September 28, 2010

By Nightfall - Michael Cunningham

Spring has sprung in eastern Australia - a time I love because of the relief it brings from winter dreariness but a time I hate because it brings on my annual bout of hay fever and allergies which seems to go on and on and on... I typically lack all energy and enthusiasm during this time - even blogging has been a real effort unfortunately - and going outside is a dangerous activity so I have been diving into my reading as a way of comfort and escape - and thankfully finding some great books in the process.

By Nightfall, the new book by Michael Cunningham , has been one of those finds. I first discovered Cunningham through his amazing book The Hours earlier this year so I feel very blessed to be able to read a new work of his so soon after falling in literary love.

By Nightfall tells the story of Peter Harris, a middle-aged art dealer living in New York with his wife, Rebecca. For all intense purposes Peter's life appears to be travelling along quite well as the story begins, he certainly isn't as huge a player in the art world as he might like to be but he is making a comfortable living and enjoying a fairly up market lifestyle. His relationship with Rebecca may be lacking some spark after the twenty odd years they have been together but they have a comfortableness about them that seems safe and pleasantly happy - if occasionally resigned.

The story of Peter and Rebecca's present day life is interwoven with stories and reflections of their childhood and family life - all told from the perspective and focus of Peter. Peter is clearly smitten with Rebecca's bohemian and slightly eccentric upbringing - as compared with his dull, ritualised suburban childhood and he admits at one point that in marrying Rebecca he was in turn taking on her family - an act he wasn't at all unhappy about.

It is Rebecca's younger brother, Ethan, who come along to play a larger part in Peter's story. Ethan (or Mizzy as he is known - short for "mistake" - alluding to the fact that he was conceived 20 years after the then youngest child of the family had been born) has just returned from a soul-searching trip to Japan after his latest attempt to join middle class society had failed. It seems that in line with his name, Mizzy is constantly making mistakes (according to others) in terms of his life choices and unlike his siblings he has become trapped in a world of drug abuse and addiction and we learn that it isn't really a world that he wants to escape from - despite the protestations of his sisters and Peter.

It is through Mizzy's story and his actions that Peter starts to see his own life choices and plans reflected - and it is then that things start to take a turn - for better or worse??

I can't say that I fell in love with By Nightfall in the same way that I did with The Hours - but then, that was a very special and rare thing and it shouldn't take anything away from Cunningham's latest book which is a fantastically told story.

September 19, 2010

The Believers - Zoe Heller

The Believers is a book I have had on my shelf for a while now - I'm not even sure why I purchased it in the first place but it was what I pulled out when I was in a mood for a really good character driven book during the past week - it definitely hit the spot!

The novel focuses on the members of the New York living Litvinoff family - Matriarch and UK born and bred Audrey and her radical lawyer husband Joel and their three children, Karla, Rosa and Lenny. Each member of the family plays a very different role in terms of their own lives but also in terms of the dynamics and structures of the family unit and we see these roles played out after a significant event occurs soon after the beginning of the book.

I loved this book for many reasons but one of the main reasons would have to be the different types of strengths displayed by the main female characters. The Litvinoff daughters are struggling to try and find their own place in the world separate and distinct from the lifestyle and choices their strong willed and viewed parents have steered them towards. I enjoyed the real sense of struggle that was portrayed in these two characters especially.

The mother and wife of the Litvinoff family, Audrey, would have to be one of my favourite fictional characters ever! She is so horrible in so many ways - harsh, abrasive, rude and judgemental but I still lover her! She just seems so real and solid - she never wavers and I believed in her for that.

The male characters in the novel really seemed to take a back seat in the storyline - even though they were the basis for so many of the actions and choices made by the female characters the narrative seemed dominated and driven by the females to me.

If you are a lover of strong, character driven novels then I think you would really enjoy this book - it is a novel that made me think about the issues while at the same time it allowed me to get lost in the lives of the characters. I'm looking forward to reading more of Heller's novels.

September 15, 2010


It's been quite a while since I have taken a trip around The Book Depository website and had a little splurge so today I did just that! Here is what I will be keeping an eye out for at my front door:

Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert (translation by Lydia Davis) - this book looks just divine and I will hopefully have it in time to read along with Frances and others.

