Tuesday, 20 March 2018

My Autumn Reads

The Artsy Reader Girl is the new host of the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.
Each week she nominates a topic to encourage those of us who love a good list to get all listy.
This week it's all about books I hope to read this spring autumn.

Right now, it feels like we're a long way from autumn.
Sydney is still enjoying hot summery weather with weekend temps soaring high into the 30's (we only use Celsius in Australia so I don't know what that equates to in Farenheit).
A bushfire is destroying homes on the south coast of NSW, junior sport was cancelled and the elderly have been warned to stay inside.
It's hard to imagine the leaves changing colour or snuggling under the covers and wearing jumpers and jeans again.

But when it does, I will be ready with this fabulous list of cosy reads.

My Top Ten Autumnal Reads for 2018:

The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier

A tour de force of history and imagination, The Lady and the Unicorn is Tracy Chevalier’s answer to the mystery behind one of the art world’s great masterpieces—a set of bewitching medieval tapestries that hangs today in the Cluny Museum in Paris. They appear to portray the seduction of a unicorn, but the story behind their making is unknown—until now.

In The Lady and the Unicorn, Tracy Chevalier weaves fact and fiction into a beautiful, timeless, and intriguing literary tapestry—an extraordinary story exquisitely told.

The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry series is currently on show at the Art Gallery of NSW.
I've already seen it once and thanks to my multi-pass ticket I plan to see it a few more times before the exhibition finishes at the end of June.
Until recently I didn't know that Chevalier had written a book based around these famous tapestries.
I didn't enjoy reading Girl With a Pearl Earring, so I'm a little nervous about this one, but I hope it adds an extra dimension to my next visit to the AGNSW.

12 Rules For Life by Jordan B Peterson

What does everyone in the modern world need to know? Renowned psychologist Jordan B. Peterson's answer to this most difficult of questions uniquely combines the hard-won truths of ancient tradition with the stunning revelations of cutting-edge scientific research.

Humorous, surprising, and informative, Dr. Peterson tells us why skateboarding boys and girls must be left alone, what terrible fate awaits those who criticize too easily, and why you should always pet a cat when you meet one on the street.

What does the nervous system of the lowly lobster have to tell us about standing up straight (with our shoulders back) and about success in life? Why did ancient Egyptians worship the capacity to pay careful attention as the highest of gods? What dreadful paths do people tread when they become resentful, arrogant, and vengeful? Dr. Peterson journeys broadly, discussing discipline, freedom, adventure, and responsibility, distilling the world's wisdom into 12 practical and profound rules for life. 12 Rules for Life shatters the modern commonplaces of science, faith, and human nature while transforming and ennobling the mind and spirit of its listeners.

My life is not chaotic, but it is very hectic and harried right now.
A foreward by Norman Doidge is just icing on the cake.
Who wouldn't want to know what the 12 practical & profound rules for life are?

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan.

So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.

I thought this book was entirely set in Korea, but I found out recently that a large part of the story is also in Japan. Given my upcoming trip to Japan, this book suddenly got bumped up to the front end of my TBR pile. Min Jin Lee is also attending this year's Sydney Writer's Festival.

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

This story tells the extraordinary story of a geisha - summoning up a quarter century from 1929 to the post-war years of Japan's dramatic history, and opening a window into a half-hidden world of eroticism and enchantment, exploitation and degradation. A young peasant girl is sold as servant and apprentice to a renowned geisha house. 

She tells her story many years later from the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Her memoirs conjure up the perfection and the ugliness of life behind rice-paper screens, where young girls learn the arts of geisha - dancing and singing, how to wind the kimono, how to walk and pour tea, and how to beguile the land's most powerful men.

This is the book that tops the Goodreads Best Books About Japan list.
I suspect it also might be the book that travels with me to Japan.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Toru Okada's cat has disappeared. His wife is growing more distant every day. Then there are the increasingly explicit telephone calls he has recently been receiving. As this compelling story unfolds, the tidy suburban realities of Okada's vague and blameless life, spent cooking, reading, listening to jazz and opera and drinking beer at the kitchen table, are turned inside out, and he embarks on a bizarre journey, guided (however obscurely) by a succession of characters, each with a tale to tell.

I love this series of covers that Vintage ran for the Murakami's.
I've collected most of them over time.

