Sunday, February 27, 2011

Earth Abides

It's been a quiet week reading wise due to the passing of my father, but I have been re-invigorated thanks to a comment left on my review of P D James' Children of Men, in my Book Reviews blog.

I had finished and reviewed The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle which I thoroughly enjoyed, but I wasn't sure what genre I felt like reading next, but the suggestion of a Sci-Fi felt good and now I'm about a quarter of the way through Earth Abides by George R Stewart.  I have read several post-apocolyptic novels (most notably Stephen King's The Stand, Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, Phillip K Dick's Dr Bloodmoney and Cormac McCarthy's The Road) and initially I felt that this would be like I Am Legend.  However, it is not like it at all and as it was written in 1949 it was probably an inspiration for the novels above.  But, it does actually remind me of a TV program I watched recently which was a 'thought experiment' entitled Life After Humans.

The protagonist, Ish, is a student and a survivor of a plague but he is not a lone survivor.  After the initial shock he decides that instead of giving up he will utilise his research abilities and chronicle how life on Earth will continue on.  His observations so far indicate that most domestic animals will re-discover their hunting skills, though those pets that were bred purely for pandering by humans would not survive.  Sheep need a shepherd and will fall prey to the larger hunting animals, but other cattle should eventually survive after an initial struggle.

Some of the people Ish meets on his travels are trying to start their lives again by going back to basics - growing their own vegetables, keeping chickens etc whilst others have been so dependent on the big city life that there isn't much hope for them especially with Winter approaching and no way to heat their apartments.  This is a concern as nature has shown that certain species need to maintain a specific number or it may not survive in the long term...........  there is a huge amount of food for thought in what I have just read and I'm only a quarter of the way through it.

I finished Frantic by Katherine Howell, but have yet to review it, and it was a pleasure to meet her at our Caffeine and Chapters Social Book Club night.  Katherine's fifth book is almost finished and is due for release in February 2012, so watch this space as we may theme it and do a mini 'launch' on our club night for that month.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

To Dad

Was it in the Royal Navy
That you learned to make great gravy?
Eating it with my roast
Was what I liked the most

Do you remember walking
Back from Evitt's and talking?
It was Winter and there was snow
You slipped over.... and I know it was low

But, I laughed and laughed and laughed!

You were the definitive 'Shed Man'
Wood lovingly carved with your hands
From miniatures and cradles
To 'Wood Spirits' and tables

And you have left a legacy
As well as a small Dynasty
One grandson has your creativity
The other two are going to University

Through your granddaughter your line continues on
Soon to increase to TWO great-grandsons!
And I'm so proud and glad
To say that you were MY dad

In memory of my dad who passed away yesterday after a tough but very dignified battle with skin cancer. 

Friday, February 18, 2011

Middlemarch and Melmoth

The sun has set on Middlemarch, and I will miss the time that I have spent with these wonderful characters. 

It came to a scandalous but fairly happy end.  Dorothea and Will finally avowed their love for each other and Dorothea renounced her wealth to be with the man she truly loved.  Dr Lydegate married Rosamond but it wasn’t the happy marriage he had hoped for as she had been an indulged child, was used to a certain standard of living and getting her own way.  Mary Garth married Fred Vincy and it seems out of all the characters in Middlemarch their marriage was the best suited and destined to work, being childhood sweethearts.

Mr Bulstrode had a secret to keep, but it spilled out in the form of Mr Raffles.  Its outcome had an adverse affect on Will Ladislaw and the Doctor but Dorothea stepped in and prevented a bigger scandal.   Really, Dorothea is the one who comes out looking pretty much like a saint although her halo did slip by marrying her mixed-blood artist of dubious heritage J

I found the biggest message in this novel was how important it is for someone to have something to do and a goal to reach especially for the betterment of people other than yourself; I don’t think that Eliot had much respect for the idle rich. 

Melmoth The Wanderer is a novel that I now wish I hadn’t started reading.  I’m in a quandary about how I feel about it – I’m enjoying it but I’m not.  I’m still on the Spaniard’s story and I guess really it’s about the Spanish Inquisitors and how hard it was at that time in Spain – especially being a monk who wants to renounce his vows.  Now he is in a tunnel under the garden of the convent with a man who murdered his own father, a fellow monk and a novice.  The Spaniard is hoping to be reunited with his brother on the ‘outside’ but he is unsure whether he should trust the man who has been sent to help him.  This is a story that he is relating to the descendant of the Melmoth who supposedly sold his soul to the devil.  It’s taken up about 30% of the book, and obviously has much religious meaning to it but that meaning is going right over my head!  I can only manage half an hour night with this one, it’s pretty intense.

