May 31, 2011

To Be Challenged... Or Not to Be?

One of the events I attended at the recent Sydney Writers' Festival has got me thinking about my reading habits and choices. The event was a talk by Australian author Gail Jones and she was speaking about the influences and processes involved in the writing of her most recent book Five Bells which I reviewed here. Jones was a beautiful speaker to listen to - lyrical and passionate (just like her book) and at one point she was speaking about the importance of reading in offering us a challenge - that we should be reading novels and other works that challenge us with their construction their language and their ideas.

I must admit I am not always reaching for the challenging in my reading - after a day full of work where I am emotionally and intellectually drained sometimes I just want to reach for that 'easy' read - something that will allow me to tune out and not have to think too deeply. Having said that I know I do often challenge myself in terms of the content of the books I choose to read - reading in areas I might not necessarily know anything about, or choosing a book that has particularly difficult emotional material to get through. The books I don't often challenge myself with are those that are difficult to grasp in terms of language - I started Dr Zhivago on the weekend and while I am loving the story so far I am struggling with the number of Russian names to get my tongue around and the differences in language and expression. I have found myself resorting to my 'easier' reads now that the work and study week has resumed.

I guess the idea of a challenging read will be different for everyone but I am wondering what reading challenges you - and how have you overcome the challenge to enrich your reading even further? What books have been worth the challenge?

May 30, 2011

The Memory of Love - Aminatta Forna

Each book I read from the Orange Prize shortlist for 2011 just seems to improve on the last. The Memory of Love is no exception and I think it has now become my favourite read from the list. Not only has it been shortlisted for the Orange Prize this year but The Memory of Love was also recently named as the winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and I was lucky enough to hear Aminatta Forna speak at the Sydney Writers' Festival a couple of weeks ago - not only about this book but more broadly about the life she has led as a fighter for rights for the country in which she grew up, Sierra Leone.

The Memory of Love is set in a nameless African country although it is a country that resembles Sierra Leone in many ways - it is a country that has been consumed by war and trauma and the effects that has left on its people are indelible. The book has three main characters (although a fourth character that connects these three could also be counted as "main") and is told in alternating chapters that are narrated by the different characters - this is done in a seamless way - you always know where you are as the reader in terms of the structure of the story.

Adrian Lockheart is an English psychologist who is running away from a life with his wife and child in the UK which he no longer feels connected to. He has arrived in Africa with a rather aimless goal of "doing good" - he is passionate and committed but to what exactly he is not sure. Through his work in the local hospital Adrian meets and becomes friends with a local surgeon, Kai Mansaray - another man deeply committed to his work but also using it as a way to escape from personal memories and pain. One of Adrian's patients is an elderly man, Elias Cole, dying of an incurable lung disease and wanting to talk to an empathic stranger about his past life and decisions he has made that still play on his conscience.

I can not praise this book and the impact it has on me as a reader highly enough. The themes of trauma, memory, love, betrayal and connection are portrayed so well and so passionately I felt as though I knew these characters inside and out. The impact of trauma on an individual, a family and a community is also a powerful part of this book - one that had me in tears at several places. If you have not read this book already I would certainly recommend that you do - it is a book that I will be passing on to all of my friends.

May 29, 2011

Paris in July - Join in the Fun!

We now have 28 people signed on for the 2011 Paris in July event. If you head over to Tamara's blog you will see that she is offering an early prize before we even get under way on the 1st July.

I have created a side bar to the right with all of the participants so far - please let me know if your name is not there or I have made a mistake with the link to your blog etc...

It is never too late to join in so if you are interested at all just leave a comment in this post - you can check out all about the event here.

Looking forward to the 1st July!

May 24, 2011

Sydney Writers' Festival - 2011

One of the highlights of my reading year is the annual trip to the Sydney Writers Festival which I went to this past weekend in the glorious Walsh Bay area of Sydney under THAT bridge!
I attended some great events and heard some amazing authors and women (yes, all of the events I went to this year were delivered from the perspective of female authors) speak about their work and the way their lives have impacted their writing and vice-versa.
In one event I heard two writers, Kate Holden and Emma Forrest talk about the memoirs they have written with honesty and gusto. Kate's first memoir, In My Skin, tells the story of the time in her life when she was addicted to heroin and working as a prostitute in Australia. At the risk of placing people into stereotypes - Kate does not come across as your typical past drug user and sex worker - she is articulate, humorous, intelligent and generous in giving of her story to complete strangers. Hearing her speak was a reminder to myself to never place people in boxes - let people tell their stories and do not judge. I have not read her book as yet but it is waiting on my shelf and after hearing Kate speak about her experiences in writing and publishing the book I can't wait. Emma Forrest's recently released memoir Your Voice in My Head is the story of her experiences with severe depression and the psychiatrist she found to work with who helped her through this time in her life and again, although I haven't read her book as yet that will soon be rectified. Attending this session was another great experience in how hearing authors speak about their work (especially such personal books as these) can help a reader to connect with a book in a totally different way.
My favourite, and most inspirational event, of the festival was a session entitled Family Politics where the three speakers were Fatima Bhutto, Ingrid Betancourt and Aminatta Forna.I had heard of all three of the women before attending the event but I had only read the work of Forna having just finished her award winning novel The Memory of Love the day before the festival (review to come soon - enough to say for now that I simply LOVED it). The Memory of Love has recently been named as the winner of the 2011 Commonwealth Writer's Prize and it is on the short list for the 2011 Orange Prize - the winner to be announced on the 8th June .
This event was amazing - hearing from three such intelligent and passionate women about the significant and traumatic events that have occured in their lives as well as what drives them to keep going in the fight for freedom in their countries. You can listen to some of the events from the festival here.

