Well, I know I was out of commission for a while but when you pursue a full-time working life on weekdays and use weekends for socialising like me, time just flies. I did make time for reading a few books though and as I have a glorious long weekend ahead (thank goodness for Labour Day in Vic), I can actually be not too tired to write. So I did manage to read the tome that is Shantaram despite my time poorness.
In 1978, the author of Shantaram was sentenced to nineteen years in prison after he was convicted of a string of armed robberies. In July 1980, he escaped from Pentridge Prison miraculously in daylight, becoming one of Australia’s most wanted men for several years. Written by Australian Gregory David Roberts who did actually live in the slums of Bombay, Shantaram is a unique novel that blurs the boundaries of fiction and autobiography.
The real story begins after our protagonist arrives in Mumbai with a false passport under the alias Lindsay Ford. The city impresses Lindsay and his stopover soon turns into an extended and dangerous stay on borrowed time. His chance meeting with an enigmatic taxi driver, Prabaker, who has an infectious smile, whom Lindsay hires as his guide to India shapes the rest of the narrative. They soon become fast friends and Prabaker takes to calling him Lin. Lin is taken to the village of Sunder, where the family of Prabaker resides. Prabaker’s mother decides that Lin’s character is of a happy and peaceful nature and renames him Shantaram (Man of God’s Peace).
So now the story of where the title comes from is over, the pace of the plot increases after Lin gets drunk, is robbed and decides to live in the Mumbai slums and thanks to a first aid kit and a fire ends up as the “slum doctor”. This experience makes him almost local and his fluent mastery of Hindi as well as Marathi, a popular language in Mumbai, opens up new avenues of earning money to him. He also interacts with other foreigners living in Mumbai, involved in all sorts of criminal circles, and then ends up involved in some shady situations, including a stint in theArthur Roadprison. The two foreigners that play a crucial role in Lin’s life is Karla, a Swiss-American woman and Afghan mafia lord Abdel Khader Khan. The former introduces him to true love and the latter inspires him to abandon his path of crime and return to living an honest life.
It’s funny but Lin is a villain that you want to see succeed. The writing in Shantaram is sometimes a bit too cliché and full of sentimentality, possibly to display the tender heart of the guy who looks tough, so if the plot is what interests you and not how the prose is written, I recommend you give it a go.
In Breath by Tim Winton, we have a gripping tale that is simple and profound in the topics it tackles – adolescence, the need for heart-pounding and risk-filled excitement, a yearning to outshine and outdo the competition and how old wounds affect the passage of life as time passes. This book which is mostly about the friendship between two boys and their daring surfing exploits is melodic in its use of written language and deserved the Miles Franklin Literary Award it won in 2009. As an immigrant Melburnian, surf culture is alien to me but as Winton paints such a vivid verbal picture of that world, and how the ocean could be both enthralling and toxic, Breath is a captivating read.
The most touching moment was when or coming of age protagonist had to admit that he was ‘ordinary’ after all. You realise it is a melancholy book as the trajectory of events clues you in that this is no flowery ode. Since it’s structured from the start as a reflection on past events, you can’t help but feel for Bruce Pike, the main character and later on his love interest. It did surprise me that the amount of time spent in learning about his present was very miniscule.
Set in Western Australia where surfing beaches abound, Breath gave me enjoyment in reading about the landscape. Sometimes authors overdo it to the point that it becomes a pain to read but Winton avoids relying on description and infuses his tale with enough dialogue and dramatic tension to sustain interest. You need to realise beneath the story surface story evoking nostalgia, there are other themes such as addiction, dreams vs reality and growing old integrated into the plot as an undercurrent.
The Hotel Albatross was an interesting book with a funny and moving plot. I picked it at random off the library shelf because I liked the conversational tone of the first page. When I choose reading material, the cover or blurb isn’t enough information; I need to know what form the in-text will take. It’s about the running of a hotel and pub in an old Australian outback country town. I used to think running a hotel would be a sexy job in hot demand but the picture this book paints about the hotel management business is bleak. Still the way in which Debra Adelaide, author of The Household Guide to Dying, writes has a certain charm which sustains your interest.
