Sunday, December 2, 2018

Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens

Our Mutual Friend was Charles Dickens’ last completed novel, written between 1864-1865. Overwork and exhaustion would contribute to his early death at the age of 58, while he was a few hundred pages into writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

It’s often commented that Our Mutual Friend is Dickens’ most mature and sophisticated work. This is indisputable. Over an extraordinary 800 pages, Dickens exhibits consummate storytelling, weaving together a rich and complex plot, like a beautifully intricate spider’s web. You often marvel at how on earth it’s done. Into this story a huge cast of all sorts of characters is set loose, capturing the broad range of human qualities, from the noble to the the utterly villianous.

The plot all centres around money, a subject which often gets a satiric treatment. The novel opens with a body being found in the River Thames. The dead man is identified as being John Harmon, recently returned to claim a significant inheritance. His misanthropic father had made his fortune from recycling trash, and upon his death, his will stipulated that John could only claim the inheritance if he married the beautiful yet mercenary Bella Wilfer, someone he had never yet met.

The heir found dead in the Thames, the inheritances move to Harmon senior’s two employees, the Boffins. Nicodemus (Noddy) and his wife Henrietta are working-class people, simple and unaffected. When they inherit the money, they try to spread it around. They virtually adopt Bella Wilfer, having her move in with them. Their feeling is that Bella has a right to some of the inheritance. Despite the Boffins’ good hearted intentions, many complications ensue. A cast of greedy, grasping and unscrupulous chancers and adventurers try grab a slice of the Boffins’ fortune.

There is much piercingly sharp comedy in Our Mutual Friend. Noddy Boffin’s obsession with collecting books on history’s great misers is hilarious. Another brilliant comic invention is the mysterious mounds of rubbish kept on the Harmon property and believed to contain secret fortunes. Dickens has great fun in equating money with trash, and even excrement. Beyond the satire, however, Our Mutual Friend portrays a very dark, brooding, moody, even dreamlike world. It infects the reader with its relentless, eerie strangeness. It unsettles and unnerves. Dickens’ last novel is a challenging masterpiece, but well worth the effort.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Men Without Women: Stories, by Haruki Murakami

Murakami’s new collection of short stories is addictive and enchanting.

If there’s one writer whose work we sell consistently, it’s that of Haruki Murakami. No other author compares. For years I’ve had people tell me how much they love him and why I should read him. A long time ago I tried Kafka on the Shore, but gave it up after twenty or so pages. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood, I don’t know. Recently a spare copy of his short story collection, Men Without Women, fell into my hands so I thought I’d give it a go.

The seven stories that make up Men Without Women don’t necessarily follow the title’s theme. In fact, the book probably explores the opposite, how men and women are inextricably interdependent, emotionally and psychologically. Several stories grasp at trying to understand women, particularly in relationships, and why they might act as they do.

In “Drive My Car”, a veteran actor hires a driver due to problems with his eyesight. Soon the two open up a dialogue and the actor talks about his wife, recently deceased, who also cheated on him.  The actor shows no anger at his wife’s infidelities, but merely wants to understand her. “Yesterday” tells of a writer who recalls an old friend and his ambivalent relationship  to his girlfriend.  The book’s title story, "Men Without Women", opens with a man receiving a phone call from the husband of a former girlfriend who has committed suicide. This bad news brings on melancholy reveries of the past, as the man tries to figure out what could have led her to take such a drastic step. Other stories are more quirky. “Samsa in Love” is Murakami’s take on Kafka’s famous story, “Metamorphosis”, while in “Scheherazade”, a middle aged woman tells the man she works for stories from her past, most notably when she was a teenager and would repeatedly break into the bedroom of a boy her age and steal personal items, such as clothing, treating them almost as holy relics.

I found these stories utterly addictive and enchanting. It’s no wonder Murakami has so many fans. His writing has an existentialist flavour, but is warm and human. So many of the stories deal with solitary men and women, trying to fathom life’s mysteries. There’s a sympathy and honesty in this collection of shorter fiction. Murakami gets to the heart of things, in a very appealing, intimate prose.

Men Without Women: Stories, by Haruki Murakami. Published by Vintage. ISBN: 9781784705374  RRP: $19.99

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

North Melbourne Books November Newsletter - featuring Leigh Sales

In the November edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to Leigh Sales about her new book, Any Ordinary Day.

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North Melbourne Books talks to Leigh Sales

North Melbourne Books: Your new book, Any Ordinary Day, asks the question: how would we cope if some random, catastrophic event befell us?  To find out the answer you interview ordinary Australians who have been put through extraordinary events. People like Walter Mikac, who lost his family to the Port Arthur massacre and Stuart Diver, Thredbo landslide survivor. The book also balances these human voices with the latest scientific literature on how we cope when disaster falls. 

What made you want to delve into such a confronting topic?

Leigh Sales: It was a combination of things.  My job anchoring 7.30 means that every day I see people living the worst days of their lives but I rarely see what happens next.  I wanted to believe that life wasn't as cruel and random and hopeless as the news sometimes makes it look.  In 2014, I also had a very rough year personally suffering a number of big blindsides and I felt really rattled and vulnerable.  I was looking for answers about how to go on when life has knocked you off your feet.

NMB: The interview subjects of the book have faced some horrific ordeals. You describe some of the anxieties you had meeting these people and asking such personal questions. What did you take away from the experience?  

LS: I was scared that maybe I would find it depressing to talk to people who had been through some of the worst things I could ever imagine happening to me or my family.  But it was the opposite - it filled me with hope.  The things that people survive and adapt to are absolutely extraordinary.  It made me see how resilient human beings are.  I know this sounds cliched but the whole process has been so life-affirming.  Writing this book has changed me so much.

NMB: Any Ordinary Day is quite interesting from a journalistic point of view. The book discusses the ethical shortcomings of journalism and you are quite candid about mistakes you have made in the past that you regret. During some of the interviews you describe steeling yourself , trying to hold back the tears. The self-portrait you paint is quite different from that of the confident 7.30 presenter we see on television. Why did you want to show this more human, vulnerable side of a journalist’s working life?

 LS: That's interesting that you say that because I rarely feel as if I'm confident or "together", I always feel like everybody else, just chugging along and doing the best I can.  I put a big premium on authenticity and I felt that I could not write an authentic book, or ask people to tell me about some of the most intimate details of their lives, unless I was honest and authentic myself.

NMB: Any Ordinary Day is a very humane, empathetic and consoling book. Despite the heart wrenching subject matter, the reader is left feeling uplifted and positive. It affirms that there is much kindness and decency in the world, even when things go horribly wrong. When you started writing and researching the book, did you have any idea where the writing process would lead you? 

LS: I was really scared about where it would lead me actually.  I felt at a low point in my own life and I was worried that walking towards things that filled me with fear would perhaps send me into a deep depression or spiraling into hopelessness.  I felt compelled to do it though, I felt that I had to confront what I was afraid of.  I think what I'm afraid of is pain and loss and not knowing what is going to happen to me in the future.   Writing this book made me less afraid.  I still dread the sad things in life, like the inevitable loss of my parents or other forms of grief or setback, but I am less scared of it now because I know that all of us are far more resilient than we can ever imagine.

NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment? 

LS: I was a bit late to the party but I recently adored The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose.  I'm also enjoying The Peacock Summer by Hannah Richell.

Any Ordinary Day: Blindsides, Resilience and What Happens After the Worst Day of Your Life, by Leigh Sales. Published by Hamish Hamilton.  $34.99

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Lost Man, by Jane Harper

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Jane Harper addresses many contemporary Australian issues in this compelling page-turner. Fans won't be disappointed!

The setting is cattle country, rural Queensland. Three brothers – Nathan, Cameron and the youngest, Bub – all have their inner demons to deal with. Raised by a brutal father, the wounds still linger, even long after he has died. The heat in this part of the country is relentless and unforgiving. It’s also deadly. A few hours exposure without shade or water and you’re a dead man.

When middle brother, Cameron, is found dead by a mysterious old stockman’s grave, it confounds everyone. Cameron knew the land, knew what risks to take and what to avoid. Mysteriously, his car, fully stocked with food and water, is found nearby. What could be going on? Family and friends had noticed he was stressed about something in the days before he died. As Cameron’s past is excavated, dark secrets are revealed, secrets that may have had something to do with his unlikely death.

With Australia experiencing dire drought conditions, Jane Harper’s third novel has an unnerving timeliness about it. The Lost Man paints a picture of a hopelessly barren environment, arid and unproductive, sending those that work it near mad. Many contemporary issues are woven into the novel: mental health, suicide, high levels of farmer debt, isolation, excessive drinking, bad male role models, stress on families. The list goes on. The novel also examines the question of sexual consent in a manner that is sophisticated and nuanced.

As a crime thriller, the story keeps you breathlessly turning the pages. You have to hand it to Jane Harper: she really puts together a virtuoso performance. Nothing is out of place in this pitch perfect novel, with its plot that ticks like clockwork and serious themes of fractured families, brutal fathers and an even more brutal land.

