Books

17 January 2017

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, USA, 1892


I found this short story especially interesting. As an early piece of feminist writing, it looks at attitudes towards women, both generally and from the point of view of mental health. A woman who stridently presented legitimate views could easily be called hysterical, while a woman who was demure and silent – on the verge of being in some kind of vegetative state – was considered normal.

A depressive, Perkins Gilman spent a lot of time being treated by doctors and psychiatrists, and as a result she would doubtlessly have been well acquainted with the subject about which she was writing.

 Photo of Charlotte Perkins Gilman from Poetry Foundation
 
The story tells of a woman, the ‘I’ in the story, who has been brought to a house in the country by her physician husband. As the story unfolds it becomes evident that the woman is possibly suffering from post-natal depression, but nothing is stated outright. The husband is certain that the only way for his wife to be cured is by rest, with no distractions of any kind. She is not allowed to leave the house, read or write. In fact, she is not permitted to do anything. Under no circumstances is she to experience any kind of mental or sensory stimulation.  

In desperation the woman turns her attention to the yellow wallpaper in the room where she has been placed, and bit by bit she conjures up a completely new world, which is often quite terrifying. Gradually any line between what is reality and what is merely in her imagination becomes completely erased. Whether the woman finally sinks completely into a state of madness or whether she finally conquers her husband is something that only the reader can decide.
Illustration of the yellow wallpaper from Kozah
 
As a writer, Perkins Gilman was aware that writing was one way in which she could break free of men’s stifling expectations, but she also knew that many men were frightened of what this could lead to – they preferred women to do womanly things that did not in any way threaten or compete with men.

In The Yellow Wallpaper, Perkins Gilmore cleverly balances the wife’s learned submissiveness (her husband was so kind; he was only trying to help her) with the wife’s awareness of her own pressing needs. She knew only too well that the ‘rest cure’ did more harm than good.

A valuable piece of feminist writing, which is not outdated, not even after more than one hundred years.

03 January 2017

The Shiralee by D'Arcy Niland, Australia, 1955




I loved this book. Telling the story of a father, Macauley, traipsing around the outback of north-west NSW in the 1950s with his four-year-old daughter, Buster, in tow, The Shiralee (an Aboriginal word meaning burden) not only gives an unsentimental picture of the relationship between a father and daughter but also a wonderful insight into the outback itself and the people who inhabit it.

Macauley has fled not only the city but also his wife after he found her in bed with another man. Now in the far corner of the state, walking from place to place in search of odd jobs, occasionally picking up a lift and all the time camping rough, he swings between mild irritation at having to take care of Buster, and a very possessive and deep love of the child - a love which he is not always able to articulate.

Though written in the vernacular, it is in no way forced or artificial but manages to beautifully capture a period of Australia's past that possibly no longer exists. The many characters Macauley meets are nuanced and realistic, blending well with observant descriptions of the Australian outback. Definitely a book worth reading. 
 
In 1957, the book was made into a successful film with Peter Finch in the lead role.



Photo of D'Arcy Niland from www.darcy-niland.com.au
Photo from the film from  www.dailytelegraph.com.au

20 December 2016

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, Australia, 2013


This would have to be one of the best (if not the best) book I have read this year. The writing is, as with all Flanagan’s books, superb. Although the main part of the book deals with Australian prisoners of war and the building of the Burmese railway (and is, consequently, extremely confronting), it does not merely dwell on the atrocities of war, but gives a balanced two-sided view as to why such things may have happened. It makes no excuses, but it does
give explanations.

The book follows the life of Dorrigo Evans from his beginning in Tasmania, through a career in medicine punctuated by several years of military service, to his end on the mainland of Australia. Woven into his life is his love for Amy (his uncle’s young wife), and his less-than-satisfactory marriage with Ella.

This is a book that stays with you long after the last paragraph has been read and the book closed. There are definitely many images that refuse to go away, but there are also thoughts and perspectives that smuggle their way into your subconscious and, hopefully, shed some light on all the bigger questions: why are we here? What is life? What is death? What is love?

Days and months are travellers of eternity. So too the years that pass by. (From Basho’s travel journal The Narrow Road to the Deep North).

The edition I read (by Vintage) has 467 pages, so it is definitely not a one-evening read (and, even if it were possible, I do not think that most people would be able to absorb so much in such a short space of time). Apart from the fact that it was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2014, it is definitely a book I would recommend.

The photo of Flanagan receiving the Man Booker Award is from the ABC. 

06 December 2016

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, USA, 2015


Like all of the books I have read by Anne Tyler, this is a book about ordinary people and the ordinary things that happen to them. There is no suspense or intrigue beyond the suspense and intrigue that exists in the ordinary, everyday situation. And yet, in spite of the book’s ordinariness (or perhaps because of it) the reader is held captive, becoming part of the family described on the pages, wanting to know more.