Coco Chanel - Justine Picardie - I have been waiting for the release of this one for what feels like the longest time!

The Fashion File - Janie Bryant - One of my most beloved obsessions at the moment (apart from reading) is the TV show Mad Men and everything associated with it - especially the fashion.

September 13, 2010

The Forgotten Garden - Kate Morton

The Forgotten Garden was the selection for my Book Club last month and I have to say that when I first heard it was the book we would be reading I wasn't all that excited. I had already read this book when it first came out after reading, and loving, the author's first book - The Shifting Fog (or The House at Riverton as it is named in the UK) and I was disappointed that I was going to be "forced" to read a book that I hadn't enjoyed all that much the first time all over again! I had initially felt let down by Morton's second novel - on my first reading I hadn't felt that The Forgotten Garden was as powerful or as original as The Shifting Fog - but my second reading has definitely redeemed the book in my eyes.

The Forgotten Garden (as does Morton's first book) moves between locations, time periods and characters. As the book starts we are introduced to Nell O'Connor who is living in the Australian city of Brisbane in 1930, about to turn 21 and marry her young sweetheart. On the night of her Birthday party her father tells her a secret that he has been keeping from her since she was a young girl - a secret that will eventually send Nell to the English countryside to discover the truth about her history.

Linked in with Nell's story is the story of her granddaughter, Cassandra who learns some of Nell's story after her death and then travels to England herself to track down more of the story and the story of a two young women who despite growing up in very different circumstances in the early 1900's England are intricately linked with each other and with Nell and Cassandra's story.

Ahh the links! They are really the crux of the success (or failure) of this story and for some reason I felt they worked better on the second reading for me - even though I knew how everything turned out in the end! The stories are woven together with themes of art, fairy tales, the essence of truth and connection and loss. It might have been a case of the right book at the right time for me on this occasion but I felt the themes and links worked well to produce a great story and an enjoyable read.

September 10, 2010

Room - Emma Donoghue

Room is a novel that has been receiving a lot of praise and interest lately - not least because it has been short listed for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.

The premise of the book is definitely intriguing - a 5 year old boy, Jack, and his mother (Ma) are imprisoned in a small room that measures eleven feet by eleven feet - it is the only world and life that Jack has ever known and his language and ideas demonstrate this;

We have a pretty busy morning, First we undo Pirate Ship that we made last week and turn it into Tank. Balloon is the driver, she used to be as big as Ma's head and pink and fat, now she's small like my fist only red and wrinkly. We only blow up one when it's the first of a month, so we can't make Balloon a sister till it's April. Ma plays with Tank too but not as long. She gets sick of things fast, it's from being an adult.

Monday is laundry day, we get into Bath with socks, underwears, my gray pants that ketchup squirted on, the sheets and dish towels, and we squish all the dirt out. Ma hots Thermostat way up for the drying, she pulls Clothes Horse out from beside Door and stands him open and I tell him to be strong.

Donoghue has done an amazing job of creating and portraying Jack's voice and his world - I believed in the existence of this child and his narrow view of what the world is.

The book is unbelievably powerful and affecting - how could it not be when it is written so well? I was captured by it but at the same time annoyed by it! I believed in Jack's voice and his story but it was actually Ma that I wanted to hear more from - maybe because I am an adult with no children of my own it was the adult voice that I wanted to hear more of in the story?? The book certainly does focus on the experiences of Ma too - but is always through Jack's eyes, voice and language. This certainly doesn't take away from the brilliance of the book - I guess my reading focus just wanted the other side of the story more so I felt a little frustrated that this did not come through. Having said that though this is really my only (very personal and selfish!) critique of the book - it is an amazing story that is deserving of all the positive attention it has been receiving.

September 07, 2010

Trespass - Rose Tremain

I feel so lucky in my reading choices lately - virtually every book I have been picking up I have been connecting with straight away and just loving (it has been difficult to put the books down and keep turning up for work each day really!). I largely have to thank the Man Booker Prize 2010 long list for my reading success of late as most of my reading has been coming from this selection with the latest fantastic read being Trespass by Rose Tremain.

