Thursday, April 28, 2011

listening in to Emma Woodhouse

A little while ago, I bought a cheap audiobook of Jane Austen's Emma on iTunes. And then, this week, I happened to be doing a lot of painstaking, long-lasting but completely mindless activities - knitting a scarf, painting decorations for my upcoming singalong Chitty Chitty Bang Bang party, lots of baking, going for walks, etc. It seemed like perfect timing to pull out an audiobook and listen as I worked.

I make it a point not to read Jane Austen novels too often because I love them so much and get such a pure enjoyment out of them that I don't want to risk becoming used to them. So it's actually been quite a long time since I read Emma, and I've only read it about twice, maybe three times at most. And I found myself rediscovering the book with great pleasure.

I really think it's such a wonderfully-structured novel. It's one of those novels which is very exciting as you read it for the first time, because the plot unfolds with so many little and large surprises. However, I discovered that it's just as wonderful to read a second time - Austen has packed it full of little road signs and ironies that all point towards the ultimate denouement, and these are so enjoyable to pick up on that knowing what is about to happen becomes a positive thing! I also love the skill with which Austen gives us a hidden love story, a love story in the background which is unseen by all the characters and all first-time readers but which becomes clear after the first reading. It is rather a touching love story.

Reading Emma this time around, I think I may have matured a little, because I found Austen's portrayal of Miss Woodhouse very satisfying. Last time, I was probably disappointed by the lasting imperfections of her character. This time, I loved how the narrator is so unreliable, and how Emma is so flawed, and how the narrator never judges Emma. She simply lays out this character who is as charming and well-meaning as she is mischievous/prideful/arrogant. She gives us a character who is lovable despite her faults and even because of her faults. Even towards the end, Austen doesn't fall prey to the temptation to completely rehabilitate her main character. The novel is a journey of self-discovery, and yet it's not over at the end, and she's still not perfect. There's a delicious irony to the fact that Emma feels so exposed to herself and yet there is still so much she is unaware of.

This is characterisation that precludes academic mangling. It resists a Marxist reading, a feminist reading, and many other kinds of readings - it's much more complicated.

Of course, we are given all the wonderful minor characters, a hallmark of Austen novels. Mrs Elton is deliciously awful. Miss Bates is so lovely and yet so painfully familiar to all of us. Mr Woodhouse such a nice, narrow-minded old invalid.

It is rather a long book. Reading it as an audiobook helped a little because I could not skim the longest episodes but had to listen to the whole - and this was definitely worth doing. I loved it. I feel a little sad at the prospect of doing mindless tasks without Jane Austen, now. Four and a half stars. No surprise, given my love for Austen, but I am trying to be unbiased and objective!!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

location, location

I have this idea that perhaps I could write better or more often if I was in exactly the right location. I know, rationally, that it's not quite as simple as that - but I still have idealised ideas of my future writing space which I can't quite shake. I thought I'd share some which have faded and some which have stuck with me.

(1) I used to imagine myself writing novels in a traditional library all of my own:


Red leather armchairs, smoking jacket, a flask of port, roaring fire, big dark wooden desk. Then I realised that (a) it felt a little too masculine a stereotype, and not quite cosy enough; and (b) I'd probably feel overwhelmed, surrounded by so many books. Who am I to attempt to write one?; and (c) I'd get distracted too easily.

(2) A romantic Parisian café:

You can just see it, can't you? Wearing a beret and scarf, frowning as you attempt to keep your pages of manuscript from blowing away, ink stains on your fingers, polite or not-so-polite Parisian waiters bringing you café au lait.
Then I realised that probably while I sat in this position I'd be ingesting enough nicotine to bring on a rapid demise. The streetside would probably smell. And the waiters would give me nasty looks when I stopped buying things but still sat there all day.

(3) A more literary café might do the trick. It worked for J. K. Rowling, didn't it?


But then I realised that, as attractive as this café looks, I'd probably be surrounded by literary snobs, and I would either become one myself, or feel grossly inadequate as they talked about writers I've never heard of.

(4) For a while I considered the possibility of writing on a tropical beach, like the one I stayed on at Koh Phi Phi in Thailand a few years ago:

Imagine how pleasant it would be to write here. Maybe swinging in a hammock, lazily watching the sea.

But I think this is probably just wishful thinking. I think I would actually just become lethargic, obese and boorish. Or, I would start feeling really guilty about the way Westerners are able to come to idealised little places like this and completely ignore the Thai people, and then I would become a Communist and start writing angry protest novels.

(5) Now, this is an ideal that has stuck with me. I still feel extremely attracted to it. I first thought of it when my supervisor asked me once what I would do if someone left me enough money to survive on perfectly adequately and I didn't need to work. I decided that I would spend six months of every year in a little cottage beside a mountain lake (I imagine Lake Tekapo) writing novels, and six months in the city doing some kind of volunteer work.

This is how I imagine the cottage:


There are no mice or rats - that's a given. There is a cosy open fire. There is a small community nearby so I'm not completely cut off from humankind. And there is a big window overlooking the lake and the mountains, with my desk in front of it. Not quite like the one below, which is too big, but you get the idea:


Along the same lines, I can imagine myself in a Swiss village like the one below, learning German and writing novels. I think this is slightly less realistic, though!

(6) Finally, I am absolutely sure that whenever I end up getting a house, I want there to be sloping ceilings, and a little attic room I can use for writing. I've always been attracted to sloping ceilings, for some reason. I think they're cosy and they make me want to write. So I imagine a writing space a bit like this:

... or this:


... or this:


So there you have it. My ideal locations.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

top marks to Daphne Kalotay

My first impression of Daphne Kalotay's first novel, Russian Winter: Its absolutely beautiful cover. Something about the way a woman in a blood red coat is walking away from the reader along an aisle of trees, almost disappearing into the snow - it intrigued me. I normally feel a little reluctant to read thick books, like this one, but nothing like that on this occasion - I just wanted to start reading. This is definitely a good use of design.

Fortunately, this is a book that deserves the anticipation its cover produced. I loved it. I am so impressed that this is a debut novel. (Kalotay has also published a book of short stories.) There are so many reasons to love it.

Russian Winter is a story set into motion by a jewellery auction in Boston in the present day. Nina Revskaya was once a prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, and now grows old in Boston, still an icon of the dance world. She decides to auction off her extensive collection of jewellery for charity. Unexpectedly, an anonymous donor comes forward with an amber necklace that he claims is from the same set as some of her jewellery. Slowly, an astonishing story unfolds. It unfolds through Revskaya's memories of her life in Stalinist Russia and her marriage to Soviet poet Viktor Elsin, before her defection to the West. This is interspersed with the present-day detective work of Grigori Solodin, the donor, and Drew Brooks, an auction house associate.

It is a fascinating story. It is a historical novel that seems effortless, unlike so many of the genre. It is beautifully researched - as a student of Soviet history, nothing stood out for me painfully - everything flowed as if it were the record of a true story, narrated by someone who lived it. It is the perfect fusion of historical drama with a strong story based around individuals, whose lives take place in a historical situation but revolve around personal relationships. I approve very, very highly. Another thing I really admire is that Kalotay manages to humanise the victims of the Stalinist terror. To give them a fictional face.

It is also a wonderfully-paced story - something that historical novels don't always achieve. I can't remember a single moment in this book in which I wasn't completely engrossed. Most nights this week, I suddenly realised it was past midnight and I should probably go to bed, after what seemed like only half an hour of reading, tops. This is a love story, with a secret. Kalotay masterfully draws out the plot, revealing bits and pieces, in this work of literary detection. She also manages to weave in some compelling sub-plots in a completely satisfying way, such as the personal lives of Grigori and Drew. There are clues from the beginning about what is coming, and yet contradictions emerge - finally, the end completes everything, even as it turns some expectations upside down. It is incredibly satisfying, and very enjoyable.

Kalotay also writes really well, without any sort of pretension but with skill and fluency. It is a very readable novel. Her characters are full-bodied, and they are written with perception and sympathy and much imagination. I felt they were real. Her poet, her composer, her ballerinas are all fictional. But I felt like googling them after I had read about them!

This is a must-read. I enjoyed everything about it. And so I am giving it my highest rating ever: four and a half stars.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

literary product placement

The latest bizarro news from Hollywood: Disney is remaking Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, with Jennifer Garner in the lead role. My first reaction is similar to this Telegraph writer's.

I am beginning to wonder if Hollywood has started to see the literature on which they claim to base their films merely as a reverse kind of product placement. Maybe, the thinking goes, if we have the name 'Miss Marple' scattered somewhere in the advertising, we will trick viewers into watching our otherwise unrelated film. This certainly seems to be a trend in crime fiction, with the travesty that was 2009's Sherlock Holmes.

Now, I'm not saying that these movies are bad in themselves. I've heard many good things about the Sherlock Holmes adaptation, even though I'd rather swallow my own tongue than watch it. Quite possibly Jennifer Garner's Miss Marple will be a fun, enjoyable film - if it were not for the fact that as we watch it Dame Agatha Christie will be rolling in her grave.

As the Telegraph writer says, why not 'take Poirot, get him solving crimes on a Greyhound bus as it trundles along the Florida panhandle (who needs the Orient Express?), and have him played by Arnold Schwarzenegger'?

What Hollywood is attempting is literary murder. Please, Hollywood. Create your own classics, if you must. Don't mutilate other people's beloved creations!

(I also have to question who allowed them to do this? Surely the Agatha Christie estate is not so desperate for money? I read just the other day that her books are still bringing in millions.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

the science of storytelling

I love this: the periodic table of storytelling. Check it out. It's hilarious to see all the "elements" of stories laid out "scientifically". I feel like making it into a poster!

