Kim Reads and Bakes

If I'm not reading or dawdling aimlessly around the World Wide Interweb, then I'm baking a cake or thinking about baking a cake.  Or else I'm thinking about where I'd like to travel to next.

All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front - Erich Maria Remarque, A.W. Wheen


This is a novel I’ve been meaning to read for years and I’m not really sure what took me so long.  It may just have been that I’ve never been much of a one for war literature.  In any event, I wish I’d read it years ago.  Even though Remarque disavowed any political purpose in writing the work, it’s the quintessential anti-war novel. The unspeakable horror of trench warfare, the fear, the boredom, the alienation are all unflinchingly described.  This is powerful stuff and while there are lighter moments, they make the darker moments even more poignant. 


That the Nazis banned this novel doesn’t surprise me at all.  It’s definitely not the kind of novel a government with militaristic ambitions and an expectation of unquestioning loyalty would want its citizens to read, particularly the young men expected to fight its wars.  Sadly, though, truth telling about war doesn’t make much difference to those who start them or to those who fight them.


I cried quite a bit as I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Tom Lawrence and I know that the work will have a lasting impact on me.  Since finishing it yesterday, I’ve read a few reviews on Goodreads, including some one star reviews. What many of the negative reviews have in common is that they appear to have been written by young people who were made to read the book at school.  “Boring” seems to be the consensus.  I don’t understand that all, except as an indication that for some young people having to read a book at school means it will be inevitably disliked. Or maybe you need to be old enough to understand the concept of mortality to appreciate the novel’s themes. Anyway, while I’m not sure what the ideal age to read this book would be, it’s definitely one that should be read.

Main Street

Main Street - Sinclair Lewis

I was dimly aware of Sinclair Lewis but completely unfamiliar with his work when I read John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley: In Search of America” a couple of years ago. Steinbeck, who admired Lewis, wanted to find his way from St Paul to Sauk Centre, Lewis' Minnesota hometown and the town on which the fictional location of this novel, Gopher Prairie, is based. He recounts his conversation with a waitress in a diner who gave him directions to the town: "They got a sign up. I guess quite a few folks come to see it. It does the town some good." The diner's cook volunteered that he didn't think "what's-his-name" was there anymore. Steinbeck recollected how negatively Sauk Centre had reacted to Lewis and to "Main Street" when it was published in 1920 and commented "Now he's good for the town. Brings in some tourists. He's a good writer now." The way Sauk Centre embraced Sinclair Lewis is similar to the way in which the Salinas Valley embraced Steinbeck, after its initial hugely negative reaction to the publication of “The Grapes of Wrath”.


A reader's response to this novel and in particular to its main character will depend to a large extent on their experience of and feelings towards life in a small town. Did you grow up in a small town or now live in one and absolutely love it? Then you'll probably dislike Carol Kennicott, a young librarian who marries a doctor in 1912, goes to live in Gopher Prairie and wants to change it and the people who live there. Can you imagine nothing worse than living in a place where everyone knows and judges everyone else? Then you'll understand Carol and feel for her, even if she also frustrates and annoys you. Having spent most of my life in a large city, I'm in the latter camp. Although I didn't find Carol particularly likeable - at least not all the time - I responded sympathetically to her. Had I been in her situation, I would probably have reacted as she did.


Lewis captures all that he saw as negative in small town life and called it Main Street: narrow-mindedness, provincialism, bigotry, hypocrisy, self-satisfaction and resistance to change. However, his portrayal of those who encapsulate those characteristics is not exclusively negative. Nor is his portrayal of Carol Kennicott overwhelmingly positive. The plot may be rambling, the style uneven and the satire and social commentary broad and unsubtle, but Lewis' rendering of his central characters is not without nuance. In my view, that's where much of the strength of the work resides. This is one of those works which I'm glad I've read, even if it hasn't left me particularly anxious to read more of its writer's work. A 3.5 star literary experience with a few 5 star moments.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Keep the Aspidistra Flying - George Orwell

According to Gordon Bowker, this is one of the novels Orwell wanted his literary executor to suppress after his death. That’s a clear indication of how Orwell felt about the novel and it’s fair to say that it’s not his strongest work. However, it still has a lot going for it, in particular black humour, sharp satire and a window into Orwell’s own life.

