Wednesday, 31 December 2014

My 2014 in books

I have enjoyed my reading in 2014, and again tried to balance my fiction and non-fiction reads as well as taking on new authors that I have not read before. I had hoped that the year would be a better one for reading and blogging, and overall I think it has been.

In January I wrote that my priority was  to finish books that I had already started, which included:

    • Oryx and Crake (2003) by Margaret Atwood (Update - Read Jan 2014
    • Mortality (2012) by Christopher Hitchens (Update - Read Feb 2014)
    • The Cuckoo's Calling (2013) by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling) (Update - Read Sept 2014)
    • A Sport and a Pastime (1967) by James Salter
    • World of Wonders (1975) by Robertson Davies
    • A Feast for Crows (2005) by George RR Martin
    • Wolf Hall (2009) by Hilary Mantel
    • And the Mountains Echoed (2013) by Khaled Hosseini
    • The Getting of Wisdom (1910) by Henry Handel Richardson
    • The Slap (2008) by Christos Tsiolkas

    I managed to only finish three of those books (Atwood, Hitchens and Galbraith) as I was tempted away by others. While I started and stopped all of the others, they did not hold my interest at the time but may be revisited again in the future.

    Instead, I read the following in 2014, in addition to those listed above:

    In terms of fiction, it seems as though I read a few books on dysfunctional families, including those by Tartt, Tyler, Steadman and Sedaris. Each different in their own ways, but all demonstrating how families can move from places of love and security to fear and loathing. Of these books, Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was the stand-out for me - beautifully written, well crafted story. 

    While I continued to read Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, I have been keen to find another series to sink my teeth into. JK Rowling's move into crime novels has been most welcome. I loved her writing as Robert Galbraith and consumed both The Cuckoo's Calling and The Silkworm in rapid succession.  I look forward to reading more of this series once Rowling has a chance to put pen to paper. 

    In terms of non-fiction, Kajsa Ekis Ekman's book on prostitution and surrogacy was an eye-opener and I was keen to read this after having heard her speak at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas.  I have also greatly enjoyed reading the Quarterly Essay this year and have written blog entries about two of the titles I have read:
    In addition, I  reviewed the Sydney Theatre Company production of Macbeth which I attended in September 2014.

    My 2014 highlights were two books by Australian authors.

    Richard Flanagan's Booker prize winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North was a stunning read and one I have thought about almost daily since finishing. I was so deeply touched by this story of love and war.

    Helen Garner's non-fiction account of a murder trial, This House of Grief, was also a compelling read. The story of how Robert Farquharson was tried for drowning his three sons in a dam in rural Victoria was heartbreakingly brilliant.

    Overall, I had a good year for reading and I have a number of books to tackle in 2015...

    Monday, 29 December 2014

    Father's Day

    On Father's Day in September 2005, a man was driving his three sons through rural Victoria to his former marital home. His car veered off the road, through a fence and into a deep dam. The man escaped, but Jai (8), Tyler (6) and Bailey (2) drowned in the murky dark waters.

    Over the next eight years Australian author Helen Garner would sit through two murder trials which would ultimately find the man, Robert Farquharson, guilt of murder and sentenced to three life sentences - a minimum of 33 years imprisonment. Garner's experience is documented in This House of Grief (2014), a gripping true crime account in which she empathises with everyone involved in this tragedy. 

    Farquharson, claimed he was struck by a sudden coughing fit and blacked out at the wheel, awakening once the car was plunging to the bottom of the dam. In contrast the prosecution presents a premeditated crime to get back at his ex-wife for leaving him.

    Garner describes Farquharson as a bumbling, coddled, man-child, who clearly loved his kids but was at a loss when his wife left him. His ex-wife Cindy Gambino stood by him during his first trial, protesting that this was a horrible accident. By the retrial,  her perspective changes and Gambino comes to a view him as a vindictive, embittered man, determined to take away the only thing that really mattered to her.

    An incredible observer, Garner picks up the minute details of the case. From the fatigue of the jurors, the resolve of Gambino's parents and the resilience of barristers on both sides, Garner documents this first person account of how the murder trials unfolded. She describes how the trial seeped into her daily life and caught her unawares at the greengrocers, when holding her grandson, at the coffee cart outside the courts, and in after court drinks with colleagues.

    I am generally not a fan of true crime books, as they often tend to glorify and revel in the gory details. But Garner is a masterful writer with a keen bullshit detector who is able to create a compelling story of the human side of this tragedy. She wrestles with the case as the jury might and continually looks for the doubt in the evidence presented. The duelling experts, the tedium of the technical details of tyre tracks and car speeds, the guilt felt by family friends, the description of expected behaviour for those affected by trauma. Above all, she presents a compelling case for the rule of law - a story that resonated with me and recalled my law school days pouring over case notes and observing in court rooms.

    I am a huge admirer of Garner's work - in fact her Joe Cinque's Consolation (2004) about a Canberra murder trial is one of the most amazing books about the law that I have ever read. She did not disappoint with her account of the Farquharson case, which I consumed in a mere three days after receiving it for Christmas. At the end of the book we are left with a reminder that three young lives have been lost, two families have been shattered, and a comity has been torn apart.  All of us, however removed from this tragedy, are touched by this terrible loss and grieve in our own ways.

    Monday, 15 December 2014

    Family Ties

    In 2004 David Sedaris published his collection of semi-autobiographical short stories, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. As he depicts vignettes from his childhood in North Carolina, through to his adult life in New York and Europe, Sedaris shines a spotlight on his family and highlights the absurdity of so many family interactions.

    Funny, touching, bizarre and bitchy, Sedaris doesn't hold back in depicting his parents, siblings and partner. Whether describing his boofhead brother's wedding in 'Rooster at the Hitchin Post', or the hoarding of one of his sisters in 'Put a Lid on it', Sedaris is brutal. Whether he is brutally honest is another matter - I suspect there is more than a little bit of artistic licence taken.

    There are plenty of touching moments too - particularly in relation to his homosexuality. Clearly his father had difficulty accepting his eldest son, kicking him out of the house. His brother routinely calls him names. He is inundated by hate when listening to talk back radio. Among the name calling and shame, life lessons emerge. He peppers his tales with truisms such as 'Boys who spent their weekends making banana nut muffins did not, as a rule, excel in the art of hand-to-hand combat.'

    Perhaps what makes Sedaris interesting is that he is such an unlikely character himself. Neurotic, obsessive-compulsive, unsympathetic, Sedaris is a wonderful humourist who makes readers uncomfortable when describing his own discomfort.

    I have previously reviewed Sedaris' Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Wicked Bestiary on this blog.

