A small selection of books and magazines I’m (mostly not) reading.

The Poetry of List-Making

This post is in response to a Wordpress prompt, which I think, to my shame, is more than a week old now, on List-making. The link is above – clicking the link will take you to all the posts written in response to this prompt.

Poetry is beyond me if I’m going to get this post published today, so – look, behold! A non-poetic list of the books piled up on my bedside table, for all the world as if I’m reading them, and then, another list, providing a bit more information about where they sit on the scale of being read or not being read, or something in-between.

List 1: Books on my bedside table

  1. In Fact – The Best of Creative Non Fiction – Edited by Lee Gutkind
  2. Olive Kitteridge,  by Elizabeth Strout
  3. An Intimate History of Humanity, by Theodore Zeldin
  4. The Memoir Book, by Patti Miller
  5. Raising Girls, by Gisela Preuschoff
  6. Wassily Kandinsky – Concerning The Spiritual In Art, translated and with an introduction by M.T.H Sadler
  7. The Artist’s Way (A Course in Discovering and Recovering your Creative Self) – Julia Cameron
  8. 2 different copies of The Monthly, an Australian magazine focussing on “Politics, Society and Culture”
  9. 1 copy of Believer, an American literary magazine
  10. 1 copy of The Canary Press, an Australian “story” magazine

Books on bedside table

 

List 2:  Notes on the books on my bedside table:

      1. In Fact – Time spent on the bedside table: about 4 weeks so far. I just started reading this about a week ago. The essay that made the greatest impression on me so far is the first one, Three Spheres by Lauren Slater, a piece about a psychologist who finds herself treating a bi-polar bulimic woman in the very same unit where she had been treated for the same disorders a decade earlier.
      2. Olive Kitteridge has been there only about a month. It was given to me by my partner (who constantly finds and buys cheap books at Op Shops/Thrift Stores) so went straight onto the bedside table. It’s a novel, and winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, so must be worth reading, right?
      3. Half read, has been there about 3 months. I was ploughing through An Intimate History of Humanity and enjoying it’s unusual, and, yes, intimate, take on history, with chapters entitled How some people have acquired an immunity to loneliness, and Why there has been more progress in cooking than in sex, but then came to a grinding halt, suddenly felt bored, and decided to read some fiction, so that’s what I’ve done over the past few weeks. Planning to go back and read the rest…sometime soon.
      4. Time on the bedside table: a couple of years. It’s there for guidance: I read bits and pieces of The Memoir Book intermittently when I need inspiration for writing, as it contains some good ideas for writing exercises. Have never read through the entire book from start to end.
      5. Raising Girls has been next to my bedside table, possibly since my daughter was in primary school. She is now in year 11 and I have yet to open it. At this stage, my modified plan is to wait until she is 21, and then read it to find out just how much I got wrong.
      6. I love Kandinsky’s paintings – but then again, there are a lot of paintings I like. My interest in Kandinsky is no stronger than my interest in any other artist of his era. Nevertheless, about 3 years ago, completely unprompted, a work colleague brought this book in to work to lend to me. I have to admit, I have not made much headway with it. It sat there for about a year before I opened it. At that point, I gave it a try, and got about as far as the end of the introduction. It’s kind of awkward now to give it back and say that I haven’t read it, so it continues to sit on my bedside table. We stare at each other sometimes, that book and I, but then I pick up something else.
      7. The Artist’s Way is another book that my partner found in an Op Shop and brought home for me, sometime within the last year. He obviously thought, very sweetly, that it would be inspiring for me, so I put it on my bedside table. I have not opened it yet.
      8. 2 old copies of The Monthly were purchased for about $1 each in an Op Shop, probably 5 months ago. I picked one out because I mistakenly thought it had a portrait (the written variety) of our previous prime minister Julia Gillard in it. My interest in that was mainly because I needed to write a portrait of someone, as part of a writing course I was doing online, and I thought it would be useful to read an example. But the article turned out to be a general one about sexism in politics in the time that Gillard was prime minister – not what I was after. The other copy was their Summer issue, with a long list of authors on the cover, so I bought it on the assumption that it would include lots of short pieces of writing to read and learn from. So far I have not opened it.
      9. About 2 years ago, my partner gave me a subscription to The Believer magazine for my birthday, knowing my interest in reading essays and pieces of non-fiction writing, or perhaps mainly because Nick Hornby writes the music criticism and we both enjoy Hornby’s fiction. There seemed to be some kind of stuff-up with the subscription though, so it took about a year before the issues actually started arriving. This must have been the final issue, which probably only arrived early this year. I’ve read most of it but perhaps didn’t finish it. It includes a short story by Miranda July, a contemporary artist who dabbles in all sorts of media, including films, and writing short stories. I’ve enjoyed any of her writing that I’ve read so far. I found some articles in Believer were a bit too dry and intellectual for my (very average) tastes/abilities, and there are a lot of interviews with people I’ve never heard of (eg in this issue, Michael Schur, Ronald Cotton, Jerry Stahl, Megan Rapinoe) so of course, that has the effect of making me feel as if I’m not the culturally aware (and American) intellectual they are writing for. Has probably been there about 6 months.
      10. The year before that, my partner gave me a subscription to The Canary Press for my birthday. It was  a risk on his part, because the magazine only publishes fiction, and my interest in writing lies more in non-fiction.  I read fiction, although not normally in magazines, where I mostly look for non-fiction articles. Still, as it was a gift, tentatively, I gave it a go. Well, to my surprise, I fell instantly in love with this magazine. It’s the best literary magazine I’ve ever found, largely because the editors have such a sense of humour about their endeavour – which is definitely NOT to say that all the writing they publish is humorous, nor that the magazine should not be taken seriously.  I loved it so much that the following year when my copies of Believer were steadfastly failing to arrive, I found myself thinking back fondly to the days when I had a subscription to The Canary Press. Eventually, I just took out another subscription myself. (It was surprisingly well priced!) The stories constantly surprise me with their creativity and are unlike anything I’d ever think to write, yet if I aspired to writing fictional stories, I could do worse than aspire to write something suitable for this magazine. Each issue usually includes one piece by a well-established writer, such as Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proux, which I re-read in a previous issue with great pleasure, having completely forgotten that it was a short story, mis-remembering it as a full-blown novel. I think I finished reading the issue that’s on the bedside table, so I’m not sure how long it’s been there, or why it is still there, either. I put it down to laziness. Or fondness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I love Paris in the Springtime

