John's Great Big Read - 100 classic books in 156 weeks...

Monday, March 14, 2011

Wild Swans at Coole

This is the first collection of poetry on the list. I seem to remember reading it at Uni and recall something about how swans mate for life. But returning to this poem and the others in this collection 30 years later (cough splutter) it makes sense that my 17 year old self wouldn't be so interested in the reflections of ageing. These are beautiful poems about ageing, nostalgia and sentiment. Again, a few tissues for the misty eyes for this dying duck in a thunder story.

The Story of Lucy Gault

I know I'm supposed to be writing about those Swans at Coole, but this other Irish writer was pushed under my nose. Read it in a moment. This is the first book for a long long time that I felt needed a good howl before I felt ready to close the cover for the last time. Realise it's hard to talk about it without ruining it for others and I would definitely recommend this book. Ian's book club declined it because they didn't think they were up for another harrowing despairing Irish tale. I think they made a mistake because although it is a very sad story, there is something so human about it that I was left with a sense of tenderheartedness for the lot of them, despite the tragedy. It's not unlike The Road in this respect. The time is just before the war with the troubles in Ireland escalating. Lucy's British family decide they must leave after they are threatened in the night. A series of unfortunate circumstances mean that Lucy, a 10 year old, is left behind. Her parents think that she has killed herself and they remain exiled in their own grief and guilt where no one is able to reach them. Lucy waits for them to return, she herself guilty about the circumstances that brought about the parents departure. A 20 year wait. Lucy unable to let go of the belief that her parents will come home to her. The parents, trying desperately to forget their connection to a place they can never fully leave. I wonder how much of this is the story of the Irish diaspora - families yearning for those who've gone and those gone unable to fully leave?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry

This was recommended by Louise Anne, Ian, Judith, and Sharon. This is the second time I've read this book. I loved it the first, and possibly loved it even more the second time round. I was a little disturbed by how little of the actual story I remembered from my first reading which made me think why do I persevere with this list when I could just re-read the same the book afresh each time. What I do recall from the first reading was a sense of defeat at the lives of our wee tailors. Every time things were looking up, BAM! something would come along and crush them back down again. It was just one bad thing after another. Each time it looked like things were getting better for the tailors something awful would happen that would just leave me feeling despairing for them. It was as if the dye (sorry about the pun) was well and truly cast (oops, sorry). I was left with the sense that the caste system and corruption in India is so entrenched that there really is very little space for hope. Every time in the story when things were going well I was waiting for the next bad thing to happen. But this second time through it didn't seem nearly as grim a story. Even though the world around Dina, the tailors and Maneck is always threatening to destroy them, inside the padlocked safety of Dina's small crumbling flat they find a way to break free of the old world rules and prejudices and briefly experience joy, kindness and generosity with each other. Ultimately their flat is no fortress against these destructive forces and each are brutally dealt with for daring to want something different, and even though it’s terrible what happens to them, there is something about these characters which stopped me being so bound up in the despair. This time around I wasn't so caught by the despair and hopelessness. The “fine balance” was a little easier to see. Initially was difficult for me to think of the tailors lives as hopeful, and thought this was just a too Pollyanna-ish and perverse view of the horror of what they were living through. It's hard to imagine more tragic circumstance for the poor old tailors, and even Dina suffers the crushing defeat of having to return to the protection of her brother. Is hope the capacity to keep going in the face of despair? Sometimes its easier to recognise hope when it looks more like longing or desire, but I wonder if there is another aspect to hope that is harder to recognise. Is it this aspect of hope that carries us through the even darkest moments of our lives - how we just keep going in spite of whatever is happening? Is hope the quiet, unspoken, and unrecognized knowing that gets us through the troughs of our lives? In this sense hope is more closer aligned to just life itself. Interestingly, it is Maneck, who has by far more opportunities and resources, and who actually gets out of India, who finally succumbs to despair and kills himself. This is the fine balance – hope and despair, death and life.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Sons & Lovers - D.H.Lawrence

