Barry (1813-1880) emigrated to Australia as a young man, and was a towering figure in Melbourne’s early years as a judge, university chancellor, libra...moreBarry (1813-1880) emigrated to Australia as a young man, and was a towering figure in Melbourne’s early years as a judge, university chancellor, library-founder, cultural emissary. Yet he’s probably best remembered for sentencing Ned Kelly to death and dying himself days after Kelly. Gallaby treats Ned Kelly’s trial in four pages. Given it was only a couple of weeks in a whole life, perhaps it’s a logical decision. Yet I would have given it many more pages, because of its dramatic potential and the place of Kelly in Australian cultural memory.
I don’t know if the fact that this biography didn’t grip me was due to the limits of the genre itself, or the shortcomings of this particular biography. I felt that as a narrative it was flat, and far too bound by maintaining a steady rhythm of chronology. Barry spent this year in this way, and then the next one in this way. There was not enough narrative shaping of his life, not enough sense of the heights and lows, not enough drama created.
Yet as history and probably even as biography, this is a good book. (less)
A local history of the suburbs of the Town of Victoria Park in Perth, Western Australia. The history is well-balanced between glimpses of everyday lif...moreA local history of the suburbs of the Town of Victoria Park in Perth, Western Australia. The history is well-balanced between glimpses of everyday life through the decades and the societal and local government events shaping the area. The book itself is well produced, with tasteful design and lots of photographs. (less)
**spoiler alert** Five year old Jack, born into a single room to Ma, makes the world strange and fresh as the narrator. We learn the small details of...more**spoiler alert** Five year old Jack, born into a single room to Ma, makes the world strange and fresh as the narrator. We learn the small details of this tiny world and the fictions and rituals which have sustained him and his mother. Yet the book moves too slowly for me, is too padded; at times I felt trapped in Jack's repetitive world. Things get more interesting as they escape and the two of them try to come to terms with the outside world.(less)
Home is a novel about what happens after the prodigal son returns to his father's house. The setting is the small American town of Gilead and the year...moreHome is a novel about what happens after the prodigal son returns to his father's house. The setting is the small American town of Gilead and the year is 1956. The father is the frail old Reverend Boughton and his prodigal son is Jack, the alcoholic youngest son who abandoned a girl with a baby in his youth and hasn't been home in twenty years. The jealous older brother of Jesus' parable is transformed into the youngest daughter of the family, Glory. She is not jealous, either, but loving to her troubled brother, having returned home after being used for money by a no good 'fiance' for years.
It is a slow moving, unadorned novel, and the impatient reader won't enjoy it or even finish it. Its pleasures are subtle ones, exact prose and slow burning, wise drama as Jack and Glory look warily and wearily for redemption in their own ways and as their father's health deteriorates.
The characters have a sense of space in their lives, and this gives me another strange pleasure. Jack and Glory find themselves in a quiet town, in a quiet home with no particular commitments anywhere. They live in a kind of long school holiday, filling in their time with gardening, board-games and cooking. They aren't particularly happy, yet I find myself slightly envying them.
The novel's relationship to Robinson's previous novel, Gilead (2004), is significant. Gilead is set in the same town at the same time, narrated by Boughton's oldest friend, the Reverend John Ames. Gilead is a tale of generations, as Ames looks back on his father and grandfather and forward to his young son. Home is also about family, but is horizontal - a single nuclear family and its aftermath, rather than generations. The overlapping of characters and events between the novels is fascinating. I'm going straight back to re-read Gilead while it's all fresh in my head. (less)
When We Were Orphans is a surprising book, lulling me into familiar territory with a seemingly conventional detective story of Christopher Banks retur...moreWhen We Were Orphans is a surprising book, lulling me into familiar territory with a seemingly conventional detective story of Christopher Banks returning to Shanghai on the eve of WW2 to find his parents, who went missing when he was a child. But this is Ishiguro, so it would be wrong to take much for granted at all. Things take a surreal turn and suddenly I almost felt like I was reading Kafka. It is a novel about the memories of childhood and home, a novel about loss, all told in a singular voice which is familiar and yet defamiliarising. (less)
For anyone fascinated with the story of Robert Wadlow, world's tallest man, this is a must read as it's the only book length treatment of him besides...moreFor anyone fascinated with the story of Robert Wadlow, world's tallest man, this is a must read as it's the only book length treatment of him besides a book written by his father fifty years ago. Brannan is the newspaper editor of Alton, the town where Wadlow lived and in preparing the book, he interviewed lots of people who knew Wadlow in the 1920s and 1930s, including his brother. Most of them would now be dead, and so there will never be another chance to get so close to Wadlow's life.
Unfortunately, Brannan treats his subject much too reverentially. He never pulls at any of the threads of conflict and discord. He doesn't tread on any toes, ask any difficult questions of Wadlow's parents or his life and death. We don't hear the other side of the story of the doctor they sued for defamation. The doctor's comments were relatively mild and the parents' response seems out of proportion. Similarly, what were they doing putting Robert in a circus? It was the Depression, but let's hear the arguments for and against. Nor does Brannan give enough sense of what it would have been like to be Wadlow - a couple of sentences touch on the difficulties of romance, but he doesn't pursue it.
