I read a fair bit of this book but in the end I put it aside. It is depressing to read of such optimism for the future, such hope that things will beI read a fair bit of this book but in the end I put it aside. It is depressing to read of such optimism for the future, such hope that things will be better and such pride in the people's achievement in bringing down a corrupt regime, when now what we see is nothing but chaos in the Middle East. ...more
Last weekend at the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival, I went to a session featuring debut authors, and became interested in this novel The Ties ThatLast weekend at the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival, I went to a session featuring debut authors, and became interested in this novel The Ties That Bind because of its subject matter. The chair, Nadine Davidoff, made the point that it traverses a number of themes with ideas bustling for attention but in a really good way. Davidoff is an editor who teaches at the University of Melbourne, and she’s been a commissioning editor at Random House and Black Inc., so she knows what she’s talking about. I think that book groups would enjoy discussing this title, and I also think that it would make an absorbing film.
The author, Lexi Landsman said that the book had its genesis in her own experiences. She had a colleague, she said, who was adopted but had no interest in meeting her sudden siblings. She had visited the Cumberland Resort in Marysville not long before the town was destroyed by bushfire, and had struggled to come to terms with how the landscape could be there one day, and then not. She also knew someone who had needed stem cell therapy and through the real life synchronicity of finding an American donor, had seen how the chance of finding someone on the other side of the world could change a life. And because she had been writing since she was a child, she found herself writing about these things and one day realised that she was writing a novel…
I am not often flummoxed by a book, but Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan’s Radish tested my ability to interpret a writer’s purpose. It seems to be an allegoI am not often flummoxed by a book, but Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan’s Radish tested my ability to interpret a writer’s purpose. It seems to be an allegory for China’s Great Leap Forward but this was not something that sprang immediately to mind while I was reading it. Reading it, I was simply overwhelmed by the suffering of the central character, a little boy called Hei-hai, and puzzled by the behaviour of the characters in general.
Radish is one of a series of Penguin Specials, marketed as short books designed to ‘fill a gap’, and designed to be read in a single sitting. Suitable for the commute, the lunch break, or between dinner and bedtime, they say. Radish is only 86 pages long and the prose is simple and easy to read. But it manages to convey striking ideas, where the reader has enough knowledge of the subtext to recognise them. Like all writers in China, Mo Yan is writing under the constraints of heavy-handed censorship and so there are allusions to events and perhaps to people that are not immediately obvious. The reader has to be in the know, and I think it’s a safe bet to say that most westerners don’t know much about Chinese history. It’s possible that young people in China also aren’t much in the know, if their ignorance of their own history is as widespread as Linda Jaivin suggested in The Empress Lover.
Here’s an example of allusions that are not immediately obvious. These are the opening lines:
An autumn morning, the air hung humid, a layer of transparent dewdrops clung to blades of grass and roof tiles. Leaves on the scholar tree had begun to turn yellow; a rusty iron bell hanging from a branch was also dew laden. The production team leader, a padded jacket draped over his shoulders, ambled towards the bell, carrying a sorghum flatbread in one hand and clutching a thick-peeled leek in the other. By the time he reached the bell, his hands were empty, but his cheeks were puffed out like a field mouse scurrying away with autumn provisions. He yanked the clapper against the side of the bell, which rang out loudly, – clang, clang, clang. People young and old streamed out of the lanes to converge beneath the bell, eyes fixed on the team leader, like a crowd of marionettes. He swallowed hard, and wiped his stubble-ringed mouth on his sleeve. (p.1)
It took more than one re-reading for me to notice the first allusion. The leaves of the scholar tree turning yellow refers to the autumn of intellectual freedom and the coming Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). This year, 2016, is the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of this disastrous period of China’s history .
But you also need to know something about Chinese history to recognise that this team leader is an emblem of corrupt leadership and greed.
Hope Farm is Peggy Frew’s second novel, and it’s longlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Award. Although its setting is a hippie commune in decline, itHope Farm is Peggy Frew’s second novel, and it’s longlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Award. Although its setting is a hippie commune in decline, it’s an elegy for kids brought up in dysfunctional circumstances anywhere.
Silver, looking back on her childhood and the traumatic events of her thirteenth year in 1985, narrates most of the story, with interleaved excerpts from her mother’s memoir filling in her own backstory. Her mother is Ishtar née Karen, who embraced the communal lifestyle when at seventeen she became pregnant and it seemed like the only alternative to giving up her baby. Their subsequent life involved trailing around from one commune to another, Ishtar chasing the love she didn’t get from her parents when she needed it, and Silver – initially the sole object of Ishtar’s love and attention – gradually becoming wise beyond her years as she observes her mother’s immaturity fracture their relationship.
By the time they get to Hope Farm in rural Gippsland, Silver has become inured to neglect and squalor, and she absorbs with stoicism the taunts of her schoolfellows at each successive school. She longs for a stable home but has no illusions about her mother’s latest boyfriend, Miller. He makes a noisy entrance to the commune and spruiks lots of grand plans, but he doesn’t even know enough about farming to recognise that a self-seeded pumpkin vine isn’t going to produce any pumpkins once the summer is over. He starts projects but lets them lapse, and soon he and Ishtar join the rest of the residents in a fog of inertia, booze and drugs.
A Girl Made of Dust is a semi-autobiographical novel by Nathalie Abi-Ezzi who, like some of the characters in her story, moved to the safety of EnglanA Girl Made of Dust is a semi-autobiographical novel by Nathalie Abi-Ezzi who, like some of the characters in her story, moved to the safety of England in 1983 when Israel invaded Lebanon. She has written the novel from the perspective of an eight-year-old, but overcame my resistance to child narrators with a vivid story. This point-of-view enables the portrayal of the baffled dismay that many of us naïvely feel about religious hatreds, and, sadly, it also shows us how children adapt to living in war zones, and have no concept of living in peace. The novel also raises issues which, since the destruction of cultural artefacts by religious extremists, have become more topical than when the book was published back in 2008.
For Ruba and her older brother Naji, living in the village of Ein Dowra outside Beirut, the civil war means the rumble of shelling in the city, and they do not connect it with her father’s strange behaviour, which readers will recognise as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Papi (Nabeel) sits in his chair for most of the day, saying very little, leaving his shop closed and bringing grave financial and emotional stress to the family. The long-suffering women, (his wife and his mother), have had to make adjustments: they can no longer afford a maid so Mami (Aida) has had to learn to cook and iron (and isn’t very good at either). Mami also has to put up with being patronised by a former friend who takes pleasure in complaining about the servant problem and how difficult it is to pack her many possessions in preparation for her exodus to safety. While all around them families are leaving, Ruba’s friends among them, their family has no money and must take what comes.