The Tale of the Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

Written in the eleventh century, this portrait of courtly life in medieval Japan is widely celebrated as the world's first novel. The Tale of Genji is a very long romance, running to fifty-four chapters and describing the court life of Heian Japan, from the tenth century into the eleventh.

I'm looking forward to this one a lot.

Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry

Ghosts of the Tsunami is a classic of literary non-fiction, a heart-breaking and intimate account of an epic tragedy, told through the personal accounts of those who lived through it. It tells the story of how a nation faced a catastrophe, and the bleak struggle to find consolation in the ruins.

We will be travelling through the area most affected by the tsunami of 2011.
I would like to read this before visiting so that I can be informed and sensitive to local issues.

Hiroshima by John Hersey

When the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945, killing 100,000 men women and children, a new era in human history opened. Written a mere year after the disaster, this work offers a heart rending account of six men and women who survived despite all the odds. 

Forty years later, John Hersey returned to Hiroshima to discover how the same six people had struggled to cope with catastrophe and with often crippling disease. His long new chapter, which also considers the dramatic proliferation of nuclear weaponry since the war, provides a devastating picture of the long term effects of one very small bomb.

This is now considered a classic non-fiction title; I can't believe I haven't already read it.

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Hardy's powerful novel of swift sexual passion and slow-burning loyalty centres on Bathsheba Everdene, a proud working woman whose life is complicated by three different men - respectable farmer Boldwood, seductive Sergeant Troy and devoted Gabriel - making her the object of scandal and betrayal. Vividly portraying the superstitions and traditions of a small rural community, "Far from the Madding Crowd" shows the precarious position of a woman in a man's world.

My current #ccspin book that I confidently predict I really will read this autumn since I started it last night!

The Kill by Emile Zola

The Kill (La Curee) is the second volume in Zola's great cycle of twenty novels, Les Rougon-Macquart, and the first to establish Paris - the capital of modernity - as the centre of Zola's narrative world. Conceived as a representation of the uncontrollable 'appetites' unleashed by the Second Empire (1852-70) and the transformation of the city by Baron Haussmann, the novel combines into a single, powerful vision the twin themes of lust for money and lust for pleasure.

Fanda is once again hosting her fabulous #Zoladdiction month in April.
If you've ever thought about, wondered about or half-heartedly dreamed of reading a novel by Zola, then this is the time to do it - in the fine company of a wonderful host.
You won't regret it.
This will be my fourth Zola - I'm well and truly hooked!

What will you be reading this autumn (or spring if you happen to be reading this from the other side of the world)?

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Finally Facing My Waterloo

AKA The End of Volume One of Les Miserables.
Or An Opportunistic Chance to Reference an ABBA Song!

My life continues its rather crazy, hectic pace at the moment. Everything feels rushed and harried...everything that is except my quiet time each most mornings when I sit down with my chapter of Les Mis. Slow reading our way through this glorious French classic has been my saving grace, my moment of peace and calm that I have come to look forward to immensely.

I may not get much time to tweet, visit other blogs or delve very deeply into each chapter, but when I do, I love seeing how everyone else is going and how they are approaching this year-long reading marathon.

Nick has created a fabulous post comparing the various movie versions of the candlestick scene. It was an interesting exercise, especially as I find myself continually comparing the translations used by various translators.

I started the year with my lovely hardback edition translated by Norman Denny. It had been sitting on my TBR shelf for quite a few years, so I'm thrilled to be finally getting into. Denny's use of language is formal but not difficult. I find it has a very 'classic' feel to it, which I appreciate when I'm reading, you know, a classic. However, he has also taken some liberties with his editing-as-he-goes approach. I wish the translator of my copy of Dostoyevsky's The Brother's K had been so kind! From all accounts, though, this is not great for Hugo or Les Mis. All his minutiae is necessary and deliberately included. Apparently!

A few weeks into January, the Julie Rose translation of Les Mis came my way (one of the advantages of working in a bookshop!). It's interesting to compare. Rose's translation is more casual and feels thorough but I still prefer the Denny version. However my translation curiosity was not sated by this little excursion. Au contraire.

As with the Russian writers a few years ago, I found myself caught up in which translation is really best for me.

