Friday, March 29, 2013

Madeleine bores the pants off me

In real life I ruthlessly avoid people who wear their victim status like a badge of honour. In books, as in life, I wish to meet people who are, above all, interesting; who teach me things; and who, in spite of their personal weaknesses, manage to carve a triumphant course through life.
         No surprise, then, that I did not enjoy Helen Trinca's biography, Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St. John, with a blurb on the cover by fellow Sydney University alumnus, celebrity raconteur Clive James.  [James's blurb, I noticed, fails to discuss the contents of the St John biography - funny, that - but alludes instead to having once known St. John who died in 2006 of emphysema in her mid-60s.]
          Brilliant biographies, in my opinion, need three things: a fascinating subject, excellent research, and the author's passion for the subject that emanates in his or her telling.
          In the case of Madeleine, Trinca's research cannot be faulted, but isn't it interesting that everyone to whom the author spoke about St John struggled to find anything positive to say?  That's because Madeleine was - as becomes obvious as the story unfolds - chronically addicted to a "poor me" attitude triggered by her parents' disastrous marriage, her mother's premature death, and her father's subsequent detachment.
        Madeleine never got over her childhood traumas and as a result struggled to live comfortably in her skin among the human race. In the end, she fled to London where she lived alone in her snobbish, prickly way and ultimately - good for her - turned out four half-decent books. I've only read The Women in Black which I found dreary and hard to finish; James, however, describes is as "a minor masterpiece" or similar, so I guess we'll have to disagree.
       St John went on to become shortlisted for the Booker Prize for her fourth novel, The Essence of the Thing, but her accomplishments notwithstanding, she remains a difficult, uninspiring person to know. I suspect biographer Trinca, after all the research and writing on her subject, felt the same way, because ultimately there's no passion, telling insight or humour in this biography, just a litany of relentlessly suck-the-life-out-of-you facts. >>> 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

A childhood memoir of the 1930s

Let me confess from the outset that the memoir, Letters to my Father, was written by a dear friend, Rina Huber.
     Rina today is 84 years old - light years removed from the cranky street urchin we see on the book cover at left - and at the tail end of a rich and satisfying life.
      She's already penned the lyrical Nine Summers, about nine seasons on a yacht sailing around the Mediterranean with her now deceased husband, a book that garnered consistently positive critical reviews.
     Now the Sydney Jewish Museum is publishing this latest offering from Rina who looks back on a tumultuous childhood.

"Rina's book has been snapped up by Sydney's most discerning book-seller and owner of one of the city's finest book emporia, Lesley Mackay."
     Simply told through the eyes of a child, Huber describes living with her family in Palestine in the early 1930s where everyone there set about building a new life from the rocky, dry ground up.
        This was a time when Palestinians and Jews still lived relatively peacefully as neighbours. Money was scarce, everyone lived in cramped dwellings and children played barefoot in dusty, treeless streets, but life was innocent and happy.

      When Rina's mother dies prematurely however, life begins to unravel for seven-year-old Rina who sets sail to Mussolini-led Italy to live with little-known relatives with whom she has no common language.
      It would spoil the reading to reveal anything more, except to say that Letters to my Father has been snapped up by Sydney's most discerning book-seller, Lesley Mackay.
      There Rina's memoir is already selling strongly before its  official launch on April 21, and that comes as no surprise to me.  Buy yourself a copy now! >>>

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Richard Ford is a beautiful writer

Some books are so boring or banal that I am wont to hurl them across a room in disgust. How did this get published? I ask myself as I realise I have reached a literary cul de sac. Occasionally, blissfully  however, I begin reading a book and I... just KNOW. Aha, methinks, let me make myself a cuppa, and settle in...
    And then there are books so good that they humble me. Before their brilliant prose I feel mind-numbingly average. I cannot imagine having such imagination; and can only dream of taking readers on an endless, don't-put-me-down journey page after page after page.
    This week's read, Canada, by Richard Ford, is one of those rare books of brilliance. From the opening sentence - "First, I'll tell you about the robbery our parents committed" - you are lured, like a fish on a hook, as Ford describes (in 600 pages, mind you) the milieu, the motivations, the conversations, rhythms and cadences of a tight, strange cast of characters.
You may not know people like this, nor have lived in such places, but nevertheless there you lurk, inside the minds and hearts of 15-year-old Dell Parsons and his crazy, luckless family.
      What a pity then that the second half of the book isn't half as interesting as the first half. Unexpectedly, all the minutaie that Ford embroiders into the telling of the book's front half is relentlessly bleak to the point of unbearable in the back end. 
       Frank McCourt managed to make a life of misery palatable for the entire duration of his autobiography, Angela's Ashes, but I reckon his literary coup is a rarity. As is the case with films, readers turns to books to escape into another world and ideally, this place of fiction offers rays of hope, light, humour and redemption.
       I haven't finished Canada yet, but after a luminous opening and a glorious couple of hundred pages, I am now flicking through the second half impatiently, waiting for something uplifting to cut through the depressing bleakness. There's no doubt  that Ford's a masterful writer, but he's got to give me more happy than sad if he wants to keep me enthralled. >>>