Re-reading Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner

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I used to be a big re-reader. There are a few reasons. For starters I’m a big fan of plot so I try to start a book for the first time knowing as little about it as possible. Re-reading strips away that concern with what’s going to happen next and allows different parts of the book to surface: language, form, voice, whatever. It’s also comforting to read a book knowing exactly what’s going to happen and knowing that you already like it. It’s like bowling with bumpers (the only way I bowl). Re-reading also allows me to keep track of complex plots and characters better, gaining a new appreciation for the way it all fits together. It’s interesting how often I misremember things, even parts of the book that are really important to me, and on re-reading new bits jump out and stick in my brain. I like that.

Now I have a small human on my hands so as a busy mum I have less time for reading and even less time for re-reading. But I took the time to re-read Telex from Cuba by Rachel Kushner.

Because of said tiny human and subsequent decrease in reading time I’ve been going out of my way to only buy and read books I feel pretty confident I’ll like. (That’s a bad thing but the upcoming Tournament of Books should help.) I knew how much I loved Rachel Kushner so I ordered a little book of three short stories called The  Strange Case of Rachel K. The stories are all centred on Cuba: ‘The Great Exception’ is gallop from the Spanish colonisation in 1492 to the destitution of a Hawaiian immigrant in the early 1900s; ‘Debouchement’ tells of illegal broadcasts by a faith healer and the luxury of the Pan American club in the years of Cuba as a United States protectorate; ‘The Strange Case of Rachel K’ is inspired by the true yet vague story of a courtesan murdered in a hotel room but recasts her as a woman of agency who finds a counterpart in a French Nazi.

The whole time I was reading I had this strange feeling of having read it before. It was only halfway through the final story that I realised I had: whole chunks of these stories are replicated in Telex from Cuba. I first read Telex from Cuba three years ago, on the back of my beloved The Flamethrowers. It’s the story of Cuba on the cusp of revolution told from the various perspectives. There are two American children living in the luxury of the American towns set up for cane farm workers, Rachel K, the dancer and courtesan who is a favourite of both Cuban politicians and revolutionary organisers, and real life French agitator Christian de La Mazière who is very much out for himself.

Kushner beautiful conjures the threatening political conditions using metaphors of the humid, oppressive climate and the slowly disintegrating faux-luxury. The children’s growing awareness works perfectly to slowly reveal the brutality behind the facade of their American lives and the book is filled with fascinating tangents – bits like the illegal broadcasts of the faith healer from ‘Debouchement’, the edible parrots from ‘The Great Exception’, the zazou subculture appropriated by ‘Rachel K’. There are so many great passage and lines and it was particularly interesting to see the bits that had made their way from Kushner’s short stories into the book.

Re-reading Telex made me fall in love with it the way I had done with The Flamethrowers. Like The Flamethrowers it is meandering yet thorough, full of all sorts of interesting stories that come together into a whole bigger than it’s parts. It’s huge in scope yet reveals so much about the individuals involved along the way. It is historical yet personal, evocative and searing. I loved it so much and one day I’ll read it again.

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Highways to a War by Christopher Koch

Hello again! Great to start the year with hopefully resolutions and then follow it up with resounding silence, hey? Then again we’re gearing up for this year’s Tournament of Books so there will be the usual March posting overload…

Anyway I’ve just come back from a wonderful and relaxing trip through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos (I know! My life is hard for real.) and I wanted to continue with my tradition of themed reading/posting. A delightful friend recommended Highways to a War by Christopher Koch as perfectly suited to my holiday and I am so glad she did. It was a fascinating, moving and thought-provoking book and (the king of location-based reading) brought another layer of meaning to my travel experience.

Highways to a War

When legendary Vietnam War photographer Mike Langford goes missing in Cambodia in 1976 he leaves his childhood friend Ray with his audio diaries and his photos. Ray recounts his own childhood memories of Mike and his family and then, in an attempt to find him, flies to Thailand to meet Mike’s friends and colleagues. What eventuates is a story in parts, a series of snapshots of Mike via his audio-diaries and the memories of his friends. Each person adds their own anecdotes and perspective and each interpretation serves to illuminate and simultaneously complicate our growing picture of the enigmatic Mike.
HueBut aside from the portrait of an idealistic, passionate and troubled young man, Highways to a War  presents a picture of Vietnam and Cambodia during their years of turmoil and conflict. It was an intense and sometimes disturbing experience to read about the decadence of war-time Saigon and then see its remains and, perhaps, descendants. Koch describes American soldiers and journalists lounging around palatial hotels, drinking and chatting up girls while ignoring the children and beggars that flood the streets. And here we are, fifty years later, with rich tourists sitting in the same hotel bars in the same beautiful, colonial buildings trying to ignore the children and beggars selling them flowers and postcards. Then we spent hours taking trains through the beautiful mountains of the countryside, the same deadly and booby-trapped places where Mike went out with the South Vietnamese forces. As the book went on more and more questions came up; about the countries and their conflicts, those who are drawn to work in a war zone, the role of the media, and the mysterious Mike himself.

