Born and educated in China, Ha Jin completed post graduate studies in the US and has made a career of writing about China in English. I read his A MapBorn and educated in China, Ha Jin completed post graduate studies in the US and has made a career of writing about China in English. I read his A Map of Betrayal a while ago, and came to the conclusion that the plentiful awards this writer has won, are more in sympathy with his relentlessly anti-Chinese position than for his skill in writing. I found aspects of A Map of Betrayal unconvincing, and The Boat Rocker similarly flawed.
The occasional awkwardness of Ha Jin’s writing is signalled by the title. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a native speaker of English call someone who ‘rocks the boat’, a ‘boat rocker’. It sounds wrong, IMO, and a misuse of an idiomatic expression, though I’d have to concede that maybe American usage is different. But the author’s style is generally very plain and ordinary, and it’s not IMO salvaged by occasional florid passages describing food or clothes.
But the main problem with this book is its absurd plot.
rather like the British novelist Patrick Gale: I like the way he thinks ‘outside the box’.
The Whole Day Through is, at first glance, about a relationsrather like the British novelist Patrick Gale: I like the way he thinks ‘outside the box’.
The Whole Day Through is, at first glance, about a relationship of missed opportunities and the obstacles imposed by family obligations.
Forty-something Laura isn’t very good at relationships but she’s been reasonably contented living in Paris (and who wouldn’t be, eh?) but she’s had to come back to Winchester to look after her elderly mother after she started having falls. And Ben, an old friend from Oxford with whom she had a very brief relationship, has had to move from London after his mother dies, to take on the care of his adult brother Bobby who has a mild form of Down’s Syndrome.
What complicates things even more for Laura is that her mother is a naturist, that is, she gets about at home without any clothes on. Professor Jellicoe is a former academic, once influential in Ben’s career, and she still has all her marbles. Although she knows that professional care is probably inevitable, she wants to enjoy the freedom to do her own thing as long as possible, and that constrains the choices that Laura has.
… you can’t escape to paradise. The old story is right: paradise is what you lose. It is not where you get to, it is what you might have had. (p.143)
… you can’t escape to paradise. The old story is right: paradise is what you lose. It is not where you get to, it is what you might have had. (p.143)
So says the unnamed narrator of this intriguing new book from one of my favourite authors, Adrian Mitchell. And she should know, because she and her irascible husband lived alone for decades on Dunk Island at the turn of the twentieth century while he wrote his Confessions of a Beachcomber (1908).
Well, not quite. I have misled you. I blame the author because he has done such a convincing job of creating the unheard voice of Edmund James Banfield’s wife, Bertha Golding.
The real Edmund Banfield did exist, he was originally a newspaperman and you can read about him at Wikipedia. And he did decamp to Dunk Island after he was diagnosed with TB and a nervous breakdown. He leased the then ‘uninhabited’ island for 30 years, had a plantation there and made a living by writing newspaper columns. Of course Dunk Island was not uninhabited, it was the home of the Bandjin and Djiru people, and indeed the WP entry for Dunk Island tells me that Banfield’s writing described the customs and legends of the people who lived there. The curious thing, as Adrian Mitchell discovered, is that Banfield in his writings said almost nothing about his wife and sole companion on the island.
The now not-so-humble almond is very fashionable at the moment: almond milk is the latest fad (though it’s not a fad for genuine lactose-intolerant foThe now not-so-humble almond is very fashionable at the moment: almond milk is the latest fad (though it’s not a fad for genuine lactose-intolerant folk) and the gluten-free crowd (who include genuine sufferers of coeliac disease) use almond meal as a substitute for flour, so I have no doubt that Willunga Almonds, Stories and Recipes will be a very popular title indeed.
But for those of us who’ve just always liked almonds, this is a lovely book beyond fads, fashions and life-saving specialty diets. It tells the story of Willunga in South Australia as an almond growing district, reminding us that there are different varieties of almonds although they are rarely named when we buy them in the supermarket. And as author Helen Bennetts tells us, they have a proud history in myth, symbolism and folklore:
Greek mythology tells of the Thracian princess Phyllis, who fell in love with Demophon. He had to leave her to fight in the Trojan wars. When Troy fell, Phyllis returned time and again to the seashore awaiting Demophon’s return until she finally died of a broken heart. In sympathy, Athene, the goddess of wisdom, transformed Phyllis into an almond tree. When Demophon, who had been delayed at sea, returned to find Phyllis changed into a leafless tree he embraced the tree and it burst into bloom. (p.14)
That is indeed what almond trees do. They are a beautiful harbinger of spring, and they celebrate blossom season in Willunga with an Almond Blossom Festival each year.