It’s Spring in Melbourne! After the unusually cold winter we had in Melbourne this year – we were treated to an extended version of Winter this year, that continued on through most of September – Spring finally seems to have arrived, and with it the renewed energy and lifted spirits that longer hours of sunshine and warmer temperatures bring. Hurrah!

Unfortunately Spring is also to blame for why I’ve already sneezed twice since writing the word It’s about 1 minute ago. Perhaps Spring also accounts for the large, slow-witted blowflies that mysteriously find their way into our house in droves at the moment and then proceed to fly in a slow and wobbly manner, around the house at shoulder height, as if they are stoned and paranoid about heights.

Anyway, it’s Spring, the time when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of cricket, now that the football season is over. Spring, when the buds start budding, the blooms start blooming, and my eyes start running. Spring, when we all get Spring fever. Spring, when we all….Spring clean. ?

I’m afraid I’m not really into cleaning, especially Spring cleaning. Who ever decided it was a good idea to devote an entire 3 month period – arguably the nicest 3 month period of the year for being outdoors –  to cleaning?

When it comes to cleaning, I begrudgingly allocate a small amount of time now and then to cleaning things a visitor might reasonably be expected to encounter on a tour through my house – dishes, cups, cutlery, floors and surfaces in bathrooms and kitchens, for example. (I have only one kitchen, so I’m not sure why there is a plural kitchens there). I allocate proportionally less time to things only the discerning, or pedantic, visitor will ever look at – the dust on the bookshelves, or behind the toilet, for example – and basically no time ever to wiping, sorting or tidying the junk that accumulates inside cupboards or wardrobes or in the junk room study, so if you ever happen to drop in to my house for a surprise visit, please don’t look behind the couch, or inside the vases, or even into the junk room study. (that could prove difficult if you’re staying overnight, as you’ll be in there on a fold-out bed amongst the junk.) In fact whether it’s a surprise visit or not will make no difference, I still won’t be wiping out cupboards for you.

This afternoon is a case in point. My parents and one of my brothers are coming over for lunch tomorrow. Things I need to do before that lunch could be divided into 2 categories, much like skills and experience on a job application:

  1. Essential – clean up the dirty dishes currently in the kitchen, go shopping for ingredients, prepare the lunch and dessert so the guests have something to eat when they arrive.
  2. Desirable – clean the bathroom, mop the floors, clear the table, set the table for guests.

Today I was out all day until about 3.30pm, and I’m going out again at 6pm. At about 4.30 this afternoon I calculated that I had 1 1/2 hours, and 2 possible paths to take in that time, namely either:

  • The Road Less Travelled/The Path of the Well-Prepared Host. This path involves shopping for the required groceries today, and perhaps even making a start on some of the food preparations, thereby making tomorrow morning more relaxed
  • or
  • The Road Quite Frequently Travelled/The Path of the Unprepared Host. This path involves getting out my laptop and settling in to spend the next 1 1/2 hours, or, basically, right up to the moment that I’m planning to leave to go out again, writing a post. The consequences will be to spend all of tomorrow morning doing all of the above mentioned tasks in order to have the house, and the lunch, ready by midday, probably feeling a bit rushed and stressed out while doing so – but hey – that won’t occur until tomorrow, right?

Was there ever any real doubt about which path I would choose? I opted for number 2, The Road Quite Frequently Travelled, (at least by bloggers)- so here I am.

