Monday, May 30, 2011

Sweet, But Not Too Sweet

Friendship Bread by Darien Gee sat around by my bed for a few weeks before I read it. On the one hand, it looked like a nice, comforting read on a subject I find fascinating: food bringing a sense of community and healing to a group of people. On the other hand, it seemed dangerously easy for this very topic to fall into the twee, saccharine mush that I abhor. Luckily, it was brilliant and I loved it!

If I were to bring a critical eye to the book, there was one minor character who seemed hopelessly unreal and was a tad annoying. There were also a few moments, especially in the last couple of chapters, that tipped a little too close to the World of Twee for my liking, and it was only after I finished the book that it occurred to me that all the male characters who swear say "heck" as in "damn them to heck", and the female ones never swear. I have all sorts of problems with this but since I didn't notice it while I was reading the book it doesn't feel like a terribly big deal.

I'm always excited to come across a book like this because it fits into a category that I think there is a real desire for: something intelligent readers can enjoy when they don't feel like plowing through a literary tome, but isn't so sappy that they get annoyed with it. Unfortunately, there is a lot of pap out there as well as a lot of Serious Literature that is hard work to read and often depressing. I know I often want something between these two camps and it isn't always easy to find.

A final tip: do not read this if you are on a diet because you will be driven insane with all the descriptions of sweet, steaming loaves of Amish Friendship bread that fill the house with their delicious aroma...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Ghastly

Earlier this evening, I finished At Last by Edward St Aubyn. I started thinking about the post I would write about it as I read the final pages and it struck me that it is quite similar in one sense to another book I finished a few weeks ago and never got around to posting about: Once Upon A River by Bonnie Jo Campbell. Each book, in its own way, was quite hideous and ghastly. I don't really mean that as a criticism, because in each case it is part of what made these books what they are.

Nevertheless, I found both books difficult to stomach at times. At Last is full of nasty, awful, mean, selfish and vicious people. Really, really horrible. The whole book takes place at the funeral of a person who will not necessarily be missed or mourned by all, and interspersed with descriptions of the funeral are stories about her life through the perspective of various friends and relations. More and more is slowly uncovered about who she was, mostly through the prism of her son figuring out how he feels towards her.

There have been times in my life (sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for several months) when I have been unable to read sad or "difficult" books. I am glad this is not one of those times because it really is a fantastic book. Despite this, I don't have the emotional attachment to it that I have had to other books, such as The Legacy or When God Was A Rabbit. On an intellectual level I liked it a lot. As with Augusten Burrows, I admire St Aubyn's ability to keep me compelled to read something so nasty and awful. And I should mention that it is really quite funny and clever in parts too. Since finishing the book, I have discovered it is the fifth in a series about the same family. Honestly, I cannot bear the thought of reading any more about these people.

Once Upon A River... such a drifting kind of book... it's about a young woman (still high school age) who runs away from home after her father dies. She is really too young to cope with all that has been thrust upon her, and her actions show her to be a child with a strangely tough and independent streak. Her life becomes something that I found profoundly sad. Her vulnerability is so evident that it's just heartbreaking to watch her being taken advantage of over and over again.

It's funny because before writing this out I thought the tough bits were the deer hunting and animal skinning scenes (it feels like there is one almost every 10 pages) but actually what upset me a lot more were the displays of cruelty from one human being to another. The hunting and skinning is quite graphic, and fairly relentless but they work as an undercurrent to the book's main idea about the cruelty toward the vulnerable protagonist.

I am sure it will sound odd at this point, but I think this is a truly beautiful book. There are some awfully tough scenes in it, but there are also beautiful, tranquil moods and small triumphs and tactile pleasures and moments of healing and pools of calm. I am glad I have given myself this opportunity to think about Once Upon A River a little more deeply, because I think it is a thoughtful, late bloomer kind of book, only fully appreciated after the fact.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Book In A Day

I started and finished The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright today. Reading an entire book in one day is odd; I obviously loved it or I would've left it to do something else, but I haven't had the chance to think about it while not reading it as I usually would. So I feel as though I have potentially diminished the experience.


