Sunday, 31 March 2013

Book Review: The Virgin Suicides

The Virgin Suicides
Jeffrey Eugenides


Earlier this year I read and loved Jeffrey Eugenides' most recent novel, The Marriage Plot.  Off the back of that success, I decided to also read The Virgin Suicides, which I had seen Sanne review on Youtube.  I think the mark of a really great contemporary writer is the ability to write books which are totally different in format and plot, but united by a strong writing style, and Eugenides certainly has that.  His style is preppy in an American East Coast way, while at the same time concisely making astute and truthful comments on modern American life.  And he doesn't even need to be talking about modern America!

In 1974, the five engimatic Lisbon sisters one by one commit suicide as the neighbourhood boys watch on, captivated by these women who seem so central to their lives and yet so isolated from it.  (It wasn't until I watched the film (Sofia Coppola's directorial debut in 1999) that I could pinpoint the year in which the book was set, but it was 1974.  In hindsight, this does seem obvious.  Not being American myself, however, some of the sign posts may have gone over my head a little, haha.)  First to go is Cecilia, an inwardly focussed and slightly morbid loner.  The family goes into mourning and the town seems to wrap them all in bubble wrap, becoming at once fascinated with coming up with why and determined to avoid them in case tragedy is contagious.  In the midst of this comes Trip Fontaine, the school heart throb, and his ingenious plan to take Lux Lisbon and her sisters on the only date of their lives.  But even this cannot stop the literal decay in the Lisbon girls' lives.

I think what really kept me turning the pages of this relatively short book was the strength of it's characterisation.  Told in an almost documentary style, where the neighbourhood boys appear to be compiling eyewitness testimonies, we get to know many of the characters after the fact, such as the monolithic figure of Mrs Lisbon whom they encounter in a bus station nearly ten years later simply because it's possible to get coffee there.  Where characters in this format have the potential to become romanticised (Lux, the dreamy, misunderstood princess or Trip the school heart throb), we are instead shown the best concrete specific details to build real people out of the recollections.  For example, the mystery of Trip's "coolness" is explained by a story of his being deflowered in Acapulco by a blackjack dealer who teaches him the ways of women, and he is shown to be getting advice throughout his pursuit of Lux from his father and his father's lover.  Lux is first described as being all eyes and nostrils, and she wears a sack-like dress (as do her sisters) to homecoming.

A strange novel, described on its cover as a Catcher in the Rye for our time, I would classify The Virgin Suicides as being a deeply introspective book, a puzzle with no key, a frustrating but fascinating account of a family's downward spiral.  My favourite line in the whole book is when the Doctor says to Cecilia, "what are you doing here?  You have no idea how bad the world is yet" and Cecilia says "Obviously you've never been a 13 year old girl."

5 out of 5

Friday, 29 March 2013

Book Review: Z A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
Therese Anne Fowler


Anyone who has been a long time reader of this blog (if there is even anyone!) will know that I am somewhat enamoured with Zelda Fitzgerald.  In the popular imagination, she is the slightly unhinged figure always standing by the side of Gatsby creator F. Scott Fitzgerald and together they are a well dressed and extravagant couple who drink and smoke and dance all in the name of a good time.  Their love story is a somewhat tragic one, but as Fowler says in the acknowledgements of this book, it is a matter of contention who derailed whose life.  Was Zelda truly the crazy, needy, jealous, clingy lesser half of the famous couple?  Or was Scott to blame?

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald sets out not to answer this question definitively, but to give Zelda a chance to tell her side of the story.

Growing up a young woman in the 1920s, Zelda was ahead of her time.  She was feisty, flirtatious and headstrong, and never meant to be anyone's little wifey.  When she met Scott Fitzgerald in 1918, she thought she had found her equal.  They loved each other passionately.  For the first few years of their lives in this book, Scott encourages Zelda to grow her personality.  He wants her to become part of his literary image and so he asks her to act like the flappers in his book.  Life begins to look more than a little like art, and soon Zelda truly is the First Flapper.  She cultivates her own talents too- painting, writing, dance- hobbies to which she believes herself entitled because she is willing to drop everything and follow Scott wherever his intuition takes him.  

They live in New York, in Rome and in Paris.  It is in Paris where Scott meets Hemingway.  Readers of last year's The Paris Wife by Paula McLain will feel that Scott was the lesser half of the Hemingway-Fitzgerald duo.  He was painted as the hopeless hanger on with the nutty wife.  He worshipped Hemingway and did as he was told.  Fowler presents this same relationship from a slightly more converse angle.  Scott believes that he is the cultivator of Hemingway's talent, and dangerously feeds his so called protege's ego and his own.  He tries to live vicariously through Hemingway and compensate for his own lack of productiveness by claiming some part in Hemingway's.  To Zelda, Hemingway is a menacing figure, the embodiment of ego, vice and infidelity, sexually threatening to women and emotionally threatening to Scott.  Zelda despairs that Scott cannot see the negative implications of his nights with Hemingway- the drinking, the gambling, the money lending.

