Father and Son by Sir Edmund Gosse

This is one of the most personal of biographies I have ever read. It was first published in 1907. It is also of its time a masterful document of religious thinking of the Non-conformist , puritan groups in England in the period from fifty years before. It is much more besides - a brilliant set of memories of early childhood and the way of thinking as a child. The stories of the relationships between each of his parents - the naturalist, non-conformist minister father, his incredible , stoic mother who died when he was only seven and the son himself in turn with them are breathtakingly told. The characters of his father and mother are wonderfully and tenderly observed. The writing is crytsal-like about religious feelings and the philosophy of the family members .

There is amazing material in this short memoir - ( It is a strong social history I wish I had read it when doing 19th British History) - highlighting the dilemma of the Creatonists with the new Lyell/Darwinian Natural Selectionists and their dramatic findings. Chapter five where the author Edmund Gosse described the almost personal destruction of his Scientist/Bible believing father when his compromising published work fails to gain the kudos he had hoped from his fellow scientists at the Royal Academy is perfectly realised and written.

Having said all of the above this memoir is also delightfully humorous at times and is so inciteful about the country folk in Devon where his father takes the young Gosse to live after the death of the beloved wife and mother. - to be near the sea where they can collect sea shore specimens. The chapel people here are wonderful.

If you have half an interest in the way our ideas have been formed over the last 150 years please read this superbly written shortish memoir and then please discuss.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

This novel is a literary a well as a social satire . We are used to Austen as the first rate commentator and writer about social manners but in this one she is having fun in a different way. The author is spoofing the type of writer very popular at the time at which it was written , ca 1803. Catherine , the heroine, is addicted to Gothic romance novels and is on the lookout for any real life applications of the fantastic story lines of those novels - in applying this logic she makes the usual mistakes . But it is no way as serious a comment on the behaviour and thinking processes of self centred young persons as in Emma , for instance. I enjoyed it very much when i first read it . I would be delighted to hear what others think. I will be adding some further comments also a bit later.

Midnights's Children by Salman Rushdie

I am still reading this amazing book - will be finished in a few days time. Please feel free to comment and tell us your view if you have already read it. I was a little taken aback to have been reading it whilst the Mumbai terror episodes were before us in the news but on reflection it has been a positive experience for me and added to my understanding. The reason for this is that the book is such a wonderful evocation of the multicultural and multi religious strength and vibrancy of Mumbai , Once again I find that good fiction educates us as much as any other text can do. I look forward to sharing a few more specific thoughts on this magical book just a little later.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Wow! - or in the words of dear Oscar as a rough estimate " was that copacetic or What! "
For my enjoyment this was a very fine work of kaleidoscopic fiction . But as soon as I say fiction I have to pause to realise there is so much historical data in the clever footnotes to give it a social history feel as well. I loved the background - the larger than life stories about the Dominican Republic - the small and big players - I learnt so much I didnt know about the Diaspora of that part of the world and especially the extent of the migration to the east coast of the USA . There is a lot of toing and froing by the main characters in the book between New Jersey, New York and the DR - and one gets the impression this happens with Puerto Rico, Haiti and Cuba as well - a very bustling, active part of the world which it was eye opening to read about in this well crafted stylish work.

The language in the work ( with Spanish phrases lightly peppered throughout the strong American English ) is a delight and adds to the colour and vibrancy of the settings and feel . Language is a special feature of this inventive novel - Fine English, Spanish, Patois and American slang words and phrases - all combined in this heady linguistic , migrant story. As an example of the unique strength of the prose - it can be noted that even though the Latino male libido is ever present in the stories , I dont recall seeing the word Macho written at all. It is an original in so many ways.

A major theme in the work is Oscar's growing up - he is a nerd who likes reading and watching science fiction , anime and playing computer games who has poor success with women but who has the yearnings of a great lover and hero . Although he suffers often in his tender and teen years he is lovable and his family are very protective of him.

The book is constructed around individual family member stories over three generations which make up the history of Oscar and his family - both in DR and the USA. These stories are riveting , often harrowing when set in the Trujillo years , however leavened with humour and the very earthy and often surprising scenarios.

The male narrator is a part of the story and associated with the family - although we know relatively less about him. The dialogue fits in neatly with his story telling and adds to the linguistic energy . Even though it is a book which is ostensibly a lot about males and their sexual concerns - the females are strong , well drawn and vital to the enjoyment and verisimilitude of the work.

