The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

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Summary from Goodreads:

What is the difference between friendship and love? Or between neutrality and commitment? Gustav Perle grows up in a small town in ‘neutral’ Switzerland, where the horrors of the Second World War seem a distant echo. But Gustav’s father has mysteriously died, and his adored mother Emilie is strangely cold and indifferent to him. Gustav’s childhood is spent in lonely isolation, his only toy a tin train with painted passengers staring blankly from the carriage windows.

As time goes on, an intense friendship with a boy of his own age, Anton Zwiebel, begins to define Gustav’s life. Jewish and mercurial, a talented pianist tortured by nerves when he has to play in public, Anton fails to understand how deeply and irrevocably his life and Gustav’s are entwined.

Lovely, lyrical little book.  I have to admit to sadistic tendencies when it came to this one – I enjoyed the book most when the main characters were miserable. And we’re looking at post-WWII Europe. So people are miserable A LOT.

Another confession: I’m a bit dumb when it comes to the structure of this one – apparently it was modelled after a sonata (perhaps unsurprisingly…). I had some of my musical friends try to explain what this might mean for the narrative structure but I still don’t get it. Can someone explain?

That being said, the narrative works even if (like me) you have no knowledge of classical music. Goodreads describes this book as “tender” and I can’t think of a more fitting description so I’ll just steal theirs. Even people (like Gustav’s mom) who initially come across as deeply unsympathetic are given a backstory that redeems (or at least explains) their character. Tragic and sentimental are probably two other fitting adjectives. Take a look at Gustav’s thought process late in the story:

Would my own existence have been happier, if I’d never known Anton Zwiebel? And he felt, at this moment, that it would have been. (pg 235) 

This was my first Tremain and despite being slightly disappointed in the ending I’m definitely keen to give Restoration a go.

I find these reviews are getting increasingly rambling so I do apologise. But I am also determined to keep this blog as a record primarily for myself so I’m probably going to keep on rambling. Please ramble back in the comments.

 

 

Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst

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Summary from Goodreads:

How far will a mother go to save her family? The Hammond family is living in DC, where everything seems to be going just fine, until it becomes clear that the oldest daughter, Tilly, is developing abnormally–a mix of off-the-charts genius and social incompetence. Once Tilly–whose condition is deemed undiagnosable–is kicked out of the last school in the area, her mother Alexandra is out of ideas. The family turns to Camp Harmony and the wisdom of child behavior guru Scott Bean for a solution. But what they discover in the woods of New Hampshire will push them to the very limit. Told from the alternating perspectives of both Alexandra and her younger daughter Iris (the book’s Nick Carraway), this is a unputdownable story about the strength of love, the bonds of family, and how you survive the unthinkable.

I read Parkhurst’s Dogs of Babel a few years back and it made me a fan for life. I’ll read anything she writes. While not as mind-blowing as DOBHarmony definitely made an impression.

It’s hard to describe what it is exactly I like about Parkhurst’s writing – there’s this strange… authenticity to her characters. Especially impressive is her ability to write in the voice of an 11-year-old.  I’m particularly in touch with my inner child but I find that most writers trying to capture pre-teen or teenage voices come across as unbearable and unbearably self conscious. Parkhurst manages to avoid that completely – the interactions between the sisters are so familiar that I felt like I had been transported back in time to a family trip with my five siblings. In fact, Iris was my favourite narrator – childish but still perceptive.

Unfamiliar to my own experience is Parkhurst’s exploration of developmental issues in children – a subject she tackles with both sensitivity and honesty.

My biggest criticism would be the tragedy and menace we are primed for in the first chapter (which is slowly unveiled throughout the novel) is a bit obvious and, perhaps, unnecessary. I don’t want to say too much more in fear of spoiling the ending!

Fans of familial dramas, look no further. Parkhurst has got what you need. Recommended.

(On a side note: how beautiful is that cover?!)

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

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– You put a spell on the dog, I said as we left the house.
– Just a small one, said Nightingale
– So magic is real, I said. Which makes you a … what?
– A wizard.
– Like Harry Potter?
– Nightingale sighed. No, he said, not like Harry Potter.
– In what way?
– I’m not a fictional character, said Nightingale.

After stumbling upon a ghost witness to a beheading in Covent Garden, Probationary Constable Peter Grant becomes the Watson to Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale’s supernatural Sherlock: investigating crimes involving magic or the uncanny.

Highly recommended for fans of crime, mystery novels, fantasy, British humour, and London.

I’m a bit late in the game to this one. Fairly popular series. Think Terry Prattchet meets Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Although it was recommended by a friend whose taste is diametrically opposed to my own, I didn’t hate it. It has all the elements that my friend looks for in a book: hard and fast with the humour, juvenile but enjoyable. It’ll get a pass from me purely based on the fun factor.