It is mainly about two characters, the Captain and his wife, who find themselves in charge of the hotel after taking on temporary ownership due to mismangement by its previous racist owner. So they find themselves running the place by accident and their endeavours to sell it rarely succeed. The Captain takes care of breaking up fights in the hotel bar, chatting to patrons and dealing with the arising tensions between the indigenous people and the Caucasians. It is told from the perspective of the wife though who takes on the role of housekeeper and when kitchen or bar staff fail to show up for work, either as cook or bartender. She has to sort out decorations for weddings while making sure to satisfy each family member, smooth the ruffled feathers of less than happy staff members and deal with the unhygienic habits of a disgusting customer that brings on a rat infestation. She dreams of escaping to somewhere else where she can avoid the routine.We are treated to eccentric caricatures of the staff and the guests at the hotel and it is this odd cast which makes the story really poignant despite it’s lack of linear structure.
We have the raffle ticket selling waitress Bev, a stubborn and belligerent but good-hearted woman; the ingenious cook who used leftovers to make mouth-watering fare; the pianist doctor who liked playing melancholy pieces and drove away customers; Shirley, who manages the working-class bar and the sultry cocktail waitress Gloria who feels her talents at pouring drinks are of little use at the Galley, the bar mainly patronised by gay men. All this is intertwined with the politics of life in a rural Australian town and how this sometimes clashes with human nature which is always seeking instant gratification. Meanwhile the introduction of bottle shops is causing problems for their country pub. The author provides us with insight into what it is like managing the Hotel Albatross depicting how stressful and tiring it is but at the very end what seems like a very calamitous and heartbreaking misfortune actually also brings the Captain and his tired wife some welcome respite.
So far, I’ve reviewed books that I have enjoyed and liked but unlike most, I do slog through books that I don’t like as well. If I start reading a book, I need to finish it even if it’s awful. Getting things completed is a trait of mine – I don’t like to leave it hanging. For the same reason, I don’t like to watch a film I’ve decided to watch if all I missed was only the first five minutes. Here’s a few I found very hard to get through with patience.
This is a humorous tale by Chetan Bhagat about the events of a night at a call centre and the intersecting lives of six characters who are coworkers in a special team: Shyam Singh, Priyanka, Esha, Radhika, Vroom and Military Uncle. The first five have to pretend they are in Boston and speak with adopted fake American accents to Americans who have problems with their dishwashers, washing machines and computers using a set of scripted answers. Military Uncle deals with the emails as he does not like to talk much. Each have issues of their own.
Shyam is in love with Priyanka but has no self-confidence to stand up to their cruel, cowardly, manipulative and cunning boss Bakshi who has no issues crediting their work as his own. Vroom used to be a journalist but decided to work at the call centre for money while dealing with the stress of his parents’ separation. Priyanka struggles with her mother’s inability to accept someone less than settled for her and her wanting to get her married to Ganesh, a Microsoft employee raking in a six-figure salary. Esha compromises her morals while looking for a modelling contract as she’s an inch too short which pisses of Vroom who is in love with her. Military Uncle struggles with family conflicts as his son objects to him contacting his grandson while Radhika who patiently obeys all that her nasty mother-in-law demands finds out her husband has been having an affair and resorts to anti-depression pills. They decide to cut a shift at work one day and when they find themselves in peril, a call from God comes to the rescue and advise to heed their inner calling.
The cast is inspired to get rid of their boss and find solutions to their personal problems. This is where the story falls apart at the seams. The book starts out with the visit of a mysterious woman on a train who boards the carriage of the author and then before telling the story demands that her story is the next book he writes who is nowhere to be found after he falls asleep. Then as the book ends with the author asking who she is in the story’s cast, she denies being any of the women leaving an improbable explanation. Maybe it was supposed to be inspiring but that was a very cliché, cheap copout for me. Meanwhile bossy love interest Priyanka was not likeable at all – I wanted her to be run over by a truck. I cheered for Shyam when he rejected her but as he crawled back to her like the subservient dog he was to her, I felt ashamed for him. It could’ve been made into a good but cheesy Bollywood movie though, which it was, but Hello failed miserably at the box office due to bad film editing.