Having recently read Bowker’s biography of Orwell, I particularly appreciated the autobiographical elements of the novel, which otherwise would have been lost on me. The novel is Orwell at his most autobiographical. The main protagonist, Gordon Comstock, has a similar “lower upper middle class” background to Orwell. Like Orwell, Gordon rejects the values of his family and social class, turning against what he describes as “the money-god”. He forsakes a hated “good job” in order to pursue a writing career, just as Orwell gave up a career in the Imperial Police Force in Burma to become a writer. Gordon works in a secondhand bookstore - as did Orwell - and his descent into poverty is based on Orwell’s experiences living among the unemployed and the destitute.

For me, one of the major weaknesses of the work is that Gordon’s rage against middle class values becomes rather tedious (although to be fair, that may have been part of the point Orwell wanted to make). Another is that it’s hard to believe that Gordon’s long-suffering girlfriend, Rosemary, would persist in her devotion to someone so determinedly unattractive. On balance, though, the strengths of the work outweigh the weaknesses. When you get down to it, Orwell’s wonderful prose makes everything he wrote worth reading.

I listened to an audiobook edition narrated by Richard E Grant. His narration could not be faulted and I’d probably listen to him reading the bus timetable.

*Orwell's description of what good prose should be like.

George Orwell

Inside George Orwell: A Biography - Gordon Bowker


This is a perceptive and well-written biography of a complex, eccentric and flawed man. Bowker does a great job coming to grips with his subject, whose life he details in straightforward chronological order. He occasionally engages in some unnecessary speculation of the "Orwell must have thought ..." variety, but not so often that it adversely affects his credibility as a biographer. Bowker's prose is clear and uncomplicated and if the list of sources is any indication his research appears to be thorough. This is a "warts and all" biography and although Orwell had plenty of warts to be revealed, Bowker conveys empathy for his subject without making excuses for his sometimes problematic behaviour.

In recent times I've fallen in love with Orwell's "window pane"* prose and have started working my way through his novels and his non-fiction. Reading this biography has given me insight into the man behind the writer. Highly recommended for Orwell fans.

*Orwell's description of what good prose should be like.

The Riders

The Riders - Tim Winton


It’s December 1987.   Fred Scully – known simply as Scully – is renovating the dilapidated cottage in rural Ireland he and his wife Jennifer have bought on a whim at what was supposed to be the end of two years of living in Europe.  Jennifer and their seven-year-old daughter Billie have returned to Australia to sell the family home so that the family can settle permanently in Ireland.  Ten days before Christmas, Scully goes to the airport to collect Jennifer and Billie, but Billie arrives alone, too traumatised to tell her father what has happened to Jennifer.   Devastated and increasingly out of control, Scully takes Billie with him to Greece, then to Paris and to Amsterdam, desperate to find his wife and to understand what has happened.


In the hands of another novelist, this would have been a thriller involving international intrigue, espionage and abduction. The hero would have performed super-human feats of strength and daring and all would have been tied up in a neat bow of explanation at the end. But Winton’s not that kind of writer. Instead, this is an intelligent and thoughtful character study of a good man coming undone, of a man who loved too much and didn’t really know the object of his love.  The ending does not answer all of the questions raised in the narrative, although I still found it very satisfying.


Early in the novel, Scully is abundantly happy. He adores Jennifer and Billie and while the idea of buying the cottage and living in Ireland has been Jennifer’s idea, he’s happy to go along with it. Scully is an unattractive, but intelligent and caring man who worked as a labourer in London, Paris and Greece so that Jennifer could pursue her dream of becoming an artist or writer.  Then one cold night, in the ruins of a castle near his cottage, Scully sees a group of strangely looking people and horse. The people are dressed and armed for hunting and they apparently don’t see him. These people are “the Riders” of the title and this is the Wild Hunt of European mythology. Seeing the Wild Hunt means that disaster will follow. Knowing something about the myth makes what Winton is getting at easier to understand. It’s also what makes the ending of the work – for me, at least – entirely right. 