May 16, 2011

Paris in July - 2011

For the second year Tamara from Thyme For Tea and I have decided to come together to host "Paris in July" a month long blogging experience to celebrate our love of all things French and Parisian. We had such a great time last year we can't wait to do it all over again!

For those of you who participated last year the guidelines for the event will be pretty much the same (Tamara and I reserve the right to throw in some surprises here and there1). Paris in July will run from the 1st - 31st July 2011 and the aim of the month is to celebrate our French experiences through reading, watching, listening to, observing, cooking and eating all things French.

Tamara will actually be in France during July this year so she will be able to take us to the heart of things with her posts. Some welcome words from Tamara;

I'm so excited to be joining Karen again in co-hosting the 2011 Paris in July event. This year I will be the French Correspondent, actually on location in France for the month of July. While this will make for interesting administrative arrangements, I am committed to fulfilling my part of co-hosting in this, our second year of Paris in July. My travel plans include some time in Paris, then actually riding my bike along with the Tour de France through the Pyrenees and the Alps from July 11 - 24th then I will be in Montpellier for two weeks attending an intensive French language program. This means I will be able to post on regional cuisine, art, culture and local history and geography. I will also be able to investigate or research any questions participants choose to send me during the month... Imagine what fun we can have with that!

There will be no rules or targets in terms of how much you need to do or complete in order to be a part of Paris in July - just blog about anything French and you can join in. Some ideas for the month might include:

- Reading a French book - fiction or non-fiction

- Watching a French movie

- Listening to French music

- Cooking French food

- Experiencing French art, architecture or travel (lucky Tamara!)

- Or anything else French inspired you can think of...

If you are interested in being a part of this experience leave a comment on this post and we will put together a side bar showing all of the participants. There will be weekly French themed prizes during the month for which we will randomly draw the winners from all the French themed posts of that week that link back to us. We will be writing weekly wrap up posts for you to link your posts to.

We have designed a couple of images to represent our Paris in July experience so feel free to add these to your blog if you are joining us. We will write posts leading up to the start of Paris in July to give you some ideas about what you might like to include and to share the books, films, music etc... that we are planning to experience ourselves during the month.

Looking forward to travelling to Paris with you in July!

May 15, 2011

The Novel in the Viola - Natasha Solomons

The Novel in the Viola was my comfort read from last week. I was in the mood for a good, sweet story that I didn't need to do too much thinking with - and this book partly filled my needs.

I still have not read the authors first book, Mr Rosenblum's List, but my best friend has and she didn't rave about it- a "nice" book but nothing fantastic was pretty much her verdict. That is probably a similar rating I would give to The Novel in the Viola.

The book starts off strongly with the author setting the scene and introducing the main character, 19 year old Elise Landau, an Austrian Jewish woman who is about to be torn away from her family and her home to go and live in England as a domestic service in the lead up to World War 2.

The first half of this book worked really well for me - I believed in the character of Elise - but then things just started to become too neat, formulaic and predictable. That's not to say I wasn't enjoying the read, because I was - but it certainly wasn't challenging or even very believable in any way.

The author talks about her inspiration for writing this book - the true story of an English village that is requisitioned by the government during World War 2 to be used as a training location for the army. I think this sounds like a fascinating story but unfortunately the essence of this story just didn't come through in the novel for me.

May 10, 2011

Solar - Ian McEwan

I would rate Ian McEwan as one of my favourite authors - but like many others Solar would not be one of my favourite of his books. That's not to say I didn't enjoy the read - it is classic McEwan in so many ways - great characterisation and gloriously detailed and descriptive writing are two of the traits that I love so much in his writing. But overall it just wasn't a story that grabbed me.

Solar is the story of British physicist Michael Beard - truly one of the most unlikeable and disgusting characters I have ever read! When the story opens Michael is in turmoil as his beloved fifth wife is having an affair - and as it is Michael that usually engages in affairs in his marriages the whole situation has thrown him out a bit. Michael is also having some trouble at his workplace - a newly developed research centre exploring different energy sources for human consumption. Michael's personal and professional lives come together in a totally unexpected way and the event sets Michael on a new career path (not entirely of his making) to look at the utilisation of solar energy.

