Saturday, 25 June 2011

Fear and Loathing

Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust (1934) is a biting satire exploring the shallowness and hypocrisy of the upper class in the inter-war years.

Arisocrats Tony and Brenda Last live frugally in an English Gothic home, Hetton Abbey. Brenda, bored by country life, moves to London in a small rented flat where she begins an affair with vacuous social climber John Beaver.

A Last family tragedy is the catalyst for divorce. Despite having been cuckolded, Tony agrees to be the guilty party and manufactures evidence of his infidelity. Selfishly Brenda presses Tony for a larger settlement knowing he will have to surrender his beloved Hetton Abbey to pay for her preferred standard of living.

Refusing Brenda’s demands Tony flees to Brazil on expedition. When he becomes ill, the mysterious Mr Todd nurses him back to health. Todd then holds Tony captive and forces him to read aloud the collected works of Dickens.

The title of the book comes from a line in the T.S. Eliot poem The Waste Land (1922) that reads:
I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust

Waugh holds a mirror up to society to ruthlessly show the debris that remains when morals are lost. The characters are vain, self-interested and unsympathetic. The bleakness of the subject matter is lightened by Waugh’s quick and scathing wit. The comic dialogue and absurdity of certain scenes (such as Tony’s seaside trip or his feverish delusions) demonstrate Waugh’s abilities as a writer.

I loved this tragicomic novel and even prefer it to the more popular Brideshead Revisited (1945). This is a masterpiece of British writing and I recommend it highly.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

In search of I

Anthem (1937) is a dystopian novella by Ayn Rand. In less than 100 pages, Rand creates a bleak alternate future in which people, with names like Equality 5-2739 or Fraternity 1-7389, lack all individuality and have lost the need for the word “I”.

Orphaned at birth, at age five children are sent to a school where they are indoctrinated with 'knowledge'. At 15 their fate is determined by the elders (the Council of Vocations) who determine whether they will be a scholar, a doctor or some other fate. At age 18 they commence the twice-yearly journey to the mating house for a night of procreation. By 45 they can retire shortly before death. 

Anthem follows one man, Equality 7-2521 who is assigned the role of street sweeper. He is curious and keen to know more about the world (traits which are not well regarded in a community in which no one can stand out). One day he finds a tunnel leading down to an old train station and a glimpse of a world now lost. Equality 7-2521 attempts to show the elders electricity and is shunned, so he runs off into the Unchartered Forest. His lover Liberty 5-3000, who he renames the Golden One, runs away with him. Together they live in an old world house and learn to be individuals.

Anthem is a great introduction to Ayn Rand and her philosophies. She argues against collectivism in favour of individualism and in doing so, there are strong parallels to George Orwell’s 1984.

I enjoy science fiction and particularly dystopian novels like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and The Children of Men (1992) by P.D. James. 

Sunday, 19 June 2011


Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning Beloved (1987) has been on my bookshelf in the ‘to be read’ pile for almost twenty years. Back in the mid-1990s I was on a Morrison roll – reading Tar Baby (1981), Song of Solomon (1977), and Jazz (1992), as well as Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power (1992), in rapid succession. But for some unknown reason I had not read this book until now.

Beloved is set in the late 1800s and is the story of a slave named Sethe who lived on a Kentucky plantation, ironically named ‘Sweet Home’. After escaping slavery, Sethe is found by her master who tries to reclaim her. Rather than return her four children to the brutality of slavery, Sethe slays her two-year-old daughter and tries to kill her other children.

Later, in Cincinnati, Sethe lives with her daughter Denver in a house haunted by a ghost who is exorcised by Paul D, another Sweet Home slave. Shortly after, a young woman named Beloved arrives, who Sethe believes is her murdered daughter. Beloved changes the dynamics of all who live in the house and forces Sethe to confront her past.

I admire Toni Morrison but find I need to be in a certain mood to read her novels. Her writing is poetic, rhythmic and complex. There is a beauty to her writing despite her description of dark themes like rape, infanticide, murder, slavery and torture. The supernatural themes and non-linear story telling were problematic for me. While I did not enjoy Beloved as much as some of Morrison’s other books, it has stayed with me and I think of it often. Definitely liked rather than loved.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Short and Bittersweet

Will you please be quiet, please? is Raymond Carver’s first short story collection, published in 1976. He writes of regular, everyday Americans in their ordinary lives. The characters are often unemployed, depressed, in unfulfilling relationships. They are stories of intimate connections - father/son, husband/wife – and the closeness that strangers can reveal.

Carver’s gift is that in a few short pages he can bring the reader fully into the moments of these characters’ lives. He also writes about the mundane but makes it compelling, making the ordinary extraordinary.

