Tag Archives: Australia

Sunday Ramblings: Do I need a focus?

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I have arrived at a point again where I am trying to read too many books at the same time. And it causes stress. Every time I sit down I wonder which one I should get into. I worry about reading rates and when I will manage to finish another book so I can blog about (as if anybody cares about that really). Several people read my blog but I am sure no one waits impatiently for the next post.

Whenever this happens, I have to give myself a good kick in the butt and remind myself why I read. Because (1) I love getting into a good story, (2) it’s a way to learn something, (3) it’s a great escape from my day-to-day work life, (4) it’s an exposure to another world, another mind, another way to use language. And in that context, there should be no concern about speed of execution; it should be all about enjoying those moments.

As displayed at the moment on the blog: I am reading Pérez-Reverte’s El tango de la guardia vieja, a good story with some mystery to it. It has what I could describe as a “X” shape construction. It tells a story about two people, a man and a woman, describing in parallel for a while the past life and present predicament of that man. It eventually dips into the past of the woman as well, after they meet again in the present time and start revisiting old times together. So you have the four segments of the “X”, man-woman-present-past, eventually meeting in the middle, where presumably all makes sense (I still have to get to that point) and we can progress to the future, if a (common) future is possible. Nothing is so certain… Both protagonists are rascals of a sort, one with money and one without (I will let you guess which is which), which obviously provides them with different resources and choices in life.

So I am about one third of the way through this fairy large novel, which I suspect is about a 15-hour read. I have also gotten about 20% into the 7-hour long Us Conductors by Sean Michaels, the 2014 winner of the Giller Prize. I have read some of the short list and at least one long listed book, so here we are with the winner. So far, I failed to be entranced by the book and its protagonist, a somewhat self-centered Russian scientist who invented the theremin, this electronic musical instrument that is used for the other-worldly Star Trek theme. This one is on my Kobo, so I have mostly been reading it in public transportation.

It’s been a slow start on Guillaume et Nathalie.

The event of the week is that the new book of poetry by Rafael Courtoisie (Parranda) that I ordered through the Libreria de las Americas in Montreal has finally arrived after a four-month wait. I had called for an update about 2 weeks ago and they told me it was arriving that week, but they did not call me back until Wednesday of this week to tell I would pick up. A big order to unpack perhaps? It is a tiny bookstore with a small staff and not very long opening hours. I dropped by yesterday to get my book, and bought a couple more since I was there (one has to encourage small niche businesses, right?).

Now, look as I may, I cannot find a publication date on Parranda. The front does say that is the winner of the 14th Premio Casa de América de Poesía Americana, but the copyright page does not explicitly say it was published in 2014, save for the legal deposit number including the number 2014. That is not the way it is usually done with other books, so I was puzzled.

So Parranda won a poetry prize for poets from the Americas which is handed out at the Case de América in Madrid. It is published in Spain by what seems to be a fairly small publisher and one whose books are difficult to order in Canada. Rafael Courtoisie is an Uruguayan writer who was recently named to the Academy of Letters of his country and has had so far an interesting career both a writer and teacher, and more to come I hope. I have had an interesting time exploring his work so far and I am in the process of formulating a study course on Uruguayan literature (which I hope will be a good preparation for a vacation in Uruguay in 2-3 years from now).

The other course of study I am pursuing is the short Coursera offering on Australian literature, a six-week exploration of Australian literature fundamentals with a professor from the University of Western Australia. So far pretty interesting, although I have already fallen being and am trying to catch up. The first week was about varying perceptions of land and space from current and early writers, as well as from aboriginal culture. The second week focuses on the original of Australia as a penal colony and how this theme as been used in literature. The main part of the course are the video lectures and little actual reading (short extracts only) which makes it a good introduction but certainly invites one to more in depth reading. In terms of workload, it is much less daunting than the 2 previous lit courses I did on Coursera which required reading a full-size novel each week (or the equivalent in smaller works).

So, my head is all over the place… Oh well, back to reading (and cooking and housework, as it is Sunday and there are other demands on my time as well).

And here we go for the humorous link:

Sheldon (The Big Bang Theory) playing the Star Trek theme on the theremin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_YYABE0R3uA

Tim Winton, Eyrie

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I discovered this author last year after an Australian colleague recommended Cloudstreet. While Cloudstreet was fantastic both for its writing and insight into Australian life, I like this second foray into Tim Winton’s work a lot less. The writing is good, and he tells a compelling story about people who have encountered difficulties in life and are trying to cope (loss of job, health issues, marriage breakup, imprisonment of a child, dealing with that child’s offspring). Unfortunately, he touches on one of my pet peeves, the drug culture and drug-related violence, which I would much rather not hear about, even though it is very much part of real life for some people.

So I do like the writing, it is fresh and vibrant, full of regional expressions. I bought this book from Google and read it on my Android device. It was a good thing that the downloadable dictionary had a lot of Australian words, much better in that respect than my Kobo on which I read Cloudstreet.

