Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Questions of Travel, Michelle de Kretser

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De Kretser’s sweeping novel gives us glimpses into the lives of Ravi and Laura from the 1970s through to 2004. The early decades fly by while the later chapters take more time, reveal more of their lives. Laura, a young woman from Sydney, follows in the footsteps of many who have felt the tug of wanderlust, travelling around Europe, never really settling. She’s aware of the futility of her endeavours, of the predictable and shallow experiences, yet feels at a loss when she finds herself outside the guidance of her travel book. Ravi, growing up in war-torn Sri Lanka, finds himself travelling for entirely different reasons, not ones of indulgence but necessity.

There are rich, evocative descriptions of the countries and cities that the characters visit. Laura seems to always be yearning for more, for a deeper encounter with other cultures while realising how superficial most travel is.

It was simply wonderful how away confirmed that home was best. Photographs were produced as evidence that travel had occurred, for the travellers themselves were unchanged. Souvenirs, strategically displayed around the house, proclaimed the sophistication and broadness of outlook that familiarity with foreign cultures conferred. And that was all of overseas that anyone needed.

Ravi intuitively approaches Australia openly, absorbing the mundane, enjoying the fast food and freedom of sitting and watching the world go by. When working for a travel guide publisher the suggestions he makes for places to be included in the Sydney guide are places where visitors would be able to see the breadth of cultures that the city nurtures, the normal lives of its inhabitants. He is gently told that people don’t want to see the ordinary, they want the landmarks and the iconic sights while still feeling that they’re having a unique experience. Most people join the company because of a love of travel but soon accept the cynical truth.

The sense of belonging is also a recurring theme. Laura finds herself moving around, trying to find somewhere that she feels she belongs without allowing herself time to lay down roots. She acknowledges that when she dreams of places she’s been it’s always the same – a warm evening in Sydney, a rainy afternoon in London. In reminiscence and longing the variety and drudgery of reality are lost. Ravi, having been forced away from his once stable life has mixed feelings about both his new home and his old. He realises he is afraid of staying but also afraid of going back.

Their relationships also play a role in their sense of self. There are the fleeting encounters and the unkept promises, friendships full of love that turn into people you want to avoid, and those you’ve never liked but find yourself reliant on. The nature of friendship and familiar love follows them through their lives, shaping them and sometimes arising in them. There is a sense for both that they are ultimately alone.

Politics plays its part too, not just in its displacement of people but in the reactions of those they encounter. Ravi is a refugee in Australia and although he is considered the ‘right kind’ on account of having arrived by plane rather than on a boat, he experiences the negative attitudes, the expectations. His colleagues are disappointed that his grief and trauma aren’t performative enough. They do not truly try to get to know him, and their unthinking remarks show a lack of compassion. He is not quite what they want him to be.

This is a vast book spanning continents and decades, the writing is indulgent and evocative. What at first seems a wandering tale of ordinary life has moments of potency. De Kretser is a sharp commentator on the state of the world and draws believable characters, resisting the temptation for neat coincidences and a tidy ending. A book that will absorb you and throw off your expectations.

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Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Winter, Ali Smith

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Art works for a security company, spending his days trawling through the Internet trying to find copyright infringements, snuffing out the spread of small artists’ creative work. In his spare time he writes a nature blog, posts about imagined walks and encounters with nature, constructed via the internet instead of genuine experience. His girlfriend, Charlotte, tired of his apathy, leaves, smashing his laptop and hacking into his Twitter account to post fake news designed to discredit and embarrass. It is this which leaves him desperately in need of someone to take to his mother’s at Christmas. A fortuitous meeting at a bus stop provides him what he needs and he soon finds himself traveling to Cornwall with Lux who, he pays to pose as Charlotte.
We soon come to realise that his deception is not the only one. His mother Sophia and her sister Iris can’t agree on what happened during his childhood, who looked after him and when. The reader is never quite sure which account to believe but you’ll likely find yourself naturally leaning toward one. Iris is an activist and thinks of herself as a citizen of the world. Sophia can’t understand her lifestyle and dislikes immigrants, yet seems to trust Lux, originally from Croatia, more than her own family. Lux is refreshingly honest, intelligent, good with people, and subverts racial prejudices. She helps Art to see the ridiculousness of the government’s actions, sending out boats to intercept rescue ships sent to help migrants in trouble in the sea. The last section of the novel highlights the cruel way bureaucracy treats people, preferring to eject those who need help, blind to their humanity.