The whole experience of reading it while I was there gave me a greater insight into the complex history of Cambodia and Vietnam and made me notice more of my surroundings. It really was the best kind of book to read while travelling: one that enabled me to get more out of both the novel and my location.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

This is a book I received from our work Kris Kringle. As a bookseller and prodigious reader (can I say that about myself or does it sound braggy?) no one ever buys me books. I totally get it. They’re not sure if I’ve already read something and they know that I know pretty precisely what I like and dislike. But still! There’s nothing nicer than getting a well-considered book as a gift. Now, where on earth would I find a group of people who feel the same way? At work, of course, where everyone reads more than the average bear and therefore doesn’t get books from anyone. Clearly this was the perfect environment to institute a  Book Kringle. The only amazing thing is that nobody thought of it before.

The lovely friend who gave me this book is a big fan of Murakami too and this one is her favourite. It’ apparently one of his early works but one that was only later translated into English. Most of the Murakami books I’ve read are the weird sci-fi/spec fiction ones so this was new to me as being pretty straight. It was so gorgeous though. It’s the relatively simple story of a young man who goes off to university after the suicide of his best friend. There he lives in a dorm, is indifferent to his classes and hangs out with some new people, including his dead friend’s girlfriend who is plenty troubled herself.

Norwegian WoodThere’s a weird sense of serenity mixed with foreboding in this story. Toru Watanabe goes to school, eats, occasionally has sex with girls, reads unpopular books and does his laundry on Sundays. He goes for walks around the city and countryside and I could so clearly these places. There was a clarity to Watanabe that was captured through in Murakami’s usual simple, precise, detail-oriented style. But as I said there’s a darkness in the background the whole time which adds depth and contrast to this meticulous, everyday life.

My only concern is a growing ambivalence at Murakami’s portrayal of women… I’ve heard some criticisms of the female characters in 1Q84 which I didn’t necessarily think were fair but overall there seem to be too many women who are either beautiful, child-like and virginal or quirky, loud and overtly sexual. I don’t know. I mean considering this is an earlier work it makes sense that this aspect, too, would be less nuanced but it did highlight something that keeps cropping up in the Murakami novels I’ve read. I guess I’ll just have to keep reading!

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

I’ve been putting off writing about this for a while. I really, really wanted to love it. I really, really thought I would love it. Why, you ask? Don’t you know me at all?? For starters it was the National Book Award winner for this year and I adored last year’s winner, The Round House by Louise Erdrich. Secondly it beat out my favourite book the year, The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner so I was thinking, this must be really good. Then it’s set just before the American Civil War, told by a young black boy who gets caught up in abolitionist John Brown’s insurrection movement. I’m really interested in stories that write back to established narratives from invisible players (women and children and people who aren’t white). Maybe my hopes were too high, but as a colleague said to me, you shouldn’t have to assume the worst to enjoy a book.

The Good Lord BirdSo young Henry is a slave who is quite happy living and working with his father in Kansas. That is until John Brown shows up, picks a fight with their owner and accidentally kills Henry’s father. He thinks Henry is a girl and whisks him away to freedom, which turns out to be rather harder and more uncomfortable than Henry’s slave days. Most of the book follows John Brown’s gang in their meandering and often pointless travels, including fights with slaveholders, debates about freedom and religion, and generally just wandering around roughing it. Henry (still dressed as a girl) also ends up working as a helper in a whorehouse and on a lecture tour with John Brown before being involved with the famous attack on the Harper’s Ferry armoury.

On the whole I found the book, like John Brown’s movements, interesting but somewhat pointless. There was so much of nothing happening and the same points being made and unmade over and over again. No one except Henry came across as more than two-dimensional and yet, for me, Henry’s observations and interior world weren’t enough to pick up the slack. There were things I liked about it, don’t get me wrong. McBride gave Henry a great turn of phrase: ‘Quiet as a mouse pissing on cotton’ was one I liked enough to write down. And I liked how Henry’s folksy language peppered his retelling so that everyone he spoke to ended up with having their own language infused with his own voice. But overall that wasn’t enough to lift it out of the ‘pretty good’ category, and I’d hoped for so much more.

