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Books in Discussion - Round 1

I’m a slow reader of late, and an even slower reviewer, but I still hold to my goal of reviewing each book I read (with the exception of the giant piles of picture books we borrow from the library and read over and over every two weeks!), and the reading experience now feels eerily unfinished until I’ve discussed the book here.

a monster callsLast year I read several books that I didn’t get around to reviewing. I’ll start with A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, which I read in May 2015. I have a lovely hardback first edition (Candlewick Press 2011), with black and white ink illustrations by Jim Kay. I didn’t fall in love with The Knife of Never Letting Go: the narrator’s voice became so grating that I couldn’t stand him by the end. No such trouble with this children’s horror story. Part fable, part legend, part contemporary coming-of-age, A Monster Calls is about a boy, Conor, who lives with his terminally ill mother, sometimes visited by his surly grandmother. He has a recurring nightmare, which he’s kept to himself, but on this night it’s the sound of his name being called that wakes him. A monster has come for him, but it’s not the monster in his nightmare, so he’s not particularly scared. No, this monster is one from ancient British legend: the Green Man is one of his names, and he has some stories to share with Conor in return for the one thing Conor doesn’t want to give: the truth.

This is as wonderful as everyone said it would be, both atmospherically scary and hauntingly, achingly sad. The illustrations add to this effect. It’s no wonder that I loved this book, as on one level it is about the importance of stories, and the oral storytelling tradition, and the lessons to be learned from stories – or using stories to convey ideas or questions assumptions. Truly, stories are versatile things! At its heart, A Monster Calls is vivid and memorable because it deals with something that is becoming ever more common: cancer, or really, those who are effected by cancer without having it themselves. Conor is just a boy, a lonely, scared boy, and his ‘truth’ is a tragic truth, the truth of one who gets no help or support for living with a dying mother. It is heart-achingly sad, precisely because you know there are so many kids feeling as Conor feels, in a wide range of contexts, who need a Green Man of legend because society expects them to bravely ‘deal with it’.

persuasionOn a completely different note, I re-read Jane Austen’s Persuasion in July last year, and enjoyed it even more than I did the first time. I find that’s often the case with adult novels, in particular, that age matures my reading and understanding of them. My edition is part of a set that I bought from a mail-order Doubleday bookclub back when I was a uni student, published in hardcover by Book-of-the-Month Club (1996). The text inside is in the old style, with thick black ink that looks like it has been punched onto the page rather than printed, and illustrations by Hugh Thomson – I’ve always wondered if he just has a talent for reproducing a much older style, or if they’re reproductions of original ink illustrations.

Persuasion is the story of shy but intelligent Anne Elliot, the middle daughter of a particularly vain baronet, Sir Walter, now a widower. The youngest daughter, Mary, has been married off to the son of a gentleman farmer, or landholder, while the oldest, Elizabeth, holds herself too fine a prize to settle for just anyone. When Anne was eighteen she fell in love with a sailor, Frederick Wentworth, but was persuaded off the match by Lady Russell, a close family friend. Seven years later Anne is older and past the bloom of youth, and resigned to spinsterhood. But then Captain Wentworth arrives back in the neighbourhood and Anne’s predictable, calm world is suddenly full of tension and envy. While a hurried, sketched summary like that does make Persuasion sound like a boring Regency Romance, this is far from it. More interested in social values, attitudes and the glaring disparity between appearance and reality (a common Shakespearian trope), her last novel (first published the year of her death, 1817) is, by my reckoning, one of her finest and her sharpest, full of her trademark wit, astute observations and compellingly realistic, even unflattering, character descriptions. Was so worth re-reading!

a little lifeI picked up A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara from Dymocks last September – the cover caught my eye, and the blurb intrigued me. I didn’t get it straight away, though – it is a big fat book at 720 pages and my ability to finish even a slim volume is shaken these days. But when I saw it the next time I popped by for a browse my interest in it hadn’t waned. I loved the idea of a story about a group of friends in New York City, and the ‘literariness’ of the styled cover filled a need for something intense at the time. (I saw the North American edition online later, and have to say that I would never have picked up the book with that ugly cover!) I started reading it in September and read most of it while on term break, but didn’t finish the last hundred or so pages until January this year. And this really was one of the most intense books I’ve read in a long while.