The TV show is a raging success right at portraying the lives of catty, biting fashionista snobs with man issues in New York, right? At least that’s what the book was about which is why I am confused about the show being so popular. Disclaimer: I don’t watch the TV show myself. From what I write about in my blog, you can see my tastes are different. I hope this book by Candace Bushnell is satire. It has really made me disillusioned with New York. Good thing I’m more of an Europe fan. I’ve seen the movies – the first was just eh and the second was populated with racist stereotypes which ended up with the Middle Eastern women paying homage to Western culture through designer clothing and to these rich, snobby, self-obsessed bitches. Yeah, avoid picking it up if you can unless the adjectives I used above regarding the empty characters without any friends don’t give off warning bells. It’s not told through the eyes of Carrie, by the way, so if you’re a show fan, I would also give the book a miss too as it’s a collection of articles. After reading, I identified with nobody and disliked everyone. The tagline ‘Jane Austen with a Martini’ is a complete and utter lie.
Given the fact it boldly stated that it had an introduction written by Jonathan Franzen, I tried to enjoy it but the dialogue was a real enjoyment killer. I’m not a fan of inflected dialect in books which decides to erase the letter H from the vocabulary. But I persevered and finished the book reading the story about a vile and neglectful self-indulgent father (apparently based on the author’s real father), an incompetent baby machine mother, a long-suffering aunt and several ill-used children. I’m sorry, Christina Stead but reading this was laborious and therefore it gave me no pleasure even if you came up with this tale of tedious family life in the 1940s. But for you at least, Jonathan Franzen likes your work enough to recommend it and so have many others who rediscovered you. So other readers may actually like it even if I don’t. So pick it up if your tolerance for reading dialect in prose is much better than mine.
Stealing Picasso is an interesting Australian book about the world of artists. While I have some knowledge of the subject history, by no stretch of the imagination can I say that I am a connoisseur. As the title obviously states, it’s about stealing a Picasso painting – from the NGV (National Gallery of Victoria) no less. The theft is carried out by a promising student, Harry, who owes money to a curator who helped him with his first exhibition in cahoots with his disillusioned art teacher, Turton Pym, who has given up on being an art genius and has decided he would mould budding geniuses instead. Things start spiralling out of control as soon as Harry meets the beautiful Miriam, an art buyer who is able to appreciate art unlike the ignorant masses.
He asks her to come see his first gallery exhibition where he has paintings inspired by the artistry of Picasso and the psychology of Freud. She does attend and what’s more, she buys the painting he thinks is deserving of having pride of place in a private collection. Unfortunately, Miriam had lied about her profession so her cheque bounced leaving Harry, a poor art student with a debt he cannot possibly pay. Most of the book revolves around a painting titled The Weeping Woman; a portrait of model Dora Maar, Picasso’s lover. Harry had promised Miriam a reward for buying his art – a secret midnight picnic near the painting with his teacher. So far the only people who had been privy to this experience were Harry and Turton. His teacher is first hostile about sharing The Weeping Woman with a stranger but after meeting Miriam, is entranced with her beauty. She discovers Turton has a secret passion – drawing cartoons of beasts on the motorcycles of a bikie gang lead by Larry Skunk. When she openly admires his handiwork realising the extent of his talent, it takes only a little on her part to persuade him to create a convincing forgery of the Dora Maar portrait and steal the real one. They decide they will steal the painting under the name Australian Cultural Terrorists and makes the news of the theft public through the newspapers when officials are slow to discover a Picasso is missing.
