Monday, April 30, 2012

'Theatre' - William Somerset Maugham 1937

I am a huge fan of  William Somerset Maugham (he is the only author I have reviewed here more than twice) and 'Theatre' did not disappoint. My favourite part about his writing, as I frequently mentioned when talking about 'Cakes and Ale' as well as 'The Painted Veil' is the interesting female characters he brings to life.

Theatre is a brilliant story about a complicated actress who lives her life as though it is one huge play. Her son believes that she only truly exists when she is performing for someone, and he is perhaps closest to the truth. The book charts her rise from a struggling country actress to one of the biggest stars of her era.

Along the way there are so many wonderful characters; from her frigid husband to her toy-boy lover, lesbian sponsor and other eccentric people who populate the London that Maugham has brought to life. 

Though Julia Lambert is an entertaining character she is not very likeable due to the sheer weight of her self obsession. 

This is one of my favourite passages which shows the 'thought patterns' which bring her to life:
"And his love of art filled her with a faint derision; after all she was a creator, when all was said and done he was only the public." 

Maugham is not a particularly famous author, and if 'Vintage' had not published all 3 of these novels I might never have come across him. But I am glad I did, and perhaps you might like to discover his work too.

Love it, Read it,

Saturday, April 28, 2012

'American Gods' Neil Gaiman, 2001

One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless. 
The tale is the map that is the territory. 
You must remember this.
~from the Notebooks of Mr. Ibis

In ‘American Gods’ Gaiman (2001) set himself the task of exploring American cultural heritage and how religion and culture are expressed in modern times. This is a lofty goal, but Gaiman tackles it in a very accessible manner. It is a novel which draws on a long history of storytelling to reinforce the narrative. Woven throughout are references to myths about Gods from all over the world; from Norse god Odin to ancient Egyptian Ibis and the Irish Leprechauns of folktales. It is ultimately an urban fantasy, though in a very different way to Gaiman's earlier novel 'Neverwhere' (1996), which was set solely in central London, while 'American Gods' is a journey across North America.

'American Gods' follows the strange travels of a young man known only as ‘Shadow’ and the characters he meets upon being released from prison. The plot focuses on the coming of a literal and metaphorical ‘storm’, a clash between the old and the new. The 'America' that Shadow lives in is the America of the present day, but also a place where things people believe in, worship and sacrifice to become real, physical beings. Gods are men and women who live amongst the population, relying on belief to sustain their existence. This is an idea that has been explored by many authors in a variety of different ways. Orson Scott-Card explored belief and modern-day social detachment from organised religion through a very similar narrative device in his novel ‘Enchantment’ (1999). Scott-Card focused on ‘old’ Gods while Gaiman differentiates himself in the genre by including 'new' Gods, those of credit card, media, celebrity and Internet, worshipped in the consumer culture of modern-day America.

The novel is filled with overarching metaphors, particularly around what it means to be 'American' and the implications of a culture worshipping material things. Gaiman briefly breaks from the narrative to emphasise that none of what is occurring in the book is ‘real’, and to explain that it is all a metaphor for the American condition. His view that "religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world" (2001, p. 508) is pervasive throughout the whole novel.

The question that the novel poses to readers is: If religion is essentially self-serving does the worship of material things necessarily equate to a lack of morality?
 The novel itself does not give a clear-cut answer to this question, leaving many aspects open to interpretation. As part of a broader socio-cultural context Gaiman succeeds in raising a pertinent question, especially in a social climate that is seeing an increase in both consumerism and a return to organised religion in many areas.

In the context of the novel Gaiman also succeeds in his intention to dissect American cultural heritage and religious attitudes. However, although the exploration of American culture through metaphors was interesting, Gaiman has been a bit too heavy-handed in its application for my tastes. The literal spelling out that 'this story is a metaphor', which happens when Gaiman breaks from the narrative towards the end of the novel, ensures that even the most inattentive readers do not miss the metaphor signs. The novel has the feeling of a writer finding his feet in terms of writing style, but also in a physical way, as it was written when Gaiman moved away from his native England. 'American Gods' was a precursor to Gaiman's novel 'Anansi Boys' (2005) and although it does not directly link up there is a crossover with the character ‘Mr. Nancy’, and it explores many similar themes. ‘Anansi Boys’ was, in my view, a much more subtle and thought-provoking novel. It was filled with humour and fascinating, detailed characters, two things that 'American Gods' lost in focusing too hard on emphasizing the metaphors. Great comparison.