A Spool of Blue Thread tells the story of Red and Abby Whitshank and their four children. Part of the story is told in the present tense, part is told as flashbacks to when Red and Abby were younger versions of themselves. Everything that happens in the book is completely possible, and it is this factor that grabs the reader’s attention. Situations and problems are all recognizable, and as a result it is easy for the reader to become part of what is going on.

The book, like all Anne Tyler’s books, is well written. The only criticism I would make is that it may be just a little too long. My interest was definitely retained until the three-quarter mark when, like the spool of thread it is describing, the book seemed to unwind. The remaining quarter was still worth reading, but there was a feeling of having already passed the finishing post. 
 

Photo of Anne Tyler from www.telegraph.co.uk

15 November 2016

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, UK, first published 1937


This is a wonderful story about Bilbo Baggins and his adventures. Although a story for children – the preface tells us that Tolkien related the story for his children – it has an appeal that goes far beyond the limitations of age. With a primal theme of good conquering evil and the added nuances of the oral tale, it holds the reader's attention from the beginning to the very end. It is both well written and intelligently written (which probably accounts for its universal popularity), and words like Warg and Beorn are not just words pulled out of a hat but all of them have a definite and interesting etymology.



I first read The Hobbit more than forty years ago, and it was, therefore, exciting to reread it. Although I could remember the gist of the story, I had forgotten specific details. I remember loving it when I first read it, and I definitely loved it on this my second reading.

Bilbo Baggins is a simple, ordinary, down-to-earth character (I suppose anyone living under the ground would have to be down-to-earth). He is the hero of the tale, but at all times the reader is very aware of his ordinariness. In his interactions with dwarves, goblins, trolls, elves, eagles, a bear, a dragon and even a wizard, Bilbo always remains Bilbo, torn between the practicality of the home-staying Bagginses and the adventure-loving Tooks. Images of his armchair and his kettle are never very far from his mind.

Photo from the film in.ign.com
 
Whether Tolkien meant this story to be some kind of statement on our society, or whether it simply evolved as he related it to his children is difficult to say. However, it goes without saying that much of Tolkien's wisdom would have found itself into the story, either consciously or subconsciously. A great read and a must for anyone considering embarking on The Lord of the Rings by the same author.
The book has been made into a total of three (3!) films. 


01 November 2016

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, Japan, 2003


Like all of Murakami’s books (at least all of those I have read to date), Kafka on the Shore does not disappoint. It takes a mixture of ideas and unbelievable situations, blending them together into a novel that may not always seem completely rational but which always pushes the limits of our thinking powers. There are so many possibilities, and nothing is set in stone. It is like a modern-day fairy story.

Photo of Murakami from www.allquotes.info

The ‘I’ of the book is fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura (Kafka is not his real name), and when we first meet him, he is preparing to run away from home to escape from his cruel father. He also has a vague hope of finding his mother and sister. In parallel chapters we are introduced to Nakata, who is, as he likes to tell everyone, not very smart, but who has the gift of being able to talk to and understand cats. As the story unfolds, Kafka meets Oshima and Miss Saeki, who both work at a small private library. Bit by bit we learn of Miss Saeki’s past, and connections, both real and unreal, begin to appear. In the parallel story, Nakata is on a mission to find something (though he does not know what it is), and he teams up with a truck driver, Hoshino.

The stories parallel each other at the same time as they are completely intertwined. As in all fairy stories, all the characters experience personal change as a result of the situations with which they are confronted. At the end, we are left a little wiser, possibly a little confused but, without a doubt, richer for having made the journey.

18 October 2016

The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester, UK, 1998


This book about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary is amazing, and contrary to what most would expect it reads like a thriller.

Although the Dictionary is of necessity at the centre of the novel, it shares that position with Dr William Chester Minor, who in spite of his unbelievably tragic life was a leading contributor to the Dictionary. Once it was decided that there was a need for a dictionary, comprising all words in the English language (Samuel Johnson's dictionary only included words he liked), quotes (using the words) and definitions (explaining the words) needed to be collected, and the population at large was asked to contribute.



Photo of Simon Winchester from  www.festival.co.nz

The other person of significance is Dr James Murray, who is now considered one of the 'towering figures in British scholarship' (p. 30 Penguin edition from 1999). As the first editor of the Dictionary, he gave almost his entire working life to the project and, in doing so, became inextricably involved with W C Minor. With an unbelievable thirst for knowledge, he taught himself several languages and read all that was available on subjects such as geography, science, archaeology, history and, of course, philology. He had a formidable mind, which came to be the force behind the Big Dictionary as it was called.

The American Civil War, the Irish question, murder, lunatic asylums and the wonder of words are all part of this wonderful, informative and entertaining novel. I warmly recommend it.

 Photo of Broadmoor Asylum from www.foliosociety.com