Whereas Cloudstreet was set in the more distant 20th century, Eyrie takes place in the present time, with cell phones and texting featured as significant modes of communication. It is also set in the current business environment, where the dominant business in Western Australia is mining by powerful, giant companies. Tom Keely, the main character, is an environmental activist that lost his job after some scandal (maybe libel). In a moment of discouragement he thinks that maybe he could go work for one of the mining companies headquartered in Perth, handling public relations, but on second thought he tells himself that he could not live with that.

Tom runs into Gemma, who was a neighbor that his parents had taken in when her family was experiencing problems, and now lives on the same flour as him in a large appartment building in Fremantle. They have not seen each other since they were children. Gemma lives with her grandson Kai, because her daughter is in jail. She is threatened by her daughter’s companion, Stewie, a small time drug dealer, who wants money from her. Tom tries to help her, even taking her to his mother’s house for shelter. The conversations between Tom and his mother, as well as his memories of both his parents and his childhood neighborhood bring to light the complexity of their relationship, and the complicated consequences that being kind to others can have.

Thoughout this stressful time, Gemma refuses to call the police. Things to come to a head when Stewie sends one of his associates to attack Tom.

References

Winton, Tim. Eyrie. Harper Collins: Sydney, Australia, 2013.

Other things:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/30/eyrie-by-tim-winton-review-tower-block-blues

http://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2013/october/1380549600/peter-conrad/tim-winton-s-eyrie-and-richard-flanagan-s-narrow-road-dee

http://www.sydneyreviewofbooks.com/the-quality-of-mercy/

http://www.abc.net.au/tv/firsttuesday/s3866109.htm

Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North

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According to Wikipedia, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a major work of the Japanese poet Basho, who is well known for writing haiku, but this work is called haibun, a work of prose that also includes some haiku. The Wikipedia article states that the introductory sentences are the most quoted and offers this translation:

 The months and days are the travellers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers. Those who float away their lives on ships or who grow old leading horses are forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them. Many of the men of old died on the road, and I too for years past have been stirred by the sight of a solitary cloud drifting with the wind to ceaseless thoughts of roaming.

    Last year I spent wandering along the seacoast. In autumn I returned to my cottage on the river and swept away the cobwebs. Gradually the year drew to its close. When spring came and there was mist in the air, I thought of crossing the Barrier of Shirakawa into Oku. I seemed to be possessed by the spirits of wanderlust, and they all but deprived me of my senses. The guardian spirits of the road beckoned, and I could not settle down to work.

 There are several ways in which this is significant in relation to the novel by Richard Flanagan, not least of which is his borrowing of the title. The book is a telling of many journeys, some in freedom, others under duress, lasting months and days… When I see the word “float” I think of Flanagan’s main character Dorrigo Evans, who feels like he is floating through most of his life, some kind of impostor in a world that thinks of him as someone of importance, maybe even a hero. His thoughts and memories are often of those he has encountered who have died, often in terrible circumstances and suffering. He has no home… the only home he knows is that of the mind that he carries with himself, but his earthly anchors always seem to him somewhat contrived. The metaphor of the snail seems appropriate here.

He was alone in his marriage, he was alone with his children, he was alone in the operating theatre, he was alone on the numerous medical, sporting, charity and veterans’ bodies on which he sat, he was alone when addressing a meeting of a thousand POWs. There was around him an exhausted emptiness, an impenetrable void cloaked this most famously collegial man, as if he already lived in another place–forever unravelling and refurling a limitless dream or an unceasing nightmare, in was hard to know–from which he would never escape. He was a lighthouse whose light could not be relit.

Depression? Post-traumatic stress disorder? Nobody could survive the hardship of war camps and forced labor without some serious impact.

Through the decades following the war he felt is spirit sleeping, and though he tried hard to rouse it with the shocks and dangers of consecutive and sometimes concurrent adulteries, outbursts, and acts of pointless compassion and reckless surgery it did no good. It slumbered on. He admired reality, as a doctor, he preached it and tried to practise it. In truth, he doubted its existence. To have been part of a Pharaonic slave system that had as is apex a divine sun king led him to understand unreality as the greatest force in life. And his life was now, he felt, one monumental unreality, in which everything that did not matter–professional ambitions, the private pursuit of status, the colour of wallpaper, the size of an office or the matter of a dedicated car parking space–was vested with the greatest significance, and everything that did matter –pleasure, joy, friendship, love–was deemed somehow peripheral. It made for dullness mostly and weirdness generally.

Dorrigo Evans is an Australian surgeon and army officer who was taken prisoner by the Japanese and interned in a POW camp in Thailand, where the POWs were made to work on the construction of the Thailand-Burma railway during World War II. Evans runs the camp “hospital” and attempts to treat increasingly sick and weak soldiers with limited means, frequently negotiating with Japanese officers to reduce the punish amount and difficulty of the work for his fellow prisoners who are barely nourished and live in horrendous conditions. After his liberation, he finds it hard to return to civilian life in Australia and consequently delays his return by continuing work for the military. When he does return, his fiancée expects him to slip back into his old life… which he seems to do outwardly, but as the quotes above demonstrate, feel an increasingly large splitting off between his private and public selves, leading to a pervasive sense of disconnection to the world that surrounds him.