The narrative is structured with little punch and there are no references for his sources. It's an earnest book, a labour of love one senses, and I'm thankful he wrote it; I just can't help wishing it was better.(less)
I found it a page turner. Junger's personal involvement with the Boston Strangler story adds an interesting dimension to an unusually well written tru...moreI found it a page turner. Junger's personal involvement with the Boston Strangler story adds an interesting dimension to an unusually well written true crime narrative. He tends to take tangents which are often interesting but sometimes overly didatic. (less)
Adrian Mole's nearly forty, and I've lost track of how many of his diaries have been published now. You probably remember him when he was thirteen and...moreAdrian Mole's nearly forty, and I've lost track of how many of his diaries have been published now. You probably remember him when he was thirteen and three quarters. I love the chronicle of a life that Sue Townsend has unfolded at intervals over the last twenty years, not quite up to the standard of John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom sequence, but a humorous barometer of the times and chronicle of failure.
That said, this is one of the weaker books to my mind - but maybe it's me who's changed; everyone else seems to like it. Adrian's marriage is disintegrating - though he isn't aware of it, playing the naive cuckold right up to the death knell - and he has some prostate trouble at age thirty nine, as he works in a secondhand bookshop and tries intermittently to write a play. There isn't enough driving the narrative and the diary format becomes limiting. (less)
I have been a poor reader lately, finding it hard to finish anything, yet Carol Shields’ final novel, Unless, hooked me. It is the story of a woman in...moreI have been a poor reader lately, finding it hard to finish anything, yet Carol Shields’ final novel, Unless, hooked me. It is the story of a woman in her forties, the writer of ‘light’ fiction and translations, Reta, whose daughter, Norah, suddenly leaves home and sits on the same street each day begging for money. The situation is breaking Reta’s heart even as life insists on going on and she attempts to write the sequel to her first novel.
It is deceptively ‘domestic’, almost ‘light fiction’, with the trappings of a middle-aged woman with a circle of good friends trying to hold her family together, and a (sort of) conventional ending. Yet as a reader I sensed more and more that Shields was playing sophisticated games with me.
It is a passionately yet somehow gently feminist novel (perhaps I say gently because of its subtlety). The chapters are interspersed with letters to various public figures or critics or writer who have ignored or silenced women in their articles or books. The whole novel seems to be a protest about the dismissal of domestic/ family concerns as ‘light’ women’s fiction. Tellingly, an editor is trying to rewrite Reta’s new novel, to turn it into a man’s quest for greatness, rather than a woman’s quest for goodness. Perhaps Shields’ response is to silence Reta’s husband, Tom, who is never more than a background character. I might be tempted to call his lack of involvement a weakness, if I wasn’t so suspicious it was a ploy of Shields’ that I was falling into.
It is an uneasy novel. Every criticism I am tempted to make of it could be read as a deliberate protest against my assumptions. I felt that it moved too slowly, with too little happening and too long spent thinking about the situation; yet maybe I’m trying to ‘edit’ Shields’ novel just like the nasty editor is trying to edit Reta’s.
I was hooked by its pearls of insight into life and its elegant enigmas. I was sad all the way through, knowing that Shields died of breast cancer soon after it was published.(less)
The first half of this ambitious family/campus novel completely absorbed me. My attention dwindled in the second half, and for me Zadie didn't manage...moreThe first half of this ambitious family/campus novel completely absorbed me. My attention dwindled in the second half, and for me Zadie didn't manage to pull of the massively ambitious scenario she sets up, but it is still an intelligent, engaging and witty read.
Howard Belsey is a middle aged academic who has spent his whole career pulling down notions of 'beauty' and 'genius'; his bitter rival is the black conservative, Monty Kipps. The two families and their competing accounts of the world - liberal V conservative; humanist V Christian - are brought into direct conflict when Howard's son falls in love with Monty's daughter.
If I had to guess, I'd say that Zadie's sympathies would lie slightly toward a more conservative account of art and beauty, that there is such a thing as beauty and meaning. But she certainly shows how well she appreciates both accounts of the world; she is able to depict them convincingly and sympathetically and yet also satirize them.
She is also generationally adept, showing herself to be an astute observer of both Baby Boomer parents and Gen Y children. She gets inside every character's mindset.
My disappointment is in the way characters like Jerome (Howard's son) slip out of the narrative after seeming so intergral to it, and the similar way in which we never quite catch full sight of Monty Kipps. Also, the central question of beauty is raised wonderfully but is never resolved or even brought into a high stakes resolution (Monty's lectures being the obvious place for it). In the end it feels like a novel which goes on too long without justifying its length, pages and pages of wonderful interplay between compelling characters which the author hasn't quite got under control and couldn't bear to cut.(less)