    Saturday, 6 December 2014

    Casualties of War

    I have just finished Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013) and am absolutely in awe of this magnificent novel and want to share it with everyone I know. A worthy winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize, Flanagan has created a compelling story of love, mateship and war.

    Dorrigo Evans is a young Australian doctor who heads off to war. Before he departs for the front, he meets and falls in love with Amy - the young wife of his uncle Keith. He travels to Europe and then Asia, ending up a prisoner of war on the Thai-Burma Railway, and all the while he dreams of a life with his beloved.

    Because he is a surgeon, Dorrigo's job is to care for the men and ensure they are fit enough to work the line. Each day he counts out  hundreds of men, from an ever diminishing pool, fit enough to haul timbers, break rocks, and clear the dense jungle for the ill-fated railway. Suffering from starvation, ulcers, lice, cholera, beri-beri, malaria and broken limbs - those who can stand must work. Dorrigo knows that he is sending many to their deaths and he performs a delicate dance with his captors to negotiate on the men who will serve.

    In the camps we hear about Rooster McNeice, Jimmy Bigelow, Darky Gardiner, Bonox Baker, Sheaphead Morton, Tiny Middleton, Gallipoli Von Kessler and others - and witness Australian mateship in its truest form. Tiny acts of defiance, kindness and love sharply contrast with the barbarity and horror of the war. Those who returned were never the same - suffering trauma that impacted their lives, livelihoods and the people who loved them. We also learn the fate of Colonel Kota, Major Nakamura, and other Japanese and Korean prison guards and get some insight into their views of the railway: their commitment to serving the Emperor, their sense of honour and their post-war reflections.

    Told in a non-chronological order - the book jumps back and forth between the pre-war days, the POW period and the aftermath of war with the war crimes trials and Dorrigo's unwanted fame. The novel is littered with haiku from poets Issa, Buson and Basho - the latter providing the book's title. The simplicity and beauty of these brief verses are juxtaposed with the brutality of war and provide a glimmer of hope.

    My heart broke many times during this story - with the tale of Darky Gardiner, Ella's unrequited love, the Tasmanian bushfire, the letter that changed fates and many other moments on the line. It is not an easy read but it is compelling.

    Flanagan dedicated the novel to his father, who was POW on the railway. While this is not the story of Flanagan senior, it was certainly inspired by him and also by Edward 'Weary' Dunlop, an Australian hero of the camps. I learned a lot about the death railway through this book and it inspired me to seek out more information. Over 60,000 POWs from Britain, Australia, America, Holland and elsewhere worked on the railway and around 16,000 died from the physical labour, disease, starvation, and beatings while working the line.

    I have read many of Flangan's previous novels - including The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1997), The Unknown Terrorist (2006) - and have consistently been impressed by his abilities to create full characters and reflect the beauty of the Australian landscape. In this novel, Flanagan's prose creates a vivid portrait of love and war. I am so pleased the Booker was awarded for this novel.

    Shortly after completing this book I watched the film of The Railway Man (2013) based on the life of British engineer Eric Lomax. He was imprisoned in the death railway camps in 1942 and tortured for building a radio. He returned home a broken man and in old age sought out one of his captors. Starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, it was a good film with solid performances. However, I felt that it didn't give the depth of experience and appreciation of the trauma that Flanagan's novel provided.

    Saturday, 8 November 2014

    Mightier than the Sword

    Immediately upon finishing The Cuckoo's Calling, I found myself immersed in the next Cormoran Strike adventure. The Silkworm (2014) commences a few months after Strike has been lauded for solving the murder of Lula Landry. Business is booming with various clients seeking evidence to catch out their unfaithful partners.

    One day a mousy woman named Leonora Quine asks Strike for assistance in locating her missing husband, novelist Owen Quine. Strangely taken by this woman's lack of pretence and her need to care for a disabled child, Strike agrees, despite dubious assurances of remuneration. Soon Strike and his trusty sidekick Robin are off to solve the mystery of Quine's disappearance.

    JK Rowling, writing as Robert Galbraith, must have enjoyed herself writing this novel. Set inside London's incestuous publishing industry, the tale features plenty of literary allusions and cattiness among the publicists, agents and editors, not to mention the literati. The novel within a novel works well as we learn more about Quine's latest novel, Bombyx Mori, and the circumstances surrounding his disappearance.

    This is a thoroughly enjoyable mystery that unpeels and reveals itself slowly. I enjoyed learning more about Strike, and it was great to see Robyn evolve and become a more active player in the detective business. 

    While The Silkworm can be read as a standalone novel, I would recommend starting the series at the beginning. I understand Rowling is at work on the sequel and I look forward to seeing what happens to Strike and Robin next.

    My review of The Cuckoo's Calling is also available on this blog.

    Monday, 6 October 2014

    Model Behaviour

    In 2013 a new crime novel was published by unknown author Robert Galbraith. A few months after it was published, The Cuckoo's Calling became a bestseller when it was revealed that Mr Galbraith was a pseudonym for JK Rowling. While Cuckoo may not have been as well received without the identity of the true author, the novel is well worth a read and a great addition to the genre.

    The story revolves around the apparent suicide of supermodel Lula Landry who plunged to her death off her balcony one winter. Landry's brother, believing his sister to have been murdered, hires private detective Cormoran Strike to investigate.

    Strike desperately needs this case and the advance his client gives him. He has recently been booted out of his home, dumped by his longtime girlfriend, and is actively avoiding the creditors who are chasing him. Together with his trusty temp sidekick Robin, Strike explores the world of fashion models and designers, filmmakers, rappers and rock stars.

    The characters are interesting, particularly Strike and Robin. I really liked the way they interacted with each other; respecting barriers with mutual concern. Like Spade or Marlow, Strike is an old fashioned private eye. He is a complex and intriguing man - beatnik childhood, wounded war vet, damaged detective - who has many layers which I suspect will become uncovered as the series of books rolls on.

    The secondary characters of John Bristow, Guy Some, Deeby Macc and assorted models, chauffeurs, police, are also interesting. Strike probes each with questions about their relationships with Landry and gradually an intricate web is formed.

    The murder mystery can be a bit slow in parts (lots of walking and talking) as tiny clues are uncovered leading to the big reveal at the end. I was unable to figure out what had transpired, but when it was explained all made sense in the end.

    Rowling is an incredibly gifted storyteller with a love of language. She throws in adverbs and adjectives to add greater detail to her tale. I also liked the way she described parts of London and the socio-economic backdrop of various characters and settings.

    The second book in the Cormoran Strike series, The Silkworm (2014) has recently been published and I look forward to reading it soon.

