Friday, 24 December 2010

Christmas treats 2010

by Julia Kuttner


Room, by Emma Donoghue

Jack lives in room with Ma.  He sleeps in Wardrobe, plays with Paper Snake and eats food off Table.  He has to be very quiet at night when the beeps sound at Door;  it means that Old Nick will come to Ma.  Jack is supposed to be asleep and not meant to listen to any conversation between Old Nick and Ma but he knows that this man is someone to be afraid of, and that he once hurt Ma’s wrist so badly that it doesn’t work properly anymore.  But!  It is Jack’s 5th birthday today, and Ma has made him a cake, his very first one, just like ‘in the TV’;  yesterday he was only four, but today he is five, and anything can happen.  And does.  So begins Emma Donoghue’s gripping story of a young student kidnapped and held hostage for seven years, the birth of a son to her captor, and their eventual escape from him, all told in Jack’s words.  What a singular feat of great writing, to describe the thoughts of a young child whose only reality is a 12x12ft room;  who has never experienced rain, or hot sun;  who has never heard the sound of a car engine, except ‘in the TV’, who has never spoken to anyone else but his beloved Ma, let alone played with another child.  Ms Donoghue’s portrayal of Jack’s isolation is profound and very moving – and brilliant, especially as he struggles to understand and make sense of his new-found freedom – as does Ma:  her attempts to reintegrate herself into society and family bring catastrophic results.  This story will stay with me for a long time.  I found (as the blurb on the cover suggested) that I HAD to read it until it was finished, and anything else I read hereafter has a lot of measuring up to do!  This novel has just been selected as one of  the New York Times’  10 best books of the year, and shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize:  rightly so.  ‘The Finkler Question’ was the eventual Booker winner;  I look forward to reading it, but ‘Room’ will be a very hard act to follow.  FIVE STARS.

TraitorTraitor, by Stephen Daisley

This is a novel about friendship, sure and true and everlasting, born in the carnage of battle and strengthened by terrible subsequent adversity.  There are no happy endings in ‘Traitor’ for its theme is an exploration of what is traitorous:  the betrayal of friendship or of one’s country?  David Monroe is a New Zealand soldier at Gallipoli;  he has already been mentioned in dispatches for his bravery at Chunuk Bair, but his life is changed forever by his meeting in the heat of bombardment with a Turkish Officer, a Doctor who is frantically trying to save the life of an Australian Digger – his enemy.  They are all victims of the next explosion;  the Australian dies and David, badly wounded by shrapnel, ends up being guard to the Turk Mahmoud, who has lost his foot and most of the fingers of one hand.  They bond with each other to the extent that David tries to help Mahmoud to escape, with disastrous results, especially for himself:  he is now regarded as a deserter and a traitor and undergoes terrible punishment, especially from men he formerly regarded as friends – they have no time for ‘conchies’.  He demonstrates his courage again and again as a stretcher bearer on the battlefields of France and Belgium, where he has been sent after his prison sentence, but he is never forgiven, then or after the war;  people don’t care to associate with him for consorting with the enemy, a murderer of ‘our boys at the front’. 
This is Mr. Daisley’s debut novel and it is a searing, powerful evocation of a time when ‘King and Country’ meant everything to those at home and to those young men who went to fight – until they encountered the dreadful theatre of war, experiencing first-hand the great divide between patriotism and the bloody reality of destruction.  It is a story of love in many forms, parental love – in David’s case, the lack of it – the love of mateship, romantic love and the love of the land.  Mr. Daisley has crafted a superb and poignant story with unforgettable characters, and a wonderfully accurate portrayal of a life and times now barely remembered in this new century.   His prose is beautiful and elegiac – and utterly compelling.  Highly recommended.