My first dilemma occurred with the description of Madame Thenardier in V1 B4 C1. Denny says,
This Madame Thenardier was robust, big-boned and red-headed, a typical soldier's woman with the roughness characteristic of her kind...She was still young, not more than thirty. Had she been standing upright, instead of sitting crouched in the doorway, her height and general look of the fair-ground wrestler might have alarmed the stranger and so shaken her confidence as to prevent the events to be related from taking place. Destinies may be decided by the fact a person is seated and not standing.

Rose says,
This Madame Thenardier was a redhead, fleshy, yet bony; the soldier's-wife type in all its ghastliness....She was still young; had only just turned thirty. If the woman squatting had stood up, her height and her bearing, which were those of an ambulatory colossus fit for the fairground freak show, might well have frightened off the traveller, derailed her confidence, and caused what we are about to relate to vanish into thin air. Whether a person sits or stands - fate hangs by threads like these

Word order is different, as too is the description of M. Thenardier's height and girth. Fantine is described as a stranger and a traveller. Two, almost opposite ideas.

A few chapters later, I noticed V1 B5 C2 that Denny describes Pere Madeleine as someone who,
demanded goodwill from the men, pure morals from the women, and honesty from all.

Later in the chapter, the gossips referred to Madeleine as a 'businessman', 'a careerist', 'an adventurer' and 'a peasant.'

Meanwhile Rose tells us that he,
required goodwill of the men and pure morals of the women and honesty of everyone.

The gossips call him a 'trader', an 'ambitious' man, 'an adventurer' and 'a brute.'

How can one translator get 'peasant' and the other 'brute' from the same French word? One would is about class and the other about a physical description.

What was I too do?

Louise has been raving about her Christine Donougher edition the entire readalong. Enough so for me to search it out at work. Alas it was no longer in print in Australia...so I had to go to one of our overseas suppliers to find a copy. It was worth the effort.

It has deckled edges!

Have I ever told you all how much I adore deckled edges?

I'm also enjoying her translation. She says of Madame Thenardier that she was a,
brawny and angular sandy-haired woman, the archetypal soldier's wife in all her charmlessness....She was still young, barely thirty. Being very tall and built like a walking colossus such as you might expect to find in the fairground, this woman, who was squatting down, had she stood upright might perhaps have scared the traveller from the outset, undermined her trustfulness and forestalled what we have to relate. Someone sitting instead of standing - destinies hang on this.

Two redheads and one sandy haired Madame Thenardier?

What about Madeleine?

For Donougher he,
expected willingness of the men, respectability of the women, and honesty of everybody.

And the gossips thought he was a 'tradesman', 'an ambitious fellow',  'an adventurer' and 'a crass ignoramus'!

My confusion will never be resolved...unless I learn to read French myself!

The whole expected/required/demanded thing reminded me of the passage in Steinbeck's East of Eden where the various translations of the bible are discussed and how one word in one passage changes the intent and meaning in a profound way - the words being shall, must and may. I wonder what the French word was that can be translated in three such diverse ways?

After all that, I find that I'm now moving between Denny and Donougher depending on my mood on the day. If I have enough time, or the chapter is particularly short, I read both versions just to extend the Les Mis love a little longer. I only refer back to the Rose if I'm translation comparing a section or phrase that seemed starkly different in the first two.

Yes, I am a book geek!

So now we turn our eyes towards the Battle of Waterloo and Napoleon.

In Part One we met Monsigneur Bienvenu, Jean Valjean, Fantine, Cosette, the Thenardier's and their daughters, Eponine and Azelma and finally Javert.

Who awaits us in Part Two?


Thursday, 15 March 2018

The Ides of March

I've had a peculiar day.

People have been sharing their tales of woe and weirdness with me all day.
Acquaintances, not quite strangers on the street, but close enough, sharing intimate, private details with me. I've been hugging people left, right and centre and listening to the most extraordinary stories.

All of this weirdness got me thinking about the Ides of March.
The day that Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC.
It was obviously a very weird day for Caesar and the Roman Republic as well.

A major turning point in history, in fact.
Where Rome moved from being a Republic (albeit a Republic fraught with internal tensions) to a fully fledged Imperial Empire by 27 BC.

A period of civil war, executions and unrest followed Caesar's death, until his great-nephew and adopted son Octavius was able to consolidate his power base and take control.
500 years of the Roman Republic over, just like that.
In a blink of an eye.