Yes, the dust is gently accumulating on the floorboards, the rhubarb I’m intending to stew for dessert tomorrow is still sitting in bunches down at the Fruit shop, and I don’t recall when the floor was last mopped, but I’m here at my blog.

In my defence, I’m attempting a Spring clean of sorts. A literary Spring clean, if you will. I’m continuing on a personal mission to clean out some of the 19 Draft posts I’ve accumulated over the past few years, by shaping them into something decent and then posting them. I purged one just the other day, by turning it into a silly post about doing the laundry at night.

Today, the challenge is tougher than finishing off a half-written poem about hanging laundry. Today’s challenge is to devise an introduction that will nicely segue into a draft written two years ago, after an overseas holiday, about being in Paris. Now, don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a simple task. A topic like this is difficult to resurrect 2 years later, because when the writer is not in, and has no particular claim to any expertise on, a particular place, the timing of the post is crucial. Having now lost the immediacy of being written right after being in Paris, there is a high risk that a post about Paris, written by an Australian woman from her awfully dusty house in Melbourne, will come across as trite, superficial and cliched.

Looking over my original draft, I fear that some of the writing was pretty trite, superficial and cliched anyway. Witness the following lame sentence: “There is, of course, a lot that could be said about Paris, and I am not going to try and cover it all.”  Did I really think that was worth stating?

In the spirit of Spring cleaning, this draft has either got to be salvaged, or  thrown out for good.

I began this exercise quite ruthlessly, chopping out the first 4-5 paragraphs of the original draft with not a blink of the eye. Ruthless – this is how  you really clean things out. (If only I could do this as ruthlessly in the physical world.) There was nothing astounding in those paragraphs anyway, just some trite and superficial writing about how great it is to travel and how pretty Paris was. No wonder I refrained from hitting the “publish” button!

So after consideration, this is the only part I’m keeping. It’s about a little tradition I began, and try to uphold when ever I’m lucky enough to travel.  That is, to buy a book about the city I’m in.  I began this tradition on my very first overseas trip some 16 or so years ago, when I landed in San Fransisco, and headed, (not literally straight from the airport) to the famous CityLights bookshop, where I purchased a collection of short histories of San Fransisco. Reading the book later, back home in Melbourne, was all the more enjoyable because I was able to reminisce about locations I’d been to, while also learning more about the history of a city that I’d immediately liked and felt interested in.

It doesn’t have to be non-fiction. In Edinburgh, Scotland, I purchased a second hand copy of Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh. In Dublin, Ireland, I bought a copy of Dubliners, by James Joyce. I don’t devise my whole itinerary in each place around hunting down such a book, and there are plenty of cities I’ve visited where I haven’t managed to come across a book that was emblematic of the city: I failed to find just the right book when in New York, Hong Kong, Montreal, Edmonton, Cork, Nice, Venice, or Barcelona, for example.

 

Shakespeare and Co. bookshop, picture courtesy of Wikipedia

Shakespeare and Co. bookshop, Paris

In Paris, the legendary bookshop for any English-speaking tourist is Shakespeare and Co. I imagine every single English-speaking tourist who has ever visited Paris has dropped into this shop at some point during their stay. In fact, I think they were all there on the perfect Spring afternoon that I visited, because it was so crowded that I couldn’t turn around, or walk anywhere without……well, I just simply couldn’t turn around or walk anywhere. It was quite unpleasant, actually, as the store is tiny. To make matters worse, it was a warm day,  I was flying out that day, and I had already checked out of my accommodation – therefore, I was wearing unnecessary layers of clothes including a cardigan and thick rain jacket, simply because I couldn’t squash more clothes into the suitcase. I was also carrying my bulky backpack with me. I felt like the Michelin Man, trying to squeeze his way through a store full of young, thin, literary type-Australian students discussing the French-speaking Politics class they were taking at the university. (true)

Thus, once in Shakespeare and Co, all I wanted to do was get out as quickly as possible, so instead of spending time enjoying the atmosphere in this legendary store, famously a hang out for all sorts of literary figures through the years, including Beat poets, and Anais Nin, I made a quick decision – I saw a small history of Paris, so I shoved my way through to the counter, purchased it, and got the hell out of there.

I brought my newly aquired tome back to Melbourne with me, and read my way through all 600 or so pages, detailing the history of the city from the 3rd Century BC when the Parisii tribe set up at the site then known as Lutetia, and fought Julius Ceasar’s armies, through to its incarnation as the city it is now – or was when the book was published about 3 years ago.

As I learned from my reading, a city is a constantly evolving thing, with many layers of history hidden underneath the streets, below the ground cover in its parks; its buildings are demolished or repurposed, its physical boundaries are ever expanding.

In that sense, as it turns out, this post is a bit like a city.

 

Interior of the store: imagine approximately 400 people buzzing around and one large fat Michelin Man stumbling through them all.

