Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Messenger

I read The Book Thief two years ago, and really thought it was unique and powerful. So when I saw another book by Markus Zusak at the book shop, I snapped it up. Zusak wrote The Messenger before The Book Thief. It won the 2003 CBC Book of the Year Award (Older Readers) and the 2003 NSW Premier's Literary Award (Ethel Turner Prize), as well as receiving a Printz Honour in America.
   The Messenger probably hasn't been as popular as The Book Thief, because it doesn't have as much international appeal. It's topic does not focus on an international traumatic event on WWII. But, I think Zusak's writing is better in The Messenger - I think it's more subtle and possibly even more touching.

Blurb: Ed Kennedy - cab driving prodigy, pathetic card player, useless at sex - shares coffee with his dog and is in nervous-love with Audrey. His life is one of suburban routine and incompetence, until he inadvertently stops a bank robbery.

That's when the first ace turns up and Ed becomes the messenger. 
Chosen to care, he travels through town, helping and hurting, until only one question remains. Where are the messages coming from?

This is a novel "about glowing lights and small things that are big". It's about a Good Samaritan. It's about very normal Aussies. It's about one particularly normal young man who does some loverly things (small things that mean a lot) for other people. It's very spiritual. There are lots of messages: to be selfless in love, about the meaning and value of aspirations, and about the joy we can experience despite the difficulties we face in day-to-day life. It's a novel that can be hard and confronting, but it's a novel that is very funny and real.
   The narrative voice in this novel is so strong - it's a brilliant, real voice. His language is authentic, blunt, and sounds just like he's talking to us. It doesn't have too much flowery, emotional investigation. It just is.
   Please read it!
   P.S. Another novel for the 2012 Aussie Author Challenge.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Great Expectations

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is the novel that I alluded to in an earlier post that I was struggling with. I found it slow and boring. The language is lovely, and there is some wicked humour and beautiful phrases. However, if Dickens had written this book in this century, an editor would have made it about half as long as it is.

I think part of the reason that I didn't enjoy it is that I didn't like Pip. Usually, if a book is well written, I can put aside my dislike for the character, but I couldn't with this novel. Pip would make me sigh with frustration at his snobbery. I laughed when Trabb's boy was making fun of Pip for pretending not to know anyone and making out that he was too good for the locals where he grew up. But even with Pip narrating from later in life, I still think he has very little insight. Or very little insight into Biddy, who knew him better than he knew himself.
   Because I cannot generate much enthusiasm for this book, I will answer some of Penguin's bookclub questions:

   Why do you think it is one of Magwitch's principle conditions that Pip (his nickname) "always bear the name of Pip" in order to receive his financial support?
   I don't think there was a deep and meaningful reason for this, like some other reviewers. Magwitch was poorly educated and a criminal. Often, criminals go by an alias. Magwitch didn't know Pip's real/full name, so he had to identify Pip by the name he knew, and he wanted Pip to retain the name so that he could find him.

   Why do you think Miss Havisham manipulates and misleads Pip into thinking she is his secret benefactor? 
   She was a wicked, bitter old lady and wanted to inflict emotional turmoil on Pip. By letting him think that she was his benefactor, she kept him tied to her and Estella, whilst he might otherwise have gone off looking at other women. Also, her own family thought that she was Pip's benefactor, and it suited Miss Havisham to have her jealous family (who just wanted her money) to be in equal turmoil to Pip.

   Miss Havisham confesses to Pip that in adopting Estella, she "meant to save her from misery like my own". Do you believe this, given Dickens' harsh characterisation of Miss Havisham throughout the novel?
   I do believe that Miss Havisham honestly thought that to begin with. She was lonely and wanted something to love. She would have been better off getting a pet. She certainly couldn't have adopted a boy. But given Miss Havisham's bitterness, and how beautiful Estella ended up being, the result could not have been any other way.

   When Miss Havisham is set afire, do you believe that, given her state of mind, Dickens intended us to read it as an accident or a kind of penance/attempted suicide on her part for her cruelty to Pip and Estella?
   I certainly read it as a suicide attempt. I don't know if Dickens meant it that way.