The Death of Caesar (1798) by Vincenzo Camuccini

Change has been on my mind a lot lately.
The passing of time, the march of generations, yet the continuity and sameness of it all.

Things that once seemed so important and necessary and definite have faded, been forgotten.
Other ideas and feelings have become the important things to hold on to.
Yet these too will pass.

All those people, the regular folk, the Plebeians of Rome, spent their days going around doing their daily thing. Working, eating, spending time with family. Worrying if they had enough food, frightened when someone got sick, hoping that all those people running around trying to rule Rome didn't muck things up too much.
Just like us.

All their fears, loves, dreams, hopes and concerns are now nothing to us.
They were important to them at the time, just like ours are to us, but one day they will all be gone too.

Empires, republics and nations come and go.
Just like us.

Rulers, leaders, dictators and tyrants come and go.
Just like us.

One day, this time will be but a blink in the eye of history.
Our stories will have disappeared as too our fears, loves, dreams, hopes and concerns.

Why hold on to the shitty stuff?
Let it go.

If all we've got is this brief time, this brief, always changing time, then why not hold onto the good stuff? 

Honour our sorrows, not wallow.
Learn from our trials and tribulations, not ignore.
Acknowledge our fears, then laugh at them.
Hold on to all that is good.
Fight for kindness, peace and safety.
Revel in love, beauty and hope.
Let go of all that is holding you back.

Et tu.
Et te.


Wednesday, 14 March 2018

An A - Z of Diversity in my TBR Pile

I'm trying very hard to make a dint on my stupendous Mount TBR this year. Once a month or so, to keep me motivated, I thought I'd join in the current trend of A-Zing. 

However A-Zing my TBR pile is simply way too easy.

So I will nominate a theme for each list. This month, it's DIVERSITY.

We're talking books in translation, books set in other countries and books featuring non-Western cultures.

Little cheats are allowed (the letter can be represented by the title or the author, although I will aim to mostly use the book titles) but the book HAS to be on my current TBR pile. If I can remember, I will also share the story of how this book came to be on my #MountTBR.

Without any further ado, my TBR A-Z of Diversity is:

An Artist in the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

I've been an Ishiguro fan ever since I saw the 1993 movie The Remains of the Day.
I've been slowly reading & adding his backlist to my library.

Benang by Kim Scott

My very first week in the bookshop, we had a visit from an author & publicist.
The author was Kim Scott and to my immense (future self) shame, I didn't know who he was or what he had written. 
In my defence, I had spent the previous 20 years focused on children's literature in my professional life & personally tended to gravitate towards classic novels written by dead white men.
However I've been wanting to rectify this glaring social faux pas ever since.
When Fremantle Press published this gorgeous hardcover edition of Benang a couple of years ago, I knew I had to have it.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

Loved the title, the Amy Tan tag and the chance to add to my Women's Prize (Orange Prize) backlist.

The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa

A sale book that caught my eye with its Nobel Prize tag on the cover.

The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells

Got nothing on this one.
I have no idea how it ended up on my #MountTBR

The Famished Road by Ben Okri

I found a secondhand copy of this book in a Blackheath community market garage sale.
It was autumn and the cover jumped out at me.

The General in His Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

A fictionalised account of Simon Bolivar's final days that caught my eye after reading The Invention of Nature in 2016. Alexander von Humboldt met Bolivar during his travels in South America. They both also had a Cuban connection which caught my eye at the time.

Hiroshima by John Hersey

I've been planning (in my mind) a trip to Japan for a very long time.
With the trip finally on my near horizon, I will hopefully find time to read this classic.

Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk

A number of years ago I decided I wanted to read more of the Nobel Prize winners. I also had a brief visit to Istanbul in 1991 and am curious to know more about its history. This book ticks both boxes.

The Jew's Beech by Annette Von Droste-Hulshoff

A Goodreads recommendation from Thomas that is still waiting patiently to be read.

The Key by Junichiro Tanizaki

Another one of those books that I have no memory of how it ended up in my house.

Little Jewel by Patrick Modiano

Purchased after Modiano won the Nobel Prize a few years ago.

The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami

Recommended by a colleague who made it sound too intriguing to pass by.
Loved the cover too.

Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin

Ha Jin attended last year's Sydney Writers Festival. I didn't get to see any of his talks, but his books sounded appealing.