Interior of Shakespeare and Co, obviously taken after hours. Imagine about 400 people climbing over one another, and one large fat Michelin Man stumbling through them all.

 

Pics of Shakespeare and Co store courtesy of Wikipedia.

For a concise, 1 page history of Paris, as opposed to 600 pages, try this useful link.

I Should Have A Better Ending

It’s happened again. That thematic accident – some might say serendipity – that occurs when I choose a book to read, from the plethora of books lining our book cases, and lo and behold, find that a major theme of the book turns out to be grief, death – even, in this case, death of a sibling.

On this occasion, the book was Demonology, a collection of short stories by North American author Rick Moody. Moody is a fairly well-known author, perhaps largely because two of his novels, The Ice Storm, and Garden State, were successfully adapted into popular films. I really enjoyed both those films, particularly The Ice Storm, (which sometimes even makes it to my ever-changing list of Top 10 films!) and subsequently read The Ice Storm, but I had not made an effort to read any more of the author’s work until now.

A few weeks ago, I was laid up in bed with a head cold, and pouring over our bookshelves for something to read. I suspect that I chose this book because the combination of the rather ‘out-there’  title, and the cover picture of a large, rather creepy-looking chicken mask, made a strange contrast with the quote across the cover from Time Out, describing the book as “Honest, raw and deeply moving.” The words “deeply moving” and chicken masks are not paired together very often so I was intrigued to see how that combination would play out.

Moody novel

Reading back on the blurb on the back of the book now, I guess there were some hints of what was to come: Moody’s new collection of short stories digs deep into American society and reveals the loss of connection that lurks under the surface. The stories are about language, grief, car crashes, love…..

It’s likely that the mention of language, grief, and connection or loss of it were the final enticement to me (on top of the chicken mask), as all are topics I find interesting. It seems that quite a few of the books I’ve recently read, have entwined ideas about language, and our ability to communicate, into stories of love and loss.

As I reached the end of this collection of stories, it became apparent that indeed, a large portion of the stories in Demonolgy include a death. The reason that this fact sneaked up on me is because often, with the exception of the first and last stories, the death in the story is incidental to the narrative, a small shock for the reader perhaps, but not dwelt upon by the narrator, who merely mentions it as a side-note and then ploughs on with the story.

Now that I’ve noted that, I can’t help but be reminded of Virginia Woolf’s groundbreaking novel, To The Lighthouse, which consolidated her reputation as a writer who experimented with form. In that novel, a central character from the first part of the novel, Mrs Ramsay, disappears about a third of the way through the novel, and the reader only learns that she has died when that information is imparted in a set of parentheses in the next chapter. There are other reminder’s of Woolf in reading Demonology: Moody’s style of writing in some of these stories, where he crafts a sentence that goes on for pages, or constructs a story by building it up from sentences about the same unnamed characters, perhaps also makes a small nod to Woolf’s experimental writing, such as in The Waves.

One of my favourite stories in this collection, Boys, could be described in this way, as a string of sentences. What ties them together is that they are all about the unnamed “Boys,” most beginning, or ending with, Boys enter the house, and it becomes apparent that the sentences are taking us through the lives of two brothers as they grow up, and come and go from the physical place that unites them, their family house.

….Two boys, one of them striking the other with a willow switch about the head and shoulders, the other crying, enter the house. Boys enter the house, speaking nonsense. Boys enter the house, calling for Mother. 

Moody sketches their lives out with the barest detail. There is just enough information given to allow us, for example, to work out that they have a sister, and then, as they get older, that their sister is very ill:

Boys enter the house, having attempted to locate the spot in the yard where the dolls were buried, eight or nine years prior, without success; they go to their sister’s room, sit by her bed. 

Time seems to be condensed. We don’t know if the boys have entered the house once, a few times, over a few weeks, or over a year or more, in-between each little snippet of information that we receive about them entering the house yet again.

…Boys enter the house carrying cases of beer. Boys enter the house, very worried now, didn’t know more worry was possible. 

As readers, we are left to work out for ourselves the events happening around the boys, based only on the information that we receive about their behaviour.

Boys enter the house weeping and hear weeping around them. Boys enter the house,  embarrassed, silent, anguished, keening, afflicted, angry, woeful, griefstricken. 

Based on only these snippets of information, and the sudden absence of any further mention of the sister, the reader is left to draw her own conclusion, that the sister has died. Meanwhile, the boys’ lives continue on at the same pace. Boys enter the house, on vacation, arguing about politics, with new girlfriends, announcing new professions, bringing with them their children, carrying out their own father. Life, Moody seems to be saying, continues on after a death, and life is not sentimental, it doesn’t stop to mourn.