Overall ‘American Gods’  is an ambitious novel which sets out to explore the hugely complex question of cultural identity in modern-day America. While it may have benefited from a more even-handed, subtle approach, Gaiman’s novel is ultimately successful in drawing readers into a dialogue about religion, consumerism and the American way of life. ‘American Gods’ is a very adult novel, best suited readers in their final years of high school or older, and would be of particular interest to those undertaking, or with interest in, cultural studies. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

'The Painted Veil' - William Somerset Maugham 1925

'The Painted Veil' is both a critical social commentary and deeply personal tale of self realisation. Somerset Maugham's novel was deeply controversial at the time of publication, at the last minute the setting was altered from 'Hong Kong' to a fictional colony of 'Tching-Yen' to avoid accusations of slander.

The plot centres around beautiful Englishwoman Kitty and her marriage to a bacteriologist in Colonial Hong Kong, Walter Fane. Underpinning the entire plot is Kitty's manipulative, social-climbing mother, who is essential despite occupying relatively little of the novel. Kitty marries Walter, who she does not love, but who is in love with her, in order to escape England, her mother's meddling, and to avoid the shame of attending her younger sister's more 'prestigious' wedding.

To escape her unsatisfying marriage Kitty begins an affair with the suave Charles Townsend who she falls deeply in love with. When the affair is discovered she finds he does not feel the same, though her own denial and his manipulation make this realisation a long time in coming.

My favourite element of 'The Painted Veil' was the wonderful female characters, particularly the shallow, selfish protagonist Kitty. I was first introduced to W. Somerset Maugham's complex women in 'Cakes and Ale' and although Kitty shares few characteristics with the vivacious Rosie I came to like her just as much. Throughout the novel Kitty was developed significantly and she experienced a 'spiritual awakening' (to quote the blurb) of-sorts without the novel feeling forced or clich├ęd. 

On the whole I found this novel very rewarding, despite some of the social conventions and technicalities around divorce being quite confusing.

In the introduction Somerset Maugham mentions that the idea for the novel came from some lines of poetry by Dante, and the interpretation of them told to him by an Italian woman while he was on vacation as a young man: "...she told me that Pia was a gentlewoman of Siena whose husband, suspecting her of adultery and afraid on account of her family to put her to death, took her down to his castle in the Maremma the noxious vapour of which he was confident would do the trick; but she took so long to die that he grew impatient and had her thrown out of a window". While the specifics of 'The Painted Veil' are different, the themes are clearly present. In this way the novel is driven by the story, the unfolding dynamic between husband and wife, rather than by particular characters. This makes for a fascinating and, as I already mentioned, very rewarding read.

Love it, Read it,

Sunday, February 5, 2012

'The House of Silk: The New Sherlock Holmes Novel' - Anthony Horowitz 2011.

The House of Silk is a novel with three parts; a fast-paced beginning, which gives way to a section of inaction, followed by an ending which feels almost 'tacked on'.  

I have not read anything by Anthony Horowitz before, but he has accurately replicated Doyle's writing style and Watson's voice remains consistent throughout. This initially drew me in and held my attention, but as the novel progressed the weakness of the plot could not be sustained on that alone.

There are really two mysteries in this novel, and the attempt to write two novellas in one is where the main weaknesses lie. The first mystery is that of the Flat Capped Gang, brought to the attention of Holmes by  Edmund Carstairs, a partner in an art gallery who believes he is being stalked. The art dealer had recently become caught up in gang activity in Boston, after some paintings he had sold were destroyed in a train robbery carried out by the twin brothers who lead the 'Flat Capped Gang'. Carstairs believes he is being stalked by the surviving leader because of his role in the other brother's killing by police during a raid.

