cold and at times I was ready to give up on it. Then I would push on, only to find myself engrossed for the next few pages.

It wasn’t the subject matter that put me off this book, but rather O’Brien’s storytelling. Too much is implied rather than described. Perhaps it was the lack of character development – we never really get to know Mary although I imagine O’Brien’s intention was to portray Mary as a girl without her own voice. I would have liked to understand Mary better, but there was a distance between her and the reader. There were many odd scenes where new characters were introduced only to be forgotten three pages later. The ending also seemed rushed and was unsatisfying. All in all, there was much to admire in Down by the River and while I would recommend it for its thought-provoking subject matter, ultimately I felt let down by the storytelling. 

Thursday, 10 November 2011

In Da Club

Club Dead (2003) is the third book in the Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris, on which the television series True Blood is based.

In this novel, Sookie’s vampire boyfriend Bill leaves their hometown of Bon Temps, on a secret assignment for the Queen of Louisiana. Bill tells Sookie to seek protection from Eric Northman if he does not return in eight weeks. Bill does not return so Sookie decides to track him down. With the assistance of Eric, an Elvis impersonator vampire named Bubba, and Alcide Herveaux, a gorgeous werewolf, Sookie heads to Jackson, Mississippi.

Once in Jackson Sookie goes undercover at the underworld club Josephine’s, nicknamed Club Dead – where werewolves, vampires, shifters, goblins and other supernaturals hang out. Here Sookie meets Russell Edgington, the vampire King of Mississippi. Although she is putting herself in danger, Sookie uses her detective skills and quick wit to locate Bill.

Club Dead provides the outline for the third season of True Blood but it is not a direct adaptation. As the TV show is notably different, I was able to enjoy the novel without spoilers. However I cannot read the books without imagining the characters as distinct from the actors who portray them (but they are so brilliantly cast that this is not a problem).

The book is a frivolous confection - not a deep, literary read by any means. But Charlaine Harris engages the reader with her humour. For me these novels are a delightful diversion.  

I look forward to returning to Bon Temps in the fourth novel, Dead to the World (2004). My review of the first two novels is available on this blog: Dead Until Dark (2001) and Living Dead in Dallas (2002)

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Dreams of Manderley

Daphne Du Maurier’s classic gothic novel Rebecca (1938) begins with the famous line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Each time I read this sentence I am instantly swept away into the tension, drama, suspense and gloom that Du Maurier has created. 

In many ways Rebecca is a modern Jane Eyre. The story involves a young woman who meets a wealthy English widower, Maximilian de Winter, (known as Maxim) in the south of France. After a whirlwind courtship they marry and move to Manderley, Maxim’s mansion on the Cornwall coast where the young bride learns she is not the first Mrs De Winter. Her predecessor, Rebecca, looms large over Manderley and the whole home is infused with her spirit. The housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, uses the new wife’s insecurities against her by openly comparing her to the beloved Rebecca. 

Desperate and lacking self-confidence, she feels she will never live up to Rebecca and is concerned that Maxim married her hastily. She makes several errors of judgement in a misguided effort to please her husband. Eventually the truth about Rebecca and her marriage to Maxim is revealed in a series of intriguing plot twists.

Narrated in the first person by the young wife, who is never named, Rebecca is told a flash back to the events that took place at Manderley. Not naming the narrator was a clever way to lessen the importance of the bride while elevating the dominant Rebecca. The young girl is naïve, sensitive and vulnerable - a complete contrast to Maxim’s first wife.

Rebecca is a delight that I return to every few years, only to become enraptured over and over again. It is beautifully written and the characters are brilliantly portrayed. Mrs Danvers is creepily evil, Maxim channels Mr Rochester, and Manderley is a character itself. Du Maurier is so descriptive that she allows the reader to be transported to this world.

The story has been filmed many times including a BBC television adaptation in 1980 and again for PBS in 1997. But my favourite remains Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological thriller from 1940. His Rebecca, the Best Picture oscar winner, starred Laurence Olivier as Maxim, Joan Fontaine as his new wife, and Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers. 

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Secrets and Lies

Australian writer Anna Funder spent several years living in the former East Germany researching the impact of the secret police, the Stasi. Funder interviews those who were followed, imprisoned and brutalised by the Stasi and tells their distressing tales. But she also speaks with the former Stasi members to try to comprehend their side of the story.