Why did I like this book? Well, I suppose because I could completely believe the central character. Some elements of her were utterly alien to me, but enough of her thoughts and history and character were like me for that not to matter. Or perhaps to make it an even better read. Since I was reading a slightly off kilter version of myself, I didn't know what I was going to do next. The character was nice enough (or perhaps enough like me) that I felt sad for her in her failings rather than angry or contemptuous.

Last night I finished The Easter Parade by Richard Yates. I think Yates' idea about the two sisters in his story being doomed from childhood tainted my reading of The Forgotten Waltz and I couldn't help feeling it was a little the same with Enright's two sisters. Two examples of a "free spirit" in successive relationships who never feels secure, juxtaposed against the safe suburban sister who is seemingly trapped, perhaps left me reading more into The Forgotten Waltz than I was supposed to.

In any case, Yates is stunningly good. I find his writing heartbreaking in a very quiet yet immensely profound way. His character's whole lives spin (usually to unravel) on small moments and seemingly inane events. As a reader, it makes you feel safe, because you are so far from being so lost. But he is careful to make it real enough that the safety feels just a bit fragile. I know I have not given any meaningful details of The Easter Parade but it feels too much like I would be destroying a spider web covered in glinting drops of rain.


Sunday, May 1, 2011

There Should Be More Reading

I haven't posted here for a little while but it's because I have been too busy reading. I have read some really wonderful books in the last 3 weeks. I have been thinking about the blog posts I would write, but there's always another great book winking at me from the bedside table.

There Should Be More Dancing, written by Rosalie Ham is due to be published in July this year. It was fantastic: witty, dark and intriguing. I remember reading her first book (The Dressmaker) and really loving it for the sort of modern gothic feel. This is completely different but probably better (t's hard to be sure since I read the other one about 10 years ago, but I think so).

I enjoyed the reading experience, while at the same time appreciated technical elements of the structure. The way Ham builds interest, and combines events from past and present to make certain points is great. I mean, who wouldn't read the next chapter to find out about "The Public Scalping Incident", especially when a sweet little old lady is at the heart of it? But actually, she isn't all that sweet - she's a mix of nasty, stuffy, proper and generous. And some other things. Lots of other brilliant things I loved about it but I'd rather people read the book than this review so I'll move on to the next one...

Love In The Years of Lunacy. Like Ham, Mandy Sayer is an Australian author, and has based her novel in the area where she lives. There Should Be More Dancing was all things Brunswick in Melbourne, while Love In The Years of Lunacy is set in the Sydney of World War II. Again, I loved it. Most of it is based around Potts Point and Kings Cross, which is where I live so it was lots of fun to to try and imagine my 'hood peopled with the characters from the book.

Apparently it took Sayer 10 years to write this book. I feel a bit sad that it only took me 3 days to read it! She has clearly spent a lot of time on research and there are some wonderful details about things like the Trocadero ballroom which no longer exists. Despite meticulous research, it doesn't feel forced or overdone; it's all beautifully blended into the story and not just a litany of facts strung together with a bit of dialogue. And the factual detail wouldn't really be much without vivacious, three-dimensional characters. Ultimately, that is what makes you keep reading - caring what happens to the characters.

I followed these two super-new reads with The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. I had read it a long time ago but remembered nothing. I am in raptures over this book. I want to sigh and swoon all over this post but it's difficult with a keypad. The language! The poignancy! Oh the poignancy! It is heartbreaking, yet utterly beautiful. There are so many moments that I can vividly imagine, such as when Newland's tears freeze on his eyelashes. I keep thinking about these images; the feeling of the book will haunt me for many weeks. It is an unutterably sad book, but it just would not work at all today. Society and etiquette are so different that although the awful dilemma faced by Ellen and Newland is perfect in its context, it would be laughed away if someone tried to write a book about putting honour and stuff above personal happiness. Well, I think so... I'll be on the lookout for something to crush this thesis.