    Saturday, 27 September 2014

    Don't Read This!

    The week of 21-27 September 2014 is designated as Banned Books Week, an event sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA) with the purpose of celebrating the freedom to read and ensuring that unorthodox viewpoints are available. Amnesty International also promotes Banned Books Week as a means of drawing attention to those who have been persecuted for their writing or disseminating the works of others.

    Censorship is ridiculously narrow-minded. Most books that are challenged are done so on the grounds that they offend particular moralities (e.g. sexuality, language, reproductive freedoms). While I do not have a problem with moves to identify the age-appropriateness of content for young people, I do not agree with any attempts to restrict access to materials.

    According to the ALA, the most frequently challenged books in the past decade were reported due to sexually explicit material, offensive language, unsuited to age group. violence and homosexuality.  These challenges often occur in school libraries and classrooms, but also public libraries. Parents are the most likely to challenge books.

    In the past few years challenged books include The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon and Beloved (Toni Morrison), The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins),  Fifty Shades of Grey (EL James), The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini), To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), Nickel and Dimed (Barbara Ehrenreich), The Color Purple (Alice Walker), and The Golden Compass (Philip Pullman).

    Some of my favourite challenged or banned books are:
    • Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) by George Orwell
    • Harry Potter series by JK Rowling
    • The Handmaid's Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood
    • The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and Of Mice and Men (1937) by John Steinbeck
    • Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison
    • July's People (1981) by Nadine Gordimer
    • Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928) by DH Lawrence
    • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
    • Peyton Place (1956) by Grace Metalious
    • Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury
    • Catcher in the Rye (1951) by JD Salinger
    And so many more...

    Make the most of Banned Books Week - Celebrate the freedom to read in your community. Grab a challenged text or re-read a favourite banned book. 

    Sunday, 21 September 2014

    The Handmaid's Tale

    Kajsa Ekis Ekman is a Swedish journalist and author that I had the pleasure of hearing speak at the 2014 Festival of Dangerous Ideas a few weeks ago. I have just finished reading her thought-provoking book Being and Being Bought - Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self (2013) which casts a Marxist and feminist lens on these divisive subjects.

    The first half of the book focuses on prostitution. Ekman effectively demolishes the notion that prostitution is a normal job.  She explores feminist attempts to reposition prostitution as "sex work",  a conscious non-exploitative career choice, and of moves to legalise/decriminalise prostitution in many jurisdictions.

    Ekman writes of the slippery slope from independent escort to human trafficking (when there is not enough supply of local women to meet the demand of the consumers). She exposes attempts to unionise sex work as fraudulent as these moves are not traditional trade unions seeking better wages and conditions for workers but rather justification for exploitation. Prostitution has an exceptionally high mortality rate and there is no compliance to labour laws.

    The second half of the book looks at the messy issue of surrogacy which Ekman sees as an extension of prostitution. Ekman's presentation at the Festival came in the weeks following the media maelstrom of the Baby Gammy case in which an Australian couple had contracted with a young Thai surrogate to carry their child for around $16,000. The surrogate gave birth to twins - a healthy girl and a disabled boy (Gammy). It later emerged that the father was a convicted child sex offender, giving rise to concerns about the lack of regulation in the surrogacy business.

    Ekman digs deep into the surrogacy industry and exposes how women in poor countries or poor circumstances are relied on to rent out their womb to a childless person. She looks at how the notion of motherhood is denied the gestational carrier as parents seek to have a child that is biologically related to them.

    For me the whole problem of surrogacy was summed up in the quote from Elizabeth Kane, a surrogate who regretted giving up the child she bore for others. Kane stated "I now believe that surrogate motherhood is nothing more than the transference of pain from one woman to another. One woman is in anguish because she cannot become a mother, and another woman may suffer for the rest of her life because she cannot know the child she bore for someone else" (in Ekman, p186).

    In both her exploration of prostitution and of surrogacy, Ekman argues that the Self has to be separate from the body in order to be able to sell yourself. This Cartesian concept of the Split Self enables sex workers and surrogates to create a barrier within themselves.

    I found Ekman's thesis to be a compelling and incisive look inside these industries. While overflowing with research, I thoroughly enjoyed the way in which she approached this subject and thought the book was easy to read. But the book does make you think about these issues and how all women are affected regardless of how far removed we are from these industries.

    If you want to more but don't have access to her book, you can watch Ekman's "Surrogacy is Child Trafficking" presentation from the 2014 Festival of Dangerous Ideas on YouTube.

    Monday, 15 September 2014

    Fair is foul, and foul is fair

    This week I attended the Sydney Theatre Company's production of Macbeth, directed by Kip Williams. We knew this was going to be a different theatrical experience as we were contacted months ago to say that our seats had changed due to a transformation of the theatre.

    We arrived and were ushered down various corridors until we walked out on to the stage. Rows of bleachers were set up at the back of the stage for the audience to sit facing the auditorium. The theatre had been reversed with the action taking place among the stalls and dress circle. Packed in like sardines on uncomfortable chairs, we were literally metres away from the action.

    Two trestle tables and a handful of mismatched chairs made for a minimalist stage. The lights dimmed and the actors took their places as if in tableau. Down one end of the table the witches began with an ice-bucket challenge, dipping their faces into a plastic tub of water before stating their opening lines.  At the other end of the table sat Duncan and Malcolm, frozen until it was their turn to begin.

    So fair and foul a play I had not seen.

    Let's start with the fair...  The title role was performed by the always excellent Hugo Weaving. His Macbeth was tormented, tragic and bold. He is terrific actor and truly brought life to the role - for example in the scene where Banquo's ghost appears, Weaving makes us feel his fear and his cries are unbearable. It was a pleasure to experience Weaving's deeply conflicted Macbeth.

    Likewise, John Gaden is a brilliant actor. Playing both Duncan and one of the MacDuff children, Gaden is an articulate and believable stage veteran.

    I also enjoyed the lighting and effects. The scene in the morning after Duncan's murder mist filled the auditorium and actors appeared from the fog. The snow falling at the end was equally mesmerising.

    While I liked the idea of turning the stage around - with action taking place in the dress circle and among the stalls - ultimately I wondered if it was worth it. The change created a sense of intimacy and tension (the discomfort of our seating mirroring the discomfort of Macbeth's choices?) but in many ways it felt like a gimmick.

    Now for the foul.... Lady Macbeth was played by Melita Jurisic, and while I do not doubt she is a fine actress, I felt she was dreadfully miscast and her sack dress did her no favours. There was no chemistry with Weaving and rather than play Lady Macbeth as a woman slowly driven to madness she seemed to be crazy from the outset. Kate Box (Witch/Macduff) or Paula Arundell (Banquo/Lady Macduff) should have taken this important role.

