Monday, July 5, 2010

Reading and Walking

Farmdoc and I have just come back from almost a week in paradise - otherwise known as Cradle Mountain. The plan was that we would each take a pile of the books that we have been dying to read and just haven't had the time for, and in the bad weather that we were bound to experience, we would simply sit in front of the fire and read.

But then, just our luck, we struck a week of mostly fine weather and so were forced out of our armchairs and into our boots. Poor us!

In the end we hit on a compromise. Every morning after an enormous breakfast we headed off for a walk. In the afternoons we'd light the fire in our cabin and read for the rest of the day. In this way we spent hours immersed in nature followed by hours immersed in literature.

My only issue with the scenery of Cradle Mountain is that it's hard to take a photo that doesn't look like one of those wilderness pictures that people who destroy the environment like to display. The kind of thing you see advertising banks, or toilet paper, or on show in airports.

I read five novels:

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver, a two-in-one novel that explores, in alternate chapters, two possible choices made by a woman who is torn between two men.

The Messenger, by Daniel Silva, a thriller about Gabriel Allon, art restorer and assassin, that moves between London, Jerusalem, the Vatican City, Venice, Rome, Paris and another dozen places at least and is utterly unputdownable.

On Chesil Beach, a novella by Ian McEwan. I often think McEwan's books, including Solar, his latest, would be better as novellas. This one is perfect. I actually read it twice. I especially like how the research is fully integrated into the novel and not presented as undigested lumps as McEwan sometimes likes to do and as Shriver does in The Post-Birthday World.

A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore, a writer who I think does short stories best. I loved this novel because Moore is a superb writer so I was prepared to look away when her plot got away from her. But there are too many word tricks and maybe too much of everything for the book to truly work. Sometimes I found the writing so dense I could hardly breathe but at other times, perhaps when Moore isn't trying so hard, the novel just sings.

Wanting, by Richard Flanagan. I would have liked this novel to be longer. Its two subjects, the famous British writer Charles Dickens and the Aboriginal child Mathinna who was picked up and then abandoned by Sir John and Lady Jane Franklin in colonial Tasmania, seem to me to deserve more space. The Tasmanian section is heart breaking, but though Flanagan captures Dickens's England in all its filth and squalor, I didn't find Dickens himself convincing, so for me in the end the book's themes got a bit lost.


  1. Hi Viv
    I don't read much fiction. However I am reading the novel "Life and Fate" by Vasily Grossman, a book that was suppressed by the KGB when it was completed, in 1960, but eventually published after it was smuggled to the West in 1980 and then translated to English in 1985. It's an epic semi-autobiographic account of Soviet society through World War 2, specifically the Battle of Stalingrad, but eloquently addresses the human condition when challenged by (two strains of) brutal totalitarianism, and a universal them of his: "senseless kindness". 20 years after Grossman's mother died, at the hands of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen in the Ukraine, he wrote to her: "I am you, dear Mama, and as long as I live, then you are alive also. When I die you will continue to live in this book, which I have dedicated to you and whose fate is closely tied to your fate."

    I interrupted my reading of the epic "Life and Fate" to read two non-fiction works that I picked up in my recent travels. The first, from a Steimatsky's in Tel Aviv, was "The Revolt" written by Menachem Begin in 1950. Gripping. The second, from Sunflower bookshop in Melbourne was "My Father's Paradise" by Ariel Sabar. It's a history of his family that went from an ancient Aramiac-speaking Jewish community in northern Iraq to Israel and then USA in a single-generation leap. The most captivating part of that story, for me, is that of the author's father, an Aramic-speaking Kurdish Jew, falling in love with an assimilated American Jewish woman ...

    But now, back to "Life and Fate"...

  2. Steve, I have no idea how you find time to do any outside reading at all with all the work you put into your fantastic and very important blog!