The second mystery gives the book its title 'The House of Silk'. This mystery is introduced when someone  involved in the 'Flat Capped Gang' investigation is murdered and found with a single piece of silk tied around their wrist. Investigations into the House of Silk are thwarted at every turn. Holmes takes a great many risks throughout the investigation, and uncharacteristically makes a number of grave miscalculations.

There was something missing from this novel that I can't quite put my finger on. Perhaps it was just different in 'theme' to the other Holmes stories I have read, which made this particular story feel it was not as wonderful as it could have been. In the end I'm not sure that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have approved of the plot. That might sound a little mysterious, but I don't want to give away too much. If you have not read any of the Sherlock Holmes novels I would recommend you start elsewhere, but fans of Holmes will find something here to enjoy.

Love it, Read it,

Saturday, January 28, 2012

'A Game of Thrones - Book One - A Song of Ice and Fire' - George R.R. Martin 1996.

I have jumped on the 'Game of Thrones' bandwagon very late for someone who considers herself an avid fantasy reader (Especially considering it has been around since 1996!). Somehow 'A Song of Ice and Fire' slipped under my radar the past few years, and when I finally got around to reading the first book in the series over the Christmas break I couldn't stop berating myself for not picking it up sooner.

George R. R. Martin has a seriously impressive talent for weaving a web of political intrigue, and the writing skill to pull off an incredibly complex series of relationships without overwhelming readers. Martin's setting for the series is very ambitious, more so than many standard works of fantasy fiction, but because of this a sense of place becomes integral to the development of many characters, relationships and conflicts.

This is probably my shortest review to date, but I really was a bit overwhelmed by this book. I would recommend it for just about anyone, even people who are not normally interested in fantasy. 'A Game of Thrones' does not have a strong emphasis on many of the 'traditional' fantasy staples such as magic, which makes it a bit more accessible.

'When you play a Game of Thrones, you win or you die' is the catchphrase of the story and it is applied in a satisfyingly ruthless fashion.

Love it, Read it,

Thursday, January 19, 2012

'The Handmaid's Tale' - Margaret Atwood 1985.

'The Handmaid's Tale' was a bit of a disappointment for me. I came across the title in a list of the best dystopian novels and I thought the premise was brilliant; a world where most women are infertile, and the fertile ones have been reduced to a single function 'breeding'. I must have skimmed over the next part of the blurb which reads "but even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire - neither Offred's nor that of the two men on which her future hangs" which should have tipped me off to the major issues I would have with this book. Having read another of Atwood's novels, 'Alias Grace', many years ago I should have also had some clues about what to expect from her writing style, however in all cases I was oblivious.

The premise is certainly not a unique one, the first similar example that springs to mind is Children of Men, but 'The Handmaid's Tale' focuses on an anti-female backlash against the feminist movement during the 1980's rather than simply rising infertility.

The chapters jump around in quite a strange manner which is not explained until the post-script, but the main flow of the story is that in the early 80's a group (of men presumably) took over the United States of America, and took away the rights of women. This began with taking away their jobs and bank accounts, and then extended to segregation of fertile and infertile women, and a complete restructuring of society to suit a very strange vision of the reproductive future of America. The protagonist is called 'Offred' which can be read as 'of Fred' meaning 'Fred's Handmaid'. As the handmaid allocated to Fred by the government Offred must wear a very bizarre red outfit, live in his house (with his 'blue' infertile wife) and hopefully bear his child after which she will be transferred to a different man.

While there are a lot of feminist ideas and issues raised throughout the novel, overall it is oddly anti-women. The only strong female characters, particularly the main champions of feminist ideals pre-takeover, are cowed and broken. The indecisive, frustrating protagonist eventually surrenders her fate to the various men who dominate her life 'legally', 'covertly' and 'emotionally'.

Despite the disappointment that this was not the book I thought it would be, I did enjoy reading it. Atwood's style in this case is abrupt, taking odd turns and branching off on tangents, and often is without a clear sense of timeline. The post-script, which explains the odd style, really made this book for me. It added so many additional dimensions and made me re-think so much of what I had read.