That Scully (and the reluctant Billie) are drawn into the Wild Hunt is made clear from other references in the text – the sight of “gypsy” boys riding horses bareback seen through the window of a train, the sound of horses’ hooves on a street in Amsterdam when Scully is at his most unraveled.  Having seen the Wild Hunt in Ireland, Scully is drawn into it and  becomes one of the Riders in his mad trek across Europe trying to find Jennifer.


This work is less tied to landscape than much of Winton’s other writing, although his descriptions of Ireland, of the Greek island of Hydra, of Paris and Amsterdam are important parts of the narrative.  What stands out for me in Winton’s writing is his sensory imagery: things aren’t just seen, they’re felt, heard, smelt, tasted.  There’s solidity and a corporality in these images that is in sharp juxtaposition to the mystical element of the Wild Hunt.  What also stands out is Winton’s exploration of the novel’s themes:  love, obsession, what it feels like to be a stranger in strange lands and the fact that people, no matter how much we love them and how well we think we know them, are essentially unknowable.  This was a novel which moved me deeply and which has stayed with me since I finished it. Leaving Scully and Billie at the end was a wrench.


I listened to the audiobook edition narrated by actor Stanley McGeagh, who apparently started his career in Ireland.  McGeach’s Irish, Greek and French accents were pretty good, although a Dutch accent proved beyond his skill set and Scully’s Australian accent was hit and miss.  McGeagh was generally able to reproduce our flattened vowels, but from time to time his dipthongs became a little confused and Scully started sounding South African.  It’s a minor issue that wouldn’t be noticed by anyone unfamiliar with the differences between Australian and South African accents.  Overall, listening was a pleasure.

The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence - Edith Wharton


Mostly I finish books I start, but when I first tried reading this novel twenty-five to thirty years ago, I don't think I made it past page five. I have a vague memory of seeing the film adaptation back in the 1990s, but it clearly didn't inspire me to return to the novel. So I'm not sure what made me decide to acquire and listen to the audiobook so many years later. However, I'm glad I did.


I knew that Wharton had written a novel critical of the world from which she sprang - late 19th century New York high society - but I hadn't expected such sharp irony. Nor had I expected the not infrequent touches of humour. Early on I was reminded of “The Forsyte Saga”, in which Galsworthy exposes the hypocrisy of the English upper middle class of the same period. But Galsworthy painted on a broader canvas than did Wharton, who focuses on her central protagonist Newland Archer's struggle between conforming to the expectations placed on him by his class and social position and his longing to follow his heart.


I really like Wharton's prose and her description of high society in 1870s New York is brilliantly evocative. I became less interested in Newland Archer's internal conflict as time went on and I was mildly irritated by the repeated references to characters' blushing, flushing and turning pale. (Was there really no other way Wharton could have indicated strong but restrained emotion?) But the poignancy of the ending won me over: it rang strong and true. The novel is an interesting snapshot of a particular place and at a particular time, but it still has something to say about the conflict between societal and family expectations and personal integrity and freedom. It made me want to read more of Edith Wharton's work.

