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….

Looking Back: last year's reading

The past year has been a tough one for reading. I started a new job at the start of 2013 and found that my free time was limited and my reading was often work-related rather than for pleasure. As a consequence, my blogging was sporadic and there are many half-read books throughout my home that I need to finish.

I started 2013 deeply engrossed in the Game of Thrones series, and spent many hours in that world. This meant that the quantum of books I normally would have read was seriously lessened. My obsession with this series was all-encompassing and despite starting A Feast for Crows (2005), I had to stop and put it away, to give time to other books on my shelf (but I suspect I will pick this up again shortly when the television series airs and I am thrown back into this world).

When I did get to read, I managed to balance my fiction and non-fiction reads as well as balancing tried and tested authors (Evanovich, Roach) with authors that I have recently been introduced to (Kent, Egan, Hospital, Ehrenreich and Flynn). Another great find was the Quarterly Essay, a thought provoking essay on contemporary subjects by leading Australian writers.

Certainly there were many highlights in 2013, but my favourite book was definitely Hannah Kent's debut novel Burial Rites (2013). This young Australian author is a promising talent and I look forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

This was followed closely by Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer Prize winning A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) and Gillian Flynn's bestselling Gone Girl (2013), both of which I enjoyed immensely.

I started the year with a list of all the books I was going to read, and ultimately ended up finishing very few of them as I was time-pressed and found so many new authors to explore. But I am hopeful that 2014 will be a better year for me with more time to read and blog, so from now I will be looking forward...