There are other stories in this collection where the death of a minor character is just an incident in the larger narrative. The collection, however, is bookended by two stories, each told in the first person by a narrator who is deeply affected by the death of his sister. Reading the first story, The Mansion on The Hill I understood this collection to be fiction, but after reading the final story, Demonology, I was less sure where the line between fiction and fact merged. How could I consider this to be fiction when, in the final paragraph of this story, the narrator turns in on himself, saying I should fictionalise it more, I should conceal myself (…..) I should make the events orderly, I should wait and write about it later, I should wait until I’m not angry, (….) I should have a better ending….

I suspected that there had to be an autobiographical element to the recurring motif of a brother experiencing a sister’s death.

So I did some online research, and very quickly verified that Moody’s sister had died suddenly, when he was an adult and already a published author. She died in 1995, while he was writing another of his novels, Purple America. I found online a number of reviews of this short story collection, all of which referred to this devastating incident in the author’s life as the catalyst for the prevalence of sudden deaths in these stories.

It’s fascinating to see how a person with creative talent can take a devastating experience like the death of a sibling and incorporate all the emotions and memories that experience brings up, into a body of creative work. These stories were strong, sometimes funny, and experiment playfully with form and content – some stories take the form of traditional narratives while others do not. One story is presented in the form of a list of books and another is a chart showing brief notes on a character’s life accompanied by a list of the music he was listening to each year.

I feel glad for Moody, that after the death of his siter he was able to continue to work, and channel his anguish into creating something which we can all share in. These stories commemorates his sister but also offer us all a glimpse of ourselves and how we react as we encounter the deaths that happen around us every day – from being held up on our train journey by a fatal accident, to hearing of the death of an old school aquaintance that we were no longer in touch with, right through to experiencing the death of a beloved sibling.

For anyone interested in further reading:

Flirting With Disaster – New York Times (2001)

Up Close and Personal – A Death as Fiction, as Fact – New York Observer (2001)

Author Rick Moody speaks at Saratoga College (2013)

The History of Love

I was intrigued by the title of the book my daughter was reading, so I turned it over to read the blurb on the back. From this, I gathered that The History of Love was not a history, but a fictional tale, centered around two people, a young girl and an old Jewish man, both living in New York, and somehow connected through the existence of a book the old man wrote many years earlier.

Strangers living in New York, and connecting through a mysterious book. My curiosity was piqued, so I opened the book and idly began to read page 1:

When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT. I’m surprised I haven’t been buried alive. The place isn’t big. I have to struggle to keep a path clear between bed and toilet, toilet and kitchen table, kitchen table and front door. If I want to get from the toilet to the front door, impossible, I have to go by way of the kitchen table.

Leo Gursky had my attention by his 4th sentence. Clearly this dude had personality. I continued reading a bit further.

After describing his obstacle-filled journey to the front door if someone knocks, Leo goes on to wonder who will be the last person to see him alive, musing that his money is on the boy who delivers the Chinese take-out he orders four times weekly. He then describes how he deliberately tries to be seen when he goes out, sometimes spilling change on the floor of a store just to create a scene, or tying up a sales assistant at Athlete’s Foot, trying on a Reebok “bootie”  that both he and the sales assistant know he is not going to buy.

By this point, I would have kept reading anyway, but then Leo delivered this line:

I never actually buy. All I want is not to die on a day when I went unseen.  

I had to put the book down and go and get a tissue to deal with my eyes, which had suddenly filled up with tears. I felt as you do when you read, or realise, some truth that had been lurking in your unconscious for ever. It seemed to me as if Leo Gursky had just provided a poignant explanation for the behaviour of plenty of elderly people I’ve encountered, at the same time as he had voiced a universal truth. No-one wants to die on a day when they went unseen. Equally, no-one wants to think of someone they love, dying alone, and unnoticed. I know that this is true because my own younger brother died in that circumstance, unnoticed for 24 hours.  That’s probably the real reason my eyes welled with tears when Leo said this.

Leo’s narration really makes this book for me and I felt rewarded for sticking with him. Krauss lovingly portrays the ugly, lonely old Jewish man, living in his New York apartment, eating his Metamucil bar for breakfast, and remembering his earlier life. Leo arrived in New York years ago, an immigrant from Poland. He became a locksmith, breaking into buildings all over New York. Now retired due to ill health, he lives alone in his apartment where he keeps a slide projector under his bed, and in a jar on a shelf, a slide, a photo of his childhood house, to look at.  It’s something I do on special occasions, my birthday, say. He has no family. In his wallet, he keeps a card that says:

MY NAME IS LEO GURSKY I HAVE NO FAMILY PLEASE CALL PINELAWN CEMETERY I HAVE A PLOT THERE IN THE JEWISH PART THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION.

 

The History of Love

 

 

The other narrator in The History of Love is a young girl who introduces herself thus:

1. MY NAME IS ALMA SINGER. 

When I was born my mother named me after every girl in a book my father gave her called The History of Love.