    The Sydney Theatre Company often plays around with gender roles and I have no problem with women taking male roles and vice-versa. But having the actors play multiple roles did get confusing in parts. I also thought some of the other cast members were fairly ordinary - Ivan Donato (Seyton/Witch) and Eden Falk (Malcolm/Fleance) were uninspiring choices.

    I think what bothered me the most was the costumes. The actors wore muted street clothes - for example Banquo wore skinny grey jeans, a grey sweatshirt and sneakers. This gave the production the feeling that it was a rehearsal rather than a live performance.

    Ultimately, STC's Macbeth is worth seeing just for Hugo Weaving. But the production as a whole left a lot to be desired. While the production was clearly designed to be a vehicle for its lead actor, more care in casting and staging would have created a theatrical experience. Kevin Spacey's Richard III was able to balance the powerhouse performance of a legendary lead, with high production values.

    Saturday, 13 September 2014

    The Shortlist

    The Man Booker shortlist was announced on 9 September 2014, consisting of 6 titles:
    The bookies are apparently tipping Mukherjee to win. I know it is likely an outside chance but I am still hopeful that Richard Flanagan will take away the prize!

    The winner will be announced on 14 October 2014.

    Bird on a Wire

    When I first heard that there was a new Donna Tartt novel coming out I vowed not to go anywhere near it. I had been so disappointed by The Little Friend (2002), which I literally struggled to get through, that I couldn't bear the thought of tackling The Goldfinch (2013). But after being persuaded by a friend, I decided to give Ms Tartt another chance.

    The Goldfinch is a modern bildungsroman, heist caper and cautionary tale rolled into one. It begins with young protagonist Theo Decker attending the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother. They are there to see one of her favourite paintings, the tiny oil painting of The Goldfinch (1654) by Dutch artist Carel Fabritus, when suddenly there is an explosion. The bomb kills many, including Theo's mother, and in the chaos and confusion that follows Theo is given a ring by a man lying in the rubble and is urged to retrieve the painting of the tiny bird to save it from the fire and debris.

    The novel takes a Dickensian turn as traumatised Theo, orphaned in the city, is taken in by the parents of a school friend. He stays as a guest of his benefactors, the Barbours, slowly readjusting to his new circumstances. He seeks out antique restorer Hobie, the business partner of the owner of the ring, and forges as friendship with him and Pippa, a young girl who also survived the blast. All the while, he protects and keeps secret, the painting that his mother loved.

    Just when Theo's life has stability there is a reversal of fortune. His absent father and new girlfriend Xandra arrive in New York to collect Theo and any assets he might have.  Uprooted to Las Vegas, Theo lives in a suburban wasteland, drinking and doing drugs with his new Russian friend Boris, a petty thief channelling the Artful Dodger to Theo's Oliver Twist / Harry Potter. Theo's father, a compulsive gambler and alcoholic, makes little effort at parenting. Tragedy strikes in Vegas too, and Theo finds himself back in New York, residing with Hobie and learning the antiques business.

    The final segment of the novel takes the adult Theo to Amsterdam with Boris as an international search to recover the painting unfolds.

    Having finished The Goldfinch, I come away conflicted. There were parts of the book I absolutely loved - Tartt has a gift for beautiful prose which gives the reader a clarity of time and place, the inclusion of references to art and pop culture were enjoyable.  But at the same time, she can be over descriptive to the point of annoyance (how much do we need to know about wood polish?).  There were other things about the book which drove me crazy too, like the long-drawn out descriptions of Theo's drug use and the stupid, unrealistic choices he made. Ultimately, I found myself not caring about the characters anymore and wanting the book to end. The only thing I cared about was the little bird on the wire...

    The Goldfinch won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and has divided critics. Vanity Fair published an interesting piece - It's Tartt-But Is It Art? - on the critical reaction to the novel. In some respects the sideshow surrounding the novel is more interesting than the book itself.

    While frustratingly uneven, ultimately I enjoyed The Goldfinch and I am glad that I read it.

    Saturday, 6 September 2014

    The Lives of Others

    In 2013 Canadian writer Alice Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. This was the culmination of a long list of awards and honours including the Governor General's Award (x3), Giller Prize (x2), Man Booker Prize and much, much more.

    Author of collections like Dance of the Happy Shades (1968), Lives of Girls and Women (1971), Friends of My Youth (1990), and Open Secrets (1994), Munro has been hailed as one of the world's greatest short-story writers.  

    I have long been a fan of Munro's ability to weave a meticulously crafted tale from the seemingly ordinary aspects of daily existence. I recently enjoyed her 2012 collection Dear Life. Many of these fourteen stories had been published elsewhere (such as in the New Yorker) and as such I had read one or two before. But in reading/re-reading her tales, I was reminded of the genius of Munro's craft. In my view, there are two ways in which Munro captivates her readers.

    First, she is able to create a full, vibrant tale in about 20-30 pages, constructing each story with precision. She grabs characters at some point in their life, throws them together and sees what happens. She doesn't waste too much time on what happened before the reader arrives, and doesn't linger on what would happen next. 

    Which brings me to the second aspect of her ability - Munro always knows when to end a story. She stops and leaves the remainder of the tale to the reader's imagination. For example, in "To Reach Japan" Greta travels across Canada by train to Toronto to meet a man that she has been infatuated with. Greta arrives at Union Station and he is there to meet her. Munro simply writes "She just stood there waiting for whatever had to come next" and the reader can fill in the blanks. 

    Throughout Dear Life are stories of love and loss, friendship and betrayal, the stuff of human existence. Whether it is a young teacher jilted by her lover in "Amundsen", a girl who watches her sister drown in a water-filled quarry in "Gravel", or a police officer who cares for his terminally ill wife in "Leaving Maverley", the characters are real and keenly drawn. We readers inhabit their world for a brief time and inhabit their lives. 

    I also loved Dear Life for it reminded me of my childhood in Canada. The descriptions of rural Ontario, references to The Friendly Giant and the Royal Ontario Museum, and name-dropping familiar places like Goderich and Kapuskasing, added much nostalgic joy to my reading. Thank you Ms Munro.

    Dangerous Ideas from Fascinating Women

    The 2014 Festival of Dangerous Ideas was held on 30-31 August 2014 at the Sydney Opera House. Unfortunately, due to work, I was only able to attend one day of the Festival so missed a handful of sessions I would have liked. But I made the most of the day I had, attending three excellent sessions on a beautiful sunny Sunday with a very dear friend.