Enter into the scene, Marcel, a professional Michael Jackson impersonator who has had surgery to even look like the singer himself. Unfortunately this is set in the time where MJ was accused of being a child molester and this has a negative impact on Marcel’s chosen career. Oddly, he is a regularly painted subject by no other than Turton Pym. Marcel is forced into prostitution to earn income although he is conflicted. Sometimes he is roughed up by opportunists. By chance, he is introduced to Larry Skunk, who provides him with protection but this introduction ultimately leads to the downfall of all three when Marcel decides he will sell a forgery by Turton Pym to a biker for 30,000 dollars after the “real deal” has already been sold to an unscrupulous individual, Laszlo, for one million. When both owners of the paintings decide to sell it to the same customer to pay their debts, a barrister who reveals the existence of the other painting to the biker, all hell breaks loose.
In the midst of all this, Miriam drops a bombshell on Harry which reveals her motivations for deciding to sell the painting to Laszlo, who had outsmarted them. They find themselves in a quandary. If they reveal the true painting to the public secretly, Laszlo would send thugs after them but if they kept it, they would be hunted by the police. They decide it must be returned for public viewing but unfortunately not without some tragic consequences.
It actually has been a long while since I’ve read a Bryce Courtenay because work and volunteering has kept me on my toes. But on a recent jaunt to the library, I found a sequel to The Persimmon Tree. It’s called Fishing for Stars.
So shipping magnate Nick Duncan finds his life revolving around two women: Anna Til, the exotic but damaged Eurasian obsessed with profit and Marg Hamilton, ex-Navy wife and fanatical protector of nature’s treasures. These characteristics give the two women who are loath to let Nick Duncan belong solely to the other have two vindictive names to call each other: Princess Plunder and Green Bitch. The settings are interesting as it involves the Yakuza in Japan, the military environment of Indonesia, the Pacific Islands and parts of Australia. But this is a story narrated by flashback.
Nick is grieving after losing Anna to breast cancer and is suffering from bad dreams harking back to WWII. Marg decides this is possibly the onset of PTSD and finds him an appropriate specialist. On the advice of his psychologist, Nick decides to put his story on paper; the tale of how he has lived since being a war hero. He writes about the lifelong contest of the two women and how he tried to keep each to their separate worlds until he was forced to take action.
The struggle to save Lake Pedder annoyed me with the weight given to all the politics involved but nevertheless the information was so educational that it was easy to forgive this aspect. The take on Anna Til being a BDSM dominatrix with vaginismus who had a smack habit she couldn’t kick but was cool as a cucumber in making multi-million dollar business deals was a bit much. The habit did not really count as a flaw if it didn’t impact on her ability to be a rational and calculating negotiator. Marg was described in a better and believable way but I think this book focused more on what she did than her as a character.
Still, if you have read The Persimmon Tree, reading the aftermath in Fishing for Stars is not a bad experience even if the history is rehashed for the benefit of those with poor memories. You will always be sure to learn something entirely new in the case of this writer.
I started reading the book on the train yesterday, as we were pulling out from Flinders Railway Station, on the way home after an interview training workshop. The journey took approximately one hour and ten minutes and on reaching my stop of Berwick, I was halfway through the novel.
The first page featured the captivating opening passage below:
Misleading, of course. As always. But unforgettable: the red glow of his face – a boozer’s incandescent glow. The pitted, sun-coarsened skin – a cheap, ruined leather. And the eyes: an old man’s moist, wobbling jellies.
But then … the suit: white linen, freshly pressed. And – absurdly, in that climate – the stiff collar and tie.
I stood behind my mother outside his room at the Swan, perched on a wooden balcony overlooking the beer garden. The hotel – a warren of crumbling weatherboard, overgrown with bougainvillea – was packed, the drinkers and their noise spilling out of the front bar into the garden. Up the stairs, second on the right, a barman had shouted – and every face in the bar had turned and followed us up. One or two drunken whistles had also followed us up; whistles living far beyond their sexual means, my mother later reported to my father, contemptuously.
‘This is Paul,’ she said, pushing me forward, ignoring the noise below.
The figure in the white suit stood aside from his doorway, and motioned us inside.