Origins by Amin Maalouf

I discovered Maalouf about 20 yrs ago during an exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW where his books were on sale in the gift room. I came home with Samakand and Leo Africanus. When I spotted he had also written a memoir many years later, I snapped it up.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Asian literature has always fascinated me. Not even a bad cover was going to keep me away from this one.

The Quiet American by Graham Greene 

Acquired for a trip to Vietnam after I had seen the movie, but then I found a book of short stories actually written by a Vietnamese author that came on holidays with me instead.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

A fairly new addition to my TBR. After reading Exit West last year, I decided I wanted to read more works by Hamid.

Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

Another Nobel Prize choice that coincides with my fascination in all things Russian.

Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise by Oscar Hijuelos

A customer who knew of my Cuba trip, recommended I should read this book. I can only assume that Stanley and/or Twain visit Cuba in the story at some point.

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

Another Nobel Prize book.

Views of Nature by Alexander Von Humboldt

Acquired after reading the Humboldt memoir mentioned above (letter G).

A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

After reading 1Q84, I've been gradually stocking up on my Murakami backlist. I believe this is one of the weirder books.

The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin

A Chinese classic that I really will read one day.

Frog by Mo Yan

Yet another Nobel Prize winner.

The Zigzag Way by Anita Desai

During my Indian lit phase in the late 90's I read quite a few Desai books (mother and daughter). The Zigzag Way was one of the few I didn't get to at the time (probably cause it wasn't actually written until 2004!)

Now I want to stop everything that I'm doing and binge read for a week!
Of course, that won't actually happen, so which one book from the list of 26 should I prioritise to the top of Mount TBR?

Monday, 12 March 2018

Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty

I picked Midwinter Break from my TBR pile to read for Cathy @746Books #ReadIreland18 month. It is a staff pick at work thanks to one of my colleagues, so I was looking forward to it. But I failed to engage.

There was lots to like about the story. I enjoyed the time that Stella and Gerry had wandering around Amsterdam. I enjoyed their cute couple moments - the kiss in the lift, the little in-jokes and intimacies that can only occur over time and with love. It was sad seeing this obvious once-love being destroyed by Gerry's alcoholism.

He wasn't an abusive, violent drunk. There was no need to be scared of Gerry or to fear him. He was a bumbling, deceptive, in-denial drunk. He was sloppy and mocking and selfish.

It was interesting to see how the major event in their marriage - Stella being shot whilst pregnant - was a turning point for all of them, in such different ways. After she had recovered, and the baby survived as well, they made the decision together to leave Ireland for the safer option of Scotland. However, at the time of the shooting, Stella vowed and said a prayer,
Spare the child in my womb and I will devote the rest of my life to YOU.

She viewed the survival of her son as a miracle that had to be atoned - a spiritual debt that had to be repaid - by good deeds, to improve the world through kindness and justice and equality.

Gerry simply saw Stella's survival and the birth of Michael as the miracle,
To him her presence was as important as the world. And the stars around it. If she was an instance of the goodness in this world then passing through by her side was miracle enough.

The tragedy being that he was just pissing all that goodness away.

Normally I don't mind jumps between various times and events, but it felt clumsy here. I kept losing my way. And the very worse thing that can happen to me when reading a book happened at the half way mark - I realised I was bored.

I skimmed through the last half hoping for my very own bookish miracle, but it failed to recapture my imagination.

Sad, but true.


Friday, 9 March 2018

The Shepherd's Hut By Tim Winton

The Shepherd's Hut is Tim Winton's much anticipated latest novel. I am a fan, but with reservations. I loved Cloudstreet and Dirt Music but hated The Riders (it has the dubious honour of being one of my very first DNF books). Breath was good but a bit blokey and Eyrie was okay, but a bit blokey. I adore his children's picture book illustrated by Karen Louise called The Deep. And his essays in The Boy Behind the Curtain were truly luminous.

So I entered The Shepherd's Hut cautiously.

The first 20 or so pages were a struggle for me. I know that there are awful dad's out there, I know what they can do. I used to be a teacher, I've helped families negotiate some of these difficult times over the years. But I don't feel the need to read about such sad, brutal things.

So I struggled with the first part of the story where we experience Jaxie's dysfunctional relationship with his father. I thought, I can't do this.

Later that night, I tried again.