In Stasiland – Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall (2003), Funder proves that truth can be stranger than fiction. She uncovers the techniques the Stasi used to spy on the East German people and its own officers. Apparently one in six East Germans was an informer, and many became so after intense pressure, threats and deceit. 

Describing her investigations in the first person, Funder introduces the reader to people with fascinating stories of life behind the Berlin Wall. Placing an ad in the personal columns of a Potsdam paper, Funder sought “former Stasi officers and unofficial collaborators” yielding an impressive cache of interviewees.

The victim stories are harrowing. There is Frau Paul, separated from her infant son by the Wall, desperate to be reunited but unwilling to be bait in a trap to capture Stasi enemies. There is Julia who was called before the Stasi and interrogated about the contents of her love letters in an attempt to turn her into an informer. And there is Miriam, imprisoned, interrogated and deprived of sleep at age 16 for attempting to flee to the West, who is still fighting to find out the truth of what happened to her husband Charlie when he died in Stasi custody.

Funder also interviews those on the other side. She meets TV commentator and chief propagandist Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler who viewed the Wall as necessary to prevent “imperialism from contaminating the east”. Herr Winz, who spent 30 years in counter-espionage, remains a committed anti-capitalist waiting for the second coming of socialism. Hagen Koch painted the line which marked our where the Wall would be erected and Herr Christian who encoded transcripts of intercepted conversations.

I loved Anna Funder’s writing style and the way she placed herself in the story – sitting at the table interviewing subjects, drinking with Stati men, describing their encounters in dark pubs and cafes. I also admired the way she found humour among the sadness. I look forward to reading Funder’s first novel, All That I Am (2011) to enjoy more of her writing. Stasiland won the BBC Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction and was shortlisted for the Guardian first book award.

My review of Anna Funder's debut novel All That I Am is also available on this blog.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Tales of the City

I must admit that I judged Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy (1985-1986) by its cover. It was the look and feel of the book that persuaded me to buy it. The Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition seduced me with its cover art by renowned cartoonist and artist Art Spiegelman. The image of the three books on the carpet, a limp hand clutching a fountain pen, blood spots and some unknown person standing over the scene intrigued me. Spiegelman also did full colour title page for each of the novels inside, which neatly divide the text, and a map of New York’s Upper West Side on the back cover. But it wasn’t just the cover art that seduced me: the cover flaps, the embossing of the author’s name, and corrugated paper stock provide a tactile delight, which remind me why I will never fully convert to e-books.

Beyond my superficial reasons for purchase I also wanted to read my first Paul Auster. His name appeared many times on must-read book lists (for example, “The 1001 books you must read before you die”) so I thought it was time to explore his work. Having read The New York Trilogy, however, I will not be in a hurry to read any more Auster.

The first part of the trilogy, City of Glass, tells the story of Quinn, a mystery writer who poses as a detective in a case that he hopes will provide material for his novels. As he becomes more embedded in the case, Quinn spends months on a stakeout in the streets with his obsession leading to his ruin.  In Ghosts a private eye named Blue is hired by White to investigate a man named Black on Orange Street (the colour wheel is exhausted by the end of the story). The final story, The Locked Room, centres on a writer asked to help locate his childhood friend who has gone missing. I thought this was the best tale in the trilogy because it was linear and had more fully-formed characters. I particularly liked the description of the author’s childhood with his friend.

I must admit I am not sure what to make of this book as Auster plays with the reader’s mind with the interlinked stories and recurring themes. Using the devices of metafiction to raise questions of truth and identity, this is a postmodern detective tale. While there were parts I thoroughly enjoyed, my overall feeling is ambivalence. Perhaps I liked the idea of the book, rather than the book itself. Reading reviews of this book online it appears that many readers found deeper meanings that I did not. Regardless, my curiosity about Auster has been satiated and if nothing else I have a beautiful book that looks lovely on my bookcase!

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Pride and Prejudice

Set in London in 1948 with flashbacks to the time ‘before’, Andrea Levy’s Small Island is a story of race, colonialism, imperialism, sexuality and war. The book focuses on two couples brought together in a London boarding house.  