My favourite books of 2013

It’s a little past round-up time but I’m hardly going to skip one of my favourite posts of the year because I’ve been busy and lazy. So without further ado, here are some of my favourite books of 2013:

HHhH by Laurent Binet

HHhHThis was one of the first books I read in 2013, one that both floored me at the time and has kept me thinking since. Seriously, I have had two conversations about HHhH in the last week alone. As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors and as a person who works on Melbourne’s Jewish Holocaust Centre newsletter, I have spent a fair bit of time thinking about how we relate to the atrocities of the Holocaust, and how we tell its stories. This book is ostensibly about Operation Anthropoid, following Jan Kubiš and Josef Gabčík and the operation to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, high-ranking Nazi and architect of the Holocaust. This would have been enough to create a dashing and exciting WWII thriller. But this book is so much more than that. Through his own uncertainty over his material, Binet asks questions about how a historical novel works, how much facts matter, how to tell a story that does justice to the real people involved, how one can write about the Holocaust at all. It’s a work that has kept me thinking all year about the way we construct stories and the way we try to comprehend the Holocaust.

Shire by Ali Smith

ShireThis has been a year of Ali Smith reading. I was lucky enough to be at the Edinburgh festival again this year and hear the incomparable writer talk and it prompted me to read four of her books over two weeks. Her writing is charming and witty and playful, beautiful and accessible but puzzling and enigmatic too. It is so easy to read but it made me think long and hard about many things. In Edinburgh Ali Smith read from this collection of four stories, a mix of her usual enchanting fiction and biography and autobiography, meditations on art and love and feminism. Hearing her read ‘The Poet’ highlighted the way her books speak to Scotland’s history and language and was one of my highlights from the festival.

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

The FlamethrowersSpeaking of the festival, my favourite session was Rachel Kushner interviewed by Colm Tóibín. I also feel pretty confident in calling this my favourite book of the year but I’ve found it really hard to articulate why. I mean, not in the ‘I don’t know what’s so great about this book’: it’s not a mystery that it mixes a heap of my favourite things. It’s a coming of age story set in New York in the 70s where Reno is trying to establish herself as an artist and a person. It’s all about the parts we play and the surface we project, and how to connect with other people and be a part of something, and why, and whether it even matters. It lured me in with the promise of Land Art and Italian Futurism and The Flamethrowers moves so comfortably through these movements and many more. Rachel Kushner’s prose is so controlled and precise in capturing exactly what it needs to capture but I think more than any of this The Flamethrowers just speaks to me and the way I think.

So that’s my 2013. Happy new year and happy reading to all!

Ivyland by Miles Klee

If you’ve been keeping track you’ll notice that this was one of two books I did not manage to read for the last Tournament of Books. You may also recall that it was impossible to find in Australia. Well, Veronica is clearly just a better bookseller than I am because she tracked it down for my birthday and here I am reading it.

IvylandIvyland is a decomposing suburb in dystopian New Jersey owned by drug company Endless Nutraceuticals. In this world, all citizens are now required to undergo an operation that prevents a mysterious illness (the operation also has regular complications) and Endless is the monopoly supplier of the anaesthetic required. (Convenient and sinister? WHY YES IT IS.) The story is told in fragments by different characters, ranging forwards and backwards in time to create a picture of murder, societal collapse and drug use. It’s disorienting, complicated and often circular. But each story fragment managed both to further my understanding of the weird world of Ivyland and provide understated moments of human interaction. Everyone in Ivyland is constantly failing to connect, failing to communicate and generally failing to be happy. It’s actually a very sad novel.

Miles Klee

Also Miles Klee looks great with a puppy

Some of the characters are addicted to the Endless drug, some have more fleeting experiences with it and some have been incapacitated by it. The jagged story seems to mimic the effects of the drug itself: the mess of timelines and characters generates confusion of causal links, confusion of characters, sudden shifts from distance to closeness and back again, moments of aimless static and moments of sparkling clarity. But even so it always remains remarkably readable and it stands out as one of the more formally interesting books I’ve read this year.

Some Teen Books I Did Not Hate

Have I talked about my love for Patrick Ness? I can’t remember how I first stumbled across The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy, but it grabbed me from the first page and didn’t let go for the next three years. I cried SO HARD, dear reader. (Sidebar: I don’t know why this seems to be a requirement, but no Young Adult fiction review seems complete without a reference to crying.) Then I experienced the beautiful A Monster Calls while my grandfather was dying. It was… fairly traumatic but it spoke to me so completely in a way that little else did at the time. I’ve been lucky enough to meet Patrick Ness a few times too and he is a very cool dude.