“They’re not your husband” is about a man who criticises his wife and forces her to diet so that other men will admire her.

A nosy postman who observes a couple that move into a house on his route in “What do you do in San Francisco?”. Although he only sees them on his mail delivery runs, the postman thinks he knows what is best for the couple.

“Are you a doctor?” is about a man who answers the phone one night to a woman who called him by mistake. He agrees to meet her despite his sense that he really should hang up the phone.

While “Collectors” features a door-to-door vacuum salesman who goes through his sales routine even though he knows the unemployed man he is pitching to will not buy one.

I have huge admiration for Carver and his ability to craft such tightly knit tales which allow the reader to imagine what is not written. However, this early collection of Carver stories is not my favourite of his works and while there were some stories of interest, others I found rather dull. I much prefer her later works Cathedral (1983) and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981). 

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Furry Fables

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Wicked Bestiary is a delightful collection of sixteen short stories by David Sedaris. The author and illustrator of the Olivia children’s book series, Ian Falconer, provides brilliant and often creepy illustrations for each story. Despite the furry animals, this is definitely not a book for children.

Each story features different animals with human-like thoughts and mannerisms. They are often potty-mouthed, trash talking, mean creatures with some decidedly bad habits.

My favourites in this collection include “The Vigilant Rabbit” about a group of animals who want to build a gate to their community and the Rabbit appoints himself head of security. I also loved the cautionary tale of “The Mouse and the Snake” about a mouse’s unconditional love for a baby snake despite the knowledge that one day it might kill her.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is a cross between Aesop's Fables and Hillare Belloc's Cautionary Tales for Children, but without a tidy moral at the end of each story. Subversive, wicked, mean and odd. This was a strange, clever book with moments of laugh-out-loud humour amongst the deeper social commentary.  

Monday, 13 June 2011

Hung Jury

I bought Malcolm Knox’s The Secrets of the Jury Room (2005) just after I served on a jury. My experience on the jury was awful, largely due to my fellow jurors and their insistence on guilt because the defendant did not take the stand and ‘looked like the type’ to have committed the crime. After a daylong trial and four days of deliberation we ended up with a hung jury, (I was one of the two jurors not convinced of guilt beyond reasonable doubt). The zealousness with which my fellow jurors sought to convict and their willingness to disregard evidence that did not suit their pre-conceived ideas was frustrating and at times gut wrenching.

Knox's book was wonderful, describing in perfect detail the rooms where I had spent my week in the bowels of Sydney’s Downing Centre. I enjoyed Knox’s story of how he tried to get out of serving, and then finds himself empanelled on a jury for a person accused of soliciting another to commit murder. Knox’s case was considerably more interesting than mine, the luck of the draw when it comes to jury selection, but this was quite fortuitous as his case made for a compelling backdrop to this book.

Part courtroom drama, part true crime story, the book is ultimately a critique of the criminal justice system and the role of juries. Malcolm Knox studied law before becoming a journalist and novelist. He brings these skills to his writing and intersperses his research of the jury process with his own experience.

While studying for my law degree I spent many hours observing juries from the outside. So the experience sitting on a jury provided me with a different perspective on the criminal justice system in Australia and greatly enriched my knowledge. I believe strongly in one’s civic duty to serve on a jury when called and support Knox’s calls for reform. The Secrets of the Jury Room should be required reading for all in the legal profession.

The Crème de la Crème

Muriel Spark’s classic novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) has been on my reading list for a very long time. It features on many ‘must read’ lists such as the 1001 books you must read before you die. As such, I had high expectations of this novel when I finally cracked the spine.

Miss Brodie is a teacher in a Scottish girls’ school who has a rather unorthodox method. Her students, known collectively as the Brodie set, adore her. But Miss Brodie is viewed with contempt by the conservative element within the school.

It is the 1930s and Miss Brodie talks regularly of her 'Prime' – the period of her life where she comes in to her own. She takes her classroom outdoors, to galleries and to her home. She talks openly of her lovers and has a romantic view of the world. Brodie is a fascist and speaks favourably of Mussolini. Miss Brodie choses Sandy Stranger as her confidant and consequently the young girl is able to hasten Miss Brodie’s downfall.

The story alternates between various timeframes and perspectives. These flash-forwards were initially confusing as I found there were too many of the Brodie set to keep track of. Just as the reader is introduced to someone they are told what happened to them in the future, when they later become “famous for sex” or “famous for mathematics.” This lack of chronological structure though is an extraordinarily clever technique and requires an alert and committed reader.