Jamaican Gilbert joins the Royal Air Force to defend England, his ‘mother country’ during WWII. He brings his new wife, the prim and proper Hortense, to live with him in London. Being raised in the colonies dreaming of England, Hortense has high hopes for her new life and is horrified to see the dilapidated bedsit Gilbert has secured as their home. Hortense had also never experienced racism until she moves to the UK. When she realizes that her qualifications will not be recognized and she is unable to find work as a teacher, she is humiliated. As a proud woman this rejection is a substantial blow to her ego and jolts her from her naivety.

Working class couple Queenie Bligh and her husband Bernard live in London. When Bernard goes off to war Queenie takes in boarders to make ends meet. Her tenants are mostly Jamaican immigrants like Gilbert. Queenie stands out among her neighbours for her opposition to their racial prejudice. She also finds that her husband harbours racist views.

Told in alternating narratives by each of the four characters with their own distinct voice, the book flows beautifully and seamlessly. While quite a long book, the story is gripping and it is a fairly quick read. Andrea Levy won the Orange Prize for Fiction for Small Island, as well as the Whitbread Novel Award and the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. These accolades are well deserved as Levy has created a magical work of literary fiction.

Small Island has been made into an excellent BBC miniseries starring Ruth Wilson (Queenie), Benedict Cumberbatch (Bernard), Naomie Harris (Hotense) and David Oyelowo (Gilbert).  The actors are phenomenal and bring the characters to life. Well worth viewing this adaptation, but best to do so after reading the book so as to get the most from the novel.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Time proved the representation false

Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) is a classic of American fiction and has been hailed as a must-read ‘novel of the century’. Writing in a journalistic fashion, Drieser describes in realistic detail the lives of his characters. He does not moralise or judge them, but presents in a factual manner their successes and failures. His style is welcoming and makes for an interesting read, but at 650 pages I admit I did find that it was a bit slow in parts and in need of an edit to hasten the pace.

The story focuses on Carrie Meeber who leaves her Wisconsin home to move to Chicago in the hopes of finding employment. Initially staying with her sister’s family, Carrie secures employment in a shoe factory for $4.50 a week, most of which is spent on room and board rather than the fine clothes and trinkets she covets. She meets salesman Charles Drouet who convinces Carrie to quit her job and move in with him, promising marriage once he is financially secure. Later Drouet introduces Carrie to Hurstwood, a socially respectable manager. Hurstwood is enamored by Carrie’s beauty and youth and begins to woo her away from his friend. Carrie, believing she is trading up, responds favourably to his attention. Determined to have Carrie at all costs, Hurstwood leaves his wife and children, steals money from his employer, and takes Carrie to New York. Over the next few years Hurstwood fails to earn enough money to keep Carrie in the style she wishes and they continually have to downgrade their lodgings and Carrie’s expectations. Their relationship strains and Carrie falls out of love. Eventually she asserts herself and becomes employed as an admired actress, while Hurstwood fails to secure work and is ruined.

The novel contrasts the fortunes of the three main characters: Carrie, Drouet and Hurstwood. Each one wants something unobtainable, lured by material things and the desire for upward mobility. Ultimately they will keep dreaming for happiness, while ending up lonely and longing for human connection.

The beauty of the novel is in its writing. I enjoyed reading Dreiser’s descriptions of the early days of Chicago and things like department stores that were just being developed. His depiction of homelessness and striking transport workers is compelling. The other thing I loved about this book were the random awesomeness of the chapter headings. For example:
·      The Spendings of Fancy: Facts Answered with Sneers
·      The Magnet Attracting: A Waif Amid Forces
·      His Credentials Accepted: A Babel of Tongues
·      The Lure of the Spirit: The Flesh in Pursuit
·      Ashes of Tinder: The Loosing of Stays
·      The Grind of the Millstones: A Sample of Chaff

Carrie was a frustrating character in many ways. She seemed to be a bit of a naïve and superficial doormat. It was hard to see what these men saw in her. She was continually waiting for them to give her what they promised. As Drieser puts it, ‘time proved the representation false’. She could have been a more rounded, deeper character. But Drouet and Hurstwood were interesting and delightful.