I took a while to get to More Than This. I think it was because I didn’t love The Crane Wife as much as I hoped I would (don’t get me wrong! It was still good!) and You can't tell but the door is a tiny little cutout in the book cover - pretty coolI was scared it would happen again. But it sure didn’t. More Than This is everything that is amazing about Patrick Ness’s YA fiction. In the opening chapter, sixteen year old Seth drowns (such a visceral thing to read) only to wake up in what seems to be an abandoned version of the town he lived in as a child. Something really bad went down there. Actually something fairly bad went down just before Seth died. But every time he comes close to figuring out what might be happening BOOM it’s another Patrick Ness twist to keep you hooked. This book was full of beautiful and scary moments. I don’t want to give too much away but it was an intense, bittersweet, troubling and beautiful book. There’s not much in the way of neat endings but there’s plenty of fascinating and deep thoughts.

Meanwhile Vivian versus the Apocalypse (a loan from the lovely Veronica, who Vivian Versus the Apocalypsecoincidentally cries a LOT in YA books) was gorgeous in an entirely different way. In the near future, a weird capitalist sect of Christianity is gaining power with their leader predicting a nearing apocalypse. Vivian has always been a good and obedient daughter but she can’t go along with her parents’ newly conservative, religious behaviour. However when the apocalypse seems to arrive and her parents are sucked into the sky, Vivian and her best friend, the spiky but charismatic Harp, pick up a cute boy and go on a road trip to California to look for answers. It’s a mature and realistic look at teenage friendship, love and family dynamics. My favourite thing about the book was not stalwart Vivian or soppy Peter but Harp. Damaged, angry, passionate, confused Harp. The way she muddles through her apocalypse definitely spoke to me.

So forget the teen angst and dystopia novels (actually never forget the future dystopia novels) these are my favourite YA books in a while.

I’m back! With crime!

I’m back! With more enthusiasm, more opinions and more books than ever! Why now? I hear you ask. Well a number of reasons, one of which is that it’s getting to my favourite time of year – best books of 2014, but for the moment I’m back to tell you about how amazing Peter Temple is.

My mum and brother are both long-term fans (I share both their genes and their literary taste) so when my supervisor at my internship kept mentioning him (like A LOT) I thought it was time to give this Australian crime thing a go…

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I started  The Broken Shore about a week ago and finished it in a couple of days. I would have finished it even more quickly if I wasn’t also meant to be finishing up my uni assessment. Temple’s writing is sparse, evocative, full of punch and character. I don’t really know how to describe it so here are the first two lines of The Broken Shore:

Cashin walked around the hill, into the wind from the sea. It was cold, late autumn, last glowing leaves clinging to the liquidambars and maples his great-grandfather’s brother had planted, their surrender close. He loved this time, the morning stillness, loved it more than spring. 

I don’t want to say too much about these books because part of what I enjoyed so much was not knowing where they were going. Not just that I didn’t know what was going to happen next but rather I never knew which strands were going to be important and how it would all come together. But anyway The Broken Shore is about Joe Cashin, a homicide detective stationed in a small town who gets caught up in local rifts as an elderly community leader is found beaten to death and then two young aboriginal men are killed during an attempted arrest. Truth is about the head of homicide, Stephen Villani, unravelling the death of a young woman in a fancy apartment complex and the revenge killings of a few gang members while  trying to negotiate police loyalties and state politics.

ImageI don’t read a whole lot of crime but I did get a chance to read a bit more while interning in commercial fiction. And for me, The Broken Shore and Truth completely redefined what crime could be. They are just as literary and beautiful as the best literary fiction, they’re dark and often gruesome without being excessive or even particularly graphic. There are no heroes or anti-heroes or even overly earnest Heroes-with-Flaws. There are just people. (Especially in Truth.) The plot and characters are often convoluted and yet one of the cleverest things is that even though I felt confused a lot of the time, there was just enough information dispensed for the end to come together in an incredibly neat and satisfying way.

But apart from being accomplished and clever and genre bending, these books were incredibly gripping. I couldn’t wait to get back to each of them and I’m pretty sure I’ll be rereading them in the near future.

Edward St Aubyn at the Wheeler Centre

I did it! I finished the five Patrick Melrose novels in five days, in time to see Edward St Aubyn at the Wheeler Centre without any spoilers! And there were spoilers…

The whole experience was humbling and I’m so glad I got this opportunity. Having a reason to read something I wouldn’t necessarily have picked up and being blown away by it is the reason I started reading the list. I forget that sometimes in my laziness and desire to read things I know I will like. Book four, Mother’s Milk is on the list and shortlisted for the Booker and, while it was not my personal favourite, I can see why.