Alma’s father is dead, her mother is absorbed in translating novels, and she says of her younger brother:

For a month he referred to himself in the third person as Mr Fruit. On his sixth birthday he took a running leap out of a second-floor window and tried to fly. He broke his arm and got a permanent scar on his forehead, but from then on, nobody ever called him anything but Bird.

For various reasons, Alma decides that she must hunt down her namesake, but winds up inadvertently hunting down the author of the The History of Love. As it turns out, the real-life novel is named after the mysterious book that connects the two main characters. The book-within-the-book is lyrical and beautiful, a work of art, written by a young man in love, filled with fables and reflections that illustrate all the forms that love can take.

This turned out to be a stunning novel, and has quickly gone straight to my all-time favourites list. There are many elements to this story that are reminiscent of another favourite, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Not least, how originally and inventively drawn the main protagonist is, the richness of his internal musings, and the setting of the story in New York, but also, the way the narrative is developed through crossing back and forth from two different narrators, and the linkage of contemporary New York with the rich history of its Jewish immigrants.

The narrative sometimes feels labryinth-like, as the-novel-within-the-novel device, and the story, set in the past, of the person acknowledged as the author of the fictional novel, blends with the stories set in the present, and the requirement to piece together snippets of information that are gleaned through flashbacks cause the reader to have to work hard at times, to keep up.

The History of Love,  not unlike Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, has the elements of a mystery, as discoveries along the way reveal details that shed light on characters’ pasts. However, unlike a generic mystery, sometimes these details are revealed only to the reader, and remain heartbreakingly unknown to the central characters.

And in this way, just like in real life, The History of Love, has no neat, Hollywood-style resolution. Things happen when it’s disappointingly too late. Characters remain ignorant to the ignoble actions of people they believed were friends, and therefore unaware of the impact that the action had on their own dreams. Opportunities are missed. The love of their life marries someone else. People die before they have had a chance to tell them that they love them, or even, that they exist.

I worked on my coffee for half an hour, making the most of it. The girl closed her notebook and got up to leave. The man neared the end of his newspaper. I read the headlines. I was a small part of something larger than myself. Yes, human life! Human! Life! Then the man turned the page and my heart stopped.

Like all of us, Leo and Alma make their own separate ways through lives studded with missed opportunities and failures, and take comfort from small moments of recognition, and place hope in the possibility of connecting with another human being.

 I felt my heart surge. I thought: I’ve lived this long. Please. A little longer won’t kill me.

 

 

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

What about a teakettle? What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me?  I could invent a teakettle that reads in Dad’s voice, so I could fall asleep, or maybe a set of kettles that sings the chorus of Yellow Submarine…….

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I was lucky enough to take with me to a holiday at the beach last week, a copy of  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Johathan Safran Foer.

As it happens, my reading lately has included quite a few novels for teens (due to being mother of a teen). I’ve discovered that there are some great novels for teens out there, that make enjoyable and sometimes challenging reading for adults. But having read quite a few lately, I have to admit that, on reading the synopsis on the back of Safran Foer’s novel, I was initially a bit put off reading it when I discovered that the protagonist is a 9 year old boy. I’d been looking forward to a story centred around adults for a change. But the book is written for adult readers, and it’s been on the periphery of my consciousness for a while. It seemed as though the title practically shouted to get my attention, every time I glanced over my bookshelves. I’d been deliberately ignoring it for ages.

But the other thing I realised when I read the synopsis on the back, was that death, and grieving, were central to the story. I make no secret of the fact that since the death of my brother in 2011, I am drawn to reading about other people, real or fictional, coping with death and grief. Suddenly I felt that now was the  time to read this book.

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So I took it with me on holiday at a beach house where I spent a week with no internet. I’m grateful that I did, and that I had the pleasure of knowing 9 year old Oskar Schell for a short time.

The lines quoted above are the opening lines of the novel. After such an opening, who wouldn’t already be intrigued to find out more about the narrator?

Continuing on, and being privy to the whimsical, and relentlessly active, imagination of 9 year old Oskar Schell, the book’s central narrator, was a sheer delight. This 9 year old’s favourite book is “A Brief History of Time,” he shakes a tambourine as he walks around New York, because it helped me remember that even though I was going through different neighborhoods, I was still me, and when he can’t sleep at night he lies in bed “inventing”.

But the delight of knowing Oscar is tinged with poignancy, as this young boy’s imaginings are so often related to death, loss, and the vulnerability of humans, and are a means of trying to cope with the loss of the father he loved so much. Oskar’s father died in the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks, 2 years prior to the main action in the novel.

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In bed that night I invented a special drain that would be underneath every pillow in New York, and would connect to the reservoir. Whenever people cried themselves to sleep, the tears would all go to the same place, and in the morning the weatherman could report if the water level of the Reservoir of Tears had gone up or down, and you would know if New York was in heavy boots. And when something really terrible happened – like a nuclear bomb, or at least a biological weapons attack – an extremely loud siren would go off, telling everyone to get to Central Park to put sandbags around the reservoir.