This book has been torture. There was no one in this book vaguely attractive. In fact desperate as I was for a sympathetic character I found myself missing the drunken horrid father and wished he come back in and give them all a good smack around the ears. I know Australia says no, but really. This book was like wading through thick goo. Think teenage girl diary (or my own come to think of it). Same entry over and over again for years. It never occurred to me that I could abandon ship (how Master & Commander lives on). Then I saw today that I was reading the wrong book. I was bogged down in some oedipal tragedy while I should have been romping through the woods with trousers down and engines pumping while reading Lady Chatterley's Lover. I can't believe I spent so much time avoiding a book that wasn't even on the list. We were all stuck in something dreadful. Paul Morel stuck between his love for his mother and love for Clara or Miriam, and me stuck with a book I hated. Next!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Sorry Kate, but I did end up jumping ship. But I gave it a good try - 235 pages in fact. Less a novel than a manual for building replica 18th century men-of-war in your own back yard. All that detail of gun blocks, sails, rigging, and ropes. In a sense the perfect book to bring on the nod for a good night sleep. Apparently, O'Brian is the master and commander of the historical novel. He is certainly the master of the apostrophe - t'gallants, fo'c'sle. However, beyond or below the impenetrable detail of all things nautical there is the story between Captain Aubrey and the good doctor Maturin. And following in the tradition of many a good sea faring partnering - Ishmael and Queequeg, Billy Budd (who was a foretopman for God's sake) and Captain Vere, the Skipper and Gilligan. Within the first few pages there is a claim about no man should be killed for the odd bout of buggery, and then we have Maturin and Aubrey playing bagatelles on the viola together. And what are we to make of Captain Aubrey's preference to putting 'by the head'. In the end this book sailed me right into my own doldrums. All in all I wanted more swash buckling, parrots and piracy and less of the a'stroph'.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Love in a Cold Climate

Another romp through the British upper classes – house parties, and gossip. Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh were great mates – the wit, satire and contempt for the upper classes are there. But, it’s difficult to see how this book and Madam Bovary get to be on the same list. Perhaps its all the make over tips from that great ‘aesthete pansie”, Cedric who takes over Hampton and sends Lady Montdore off to the spa for an orange juice only diet – although she eventually breaks out and is busted for breaking out and stuffing elevenses down her throat. This doesn’t dampen Cedric’s resolve. He makes Lady Montdore say “brush” before she comes into a room so that “her face is fixed in a very gay smile”. Watch this face!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Kavalier and Clay

Wow! Bang! Kapow! Splatt! This book packs a punch – the Prague Ghetto and WW2, comic book heroes, morphine addiction, the Arctic Circle, American Nazi bomb plots at Barmitzvahs, a terrible gay rape scene, fathers and sons, sex, love, and loss. This is a great book and definitely should be brought onto the desert island. Thanks to Rachel and Sharon for packing it. Our two heroes, Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay, create an enormously popular comic hero, The Escapist, for whom there is no lock or chain that he cannot open to liberate the oppressed and shackled everywhere. It’s no coincidence that this comic book hero is born of Joe, who fled the holocaust, and his Jewish cousin Sam, who is also gay. The story tells how both these men ultimately find the key to their own painful liberation and escape. In this sense the comic book hero is presented here as a golem of their time – those Jewish mythical creatures who are artificially created with supernatural powers. A kosher Frankenstein (duh, just noticed how Jewish that name is). According to Chabon, these creatures are our gestures of hope during times of despair and desperation - our longing for something to free us, to escape, “to slip, like the Escapist, free of the entangling chain of reality and the straitjacket of physical laws”. Rather than join the chorus of the critics of these popular comics which see their escapist fantasies as corrupting, Chabon is suggesting that there is something noble in being able to call forward these heroes who, on our behalf do our bidding or our fighting, and restore the world as a just and fair place. But, the escaping that both Joe and Sam do in the end is not fantasy or fiction. Both Sam and Joe in different ways end up being wound in a final set of chains but manage to escape. And, like the great escape tricks of Houdini, they have their metamorphisis – less a matter of escape, but more a matter of transformation. In the end our two heroes do escape, are transformed, and again it is through love and generosity. The longing and escape into fantasy holds the potential, or keeps the spirit oriented in the right direction. So it got me thinking about the whole idea of hope, and how we can hang onto it in a way where we give up on the present and ironically become hope-less, or how, as in the case of this story, hope is the bright orienting star during the dark stormy nights of despair - it doesn’t lead to hopelessness, but helps us through it. Perhaps this is what Viktor Frankl was referring to when he describes how hope could pull one towards life, and transform our lives, even under the most tormenting of circumstances. I’m also beginning to think about the golem of our own time – ah, easy, the iPad.