It reminds me slightly of Jasper Fforde's The Well of Lost Plots, in which his main character, Thursday Next, discovers the great libraries of the Book World and its underworld dealing in clichés, plot devices and original ideas as literal currency.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

a little coffee shop in Kabul

[Australia/New Zealand cover]

I have just finished reading The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul, by Deborah Rodriguez - otherwise known as A Cup of Friendship in the US of A. (An aside: why do books get published with different titles for different locations? I have been trying to understand, and no good reason occurs to me!)

Set in a city which sits constantly in the shadow of the threat of violence, this is a novel based on experience. Deborah Rodriguez first went to Afghanistan in 2001, and stayed on, eventually starting the Kabul Beauty School, as well as her very own coffee house. She married an Afghan man, finding out later that she was his second wife. After she wrote a memoir about her experiences in Kabul, rumours spread that she had, proverbially, Made It, and as plots and threats began to abound, she was forced to leave the country, returning to her native USA.

This book is fiction, but it could only have been written by someone who really knew what it was to live in Kabul as an expat, but had also gained some insight into the life of Afghan women. It is about five women who gather at the coffee house, who become family to each other in an environment normally so stark and unforgiving to women.

Sunny, the proprietor, who worries about keeping her customers safe and about the choice she needs to make between two men in her life. Yazmina, a young pregnant widow who was kidnapped from her northern home and abandoned in the streets of Kabul. Candace, an outgoing American who left her diplomat husband to raise funds for Wakil, a wealthy Afghan philanthropist. Halajan, the sixty-year-old owner of the building, whose secret love affair seems destined to failure. And Isabel, the British journalist, who is beginning to discover her passion for helping Afghan women.

I thought this was a good read. It's very interesting. I feel introduced to a place and to people whom I could never have imagined before, in a way that news stories or imagination alone cannot, and isn't that one of the fundamental purposes of literature? Rodriguez is very sympathetic to the people she writes about - every individual Afghan character is developed and complex and positive in some way - and to the country and the city she is describing. It has moments of beauty and goodness unimaginable in a Western context. And yet, at the same time, the reader is constantly aware of the feeling of restrictedness that life in this city presents, for women, for someone who has done something culturally unacceptable, for Western expats.

It's also a good read in the sense that it promises a rollicking plot, attractive characters and juicy sub-plots. It doesn't fall into the trap of politicising everything. I have to admit, it's no great contribution to the canon of modern literature. The characters sometimes seemed a bit vague, too. So, it has faults. All the same, it's a solid effort, a good novel, an enjoyable and eye-opening read. I would recommend it to anyone who likes chick lit with serious currents. Three stars from me.

Ooh, I almost forgot to mention one of the cool features of this novel. It comes with tips for a Little Coffee Shop themed book-club event, including recipes, which is a great idea, I think. Some of the delicacies on offer are Afghan dishes such as baklava with saffron rosewater syrup, delicate butter cookies, and sweet bread, with drinks idea such as chococino coffee and cardamom tea. They sound exceedingly attractive!

[US cover]

Saturday, April 2, 2011

ursula bethell

I recently picked up a secondhand copy of The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. It's got some good selections of our best poets, and I've been particularly enjoying getting a glimpse of Ursula Bethell's work recently. Bethell grew up in New Zealand, although she was born in England in 1874, and she lived here until her death in 1945. She lived in the suburb of Cashmere, in Christchurch, which is on the hills, and she often worked in her garden which overlooked the Canterbury Plains and the mountains in the distance. She is often credited with being the first NZ poet to really express an 'indigenous' New Zealand way of writing, to write poems that weren't highly derivative celebrations of Wordsworth or Keats, to write poems that expressed the unease of a young, settler nation.

Anyhow, I particularly love this poem which I am about to display for your reading pleasure. It strikes me as particularly appropriate as we in Christchurch gaze at our city in awe at the changes nature has wrought on it over the last few months.


When I am very earnestly digging
I lift my head sometimes, and look at the mountains,
And muse upon them, muscles relaxing.

I think how freely the wild grasses flower there,
How grandly the storm-shaped trees are massed in their gorges
And the rain-worn rocks strewn in magnificent heaps.

Pioneer plants on those uplands find their own footing;
No vigorous growth, there, is an evil weed:
All weathers are salutary.

It is only a little while since this hillside
Lay untrammelled likewise,
Unceasingly swept by transmarine winds.

In a very little while, it may be,
When our impulsive limbs and our superior skulls
Have to the soil restored several ounces of fertiliser,

The Mother of all will take charge again,
And soon wipe away with her elements
Our small fond human enclosures.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor

I note that a biography of Elizabeth Taylor is coming out very very soon, written by show business biographer David Bret. (And I'm sure it won't be the only one.) It seems remarkably apt timing, given that she died just over a week ago - a little too apt for my liking. Does anyone else feel that this book has quite likely been sitting around ready for some time, waiting for the right moment to pounce? And does anyone else find this slightly grotesque?

- Allie, who is feeling very grateful not to be a screen icon right now.