‘Of course. Your father has told.’
The accent was thick. Continental, my father had described it, vaguely. A voice that reminded him of grilling sausages: a faint, constant spitting of sibilants in the background.
‘Sit down,’ the voice hissed. ‘We will talk.’
A problem: how to capture that accent here? Ve vill talk? It’s tempting – too tempting – to slip into comic-book parody. We haf ways off makink …
Maestro, set prior to and following the damage by Cyclone Tracy, tells us the story of the arrogant Paul Crabbe – the son of two intelligent, music loving parents – whose arrival in Darwin leads him to meet the enigmatic Eduard Keller as his piano teacher of classical music. Although the epithet of maestro is bestowed on Eduard Keller, it is clear the title is used in mockery by the plebeian community. Paul becomes curious about Keller when he observes fragments of newsprint pertaining to wartime Europe in German and nurtures the belief that his teacher is a war criminal because the rapport between them is established in bits and pieces. The vicissitudes of life during adolescence distracts him from being earnest in his pursuit of serious musical study as he debates choosing between the pleasures of Megan and Rosie. Later he realises the missed opportunities and disregarded advice prevented him from reaching his full potential. The truth hits home when he goes to Austria to pay a visit to Henisch in Vienna, who had accompanied Eduard when they were students of Leschetizky. It is only after the tragic death of this incredible teacher who taught Paul the difference between technical perfection and virtuosity, he is able to deduce that “a great man had died, whatever the crimes he felt he had committed.”
The structure of the book is also interestingly split using movements in music as an analogy to demonstrate changes of style and pace e.g. Libretto, Intermezzo. This is useful because we initially believe Peter Goldsworthy is writing in present tense. Later we perceive that he is writing it from Paul Crabbe’s point of view as an older person who is recounting his past. Maestro is a beautifully written bildungsroman that hooks your attention and holds you in suspense right from the start.
I finished the rest of the novel on the train back to Melbourne for the conclusion of the workshop. The journey took approximately one hour and ten minutes.
Have you heard of Cate Kennedy? She wrote the short story ‘Habit’ which has more than one veiled meaning. The plot is about the experience of a dying character who adopts a master disguise to smuggle cocaine using an ingenious manuevere. Torn between the remainder of life left and the dilemmas imposed by an impulsive choice, the protagonist throws caution to the wind to face a massive risk and succeeds.
The gender of the main character remains ambiguous to the reader and contributes to the sly tone satire peppered through the narrative but the voiced internal thought process gives us some insight. Clever phrases are interspersed within the tale which make plenty of sense when the disguise used to conceal her true intentions is finally revealed. It is clear Cate Kennedy has used creative writing techniques in a skilled fashion to craft the plot and is fully deserving of the regard she has attained.
The author of Habit also has the following advice about distractions caused by the Internet for aspiring writers. You can read it here at Overland’s blog. But Jo Case warns you to not go to Luddite extremes either by reflecting on her own blog writing experience here. With that I bring my week of highlighting Australian short stories to a close.
‘Wedding’ by Glenda Adams is a short story about the fatality of incompatibility. The main character looks forward to marital bliss with her chosen life partner and takes it upon herself to be selective in her choice of negligee for the wedding night. But the dialogue around her, even on her wedding day, includes all but the bride herself. It is unclear whether her husband truly loves her or not but it is clear marriage does not grant her entrance into his world of intellectuality.
You cannot help but feel sorry for the story’s protagonist who is uncertain about the conversational duties of a wife, feels everything she does not go quite as planned and finds winning affection from her husband on her honeymoon a daunting task. Her dress is lost during travel, her wedding cake is ruined and the fault line is repaired with a border of funeral flowers while her lover prefers to watch Wuthering Heights starring Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff rather than get busy.
The first line of the story makes you hope her sweet, girlish dreams come to fruition. Anticipation is slowly built up when things keep going wrong but its turning point leaves you deflated in defeat. Yet the writing by Glenda Adams is superb in keeping you hooked through all the pages till the very end.