I’ve started Panic by Katherine Howell, and compared to the two books above and my other current read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle it’s a very light read indeed even if it is about a paramedic whose policeman husband is shot and her infant son abducted.  After reading Violent Exposure I didn’t think I could read another book in this genre - I think there is enough violence in this world without reading about it (yes I love reading horror but that’s a different kettle of fish).  But, I thought well it’s a week until our book club talk so I could fit it in, and I’m actually finding it hard to put down!  

What's With The Well?

Obviously the imagery of the dry well in the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is of some significance.  Perhaps you need to be in this confined space to be able to see things clearly?  Lieutenant Mamiya, the old soldier had spoken of the time that he had to jump into a well (the alternative was being shot in the head) and whilst lying on the dirt floor he was aware of how many stars there were in the sky and that he could see them even in the day time.  He was also aware of a dark form in the well with him, he would catch a glimpse when the suns rays hit the well but he could never make out what it was as the rays would move before it became fully formed.

When Toru had been looking for his cat with a young girl who lives nearby called May (my favourite character) she showed him a dry well in the garden of an abandoned house.  This house has a shady history which may have some relevance too.  Toru feels the need to be totally alone when he’s told by his brother, and the strange psychic Malta Kano, that his wife has left him so he packs up a rope ladder and descends into the well.  He notices that Mr Myami was right – you can see the stars in daylight.  He also has strange and disturbing dreams as he lies down there, one of them is a meeting with the woman who first rang him, though he still cannot place who she is and how she knows him.  He also has an erotic dream about Malta’s sister Creta who seems to be dressed as his wife.

May is a great character she’s 15 and asks some really profound questions, and seems obsessed with death but her manner is very light-hearted.  She thinks ‘Mr Wind-Up Bird’ is ‘really weird sometimes’ and when she realises that he is down the well, she steals his rope ladder during the night and in the morning tells him that he could probably live for three weeks as long as he has water.  When he tells her he only has one bottle she tells him to take tiny sips.  She wants to know what he is doing down there, and he says he needed to think.  To help him think a bit better she closes the lid to the well leaving him in absolute darkness.  She’s very cheeky but I think possibly dangerous (?) - I’m not sure how this sequence is going to go!

Whilst Toru does his thinking we find out more about him, his student days and how he met Kumiko.  Toru doesn’t seem to have a dominant character; he certainly hasn’t really exerted himself over the many women who seem to have appeared into his life since his cat went missing.  He is as boring as his seemingly mundane life……………

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Thoughts on The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

I have had some brief discussions with a couple of other readers who have read this author, and it has been rather illuminating.  I won’t let this colour what I think though as this is my first (authentic) Japanese novel and I want to form my own independent opinion.

Yes, I can tell that the stories are really a series of short stories held together by a tenuous thread, and I did read that the sequence of the stories differs between the original and the English translation.  Why would that be?  I have no idea, and basically if I am enjoying this novel (which I am) then it doesn’t really matter.  Some of the stories work well as stand alone and some require this thread to tie them in.  I don’t mind it at all. 

The thread that holds this together is Toru’s mundane story of every day life whilst being unemployed, it is the people that he comes into contact with that have the stories to tell; though Toru’s own story is becoming weirder and weirder. This device of stories within a story reminds me very much of The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks.  The individual stories really stood out, much more than the thread that held them together.  At times I was so involved with the story of someone who had a history with the book in question that when it came to an end it was a bit of a jolt – like coming back to reality - I had forgotten that it was part of a larger work.  This is exactly how it is with Wind-Up Bird.

Sometimes when I’m getting ready for work (mindlessly blow drying my hair) my mind picks up an unusual thought and runs away with it.    Murakami’s stories feel like that to me, he’s run away with some strange thought or situation and is able to turn it into a novel.  Some of these have a dreamlike quality to them (I mentioned in my last post that they are hypnotic) – and as I am doing this as an audio book I find that this quality is more intense and I drift away as I listen to a character's monologue.  Some of the monologues are…. (I want to say depressing but that’s not the right word)………I don’t know…. dismal maybe or gloomy I guess………but then a phrase will be thrown in which makes you laugh and lightens it up a bit but at the same time it makes the whole scenario seem even more ridiculous or bizarre.

