Guardian’s 50 best first lines

Guardian

We are often told how important it is to make a good first impression. Books model this for us beautifully. I often pick up books and if I don’t get that voice first off I often do not want to read on. Those first lines are one of the quickest ways to judge books and if they get it wrong you are not always likely to give a second chance. It is such a personal and intimate thing reading a book and it takes time. If I am going to share that sort of intimacy and spend so much time on something I need to believe that I am going to be entertained, enthralled, maybe even appalled at times, but most certainly I want that initial sentence to grab me and tell me that this will be worth my while.

The Guardian Newspaper in the UK has just posted a lovely little article on the 10 best lines in fiction. Even though I would have preferred 50, this will do 🙂

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Maus

This is one of the more famous graphic novels, so I was very happy when I had the chance to put it on the VCE text list this year for year 12. Maus is a novel that, while dealing with the aftermath of the holocaust, is primarily concerned with the relationship between a father and a son. Art is trying to understand his irascible father Vladek, a survivor of Auschwitz. We see Vladek as a miserly, mean spirited man who counts the cost of everything and is especially hard on his unfortunate second wife. He holds rigid views and is quick to anger.

Art visits his father in an attempt to understand him, and through this, understand his upbringing and his mother, who is now dead. We are taken back in time to the initial meeting of Vladek and Anya and we see a very different young man. He was confident, well-connected and seemed about to fulfill a bright promise. Of course, history tells us that this was not to be so for a young Polish Jew and this is where Vladek’s story really begins. We follow his trials throughout the war and his love for the fragile Anya. The couple marry and have children and do their best to survive and keep their family together. Anya’s fragility is highlighted early in the relationship, so the reader can only wonder what a woman like this will do when what must happen eventually does.  Whilst we learn of Art’s parent’s ordeals we keep being brought to the present to remind us of the current situation between the surviving family members. This temporal shift allows the story to avoid overburdening the reader with the sadness of the plight of the Poles and foregrounds their attempts to survive and them moves back to the present thereby diffusing the emotion. The narrative allows us to consider how families manage to live through their tough times and what traumatic events do to people. Self image is a powerful theme and we see what can happen to someone when their self image is unable to be reconciled with their situation.

Speigelman tells a tender and sad story of a young man seeking desperately to understand his father. The black and white drawings allow for a dimming of the emotion so as to avoid melodrama. The devices such as using cats for Nazis and mice for Polish Jews make the story seem like a fable at times, again, distancing the reader from excessive emotion, and yet the poignancy of the story is very strong. I cannot wait to see what my year twelve students make of this graphic novel. Art’s struggle is that of many young men trying to understand their parents and their parent’s generation. Art is unaware of the many events that made his parents who they were and his journey of understanding is universal.

For more on Maus see this review: http://blogs.crikey.com.au/culture-mulcher/2013/10/09/maus-at-town-hall-art-spiegelmans-history-of-comics-tour-de-force/

The List of My Desires

This book was recommended by the new salesgirl in Mary Martin in Southbank, Melbourne. It is definitely not my usual read but my interest was piqued and I wanted to try something different and the staff there all sold it so well that I thought I’d give it a go. Jocelyne has a very ordinary life full of small disappointments and small triumphs and she has a pragmatic view on life. When she wins the lottery her life is changed irrevocably. It is full of the ‘what ifs’ that such a life changing event would bring and as she reassesses her life she (and the reader) learns to accept the ordinary. The end will surprise and yet, it is what I would describe as a typically French ending that does not sentimentalise things. In many ways her story is a sad one but the writing is spare enough to pull back from over dramatising that and the emphasis is on her strength. There are enough shocks to keep the reader enthralled and the descriptions of her family are among the most interesting parts. There were one or two plot points that I felt were a bit too pat, but otherwise it was not predictable.

The compact use of language conveys the emotion in a way that more passionate language could not and I felt that it allowed me to see her more clearly than more overblown writing. It is a book that you will want to share with other women, yet it was written by a man. Gregoire Delacourt has done an excellent job of creating the voice of a middle aged woman and her friendships with other women.Its simplicity in style and lack of sentiment is an antidote to many of the other books in this genre. I read it in an hour and will definitely be passing it on. Jocelyne’s story is one to think of well after the book is finished.

Tallullah Rising. Glen Duncan

Finally the holidays have kicked in enough for me to want to read something non-work related and completely indulgent. Which is, after all, what reading should be about. I chose to renew my acquaintance with the werewolves and vampires in Glen Duncan's follow up to the wonderful 'Last Werewolf'. The story begins with Tallulah in one hell of a predicament, Jake is dead and she is due to have her baby any day now. She has taken herself off, with her familiar, Cloquet, to the Alaskan wilds. The full moon is on its way just to complicate things and then, it all happens. She gives birth to two babies/werewolves but the vampires have arrived to take the child they believe she is carrying ( the whole twin thing was as new to Tallulah as to them, thank goodness). They steal away with her boy and then she gives birth to a girl. There are several moments of chase, capture, escape and capture again but they do not become too predictable despite the pattern in retrospect. Duncan does not give the twi-hard vampire fans anything to see here. This is an adult novel that is as comfortable with its philosophical musings on life, death and otherness as it is dropping gouts of viscera and sex on its readers. That said, it certainly takes you on an adventure filled ride around the globe and there are enough plot twists to keep you not only interested, but highly involved.