I have had a few people mention to me that they read it in high school, so I would love to know what you take on it is. Did you enjoy it? Was it ruined by high school English? What were the inevitable 'lessons' to be learnt from it?

Love it, Read it,

Sunday, January 8, 2012

'Women of Letters- Reviving the Lost Art of Correspondence' - Curated by Marieke Hardy & Michaela McGuire 2011.

This book is all about reviving the art of writing letters, the art of sharing stories in more than 140 characters, perhaps even the art of living and appreciating life enough to fill this space. This is also a book filled with the lives of amazing Australian women, so this post is for my aunt Rachel, who is the bravest woman I know.

'Women of Letters' began as a creative fundraising event for Edgar's Mission animal rescue centre and has grown into a monthly event, with an online community, and of course, the book which I just read. Hardy and McGuire invite talented musicians, actresses, politicians, writers and comedians to write a letter to topics as varied as 'the moment it all fell apart' or 'the best present I ever received'  and in the process revive the lost art of correspondence. At the monthly events, these writers then read their letters aloud to an audience, which lends a very intimate quality to the letters in this book, as each has a very distinct 'voice'.

This is a difficult book to comment on, as there are so many styles, and vastly different approaches to writing letters. But this is it's strength. It is a brilliant book to read a little at a time, I picked it up and read a couple of letters here and there, rather than from start to finish. Some of the letters were very candid, other were hilarious, and out of all the letters there were only two that I didn't like (and one of those was written by Paul Kelly).

I must admit that there are two things about this book which I would usually dislike. First is the 'celebrity factor'. Ever since I read a social science text with an infuriatingly pretentious introduction by Bono I have shied away from any kind of 'non literary' celebrity association. However, in this case I am willing to overlook this, because seeing Megan Washington's name was actually what made me pick up the book, and give it a proper look, rather than just a cursory glance. In addition, the actual idea behind the fundraising is based around famous Australia women, as so it isn't some tacked on celebrity endorsement.

Secondly, as any frequent reader of this blog will probably have noticed, I'm not really a reader of 'current' books. Those books that dominate newspaper columns and 'recommended this Summer' lists before falling into obscurity as mediocre. I had seen this book mentioned in a few Sunday newspaper reviews and there was a huge in store display, but I'm glad I swallowed my prejudices and gave it a try. 'Women of Letters' is something truly unique and well worth a read, it might even prompt you to see your own life in a different light.

Love it, Read it,

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

'The Day of the Triffids'- John Wyndham 1951

This book was a purchase from a quaint little second-hand bookshop in Yungaburra, whilst on holiday in North Queensland. I thought this novel would be similar to 'War of the Worlds' which I read earlier this year, but surprisingly it had few similarities to H. G. Well's famous alien invasion novel.

Oddly enough 'The Day of the Triffids' had some interesting parallels to 'Windup Girl', in that it deals with the fears of the time. Wyndham writes to the biggest fears of the 50s, the threats of satellite weaponry and the Soviet Union, while 'Windup Girl' dealt with peak oil, genetic modification and threat of global corporations.
Perhaps this explains why I found Windup Girl so frightening, and Day of the Triffids so 'quaint', as by tapping into the fears of the times dystopian novels may lose the menace as they age. I'm not certain of this, but I am certain that dystopias are written with the fears and issues of the time in mind, whether consciously or unconsciously.

The plot of this novel is really a 'love despite all odds' taking place in England after a 'meteor shower' blinds most people, except those who were accidently unable to look outside at that time. The protagonist was in hospital with bandages across his eyes and awakes to a silent world. In addition to the chaos one can expect in a world where most people are suddenly blinded, the strange, aggressive, plants called 'Triffids' which had been appearing over the last few years begin to take advantage of the population's blindness.

'The Day of the Triffids' is not a book with an overly happy ending, but I really enjoyed reading it. It was a great tale, with all the markers of a solid novel. I don't often read books more than once, but I think I may read about the Triffids again in the future.

Love it, Read it,