Monday, November 21, 2011

Legend of a Suicide, David Vann (book review)

Posted by lea at 9:02 PM 4 comments Links to this post
I chose David Vann as my V author for The Great Library Challenge, and I wasn't disappointed.

Legend of a Suicide is a collection of a novella and four short stories... but I wish someone had told me that before I started. I read it as a single long novel, and the fact that the characters are the same in all the stories didn't help with the confusion.

The book is semi-autobiographical, as it's about a boy named Roy and his suicidal divorcee father Jim who's a retired dentist who fails at fishing and eventually buys a house in the middle of nowhere, Alaska, and asks his son to stay with him for a year and then commits suicide. In real life, David Vann had a ex-dentist suicidal divorcee father who failed at fishing, bought a house in the middle of nowhere, Alaska, asked David to stay with him, and then committed suicide shortly thereafter.

The short stories are lovely to read in themselves - beautifully written, poetic in their descriptions and Vann manages to capture the many micro-subtleties of human emotion - but it's the novella that's a breathtaker. The novella is the part that describes Roy and his father's adventure in remote Alaska, doing the Bear Grylls survival-thing: hunting, fishing and building things. In the book, Roy accompanies his father in a desperate attempt to keep him alive, as he's sure that left to his own devices, his father will commit suicide. In real life, David turned down his father's offer of going to Alaska with him, and soon after, his father committed suicide. The novella is like a kind of emotional and/or spiritual purging for Vann, imagining what might have happened had his decision been different.

The raw emotions and truly pathetic weakness of Roy's father is simply infuriating. He sobs himself to sleep every night (with his 13 year old son sleeping in the same room), makes emotional confessions to a boy not old enough to process them, attempts to kill himself by stepping over a ledge in the middle of nowhere (how on earth did he expect his son to survive if he'd died?) and tries to emotionally blackmail his second wife into taking him back by saying he'll shoot himself through the head right there on the phone with her if he doesn't. All this leads to tragic and shocking consequences that you simply don't expect, a sudden twist from the author that simultaneously brings (one imagines) release and revenge at the same time.

Legend of a Suicide is a truly intriguing read that continued to haunt me for a few days after. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A new review of Northanger Abbey (part 1 of The Austen Series)

Posted by lea at 4:51 PM 3 comments Links to this post
I'm an unashamed fan of Jane Austen and my only regret is that she didn't write more than the six novels she left behind as a legacy.

For the past 20 or so years, I've read and re-read Pride and Prejudice the most (I estimate I probably read it over 35 times), followed fairly closely by Emma, then Persuasion, then Sense and Sensibility. I read Mansfield Park perhaps twice, and Northanger Abbey only once, because the two heroines Fanny Price and Catherine Morland annoyed me with their passivity and lack of wit - so unlike my favourite Elizabeth Bennett!

Anyway, having done a re-read of all her six works in recent months, I've decided to review them all through fresh eyes. Let's start with the one least travelled by.

Northanger Abbey

Perhaps more than any of her other books, re-reading this one surprised me the most because I realised my memory of it was so imperfect and prejudiced. I probably read it for the first time at around age 16, so coming back to it two decades later gave me an entirely new perspective.

I realised that Austen was doing something completely different with this book than her others. It's not just a straightforward novel - it's in fact a tongue-in-cheek parody of the gothic novels that were so popular at the time. It pokes fun of gothic sensibilities - the expectation of dark horrors in every empty wing of a large estate - through the very virginal and supremely innocent eyes of Catherine (Kitty) Morland. So influenced is she by these novels, that she makes a fool of herself in front of Henry Tilney, the love interest in the book.

The interesting thing about Northanger Abbey is how the tone is so different from her usual slightly detached but affectionate and wry narrative voice. There's something almost comedic in her tone, and this really saves the book from becoming insipid. I have to admit I missed it the first time and found it quite unlikeable. Because Kitty is so witless and innocent, it's easy to mistake Northanger Abbey as the same, but I found a new enjoyment of it this time and was much more charmed by it than before.

What they don't tell you about pregnancy

Posted by lea at 3:58 PM 4 comments Links to this post
I know I've been a total slacker in terms of blogging, but my excuse is that I'm pregnant and I took early maternity leave. Very early. I've been a slacker in many aspects, but now that I'm well and truly in the second trimester (past 5 months now) I'm feeling heaps better and more up to all the things I was avoiding before... like work. Fortunately for me, I work at home at my own pace, and even more fortunately, I have an understanding hubby who makes most of the money so I can relax and watch The Golden Girls at 4pm every afternoon with a clear conscience.