Shooting an Elephant

Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays - George Orwell


Why has it taken me so long to discover George Orwell's non-fiction? Ever since reading "1984" when I was a teenager I've known Orwell was an excellent writer, but I didn't know just how extensive a range he had. Fiction, journalism, literary criticism, political and social commentary, memoir; there appears to be nothing Orwell couldn't turn his hand to. This volume includes a range of Orwell's essays from the 1930s and 1940s, with subjects including Orwell's time as a policeman in Burma, the years he spent in the prep school he loathed, the writing of Charles Dickens, "Gullivers Travels", the French hospital system, poverty in England, the cost of books and political language. While I found some of the essays of more inherent interest than others, all of them are engaging, written in wonderfully clear prose and imbued with Orwell's honesty, his passion for social justice and his capacity for at times painful self-reflection. This is great stuff. How glad I am that Orwell was so prolific and that there's a lot more of his writing for me to read.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

The Sound of One Hand Clapping - Richard Flanagan



This is a powerful and intensely sad novel, which deals with loss, alienation and the power of human beings to inflict pain on those they love most. The title comes from a Zen koan - a philosophical riddle - formulated by the Japanese Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku, who asked "You know the sound of two hands clapping; tell me, what is the sound of one hand?" As I understand it, the student of Zen is supposed to meditate on this riddle until insight or enlightenment occurs. The point is that there is no correct answer. The answer students come to depends on who they are, what they know and what they believe.


To me, the connection between the title and the narrative is that the reactions of the characters to the events that occur in their lives are formed by intricate web of history, geography, personality and circumstance. There are no easy answers to life’s questions, neither for the characters, nor for the readers who come to know them.


The novel is set in Tasmania in the post-World War II migrant community. It focuses on the relationship between Slovenian migrants Sonja Baloch and her father Bojan. The narrative goes back and forward in time from a snowy night in 1954 when Sonja's mother Maria leaves her husband and child and walks away from the dam construction camp in which they live, to 1989 when Sonja returns to Tasmania after a 22 year absence, with events taking place in various periods in between.


Although I was immediately taken with Flanagan’s writing and the structure of the novel, it took me longer to engage with the characters, as Sonja and her father are deeply damaged and not very likeable. However, the more I listened to the work, the more it packed an emotional punch.  It portrays the devastation of family trauma set against a background of displacement and alienation. It’s also a snapshot of recent Australian history, that of post-WWII European migration seen from the perspective of the migrants rather than from the society into which they entered.


This not a book to read when you’re feeling down, particularly if you’ve had a seriously dysfunctional relationship with your father.  On the other hand, it ends on a note of hope and renewal, so it’s not all doom and gloom, even if there is little light and even less humour in Sonja and Bojan’s story.


The audiobook version is narrated by the truly excellent Humphrey Bower, whose voices for the characters are perfect. Well, except possibly for Sonja’s voice. But younger female voices are always difficult for male narrators and at least Bower doesn’t go all falsetto.

Absalom Absalom

Absalom! Absalom! (Modern Library) - William Faulkner

I usually don't find it difficult to write about my reaction to a novel. But this one has defeated me. What a complex, layered work it is. I've sat in front of the computer for about an hour now, writing and deleting sentences, trying to analyse what I feel about it, and I can't quite find the words.

The narrative, which moves back and forward in time, concerns Thomas Sutpen, who arrives in Mississippi with a band of "wild" slaves to fulfill his obession to create a dynasty. He  builds a large estate, marries a local girl and has two children. Years later, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, Sutpen's daughter's fiancé is killed by Sutpen's son, who then disappears. Herein lies the mystery at the heart of the work - how and why Sutpen's past returned to haunt and ultimately destroy him.

Much of the complexity of the work comes from its structure. Sutpen's story is told through a series of intertwined third person accounts. Years after Sutpen's death, his sister-in-law tells part of the story to 20 year old Quentin Compson, who is then given other information about Sutpen by his father, who had in turn been told about Sutpen by his father. Quentin then tells the story to his Canadian room mate at Harvard, Shreve, who adds his own speculations about Sutpen to the narrative. None of the narrators know exactly what happened. All of them speculate about the facts and the text abounds with "probably", "possibly", "may have" and "must have". The effect of all of this uncertainty is unsettling and Sutpen's true story remains elusive, which is, I assume, part of the point.