Complaints: the as aforementioned juvenility and brief instances of misogyny. Most women are sexualised quite a bit in the novel. But I can’t nitpick too much – I enjoyed the opportunity to partake in a little harmless nostalgia for London. Overall, a fun, guilty pleasure of a read. That also confirms how fucked up Punch and Judy is.

Transit by Rachel Cusk

 

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The second in the loose trilogy that started with Outline, Cusk returns stronger than ever. After the dissolution of her marriage, Faye moves to London with her two young sons and is forced “to confront aspects of living she has, until now, avoided, and to consider questions of vulnerability and power, death and renewal, in what becomes her struggle to reattach herself to, and believe in, life.” (from Goodreads) It’s hard to give a more solid summary of the book as Cusk’s writing defies traditional description.

Yes, yes, yes, yes. THIS is what I’m talking about. Even better than Outline.

Cusk’s writing is instantly recognisable – beautiful, highly feminine, highly intellectual, detached but weirdly intimate. Although we’re never allowed into the inner world of the protagonist, there’s a wonderful interest and investment in other people’s stories. Just like in Outline, we get these intensely intimate moments between people who are essentially strangers. What should be mundane conversations (with exes, friends, even the builder) become philosophical meditations on life. This one will definitely require a re-read as I’m sure some of it went over my head without me even realising it. How much is biographical? Is Faye just a mouth-piece for Cusk? What’s up with all the fucked-up parent/child relationships?

Strange and unique, Transit is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea but it sure is mine.

Here’s a little taste:

“I like it when you ask these questions… But I don’t understand why you want to know.” (page 227) 

I said I wasn’t so sure it mattered whether the audience knew who we were. It was good, in a way, to be reminded of the fundamental anonymity of the writing process, the fact that each reader came to your book a stranger who had to be persuaded to stay. (pg 114) 

The First Stone: Some Questions of Sex and Power by Helen Garner

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Summary from Goodreads:

In the autumn of 1992, two young women students at Melbourne University went to the police claiming that they had been indecently assaulted at a party. The man they accused was the head of their co-ed residential college. The shock of these charges split the community and painfully focused the debate about sex and power.

Another cultural theory dud for me! Recommended by the same friend who recommended the Solnit (starting to think I should stop trusting the guy) and it hit all the wrong buttons. I love love love Garner’s writing style – she’s incredibly easy to read. Even when she’s writing about really difficult, personal topics Garner’s writing is incredibly engaging.

Buuuuuuuuut, this one might have turned me off Garner forever. She’s of an old school type of feminism that is incredibly critical of the political correctness that characterises “a certain kind of modern feminism: priggish, disingenuous, unforgiving” (page 93). She has a sort of “boys will be boys” mentality when it comes to sexual harassment and has very little sympathy for the women involved. She even mentions what they were wearing at the time of the incident. Ouch.

Any readers out there with more experience with Garner? Should I try again?

 

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

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Summary from Goodreads:

A Field Guide to Getting Lost draws on emblematic moments and relationships in Solnit’s own life to explore the issues of wandering, being lost, and the uses of the unknown. The result is a distinctive, stimulating, and poignant voyage of discovery.

This one was recommended to me by a friend – I’ve had my eye on Solnit for a while. Notable for popularising the idea of “mansplaining,” Solnit seemed to me like the kind of new philosopher/cultural theorist that I could really get stuck into. This is my first foray into her work and I must admit it wasn’t an entirely successful encounter.

I should make it clear, philosophy isn’t really my thing; my review will definitely be tainted by my own ignorance. Solnit’s writing is beautiful, poetic, and meditative:

Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar fading away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing.” (page 22)

Some things we only have for as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they are distant.” (page 41)

But despite the loveliness of the above quotes I just couldn’t get into it. Definitely too philosophical for my taste – I found her use of stream of consciousness lovely to read but difficult to follow. This might be more telling of my intelligence (!) than Solnit’s writing.

I was interested in reading a few other essay collections by Solnit but this one has sorta put me off. Should I try again?

 

Just Checking In…

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So I’ve been terribly neglectful of this blog for the past couple of weeks – I do have an excuse though. I was living it up on the North Island of New Zealand where I unplugged for the week. (I stole the photo that you see above but I did see that view! The volcano on the right is Mount Doom! (I think)). Happy to be back home in Melbourne and back online!

If you’re anything like me you love lists. Particularly book lists. So enjoy this one of all the books I’ve read since Hillbilly Elegy. Expect musings on most if not all of the following:

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

The First Stone by Helen Garner

Transit by Rachel Cusk

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks

Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

Barbarian Days by William Finnegan

Flush by Virginia Woolf

The Word Detective by John Simpson

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters

Have you read any of the above? Share your thoughts!