As is the norm in McEwan's books he goes into extreme detail about the science involved in his story line - this would normally bore me completely if any other author tried it but McEwan always makes this work for me. Even though I was not a fan of Michael Beard as a person I did enjoy reading about his as a character - I think part of me was just reading to see if he got what was coming to him at the end!

May 09, 2011

One Book, Two Book, Three Book, Four...and Five...

Thanks to Simon for this lovely meme which a few of us seem to be grabbing hold of at the moment...

1. The Book I am currently reading:

The Novel in the Viola by Natasha Solomons - totally sweet and beautiful - not a book I was expecting to pick up and enjoy but I am loving it so far...

2. The Last book I finished:

Solar by Ian McEwan - a novel with one of the most unlikeable main characters I have ever read about! Review to come soon.

3. The Next book I want to Read:

A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz - It just arrived in my mail box this afternoon and I want to discard all of my other reading to jump straight to it!

4. The last book I Bought:

Tucked In: For Everyone Having a Doona Day by Meredith Gaston - just too cute to ignore really!

5. The Last Book I was Given:

Breakfast at Tiffany's: The Official 50th Anniversary Companion Book by Sarah Gristwood - A gorgeous Birthday present from my best friend - she knows me too well!

May 03, 2011

The Tiger's Wife - Tea Obreht

I am continuing my way through the list for the Orange Prize 2011 with my most recent read being the shortlisted The Tiger's Wife by debut novelist Tea Obreht.

I must admit I had my doubts about this book - not necessarily about the greatness of the writing - more about it not really being "my type" of book. But, this book was for me a perfect example of why I should constantly try and stretch my reading - because the reward is finding absolute gems like The Tiger's Wife.

The Tiger's Wife is the first novel by Yugoslavian/American writer Tea Obreht who is making a lot of news in the publishing world and is already receiving huge accolades for her work. I am greatly looking forward to hearing her speak at the upcoming Sydney Writers' Festival.

The book is written through a series of stories, almost myths, that have been told to the main character, Natalia by her grandfather as she was growing up. The stories come from her grandfather's childhood and beyond and the stories form a bond between the two that carries on into Natalia's adulthood. As an adult Natalia has become a doctor (just like her grandfather) in an unnamed Balkan country and it is on a trip into a small village to provide immunisations to orphan children that Natalia learns of the death of her grandfather in a neighbouring village. It is the news of his death that prompts Natalia into remembering the stories he has passed down to her and connecting her to his death and the journey she must now take to retrieve his belongings.

For me this book was like reading one huge fairytale/children's story/mythical tale - but in a very adult and sophisticated way. I was initially turned off reading this book by mention of the term "magical realism" but I felt as though The Tiger's Wife was very much grounded in reality - even though some parts of the story do seem to come from a mythical and magical place. I believed very much in the characters and the events taking place and this is what made the book work for me.

The writing was brilliant - this woman knows how to engage an audience and tell a story.

My heart was wanting Great House to win The Orange Prize but now I am not so sure...

May 01, 2011

Caleb's Crossing - Geraldine Brooks

A new Geraldine Brooks novel is something to be savoured and lingered over - I so look forward to a new novel by her and each time I promise myself that I am going to take my time with her words and not rush through to the end of the story - and each time I fail. Caleb's Crossing was no exception.
I bought the book as soon as it came out and started reading it over the easter long weekend, staying up late and getting up early to delve back in to the story. I finished it this morning with mixed feelings - contentment over reading such a great story but sadness for knowing I will never be able to experience it for the first time again!

Caleb's Crossing tells the story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a member of the Wopanaak tribe of Martha's Vineyard, born around 1646 and the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. Although Caleb was a real person Brooks has taken what few facts are known of Caleb's life and created a fictional account of his story, including creating a fully fictional character, Bethia Mayfield to narrate the story.

Bethia is the 12 year old daughter of a minister in a strict English puritan settlement on Martha's Vineyard when she first meets the young Caleb and begins to form a friendship with him - each learning of the other's culture and language. Bethia's father is intent on educating and reforming the Native Indians to the English way of life - including it's strict faith and ways of worship - and Caleb becomes one of his pupils much to the disgust of his uncle who is a leader in his tribe.

As in all of her novels it is clear that Brooks has done extensive research and it shows in the way she is able to bring the voices of the characters and the picture of the landscapes across so cleatly to the reader - I really felt as though I was being brought into the time of the 1660's in rural America.

I am still unclear as to why Brooks has used the character of Bethia to narrate Caleb's story (although she does discuss this a little in the afterward of the book). Brooks talks about wanting to give a voice to Caleb and his story in some way and I would have felt a better way to this would have been to enable Caleb (or at least the fictional character) to tell his own story. I thought the character of Bethia was wonderful and I enjoyed reading about her and from her but at times it really felt as though the book should have been titled "Bethia's Crossing".

Don't let that deter you from reading this though - it is a wonderful story that is a joy to read - a brilliant writer telling a fantastic story - what more could a reader want?