I have strong personal attachment to Edinburgh and consequently enjoyed reading Spark’s descriptions of many of the places I know and love. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie certainly deserves its place on so many must read lists. It is witty, intelligent, unique and entertaining. 

Sunday, 12 June 2011

No Sleep 'Til Brooklyn

Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn (2009) begins in 1950s Ireland. Twenty year old Eilis Lacey lives with her mother and older sister Rose in a small town in County Wexford. Her brothers have moved to England in the hopes of finding work, while Rose supports the women of the family. Eilis tries to obtain work and is briefly employed in a local shop.

Eilis is a smart girl with an aptitude for bookkeeping. Father Flood, an Irish priest working in America, offers to sponsor Eilis to travel to America for work and study. Initially reluctant, feeling Rose should benefit form the priest’s generosity, Eilis eventually agrees and begins a dreadful voyage by boat across the Atlantic Ocean. When she arrives in Brooklyn, she is lodged in a boarding house with other young women and a strict landlady, Mrs Kehoe.

Eilis commences work in a department store and studies accounting at night. She reads letters from her sister and mother.  Eilis is desperately homesick and feels guilt that she is so far away and that her sister has sacrificed her own future for her. Eilis saves money to send home and plans to return to Ireland when her studies are complete.

A young Italian-American plumber named Tony comes into her life at a dance. They begin a romance. He takes Eilis to her first baseball game and invites her home for dinner where his family welcomes her. Just as she finally settles in America a family tragedy sends her back to Ireland. Here she is forced to make a choice between her old life back home and her new life in America. This is a first for Eilis who has been quite passive and does not ordinarily make her own decisions.

Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn is a beautifully written coming-of-age story with lovely detail describing each stage of Eilis’ journey. This is a subtle and slow book, as the reader becomes engrossed in Eilis’ story without even realising it. Her inner struggle between home and adventure, responsibility and independence, love and duty, unfold modestly.

While I have both The Master and Blackwater Lightship, Brooklyn is the first book by Tóibín I have read. It was such a wonderful novel that I read it in two sittings. Highly recommended. 

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Remains of the Day

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003) by Mary Roach is a delightfully interesting and eerily strange book. From crash test dummies and organ donation, to forensic testing and surgery practice, Roach explores how human cadavers can be used in a variety of ways for research.

While this morbid subject matter could have been presented as dry and purely scientific, Roach's wit and conversational style draw the reader in. Her humour is often welcome relief from the, at times, gory details.

Roach intersects historical information (past acts of grave robbing and body snatching) with modern research needs (face lift practice and air crash investigation). While some parts may make the faint-hearted a bit queasy, such as the chapter on cannibalism, overall it was not as horrific as one might suspect.

The cadavers are all held in high regard by those who research them and by the author. There are touching descriptions of the absolute gratitude researchers have for those who have donated their bodies.

Particularly enjoyable is the way in which Roach herself was part of the story. She gives her point of view and guides the reader through her research, introducing us to doctors and embalmers, researchers and family members.

Entertaining, hilarious, macabre and insightful. You cannot read Stiff without reflecting on what decisions you will make about what happens to your body when you die.

I didn’t know what to expect when I bought this book, but I guess I was curious. I have always said I would donate my organs when I die. Stiff reaffirmed for me the importance of organ donation and other scientific research that can be achieved through the donation of bodies.  

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Wholehearted Living

I first encountered Brené Brown (Ph.D. L.M.S.W) when I viewed her incredible TED talk on vulnerability. In that presentation she spoke about shame, vulnerability and the importance of connection with those around us. Brown was inspiring, humorous, sincere and compelling. I was immediately drawn to her and was so impressed that I wanted to learn more about her research. I sought out her books and chose to read The Gifts of Imperfection (2010) as an introduction to her writing.

The Gifts of Imperfection is subtitled “Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are”. Brown writes that it is those things that make us imperfect which also make us authentic and real and enable us to live a wholehearted life.

Brown describes our quest for worthiness and how we cultivate this through practicing courage, compassion and connection. One of my favourite lines is “every time we choose courage, we make everyone around us a little better and the world a little braver” (p. 15).

Ten ‘guideposts’ for cultivating wholehearted and authentic living are provided. These guideposts include self-compassion, resilience, gratitude, creativity and meaningful work. For each, Brown includes examples from her research and stories from her own life to illustrate the point she is making. Her honesty, openness and authenticity come through, as does her humour.

It is largely a self-help book – a genre I normally avoid and often view with great scepticism. However, there were a number of “a-ha” moments in this book that made me pause and reflect. I particularly appreciate Brown’s message that we should embrace our imperfections and realise that “I am enough”.

Brené Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability is available at: