Friday, December 28, 2007

DAAS Book by the Doug Anthony Allstars

From the favourer: "Now, where did I leave my literary pretensions? Not at your place are they? Oh no, here they are: The Doug Anthony All-Stars were the future of comedy that never became its past - DAAS Book displays why this (so frequently) goes without saying. Existentially rich, philosophically profound, emotionally purile - its omissions are as tellling as many a great work's content."

This was not the book I was expecting. I'm not sure it was the book the blurb-writer was expecting either, as they seem to have written their blurb before actually reading it. This seems to be a recurring theme with the books I'm reading - at this rate I'm expecting the blurb of Wuthering Heights to describe it as a slapstick verse novel.

But DAAS Book is something of a difficult book to describe, aside from saying that if you have ever seen the Doug Anthony Allstars perform, or if you haven't, it won't be what you're expecting. The closest I can get is to ask you to image an absurdist exercise in revulsion and surrealist dream sequences, teamed with a carefully signposted jigsaw of a mystery that is only just too complicated to keep in your head all at once.

Oh, and some of it is prose and some of it is comic-strip style. And there's a lot of bodily fluids.

Got that? Right. Let us move along.

When I started reading, I was basically expecting the DAAS version of Monty Python's Big Red Book or Spike Milligan's A Dustbin of Milligan, ie. a compilation of funny bits and pieces. By about page 24 (yes, a little slow on the uptake), I finally noticed there was a story. So I turned back to page 1 and started reading again, which was a good idea because this is a book where you're rewarded for taking notice and putting it all together.

Penanse Kihhes is confined to a wheelchair, and cared for by the repulsive and cruel D. But there's more going on behind Kihhes' blank stare than D. suspects. Kihhes knows things that are likely to shorten his lifespan if D. thinks he could communicate them to anyone. But recently, Kihhes has started typing. With his head. He can't move his arms and legs, but he can bang his face on the typewriter keyboard. It looks like a mess of random letters, but it's making D. anxious.

Through flashbacks, stories, comic-strip sequences and a drunken road-trip taken by the DAAS boys themselves, we can gradually piece together the connections between D., Kihhes, the Hogman, the whore, and numerous other characters.

To paraphrase a line from the book, its repulsion is its attraction. I kept making the mistake of reading this book while I was eating, and having to put it down again. I'm not particularly squeamish - barring cat spew - but I think putting it down briefly is understandable if you're encountering geriatric sex scenes as imagined by D. in his horror of getting old (erm, warning for faint of stomach to skip next paragraph):

"There are bits of tooth coming loose from the bleeding gums, through chipped enamel they exchange saliva, pus, blood, as the dentures slip from mouth to mouth and back again...There they gyrate, undulate in a sea of blood, and pus and spit and piss like salt and shit and crippled semen dripping off his wang and they swim in it, an ebb tide of oozing flesh."

It's a bit like watching early Peter Jackson - it makes you a bit nauseous, but it's hard to look away. Though even D. has his own wisdom gleaned from inspecting the bedpans of the patients he cares for, my favourite of which is: "People may disguise the shit in their lives, but they cannot disguise the shit from their arse."

The second half of the book veers away somewhat from the spectacularly scatological - though there's still a healthy amount of vomit - and includes more drawings and humour (in typically black-edged, nasty DAAS style). There are some lovely, darkly florid sequences, such as Tim's dream of escaping as a young boy from an ancient aunt into the depths of the garden:

"...he slips from view, a canopy of twisting branches, with heavy fruit, hidden from her prying cataracts he lies now, in shorts with short-sleeved shirt, his thin brown bones protruding obscenely on his back, for a moment drops of sunlight anoint his forest floor, a fire races over the leaves still wet with dew, a carpet of broken snail shells, dead from well placed pellets, a sticky trail like his own dried spit, criss-cross from dead slugs' arses, spider webs of the same fine spit hold gingerly their gracious carcasses - as unwilling guests as he."

Most of all, I enjoyed wondering this book out, picking up tiny references back to past events that link together some of the puzzle. Of course, I also inescapably enjoyed feeling rather clever about myself when I noticed them. Despite the fact that everyone must do the same, and more so. I was so intrigued that by the end, where a 'facsimile' of Kihhes' head-banging typewriter stylings are printed, I wandered over them for far longer than my "I-hate-sudoku-and-IQ-puzzles" attention span usually permits. I think I was rewarded for this (and not just with an eye-strain headache).

DAAS Book will quickly confound any confidence you have that you've worked it out. Right when you find a narrative it becomes a patchwork, and vice versa.

It's a weird book. One minute it dares you to make sense of it, and the next it teases you for taking it seriously:

"Infinity is relative."

"Aeroplanes don't kill you. The ground does."

"Read the print before you read between the lines."

"Never trust a dog with two dicks."

If you see what I mean. I love a book that messes with your head.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx

From the favourer: "The characters are as good and grotesque as real people and so honestly described (no-one could accuse Annie Proulx of sugar-coating anything), and the language is so dense and apt; I also find the book funny in places (eg the headline 'Stupid Man Does Wrong Thing Once Again') and I think that despite all the awfulness it's an optimistic book at heart."

Librarians have a tendency to read the title pages of books. I think it's an instinct born of excessive amounts of cataloguing, but you do come across some lovely subject headings (one of my favourites is "Rich people - Pet loss"). Note to aspiring novelists : if you want libraries to buy your book, get yerself an interesting title page. When I turned to the title page of The Shipping News, I discovered the disclaimer:

"This is a work of fiction. No resemblance is intended to living or dead persons, extant or failed newspapers, real government departments, specific towns or villages, actual roads or highways. The skiffs, trawlers and yachts, the upholstery needles, the logans, thumbies, and plates of cod cheeks, the bakeapples and those who pick them, the fish traps, the cats and dogs, the houses and seabirds described here are all fancies. The Newfoundland in this book, although salted with grains of truth, is an island of invention."

So basically I already like the book at this point.

Quoyle is a failure. He knows this because from very early on in life his father informed him of all his failings:

"failure to speak clearly; failure to sit up straight; failure to get up in the morning; failure in attitude; failure in ambition and ability; indeed, in everything...All stemmed from Quoyle's chief failure, a failure of normal appearance."

With negative self-esteem and a hulking, enormous body, Quoyle shuffles through life, finally ending up as a hack journalist for a crappy newspaper. Then one night he meets Petal - a sharp, shining-hot woman - and falls obsessively in love. For a while it seems that Quoyle's miserable failure of a life is about to be redeemed. Unfortunately, if Quoyle is a failure, then Petal is a bitch. She is "crosshatched with longings, but not, after they were married, for Quoyle." Petal is everywhere else with everyone else - flying to other countries with other men, disappearing with a new boyfriend every night. And hating Quoyle for his forgiveness and pleading, the frustrating way that he waits for her and her anger. To be honest, at this point I empathised with Petal just as much as I did Quoyle.

But one night Petal sells their two daughters, aged 6 and 4-and-a-half, to a porn film maker for $7000, and is killed almost immediately afterwards in a car crash. These final actions define her for the rest of the book. The girls are quickly recovered unharmed (though their buyer "clearly had something in mind"). Grasping desperately at the chance to start again, Quoyle uses Petal's life insurance payout to up stumps and head with his aunt and daughters to the Quoyle ancestral home in Newfoundland.

Now, at this point I stopped reading briefly and turned to check the blurb of this book again, just to ensure I wasn't delusional. Yes, it really does say: "The Shipping News is an irresistible comedy". I read it a few times, just to check. Yep, that's what it says.

Horrible events can overshadow happy ones in our lives. It is one of the many gifts of this book that Quoyle's new life in Newfoundland is such beautifully gradual path to something approximating happiness that even the reader doesn't consciously notice the change. It's a wonderfully plotted book in general, Proulx dropping revelations into the book piece by small piece, subtly building backstory and characterisation in a way that reflects that way we learn about people in our own lives. We don't get to know our friends and family through self-contained, block-capital outbursts (take note, Japanese Story). We know them though their instinctive reactions, jokes, uncensored facial expressions, gestures, overheard conversations, embarrassed confessions, drunken moments, and favourite episode of The Simpsons.

Despite my confusion over the book's blurb, which had me wondering if my copy had been misbound with the back jacket from another novel, this book is often very funny. I still think it's bizarre to term this book and 'irresistible comedy'; I think the humour is more subtle than that. It appears in the form of the darkly comic, the eccentric mis-en-scene, and the dry observation.

Like the favourer, I loved the way that Quoyle's newspaper-man training leads him to make headlines out of everyday life. My favourite is when Alvin Yark and Quoyle finally finish building Quoyle's boat. Yark has an annoying habit of singing a song under his breath to fill any silent moment in conversation:

"Yark half-sang his interminable ditty, 'Oh the Gandy Goose, it ain't no use, cause every nut and bolt is loose, she'll go to the bottom just like the Bruce, the Gandy Goose, and kill a NewfoundLANDER,' while he transferred the measurements to the rough boards.
'You'll 'ave your boat next Saddy. She'll be finished.'
Thank God, thought Quoyle. Man Escapes Endless Song."

But like all of Proulx's characters, even Yark isn't left solely as a point of humour. When the boat is finished, Yark's "mouth cracked open. Quoyle, guessing what was coming, got there first, roared 'Oh the Gandy Goose, it ain't no use,' sang it to the end, swelling the volume until the lugubrious tune took warmth from his hot throat. Old Yark believed it was a salute, embroidered stories for half an hour before he went up to his tea, the tune still warm in his ears as a hat from behind the stove."


But stays with you most about The Shipping News, as the favourer notes, is the language. Reading Proulx's prose is a little like being whacked in the face with something disgusting and interesting. Quoyle is described as "a great damp loaf of a body...Features as bunched as kissed fingertips. Eyes the colour of plastic." What's the colour of plastic? I don't know, but it still makes me feel squirmy.

Her sentences are often brief and poetic in their immediacy, such that I sometimes read paragraphs as if they were poems, placing my own mental line breaks. It's a writing style that suits the setting of the book perfectly; her short phrases bunt against each other like boats in the harbour:

"Conscious of warping sea-damp, corrosive salt. A woman in a food-splotched bathrobe, hair the colour of sewage foam, sat on the sofa. Her hands clashed in bracelets, rings. Feet stretched out, blunt purple ankles."

It's a very effective form of description that could easily be overdone, but The Shipping News is hardly an example of style over substance. Like the favourer, I also found it an optimistic book at heart, and all the more moving for the relaltively small amounts of happiness required to shine out against what has come beforehand.

A book that lives up to its title page.

This book will be released into the wild in a week - but readers get first dibs! If you'd like this book, send me an email at and I'll post it to you.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Well, I threw caution to the wind and released Bury My Heart on a table outside Jimmy Watsons on Lygon Street - and it was caught! Hurrah!

The finder says : "At work when release alert popped into email. First ever book I have captured!Will release back into the wild once had a read.The effectiveness of notifying the "exact" time book was to be released was not lost on me!"

Happy days. Happy bookcrossing.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

This is my grandfather's favourite book, and I suppose the inspiration for this reading adventure. I'm quite pleased to place it unobtrusively as the seventh book in my reading - neither a scary 'first step' nor a scary 'final stop'.

It's just come up as I found a copy of it - in that gloriously impenetrable beast of a secondhand shop down from the Westgarth in Northcote. I scrabbled the book out of a wicker shelf at the door and exclaimed at the serendipity of the find. The small woman sitting crosslegged on the floor of the shop looked up from her game of Patience. "What've you found?" she asked. I held out my trophy. "Oh, it just gets you right here, doesn't it?" She thumped one hand on her heart. I wasn't sure what to say; I hadn't read it yet.

Paul and I clambered down through half the rest of the shop and back up the other side (you can only get halfway down before the mountains of furniture and decaying whitegoods prevent any further exploration). I confused the card-playing shop owner by attempting to make changing a $50 note easier by handing over $53 for an $8 book (it's a habit that I get from my father. Because then you see she only has to give me back $45, without fiddling for change...oh forget it).

Anyway, the book. I hardly ever read non-fiction, let alone history. So I approached this book with confidence.

I was confident that, as a history of colonisation, it would be a story of cruelty, suffering, misplaced trust and unimaginable ignorance.

I was also confident of my own ignorance, given that the majority of my knowledge of American Indian history is gleaned from Ed from Northern Exposure.

Beginning with the Long Walk of the Navahos in 1860 and concluding with the massacre, twenty years later, at Wounded Knee, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is an account of the systematic destruction of the Indians of America (I'm going to use the book's terminology). The story is an all-too-familiar one for any colonised country: invasion, casually brutal massacres, and 'treaties' that cheat the Indians of their land in return for a pittance while forcing them onto barren reservations where they either starve, freeze, or are shot for trying to escape. Brown's book was very controversial for presenting a view of the so-called 'opening' of the West that portrayed white settlers as (with only occasional exception) cruel, brutal, greedy and untrustworthy. Since its release in 1970 it has sold over 5 million copies and been translated into 17 languages.

Brown's narrative is distinguished by his measured prose style that means this book never becomes a voyeuristic 'dramatised' history. You can't get lost in the horrors as if they were part of a Law & Order episode. Nothing is embroidered or melodramatised. But this isn't to imply that the book is blandly written. Brown uses, for example, the Indians' evocative and lovely form of chronology - instead of describing an event as occuring in March, or Winter, we are told that something happened during 'the moon when the ponies shed' or 'the moon when the deer paw the ground'.

But what makes this book so effective is Brown's use, wherever possible, of documents from the time - the words of the Indians themselves (translated from speeches, letters and interviews by Indian interpreters) and reports of soldiers. Like Brown's own writing, these are often all the more shocking for their lack of emotionalised details. It's rather like in the 1940s film of Oliver Twist where Sykes is beating Nancy to death. All we are shown is Sykes' dog scratching desperately at the door to get out; even his own dog can't bear to be in the room with him. What we are not shown is what we then imagine. In Bury My Heart, Brown quotes from a soldier's report of a Cheyenne massacre:

"There were some thirty or forty squaws collected in a hole for protection; they sent out a little girl about six years old with a white flag on a stick; she had not proceeded but a few steps when she was shot and killed. All the squaws in that hole were afterwards killed, and four or five bucks outside. The squaws offered no resistance. Every one I saw dead was scalped. I saw one squaw cut open with an unborn child, as I thought, lying by her side. Captain Soule afterwards told me that such was the fact...I saw a little girl about five years of age who had been hid in the sand; two soldiers discovered her, drew their pistols and shot her, and then pulled her out of the sand by the arm."

Small things amongst huge horrors also become significant. The Navahos of Canyon de Chelly were "especially proud of their peach orchards, carefully tended since the days of the Spaniards." When Kit Carson ordered the invasion of the canyon, arrest of the Navahos and destruction of their possessions, this included the destruction of their peach orchards; "more than five thousand trees. The Navahos could forgive the Rope Thrower for fighting them as a soldier, for making prisoners of them, even for destroying their food supplies, but the one act they never forgave him for was cutting down their beloved peach trees."

Perhaps most heart-breaking is the way the Indians trust the white men over and over again, and every single time they are killed or cheated for it.

It's an awful, fascinating, angering read. It's a book you feel you 'should' read - these are often the toughest. It's taken me a few months, and sometimes I needed a break. But if you can take it on, even as something you gradually work through, I think you will be sadder and richer for it.

I don't want to release this book into the wild, but I do want to release it to someone. I'll register it on Bookcrossing, and if you'd like it, send me an email at and I'll post it to you.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Hand-writing my blog - a sinister interlude

I'm left-handed.

I also hand-write my blog before I type it in.

Combined with keeping a diary and having 18 snail mail penpals (at last count), this leads to a condition unique to left-handers. I have dubbed it Sinistink - the permanent ink stain colouring we molly-dukers who hand-write a lot.

I think I'll start a support group.

Incidentally, hand-writing my blog first isn't a techno-phobic thing, it's just that my laptop weighs 8kg and my moleskine weighs 24gms. Guess which one I carry with me at all times?

Nearly finished the next's non-fiction, so it's taking me a while. I'm not used to facts!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Bread and Jam For Frances by Russell Hoban

From the favourer: "It's all about food, and so am I."

Did you go through a phase as a kid where you refused to eat anything except one food? When one of my cousins was little he would only eat vegemite sandwiches. Even at Christmas lunch where everyone else was chowing down on cold meats, seafood and all manner of Christmassy goodness, we had to make him vegemite sandwiches to stem the tears. I don't know if I had a single-food phase exactly, but I was a fussy little bugger. Between the ages of about 2 and 10 (possibly longer, but then it starts to get embarrassing) I would only eat pasta if it had butter and absolutely nothing else on it. When I ordered this gourmet delicacy at the very accommodating Paragon Cafe and my meal came with a garnish of parsley, I would cry.

Frances the badger loves bread and jam. She loves bread and jam so much that she doesn't want to try eating anything else, because, as she informs her parents:

"there are many different things to eat,
and they taste many different ways.
But when I have bread and jam
I always know what I am getting, and I am always pleased."

But Frances' mother, tiring of cooking meals that don't get eaten, decides that if bread and jam is what Frances wants, bread and jam is what Frances will have. As Frances' committment to bread and jam begins to waver, she sings:

"Jam for snacks and jam for meals,
I know how a jam jar feel -

Bread And Jam For Frances is one in a series of Hoban's Frances picture books that has also been translated into Spanish (Nicely titled Pan y mermelada para Francisca), and illustrated by his wife Lillian Hoban. The two-tone illustrations are soft and charming, but seemed a bit samey to me at first glance and I wondered if they actually added anything to the story. Most of them have a character placed centre-stage with only their very immediate surroundings detailed.

Then I remembered to read the book as if I couldn't read yet.

After this I found ways in which the illustrations complement this gentle story. Kids can see Frances' expression gradually change from cheerful to sad as she tires of her one-track meals, and point to the different components of her school friend Albert's excellently varied lunch. That lunch is guaranteed to make you hungry, even if like me you're scoffing the pictured pan y mermelada as you read the book. The way Albert eats his cream-cheese-cucumber-and-tomato-on-rye plus its accompaniments to finish everthing at the same time is lovingly methodical (and might even be worth a go to get fussy eaters to eat a bit of everything they're given):

"He took a bite of the sandwich, a bite of pickle,
a bite of hard-boiled egg, and a drink of milk.
Then he sprinkled more salt on the egg and went round again.
Albert made the sandwich, the pickle,
the egg, and the milk come out even.
He ate his bunch of grapes and his tangerine.
Then he cleared away the crumpled-up waxed paper,
the eggshell, and the tangerine peel.
He set the cup custard in the middle of the napkin on his desk.
He took up his spoon and at up all the custard.
Then Albert folded up his napkins and put them away.
He put away his cardboard saltshaker and his spoon.
He screwed the cup on top of his thermos bottle.
He shut his lunch box,
put it back inside his desk, and sighed.
'I like to have a good lunch,' said Albert."

While Hoban is writing for very young children in this book, his trademark humour is probably what has kept this book in print for over 43 years. My favourite moment is where Frances, on her umpteenth slice of bread and jam, attempts to offhandedly relieve Albert of his lunch:

"...'And I had bread and jam for dinner last night and for breakfast this morning.'
'You certainly are lucky,' said Albert.
'Yes', said Frances. 'I am a very lucky girl.
But I'll swop if you want to.' "

Very generous. But how can Frances go back on her committment to bread and jam now? Perhaps some conveniently selective memory is required...

But now, if you'll excuse me, I'm feeling a little peckish.

The joys of Daylesford (a bookish aside)

Just as I realised that this reading project is a really good excuse to buy books (whether I can bring myself to release them into the wild after I've read them is another matter), Paul and I conveniently went to Daylesford, home of the Lake Daylesford Book Barn and the Avant Garden bookstore. I took a list of your favourites, and decided I was going to buy any of them that were under $10. I've come home with 19 books. Eep.

The Book Barn, which I've been visiting since I was about the size of my profile picture, was up for sale the last time we visited. Sob! No more pot belly stove in the middle of the store, no more old dog warming his bones in front of it, no more Kerry recognising me each time I visited over the years (each time I was generally taller, but with the same haircut). But on this visit, I discovered that the store has been rescued! It's been bought by a chap who is continuing to run it as a secondhand book store - only with coffee! Hurrah! This works especially well when the person you're in the store with gets sick of browsing while you're still going, because then they can have a coffee and not just hover around asking if you're ready to go yet. Long may the Book Barn endure. But the favourite part of my visit was discovering a new section in the store. So you've got your 'Australian Literature' section, your 'Military History' section, your 'Music' section, etc...and then you've got your:

section. I had a quick scan of the books that have been classified under this label (expecting, I don't know, maybe some Wodehouse?), but I'm still not sure what the criteria is...

One more sight to share with you - outside the restaurant Frangos & Frangos are its principal patrons at their permanently reserved table, with cushions:

They were there every day, all day. Anyone for puppacino?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Dragons of Autumn Twilight (Dragonlance Chronicles, Vol. 1) by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman

From the favourer: "You asked for can't unask for's my favourite because it was the first fantasy book I read and introduced me to what is now my favourite genre. Apart from the classic fantasy elements in there, there was also a good mix of characters that had a bit of depth to them. Well, at least more depth than the typical fantasy character (case in point, Conan the Barbarian!)"

Firstly, I knew when I started this reading adventure that there'd be surprises. I expected surprises about the books people nominated, about others' reactions to the books people nominated, and about the books themselves. I'm extra-pleased when the favourer doesn't feel they have to nominate a dead-white-male-canonical-(possibly-boring-but-who-am-I-to-say)-classic as their favourite, but actually goes for the heart and nominates something they love.

Because - as I finally found the words for last night when I'd had too much wine and was having earnest discussions with Paul, my very tolerant husband - the point of my reading these books isn't to give a distanced, objective review of your favourite books. This would require some sort of complicated standardising procedure that my year 12 Maths Methods score just isn't up to. That would be HARD.

The point is for me to find out why these books are your favourites. I don't particularly care about the subject matter or standard of writing. (Length is an issue. But I'm working with myself intensively on that prejudice.) Basically, I want to read them, and to understand, quite simply, what makes you love them. That is EASY.

Secondly, I want to state that I'm not one of those people who say loftily, "Oh, I don't read fantasy" (a breed of folk closely related to those who say "Oh, I don't watch mainstream films.") I do read fantasy, but mostly Young Adult fantasy. And when I say 'mostly', I actually mean 'solely, apart from Terry Pratchett'.

Thirdly, I want to offer a word of advice to the lonely: if you read Dragonlance books on the train, you will make friends.

I made my first Dragonlance friend during Monday evening peak hour, standing up on the 6:08pm Hurstbridge train with only room to hold the book about 5cm from my nose. Good thing I'm short-sighted.

"They're making a movie of it, you know," said the man standing unavoidably a little-bit-too-close to me.

I looked up. (Well, I moved my eyes sideways.) "Are they?"

He nodded, and started to push towards the doors as the train slowed. "It looks crap so far," he called as he stepped of the train, "Stick to the books!"

My second Dragonlance friend was a man named Chen on the 7:38am to Flinders Street Station. Dragonlance book covers are instantly recognisable (in the same way that Discworld cover art can be spotted from at least 23 miles away), and Chen was reading War of the Twins, another in the series. We spotted each others' books at the same time.

"Going back to where it all began?" he asked.

"Actually, I've never read one before, [insert repetitive explanation about reading adventure here]" I said.

"Oh, it must be great to be reading it for the first time," said Chen wistfully. And conversation continues until Chen gets off at Fairfield.

See? Read Dragonlance, make friends.

Caveats and RSVP-aspirations over. On to the book.

Five friends meet in a tavern after many years apart. They're a motley bunch - Flint the dwarf, Tanis the half-elf, twin brothers (Caramon the boofy warrior and Raistlin creepy mage), and Sturm the knight. Yes, it's all very Lord of the Rings, but so is Harry Potter. They're joined accidentally by Tas the kender, a 4-foot-tall kleptomanaical species that knows no fear and is as such perpetually getting into trouble. Last time they met, it was under happier circumstances. There's bad stuff goin' down in the land. Hobgoblins are a new and menacing presence in the usually peaceful town of Solace, and there's rumours of war and monsters in other cities.

After a chance encounter with a healing blue crystal staff, a bunch of hobgoblins and a good old fashioned bar brawl, the five friends (plus the kender) find themselves fleeing the tavern with two strangers. One is the bearer of the magic staff, Goldmoon, the other her Plainsman guardian Riverwind. All of them are initially unsure of their direction and almost go their separate ways, but eventually embark on a journey to find out the purpose of the magic staff, and whether it can play a part in arresting the torrent of evil that is engulfing their home towns.

It's not so much the novelty of plot that entertains in this book as it basically goes: "fight a battle find the object go to the next place fight a battle find the next object go to the next place fight a battle etc." As the favourer notes, it's the characters that make the next battle worth reading for. Tanis the half-elf (whose half-breed status manifests in that unlike other elves, he can grow facial hair) is constantly torn between his human and elf instincts and loyalties. Caramon the warrior, who would otherwise be a big bland ball of muscle, is constantly hungry and gets amusingly nostalgic for meat when feasting among the vegetarian elves. Raistlin the mage, whose name just works so well, has sacrificed his physical wellbeing for his magical powers and sees everyone as dying by inches, all the time. Tas the kender is just lovely, a cross between the brownies of Willow and Nanny from Count Duckula. Sturm the knight is hilariously and touchingly loyal to his outdated knightly code, to the point where the others have to work him around to doing what will actually save his life rather than satisfy his honour:

"'Sturm!' Tanis said urgently. 'Come on! We've got to get out of here!'
'Run?' The knight appeared astonished. 'From this rabble?'
'Yes.' Tanis paused; the knight's code of honour forbade running from danger. He had to convince him. 'That man is a religious fanatic, Sturm. He'll probably burn us at the stake! And' - a sudden thought rescued him - 'there is a lady to protect.'
'The lady, of course.' Sturm stood up at once and walked over to the woman. 'Madam, your servant.'"

I think character for me is the appeal of series fantasy. In many books I read (of various genres), when I reach the end of the book, I just don't want to let the characters go. In fantasy, I don't have to. I also think this sort of fantasy evokes a kind of longing, the same kind I feel when I watch Doctor Who or read the Narnia books. If you love Doctor Who, you've already had this thought: 'If David Tennant asked me to step into the Tardis, I would go.' If you love the Narnia books, you've already had this thought: 'If any wardrobe keeps going, I'm going to see where it goes.' That's the longing. You want to go. You're basically ready to go. At any time. So when in this book you read -

"Tanis and the dwarf both turned and looked down into the quiet valley. Lights began to wink on, making the homes in the trees visible among the vallenwood. The night air was still and calm and sweet, tinged with the smell of wood smoke and from the home fires. Now and again they could hear the faint sound of a mother calling her children to dinner."

- you think 'Wow what a cliche' and 'How lovely I wish I was there.'

It's a longing here for a romantic rustic fantasy setting that is conveniently absolved of the problems that come with lack of sanitisation, infection, feudal politics and general discomfort.

It's also a longing for a sort of heroism which is basically impossible, where there's just good and evil. It can take a while to get there and you can't always tell which is which at the time, but you know it's going to be clearly one or the other eventually.

It's a nostalgia for something you've never actually experienced. But I guess that's what nostalgia is - a longing for something that never really happened that way in the first place.

And in the case of The Dragons of Autumn Twilight, it's also pretty funny and exciting. I actually missed my train station one morning. I'm not exaggerating for effect here, I actually went through Melbourne Central to Flinders Street. If you know my general standards of organisation, you'll know I don't miss my train station.

But you know how I was talking about surprises? TRACY HICKMAN IS A MAN. Paul, who like the favourer also loved this book as a teenager, has had his world turned topsy-turvy since I've told him this. But Margaret Weis is still a woman, so he's going to be okay.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Huck is found by another Bookcrosser!

My book release for Huckleberry Finn has been caught! Hurrah!

It's finder says: "Caught the book while returning a library book at the RWL. Perfect timing, as I needed another fix anyway, and I've always been tempted by huck finn and friends... I think I might try and leave it where a nice Apollo Bay person can give it a go..."

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Releasing your favourites

I love Bookcrossing. It's everything books should be - liberated, random, dog-eared and shared. If you love a book, let it go.

You register your book on Bookcrossing, put it in a public place, someone finds it, registers their find on the site and once they've read it they release it into the wild again. It's very exciting when your books get found, or better yet, you find a book! I've been a bit slack with it of late, so this reading list gives me a whole new way to release books into the wild (affordability permitting - don't think I'll be buying a copy of The Cook's Companion to set free). In the event of me having to do much reviewing all of a sudden (5 books down, 4 to much junior-fiction-zaniness I'm starting to twitch - and not in a bird-watching way), in the interim I'm releasing a good ol' Wordsworth Cheapo Classics copy of Huckleberry Finn into the wild tomorrow morning, outside my belovedbelovedbeloved Rowden White Library. Hopefully a finder will register their free book!

Catch this book

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Bit more of a brief detour...

Nine children's novels have appeared in my letterbox today to review for slightly more of the brief detour. When it rains...

Monday, May 7, 2007

Brief detour...

I've just been commissioned to review two novels, and to interview John Boyne (of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas fame) for an article - so a brief detour from reading your favourites is necessary!

Ah, when reading books gets in the way of reading books.

Must do things am being paid for first...back soon.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Where is Maisie's Panda? by Lucy Cousins & Happy Baby Words by Roger Priddy

From the favourer's father: "...truly a tour de force of the lift-up-flap genre."

Where is Maisie's Panda?

Where is Maisie's panda? This question has plagued the 0-3 year old demographic since time began.

Is it in the laundry?

Is it in the toilet?

Is it a lens-grinder in Omsk?

This book is definitely a classic in the lift-the-slightly-torn-flap style. It's a rollercoaster ride of suspense, disappointment and ultimate panda-related redemption. The splayed-finger hand flapping exhibited by it's 8-month-old favourer only proves the extent of the impact of this seminal text.

For if we are truly honest with ourselves, at some point in our lives do we not all lose our panda?

From the favourer's mother: "His criteria appears to be that the narrative must stand up to endless repetition."

Happy Baby Words

So many words. So many happy babies. The favourer fancies the baby girl with the soft brown eyes and the wispy curls. Personally I was quite partial to the fuzzy pink hat.

And the mind games! An orange orange? When nouns and verbs collide!

The babies are happy. The words are happy. And the cover is pleasingly squishy. It's a win-win situation.

Bedtime for the favourer, and for me. Night night, Possum.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

From the favourer: "In truth, I don't remember the story all that well...all I knew at 12 was that I wanted that raft for my own, but alas, all I had was a skateboard..."

I don't think I'd read any Mark Twain since I was about 14 (at which point I committed to memory once and for all that it was "Tom Sawyer" by Mark Twain and not "Mark Twain" by Tom Sawyer). I'd forgotten about the effect his writing has on your non-reading moments. When you're not physically reading it, you think about the book so much - it's as if you're missing out on something, somehow when you're not reading they must be having adventures without you.

Huck is my kind of boy. When informed by his aunt that one of the central tenets of Christianity is the 'do as you would be done by' thing, Tom interprets it as: "I must help other people, and do everything I could for other people, and look out for them all the time, and never think about myself." He ponders this notion; "I went out in the woods and turned it over in my mind a long time," but concludes; "I couldn't see no advantage about it - except for the other people".

When we meet him, Huck is in the process of being "sivilized" by his adoptive aunt, and he's beginning to get used to the washing and the lack of cussing. But at this point his drunken, violent father, who everyone had thought (and hoped) was dead, shows up in town and steals Huck away to a log cabin in the woods. He locks Huck up alone for days at a time, then comes home toasted, yells at the demons that his DTs produce, and beats Huck mercilessly. One particularly bad night, his (significantly uncapitalised) "pap" thinks Huck is the Angel of Death and tries to stab him to death. Huck sits up all night with a rifle pointed at his unconscious father, ready to shoot him if he should wake and try to finish the job. Always the master of understatement, Twain usually has Huck respond to his regular beatings with such lines as "I was used to being where I was, and I liked it, all but the cowhide part." So when Twain has Huck say, very simply, "I was scared", the weight of these stark words is enormous.

After this sleepless night (of which his father remembers nothing), Huck fakes his own death with the help of a pig carcass and escapes to the river, teaming up with the runaway slave Jim.

And the adventures begin.

As you might have gathered, they're not quite adventures in the light-hearted Famous Five style - there's rotting bodies in half-submerged brothels, execution plots, unwanted unshakeable passengers, drownings, family feud shoot-outs where young boys pay the ultimate price, and the ever-present threat of Jim being caught and sold, or lynched. Even the initially humorous story depicting a group of men's fear of a "haunted barrel" (it floats in the same place in the river, despite the swift current) suddenly changes tone when the barrel is cut open and the dead baby inside is revealed. All of this is laid out for us in Huck's matter-of-fact colloquial voice.

Despite being way more violent than I expected (and it's understated violence that has the most effect on me), it's also a very funny book as well. It's a laid-back, laconic type of humour that I really enjoy - the encounter where Huck lies to a doctor in order to get help with Tom Sawyer's gunshot wound is a prime example:

"The Doctor was an old man; a very nice, kind-looking old man, when I got him up. I told him me and my brother was over on Spanish Island hunting, yesterday afternoon, and camped on a piece of raft we found, and about midnight he must a kicked his gun in his dreams, for it went off and shot him in the leg, and we wanted him to go over there and fix it and not say nothing about it, nor let anybody know, because we wanted to come home this evening, and surprise the folks.
'Who is your folks?' he says.
'The Phelpses, down yonder.'
'Oh,' he says. And after a minute, he says: 'How'd you say he got shot?'
'He had a dream,' I says, 'and it shot him.'
'Singular dream,' he says."

Heh heh. Singular dream.

To be honest, I think a lot of the satirical matter that this book is famous for may have gone over my head - some of it slid so close to farce that it just annoyed me. Some others parts are so in line with modern-day cynicism that they just seem to be more statements of fact (one character observes the further away from their doorstep a 'good cause' is, the more money 'good people' will donate).

The nature of racism that is examined in the book seemed less shocking to me than it is probably supposed to be (given that the book is still banned today in some schools). The casual ugliness of the attitudes towards slavery that Twain depicts get so tangled up with the high farce descriptions of events that they seem more trivialising than satirising or derisive. The only times where I didn't feel this were in the descriptions of Huck's inner struggles with Jim's runaway status. Huck 'knows' that to do right by God and go to heaven he must turn Jim in - after all, he is 'stolen property'. Several times he is on the brink of betraying Jim, but he can never quite manage to obey what he thinks is his 'conscience'. Finally, in an amazingly mature act of courage (considering that he really does believe he is committing a mortal sin), he gives in to his natural humanistic instincts and commits fully to his friendship with Jim. He reasons that if he's going to Hell anyway, he may as well not do it by halves.

You've probably heard this book lauded as a masterpiece of tonal consistency and it's warranted - the voices of the characters never hit a wrong note, and while humour comes naturally to a colloquial tone, I was most impressed by Twain's ability to create a highly evocative descriptive scenario without any faltering of the character's voice. It's such a hard thing to achieve - I'm useless at it myself. Take the description of a thunderstorm, as told to us by Huck:

"It was one of these regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby; and here would come a blast of wind that would bend the trees down and turn up the pale underside of the leaves; and then a perfect ripper of a gust would follow along and set the branches to tossing their arms as if they was just wild; and next, when it was just about the bluest and blackest - fst! it was as bright as glory and you'd have a little glimpse of tree-tops a-plunging about, away off yonder in the storm, hundreds of yards further than you could see before; dark as sin again in a second, and now you'd hear the thunder let go with an awful crash and then go rumbling, grumbling, tumbling down the sky towards the under side of the world, like rolling empty barrels down stairs, where it's long stairs and they bounce a good deal, you know."

How's that for a very long yet somehow not over-long sentence? The best bit is where the lightning strikes, I went "Yeah" on the train. No wonder Twain's writing follows you around like the morning after a particularly vivid dream.

It's the rare kind of book where I can't help thinking that any 'flaws' I find are probably flaws in me, rather than the book.

And the shadow of Huck's father finding him that hangs over the whole adventure? Well, let me just advise you not to peek at the last page until you get there (and yes, for once I didn't either).

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Against Nature (A Rebours) by Joris-Karl Huysmans

From the favourer: "another adolescent read that made an impression on me. I tried the same kinds of exorbitant decorations in my own room, but it's not quite the same if you don't have your own chateau and endless supply of money."

How can you not immediately be attracted to a book where in the prefacing "Note on this translation" you are advised by the translator that "it is only fair to warn the reader that he may find [this book] is best taken in small doses."

This is definitely the kind of book that is hard to read in your lunch break, surrounded by Commerce students, carpet tiles and artificial lighting. So I was forced (it was tough I tell you) to read most of it seated in the window at Rue Bébélons, tumbler of house red in hand, feeling as if I really should have taken up smoking to complete the Bohemian ensemble.

Des Esseintes, the main character, is a bit decadent. Just a bit. Overwhelmed by his immense horror of Parisien societé and its near-complete lack of "people with delicate eyes who have undergone the education of libraries and art-galleries", he retreats to his country mansion where he sleeps during the day and at night sets about immersing himself in sensual pleasures - the essence of jewels, perfumes, flowers, literature, painting and music. He's fulfilling Spike Milligan's dearest wish: "All I want is the chance to prove that money doesn't make you happy."

It's very florid writing. I was ready for that (thanks to the translator). But I wasn't expecting the book to have a sense of humour. Early on Des Esseintes (when he is still hosting the occasional richly themed social event) holds a dinner party modelled on an eighteenth-century funeral feast, complete with a black-draped dining room, the garden strewn with charcoal, the fish-pond filled with ink, black waitresses "wearing only slippers and stockings in cloth of silver embroidered with tears", and black-coloured food (including olives, caviare, black pudding, liquorice sauces, truffle jellies, chocolate creams, mulberries, black cherries, coffee and walnut cordials). We are initially told the event is "to mark the most ludicrous of personal misfortunes." As the evening draws to a close, we are told that the funeral feast was in fact held "in memory of the host's virility, lately but only temporarily deceased." Heh heh.

He then plunges himself into his interior decorating, buying a large tortoise whose shell he has covered in gold leaf and sets to walk around on his carpets, in order to set off the colours of their weave. (This doesn't work, so then he has the tortoise's shell covered in an exquisite array of jewels...which doesn't go so well for the tortoise, god rest his soul).

