On Reading, Part Three

A colleague at work asked me a while ago how many books I’d read in a year. I replied that it was ‘a lot,’ and that I’d never really counted properly before. So, these bi-monthly entries are that attempt, a record of the books I’ve read this year with commentary and thoughts on the patterns, the images, the styles that I come across.

Perhaps the first truly noteworthy piece I read in this instalment was This Year’s Ashes, a play produced by Griffin Theatre Company in November 2011, written by Jane Bodie. It had received good reviews and I wanted to see it, but as with many things, time conspired against me and it closed before I could get a chance to find an evening to go. There’s something about reading plays that I find wonderful: on one level, I see them playing out as if in real life, like a film I spose, with the scenes being cut together without the blackout or change in lighting state and or costume that you get in theatre. On another level, I see them as they might have been performed in the theatre (if I didn’t see them performed, that is), and I try to imagine how they would’ve been staged, how it would’ve all worked. And on another level, I look at how the scenes are ordered, how the characters are written, how the play is written, how it all works, trying to work out what makes it tick.
With This Year’s Ashes, Bodie takes the genre of the romantic comedy and infuses it with a Sydney vibe, love, loss, grief and cricket. In a decision that had the potential to spin off in an entirely different direction, she drew a parallel between the five stages of grieving (see Kübler-Ross’s On Death and Dying, 1969) and the five tests in a cricket series, particularly the titular Ashes. Yet on another level, the level pertaining to the grief and loss, it is a touching story of a young-ish woman losing her father and how she copes with it (or perhaps doesn’t). The end result is a beautifully bitter-sweet play which hits the romantic comedy genre for six and, in doing so, produces a piece which is imbued with a warmth and lived-ness, a sense of experience and disillusionment and yet a heartfelt tenderness and a desire to rise, phoenix-like, from the hardship and grow again, get back on the road to good.

Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies is perhaps my favourite of his (Brideshead is too long and boring – and the television series and or film doesn’t help it at all, and it’s been a while since I read Scoop), and I’m not sure why. I first read it three years ago when I discovered Stephen Fry had directed a film of it (the brilliant Bright Young Things), and I loved it. It’s a bit like Kerouac’s On The Road in its relentless energy and frivolity, its succession of parties and events which its Bright Young Things, the up-and-coming cream of society, rapidly lap up. Adam and Nina’s off-again on-again engagement forms part of the book’s plot, as do the many entertaining predicaments the Bright Young Tings find themselves in. The film, perhaps more so than the book, captures this care-free energy perfectly, and its colours and style leap off the screen, dripping with the decadence and pulse of the 1930s. (Perhaps daringly, Fry’s adaptation makes the book better, adds a coda onto the end of Waugh’s novel that not only gives Nina and Adam their ending, but it also gives us one of my favourite moments in cinema…) It’s so awfully fun-making and enjoyable that you cannot help but fall into its hypnotic rhythm of language, parties and the orbit of those bright young things.

I’ve also been reading a lot of Helen Garner’s fiction as well. Since I read The Children’s Bach (which blew me away completely), I’ve pretty much devoured the rest of her fiction writing, enjoying most of Cosmo Cosmolino (rereleased this month) and ‘Honour,’ one half of Honour & Other People’s Children. I think part of the reason I like her stuff is its honesty and rawness: there’s no bullshit, no waxing lyrical (like Tim Winton seems to get caught up), no pretention like a lot of the writing out there; it just is what it is and if you don’t like that then so be it. Last time, I talked about The Children’s Bach and its rhapsodic musical nature, its gentle rhythm of life, the relationships between characters and families, old friends and former lovers. After a while, you begin to see and make connections from book to book, between characters and their names and or traits (both Garner and Kerryn Goldsworthy talk about the characters named ‘Philip’ in the Oxford Australian Writers book on Garner’s oeuvre,) and I suppose this was compounded, made apparent and intriguingly explicit in Alex Jones’ dense and somewhat deceptively engaging Helen Garner and the meaning of everything. It is perhaps this glut of Garner that has inspired a project I’m working on at the moment, a story about relationships and friends, old lovers and share-houses, long summer days and the intimacy of thought. (I’d actually love to see a stage play of The Children’s Bach; there’s something in it, something so small and intimate and human and engaging about it that I think would work beautifully on stage; just a kitchen, a table, a piano and a view of a backyard outside the window…)

I said in the beginning of the first instalment of these that I would avoid books that have made the awards shortlists and or have won the ‘Big’ awards, like the Miles Franklin and the Booker, for the simple reason that I think the pretention that surrounds them is astronomical, that the Names of the authors often cloud true judgement (how many times has Tim Winton won the Miles Franklin and his books been lackluster?) and that the books are generally disappointing reading. Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears was one such recent book. I read the reviews of it (which were ecstatic), and read most of the first chapter in Dymocks and fell in love with it (these pages can be found here, at Allen&Unwin’s website). But as I read the rest of it, plodding my way through the book’s three hundred odd pages, I felt like I was losing an uphill battle – the writing was hard to get, syntax was awkward, and while I understand it could have been an attempt to evoke time and place, the speech patterns of mid-twentieth century rural New South Wales seemed at times to be another language.  
On the converse side, the book awards I do trust and the ones that by and large get it ‘right,’ are The Australian/Vogel Award and the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelists Award, announced each May, the latter as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. These books – some of which have won the Vogel one year, and the SMH award the next – are often beautifully written, haunting in their deceptive simplicity and just good literature. Each year, I try to read the four books (not always with a one-hundred-percent – or even a fifty percent – success rate, but I try), and I think that besides being a good indicator of interesting and creative writing, the awards actually signpost some of the best literature that comes out of this country’s ‘younger’ writers. This year, the Vogel winner was Eleven Seasons by Paul D. Carter, about a football-mad boy growing up in Melbourne in the 1980s and 1990s is just about as eventful and as mad as the game itself. Yes, it’s a blokey kind of book – all swaggering bravado and knock-about charm from the boy as he throws himself into playing rugby and nothing else really seems to matter – but at its heart is a moving story about a mother trying to connect with her son, trying to give him the best she can, and about the boy trying to make sense of his life, with his relationships with people. There’s a charm in it that lies underneath the mud on the pitch and the scrappy turf caked between the spikes on his boots, a bittersweetness fueled by relationships with people who can’t quite see what’s in front of their noses, a tenderness that comes about through distance and time between mother and son, a regenerative warmth and redemption hinted at in the book’s closing pages that speaks of wisdom and experience; a story for the here and now and forever. And inside, just for the one day it took me to read it, I fell in love with the game of rugby – footy – and all its teams, fierce allegiances, and testosterone-fuelled biff.

One of these days I’ll get around to reading Anna Karenina.

What I’ve read this year, part three
The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters
The Pirates! In An Adventure With Whaling, Daniel Defoe
This Year’s Ashes (play), Jane Bodie
Juliet, Naked, Nick Hornby
Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh
The Rime of the Modern Marnier, Nick Hayes
The feel of steel, Helen Garner
The Children’s Bach, Helen Garner (again)
Helen Garner and the meaning of everything, Alex Jones
Cosmo Cosmolino, Helen Garner
The Lost Dog, Michelle de Kretser
Foal’s Bread, Gillian Mears
Lovesong, Alex Miller
Eleven Seasons, Paul D. Carter

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