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Oskar reminisces about the funeral that was held for his father, despite the lack of a body ever being found (as was the case with many victims of the 9/11 World Trade Tower attacks).  He and his grandmother were driven to the funeral in a limousine. During the trip he chats with the Limousine driver, (initially he does so in a computerised voice, mimicking Stephen Hawking, one of his heroes), and relays his usual stream of imaginative ideas.

“Actually, if limousines were extremely long, they wouldn’t need drivers.  You could just get in the back seat, walk through the limousine, and then get out of the front seat, which would be where you wanted to go. So in this situation, the front seat would be at the cemetery.”

Oskar is not the only narrator in the novel. Chapters switch from Oskar, to the voice of his grandfather and alternatively, his grandmother, through letters they have separately written to their child (Oskar’s father, Thomas). Their letters date back to before Oskar was born, and lead chronologically up to the present. All three narrators are living with a deep sadness caused by loss of a loved person, through death or forced separation.

I hesitate to suggest that this book is “about” anything other than Oskar and the people that inhabit his world, because I was content to be immersed in the world of Oskar, and other characters, (particularly his grandmother, and Mr Black from 6A). I’m richer for having encountered them all, so I don’t want to reduce such a vivid, beautiful book down to a few ideas, or make it sound dry and theoretical by saying it’s “about” anything other than 9-year-old Oskar Schell.

But if I was studying this book in a literature class and had to scribble down a few thoughts on what it was “about” I’d suggest:

  • it’s about the emotional devastation that we experience at the loss of a loved one
  • it’s about the fact that humans repeatedly bring this emotional devastation on ourselves, through wars and destruction,
  • it’s about words, and communication, and the limits that words have in being able to communicate what’s really important
  • it wonders whether words have the power to save our relationships, or our lives, or to end them – or no power at all
  • it’s about our (individual and universal) vulnerability

There is so much more that one could say about this book! I haven’t even touched on the mysterious key that drives Oskar to walk all over New York, or the heartbreaking secret he keeps in his own wardrobe – but I’m aware that my word count is rapidly escalating into danger zone. I’ll just have to wind up by saying, I loved this book, and there is a new entry in my list of all time favourite books.

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What about a device that knew everyone you knew? So when an ambulance went down the street, a big sign on the roof could flash

DON’T WORRY! DON’T WORRY!

(…)……..and maybe you could rate the people you knew by how much you loved them, so if the device of the person in the ambulance detected the device of the person he loved the most, or the person who loved him the most, and the person in the ambulance was really badly hurt, and might even die, the ambulance could flash  

                             GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU! GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU!

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Writing about reading…about writing

It’s a glorious sunny (if cold) winter morning in Melbourne – must be time to write a post, surely?

The last post I wrote was about some books I’ve read recently. That was 2 weeks ago, and since then, I’m sure that the entire english speaking world has been sitting on the edge of it’s seat, wondering – what will she read next????

Well…sorry to disappoint on such a massive scale, (once again, phew! – it’s lucky that you all only exist in my imagination, because that way you probably won’t hold a grudge), but so far I’ve read…..nothing. Well, nothing by way of a book, that is.

My biggest problem with reading books is deciding what to read next when I’ve finished a book. I look over our hundreds of books, (it’s like living in the fiction wing of a small local library here) and…..nothing grabs me.

You know how people often remark, about such things as going to the dentist, attending job interviews, or getting out of bed on a cold morning, that thinking about it is the hardest part. (They are very wrong, by the way, but, nevertheless, it is what they say!) For me it’s a bit like that when deciding what to read next. Since my last post, I’ve read a few newspapers, and perused other people’s blogs, but I have not yet made a decision about what book to embark upon next.

This is a shame in terms of my blog readership, which almost doubled when I wrote a post about reading books!

(Hopefully, by saying that it “doubled”, I have cleverly managed to imply that the number is impressively large, but, in reality the number would not amaze anyone except my mother).*

Admittedly, it makes perfect sense that people who write and read blogs are interested in the topic of reading, and books, but I had not given it much thought before.  I’ve written plenty of posts referencing literary authors and/or their works – see my posts on Waiting For Godot, Macbeth,  Neitzche and his moustache, and Jane Austen and how she didn’t have one (a moustache), and they didn’t have the kind of response that this post had. Apparently it is specifically the mention of books, and reading, that gets lots of people doing just that! Well, I learned a lesson there.

these things are what I’m talkin’ about

The trouble is, those kindly folk who spontaneously subscribed on the basis of one post about reading books, could be disappointed by the next 200 posts I write, as, judging by the direction this blog seems to be going in so far, it seems likely that a post about books could just as easily be followed by a post about yoga mats, a post about moustaches, a post about Jane Austen, or a post about a rhinoceros with boiled eggs for eyes.

