On Reading, Part Two

I suppose I should continue on from the first post; it’s no use having a part one without a part two or three. While I may be writing my Honours thesis, reading is like my keep-sane, my distraction, my sleep-inducer at days’ end; I can’t recall the number of times I’ve fallen asleep with a book open on my face or woken to find it splayed open on the floor beside my bed like the carcass of some wond’rous beast.

The first book of note this time around is The Children’s Bach, by Helen Garner. I’d heard things about her earlier book Monkey Grip, in that it was meant to be a classic and all that (Penguin recently republished it as one of their modern classics in their iconic orange-and-white covers), but compared to her later book, Monkey Grip was empty, a constant cycling of same-old same-old. The Children’s Bach is entrancing from the outset – using the idea of a book of music as the loosest of frameworks, what you end up with is a series of linked vignettes, rhapsodies on a theme of life if you will, and they are as elegant, as mundane, as heart-warmingly extraordinary in their ordinariness as they are in their rhythm and essence of human behaviour. The way Garner captures her characters’ eccentricities and mannerisms, the way you feel a part of their household sucks you into the story so seamlessly, is just magical. It's like a more intimate Cloudstreet – in that its scope isn't as rambling, but it's just as eccentric and acutely captured – as good as it in its own way, on its own strengths, on its own terms. Their conversations have an otherness to them, that they could be happening anywhere at any moment but they still seem extraordinary in their construction and phrasing; the images they conjure of the books’ inhabitants are just beautiful.
‘But I like the mother,’ said Poppy. ‘Athena’s perfect, isn’t she.’
‘Perfect - you reckon?’ said Philip.
Elizabeth looked at him. ‘She’d have to be, to live up to the name.’
‘The goddess of war,’ said Philip.
‘I didn't mean that perfect,’ said Poppy.
‘Of war and needlecraft,’ said Elizabeth. [p66]

I do love a bit of Terry Pratchett every now and again, but I try to stay away from the Discworld if I can. It’s not because I don’t like the stories; quite the contrary, in fact. I think they’re fantastic, but after a while they get a bit too indistinguishable, their gentle satire begins to grate and you need something else. I’ve found that some of my favourite Pratchett’s are his standalone novels, or the beginnings of series – things like The Wee Free Men, Good Omens (with Neil Gaiman), and this book, Nation. Set in a parallel universe not dissimilar to our own in the 1860s, Nation is about a twelve year old girl (Daphne) who is stranded on an island after the ship she’s on is hit by a giant wave and shipwrecked in the canopy of the island’s rainforest. She meets Mau, a boy on the cusp of manhood, and together they set about rebuilding the island. It sounds a bit hokey when put like that, but in true Pratchett style, it’s an absolute delight. The way he explains details in the books’ universes, the way the characters speak, the way each character is so vivid and real – so good – is part of the fun of his ‘stand-alone’ books.

The next book is not on here because it’s an example of technically noteworthy writing or anything spectacular; it’s here because it was simply good fun. RPM by Noel Mengel is about a boy growing up in a small country town who plays in a band and dreams of the making it big once he leaves home. Then a record shop – simply called RPM – opens in town and, as they say, nothing is the same. It’s about how music influences and shapes us, how we respond to music, how we use music in our lives, how it keeps us going and how we need it to express ourselves, how it’s good to dream big even if it mightn’t work out that way… If I had to compare it to anything, I’d say it’s a bit like The Boat That Rocked crossed with a bit of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, even though that doesn’t really help much at all. Each chapter is a kind of self-contained story, but it doesn’t weaken it; the whole thing is just good fun, and the ending – while cliché as anything – is one of those endings that makes you grin like a lunatic, and kicks you into some kind of interplanetary orbit on a wave of good music and the feeling of being alive.

My final book here is Eric S Mallin’s Godless Shakespeare, part of Continuum Press’s Shakespeare Now! series of critical monographs on contemporary interpretations of Shakespeare’s work. It’s a rather good series, a bit too dense at times, but its ideas and interpretations are quite bold and enlightening. (Some, like The Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean, and The King and I, are unique ways of looking at the plays through a cultural, literary, genre-based, and/or personal frame.) Working on the assumption that while Shakespeare’s plays are dotted with religious imagery, he himself was essentially atheistic, allowing him to play merry hell with the religious symbolism and ideas. Take Titus Andronicus, for example: Mallin argues, and all-too-persuasively, that the play is basically an expansion of the Eucharist. When Titus bakes Tamora’s sons into a pie and presents it to her, he is playing Christ, offering flesh-as-food, however cannibalistic or transubstantiated it may be. Mallin also argues that Bottom, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is only able to have his epiphanic dream-like encounter with Titania because of an apparent disregard for strict religious adherence and thus the encounter becomes akin to a religious experience for the character, something that touches the soul of his being. It’s a fantastic book, wonderfully simple to fathom and ground-shattering (to me, at least) in its implications and ideas, and it doesn’t diminish the plays at all, only opens them up and expands them further than I thought.

I never did read Anna Karenina. Apart from its sheer size and the weight of carrying it around with me and barely reading more than two or three pages at a time, I do think there’s a time and place to read such books: on – in – your bed in the middle of winter…  

What I’ve read this year, part two
The Future of Us, by Jay Asher & Carolyn Mackler
Monkey Grip, by Helen Garner
The Children’s Bach, Helen Garner
Postcards From Surfers, Helen Garner
Nation, Terry Pratchett
Bachelor Kisses, Nick Earls
RPM, Noel Mengel
The True Story of Butterfish, Nick Earls
Shakespeare Now!: Godless Shakespeare (critical text), Eric S Mallin
Mateship With Birds, Carrie Tiffany
Skylight (play), David Hare
Everyman’s Rules For Scientific Living, Carrie Tiffany
The Virtuoso, Sonia Orchard

Simultaneously posted at http://thespellofwakinghours.tumblr.com/post/20156686730

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