    At last year's festival I attended many sessions looking at crime and justice. This year the sessions I went to were also looking at these issues, but much more, and from a feminist perspective. I also threw in a more light-hearted session on the new age of television.

    We started the day at 'Slavery is Big Business' presented by tenatious Mexican investigative journalist Lydia Cacho. She exposed the international sex trade in a remarkable way. She began in her homeland by investigating and revealing a tycoon businessman (Jean Succar Kuri) who ran a pedophilia ring with politicians, judges and others among Mexico's elite, all supported and facilitated by corrupt police.  The publication of these crimes resulted in Cacho being kidnapped and imprisoned on defamation charges, as well as numerous attempts on her life.

    Cacho's presentation described the conditions that permit the international sex trade to thrive, and the businesses that are linked to it - tourism, drugs and arms dealing, money laundering, organ sales, pornography, terrorism and sweat shops. Despite the horrific subject matter of her talk, I went away feeling inspired. Cacho provided practical, tangible suggestions about what needs to be done to stop this trade and what steps each of us can take. I purchased her book Slavery Inc. The Untold Story of International Sex Trafficking (2010) and was fortunate enough to meet Lydia and have her sign it for me.

    Next up we went to a panel discussion called 'Television has replaced the Novel' featuring Emily Nussbaum (TV critic for The New Yorker) and author Salman Rushdie. Both love television and essentially agreed that TV has not replaced the novel. They highlighted the similarities between the novels of the 18th century which were released in serialised form, and the modern TV show which is incrementally aired.

    They talked about groundbreaking shows (like Seinfeld, Sopranos, Deadwood, Sex and the City) and how they changed the way audiences relate to characters. They also talked about shows which blur the lines between genres and also those which have micro audiences. Critical of studios which find a success and repeat it ad nauseam, Rushdie described his experiences writing a show for Showtime which never got off the ground. It was a very interesting discussion, talking about many of the shows I love.

    We took a break for lunch and returned for our final session - a panel titled 'Women for Sale'. On the panel were Lydia Cacho, Kajsa Ekis Ekman, Alissa Nutting, Elizabeth Pisani. The subject was supposed to be about everything from pay equity to surrogacy, but it ended up being almost entirely about prostitution. Elizabeth Pisani started her segment by giving up her seat to a prostitute Jules Kim from the Scarlet Alliance (an association for sex workers). While I agree it made sense to have someone representing prostitutes on the panel, the way it was done was deceitful and resulted in the presentation steering away from its original intent, which was disappointing.

    I really enjoyed hearing from Swedish journalist Kajsa Ekis Ekman. She articulated her concerns about agency and issues of race, sex and class which are crucial in discussions of prostitution and surrogacy. She talks about how Sweden changed laws relating to prostitution to make the buying, not the selling, a crime. I purchased her book Being and Being Bought - Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self (2013) and after the session my friend and I had a brief chat with her when she signed our copies. I have already started reading it and really admire her work.

    Another panellist, American author Alissa Nutting, I knew very little about. I had heard of the controversy surrounding her novel Tampa (2013) which looks at a female sexual predator. Based on real life examples of women teachers seducing their young students, this novel was removed from some bookstores. Nutting made some interesting comments about double standards and perceived gender roles. I have not read her book, and I am not really sure that I want to. But I do think Nutting is quite an interesting woman.

    Elizabeth Pisani is an American epidemiologist who has done a lot of work on HIV/AIDS. The author of The Wisdom of Whores - Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of AIDS (2008), Pisani has a lot to say about the sex industry and how HIV can be stopped. Unfortunately however, Pisani decided to hand over her seat and we never got to hear much from her. Having said that, the things Pisani did say were unhelpful - e.g. describing sex as 'putting out'. I did not particularly like Pisani and won't be reading her book.

    As always, the Festival of Dangerous Ideas leaves me refreshed, excited and keen to read more. My friend and I look forward to FODI 2015.

    You can also read a summary of my experiences at the 2013 Festival of Dangerous Ideas on this blog.

    Sunday, 27 July 2014

    The Longlist

    On 23 July 2014 the longlist was announced for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. This year promised to be interesting as for the first time writers could come from anywhere in the world. So it was expected that there would be a few Americans on the longlist of this 'global' award.

    However, the list is dominated by the UK and USA with two Irish and one Australian thrown in for good measure. No one from Asia, India, Africa or the Middle East made the list.  Very few women are given the nod.

    As I peer down the list of titles, I am surprised by some of the books named... and more surprised by those not included. I must admit I had expected Donna Tartt to be long listed for her Pulitzer Prize winning The Goldfinch (the book I am currently reading). In fact, there are very few books on the list that I am interested in reading... overall, the list is underwhelming.

    I am also amazed that books that have not yet been published can make the list. Four of the titles do not arrive on book shelves until September 2014: J by Harold Jacobson; The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell; How to be Both by Ali Smith; and, Us by David Nicholls. Joseph O'Neill's The Dog was published on 31 July 2014, after the long list was announced.

    Howard Jacobson has won previously, while both Ali Smith and David Mitchell are previous shortlisters. I would have thought they would be contenders for the Man Booker next year when they have been published, rather than taking up slots this year when the books are not yet publicly available.

    So the 13 titles on the longlist are:

    • We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (USA)
    • Orfeo by Richard Powers (USA)
    • The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth (UK)
    • The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee (UK)
    • The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt (USA)
    • To Rise Again At A Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (USA)
    • by Howard Jacobson (UK)
    • How to be Both by Ali Smith (UK)
    • The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (UK)
    • The Dog by Joseph O'Neill (Ireland)
    • History of the Rain by Niall Williams (Ireland)
    • Us by David Nicholls (UK)
    • The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Australia)

    Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan is my personal choice for this award. He is an amazing author and deserving of recognition for his tale of prisoners of war on the Burma death railway. While I have not yet finished this novel,  I have read Flangan's previous books, including The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1997), Gould's Book of Fish (2001) and The Unknown Terrorist (2006), so can attest to the quality of his writing. Good luck Richard!

    The shortlist will be announced on 9 September 2014, followed by the winner on 14 October 2014.

    Monday, 30 June 2014

    Family Dinner

    Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982) has been lurking on my to be read pile for more years than I can remember. After seeing it reviewed on ABC’s Book Club program in May I thought it was time to dust it off and finally read it. Now I am sorry I waited so long. This is a beautiful novel of family, sibling rivalry and home. 

    Tyler tells the story of the Tull family in Baltimore, Maryland. Matriarch Pearl Tull is dying and reflecting on her life. After her travelling salesman husband leaves her with three small children, Pearl puts on a front, telling everyone he is away on business… for years. She takes a job at the local shop and rears her children alone, without the support of friends or other family. 