He acknowledges the beauty of women, but asks us "Does there exist, anywhere on this earth, a being conceived in the joys of fornication and born in the throes of motherhood who is more dazzlingly, more outstandingly beautiful than the two locomotives recently put into service on the Northern Railway?" He recreates a sea voyage using only a perfect combination of perfumes. He embarks upon a fabulously cruel, Miss Havisham-style social experiment on a Parisién urchin which doesn't quite go as planned. He drinks wine by the "hogshead" (whatever that is - next time I'm going to go to King & Godfree and ask for a hogshead of wine). He re-reads all his books and in my favourite, Monty-Pythonesque moment marvels at the instructional volume "where a miracle-worker expounds a most peculiar method of discovering, with the aid of a lettuce, whether a girl is still a virgin."

Is there anything you can't acheive with the aid of a lettuce?

But we all know the result of extreme decadence - a nervous stomach disorder. Des Esseintes' fate looks grim. As he lies unable to eat, read or move, his doctor gives him the facts - he must choose between death (in his current lifestyle), or...return to Parisién societé.


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

I've had to add a new rule.

Rule #5 - I am not going to read "Triton Workcentre 2000 User's Manual : The Ultimate Woodworking Machine". Sorry Pete.

And by the way, the list is up! As it stands, to your right, in no particular order (although I have paired people's books together, those of you who've managed to name two).

No sign of "Lord of the Rings" yet (Matty?), and no two people have named the same book. Good work all of you. I'm surprised and pleased at how many of you are naming children's classics.

I was wondering if anyone would ask me what my favourites are and join me in some reciprocal far only three people have asked (cheers to Dave, Paul & Pammy). For the record;

  1. "The Children of Green Knowe" - L.M. (Lucy) Boston (contains one of the most haunting, subtly moving moments ever in children's literature, which is a big call coming from me. Move over Watership Down).
  2. "Everything is Illuminated" - Jonathan Safran Foer (you'll laugh, you'll cry, it'll change your life. And there's a great farting dog. Steer clear of the film though).

I'd love to hear what you think of them...and yes, I'm still getting through the first book. I actually read quite slowly. Hence starting this project while I'm still youngish.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

What's your favourite?

I loved that "My Favourite Book" program on the ABC. And like a lot of people, I looked up the list of the top 100 books that were voted for, competed with Paul as to which of us had read more of them (he won, naturally), and then proclaimed that I was going to read to all of them.

And then, naturally, I never did.

I think I figured out why (apart from general slackness). There's no personal connection to a list of favourite books voted for by the general pulic (or rather, the general ABC-watching public, which is possibly quite a distinct subset). It's just a list of books - you don't know who liked them, why they liked them, and you can't tease them because you know they chose their 'favourite' just to sound intellectual.

I thought about a book that my grandfather loved, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee". I gave him a copy of it a million years ago, but I've never read it. I thought to myself, lying in bed (the natural thinking-spot of all humankind), "I should read it. He loved it, and that's important to me, so I should read it."

Then I thought, why should I just read his favourite book? I should read everyone's favourite book, everyone I know and love. Some of these people are passionate about books, some of them are not. Some of them still read a lot, some of them don't. But pretty much all of them can choose a favourite or two.

I'm embarrassed to say this, because it's a bit soppy and even thinking it to myself makes my "sentimental claptrap" antennae quiver. But, [deep breath] I think a favourite book can tell you something about a person - their childhood, their sense of humour, their email login and password. If nothing else, it can tell you what their favourite book is.

That kind of idea appealed to me way more than tracking the literary loves of the ABC's voting nation. A completely biased, non-random, non-valid-sample-size of people (I always knew my Psychology minor would be useful for something, if only knowing what makes for a valid sample).

Earlier this week I asked all my loved ones that I could get hold of to tell me what their two favourite books in all the world are. Friends, family, penpals, friends of friends, colleagues. People generally fall into one of two camps when asked this question - type #1 say "This book is the best book in the world, ever, and no better book has or ever will be written, ever." Type #2 first of all berate me for only allowing them to choose two (hi Sean), draw up a shortlist of 100 over the following week, and then finally and painfully name their two favourite books. This type often follow up with repeated disclaimer statments about how difficult it is to choose only two, and how I really should have allowed them several hundred nominations. But I would like to read these favourites before I start to develop dementia, so sorry dudes, you have to choose two.

Now I will read them. All of them.

This may take a while. It's hard to read and sell stuff on eBay at the same time.

I won't read them in any order, or thematic grouping. The first book I'm reading has been chosen because the person who named it grabbed it off a shelf and put it in my hand.
But I will write here about each one after I've read it, and I'll try to avoid being a reviewer, but it is kind of my default setting. Once I've got everyone's answers I'll compile a list so you can see what's ahead of me. But I'm not going to tell you which favourites belong to which person (but feel free to 'out' yourself), I'll just include some comments they made when they told me about their choices.

Naturally, being a librarian, I've had to lay out some rules.
  1. I'm not going to read "Ulysses". Sorry Paul. I just can't do it.
  2. I don't have to read it if I've already read it. I might, though, depending what it is.
  3. I can stop reading it at page 200 if I really, really hate it (I've only stopped reading one book in my life, John Updike's "Couples". Yergh. So, it's not likely that I'll stop).
  4. It needs to be written in English (apologies to my penpals, but I'm just not going to get much out of a novel in Finnish. Ask Nil if she remembers when I attempted to show off my newly acquired knowledge of Singhala characters by reading a kid's book about a cow, written in Singhalese. No idea what happened to the cow. I know it was white.)

There might be more rules, if I think of them...

So...what's your favourite?