The Mapmaker’s Children has been good company on my daily drive to my father’s aged care residence, and I was sorry to come to the end of it.
StructureThe Mapmaker’s Children has been good company on my daily drive to my father’s aged care residence, and I was sorry to come to the end of it.
Structured in two alternating time frames, the narrative tells the story of Sarah Brown, the daughter of legendary abolitionist John Brown who worked on the Underground Railroad used by slaves fleeing to the north. Sarah reluctantly chooses to forego marriage because she can’t have children and instead forges an activist role for herself, covertly making maps for illiterate slaves to follow a network of safe houses to eventual freedom.
Over 150 years later, Eden Anderson struggles to bring meaning to her life when infertility derails her assumptions about what her life will be. But when she finds an old porcelain doll in the cellar of the house she has moved to, she discovers a past of secret messages that links the history of her house with the Underground Railroad.
I didn't finish this. I set it aside to read something else, and couldn't muster the enthusiasm to return to it. It's not the fractured narrative, it'I didn't finish this. I set it aside to read something else, and couldn't muster the enthusiasm to return to it. It's not the fractured narrative, it's the sense that there's 519 pages of nothing really happening. I don't need a plot, I don't need characters to like, but I do need something to think about. ...more
For most of this new novel from Zadie Smith, I really liked it and considered it the best of her work that I’ve read (NW, and On Beauty, with White TeFor most of this new novel from Zadie Smith, I really liked it and considered it the best of her work that I’ve read (NW, and On Beauty, with White Teeth on my TBR). It was only towards the end of Swing Time when the narrator is floundering around in a morass of self-abnegation that I lost confidence in what the author was doing. But that was not enough to make me dislike the book: it really is very good reading.
The main body of the novel is the coming-of-age of two ‘brown’ girls growing up in London’s Kilburn, formerly an Irish enclave and now a multicultural melting pot. Their girls’ future prospects seem preordained by their lowly social and economic status, but they share a passionate interest in dance and spend long hours watching old Hollywood musicals and perfecting the moves they become so adept at analysing. They both attend Miss Isabel’s Dance School but only Tracey has real talent… the un-named narrator doesn’t quite have it. Just as in Swing music, where the emphasis is on the off–beat or weaker pulse in the music, the narrator sees herself always as the weaker part of any relationships that she has. Despite her mother’s passionate efforts to ensure that her daughter transcends expectations, she always just misses the beat: she wears the wrong clothes to a ‘white’ birthday party, and the university she eventually goes to is second-tier. And although she ends up in a glamour job with an international celebrity (who seems to be based on Madonna) while Tracey never gets beyond the chorus line, this narrator is always on the fringes, trailing along behind the others who seem to be in control of their destiny as she is not.
Zadie Smith is intensely conscious of race, exposing all kinds of ways in which it impacts on life, but Swing Time isn’t focussed on identity politics. It’s more about class and ambition and how choices that more fortunate people take for granted don’t seem to be available for these characters.
Synchronicity! On Tuesday as I read more of Australian Women War Reporters, Boer War to Vietnam by Jeannine Baker – a fascinating book I discovered frSynchronicity! On Tuesday as I read more of Australian Women War Reporters, Boer War to Vietnam by Jeannine Baker – a fascinating book I discovered from Carolyn Holbrook’s review at Inside Story – I came across the name of Louise Mack, in the chapter called ‘War from a Woman’s Angle’. The women featured in this chapter include Agnes Macready and Edith Dickenson who reported on the Boer War; Katharine Susannah Prichard whose subsequent writing was apparently very much influenced by having witnessed the wreckage of war near the front in WW1, and Janet Mitchell who reported on the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931-32. All these women have interesting stories, but it was Louise Mack who grabbed my attention because she was so unconventional…
Then, to my surprise, the name of Louise Mack cropped up again in Sue’s Monday Musings at Whispering Gums! As Sue says, Louise Mack is hardly a household name so this is synchronicity indeed. Well, like many bloggers Sue is tackling her TBR, and her first book of 2017 is a novel by this same Louise Mack (1870-1935). Sue’s introduction to this enterprising woman is full of all sorts of interesting snippets, but Jeannine Baker’s profile is a bit different because her focus is on the experiences of Australian women war reporters during World War II. Baker’s PhD – which won the Dennis-Wettenhall Prize for the best Australian history postgraduate thesis at the University of Melbourne – is the subject of her book, and so it is Mack’s experience reporting on WW1 which is the focus of her attention.