The themes are also unsettling: Faulkner deals with race and class relations, incest and miscegenation. The novel is in effect an allegory of Southern history. This may be why I have difficulty articulating how I feel about the work. I'm an outsider to that history - as is Shreve in the novel - and I don't quite know how to react to it. What I can say, though, is that I found this work moving and haunting. This is an extraordinary novel and I'm in awe of Faulkner's writing.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Grover Gardner, which made the work much more accessible than I expected it to be. There was something about hearing the rhythms of the characters' speech which overcame the inherent difficulty of the long sentences and the complicated structure. I can't give this novel any less than five stars.

Dirt Music

Dirt Music - Tim Winton

I'm on a bit of a Tim Winton kick at the moment. For years after reading - and loving - "Cloudstreet". I ignored his work. Now it seems that I can't get enough of it. And yet, for some of the time I was listening to the audiobook version of this novel, I wasn't sure how I felt about it. It has everything that I love about Winton's writing: down-to-earth Australian English, realistic dialogue, flawed and complex characters, rich symbolism, striking imagery and a strong connection with the natural world. However, there were times when the pace lagged and I wasn't sure where Winton was taking his characters. It all came together at the end in a way that made me hold my breath, but it did take rather a long time to get there. 

The ending of the novel is ambiguous, but I was in an optimistic mood when I finished listening and I chose to interpret what happened in a positive way. Maybe that's just because I’d become very attached to the central characters, Lu and Georgie, and I wanted them to find what they'd been looking for. 

The audiobook was narrated reasonably well - although not brilliantly - by Suzi Dougherty.  While I didn’t mind listening to her, I won’t be going out of my way to listen to her narrating anything else.  I also formed the impression that she may have been given an American edition of the novel to read. Unless there’s something about Western Australian idioms of which I’m completely unaware, I can’t imagine that Tim Winton would refer to a mobile phone as a cell phone, or to a filing cabinet as a file cabinet.
This is a flawed, but still a powerful and haunting work - a 4.5 star read. Lu and Georgie are going to stay with me for a long time.


Eyrie: A Novel - Tim Winton

I didn't think that a Tim Winton novel would become a page turner, but this one did. Or at least, it did for me. It's a simple novel in many ways, and a somewhat unusual one for Winton. The natural world isn't entirely absent, but the setting is essentially urban, alternating between the Western Australian coastal city of Fremantle, and a leafy suburb of Perth just a short distance away. The central protagonist is Tom Keely, a middle-aged, formerly high-profile environmental campaigner whose career has ended in a spectacular public meltdown. Unhappy, divorced and unemployed, self-medicating what might be a neurological illness with drink and pills, Keely has retreated to the isolation of a low-rent apartment block which has seen better days, not so much to lick his wounds as to rub salt into them. There he encounters Gemma, an old childhood friend, and her grandson Kai, a most unusual six year old boy. Drawn into their lives, Keely decides that if he can't save the environment or even himself, he must save Kai.


I love Winton's prose. In this novel, it's neither poetic or lyrical, but Winton's use of the Australian vernacular is commanding and his dialogue is wonderful. (Though readers who really like dialogue to be encased in quotation marks won't find them here.) I also love the complexity of Winton's characters. Keely may be a sad-sack, but Winton gives him a biting wit which prevents him from being completely unlikable. Winton also gives Keely a truly wonderful mother, Doris, who has become one of my all-time favourite literary parents. Gemma is interesting - manipulative, but understandably so - and Kai's intelligence and strangness are depicted with compassion and without sentimentality.


Winton is pointed in his critique of Western Australian society and politics and he grapples with the way class operates in what many Australians like to think of as a classless country. Politicians, environmentalists, the mining lobby are particular targets, but nobody really escapes Keely's (Winton's?) despairing cynicism. The satirical aspect of the work may resonate more with Australians - and even more with Western Australians - than with readers from other parts of the world. But that doesn't mean that readers unfamiliar with the Western Australian scene won't be able to draw parallels with issues in their own society.