I’ve just listened to the old soldier’s story, which I found particularly haunting.  The way he related how he witnessed the flaying of an Army Officer, how he was forced to jump into a dry well as opposed to being shot in the head, and his feelings on how he did not die on that day but how he had been dead ever since…….. it really is wonderful writing.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle

I finally started listening to a book that has been on my list for quite some time – The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami.  Isn’t that a great title?  And the reason for the title is revealed only a short way into the novel which is pleasing as I get really annoyed with some novels when you are almost finished and you still don’t ‘get it’, or you even finish it and it’s not apparent at all (one prime example is Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley, though my mind was put to rest after a search on Google).  The Wind Up Bird is a name given to a bird that sounds like it is winding up a spring that Toru, our protagonist, hears each morning, though he has never actually seen it.  It is also a nickname that he has chosen for himself when being questioned what nicknames he has had over his life-time; not having had any he decides on this one.

At the moment the story is centering around Toru and Kumiko Okada’s missing cat, who is named after Kumiko’s brother.  There’s no love lost between Toru and his brother in law Noboru and after a meeting with a strange woman about the missing cat she claims that Noboru had raped her sister.  Toru’s life is mundane but in between there are unusual phone calls from people Toru doesn’t know who claim to know him, and know much about him.  The situations he finds himself in are normal yet bizarre, and the conversations are unnatural.  The people he meets are seemingly not quite normal, and even his own wife is behaving irrationally getting upset over the colour of the toilet paper which he had purchased on special….. And it all started with the missing cat!

At the moment I love it; it absolutely reeks of Franz Kafka and David Lynch, though at over 600 pages long I’m not sure how long this style can be sustained whilst keeping my interest.  However, at the moment I am finding it very hypnotic.

Middlemarch is now in mourning – well Dorothea is anyway.  Mr Casaubon has passed away and been buried.  It has been revealed that he had added a codicil to his will that should Dorothea re-marry she loses all property willed to her.  But this is only effective if she marries a certain person - it was put in there to stop Will Ladislaw from making any advances towards her due to Casaubon’s intense jealously of him.  But her family are concerned that its outward appearance to Middlemarchers would be that Dorothea had invited Will’s attentions whilst she was still a married woman.

Dorothea is staying with her sister Celia, her husband Sir James Chettam and their young son.  Celia is coming across as very shallow and hurtful towards Dorothea, seeming to believe that Mr Casaubon’s death could not have come too soon and asking how wonderful is her son’s upper lip (all in the same sentence) with absolutely no thought to Dorothea’s feelings. Sir James is determined to do something about Will Ladislaw by sending him away somewhere, and poor Dorothea is feeling a bit lost at the moment.  Sir James felt that something should have been done to prevent her marriage to Mr Casaubon and he’s going to make damn sure she doesn’t fall into any future mistakes.  I like this character actually, he had once proposed to Dorothea but she turned him down and was at times very rude to him, but he holds no grudges against her whatsoever and just wants what’s best for her.  But what’s best in someone’s eyes is not always what is best all round……. We’ll have to wait and see on that score.

Whilst reading up a little bit about this novel (which apparently started out as a short story about Dorothea Brooke and another short story about a country doctor) it was mentioned that Middlemarch was the superior novel of it’s type compared with Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (one of my favourites), Dickens’ Bleak House (I was disappointed with that one), a couple of others which I can’t remember and I can’t be bothered to dig out the info (!) and Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell.  I love Elizabeth Gaskell so will be putting that on my list for this year.

I’ve almost finished Violent Exposure, with not much more to relate really just waiting to see if the ending is satisfying.  For a light read away from the classics it’s been pretty good.  I might find time to read an earlier book Frantic before our Book Club talk.  I’ve also taken a break from Melmoth for a couple of nights; only because I’m trying to get through the Katherine Howell’s before our meeting, but will get back to it soon.

Note: Only two days until my birthday J

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Dreaming of Middlemarch

I really feel like I'm a part of Middlemarch Eliot has written this novel so well.  I’ve even been dreaming ‘in period’ which is a first for me!  The way that she has clearly defined each character is just a joy; their personalities are so individual that they feel like real people. I love Mr Brooke, even though he is a dodgy landlord, he’s so laid back and says ‘you know’ with every phrase and always repeats his last few words.  It’s so endearing.

Dorothea, so young and miserable – she feels that her ‘every energy is arrested by dread’. All she wanted was to be of use and had such high hopes being married to the learned Mr Casaubon.  But, Eliot has made us feel sorry for Mr Casaubon in his marriage too.  Here is a man who has been a bachelor and in his later years felt the need for a wife; he thought a young wife would be malleable but not so with Dorothea.  She is a young woman who has opinions (though lately inclined to keep them to herself) and is critical of him.  He knows that he is not a loveable man, but was hoping that he could pull the wool over the eyes of a younger woman.  His intense jealousy of Will Ladislaw may become his undoing.  Will has been banned from visiting the Casaubon’s mainly because he has been visiting Dorothea alone (his visits were the only light in her grey world).