Baker’s account begins in an interesting way:
The first published memoir or war corresponding by an Australian woman journalist was the purportedly eyewitness account of the German invasion of Belgium and the fall of Antwerp in 1914 by Louise Mack, an unconventional and adventurous writer and poet. (p.25)
The Explosion Chronicles is the fourth novel I’ve read by award-winning Chinese author Yan Lianke, and once again it is a surprise that he is able toThe Explosion Chronicles is the fourth novel I’ve read by award-winning Chinese author Yan Lianke, and once again it is a surprise that he is able to pen a fiercely political satire like this despite the Chinese censor.
That’s not to say that the book arrives unscathed: I have my doubts about the allusions to Chinese military expansion in the South China Sea. It seems to me that these allusions need more than is there on the page. Nevertheless, this satire about the Chinese economic miracle is a powerful denunciation of the human cost of economic development at any cost, and it seems angrier than the other Lianke novels I’ve read. Lianke’s humour has always been dark, but in this novel there’s not much humour at all.
As the title suggests, the novel uses the form of an ancient Chinese chronicle. In an excellent introduction, the translator Carlos Rojas explains that the predecessors of this chronicle go back to Sima Qian’s 1st century BCE ‘Records of the Historian’ which is a resentful lamentation on the rule of the Yellow Emperor. Sima Qian had been castrated for offending this emperor, so he had good reason to feel resentful and apparently he lists his personal setbacks alongside the achievements of his era. This chronicle became the model for 24 dynastic histories, each commissioned by the Imperial Court to chronicle the preceding dynasty.
Another historical genre as a source for Chinese history is the local gazetteer. These were regional histories comprising narratives, biographies and anecdotes, and Lianke binds these together in his Explosion Chronicles, along with Prefatory Material purporting to be the chronicler Yan Lianke’s Preface about his reasons for writing the chronicle and his negotiations with the character commissioning it; an end-of-book Postface purporting to be by the chronicler Yan Lianke justifying his chronicle to the outraged character who commissioned it, and an author’s note in which Lianke uses the term mythorealism to describe how literature can be used to expose the absurdity that lies at the heart of the new China. The Great Leap Forward, he says, was based on absurd decrees that people could actually reach targets like making steel or growing vast crops when they manifestly did not have the wherewithal to do it, but the Higher-ups persisted anyway. China’s growth, he says, is based on China trying to achieve in decades what Europe and the US have achieved in centuries.
This plays out in the novel in the development of the mythical village of Explosion from a village to a town, to a county and then a city, and finally a megalopolis, all over the lifetime of four brothers. This chronicle covers thousands of years, but it scampers over earlier periods, focussing squarely on the era after Mao’s death when the Opening Up and Reform movement began. Where Mao’s Collectivisation had upset the order of things by collapsing the power of agricultural landlords over peasants, the emergence of capitalism brings the rival clans of the Kong and Zhu families together when entrepreneurial initiative is unleashed.
I seem to have read a few books lately about what constitutes a good death: what a morbid topic for Christmas Day, eh? Alas, Margaret Drabble’s new noI seem to have read a few books lately about what constitutes a good death: what a morbid topic for Christmas Day, eh? Alas, Margaret Drabble’s new novel The Dark Flood Rises is due back at the library tomorrow and if I don’t write the review this morning before the frivolity starts, my thoughts will be lost in a haze of champagne bubbles…
So, succinct is the order of the day. The Dark Flood Rises is the ruminations of an assortment of ageing characters, notably 70-something Francesca (Fran) Stubbs, widowed by her second marriage and providing meals-on-wheels to her ex-husband Claude. Through the third person narration we meet a host of characters and memories from her past, and see her preoccupation with death exacerbated by her work as a sort of consultant to the aged-care industry, inspecting their accommodation options and assessing the acceptability of the lifestyle they offer.
More interesting to me were the musings of Ivor, gay companion and helpmeet to Bennett who is a good bit older (and wealthier) than Ivor. It was nice that Drabble avoided the cliché of lover-with-an-eye-on-the-main-chance. Ivor is a thoroughly nice man, and obsessively honest with Bennett’s money, which he manages, as he manages everything else.