The novel is full of contradictions. Sophia is rigid and resistant to emotion yet has no trouble imagining a head around her home, ghostly yet containing no horror to her. She is a modern day Scrooge, resenting the intrusion of her family and refusing to eat any of the Christmas dinner Iris prepares for them.
The novel has an otherworldly feel to it yet remains unashamedly political. Ali directs her characters to highlight the folly of isolationism and reminds us that people are not mere statistics. She plays not only on the political challenges of the day, and indeed those of the past, but also the way we replace real life interactions with screen time and armchair activism. As always, she holds up a mirror to the absurdities of the day and encourages a more compassionate worldview.
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Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Harry Potter Knitting Magic, Tanis Gray

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Harry Potter and knitting fans rejoice, the official Harry Potter knitting book is here, and it’s beautiful. Full colour photos and knitting patterns ranging from toys to clothes to wash cloths, there’s bound to be something in here that makes your needles twitch. There are a lot more wearable patterns than I was expecting but there’s also plenty of stills from the films, concept art, and little snippets of trivia about the design and creation of the costumes used in the film.

Each pattern is rated on difficulty and all techniques have an explanation. Whether you want to wear your fandom with pride or have some more subtle references in your knits this is the book for you. There’s a clever illusion scarf suitable for beginners, a technique I haven’t seen before and can’t wait to try out, the standard house scarves and Weasley Christmas jumpers, and some more unusual designs (including some that we probably could have done without).

I wasn’t expecting there to be many patterns in this that I’d want to knit so ordered it through my local library but actually it’s such a well designed book that I might have to add it to my book shopping list.

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Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Work, Joseph Heller

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Vintage Mini, this is an excerpt from Heller’s second novel Something Happened. Bob Slocum is our narrator for a darkly humorous take on office life. Full of brutal truths followed by corporate platitudes, he doesn’t pull any punches. Slocum navigates the complex web of office politics by lying to his colleagues and sleeping his way around the secretaries, a not uncommon approach. He is keenly aware of the pecking order and the little power games people play, although he isn’t entirely immune from them himself.
A book very much of its time but also relatable to modern workers. He comments that he doesn’t intend to stay with the company for the rest of his life but is making no plans to leave, a familiar attitude to many. He is able to objectively see that his colleagues are falling for their own propaganda, believing that what they do is important yet seems unaware that he also falls victim to this on occasion.
A concise, witty take on surviving office life. I’m not rushing out to buy the full novel but as a vignette it works well.

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Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman

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Honeyman’s debut has received rave reviews and its fair share of awards, although it has also divided opinion. Eleanor Oliphant is thirty years old and lonely. Her colleagues think she is odd and are more likely to be found laughing at her behind her back than making conversation with her. This she can tolerate, the isolated weekends that are eased only with the help of a bottle of vodka however, are harder to swallow. Her case may be extreme but it’s not uncommon for people to find themselves with nobody to talk to outside of work. ‘These days, loneliness is the new cancer – a shameful, embarrassing thing, bought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it.’ Thankfully, even in the few yeas since the book was published, the conversation around loneliness has become more prominent.
There are a number of threads running through the story. It is hinted at early on that Eleanor suffered some trauma in her childhood which is alluded to throughout and gradually revealed in more detail. We are led to suppose that it is the events from her youth that are at the root of her na├»ve yet oddly formal behaviour, her inability to engage with the world in what others would consider a normal way. The further into the novel the more we see the connections between her past and her current mental state and self-confidence.  Her attempts at healing feel very true to life and are emotional to read
The other main narrative thread draws on common tropes found in rom-coms – a crush on a man that is obviously no good while remaining oblivious to the kindness of someone closer, and the physical transformation that a change of clothes and some make-up brings. These parts feel more predictable and cliched but make for easy reading.
An interesting, humorous read that gives you the perspective of a young woman who’s never quite learned to connect with her fellow humans. Her internal monologue shows her confusion with popular culture and the behaviour of those she meets, and although you root for her you can understand why people get off on the wrong foot with her. There are some inconsistencies and the ease with which she adapts to some of the situations don’t seem quite in keeping with her general character but overall this is a heartfelt, relatable read. 