Wait for meWait for me!, by Deborah Devonshire

Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, was the last child and youngest daughter of David Mitford, second Baron Redesdale and his wife Sydney.  Born in 1920, she was part of a family famous for its eccentricity – Sydney, known as Muv to her offspring, didn’t believe in sending girls off to school and educated them herself until they reached the age of eight;  then they were entrusted to a succession of governesses, some of whom were less than leading lights educationally speaking.  Lord Redesdale, called Farv, was unlucky in his financial investments (there were a succession of moves to smaller houses as the family fortunes waned) and delighted in being entirely unpredictable in his behavior, especially when his daughters brought friends home.  He was heard often to say  that he had only read one book, Jack London’s ‘White Fang’, and it was so excellent that it quite spoiled him for anything else, and he hadn’t read another  since!  This handsome pair produced a son and six daughters, all famed for their beauty, charm and intelligence:  Nancy achieved international prominence with her comic novels ( many of the characters based transparently on her family) and historical biographies, and Jessica’s essays, reviews and best-selling exposé of the funeral industry ‘The American Way of Death established her reputation as a writer of excellent satire, but it was the sisters’ politics which fascinated and enraged 30’s and 40’s society.  Diana, the most beautiful of the girls, married at the age of 18 the heir to the Guinness fortune, produced two sons then left him  after four years of marriage to become the mistress of Sir Oswald Mosely, leader of the British Fascists and great  admirer of Hitler;  she embraced her new lover’s politics as ardently as she loved him and when Mosely’s wife died, Diana and he were married in Berlin, in Hitler’s Drawing Room.  The fifth Mitford daughter, Unity, had already  spent a considerable time in Germany, a complete convert to the Nazi ideal,with the hope of eventually meeting Herr Hitler whom she patently adored:  miraculously for her, the meeting took place and a very close and worshipful friendship was formed with the Fuehrer.  Jessica, in the meantime, had embraced Communism with typical Mitford fervor and harshly decried her sisters’ extreme politics, though her own were just as radical for the times – in short, these were all singular women whose restless energy, joie de vivre and a self-confidence born of being high- aristocracy enabled them to make their mark indelibly on 20th. Century manners and mores.
In this charming memoir, Deborah (Debo) follows in her family’s wake, crying ‘Wait for me!’  As the youngest some of the cataclysmic events occurring to her sisters flew over her head, but as time went on, she understood more and became closer to her sisters as they proceeded through their lives and loves at a breakneck pace;  in fact, Debo (if one reads  between the lines) had some amorous adventures herself:  dropped names glitter like sequins on every page, not least a friendship with President Kennedy.  As we now know, he was friends with a lot of women, and while Debo may not have been a ‘friend’ in the biblical sense (one hopes!) it is telling that Jackie Kennedy gets nary a mention:  ‘Jack’ occupies a lot of pages! 
In spite of  the sisters’ disparate political views – Debo has always been staunchly and loudly conservative – what impressed me most about this lovely, witty backward look into a family history is the great love that they all had for each other;  personal and political differences notwithstanding :  could one possibly ask for more?  Highly recommended.     

Friday, 3 December 2010

Great reads for December 2010

Great reads for December

Ghost lightby Joseph O’Connor

When I began this book, I didn’t think I’d be able to continue with it;  I wasn’t in the mood for the unbearable poignancy of the first couple of chapters which set the scene for what happens to Molly Allgood, a once-famous actress using the stage name of Maire O’Neill.  How fortunate I am that I chided myself for my faint-heartedness and pressed on beyond the squalor and misery of Molly’s old age, to be utterly beguiled by her memories of her youth and beauty, and her once-in-a-lifetime love for John Millington Synge, the famous and controversial Irish playwright.  Synge was a co-founder with William Butler Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory of the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin and produced his works there until his premature death at the age of 37;  Molly and her older sister Sarah received their dramatic training there and both went on to fame and fortune in the early part of the twentieth century, Sarah making a name for herself in Hollywood and Molly becoming a notable stage actress.  Tragically, Molly cannot forget her reclusive and brilliant lover, and as her life enters its decline she sees him everywhere – in the mirror, on the street – and was that his voice just whispering behind her?  Mr. O’Connor recreates these real-life characters with superlative skill;  he is careful to stress that he has written a work of fiction, and profusely apologises to Synge scholars for the many errors and licence he has taken with dates and facts - all in the name of a good story -  but there is no denying the life and the breath he has given his protagonists.  In true Irish fashion, he can be the Master of Melancholy in one chapter, then in the next  he ambushes  the reader with a seduction scene that is side-splittingly funny.  Mr. O’Connor can wear the masks of Tragedy and Comedy with equal ease, and the elegance and musicality of his prose is a delight.  He ‘can make a glass eye cry’, or let the reader be ‘as happy as a threaded needle’.  What more could we ask?   FIVE STARS

Spies of the Balkansby Alan Furst

Costa Zannis is a Senior Police Officer in Salonika, Greece, in 1940.  World War 2 is underway and Hitler is massing his forces in the Balkans, ready to push south.  Costa is very good at his job;  he is a decent man, blessed with an empathy and  excellent judgement of his fellow citizens and their failings - but  Costa’s world has become a very dangerous place, and feels even more so when he is approached by a very rich lady, a German Jew, who wishes his assistance in smuggling Jews out of Berlin, where she lives with her husband, a high-ranking Wehrmacht officer.  So far, she is untouchable by the Gestapo – her husband is powerful  - but her friends are not;  she has the money to finance their flight, but not the contacts, until she hears of Costa and his very special network of friends and colleagues.  Thus begins Costa’s reluctant expansion of his talents;  from canny policeman to clandestine operative, for he cannot refuse her request for his help – no decent man could.  Mr. Furst takes the reader on a fascinating, suspenseful journey through the Balkan countries as the first Jews make their tentative way to Greece and safety;  he has a particular talent for establishing atmosphere and mood, essential elements in a spy story – BUT! – (and it’s a very big one) – in the latter half of the story Costa’s talents become known to others who require him to further the war effort  in a different, risky,  even more life-threatening way and though the novel’s tension should heighten at this point to an unbearable level the story suffers and the suspense starts to sag with the introduction of glamorous, beautiful Demetria , wife of a cruel shipping magnate.  It is love at first sight for hitherto down-to-earth and sensible Costa;  he falls for her like a blind roofer (which brings me to wonder cynically why no-one ever seems to fall in love at first  sight with a woman who has, say, a wall eye or is slightly mustachioed.  Demetria is also blonde and has a big bottom, but this is 1940:  big bottoms are IN).  The plot’s impetus suffers accordingly.  Having said that, ‘Spies of the Balkans’ is still an enormously entertaining read;  Mr. Furst is too clever a writer to produce a flop – it’s just not quite as good as his previous novels, in particular ‘The Spies of Warsaw’.  Read that one as well!