It is not labelled horror/literature by reviewers without good reason. The writing is tight and controlled with many a literary reference and an intelligent backstory. It moves easily from modern London and America to a sort of James Bond with supernaturals but resists being trite for all that.

I will await the next one, it has been left with enough of a cliffhanger to be certain that one is forthcoming.

Fans of Justin Cronin's work would do well to read Duncan's writing too.

 

Trainspotting- Irvine Welsh

Just to be perverse I decided to read this in the most unlikely place possible. Given the subject matter I selected my holiday to sunny and relaxed Noosa, playground of hippies, triathletes and aging Victorians looking for a place in the sun but still wanting a healthy lifestyle to read this gritty, urban, in fact, downright disturbing book. It was certainly an antidote to place.

While the novel is not without its dark humour it left me disturbed but fully believing in the young men who were the novel’s antiheroes. Mark Renton, Sick Boy and Begbie were the damaged and disturbed young addicts who cut a swathe through Edinburgh night life in the 80s, a time of depressing, grey housing estates full of desperation and ugliness with the ever present threat of AIDs and the grinding poverty of its inhabitants. They are sociopathically aware of society’s ills and determined to burn up quickly. Their contempt for themselves and everyone else masks something a lot more complex. Their need. Unable to fully feel things they mask the pain and disappointment of their lives with whatever substance they can get their hands on. Everything, including other people, is there to be used.

Welsh’s critique of Edinburgh’s underclass is a critique of Britain at the time and is hopeless and sad as well as frightening. The boys are dangerous to others as much as to themselves and I found myself anxious at times for those who came into contact with them. The world of the novel is painfully drawn from the point of view of the main characters and a few of those in the inner circle and the reader is drawn in to their needs, lack of real motivations and aimless paths. The voices are written in strong vernacular and the rhythms of the speech are amazing at conveying the amoral thoughts of the protagonists. For all the horror it is an amazing novel to read and haunts you for quite some time afterwards. The insight into the pain and love of addiction is so strong that you almost feel it yourself.Image

Just don’t read it on a sunny Queensland holiday!

Spies by Michael Frayn

Spies by Michael Frayn.

This is a nice review of a text that has been on the VCE English list here is Australia for a year now. I have spoken to teachers who have taught it for the Context (Area of Study Two- Creating and Presenting) ‘Whose Reality?’ and it seems to be doing well. Students may find it a bit out of their experience at first, and I guess that is the point of teaching a novel like this, but it fits the Context extremely well and certainly gives them lots of opportunities to use it as a springboard for their writing. I liked the way that the boys’ views of events in the close changed as their perceptions of the motivations of those around them changed too. The language was very carefully drawn and opened up a new type of dialogue for students.
All in all, it is a good choice for study.

The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Through a Window and Disappeared- Jonas Jonasson

Originally published in Swedish. I loved this book. It reminded me of Forrest Gump, the obvious comparison, but with more attitude. Alan Karlsson, our hero, was certainly an interesting companion, he was an explosives expert who had met Stalin, Churchill, Truman, Mao’s wife and just wanted to live an easy life. He sailed through the events of the 20th century as an impassive observer but through his observations the reader sees the history of the tumultuous century.
Alan’s 100th birthday arrives and he decides to depart. His journey takes us on a trip through time as well as space as we view his present and past along his journey. 
Alan is unfazed by meeting thugs who want to kill him for stealing, a foul mouthed lady who keeps an elephant, and drug dealers along the way. He draws similar outsider characters to him and forms an unlikely band who decide to share some stolen loot. We learn that he has travelled across the Himalayas on foot. Walked through much of revolutionary China, travelled with Churchill and advised many other world leaders. He also spent five years in a gulag and exploded a whole dock area.
Life is never dull around him and his life and trip are fantastic to read about. This is a book to be read in one sitting.