Mary Garth is another lovely character, thinking of others over herself.  Prepared to go to teach in a school to earn enough money to pay for her brother to study Engineering, she is given a last minute reprieve when her father is asked to manage some Middlemarch estates.  Mary’s mother had saved enough money but Mr Garth had signed his name to a promissory note to help young Fred Vincy out with a debt.  But Fred’s schemes had come unstuck and he was unable to pay.  A lot can be said for Fred though, he is absolutely filled with remorse and knows that he has ‘robbed’ those that could least afford to pay.

Fred’s hopes of obtaining land through the death of Mr Featherstone collapsed when it was found there was a more recent will and Fred was left nothing.  Mr Featherstone had asked Mary to burn the new will just before he died, as she sat with him through the night, but she declined feeling that anything to do with wills and money should be done in front of a solicitor.  She feels guilty that she has done Fred out of 10, 000 pounds which would have been left to him in the original will.  Her parents deny her guilt stating that she did what was exactly right however they wish this event to be kept secret from Fred who is now thinking of finishing his degree to prepare him for entry into the clergy.

There are political elements to this novel too with regards to the reform bill, but as I’m not to fully versed with that period it’s gong over my head a bit.  I want to read the intro to the book which will explain it more but as there’s usually plot spoilers in introductions I can’t inform myself until after I’ve finished. 

Katherine Howell
I’m also really enjoying Violent Exposure by Katherine Howell.  It’s easy to read, fairly realistic and is filling me with anxiety for some of the characters!  One of the sub-stories has Mick, a paramedic, stealing some money from a deceased drug dealer that he attended to.  He was alone at the time, but he is convinced that trainee paramedic Aidan (who has been known to snoop through private bags) has found out.   Howell is a trained paramedic so the call-out scenes really do have a very realistic feel to them.  The unrealistic part of the novel stems to the suspect of a supposed domestic abuse case.  His story is being released in parts throughout the narrative but it does just feel like that ‘a story’.  The mystery however is a good one as it’s becoming obvious that this isn’t just a domestic abuse situation, which we as the reader are becoming aware of but the cops aren’t, and their investigation is taking some unexpected turns. 

We have a couple of new successful Australian novelists writing in this genre – the other being Kathryn Fox.  I read a couple of Fox’s novels after meeting her at a library event but, based on this novel, I feel that Howell is the more superior – she does write like a professional writer – the dialogue is good for a start which is promising as I find that a lot of new novelists fall down with their dialogue.  Watch this space as Katherine will be talking to Caffeine and Chapters Social Book Club on the 24th February, and it will be interesting to hear about the inspirations for this novel!

Charles Maturin
Author of
Melmoth the Wanderer
I’m still on the Spaniards story in Melmoth the Wanderer! The Spaniard is relating a time when he was living in a convent and had taken vows to become a monk.  He was in the convent against his will (it was the will of his parents to offer him to God in penance as he was the product of their initial illegitimate relationship) and he wanted to break his vows and leave.  The Superior of the convent would not allow this to happen, and the Spaniard was treated very brutally indeed.  He could not believe that men of God, supposedly men of peace and love, could behave towards another human being in such a fashion.  He had been given forewarning of this though with their treatment of other young men within the convent walls.  What all this will have to do with the actual main story I’m not sure, but he is being tempted in his nightly delirium (he thinks) by the devil.  It’s a very strange story indeed.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Oh, What Could Have Been!

I feel for poor Dorothea, even though she pretty much asked for her situation as she is young and inexperienced and wouldn’t listen; all her dreams and plans for the future with Mr Casaubon have come crashing down.  It was all very well enjoying his company when he came to dinner at their family home as a guest of her uncle, then the brief courtship thereafter.  She’s finding it a different story spending day in and day out with him! Her future is panning out before her now and it is looking very empty indeed.  She should have listened to her sister Celia, for she can see him for the dried up bore that he is (along with other Middlemarchers).

Honeymooning on the continent Dorothea is currently in Italy, not an appreciator of art she finds herself looking at the fresco’s and sculptures but not really taking them in.  Her new husband is spending most of the daylight hours in the Vatican’s library studying and taking notes, leaving Dorothea to amuse herself.  After just five weeks of marriage they have already quarrelled.  How she much be feeling!  I can remember being young, the excitement of being asked out on a date, only to find that when you do meet again they’re not quite as tall as you remember or even as good looking.  That horrible feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realise that they are not what you want………..