I was reminded of Madame Bovary, Effi Briest and Anna Karenina while reading this novel as each woman sought out happiness through the men around her and made poor choices resulting in tragedy. While Carrie’s tale ends with her triumph on stage rather than her death, she is unfulfilled and alone, reminding readers that fame and fortune do not necessarily bring happiness.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Wayward Women

I am currently reading Sister Carrie (1900) by American author Theodore Dreiser. While I am not yet ready to publish my thoughts on this novel, it brings to mind other books I have read which feature young women who embark on relationships that are contrary to the roles expected of them by society.

One of my all time favourite novels is Madame Bovary (1856) by Gustave Flaubert in which Emma Bovary, a young naïve woman, marries a simple small town doctor. Emma reads romantic literature and is unable to distinguish reality from fiction. She takes a lover and lives a dual life of faithful wife to her husband and mistress in her own romantic fantasy. Emma begins to yearn for refinement and starts spending money on objects that she cannot afford, going into debt and becoming ruined by her adultery. Flaubert’s writing is beautiful, humourous and richly descriptive.

German author Theodor Fontane’s 1895 novel Effi Briest tells a similar tale. At the age of seventeen young and immature Effi is married to a much older man. As her husband travels regularly, Effi becomes lonely and socially isolated in her new home. A notorious womaniser, Crampas, visits Effi and they begin a relationship. When her husband learns of Effi’s disloyalty he seeks divorce and custody of their daughter. This is a melancholy, deliberately paced novel with realistic characters that are not reduced to stereotypes. There are multiple layers to this story too – exploring the decline of the German aristocracy and the pressures of Victoria morality.

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877) is the story of Anna’s adulterous romance with Count Vronsky, which leads to tragic consequences. The aristocracy has a code of behaviour to which all members must conform. Leaving her loveless marriage and abandoning her child condemn Anna and force her exile from Russian high society. Tolstoy examines Anna’s motives without judgement. There are many characters and plot lines to keep track of. Littered with beautiful passages, Anna Karenina has one of the best opening lines of any novel: “Happy families are all alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.

This trio of tales are often compared and contrasted. To view these stories as simply romances misses the complexities and richness each author brings to his social critique. The women at the centre serve as vehicles to explore morality, politics, class, and even religion. Each one is extraordinary it its own right and should be treasured as uniquely individual. The authors are masters of their craft. Of the three, Madame Bovary is perhaps the most accessible – better known than Effi Briest, and shorter and less daunting than Anna Karenina. Which is perhaps why I have read Bovary many, many times and the others only once.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Decade of decadence

In 2004 Alan Hollinghurst won the Booker prize for his novel The Line of Beauty. The book received high praise from critics (who frequently compared Hollinghurst to Evelyn Waugh and E.M. Forster) and ended up on many ‘must-read’ lists. So, when I purchased this book and settled down to read it I was looking forward to a biting social satire, along the lines of some of my favourite authors.

Set in 1980s, in Thatcher’s Britain, The Line of Beauty is the story of Nick Guest, a young gay man, who moves into the London home of his school friend Toby Feddens while he finishes his studies. Toby’s father Gerald is a Tory MP, mother Rachael is extremely wealthy and his self-harming sister, Catherine. The story starts in 1983, then jumps to 1986 and 1987. 

In 1983 Nick is naïve and just beginning to explore his sexuality. He befriends Leo, a council worker, and has an affair with him. A few years later, Nick commences an affair with old school friend, Wani, a rich drug addict. The novel is basically a story of Nick coming out, hanging around with privileged party people, and taking cocaine. Looming over this decade, coinciding with Nick’s sexual awakening, is AIDS.

Much has been made of the open sexuality of this novel (the frank gay sex scenes) which readers may react to one way or another. This didn’t concern me. Rather my concern was over the lack of anyone to care about. The characters were shallow, unsympathetic and dull. The overall feel is pretentious.

There are passages in this book that are stunningly well written and where I found myself momentarily interested in these characters. But for the most part I found much of the novel boring and began skimming paragraphs in an effort to reach the end. Having said that, the last 60 pages or so were actually good, but not worth wading through the first 250 pages. This is another Booker Prize winner that I have not been impressed with (see my review of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi).

The BBC made a three part series of this book, which I have not seen, but it is adapted by Andrew Davies who is absolutely brilliant. I have heard that it is better than the book, so it may be worth a viewing.