    Her children recall their childhood very differently from Pearl, and from one another, with their father’s absence and their domineering mother looming large over them. Eldest son Cody is ruled by jealousy and a competitive nature. He is deeply envious of his younger brother Ezra, and cruelly undermines him at every opportunity. Later, he turns his cruelty to his wife and son. 

    Only daughter Jenny is academically wise and becomes a doctor where she is nurturing and caring to her patients. Her personal life is a mess of failed relationships and poor parenting, as she tries to distance herself from her family. 

    Pearl’s obvious favourite is younger son Ezra. He continually seeks to see the good in people and has been a dutiful son, caring for his mother in her later years. Ezra is the owner of the Homesick restaurant and all he wants is for the family to sit through one full meal together. 

    Each member of the family is damaged in some way, broken and exceptionally real. Tyler has magnificently created memorable, complex, flawed individuals, who despite their family ties are virtually strangers to one another. Despite the heart-wrenching story, this is not a depressing novel. There are moments of pure joy, love and outright laughter. And underlying it all is a message of forgiveness and acceptance. No family is perfect, but Tyler has created a beautifully imperfect family in the Tulls. 

    Saturday, 31 May 2014

    On Maya

    On Wednesday 28 May 2014 Dr Maya Angelou passed away at the age of 86. Having just read and written a blog post about her Letters to My Daughter only a few days prior, she was already on my mind when I heard the news of her passing.

    While I had the great pleasure of seeing her live and stood a mere metres from her towering frame, she never knew me. But her words spoke to me as if she did. Many times I have found myself recalling a line from her poems to make sense of my feelings or to brighten my day. 

    Through her autobiographies and poems, I had a chance to know her. She was a wise, courageous and humorous woman with a generous spirit. Her words are inspirational and here are just a few of the many, oft-quoted, phrases that I love:

    "People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

    "I've learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow." 

    "If I am not good to myself, how can I expect anyone else to be good to me?” 

    “Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.” 

    “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can't practice any other virtue consistently.” 

    "Be a rainbow in somebody else's cloud." 

    "If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude." 

    "I've learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights." 

    "You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them." 

    "...making a living is not the same thing as making a life." 

    "If you're always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be."

    Farewell Maya. And thank you for all your many gifts. You will not be forgotten...

    Saturday, 17 May 2014

    Phenomenal Woman

    In the mid-1990s I had the pleasure of attending an evening with Dr Maya Angelou at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto. In her sing-songy way, Maya read her beautiful poetry and I left feeling enlightened, inspired and empowered. 

    Over the years I have read many of her poems and her autobiographical books including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas (1976) The Heart of a Woman (1981) and Wouldn’t Take Nothing for my Journey Now (1993).  

    Even now, as I read her words, I hear her voice from that long ago evening in Toronto. 

    She has had a truly remarkable life and her autobiographies have a feel of sitting down to tea with a dear old friend.

    It had been many years since I last read Maya Angelou so I approached Letter to My Daughter (2009) with a sense of nostalgia.  This book is a collection of essays in which she imparts eight decades of wisdom to “the daughter she never had.” 

    Over 28 mini essays Angelou shares life lessons on philanthropy, honesty, childbirth, vulgarity, family and more. These tales often end with a lesson like “I learned that a friend may be waiting behind a stranger’s face” or  “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

    Angelou had an extraordinary life and she has many pearls of wisdom to pass on. There were parts of this book where I felt delight by her writing, but others where I felt the gap between our life experiences and beliefs. 

    While this is a short, easy to read book, there could have been more coherence in what was included so it was more like a true letter to her universal daughter and less like a disjointed collection of random scraps of writing. I would encourage those new to Angelou to start with some of her other writings as Letter to My Daughter is not her best.

    Sunday, 11 May 2014

    To the Lighthouse

    In M.L. Steadman’s The Light Between Oceans (2012), protagonist Tom Sherbourne has returned to Australia after serving at the front during the first World War.  He seeks solitude and quiet where he can try to forget those dark days on the battlefield. The job of lighthouse keeper is a perfect fit for Tom, as he likes the order and responsibility of keeping the lights burning through the night.

    After training and a series of posts, Tom moves to the lighthouse at Janus Rock, a remote island off the coast of Western Australia, with his young wife Isabel.  Over the next few years Tom and Isabel try to create a family for themselves on this isolated outpost, but have been unable to carry a child to term. A few weeks after Isabel’s third miscarriage, a dinghy comes ashore on Janus Rock, containing only an unidentified dead man and a small, crying baby. Isabel and Tom decide to name her Lucy and pass her off as their own.  This decision will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

    I really liked the character of Tom, with his strong moral compass, precision and the way in which he gradually fell in love with Lucy. His wife Isabel was frustrating for her selfishness and obsession and towards the last third of the book she became increasingly one-dimensional and hard to like. I never truly understood what these two saw in each other.

    Janus Rock and the Australian coastal towns of the early twentieth century were vividly created and the description of the lighthouse keeper’s responsibilities added realism to the tale.

    The moral dilemma at the heart of the novel carries the story along. The reader can’t help but question what they would have done in the circumstances and wonder how to make things right. The story veers into soap-opera territory and has a strong emotional pull. While I could quibble about the necessity of some of Steadman’s expository writing and dodgy dialogue, the story itself was intriguing and I found myself reading quickly to find out how it would end. No great literary feat, but a very enjoyable read.

    Monday, 14 April 2014

    All at Sea

    That Sinking Feeling: Asylum Seekers and the Search for the Indonesian Solution is the latest Quarterly Essay (QE53). Award winning journalist Paul Toohey takes on the timely matter of asylum seekers and the complex policy arena the Australian government is working in.

    As a refugee advocate, the harshness of the Howard/Gillard/Rudd (v2.0)/Abbott ‘solution’ has always bothered me as lacking empathy, fortressing our nation, and pandering to the fears of a specific segment of xenophobic voters. But at the same time the deaths at sea, the inability of UNHCR to process refugees in a timely matter, and the lack of reasonable media coverage has been a source of great frustration.

    Paul Toohey has presented one of the best, most even-handed, pieces I have ever read on the subject. He travels to Indonesia, meets with people smugglers, and tracks down those waiting to take the perilous journey to Australia. In doing so he introduces the reader to the people putting their lives at risk and gives us a real insight into their aspirations, fears and motives. These heartbreaking personal tales are essential and have been missing from the media coverage of this issue.

    Brutally frank and impartial, Toohey presents the case for a regional solution focused on Indonesia, and the reasons why successive diplomatic errors on the part of Australia have caused distrust from one of our most important allies.