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Wednesday, 26 February 2020

The Dry, Jane Harper

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Harper’s debut novel throws you straight in with an eerie opening description of flies finding the bodies of the Hadler family, their youngest, Charlotte, crying with nobody there to answer. It seems a cut and dry case – Luke was driven mad by the crippling drought suffered by Kiewarra and snapped, killing his wife and son before shooting himself. The local police officer, Raco, is not entirely convinced however, there are a few small details that don’t add up. When Luke’s childhood friend Falk, also now a police officer, returns for the funeral, he finds an ally to carry out some unofficial investigations with. It’s not long before we realise there’s another mystery haunting this town, one that drove Falk and his father out twenty years before. The local community haven’t forgotten his disgrace and he receives a cold welcome from most.

Cleverly plotted to keep you reading, you’re taken in by every new apparent lead, only very subtle clues hinting at the real murderer. The finale plays on the drought-ridden surroundings as they head out into the bush. Indeed, the struggles facing the town because of the lack of rain are alluded to throughout. Businesses are only barely surviving, the school is falling into disrepair and tensions are high. The school’s headmaster and his wife have recently moved to the area, hoping for some peace and safety away from the city, but hadn’t realised how isolating and tough it would be. Even Falk, who grew up in Kiewarra, reflects on the psychological effects of looking out across your land and not seeing any sign of another human.

The difficult conditions and remote location means the locals band together. Anyone who wrongs them or who doesn’t fit in is shunned across the board. It is unsurprising therefore that Falk only intends to stay for a day.  His plans are scuppered however as he finds himself more deeply invested in the Hadler case as well as wanting some answers for the mystery that has haunted him for decades.

The parallels between the two mysteries make you question the assumptions made. The heartache of Luke’s family over his perceived crime is realistically drawn and makes them question his past behaviour. An enjoyable read but not one that lingers after you turn the last page.

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Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Educated, Tara Westover

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Westover was brought up in a Mormon family on a farm in rural Idaho, sitting in the shadow of Buck’s Peak. Her father’s beliefs are extreme – he prepares for the end of the world and goes through a crisis when the clocks tick over into 2000 and nothing happens, he’s so paranoid that the government is trying to infiltrate their lives that Tara didn’t even have a birth certificate, no schooling, and no professional medical attention, no matter how seriously injured. There’s a strong belief that women should be subservient to men, and her mother bowed under the pressure to conform. When her older brother Shawn becomes increasingly violent and jealous, not just with his girlfriend but also his sisters, their parents turn a blind eye, refusing to admit the truth. They prefer disowning their daughter to confronting him and protecting those around him.

She realises that her only way out is through education and despite having never been to school manages to gain a place in college. This proves to be a huge shock – her classmate’s behaviour is as outrageous to her as hers is to them – she doesn’t wash her hands after using the bathroom and leaves food to rot in the fridge. Her studies reveal parts of human history that she has previously been entirely ignorant of – in one class she asks what the word Holocaust means, much to the horror of her fellow students who think she is making light of it. The more she learns the less compatible she becomes with the rest of her family, although she continues to go back and hopes for reconciliation.

This is a remarkable story of academic success against the odds but it is also an honest account of a life punctuated with abuse and the struggles of trying to form a sense of self when your own family tries to stifle your potential and deny your memories. She is completely open about the fallibility of her own recollections, detailing how she pieced together some scenes from the memories of others who were also there, often with conflicting tales.

The scenes of abuse are hard to read but the casual attitude to daily mistreatment depicted is harder to swallow. She lays bare the damage her family life has done to her, making it almost impossible to hold down a relationship and causing numerous mental breakdowns. She also explains the way she can see attempts at rewriting her own story over the years, seeing the way she reimagines events in her journal, denying the true horrors.

The amount of serious physical injuries they all incur is astonishing, although not surprising considering their work practices, but they survive beyond the odds with the application of home remedies. This only goes to further boost her parents’ reliance and belief in their abilities and God’s favour. It can be infuriated reading of the negligent behaviour of her parents, and it’s hard to imagine what it would be like living in such a family, even though she does an excellent job at conveying her own experiences.

This is a brilliant, emotional read that doesn’t have a neat happy ending. She is still living with the fallout from her choice to get an education and tell the truth. It is heartening however that she does have moments where she is able to feel free, to be honest about her upbringing with her friends and colleagues. Her tale is a remarkable one of self-preservation and success without ever sugar-coating the reality of what she experienced as a child and continues to have to cope with. At times difficult and infuriating, it is eye-opening and absolutely worth a read.

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