Anyway, I thought before I forget, I should write a list of all the things I had to discover for myself about pregnancy. Everyone talks about how wonderful it is and all the stuff about glowing and blah blah blah, but they don't tell you about the flatulence and discomfort. So this is my review on pregnancy for my own records.

First of all, it's an unending list of annoying discomforts. Especially early on (in the first trimester), there's a lot of uncontrollable flatulence. One time I was in a supermarket and in the middle of a sentence I let one out accidentally... okay it wasn't that much of an accident but I thought it would be silent and it wasn't. Anyway, I thought I'd just keep talking and noone would notice, but would hubby take my lead? No way. He says to me, 'uh, excuse me?' and laughs. Thank you very much.

Also in the first trimester is the general feeling of being unwell ALL THE BLOODY TIME. I just never felt quite right, quite myself, because all those hormones that are developing your baby are also totally messing with your body.

One thing that wasn't too bad for me though was throwing up. I've always been proud of my throw up history (only once in 1984 then again in 2004), but each occasion was just awful and I dreaded the possibility of throwing up during pregnancy. I did throw up a handful of times between weeks 12-14, but I found that it was a completely different experience: this time, it wasn't accompanied by hours of nausea followed by a day of illness. Each throw up was clean and efficient - just heave, heave, blow her out, then I felt fine afterwards.

Something that I'm so glad is over now is taste bud sensitivity. It wasn't so much with food, but I couldn't stand the taste of my own mouth, so I had to constantly chew gum or suck a mint or lolly. Brushing and Listerine only helped so much, and actually, most of the throwing up I did was thanks to the taste of my own morning breath.

A lesson learnt in the last month or so was that I can't eat to the same extent as I used to in a single sitting, because eating too much now causes reflux and it's so disgusting it ruins a perfectly delicious meal. I thought I could be clever and eat as much as I want then just take Gaviscon to avoid the reflux, but the cure is almost worse than the sickness. Yuck! So now I'm exercising self control to eat smaller portions but more regularly.

Thankfully, most of the worst discomforts disappeared by week 18, and I'm told many women suffer far worse than I did so I'm grateful really. But what happened to the glow I'm supposed to have right now? What I have instead of a glow is pimples all down my back (never happened before so I'm blaming it on the pregnancy) and tiredness. But I guess what I'll get in the end - a hopefully healthy and happy baby boy (we found out, couldn't resist) - will be worth it in the end. At least that's what they tell you, right? :)

The Lonely Polygamist, Bradley Udall

Posted by lea at 3:32 PM 1 comments Links to this post
Bradley Udall was my 'U' author for the Great Library Challenge, but since I've been so slack with blogging, it's been ages since I read this book so my review will be very brief and probably not very accurate.

The Lonely Polygamist is about Golden Richards, a polygamist in Utah with 27 kids spread across four wives (he's made up a song to remember all their names)... but as the title suggests, he's still lonely. It's hard to imagine that someone just wakes up to find themselves the centre of a great big family, but that's almost exactly what's happened to Golden - his life is barely of his own choosing, but somehow as he's ambled along, he's managed to pick up wives and children like other people pick up stamps or rocks.

Making the family seem normal is one of Udall's great achievements in this book. Although Golden is in a situation most of us would never find ourselves in, it's hard not to sympathise with him as he tackles his inner emptiness, or with his wives who want him to 'man up' and take charge instead of ducking for cover all the time, or with his kids who just want a piece of him. Their emotions and underlying tensions are the same as any dysfunctional family in any country in the world, which makes the whole polygamy thing barely even an issue, despite it being central to the novel.

I guess the main point of the book is seeing Golden's character develop from a passive bystander to an active participant in the life he's created, and the ripple effect it has on the other characters of the novel. Apart from Golden's own story, we're also afforded glimpses into the lives of Trish, the neglected fourth wife, and Rusty, the most troublesome and neglected of all the kids. Like Golden, they're lonely also, and they all drift along in their own individual worlds rubbing against each other but never quite connecting.

The Lonely Polygamist is a lovely book in its own way and written really well, but if I had to criticise, I'd say it was just a tad too long at over 600 pages.

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