    Our Prime Minister has promised to “Stop the Boats” and has been crafting a regional solution. His predecessors created various ‘solutions’ with Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and others. The Australian Government policy is harsh and unwavering, but it appears to have stopped the boats and consequently the deaths at sea. But at what price?

    That Sinking Feeling is an excellent, thought-provoking essay.

    As alway, the Quarterly Essay includes correspondence related to the previous edition. I greatly enjoyed the letters about Lost In Translation (QE52).

    Sunday, 2 March 2014

    Family Reunion

    I have just completed Chris Ware's graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000). Winner of the American Book Award and the Guardian First Book Award, this is a visually stunning, beautiful book. The story follows four generations of Corrigan boys coping with dysfunctional or absent fathers.

    Jimmy Corrigan is responsible for caring for his single mother, now residing in a nursing home. She is smothering in her attention towards Jimmy and they have a draining dependency on each other. Jimmy has no romantic attachments, a dead-end job, and appears older than his thirty-eight years.

    One day Jimmy receives a letter from his father inviting him to fly out to Michigan to visit him for Thanksgiving. When he meets his father he discovers he has an adopted sister and a Grandfather he never knew. During his awkward family reunion we learn much about how the Corrigan men have lived lives of loneliness and repression. Jimmy's active imagination is his escape from unhappiness.

    The part I really enjoyed was when we learn of Jimmy's grandfather's childhood set against the backdrop of the Chicago World Columbian Exposition of 1893 and his strained relationship with his father. The artwork in this section is incredibly rich.

    Jimmy Corrigan is a bleak tale, involving several parallel storylines.  Ware's simple drawing style is gorgeous to look at and he does so much with so little - conveying emotions and a sense of place. For example, the images of Jimmy trying to record a birdsong.

    I first heard about this book on the ABC's Book Club and figured if Marieke Hardy liked it I probably would too.

    When I started reading I wasn't sure if I was enjoying it because I had never read a graphic novel before and was a bit confused. I found it hard to get the rhythm of the book as it is very different to reading a novel.  But I am so pleased I read it.

    It is a masterpiece and I think it will improve on re-reading.

    Sunday, 16 February 2014

    Brahmins, Beer and Bingo!

    Takedown Twenty (2013) is the latest instalment of the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich. 

    After twenty novels the formula has been well established and Evanovich can write them in her sleep. Clumsy bounty hunter Plum and her lycra-clad sidekick Lula go in search of bail skips. Along the way they destroy a number of vehicles, narrowly escape disaster, eat way too much junk food, and encounter all sorts of colourful characters.

    In this story Steph is after Uncle Sunny, a mobster who is related to her on-again, off-again boyfriend Joe Morelli. Sunny is accused of murder but the whole neighbourhood protects him as he is loved and feared in equal measure and sings like Sinatra. She is also helping Ranger to investigate a string of granny-grab dumpster-dump murders so spends a lot of time at bingo. 

    After being kidnapped, knocked out, bruised and battered, Steph seriously considers a career change and becoming more domesticated. Her parents are keen on her taking a job as a butcher, largely because of the access to discount meats. She also comes close to deciding on her romantic partner. 

    Grandma Mazur provides some comic relief as does Lula with her fake designer bags and obsession with a stray giraffe (actually, I hated the inclusion of the giraffe as it was a meaningless distraction). 

    I have long given up on the idea that Evanovich would return to the form of her early days when the novels were darker. In fact there was a time when I had almost given up on the series. Now I read them out of some sense of loyalty and an ever-the-optimist hope that the next one will be better. How much longer this series can continue is debatable. Like I said after Notorious Nineteen, I would love for Evanovich to take a risk and force Steph to make some real decisions, and bring back the crime element that made the first few so good.  

    Monday, 3 February 2014

    Dulce et decorum est

    Mortality (2012) was published shortly after author Christopher Hitchens’ death from cancer in December 2011. In this slender volume, Hitchens serves as correspondent from “Tumourtown” describing the ups and downs of his battle with cancer as he rages against the dying of the light.

    He begins with the diagnosis of cancer of the esophagus, a disease that claimed his father, and progresses through various treatments – chemotherapy, radiation – describing in detail the physical toll taken by this disease. While he is being treated he continues to live life as much as he can; keeping to engagements and documenting his illness in a series of articles for Vanity Fair

    One of the most powerful chapters is related to his voice and how he lost it during treatment. For an orator and storyteller, this was an unexpected blow.  He describes the human ability to “deploy vocal communication for sheer pleasure and recreation, combining it with our two other boasts of reason and humour to produce higher syntheses”. 

    Hitchens has long been my favourite writer and I greatly mourned his passing. When asked what I liked about his writings, I would recount the interesting topics, controversial views (of which I did not always agree) and his keen, subversive wit. In reading Mortality, Hitchens described precisely my thoughts when he wrote, “the most satisfying compliment a reader can pay is to tell me that he or she feels personally addressed.” I have always felt that reading Hitchens is like engaging in an engrossing conversation with an old friend. He was larger than life, and as I read, his voice comes through the page.

    Having recently read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die (2009), as I read Mortality I thought of the interesting conversations the two authors would have had together as they compared notes on cancer and the wellness industry. I imagine it would be a robust and raucous discussion.

    Hitchens’ wife Carol Blue wrote a fitting afterword in which she described the loss of her husband. She states that Christopher always had the last word. Mortality is his last word, and one I will savour. 

    Monday, 27 January 2014

    Madd World

    In August 2103 Canadian author Margaret Atwood published MaddAddam, the conclusion to her dystopian trilogy.  The realisation that it was 10 years since the first part, Oryx and Crake (2003) was published, made me shiver at the thoughts of how the years had passed too quickly. I had purchased Oryx and Crake when it was published, commenced reading it, and then became distracted -  likely by my studies - so never finished it. It lay on my shelf, somewhat dusty, with an old bookmark jammed about a quarter of the way in, signalling my previous failed attempt.

    So, I decided it was time to delve in once more and started to read it again. Atwood's story is one of speculative fiction; an alternative possible future, bleak and dark. The world has been forever changed by some sort of disaster and the themes that run through the book - genetic engineering, environmental degradation, disease, child abuse, pornorgraphy, globalisation - are all too real, making this a cautionary tale. 

    We begin by meeting Snowman, who sleeps in a tree, clad only in a tattered bed sheet.  He could be the last man on earth, foraging for food in the wasteland. Snowman appears to be the custodian of a group of humans known as the Children of Crake. He is haunted by memories of Oryx and Crake and begins a journey back to the RejoovenEsense compound where Crake's Paradice Project took place. As he travels, Jimmy thinks back on his past.