I often think of the paper boy that I used to ‘fancy’ when I did a paper round.  He wore a silver bomber jacket – which were all the rage back then.  I was shy but I still managed to flirt around him, to the point he one day plucked up the courage and followed me on my round and asked me out.  Up close he was quite spotty, I got scared and said ‘er, no it’s alright’ and walked off! I never saw him again, and even now it amazes me that I could have been so blunt and rude and I often wonder what could have been (mind you, looking at my track record since, he unknowingly made a lucky escape!!).

Mr Casaubon’s second cousin, an artist, is also in Italy.  He and Dorothea met briefly before their marriage and the meeting didn’t go so well.  Dorothea was bluntly honest stating that she could not see the beauty in art, Will took it as an insult to his talent.  However, the second meeting in Italy has gone a little better – and he’s not too happy about his boorish cousin’s treatment of this young and attractive woman….. hmmmm what’s going to happen here I wonder ….. a muse perhaps?

PS only eight days until my birthday (and Tanya, I STILL haven't opened my present though the suspense is driving me mad!)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Portentous Sci-Fi?

The Day the Earth Stood Still
From floods to cyclones in Queensland and massive storms in America, the news has been like watching a disaster movie.  You know the ones, where they have the screens in the streets and the local inhabitants crowd around in horror as they watch major calamities unfold such as earthquakes, snow storms, asteroids etc  I think back to some of those early sci fi movies and some were very portentous.  Look at A Clockwork Orange – aren’t we living is such violent times?  Look at The Running Man by Stephen King – now that story showed enormous foresight (as well as The Long Walk) as there weren’t too many reality shows back then when that was written. 

One of my favourite Sci Fi’s is actually Starship Troopers!  The Robert Heinlein novel doesn’t bare much resemblance and I really struggled with it but the movie is a delight.  It does ‘corny’ so well, and the ‘bugs’ are brilliant.  Another Sci Fi I really love is Silent Running but I usually end up in tears over that one because of the ‘droids – I’m too sensitive. Alien and Aliens are a must on any DVD shelf, along with Predator and more recently Avatar.  But, it’s those movies that are set on Earth that are probably worth seeing again to see how we are living today – and maybe take in some of the warnings – The Day The Earth Stood Still would be a good place to start and maybe Soylent Green?!

However, all of the above has absolutely nothing to do with my current reading!  I’ve just started Violent Exposure by Katherine Howell as she will be talking to my book club this month.  I have not read anything by her before, and generally I don’t read much in the crime genre so I wasn’t sure what I would think of this.  I’m about 70 pages in and can honestly say it has hooked me.  I like the short snappy sentences; the descriptions are to the point with no messing around, and it feels like real life. We get the hook right away, and now the intrigue is to slowly unravel.

My audio read is now Middlemarch by George Eliot.  I had started reading this as a physical book last year, read about 200 pages and then couldn’t renew it at the library.  I bought a copy but I keep slipping it under the next book on the pile next to my bed.  The only way to do it justice and read it was to download.  At the moment we are getting to know the inhabitants of Middlemarch.  Dorothea and Celia Brooke are two young ladies who live with their amiable uncle.  Dorothea has been proposed to by the much older dried up Mr Casaubon who may one day become a bishop.  Dorothea is old fashioned in her ways, rather condescending to her sister and those she dislikes, but she does want to do good for those less fortunate than herself. She feels that she can be a good wife for Casaubon, not wanting a man of her own age.  The Vincy’s are a manufacturing family and their son Fred is a likeable young man but idle and prone to build up debts with promises to pay based on his hoped for inheritance from his Uncle Featherstone.  He is in love with his childhood friend the plain Mary Garth but she does not respect him because of his ways and has refused his offer of marriage.  Lydgate, the medical man, is new to Middlemarch and will obviously provide a love interest, maybe to Fred’s sister the beautiful Rosamond.  Virginia Woolfe called this novel ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people’. I love these long novels, where the characters unfold and you get involved in their lives. 

I’m still ploughing through Melmoth the Wanderer.  The Spaniard’s story is a little convoluted and I guess it will come to the point but it has been interesting. However, I won’t bore you with it here J

I’m taking a rest from Jules Verne, but only briefly.  I enjoyed Around The World in 80 Days and Journey to the Centre of the Earth so much I absolutely must read some more soon.