Sunday, March 30, 2008

Australian Classics: 50 Great Writers by Jane Gleeson-White

This collection of 50 essays on prominent Australian writers is one of those books I love to revel in and savor slowly. First, some background.

In reading a review or essay, I forget where, I came across the name Patrick White as the only Australian to win the Nobel Prize (1973). Descriptions of several of his novels were intriguing, so I got The Aunt’s Story and loved it. I picked up several others of his books, most notably Voss. Reviews of both these books appear elsewhere on this site. A search of revealed a small number of members who also had White’s works. I contacted one member who lives in Australia, and began a discussion of his works. LibraryThingers are great people, and this member sent me a copy of this book.

The essays are even and really whet my appetite for Australian Literature. I have always wanted to travel there, and now I am determined to make the trip one of these days. My TBR list now has a dozen new titles and authors which will open wider the door to this fascinating land.

Some of these authors I knew: Elizabeth Jolley, Kate Grenville, Miles Franklin, Shirley Hazzard, and, of course, Patrick White. Most of them, however, were completely unfamiliar. The preface explains the sense of place all these authors share, but I would add the sense of history is equally dominant. Anyone who has seen some of the great Australian films recently knows what I mean: Gallipoli, The Rabbit Fence, and Picnic at Hanging Rock. These films, all of which Gleeson-White mentions, clearly evoke place, but also history. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 3/30/08

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Sartor Resartus by Thomas Carlyle

I read this novel in a Victorian prose class in graduate school more than ten years ago. Although I enjoyed it then, I felt I was missing something because of time pressures, and I wanted to read it at a more leisurely pace. I also reread the introduction. I had forgotten how influential this book was. Its ancestors include Laurence Sterne and his imaginative novel, Tristram Shandy. Sartor’s descendents include Melville’s Moby Dick, and James Joyce’s Ulysses. The appendices, which I did not read then, proved helpful in understanding Carlyle’s thoughts during and after the writing of the novel.

As the short biography included in my edition tells us, Carlyle was the son of a dour, strict Calvinist, who viewed fiction as some form of deceit. This was a fairly wide-held view in the 19th century, hence the number of novels based on “found manuscripts,” in which the author was careful to warn the reader that the author could not attest to the veracity of the "facts" related. Carlyle abandoned fiction for this dubious line of reasoning after completing Sartor.

This imaginative novel is really an essay about a made up philosopher, Diogenes Teufelsdroeckh, who has written an extensive treatise on clothes. Now, I can imagine this might sound boring to some, but it is full of humor – the extremely dry British variety, and this novel contains much of the philosophy current in the early years of the Victorian Age. Again, as the Introduction says, Sartor is key to understanding that influential period.

In fact, the Introduction also claims that Sartor did for the Victorian age what Lyrical Ballads did for the Augustan Age – turn it on its head before destroying it.

So. Am I glad I reread this novel? Yes. At just over 200 pages it only took a few hours, and I really do think I have a better understanding of Carlyle’s great novel now than I did back then. Four stars.

--Chiron, 3/20/08

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor

My friend Bob recommended this novel to me 20-some years ago, and I started it, but abandoned it after the first chapter. I couldn’t stand the stilted, pretentious language, and I am always suspicious of books that print the author's name in a font two or three times larger than the title. This may be the first book to which I applied the “rule of 50,” but I noticed the title mentioned in several recent essays I have read, so I decided to have another go at it.

At first I was still annoyed by all the “shalls,” “nonces,” “one’s habits,” and other such archaisms, but I kept going anyway. It was pouring rain -- a perfect day for reading.

Taylor’s novel is an “onion” book – layers are slowly revealed by the narrator between the time he receives his summons and his arrival in Memphis the next morning. Phil Carver’s father is about to remarry at the ripe age of 81, and his sisters are determined to torpedo the match and preserve the family fortune. Ah! The old South.

As I approached the climax, a thought occurred to me – this is a kind of retelling of King Lear from the viewpoint of the loyal child, Cordelia. The old man is also going blind, and…wait, I have already said too much.