This book is full of contrasts and the most striking of those is between the harshness of the treatment that Japanese officers impose on prisoners and the achingly beautiful poetry they like so much. This is a very rich book given its exploration of human experience in such extreme circumstances. I think it is highly deserving of the Man Booker Prize. For me, it was also an occasion to discover an aspect of World War II that I knew very little about, given that my knowledge of this period mostly comes from the depictions of the war through French literature.

As I finished this book on the metro on the way home, and I had some more time available to read, I open another book on my Kobo, Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, and lo and behold I found myself back in World War II France…

References

Flanagan, Richard. The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oku_no_Hosomichi

Other things:

Sue at Whispering Gums wrote a great review: http://whisperinggums.com/2014/10/05/richard-flanagan-the-narrow-road-to-the-deep-north-review/

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/10940118/The-Narrow-Road-to-the-Deep-North-by-Richard-Flanagan-review-graceful-and-unfathomable.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/review-the-narrow-road-in-the-deep-north-by-richard-flanagan/2014/08/19/0baeb134-232a-11e4-8593-da634b334390_story.html

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2013/11/09/books/book-reviews/the-narrow-road-to-the-deep-north/#.VJJNGSvF-8I

Tim Winton, Cloudstreet

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A classic of Australian literature, Cloudstreet tells the story of two families full of individuals with a very wide array of wondrous personalities who share a huge house in Perth over a 20 years period.

The first family we meet are the Pickles, who inherit the great big house upon the death of a relative who was sheltering them after the father lost the fingers of one hand in a work accident. They move from Geraldton to Perth to take possession. They must keep the house for at least 20 years without selling it. Sam, the father, is an inveterate gambler with bad luck, and while having a house is nice, the family still has no money to live on. To alleviate this problem, they decide to rent out part of the house.

So, the Lamb family moves in after abandoning their beach-side property after the near drowning of the favorite son, who emerges from the ordeal brain-damaged. They are very industrious, especially Oriel, the mother. She decides to open a general store in the front room and thanks to her dedication the family does well although they never become rich.

In spite of sharing this house, the two families never become close and are often quite at odds with each other and seem to love criticizing each other.

What is striking in this book is the depiction of family relationship. There seems to be a strong sense of loyalty to family, but little tenderness between family members. Both fathers are weak characters. In the case of Sam Pickles, gambling is the weakness. Lester Lamb, on the other hand, maybe a bit lazy but relies on his strong principles and religious background to guide his actions. He does tend to be indecisive to his wife’s great frustration.

In the end, the Pickles daughter marries one of the Lamb boys. They mean to move away to assert their independence but miss their respective families so much (as well as the great big house they both claim to despise so much) that they move back there, to new grand-parents great delight (they did miss having a “nipper” around).

You’ll need to find a good list of common Australian colloquial expressions to decipher some of the dialogue, but the authenticity of it is one of the great charms of this book.

Many thanks to my colleague Rebecca in Brisbane for recommending this book! Loved it!

A lot of clips from the TV series based on this book seem to be available on You Tube.

Monday Night Ramblings: Sometimes, trying to hard to read a lot gets me nowhere

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In spite of the constant exhaustion of the past few months, I manage to get quite a bit of reading done, but it seems I have a lot less patience for obscure prose, colloquial language from other places, and textbook materials.

The book I read the most from this weekend is a 1991 Australian novel by Tim Winton, called Cloudstreet, that was recommended by an Australian colleague as a good place to start to sample Australian literature. So far, it’s a really fun read, basically the intertwined histories of two families living in Perth, with their ups and downs, small successes and tragedies, set mostly in post-war years. By post-war, I mean post-Second-World-War, as there may be others… I think that the Australian words and expression I don’t know don’t get in the way of enjoying the story. Honestly, if Kobo dictionaries don’t find the word, I look no further and keep reading. The story does move along at a good clip.

I am also started reading Cultural Amnesia, a series of essays on a variety of cultural figures, by Clive James, an Australian writer living in England. His comments are organized alphabetically and so far I am on “A”. Gotta keep reading.

And even though I still love Per Olov Enquist, I find myself struggling through Hess, so far the most difficult and obscure book I have read from this author. I regularly get lost in the story, lose track of who is talking, of whether the narrator is telling the story or just commenting on the research process to write the story. Seriously, I love PO, I just don’t love this book.

And I have a pile of human resources textbook to get through my professional credential in HR: general human resources, talent acquisition, labour relations, remuneration, health and safety. And I have little patience for reading textbooks these days. Once the workday is done, there is not much time available before I have to work on the 8-9 hours of sleep I need everyday.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Winton

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clive_James

http://www.lexpress.fr/culture/livre/comment-l-ecriture-a-sauve-per-olov-enquist_853619.html

http://www.swedishbookreview.com/article-2004-s-smith.asp