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by JD Vance

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Summary from Goodreads:

From a former Marine and Yale Law School Graduate, a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating consideration of class, culture, and the American dream.

Before I delve into how I personally felt about this book I just want to clarify something: this is a memoir. Often sold and marketed as a social analysis or cultural studies (where it is shelved in my bookstore) I have a hard time ascribing it either classification. Vance gives us his personal story and a few anecdotes about the, as he sees it, undeserving poor from where he grew up. Broad or statistical evidence is almost completely absent and if you’re going to label something as a political or cultural analysis I think you need to supply more than just a few personal anecdotes. As a memoir, it’s great. As a broad sociological study it doesn’t quite cut the mustard.

This arguement for a different classification doesn’t take anything away from the book – if anything, it adds to its value. Why pretend to be something you’re not when you’ve crafted a great piece of memoirist writing?

And Vance is quite engaging. Look at this description of his grandparents:

Mamas told Papaw after a particularly violent night of drinking that if he ever came home drunk again, she’d kill him. A week later, he came home drunk again and fell asleep on the couch. Mamaw, never one to tell a lie, calmly retrieved a gasoline canister from the garage, poured it all over her husband, lit a match, and dropped it on his chest. When Papaw burst into flames, their eleven year old daughter jumped into action to put out the fire and save his life. Miraculously Papaw survived the episode with only mild burns.

And take the above of how readable it is throughout – Vance takes us from his “hillbilly” origins in Kentucky, to his lower-middle class upbringing in Ohio, to his success as a Marine and a Yale Law School Graduate. An incredibly admirable rags-to-riches, true blue American Dream story.

I will admit that Vance made me more than slightly uncomfortable in the later pages of the book when he starts prostetilizing. He’s a bit conservative for my taste and I don’t really agree with his whole “the poor need to pull up their own bootstraps” schtick.

Anyone else read this one? It’s been fairly popular in Australia so I’m curious as to its reception in America.

 

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

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Summary from Goodreads:

In this brilliant, heartbreaking book, Matthew Desmond takes us into the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee to tell the story of eight families on the edge. Arleen is a single mother trying to raise her two sons on the $20 a month she has left after paying for their rundown apartment. Scott is a gentle nurse consumed by a heroin addiction. Lamar, a man with no legs and a neighborhood full of boys to look after, tries to work his way out of debt. Vanetta participates in a botched stickup after her hours are cut. All are spending almost everything they have on rent, and all have fallen behind.

Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. But today, most poor renting families are spending more than half of their income on housing, and eviction has become ordinary, especially for single mothers. In vivid, intimate prose, Desmond provides a ground-level view of one of the most urgent issues facing America today. As we see families forced  into shelters, squalid apartments, or more dangerous neighborhoods, we bear witness to the human cost of America’s vast inequality—and to people’s determination and intelligence in the face of hardship.

Sooooooo good. Another winner in my long line of great non-fiction reads this year. I’ve basically recommended this one to everyone I know at this point. I mean it was so good I incurred late fees at my library for it.

Meticulously researched and told with so much heart, Evicted offers the perfect blend of non-fiction techniques: broad facts and statistics that provide significance along with personal stories that provide meaning. I was especially impressed by Desmond’s acknowledgement of his own position of privilege as a white male speaking about primarily black women:

If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out. 

I also really appreciated his epilogue explaining how he went about researching and writing the book – the role he played as both observer and participant in these people’s lives. I would tell you more but the book deserves more attention than my blog so I’ll just exhort you to read it, read it, read it.

Heartbreaking, engrossing, depressingly honest, and highly recommended.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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Summary from Goodreads:

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood – where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor – engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven – but the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

I have to admit, I was a bit wary going into this one – I’ve read quite a few slave narratives (both fiction and non-fiction) in the past six months and, obviously, they can be more than a bit emotionally draining.

That being said, Whitehead’s writing drew me in right away and despite my familiarity with these kinds of narratives it still had the power to shock me with its evocative descriptions of the brutality of the slave trade.

The most interesting aspect of Whitehead’s novel has definitely got to be his imaginative take on the Underground Railroad as he literalizes it. I would’ve loved to see more of the narrative built around this idea. Unfortunately, for both Cora and the hopeful reader, no matter how far north she goes she doesn’t make it any further away from atrocity, prejudice, death or torture. It is hard to imagine anywhere in America where she might be safe or feel at home. Don’t look here for a happy ending.

Whether in the fields or underground or in an attic room, America remained her warden. (pg 172)

Whitehead often includes references to historical events outside of Cora’s experiences such as the Tuskegee Experiments, Nat Turner’s rebellion, and the Freedom Trail. I am encouraged to read more non-fiction about this period of history.

All in all, a very solid read. Although, admittedly, not one that particularly stands out.