Not a great book, despite the Pulitzer Prize, but worth a rainy afternoon or two. A mild surprise at the end awaits the persistent reader. If you have ever had a childhood grudge against your parents, maybe this is a book you should read. Four stars.

--Chiron, 3/18/08

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood

Boston is about six hours from Philadelphia, but the length of the drive was no consideration when Margaret Atwood was going to read at the Harvard Bookstore Café. I carried about eight books with me, and she signed them all.

I have admired her since I read The Handmaid’s Tale when it was first published in 1983. Cat’s Eye followed in 1986 and immediately became my favorite Atwood novel. Her nostalgic, understated humor, her psychological insights impress me, and provide an immediate connection to my childhood, even though she grew up in Toronto – a whole world away from the Kensington section of Philadelphia.

This collection of short stories continues in that tradition. Atwood has written the story of Nell as a child, a young woman, and finally a senior citizen. Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction, calls the transitions between events in a story as “the mortar that holds scenes together.” What is missing is this mortar – but I do not mean that as a criticism, after all, this is a collection of short stories. Each story is a scene in Nell’s life – “spots of time” Wordsworth called them, and the transition from one to another is effortless. The humor, the nostalgia, the insights – all hallmarks of every Atwood novel I have ever read – are all here.

The last story, “The Boys at the Lab,” provides a cap to the stories as Nell reminisces with her dying mother over a series of photos from their lives. Nell seeks answers to questions only her mother has, but her mother’s memory is failing. These answers might fill in some of the gaps, but I don’t care. I am as happy with these stories as I could be. Five stars.

--Chiron, 3/13/08

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath by Sigrid Undset

So many people raved about this novel. Several declared it the best novel they had ever read. I had heard of Undset, and I had read something by her years ago, but that book has been lost. My principle period of literature is medieval, so I thought I was a natural match with this three volume epic.

Alas, I invoked the rule of fifty after the first chapter. I found it boring and confusing. I could not tell the names apart, I felt the descriptions were cliched and tiresome. I also had no idea the novel was so religious, although that does explain the attraction for several of the people who recommended it.

Too many books, too little time to waste on something I do not enjoy. I put a bookmark in the page where I left off and returned all three volumes to the shelf. Perhaps I will come back to it some day.

--Chiron, 3/8/08

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Kusamakura by Natsume Soseki

The author note tells us this is an intriguing Japanese novel by "one of Japan's most influential modern writers, [who] is considered the foremost novelist of the Meiji period (1868-1914)." He died in 1916.

Intriguing to say the least! This tale is 60% meditation on the philosophy of art, particularly poetry, 40% travelogue, and 100% pure poetry. It took me a long time to read this novel, and I loved every single, slow swallow of wonderful passages, ideas, and thoughts. Sometimes, I would read a single sentence or part of a paragraph and work it over and over in my mind. For example: "As I get back to my feet, my eyes take in the distant scene. To the left of the path soars a mountain peak, in shape rather like an inverted bucket. From foot to summit it is entirely covered in what could be either cypress or cedar, whose blue-black mass is striped and stippled with the pale pink of swaths of blossoming wild cherry. The distance is so hazy that all appears as a single wash of blurred shapes and colors" (5).

This sounds like he is describing an impressionist painting. Soseki was educated in England after graduating from the University of Tokyo. References to Western art and literature are sprinkled throughout the book.

His style resembles an ordered stream of consciousness. The novel is the story of a journey around Japan, and it is obvious the experience the narrator has far outweighs the actual walk. Soseki frequently pauses to drink in the surroundings, only to be interrupted by a fellow traveler. “I return to my thoughts,” is a frequent refrain.

One of many of my favorite passages is his musing, after becoming soaked in a cloudburst. “If I picture myself, a sodden figure moving in this vast ink-wash world of cloud and rain shot through diagonally with a thousand silver arrows, not as myself but as some other person, there’s poetry in this moment” (13).

A shipment has already arrived from Amazon with five more of his novels. So many, many books; so little time. Five stars.
--Chiron, 3/6/08