Suddenly, without spoiling anything for anyone, Jaxie is on the run and we have a full-on road trip survival story underway. Unusually for Winton, there wasn't a beach in sight, as Jaxie headed inland to the scrubby, salty desert areas of WA.

Some readers might find Jaxie's vernacular hard going. It annoyed me at the start, but I think I'm at an age when teenager-speak is annoying in whatever form it takes! But once Jaxie hit the road, the voice became more considered and thoughtful, and was perhaps meant to reflect the influence that Fintan had on him. If you disliked Huck Finn or Lincoln in the Bardo because of the local dialect, then steer clear of this one too. The swearing may also put off some readers.

Fintan is the ageing priest that Jaxie stumbles upon in the bush. We don't know why he's living a life of exile, but there were obviously some issues around the priesthood and the Catholic Church that Winton was exploring here.

Because it is also #ReadIreland month over at Cathy's blog, I thought I would highlight the Irish character in Winton's story. Fintan, the priest is described him like this,
I never did know what to make of Fintan MacGillis....He was Irish, he told me that straight up. But I never found out what it was he done to get himself put there by the lake, what kind of person he was before....He was one of them geezers been out on his own so long he talks to himself all day....You had to sort through all these bent up words to figure which was bullshit and which was true. What I mean is he made a lot of noise but sometimes he didn't say much. With that accent of his and the way he said things fancy and musical, it was like camouflage and you knew deep down he'd been doing this all his life, hiding in clear sight.

The Shepherd's Hut is not an easy read, but, in the end I found it to be a worthwhile encounter.
It's not quite a coming of age story because the becoming part was still to happen and it's not quite a road trip story as Jaxie's journey was nowhere near done. It was more like a vignette, a moment in time, a snapshot in time.

I'm not sure I learnt anything new or gained any insights into domestic violence, the lost and lonely or survival, but I can see an action-packed, fast-paced, gritty movie on the horizon!

Eyrie by Tim Winton
Dirt Music by Tim Winton
The Boy Behind the Curtain by Tim Winton
The Deep by Tim Winton

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

Patrick DeWitt is a Canadian author who now lives in Oregon, USA. The Sisters Brothers won the 75th Canadian Governor General's Literary Awards and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the 2012 Walter Scott Prize.

The Man Booker shortlist synopsis states that,

this dazzlingly original novel is a darkly funny, offbeat western about a reluctant assassin and his murderous brother. Oregon, 1851. Eli and Charlie Sisters, notorious professional killers, are on their way to California to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm. On the way, the brothers have a series of unsettling and violent experiences in the Darwinian landscape of Gold Rush America. Charlie makes money and kills anyone who stands in his way; Eli doubts his vocation and falls in love. And they bicker a lot. Then they get to California, and discover that Warm is an inventor who has come up with a magical formula, which could make all of them very rich.
What happens next is utterly gripping, strange and sad. 
Told in deWitt’s darkly comic and arresting style, The Sisters Brothers is the kind of western the Coen Brothers might write – stark, unsettling and with a keen eye for the perversity of human motivation. Like his debut novel Ablutions, it is a novel about the things you tell yourself in order to be able to continue to live the life you find yourself in, and what happens when those stories no longer work 
It is an inventive and strange and beautifully controlled piece of fiction and displays an exciting expansion of Dewitt’s range.

I confess this type of story is not my usual fare, but sometimes a book benefits from a little detective work before reading. 

I had tried to read UnderMajorDomo Minor a couple of years ago after Mr Books raved about how much he enjoyed it. But I couldn't get into it at all. When my bookclub assigned The Sisters Brothers as our February read, I knew I would have to work at finding a way in. I kept putting off reading it and when I bumped into a couple of bookclub members in a local cafe who were both struggling along at the halfway mark, I knew this book was going to become my very own personal challenge.

So, I fell back onto good old-fashioned research.

I discovered via Wikipedia that The Sisters Brothers was inspired by a Time–Life book on the California Gold Rush, which deWitt found at a garage sale.

My back cover quote from the Financial Times informed me that it was,
a witty noir Don Quixote...a blackly comic fable about emptiness, loneliness and the hollow lure of gold.