The four friends are JB, a black, gay artist; Malcolm, a part-black, well-off architect; Willem, a handsome actor; and Jude, a lawyer with a tortured past. While the story follows their friendship from the time after graduating from university through to their middle years, the novel is really about Jude: his past, his secrets, his deep friendship with Willem, the scars on his psyche. I loved the first few hundred pages, which are full of detail and the characters’ neuroses (it has a distinctly New York flavour to it, this book). After a while, though, it started to get a repetitive tone to it – the characters never seem to change or develop all that much, and I think the subtleties of individuals as they traverse the decades was somewhat lost. Interspersed with their story are scenes from Jude’s past, and finally, finally, we learn the whole sordid, twisted, cruel details of what he has endured. Yanagihara gives no quarter and does not spare her readers’ feelings. It’s not easy reading, and with it comes that bigger truth: there are kids everywhere going through things like this, all the time, invisible.

There’s nothing invisible about Jude, though. While he has injuries to his legs that makes him almost crippled, he draws the love and respect of others around him with his quiet intelligence. I can imagine him quite well, and what captivates others, but after a while it is hard to believe that they would stick by him as they do, with such utter love and strength of will. But that’s ultimately what the novel is, a story of love and loyalty. The love between men, especially, is celebrated here, enlarged and engorged as it is. After learning the full truth of Jude’s past, however, the last two hundred pages were a real slog. I have trouble reading about characters who are, for want of a better term, self-indulgent, and it’s a shameful truth that Jude’s wallowing self-hate became tiresome to read. For the whole of the novel he’s on a path to self-annihilation, and while he becomes a respected and hugely successful lawyer and finds some happiness, you always know it’s just a matter of time: his past has so permanently shaped him, scarred him, that there can be no real recovery.

This emotional and confronting book is worth reading, even if I do think it could have been shorter. It is certainly memorable in its deeply tragic nature, and at times, a real page-turner. I do love a book that leaves me conflicted and engages so deeply with my emotions; I just wish the characters weren’t quite so two-dimensional and so full of unconditional love. But that’s just me.

regenerationI read this in August 2015 for a class I was teaching – I didn’t need to teach this book, just read it, but I loved it so much that I wished I was teaching it! Regeneration is the first book in a trilogy by Pat Barker, first published in 1991 (my edition: 2008) but set during World War One and featuring characters based on real historical figures. That is to say, I would hope you’ve heard of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, well-known war poets. This historical fiction novel is set in Craiglockhart War Hospital, Scotland, in 1917; this is the hospital for convalescing soldiers suffering from a range of physical and mental ailments go to recover. The final line of the blurb sums it up well: “Regeneration is the classic exploration of how the traumas of war brutalised a generation of young men.” The story is told from the perspectives of Sassoon, an officer and recipient of medals who has become a pacifist – being sent to Craiglockhart was a favour done by a friend; the alternative was a court martial; and Dr William Rivers, a psychiatrist who, officially, must always support the war effort and the government’s propaganda, but who is finding it increasingly hard to send these men back to the front.

One of the delights of this book – and for a book about the tragedy and hypocrisy of war, there are many delights to be found – is the subtle exploration of people’s attitudes about the war, the propaganda associated with it, and the idea of silence. In a way, these men were sent to this hospital to silence them – they were neither seen nor heard, a perfect place for someone like Sassoon. Barker has written it in a voice distinctive to the time and place, and the sense of a ‘boys’ club’ comes across clearly – and of boys playing at war (I’m referring to the men in charge, here, too). What really drew me in, though, is the characters: a diverse, eclectic mix of men, some of them suffering from terrible post-traumatic stress disorders, who are brought vividly alive and given that otherwise-silenced voice by Barker. This is a powerful novel, both sad and uplifting, that fascinates and captivates while, ultimately, stripping the glory used to sell war and presenting us with the human side of conflict. A must-read, and one I’d love to re-read already. (The other two books are The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road.

life formI didn’t read these books in the order you see them here, by the way. I’m writing about them in a messy way, and it will take a few posts to get them all covered. But switching from WWI to the more recent Iraq War, in December I read Belgium-French writer Amélie Nothomb’s slim 2010 novel Life Form (translated by Alison Anderson and published by Europa in 2013). Life Form is equally compelling but very different from Barker’s Regeneration. For a start, Nothomb herself is the narrator, a Belgium writer living in France who receives a fan letter from an American soldier stationed in Iraq. At first, she gives a rote reply and is not too interested, but as the letters continue to come she gets caught up in the young man’s story. Melvin Mapple is grotesquely obese, and his over-eating is a side-effect of the shock and horror of war, and a protest against it.