I seem to have read a few ‘journey’ books lately! maybe it’s time for a trip.Image

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

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Harold has been letting life quietly slip by. The bitterness of his marriage to Maureen has dulled into a standoff of silences and acerbic comments from her and resignation from him. In retirement, David, Harold’s son is absent and has been an uncaring son at best. We later delve into their relationship through flashbacks while Harold is walking the length of England, but I am getting ahead of myself.
One day Harold receives a letter from Queenie who worked with him over 20 years ago. He owes her a debt of gratitude which we do not fully understand until we meet her in Berwick Upon Tweed dying of cancer in a particularly undignified and painful way. The letter leads Harold to look back over his life and assess it more honestly than he has ever done. He, uncharacteristically, takes a walk to deliver a reply and on a whim, keeps on walking, eventually deciding to walk from his home in Devon to Berwick Upon Tweed.
As most journeys are in literature, this one becomes an internal journey as much as a physical one. His, at times physically painful reflections lead to an eventual truce with himself and with his marriage and both he and Maureen gain a new perspective on their lives and relationship.His relationship with Queenie is explored and while at first it seems an unlikely one, they are both outsiders who recognise an essential loneliness in each other. The friendship is not what it seems and the jealousy and guilt surrounding it is explained by Maureen towards the end of the journey. Her newfound respect for her husband and her enlightenment is painfully and tenderly explored.
Harold’s walk sparks the imagination of a nation and he becomes a minor celebrity further testing his new-found confidence and respect for his fellows. Harold’s journey had me captivated from the start and while the book was unashamedly didactic in its message of tolerance and acceptance it was delivered in such an English way that it worked for me. The gentle approach and the deft drawing of the characters Harold met along the way was enthralling and the aspects of the way that his inner journey linked to his physical circumstances was realistic. I found myself really loving Harold and understanding him and wanting him to come through with a good ending to his journey. That the novelist handled the ending so carefully showed respect for her readers.
A charming, heartwarming tale that you will not want to finish. I know I will read this again.

Les Mis

The much anticipated film was finally available for preview and I went expecting great things. The trailers were all very well done, I liked the idea of the actors singing live rather than using pre-recorded tracks as it added to the emotion; which they had in spades.
The film began with an almost cartoonish look, the colour, camera fly in and soaring music bringing us into Jean Valjean and other post revolutionary French prisoners hauling in a ship while waist deep in surging seawater. The singing was powerful and the music brought the audience into the emotion. The film did not deviate from the stage play, and that was part of its charm. The singing throughout was strong with notable high points from Eddie Redmayne as Marius and Amanda Seyfried as Cosette. Hugh Jackman was a powerful Valjean and Anne Hathaway teetered on the edge of melodrama as Fantine, but sang beautifully and carried the part really well. Gavroche and young Cosette were both fabulous, Gavroche, in particular carrying just the right amount of cheek and charm. The revolutionary young men were well acted and sang strongly. The film did translate the play well and the soaring music helped, as in the play, to draw the threads together. The acting was strong from nearly every actor.
The whole film was very good, but there were aspects that I liked less.
I have to mention Javert. Russell Crowe was able to sing, but not to carry the emotional burden of playing such an Old Testament character. He simply did not make the character show any feelings. This should be a character who is unyieldingly strong and righteous. He should crave justice almost as vengeance, but all he did was sing the lines with a rather dour look. The parts where he was meant to threaten Valjean’s existence rang hollow. It was difficult to form any belief that he was a determined man who haunted Valjean and pursued him. Although he was always there, he was just that.
On the other hand, Eddie Redmayne was a superb Marius. He was naively passionate about the revolution, fell madly in love at the first sight of Cosette and had a young man’s blinkered resistance to what was around him, namely Eponine. Samantha Barks’ Eponine was also brilliant, she sang as beautifully as she does on the stage and really made the viewer feel her plight. Helena Bonham Carter in the comic relief role of Mme Thenardier was excellent, but Sacha Baron Cohen as M. Thenardier was less strong. Maybe it’s just that after seeing Matt Lucas in the concert version no one can do it as well.
Overall, the stage play has translated well to film, but needed a defter touch in parts. Some camera work was disconcerting. Too many extreme close ups. Make up occasionally overdid the poor, starved peasants a bit too much and Valjean on his deathbed looked like he had conjunctivitis, but otherwise it was a good film. Given the sweep of the stage play it would be difficult to contain the story in a film of just over two and a half hours and it managed to take the audience on the journey of people caught in turbulent times and still to communicate Hugo’s plea for humanity.
Flawed in parts but still very worth watching.

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Past The Shallows

Miles and Harry live with their father, an abalone fisherman, in a small settlement in Tasmania. Their lives are rudimentary and Miles lives for getting out on his surfboard. Harry has found a new friend, an old man scarred by fire who lives with his puppy Jake. Harry and Miles’ father is a tormented and brutal man who is also scarred, this time, by love. Their lives take a sharp turn as the swell of the sea is not listened to.
This novel is beautifully written. I read it in two hours flat because I could not put it down. The story is heartbreaking and sadly beautiful too. It tells the tale of two sensitive boys in a bleak environment living lives that are controlled by the past and old wounds.
The characters are carefully sketched and the reader slowly inhabits their world.
Highly recommended.

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