The Crime of Huey Dunstan, by James McNeish

 Huey Dunstan has murdered a man in a violent and frenzied attack;  his case is regarded as open-and-shut and despite a spirited defense from his counsel, he is sentenced to life imprisonment.  Dunstan is 23 years old, reserved, even withdrawn,  but regarded as a good man, respectful to authority and his elders and the last person to be considered capable of such a crime.  His counsel feels that there is more to the case than meets the eye and enlists the assistance of an old friend of his, Psychologist Charlie Chesney, to interview Huey, and see if he can prise his secrets from him, thus leading to an appeal and a retrial where the charge of murder could be reduced to manslaughter, with a defence of provocation.  Mr. McNeish is a most competent writer and presents his characters well, particularly ‘Ches’, who narrates the story -  and happens to be blind.  I have to confess that I found Ches’s daily struggles and compromises with his disability to be more fascinating than the crime itself, important though it is in light of current events:  thanks to the infamous Clayton Weatherston trial, where he would admit only to manslaughter not murder because he was ‘provoked’ into stabbing his girlfriend 216 times, the law of provocation as defence has now been abolished in NZ.  This law still applies in Mr. McNeish’s story, however, and he produces a satisfying courtroom drama with all the twists and turns that we would expect in such a case.  Because Ches is 82 when he begins the story I can’t expect him to be resurrected in a second book -  he is reminiscing, really, about a particularly intriguing case in the body of his life’s work – but that’s a shame:  the reader is the poorer for not reconnecting with Charlie Chesney, in his official capacity or otherwise, in the future.

Our Kind of Traitor, by John le Carré

Dima is a Russian gangster, and proud of it.  He is also an expert money-launderer for the Russian Mafia and has amassed huge wealth for them, and for himself – but a new young ‘Prince’ is coming to the fore in the Mafia Hierachy, and the Prince doesn’t like Dima;  Dima is too ‘Old-School’, he dwells too much on the old Vor code of Honour amongst thieves (and murderers) and after one last, biggest laundering operation – the opening of a new ‘respectable’ bank in the City of London – Dima and his family will be eliminated, as were several of his dear friends and colleagues already:  it’s time, thinks Dima,  to defect with all his secrets and sell them to his preferred country of asylum, Great Britain.  Yet again John Le Carré has crafted an impeccable story of secret service diplomacy, political corruption and life-and-death back-room dealings;  his characters are superb,  almost Dickensian in range and description and utterly, utterly believable.  Mr. Le Carré has the best eye and ear for accents and body language in the business, and his wit, interspersed even at times of great suspense in this beautifully plotted story, is delicious.  This is the master at his best:  FIVE STARS.

 Every Last One, by Anna Quindlen

The Lathams are your typical upper middle-class suburban American family:  father Glen is a respected Ophthalmologist;  Mary-Beth his wife is content if not wildly happy with her comfortable role as his consort and mother to their three bright children, beautiful Ruby and twins Alex and Max;  she has her own little side business designing gardens for her neighbours – everything in the Latham family garden should be rosy, but it isn’t.  There are secrets in this family;  damaging secrets:  14 year old Max suffers from anxiety and depression and Ruby is a recovering anorexic.  There are some who would regard these illnesses as typical 21st century diseases;  that may be so, but family suffering is not lessened because many children are now bound by such commonality:  the Lathams try to respond  to and overcome their problems with as much love and good common-sense as they can muster – until a tragedy, more unbelievable  and horrifying than they can ever imagine overtakes them all.  Ms Quindlen, in her spare, lucid prose guides us through the unspeakable events that change the Lathams’ lives forever.  She tackles the core subject, grief, with great delicacy and skill;  in fact she writes so intimately of her characters that I wondered if she had suffered a similar tragedy and used this story as a catharsis:  regardless, she has produced a novel of great insight, empathy and intelligence.  This is a harrowing read, but it’s also a story of courage, familial love and most importantly, hope.  Highly recommended.

DVD’s       DVD’S       DVD’S       DVD’S       DVD’S       DVD’S

Check out the many wonderful new titles in your library, donated by The Friends of Horowhenua Libraries, resourceful and tireless fundraisers Supreme:  thanks to their latest efforts all library users can enjoy a huge range of movies, from Documentaries to mini-series, Art house films to mainstream Blockbusters,  all for a very reasonable rental (Video-Ezy, eat your hearts out!)  Below is a selection of movies I have watched and loved over the past few weeks – and for those of you who don’t like subtitles:  live dangerously!  Don’t miss out on some great movies because you don’t like to read words at the bottom of the screen – you read them in books WITHOUT the pictures, don’t you?  Same difference, as far as I’m concerned.  Happy viewing.