I saw my first combat, with rocket fire, tanks, bodies exploding next to me and the men I killed myself. I discovered the meaning of terror. There may be some brave people who can stand it, but I’m not one of them. Some people lose their appetite, but most of them, including me, have just the opposite reaction. You come back from battle in a state of shock, terrified, amazed that you’re alive, and the first thing you do after you change your pants (you’ll have soiled them for sure) is make a beeline for the food. […] You go crazy. There’s something broken in us. It’s not exactly that we like eating in this way, we just can’t help it, we could kill ourselves eating, and maybe that’s what we want.. [pp.24-5]

Mapple has put on two hundred pounds since going to Iraq, he tells Nothomb, and has even named his fat Scheherazade. ‘She’ gives him a sense of happiness, and protection. Amélie is increasingly riveted by Mapple’s story, and encourages him to make a statement with his girth. As their epistolary friendship grows, she reveals things about her own public and private self and develops a kind of fondness for this obese soldier and his sad story. But this friendship built on shared words on paper is a fragile thing, and not entirely what it seems.

This is such a great book – I loved the premise, and the idea of using fat to protest the war, fantastic! But also tragic, because I can completely relate, or empathise with the idea of eating to deal with trauma; seems surprising it hasn’t actually happened already (I think army rations has something to do with it – and once they’ve returned to their home lands, no one pays any attention to veterans, do they?). It is an odd feeling, reading a fictional story in which the writer has made themselves the main character – you don’t know whether they’re wearing a persona or not. Why do that? Why not simply make someone up, like usual? Or maybe this is Nothomb’s style, I don’t know – she might be prolific in Europe but she’s not so well-known in English. I’m just curious, really, but I get the sense that all the details about her letter-writing and attitude are autobiographical. That reminds me: another aspect that is enjoyable about this book are her discussions around writing, letters and the blurred boundaries between public and private spheres for a writer.

to have and have notThe last book I want to discuss today is the first book I finished in 2016, Ernest Hemingway’s classic To Have and Have Not, first published in 1937 (my edition published by Arrow in 2004). This slender book is only 180 pages, but achieves a lot in that space. It’s the story of Harry Morgan who ‘runs’ (smuggles) rum out of Cuba and into Florida, where he lives with his wife and kids. The opening sequence is a graphic and violent story, showing Harry in action in Cuba where he and his boat have been hired by an American to take fishing. On his way to meeting the man, he stops at a cafe where there’s a shooting; when the man doesn’t pay Morgan for the fishing trip, he’s forced to take on illegal Chinese passengers to make up his losses.

In true Hemingway fashion, there’s no introspective thoughts or reflection going on, only finely-detailed descriptions and a lot of dialogue. There are several more escapades that Harry is involved in, and the ending was a surprise to me because I’m so accustomed to the main characters ‘winning’ in the end. The story also switches from first-person narration, in the beginning (told in an anecdotal style, almost) to third-person, watching Harry from outside. The book is also very much a product of its time: if you’re sensitive to the ‘N’ word (for African Americans), you’ll have trouble here – personally, being Australian (where the N-word isn’t as relevant), I did find it hard to hear the way the African Americans – young men hired by Harry to help on the boat, mostly – were referred to and talked about. They rarely had names, and a general sense of them as dexterous but unreliable animals came across strongly. But I often read with my English teacher’s hat on, and on another level I find it fascinating how words so clearly convey – and betray – our attitudes, and how these have changed over time.

Towards the end, Hemingway went speculative and thoughtful, dipping into the minds and lives of several other characters on board their moored boats: again, my interest in them was focussed mostly on what they revealed about Hemingway’s values and attitudes towards women, class, sexuality – there’s never any point being offended, I tend to think, but you can learn a lot simply by having such attitudes rendered stark and plain.

While I’ve read Fiesta (or, The Sun Also Rises) twice, the only other book of his that I’ve read to date is one of his memoirs, True at First Light, which I really enjoyed. I think when you read Hemingway, not only can you delight in a distinctly 30s voice and style (truly, reading one of his books is like being immersed in an architectural style), but you are immersed in Hemingway, himself. There is a sense of sadness and fatalism here that surprised me, and a world-weary cynicism. Hidden beneath the laconic dialogue and unreliable characters is a more biting commentary on class, wealth, power and the effects of war. The fact that it’s not very obvious makes his work more appealing to me, and reminds me that I really must read more Hemingway.

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