    Snowman recalls his childhood when he was known as Jimmy and lived among the privileged families in a secure compound set up by the HelthWyzer corporation. Beyond the fence line are the pleeblands, shanty towns of lawlessness where the unchosen masses reside. Jimmy's genographer father works for OrganInc Farms which serialises in hybrid animals like pigoons, created to grow human organs for transplant. Jimmy's mother leaves the family and becomes an activist in the pleeblands, wanted by the CorpSeCorps police.

    Jimmy meets Crake at school and the two boys are seemingly each other's only friend. They play violent video games, watch pornography and smoke weed. Among their favourite activities is a game called Extinctathon. After high school Crake and Jimmy drift apart and as the novel progresses you learn of the different paths they took leading up to the disaster. 

    Atwood's fertile imagination coupled with her knowledge of pop culture and the natural world, brings us incredible spliced animals (snags, bob-kittens, woolvogs), horrific websites (live murders), bizarre processed foods (ChickieNobs, SoyOBoy, Joltbars,  Happicuppa coffee), strange clothing (sweat-eating gym suits) and pharmaceuticals (BlyssPluss aphrodisiacs). 

    Where I think the novel could have been richer is in the creation of these characters. Jimmy is a likeable buffoon who bumbles through life and as the focal point of the story he has a limited depth for the protagonist.  But the title characters are not drawn in as much detail, and are ultimately two-dimensional. It was hard to care about what happened to them as they seemed so unreal and distant. 

    Perhaps it is because of these characters that I was not drawn into the story and it took me longer to finish the book than I had anticipated. However I did enjoy the book immensely and am pleased that I have now read it. 

    The story continues in The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013), which I will add to my to-be-read list so I can explore this world a bit further. 

    Oryx and Crake was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. My reviews review of Atwood's Alias Grace (1996) and The Handmaid's Tale (1985) are also available on this blog.

    Sunday, 19 January 2014

    The Architecture of Perception

    The latest Quarterly Essay (QE52) is Found in Translation: In Praise of a Plural World (2013) by Linda Jaivin. Moving away from politics, I initially feared this QE would be rather dull (in fact I almost didn't buy it). But that would have been my loss, as this was a fascinating and enjoyable essay about the art of translation. 

    Author Linda Jaivin is extraordinarily qualified to write on this subject. She has been a translator for over 30 years, working predominately in Chinese/English translation. Her specialty is translating film subtitles but has also worked on poetry, song lyrics, fiction and interpreted at meetings. She is also an author, with a keen understanding of the power of language.

    Jaivin reveals the depth of the role of the translator - not merely to convey the words, but also the meaning. She writes "it is absurd to speak of issues of literary style, rhythm – or any aspect of a translated work aside from its structure, characters and plot – without acknowledging that the language of the text is at once a creation of the translator and an interpretation of the author…". Translators generally work behind the scenes, although some authors acknowledge how  the translator has improved their original work.

    The complexity of translating comes with understanding the historic and cultural context. Jaivin describes how words change meaning over time: "Political, economic, social and cultural shifts push some phrases over the cliff into obscurity, rescue others from it, and dress up still others in new clothing." 

    So many words have multiple meanings which adds complexity to the role of the translator. Jaivin writes that "words have the power to change the way people think; they are part of the architecture of perception." Throughout the essay she highlights misunderstandings that have occurred when words were incorrectly translated.

    Jaivin doesn't just talk about translating from one language to another. She also discusses translating from one medium to the next - a poem to a song, a play to a film - and the process of transformation that is undertaken. She also reveals how insular we are, that very few of us read books in translation (as few publishers commission translated works). 

    One of the most compelling arguments Jaivin makes it that of learning a second language. She argues, "learning a second language challenges you to see the world from a different and sometimes uncomfortable perspective - it broadens the mind more surely than travel, and promotes cross-cultural empathy and understanding". I wholeheartedly agree. 

    Overall, I found Jaivin's essay extremely interesting and thought provoking. I am so glad I took the time to read it.

    Also included in the QE is correspondence about the previous issue. Geraldine Doogue, Michael Cooney, Robbie Swan, Barney Zwartz, Paul Collins, Frank Bongiorno and Amanda Lohrey all wrote in response to David Marr's The Prince (QE51). Each raised interesting points, although some I disagreed strongly with. 

    Sunday, 5 January 2014

    Looking Forward: reading for the new year

    As I finish my holidays and get ready to return to work for another year, I take time to plan my reading for the year. My "to-be-read" pile is massive and growing as I acquire more books, discover new authors and add to my e-reader and bulging shelves.

    My first priority for 2014 is to finish the books that I have started but not yet finished, including:

    In terms of new books, I have a bunch of recent acquisitions that I plan to read in 2014.

    Richard Flanagan is a Tasmanian writer that I quite enjoy. I have previously read his novels The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1997) and The Unknown Terrorist (2006) which were both interesting tales. I have just acquired his latest novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013), a story about an Australian surgeon at the Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma death railway in August 1943. (Update - Read Nov 2014)

    Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series is an old favourite. It is a perfect distraction when work is too busy or my other reading has been too heavy. Takedown Twenty (2013) is the latest, and I will save it for the moment when life gets to hectic. The series is always hit and miss, and Evanovich went through a phase where they became very formulaic. But the last few have been more of a return to form and I have hopes that this will be a good one.

    The Quarterly Essay was a great find in 2013, so good that I have now subscribed. I have recently commenced Quarterly Essay 52, Found in Translation (2013) by Linda Jaivin and, while not something I had expected to enjoy, I am finding it really interesting. I particularly love the correspondence about previous issues, in this issue it is about The Prince by David Marr (QE50).

    Evgeny Morozov's The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (2011) was something I ordered after hearing him speak at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. This book is about how the internet can be used as a tool for liberation, but also as a means of suppressing democracy.

    Another post-Festival purchase was David Simon's Homicide: A year on the killing streets (1991) which I have read the first few chapters of and look forward to enjoying.

    One of the books I am most excited about is Chris Ware's graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000) about a lonely middle aged man with a vivid imagination. I have not read graphic novels before but purchased this one as my first foray into the genre. I have started it and think it is the most beautiful book.

    In addition to these, there are the books I gave to others in the hopes of borrowing them back to read at some point. These include Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro's Dear Life (2013), Eleanor Caton's The Luminaries (2013) winner of the Booker prize, Michelle de Krester's Miles Frankin Award winning Questions of Travel (2013).

    Throughout the year I also hope to add blog posts of books I have read film tie-ins, and plays. And with that in mind, I am off to see the second instalment of The Hobbit….