I'd give the novel five stars, but its ambiguous ending deflated me a bit. Winton doesn't tie up his novels in a neat bow and I respect his choice in that regard, but I would have preferred something a little more definite. That could just be a measure of my attachment to the characters. When you become attached to characters in a novel, it's hard not to want to know exactly what happens to them.


The Bones of Paris

The Bones of Paris: A Novel of Suspense - Laurie R. King





If the first book in this series, “Touchstone”, represents Laurie R King's excursion into the thriller genre, then this follow up novel featuring the same central protagonist is King's experiment with noir. Set in Paris shortly before the stock market crash of 1929, former Bureau of Investigation agent Harris Stuyvesant, now an occasional private investigator, is employed to find a missing American woman. Stuyvesant's discovery that the woman had links with the art world in Paris brings him into contact with players in a sensationalist corner of the surrealist art scene. 


What I liked best about this novel is King's evocation of Paris in the late 1920s. She weaves real-life identities into her plot, including Sylvia Beach, Cole Porter, Man Ray, Bricktop Smith and Natalie Barney. Ernest Hemingway is also mentioned on a number of occasions, although he only appears briefly in a non-speaking role. King does a great job recreating a time when the frenetic expatriate party which had been 1920s Paris was almost over: the stock market crash of 1929 made Paris a less affordable place for Americans to live and the shadow of impending war during the 1930s changed the scene forever. I love reading about Paris during this period and encountering some of the personalities I know from other books was fun. I also liked the noir elements of the plot, underscored by a reference to Dashiell Hammett, and the creepy, almost gothic touches.


Part of the fun of reading crime fiction is seeing if you can guess whodunnit. In this case there were four, or at a pinch five, possible culprits to choose from. Two of them I dismissed almost immediately from consideration and the fifth I didn't seriously consider at all.  But King kept me guessing with the other two, so the lead up to the big reveal was suspensefu, even if the mechanics of why-dunnit and how-dunnit stretched credulity.  Actually, that’s too kind. The why and how were really pretty silly.


As it happens, the over the top resolution didn’t spoil the novel for me, but at times its leisurely pace threatened to do so.  I’m okay with wordy and I like plenty of descriptive language, but this is not the kind of novel that is improved by too much detail and too many repetitive scenes.  Overall, I was glad that I listened to the audiobook because it allowed me to multi-task while the hero dithered.  Jefferson Mays does a good job with the narration, as he did with “Touchstone”, and his pronunciation of French words and phrases, while not perfect, is not bad at all.


As far as ratings go, I liked this a bit more than I did “Touchstone” - almost certainly because of the Parisian setting - so it’s a solid 3.5 stars.



Touchstone: A Stuyvesant & Grey Novel - Laurie R. King

When I started reading Laurie R King's Mary Russell / Sherlock Holmes series a couple of years ago, after a very long break from her work, I didn't know about this novel. First published in 2007, it's been a standalone work until recently, when a second novel featuring the same main protagonists, “The Bones of Paris”, was published. I like King's writing. Her prose is excellent, she does a good job creating interesting (if not always believable) characters, her evocation of time and place is powerful and she weaves historical events and personalities into her stories in an interesting and unforced manner.


“Touchstone” is something of a departure from King's Mary Russell / Sherlock Holmes series and her earlier Kate Martinelli series. Rather than crime fiction, it's in the thriller genre. The novel is set in England in 1926, in the lead up to a national strike in support of coal miners. Harris Stuyvesant, an agent with the Bureau of Investigation (precursor to the FBI) is in London following a lead in his investigation into a series of politically motivated bombings in the US. He crosses paths with the sinister eminence grise Aldous Carstairs and shell shocked veteran Bennett Grey, a man whose war injuries have given him a particular sensitivity to deception. (Grey is one of those interesting but not very believable characters King is particularly good at creating).


