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.