The Lost Man, by Jane Harper. Published by Macmillan. ISBN: 9781743549100  RRP: $32.99.

Release date 23rd October

Monday, October 8, 2018

Girltopia, by Hilary Rogers

Staff review by Chris Saliba

When a mysterious virus hits Melbourne a group of girls take to the road to sort things out.

One day twelve-year-old Clara Bloom goes to school to find that there are no boys present. The male teachers are absent too. What could be going on? It appears a mysterious illness has afflicted all the men and boys in the city of Melbourne. No one can figure out why. A state of emergency is announced, major roads are blocked and there are up-to-the-minute television reports. Clara’s dad has gone fishing in regional Gippsland, along with friend Pete and his son Jack.

Clara and her teenage friend Izzy worry that the fishing trio may try to return to Melbourne, which would put them at risk of contracting the mysterious virus. Izzy, who has just received her licence, offers to drive to Gippsland. After picking up Clara’s best friend Arabella, the three girls go on a daring road trip.

Girltopia is the first installment of a three part series of novels from local North Melbourne writer Hilary Rogers. With its dystopian flavour and well-timed plotting, Girltopia makes for addictive reading. It has mystery, humour and loads of adventure. The main character, Clara, is easy to relate to, a young girl trying to piece her world together just as it is falling apart. Even though her parents are separating and life is full of confusion, she discovers strengths she never knew she had.

Parents will be happy with the novel's girlpower messages of  independence, resilience and positive self-image. Girltopia will appeal to readers 9+.

Girltopia, by Hilary Rogers. Published by Scholastic. ISBN: 9781742994581 RRP: $14.99

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Tuesday, October 2, 2018

What to Read and Why, by Francine Prose

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A lively and engaging collection of literary essays.

Francine Prose is an American novelist and critic, better known in her home country than in Australia. What to Read and Why is a collection of previously published material, covering a broad range of literature, everything from Jane Austen and Charles Dickens to more contemporary writers such as Jennifer Egan (Manhattan Beach) and Deborah Levy (Swimming Home).

The marvelous thing about Prose, besides her energetic and enlivening writing style, is her sheer enthusiasm for books and reading. She often talks about her “messianic zeal” in spreading the word on some new writer she has discovered, telling friends to drop whatever they doing immediately. While most of this collection discusses  authors and their works, several essays are devoted to the subject of writing and reading, the aesthetic joys and philosophical revelations derived from the printed page. The first piece, "Ten Things That Art Can Do", usefully lists the many different experiences art can give us, such as its ability to teach, produce beauty and shock. Another essay tries to distill what the function of the short story is, as opposed to that of the novel. What, exactly, is its essence? Quoting numerous experts on the subject, both the famous and the academic, Prose discovers there is no single defining feature. The possibilities are as far and wide as the human imagination itself.

Books on writers can often inspire the reader to cast her net wider afield and try something unknown. The pieces on writers Mavis Gallant, Roberto Bolano and Isaac Babel will have you hunting through bookshops and libraries in search of their work. For those who found Karl Ove Knausgaard’s cycle of autobiographical novels My Struggle too daunting to contemplate, Prose writes a tempting appreciation.

Witty, sharp and perceptive, Francine Prose acts as both fan and critic, constantly reminding throughout these compelling essays what a joy it is to read.

What to Read and Why, by Francine Prose. Published by HarperCollins. ISBN: 9780062397867 RRP: $39.99

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Saturday, September 29, 2018

Speaking Up, by Gillian Triggs

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Gillian Triggs examines Australia's human rights record. 

Gillian Triggs, former President of the Human Rights commission, uses her years of experience and learning to discuss at length a range of human rights issues that she cares deeply about, everything from the treatment of asylum seekers right through to the marriage equality vote.

The main concern of Speaking Up is how Australian parliaments are encroaching upon the liberties that we have inherited over the centuries as part of the common law. For example, the federal parliament has laws that allows asylum seekers to be detained indefinitely and yet the Magna Carta (drafted in 1215 to put a check on the executive power of kings) prohibits imprisonment without charge. Writes Triggs, “The common law has become an insubstantial spectre with little capacity to restrain parliamentary excesses.”

Speaking Up puts its case calmly and confidently. It provides a thorough and reasoned  survey of Australia's human rights record, finding that further vigilance is required to meet the country's obligations.

Whether you agree with Triggs's analysis or not, this is a formidable book that can't be ignored. Important and timely, Speaking Up is mandatory reading for those interested in the law, democracy and human rights.

Speaking Up, by Gillian Triggs. Published by Melbourne University Press. ISBN: 9780522873511  RRP: $45