The narrative is in the third person omniscient style, giving an old-fashioned feel to the work which I quite like, although the rapidity with which the perspective switches from one character to another was sometimes a little annoying. Another feature of the work is its sedate pace. I don't read many thrillers and I don't need my fiction to be action packed, but even taking my patience with a slow narrative into account, there were times when this one went too slowly for me. There are too many cigarettes smoked, too many cups of coffee drunk and too many drinking sessions and hangovers described in minute detail. This does not make for a particularly thrilling thriller.


I worked out - well, correctly guessed - the identity of the perpetrator early on. However, I doubted myself because my guess didn't seem particularly credible. And indeed, the climax of the action was anything but credible. However, that happens in crime fiction - and in thrillers too, I suppose - so there's no point in reading such novels at all if you can't cross the suspension bridge of disbelief and enjoy the view from the other side. Notwithstanding my reservations, I enjoyed the view enough to give this 3 to 3.5 stars. I also liked it enough to move straight on to its newly published sequel. What can I say, it was there, ready to go. And it's set in 1920s Paris, one of my favourite literary locations.


I listened to the audiobook version which is competently narrated by American actor Jefferson Mays. He's not bad at the English voices - although he mostly sounds like an American putting on an English accent and a Welsh accent proved beyond his ability - and he doesn't come over all falsetto with the female characters. All in all, Mays made listening pleasant.


Hemingway: A Life

Hemingway: Life & Work - Kenneth S. Lynn

I read some of Hemingway's work when I was at university and I wasn't impressed. The bull-fighting, the drinking, the over-the-top machismo didn't appeal to me. So it was no more Hemingway for me for several decades. Then last year, in preparation for a holiday in Paris, I read "A Moveable Feast" and was intrigued. The prose was wonderful. Likewise the evocation of 1920s Paris. The impression I gained of Hemingway as a man was less positive: mean-spirited was the term most forcefully brought to mind. However, reading that book, being in Paris and walking in Hemingway's steps, developing an interest in the so-called Lost Generation, reading some more of Hemingway's fiction and seeing him through the eyes of the biographers of other Lost Generation figures led me to this book. It covers Hemingway's life from  his birth in Oak Park, Illinois to his suicide in Idaho, with all of the high and low points in between.




Lynn employs a psychological approach, which was initially mildly annoying. (Hem's problems were all his mother's fault, don't you know!) But as I read further I became convinced that Lynn was on to something. Hemingway's relationship with his parents - and particularly with his domineering mother, whom he blamed for his father's suicide - clearly had a lasting impact not just on his attitude to life, but also on his fiction. The writer John Dos Passos, Hemingway's close friend until they fell out during the Spanish Civil War, described Hemingway as the only man he'd ever known who truly hated his mother. That observation appears to have been well based and it would have been impossible for an emotion that strong not to spill over into Hemingway's fiction.




Another issue upon which Lynn focuses is Hemingway's sexual ambivalence, the expression of which is a fascination with androgyny. This aspect of Hemingway's make-up Lynn traces to his mother's treating him as his older sister's twin and dressing him as a girl for much longer than it was usual to dress boys as girls in the early 20th century. Whether or not Lynn's correct about the cause, his thesis that Hemingway was fascinated with androgyny is well supported by references to Hemingway's fiction and presents a different view to that of Hemingway's public person of aggressive masculinity. It also gives some credence to Zelda Fitzgerald's description of Hemingway as "bogus" and "phony as a rubber check". She may have discerned something about Hemingway that was not part of the myth he cultivated so assiduously.




As far as literary biographies go, this is an excellent one. It's much more than a list of dates and achievements and it deals with the less attractive aspects of Hemingway's personality and behaviour in a fair and balanced way. The analysis of Hemingway's literary output is also fair and balanced. The prose is easy to read, neither simplistic nor overly academic in tone, and the work is amply footnoted and supported by an extensive bibliography. It has renewed my interest in reading more of Hemingway's fiction, at least the best of it. It has also allowed me to feel empathy for the confused, mentally and physically ill man who wrote “A Moveable Feast”. Hemingway's journey from confident young man sure that his destiny was to become a great writer, to broken, paranoid, alcoholic, suicidal wreck of a man, is heartbreaking. 