Some readers may be put off by the style of the writing in this book.  Fowler seems to break the cardinal rule of 'show don't tell' which can make some sections cumbersome to get through.  At first, this bugged me so much that I nearly stopped reading!  Then I realised that the novel is designed to be read as if we were privy to Zelda's diary or her written recollections.  This may have been a somewhat unwise choice, such as in sections where an exciting scene is reduced to a mere sentence.  

Z is similar to How to Be A Good Wife (2013) in that it shows us an utterly convincing version of events, makes us feel some sympathy for the heroine and then whips the tablecloth away.  Perhaps owing to the fact that we are already expected to have some knowledge of the Fitzgerald's, or perhaps because this is a novel which is more concretely grounded in an imaginable place and historical context, Z leaves us wondering who to believe at the same time as imbuing us with a new respect for Zelda.  The Paris Wife this book is not, but it was still a thoroughly enjoyable read.


Friday, 22 March 2013

Book Haul: March

Here are some books that I've added to my collection this month.


Have you read any of these?  What did you think?  AND JUST HOW DO YOU SAY 1Q84??????

Friday, 15 March 2013

Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann

Tigers in Red Weather
Liza Klaussmann


Many a reader has been seduced by a beautiful cover and this book is as good as any. The vintage portrait on the front indicates yet another charming historical romance/ mystery ala some of my favourites- Kate Morton and Margaret Atwood.  And to compare this novel to those wouldn't be wrong per se.  While readers of Kate Morton will easily slip into the multi-chronological, multi-viewpoint historical narrative, I think perhaps readers of Margaret Atwood would find the structure of the novel somewhat clumsy and accidental, and here's why.

This novel is divided into five parts, each told from the point of view of a different character; Nick (female), Daisy, Helena, Hughes and Ed.  It centres around a post world war two setting in the East Coast of America in which a family with a lot of secrets slowly comes unravelled.  Tiger House on an island which I think is in Cape Cod, is a picture of affluence.  This is a place where children in whites play tennis, where dinner parties happen every single week, and where pretty much everyone has a Portuguese maid and a mistress.  Then, one day in the mid 1950s, Ed and Daisy find one of their neighbours' Portuguese maids murdered in a back woods hiding spot, and everything changes.  As the book says towards its closing scenes, like for the Kennedy's, the Derringers and the Lewis's are cursed from the moment that Elena Nunes' body is discovered.  But the mystery of who killed Elena is not the central part of the story- in fact, it doesn't happen until well into the second part of the book, making the first part- Nick's- somewhat disconnected, and a lot more slow moving than the rest.  It reminds me of something creative writing teachers have often tried to ram down my throat; in writing, sometimes it is necessary to discover what the real story is.  Sometimes it's not what you first intend.  You should throw out the first three paragraphs, pages or even chapters, because they are your warm up.  While the character building in Nick's section made her a very relatable character, they served no real purpose for my understanding of the rest of the story.  In fact, they just didn't seem to fit with it at all.

The next four sections were extremely enjoyable.  Klaussmann's characters are larger than life.  While at times it is possible to see the deus ex machina at work- plot points such as why Avery is a terrible husband and the truth about Ed seeming to have been decided on at a later point in the writing process- it would not be possible to call this an unoriginal novel.  This is a work teeming with life and creativity, and a sensitivity to the human condition.  Klaussmann's strengths lie in her ability to explore the complexities of our relationships to those closest to us, and to most of all show the highlights as well as the low.  Her characters unapologetically behave badly and this makes them real to me.  There may be no happy endings for some, but it seems right rather than forced.

Another strength lies in the imagery.  I can imagine the lazy summer homes lined up on the island, the music, the heat of the night, the clothes, the boathouse, the hairstyles, the cars.  

I encourage any reader of this book to persevere past the potential drudgery of section one and read on, because you will be rewarded with one of the most colourful historical fiction debuts that I have seen, one which is cinematic in scope and plays out in the imagination like a film reel.  I could see this being a wonderful artistic film one day and I hope someone has the smarts to make it.

Four out of five stars.

Monday, 4 March 2013

A New Map of the Universe by Annabel Smith

A New Map of the Universe
Annabel Smith
UWA Press


After reading and loving Whisky, Charlie, Foxtrot earlier this year, I was compelled to track down Annabel Smith's first novel.  A New Map of the Universe was published as part of the UWA Press New Writing initiative which has also published other local treasures.  And my edition was even signed.  Hooray!