I have never read Don Quixote, so I read it's wikipedia summary and learnt that,
  1. Don Quixote doesn't see the world for what it really is
  2. it's a parody of the romantic/chivalry style that was popular at the time
  3. it features quests, adventures and episodes
  4. fantasy versus the real world
  5. famous quote 'tilting at windmills'
  6. spawned it's own adjective 'quixotic'
  7. was an example of a picaresque novel

What on earth is a picaresque novel?
I'm glad you asked!
The Brittanica website says, 

The picaresque novel (Spanish: picaresca, from pícaro, for "rogue" or "rascal") is a genre of prose fiction that depicts the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by their wits in a corrupt society.

Image source

I now felt ready to begin my journey with Eli and Charlie Sisters.

Eli is our faithful but disaffected narrator. We quickly learn that he is kind-hearted, sensitive and not at all keen to continue life as a hit-man. He is burnt-out and reminded me somewhat of Jules in the movie Pulp Fiction who also wants to retire from his life of crime.

Eli's voice is rather dry and wry, deadpan yet melancholic. The fraternal relationship is the heart and soul of this wild west picaresque (yes! she used it in a sentence! new word bonus!) as the title suggests.

Charlie is a harder case to crack. He's the older brother who watches over (bosses around) his adoring younger brother. As their journey proceeds, Eli is forced to see Charlie more realistically and less idealistically even as Charlie undergoes his own life-altering event.

Their bizarre adventures, weird coincidences and chance meetings move us from Oregon to California via saloons, shoot-outs and drunken binges. A crying horseman, a cursed hut and a one-eyed horse cross our paths. A couple of unexpected intermissions are thrown in as well.

DeWitt was asked about these during an interview with Mumsnet,

I tend to work from a place of instinct rather than intellect. I like mysteries, in the work of others and in my own work as well. It's common for me to write sections that don't serve a specific purpose but feel necessary to me, and the intermission sections are good examples of this. I can't say that they propel a narrative or 'do'anything, but I find them crucial in fleshing out the landscape, illustrating its strangeness and "dangerousness".

The Western style that dominates the first two-thirds, suddenly changes to a sci-fi thriller when the brothers finally meet up with their latest target - a mad scientist type who has created a crazy toxic potion that finds gold.

Telegraph review at the time described the book as Laurel & Hardy meets Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with a Little House on the Prairie ending. It's all of that and more.

I found myself thoroughly enjoying the ride that DeWitt took me on. Eli's narration is funny, poignant and insightful. The research helped me to get passed the hurdles that affected some of my fellow book-clubbers. It was a case of a little bit of knowledge going a long way.

A movie starring John C Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal and Joaquin Phoenix is due later this year. I may even be tempted to go and see it.

Monday, 5 March 2018

The Only Story by Julian Barnes

"Most of us have only one story to tell."

One of the things I love about Barnes is his ability to play with memory, perspective and truth. The Only Story begins with the promise of just such a story. An unfulfilled man looking back on the main love of his life, what happened, how he felt and how it may have appeared to other people,
do all these retellings bring you closer to the truth of what happened, or move you further away?

Barnes has told Paul's story in three acts. The first and last were what I expected from him, but the middle section seemed to waffle off with very little point. Perhaps the second person narrative that was woven into this section didn't work for me? I do often struggle with it. (The first act was in first person (I, we), the second in second (you) and the third in, you guessed it, third person (he, she, it)!)

Because of it's similarities to A Sense of An Ending I was waiting for the ah-ha moment as false memory was revealed. However, The Only Story was more gentle and subtle than that. Paul was also a more honest and reliable narrator than Tony. By the third act we realised that he had a lot of time on his own to think things through and work stuff out.
Memory sorts and sifts according to the demands made on it by the rememberer.

The demands of time, maturity and repetition all change our stories so that our memories evolve right along with the rest of us. Sometimes this enhances elements barely acknowledged at the time or renders once significant moments to footnotes in one's history. This is what Barnes plays with so beautifully.

Although not as satisfying or gratifying as A Sense of an Ending, The Only Story provides a more subdued, mature pleasure that leaves us, like Paul, feeling contentment with less.

From the wiser, more mature perspective of a 50 year old, with a houseful of young adults (there are only two of them, but they consume enough for a couple of housefuls!) I found myself nodding sagely in agreement with Paul's comment early on,
now that I am older, I realise that this is one of my human functions: to allow the young to believe that I envy them.