The Magic Mountain

The Magic Mountain - Thomas Mann, John E. Woods

There were times when I wondered whether I’d ever finish this book.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, but reading a novel driven by ideas rather by plot or character has its challenges. Particularly if, like me, you do most of your reading at night, in between getting into the bed and switching off the light.  This is not the kind of novel which can be read, digested and disposed of quickly. It demands concentration, patience and perseverance – qualities in which I am frequently lacking at the end of a day at work.

But persevere I did, alongside the novel’s central protagonist Hans Castorp, as he lived seven long years in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Alps, exploring love, history, philosophy, music, religion and the meaning of life and death in an environment symbolic of pre-World War I Europe.  I say seven long years because that’s usually how they appeared to me as I worked my way through a chapter every few nights for almost two months, but to Hans Castorp those years appeared much shorter: the passage of time and how it varies according to circumstances is a central theme of the work.

This is a novel in which little happens in terms of conventional (or even unconventional) plot and character development.  What in most other novels would be digressions are its point.  Whether that appeals will depend in large part on what you want to get from reading fiction.  If it’s relaxation and entertainment, then chances are this is not the novel for you. If you want an intellectual challenge and don’t mind feeling some level of frustration (in my case the frustration was at least in part knowing that I’d be getting more out of the work if I knew more to start with), then it may well be worthwhile.

I feel like I’ve climbed a mountain and then descended into the valleys. It wasn’t always magic, but it has given me a sense of achievement. And as I read the last few pages, in awe of Mann’s brilliance, I offered up a prayer of thanks to the literary gods that I hadn’t abandoned the climb.  The view from the end made the difficult bits of the climb and the descent worthwhile. 


The Turning: Stories

The Turning: Stories - Tim Winton


Hearing film director Bob Connolly being interviewed about the film adaptation of this volume of short stories made me pay attention to Winton, which I haven’t done since reading and loving “Cloudstreet” more than fifteen years ago.


 “The Turning”  consists of seventeen interconnected short stories, each of which deals with a significant moment in the life of the central protagonist – a moment of change, of insight or of revelation – which reflects the “turning” of the title.  One character, Vic Lang, appears in nine of the stories and all of the stories take place in or are in some way connected to the fictional town of Angelus, which is based on the real town of Albany, where Winton spent his teenage years.  The stories are told in different voices and from different perspectives and are not in chronological order.  So, for example, the stories featuring Vic Lang consist of first and third person narratives (as well as a second person narrative, if I remember correctly) related both from Vic’s perspective and from the perspective of other protagonists and an episode dealing with Vic as an adult may be followed by one which deals with him as a teenager or as a child.


If this sounds confusing, it isn’t. Sometimes it takes a while to work out that a particular scene has already been described from a different perspective in an earlier story and occasionally it’s not immediately clear that a story involves a character you already know. However, these moments of disorientation enrich the overall reading experience.  This is not a collection of randomly chosen short stories, or even just a collection of short stories with a similar theme.  It’s a short story cycle, which almost forms a novel in episodic form, with a complex narrative structure to complement the difficult issues with which it deals.  And there are some difficult issues here: spousal abuse, alcoholism, dysfunctional family relationships, grief and loneliness among them.


 Winton writes so beautifully that it takes my breath away.  There’s not a word wasted in these stories, which are a mixture of the Australian vernacular and, well, poetry.  His description of the setting  - a small coastal town – is perfect and the inner life of the varied characters – men, women, children, teenagers – is conveyed with sensitivity and economy.  To some degree Winton reminds me of John Steinbeck. Not that their writing style is all that similar. However, a hallmark of both novelists is a deep connection with landscape, a compassion for human frailty and an ability to create empathy for even the least attractive of their characters.  Reading Steinbeck and Winton is an experience not just for the intellect but also for the heart.


Currently reading

The Magic Mountain
Thomas Mann, John E. Woods
Three Soldiers
John Dos Passos, George Guidall