This beautiful, sensual, lyrical novel is a story of loss and longing that spans three generations and multiple continents, stressing the importance of the overarching beliefs we as humans build to connect us to each other- whether that be religion, science, emotion, love, art etc.  It begins with Grace meeting Michael at a party.  The two of them fall in love, and at first it is clear that Grace idolises Michael from the opened eyed, open jawed way that she takes in everything that he says.  She begins to adapt his interests as her own.  But it turns out that Grace does have her own interests- she was once a top architecture student, but she quick when it turned out she could not impress her mother- and slowly but surely, Michael coaxes this out of her.  He asks her to build a house for him.  Her imagination cannot be constrained.

Disaster strikes for Grace when Michael leaves on a research trip to Egypt.  The longer they are apart, the more Grace doubts herself and the reality of her relationship with Michael.  She is sure she loves him deeply, but the superficiality of his letters cause her to see the relationship as shallow, a passing thing.  She is reserved in her own letters so as not to seem a fool.  Finally, she abandons her project, and Michael.

The narrative then shifts backwards in time, telling first the story of Grace's father Peter and then her mother Madeleine, and their quests for something more which led them to each other.  What each story does is tell beautifully of the process of rebuilding yourself- mapping the universe anew- in the face of loss and heartbreak.  This novel shows a great understanding of the simplicity and universality of human emotions that might otherwise seem too complicated to make sense of, and it is one that moves the reader from an almost sexual longing to a more deep-seated emotional longing.  It is an easy tale to relate to, and I give in four out of five.

P.S.  I wonder if anyone else has noticed that the author put the name John Marsden on one of the soldier's tombstones in book 2... I bet I'm not the only one.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

How to be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman

How to be a Good Wife
Emma Chapman


I sometimes feel as if it's best to read a book in a vacuum.

Knowing things about the author; their age, if they live locally, whether or not you'd love to raid their wardrobe will inevitably influence the way you feel about their book.  I think this definitely happened with How to be a Good Wife.  But I'll start at the beginning.

You may have seen a couple of posts ago that I saw Emma Chapman speak at the Perth Writers Festival.  I was impressed by her focussed, almost quiet confidence (with the appropriate amount of timidity about said confidence, if that is possible) and by the way that her voice changed to a loving, calm tone when she read her own words to us.  I find this happens with most writers when they read aloud.  The book itself had been selling rather well as I understood it, due in no small part to the recommendation from none other than Hilary Mantel.  Wow.  No small achievement there!  I'd sort of mentally made note to read this book, but I was in no tearing hurry until I heard Chapman speak about the novel and about her passion for writing it.  So I think on some level my reaction to the book has been tampered with by my own expectations.

Coming into this novel straight off a weekend long reading binge, I immediately felt a slowing of pace.  How to be a Good Wife is a psychological, character driven narrative, and the first one hundred pages or so document the main character, Marta, slowly losing her grip on reality (or 'reality'?)  Interwoven with strange things happening in the present are recollections of the past- the narrative dips in and out of them in such a way that it sometimes seems as if the past and present are happening simultaneously.  This was at times disorienting- I found myself having to backtrack in order to discover whether or not I'd missed something.  However, Chapman has a skill for description which grounds the reader firmly in the eyes of the character, and it is easy to visualise the things Marta is seeing for yourself.

The book almost seems to have two parts to it.  The first part of the book seems to be a slow moving drama about a mother's grief at her son leaving home, and her awkward relationship with her husband.  This part of the book is easy to read in small chunks, simple to dip in and out of casually.  I put the slow pace largely down to the awkwardness of writing from a first person point of view in present tense.  A lot of sentences start with "I" or "My".  The second half of the book- where Marta discovers the dark secret- is less willing to let you go.  It's nearly impossible to review this book without giving spoilers, but suffice to say, this is the point in the book at which the genre becomes psychological thriller, and it is as if the pace of the story, like Marta has awakened.  This part demands to be read in one sitting, and if you read this far, will change your opinion of the entire book.  It's like an "oh, hello!" moment.  So persevere.

Other minor gripes with this book include the very two dimensional insight into the married lives of older couples- troubles with the mother in law, a feeling of hopelessness after the child leaves- which is not ground-breaking, and offers no new insight.  It is Marta's situation and the idea that all of it might be rooted in a lie and manufactured to brainwash her that make the book refreshing.  I also really liked the way that Chapman has peeled back the dramatic edge of the story to make the mundane things seem spine chilling.

All in all, while I don't think that this book was as brilliant a debut as people were raving about I still thought it was a very good read, and I learned a lot about NOT overdoing it from reading it.  Also, I do really really really want to raid Emma Chapman's wardrobe.

I give this book three out of five.