So, new subscribers, maybe you’ll enjoy the ride, or maybe you’ll decide to unsubscribe when you see that I’m not (necessarily) going to write about books, or writing, every time I post here. Who knows, I might write a post about a book next week…..or I might write a post about chewing gum. I don’t like to plan this far ahead. Either way, I thank you for tuning in, even if temporarily, and wish you well.

My reason for stating this is that I’m not always a terribly decisive person, so it was a surprise, even to me, that when I started this blog, there was one thing I was really clear about, which was that I  didn’t want to have an “angle”.  I’ve read the advice that focussing on a particular area of interest is a good way to gain more readers, but, I’m interested in a lot of stuff. I don’t really have a particular area of interest (unless it is “the arts”) (if “the arts” includes contemporary rock and electronic music) and, more to the point, don’t want to tie myself down to writing only about books, or music, or yoga mats, or moustaches. I want to write about all of the above and more. Even with my limited knowledge of SEO and WTF**, I get that rambling about any topic under the sun, without any particular angle, is not going to gain readers in huge numbers, and that is fine.

And if I happen to change my mind, and develop a burning passion to write a blog solely dedicated to moustaches (it’s just an idea…), I’ll probably start a separate blog to do that, and continue to write this rambling and personal perspective on the world as a sideline. It may not be a big seller, but I’m quite happy with it that way.

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*(My mother is familiar with the traditional numerical system, but not familiar with the idea of strangers around the world reading one’s ramblings on their iphone.)

**SEO = Search Engine Optimisation, WTF = Web-based Total Fabrication

Read about it

For some reason, I suddenly have a desire to start keeping a record of the books I’m reading.

What has prompted this desire, I cannot say. Do I think I’m so famous and well regarded in literary circles that the world is clamouring to know what I’ve been reading? Um…….no. I am not even deluded enough to think that my friends, family or casual aquaintances are interested in viewing a list of the books I’ve read/am reading. I’m pretty certain it could be of no interest to strangers who land on this blog. Hell, let’s face it, even my imaginary readers, as supportive as those lovely people are, have no reason to be interested in a list of books that I have read, since they would be unable to read them anyway.

So why do I suddenly have this urge to record a list of  the books I’ve read?

Perhaps it’s a desire to enrich my own writing with better recall of what I’ve read. Perhaps I want to see what is revealed about myself through the list of books that I have lately chosen to read. Perhaps it’s just another ploy to create a diversion, in an effort to avoid thinking about my brother’s death last September.

But if I was to be completely honest,  I would have to admit that I’m thinking about writing down the books I’ve read since my brother died. Again, I’m not really sure why.

Maybe I want to check to see if I’ve been reading books that seem appropriate to someone who is grieving. Or, conversely, maybe I want to see if I’ve managed to read books that have nothing to do with sadness and people dying. Perhaps I want to see if I’ve read a well rounded balance of both. I don’t know.

Anyway, it seemed like material for a  post. I am not going to write reviews of each book, as that would make this post far too long.

Here they are, in kind of backwards chronological order, starting with most recently read, as best as I can recall:

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. I wrote a post about this book, which you can read here.

Surrender, by Sonya Hartnett. I have started to sometimes delve into the world of books written for teenagers and/or young adults, because I have an almost-teenager who is a prolific reader, and it’s nice to know what she is reading. It’s also good to discover quality books for this  demographic that adults can also enjoy. Some, such as this story, are complex enough to suggest that the only reason it’s classed as “kids” literature is because the main characters are teenagers. Surrender is about a boy who is dying, so yes, I did choose to read it for that reason as well. It turned out to be a dark, psychological tale with a slightly surreal feeling to it, about two boys – or is it? In the end, I was never quite sure whether there was two boys, or whether they were the alter egos, or dying imaginings, of one person. Worth a read.

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion. Well known American writer and journalist Joan Didion’s memoir about her life in the year after her husband died. Yes, I deliberately chose to read it for that reason, and in fact, I had read it once already, probably only about a year earlier.  So I knew what I was in for, and of course I had a different, more moving experience reading it the second time. This time I cried, not just out of sympathy, but out of recognition, for example when Didion describes her obsession with  calculating  how many hours he’d had left to live when some trivial incident happened.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by Mark Haddon. Outside of actually reading books to my daughter, this one was my first foray into reading a “kid’s” book to myself, and I would encourage any adult to read it. I can’t say too much about the topic of death in this case without giving out plot spoilers, but I’ll just say that I did not expect it to have anything to do with death, and that it was an enjoyable, moving and rewarding read.

A Visit From The Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. I’d read some short stories by Egan many years ago that I really liked. This novel is like a collage of stories, where each chapter jumps in time periods and locations, and where characters who feature in one chapter are secondary characters in someone else’s life in later chapters, but the entire effect is of their lives all being connected across generations and locations. I did not necessarily expect any thematic links to death when  choosing to read this, but, inevitably in a book which ranges across a period of about 40 years in the lives of at least about 20 characters, someone does die. Highly recommended if you like this kind of thing. I do.

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