Trespass is set mainly in the Cérvennes region of Southern France (not an area I have ever been to physically but through Tremain's brilliant descriptions I certainly feel as though I have been there, at least in spirit, now).

Aramon Lunel is a lonely alcoholic man who is haunted by the deeds and memories of his past life and is looking to sell his family farmhouse and land - the Mas Lunel. Aramon's sister, Audren lives in a small bungalow on a piece of the family land given to her by her father when he died and she is devastated and terrified by the thought of the property being sold into a strangers hands.

The possible stranger in question is Anthony Verey, a wealthy English man who is trying to escape some failures in his life in London by moving to France to be closer to his beloved sister, Veronica or "V". Anthony is staying with V and her partner Kitty - who makes little secret of the fact that she can't stand Anthony (and in particular the focus he takes away from her in the eyes of Veronica) and it is in this context that Anthony starts to look for his own property and comes to the Mas Lunel through a real estate agent.

The two brother and sister combinations in the novel are explored through their past and current relationships with each other and their parents - particularly their mothers. The idea of trespass is explored through the many different ways in which a trespass can occur - against a person, their body, their land, their ideas, their relationships and their future - I thought the weaving of the title and the theme of trespass was woven so well throughout the whole book.

This novel was above all else for me a wonderful story of characters and how the choices they make - and the choices that are made for them - can affect their whole lives. I was brought into the story from the very beginning but I did not see just how complex and interwoven the story would become at that time. I thought that the book was clever, shocking and absorbing and I was sad to finish it - I am definitely on the lookout for more Rose Tremain books now - any suggestions for where to go next?

September 04, 2010

Melbourne Memories

It seems like so long ago now but it was only a couple of weeks ago that my partner and I spent a beautiful long weekend in wintry Melbourne.
There were of course books purchased;
February by Lisa Moore (long listed for the 2010 Man Booker Prize), A Moleskine book journal which I just couldn't resist even though I haven't ever really kept a hand written log of my reading - I would like to begin and No and Me by Delphine De Vigan which has recently been named as a book in the upcoming Richard and Judy Bookclub - not something I knew when I purchased the book.
There was also art viewed. We managed to get to the Tim Burton exhibition at the ACMI at Federation Square which was definitely more something that my partner enjoyed but I could certainly appreciate the talent and imagination that comes from Burton. We also went to the European Masters exhibition at the NGV of which my two favourite paintings were Henri Rousseau's The Avenue in the Park of Saint-Cloud c. 1908 and Monet's Houses on the bank of the River Zean 1871.
There was much food and tea and coffee consumed! The Tea Room at the NGV was visited...
and dinner was eaten at the Jamie Oliver Fifteen restaurant in the city...

and after all that there was still room for cupcakes!

September 02, 2010

The Slap - Christos Tsiolikas

The Slap has already won a stack of prizes and awards and most recently was named on the Man Booker Prize Long List for 2010. The book has also generated a lot of discussion amongst Australian readers, bloggers and literary critics and some of my close friends have read the book and have had very strong views on it - but despite all of this I still hadn't read The Slap myself. I've changed all that now though and I am so glad!

The Slap literally starts with a slap. A group of friends and family are gathered in a Melbourne suburban backyard for a BBQ, a children's game of cricket turns feisty and one of the adults slaps a young child who is not his own. From this action we continue to follow the group as they return to their own homes and carry on with their lives.

The book is told in the voices of different characters in alternate chapters and I felt this was a great narrative technique for this book as it helped us see the event at the BBQ from the viewpoint of different players such as the "slapper" himself, the child's mother, the family whose house the BBQ took place at etc...

This book is so rich in detail and characterisation - I felt each character in this book could have been fleshed out even further and had a book devoted just to them. The suburban world is created fully and I felt as though I could walk down the street the next day and run into any of these characters - they felt that alive and real.

The story itself was brilliant - such a simple concept in many ways but it is so complex in the thoughts, views, opinions and emotions it raises in the characters - and readers. This is a book that stayed with me even when I wasn't reading it - and it has definitely stayed with me now that I have finished it. For me, The Slap deserves all of the praise that has come its way - I can't wait to read more from this author.