   What do you think makes Pip change his opinion of his benefactor Magwitch from one of initial repugnance to one of deep and abiding respect and love?
   Pip's repugnance was born out of his fear (of Magwitch being a murderer) and his sudden loss of his own belief that Estella and he were destined for each other. Once Pip got to know Magwitch and his past, and once Pip accepted his circumstances, his repugnance for Magwitch dissipated. However, I don't think he would have loved and respected Magwitch as much if Magwitch wasn't on the run and in need of help. If Magwitch was going to be a continual burden on Pip and follow him around forcing him to live how it pleased Magwitch, I don't think Pip would have loved him at all.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

I am reading another book at the moment, which I will review when I finish it in the next week or so, but it is so slow and boring that I was looking around for something else to read. I picked up Wild Swans about 15 years ago, but didn't finish it. It was too confronting, I think. This time, I read it in two days. A bit more perspective probably helped me deal with the stark reality of the human rights abuses in China. I can't believe what so many people went through, but their hardships have certainly helped make them the fastest growing nation in the world today.

I read another review, which was a positive review overall, but it started out by saying how depressing this book is. I didn't find it depressing. I found it inspiring. It was certainly eye-opening and educational. The hardships suffered by tens of millions of Chinese had my chest tied up in knots. But I wasn't depressed. I felt strong, and I felt the strength of the author, Jung Change. She is inspirational, as is her mother and grandmother, whom the book is about. In fact, the Chinese people are an inspiration, for what they have endured and survived, and for what their nation has become.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

People of the Book

As part of the challenge to read more Australian novels by female authors, I finally read People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. I have read A Year of Wonders before, and never really knew why everyone raved about Geraldine Brooks. Yes, her writing was fine, but they weren't outstanding. Having read People of the Book, now I know what all the fuss is about. This book is superb!

The historial education in this novel was what most appealed to me. The amount of research that Geraldine Brooks did for this novel is phenomenal. The information about religious history has been presented without an agenda, and has really opened my eyes to many things that I was oblivious of.
   People of the Book has been compared to Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. I think the Da Vinci Code is a pale comparison.
   People of the Book won the Australian Book Industry Award in 2008.
   The main story running through this novel is of a book conservator who is responsible for restoring the Sarajevo Haggadah (which is a real book). The story alternates between Hanna (the conservator) in her investigations, and the (fictional) stories of the book's origin and its various survivals through times of upheaval for Jews in Europe.
   I loved this book - please read it, if you haven't already.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

March Prompt - A Classics Challenge

I read the best book this month, for this prompt! In March, those participating in the Classics Challenge have been asked a number of questions on a setting in their classic read.
   This month I read The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov: here's my review.
   The setting is in the chapter entitled Satan's Rout! It is an amazing palace in which Satan holds his ball.
   The palace is clearly in another dimension from the world we know, or some kind of supernatural powers are at play, because the massive palace is all situated in a tiny fifth floor apartment in Moscow!

   It is speculated that the setting for Satan's ball is modelled off a Spring Festival that was hosted by the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1935, which was held at Spaso House. Wikipedia says that the decorations surpassed imagination, with a forest of young birch trees being brought into the chandelier room, a dining table covered in Finnish tulips, and an avery made from fish netting full of pheasants, parakeets and one hundred zebra finches. There were also animals roaming around, on loan from the Moscow zoo. Mikhail Bulgakov apparently attended this Spring Festival, which gave him the inspiration for Satan's ball.

Like the rest of this bizarre and wonderful book, the Spring Ball that Satan hosts is a feat of imagination. Margarita is the hostess, and she is bathed in a special serum beforehand, which makes her young and beautiful, and she hosts the whole ball naked (but wearing amazing shoes made of rose petals). Margarita enters the palace through a lush jungle. The first room is full of white tulips, and there is a full orchestra. The next room was full of roses and camellias, with fountains of champagne. Another room contained a jazz band made up of chimpanzees, gibbons, mandrils and marmosets. Butterflies fly over the dancing guests. There is a massive pool with a crystal bottom, full of Brandy with people swimming in it. And there is a extremely grand staircase, at the top of which Margarita meets Satan's guests.
   The mood is certainly intoxicating, frivolous, and over-the-top. It is decadent, and demonstrates Satan flaunting his influence over humans who are too easily tempted to be drunk and naked, and romp with the devil!
   This setting is certainly the culmination of the storyline, and Bulgakov lets his imagination go most extravagantly!