What is my favourite, I hear you ask? Hard to

Never mind

say. When colleagues asked if I loved the books, it was hard to say yes because, though I could easily say they are compelling and accomplished and generally amazing they are also (especially at first) deeply disturbing. I found Never Mind to be the most striking. I am incredibly over-sensitive (seriously) and tend to avoid violence and particularly cruelty in all my reading endeavours. Never Mind is full of unrepentant cruelty; the sociopathic David inflicts pain on Patrick while pretending it is some sort of social experiment and wife Eleanor, also a victim, self medicates and ignores responsibility for her son. However what makes the book so accomplished is the stylish way St Aubyn is able to depict the most profound violations without forcing the reader to flinch away. Even a very sensitive reader. The shifts between character viewpoints highlights the flaws and pretensions of each of the characters while simultaneously allowing understanding of the damage that brought them to these points.

Mothers MilkMother’s Milk is far more traditional in a number of ways. Instead of just a day or two, the action takes place over the same day repeated over a number of years. It’s also much less graphic and frightening in the depiction of abuse as Patrick, now in his 40s tries to deal with his marriage, his sons, his mother’s compulsive but misdirected charity that leaves him disinherited. His relationship with his father takes on new meaning as he is now a father himself and constantly worries how best not to become the man he loathed. As in Never Mind it tells the story from numerous perspectives: Patrick’s, his son Robert’s, his wife Mary’s. This is perfect for showing up both flaws and motivations in each character and, even more than before, probably due to a more introspective Patrick, creates great empathy for each of the characters.

Edward St AubynSeeing Edward St Aubyn was a wonderful experience. He was exactly how I had hoped and imagined him to be: dry, funny, incredibly eloquent and slightly tortured.  And handsome. He was also incredibly insightful about his own work which sounds like an obvious thing but, as my favourite teacher once told me, just because you’re a good writer it doesn’t mean you are the best person to talk about your work. But there were a few things he said that really crystallised some of the trajectories of the series, things that I wouldn’t have been able to annunciate myself but once he did it was kind of an “of course!” moment. He talked about the way that these novels came about, his own lofty influences (Proust) and insisted, as he always does, that while they are based on his own life they are not autobiographical. It never occurred to him to write about himself, he said, but he had always imagined he’d write a book and had been writing from a very young age. He also talked about the dialogue, that of course it was polished and overly witty because “There’s no point writing down what people actually say. What would be the point of that?” It is frequently noted that the Melrose series creates a scathing portrait of the upper class but, in another “of course” moment, St Aubyn explained that the class of his characters was fairly incidental to the events. Cruelty happens regardless of socioeconomic status and, for him, class is the setting rather than the subject.

It was a wonderful evening and a humbling reading experience.

Norwegian by Night by Derek Miller

I very rarely read anything even vaguely crimey so bear with me here!

Norwegian by NightThe hero of Norwegian by Night is Sheldon Horowitz, a grouchy eighty-two year old New Yorker who has recently arrived in Norway. You see he is newly widowed and his granddaughter, fearing for his mental state, insists he move in with her and her Scandinavian husband. Part of the reason I enjoyed this so much was because of the wonderfully entertaining Sheldon, a wily ex-marine with an answer for everything. (A particularly good scene has him literally answering back to all his granddaughter’s accusations of dementia.) The story takes off when he lets an Eastern European woman and her young son into his house to shelter from her abusive partner. From here things take a dark turn and Sheldon and the boy find themselves on the run from a crew of Balkan gangsters with the police in pursuit.

Part of the joy of the book is the way Sheldon is able overcome his limitations during the chase, making the whole thing seem eminently doable. Sheldon’s body is not what it used to be and he ends up with some very creative solutions to his physical problems. I also think Derek Miller perfectly captures the way that Sheldon’s Judaism is crucial to his identity and how hard it is to explain that to an outsider. What I did not love was the cartoonishly violent ending that lacked the dark humour that made the book so special. Also the way characters seemed to be constantly criticising a liberal response to refugees. A whole bunch of people in the book seemed to take issue with a country letting in dispossessed populations and having to deal with the consequences of not everyone being socially and financially well off. I mean it was a bit more justified than that but it came out over and over again to the point where it became uncharacteristic and stilted.

But overall the book, like its hero, was funny, witty, sometimes philosophical, often action packed and very good fun. Call it a mystery, a thriller, a family drama, a dark comedy, I would definitely recommend it.