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June reads

29 June, 2008

My reading this month. Star rating from 1 (poor, don’t bother) to 5 (excellent).

Violette Leduc’s In the Prison of My Skin. **

Memoir/fiction blend and the fraught relationship between a girl and her mother. Some good descriptive passages but ultimately, there’s not much to the story. Leduc was encouraged by Simone de Beauvoir and her fans included Genet, etc.

John Mullan’s How Novels Work. *****

Excellent overview of writing techniques used in novels. Mullan has drawn upon ideas from his column in the Guardian to identify the workings of various novels. Great for writers, serious readers, and reading groups wanting to learn about a wide range of techniques in fiction. What’s covered: beginnings, narration, people, genres, voices, structure, details, style, devices, literariness, and endings. To enjoy the book, it helps to have read many of the books he uses as examples–but this background is not essential to understanding his main points.

Graciela Espana’s En espanol: Rapid success in Spanish for beginners. 2003 ***

I’ve been struggling in my weekly Spanish class, and have been augmenting the lessons with Spanish CD programs and books from the public library. This program is as better than some of the others I’ve tried. It has 3 CDs and the difficulty of the material increases gradually. So unlike the Bertlitz course in Mandarin that I still remember with horror. The first lesson was relatively easy, Mandarin for ‘Hello, my name is….’ and ‘How are you?’ So far so good. But by lesson four, the sentences were alone the lines of ‘I enjoy the evening fragrance of the daphne growing along the stone wall in the western garden.’

Jennifer Vandever’s The Bronte Project: A novel of passion, desire, and good PR. 2005. ***

Sarah is a struggling Phd student on an endless and frustrating search for some lost letters of Charlotte Bronte. Her personal life seems on track, given her impending marriage to Paul, another Phd student. Suddenly, Claire comes onto the academic scene, a savvy young woman who promotes herself by being outrageous. Rather than compete in an established, competitive academic field, she creates a new one–Diane Studies–where she can be the expert and set the rules. Even Sarah gets caught up in Claire’s exotic world when Claire links the life of Princess Diana to that of Charlotte Bronte. Eventually, Sarah’s unsatisfactory life at the edges of academe is turned upside down and she has to make some difficult choices about love. I wanted something light to read because I was in bed with a sore throat. As an ex-academic in Humanities, I enjoyed Vandever’s oh-so-true depiction of academics chasing whatever is popular and can lead to funding.

Vandever starts each chapter with a sentence or two from Charlotte Bronte’s surviving letters. It keeps the link to Charlotte Bronte to the fore, but it’s unclear whether there’s much of a connection between the quotes and the chapters. Still, it’s a pleasant read, the characters are very well drawn, and the ending is a little surprising.

Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine **

Last week, I was holidaying at Gabo Island, at the northern tip of Victoria. In between watching whales on their annual migration north, looking for the fairy penguins at night, and visiting the lighthouse, I rummaged through the bookcases in the Assistant Lighthouse Keeper’s cottage where I was staying.

I love looking through the books that have somehow found a safe harbour in a holiday cottage. Many of the books here had a strong nautical theme. For example, Lighthouses of Australia, Prisoners of the Sea, Windswept, Sailormen’s Ghosts, and Mysteries of the Bass Straits. I found a few Christian books, some romances, some puzzle and games books, and some classics. I enjoyed reading old issues of the New York Review of Books. But the best treasure was a 1976 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. It was a quarto sized, soft-cover magazine, printed on cheap yellowish paper–the traditional  ‘pulp fiction’. It was filled with short, enjoyable mystery stories. Now, back at home, I looked up the magazine and found that it’s still going.

The 1976 issue  included an interview with Isaac Asimov, plus news about trends in the genre. Reading the magazine felt very right for the situation I was in. My cottage had no TV or music, and no mobile phone reception, so the evenings were undisturbed except for the spooky sounds that fit with reading mysteries: a strong wind rattling the cottage’s windows, waves crashing on the red granite rocks, and fairy penguins making their eerie strangled whistles and squawks in the dark. As I sat in my art deco lounge chair in front of the space heater, a sherry at my elbow, it was the ideal site to read satisfying whodunits.

Steve Toltz, A Fraction of the Whole. Hamish Hamilton, 2008. ***

I raced through Steve Toltz’s 711-page paperback doorstopper. The story revolves ultimately around Jasper, the narrator, and his relationship with his crazy father.  The fast-paced plot twists and turns, and the story is filled with as many one-liners as a comedian on speed.

While reading it, I enjoyed some of the author’s funny comments and insights, but eventually the mass of details started to obscure the plot. It’s a clever book, but not particularly deep. It reminds me a bit of books by Stephen Fry or Ben Elton–satires about current society but keeping well on the surface. A positive is that the fast pace of the book means the author flings off great comedy scenes and humorous riffs without turning them stodgy by forcing them to take on too much psychological weight. I enjoyed the first part, felt the middle of the book wandered a bit, and the end part is strong.  Steve is a young writer and this is his first novel. I was impressed that he managed to keep a huge story going, not only by having changing events but also having the characters change significantly as well.

I had a quick squiz at some reviews of this book, and nearly all are positive. A few compare him to John Irving in terms of sprawling and humorous family sagas.

(I met Steve at the Katoomba part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year and included in an earlier blog entry some of his comments.)

Darkly Dreaming Dexter. Jeff Lindsay. 2004. Narrated by Nick Landrum ****

A friend recommended the Dexter series so I borrowed a talking book of Darkly Dreaming Dexter from the library, to listen to in the car on a drive down the coast. I wasn’t sure about this after my friend said Lindsay has written a a great series about a sociopathic killer who tortures then kills people who deserve it. That just didn’t seem like my kind of read. However, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Dexter’s psychological makeup is explored with sensitivity and odd humour. Dexter understands that he is a monster, but a monster who has modeled himself to be as ‘human’ as possible. In doing so, he starts to find that maybe he’s not so inhuman after all. The plot got my attention. Some parts are a big grim, especially if you have a good imagination. The characters are well developed. The only part I didn’t like was the ending, which is ambiguous.

The experience of listening to a talking book reminded me of the huge difference between reading a book yourself and listening to a trained actor make all the characters come to life. I wonder if I’d given ‘Dexie’ such a sympathetic treatment if I had been reading the book silently to myself. And being sympathetic to Dexter helps you as a reader understand him.

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