A very fine book indeed is my judgement and I am really glad I read it. It won the recent Pulitzer for fiction , the two before if I remember correctly being March by Geraldine Brooks and The Road by Cormac McCarthy - two exceptional works as well. Especially The Road I must say. So it is a formidible prize and Diaz is fitting in that company.

The Gathering by Anne Enright

The Gathering. which won the Man Booker Prize for fiction in 2007 , is set mostly in urban Ireland-Dublin. Veronica who narrates the story is in her late 30s with two children. She (and her siblings) are part of the newly prosperous Irish professional middle class . The occasion of her narrative is the arranging for a funeral and the coming together of the large family following the death of one of her brothers for whom she had particularly strong affection. Thereby hangs a tale with many stings. Veronica is reflecting on her family's lives and events and the passage of time. In going over her memories she is undergoing quite a bit of personal suffering throughout and as we find out - up to about 6 months after the funeral. The device is very cleverly used and the prose is particularly fine.

I don't want to make this sound like a simple family saga however - because it is a rich mine of social commentary , characterisation and analysis told in a story with insight and often humour. When the family members do come together the kitchen table drama is masterful and funny. But the big themes are always being examined - particularly Marriage , and the Church and the use and abuse of power and the effects on the lives of ordinary people especially children - often tragic ones. It is a very well structured novel which has some surprising and heartfelt twists and turns . Whilst Irish readers would identify the social settings and the changed details of urban life in Ireland from the 1930/50s to the 90s - there is a considerable relevance to Australia also.

A good critic and a teacher of literature I know commented that Anne Enright is one of the very best novelists around . She thought that her finest work was yet to come - the thought being when that happens it will be outstanding indeed. Whilst we await that I would recommend The Gathering as an introduction to the strong writing talent of Enright. I would love to hear some views on it. It should be readily available in libraries and as a paperback purchase - Jonathan Cape, 2007.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The book for our on-line readers for August is the American classic [sometimes called masterpiece] , the Great Gatsby, of the 1920 period . The novel features Jay Gatsby who had grand vision and a murky past - a sort of American Dream/tragedy theme. When I have finished reading it again I will add to my thoughts on it but feel free to start making comments whenever you wish. I enjoyed it very much when I first read it and recommend it warmly. It is colourful and very easy to read.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was a larger than life literary character himself whose tempestuous marriage to his writer wife Zelda has been the subject of various films and popular stories. - See also Sheilah Grahame, newspaper columnist who had an affair with Fitzgerald.
A current work which has received critical acclaim in the US and elsewhere - Netherland by Josph O'Neill - has been compared to Gatby in that it amplifies the theme of the American Dream and Tragedy.

Additional note from Faye
I am delighted to have read this again - it has well and truly stood up with a second reading for me. I think it is close to perfect prose. The first person narrative by Nick Carraway - the sympathetic observer of Jay Gatsby - is convincing and engaging. A fair bit of melodrama keeps the interest up along with the characterisation . The observation of nature and general description of the surroundings are both fantastic. J. B. Priestley writing fulsomely of Fitzgerald's talent in an introduction for the older Bodley Head Edition I have been reading says of his writing power he has " an uncommonly acute sense of time and place , and an unforced and easy and very economical power of what I can only call symbolic effect" This smallish novel book contains all of this yet remains a relevant and entertaining read.

The ending of Gatsby really blew my mind this time - I re-read the last 4 pars several times - they are magic. I realise i didnt really know what the American dream meant and now I do . It is a more complex and more expressive idea than I had realised or remembered. This novel hold your interest throughout with the story line and finishes as well as it starts. No wonder it sits there firmly in the pantheon.

The Broken Shore by Peter Temple (second post)

Now that I have finished my second time reading, I am adding a few comments on some sections of the book in the latter part of the story which illustrate elements of the story for me . As I mentioned earlier I think the dialogue is the outstanding aspect of this book along with the masterful characterisation. The dialogue takes up about 30 to 40% of the text so it reads a bit like a script or a play. The book is very intense for this reason especially. It gives it a cinematic quality accordingly.

The edition which I read and that which is normally readily available in Australia is the Text Publishing Co Edition 2007 reprinted four or five times since 2005. It has no chapter headings so I have listed page numbers in my references which I hope will make sense to readers.

1.Page 228 Par 2 and 3. In this small section we are reminded about Cashin having taken up reading seriously (Conrad , Austen, Dickens etc) during his recuperation following the gunfight with the criminal Rai Sarris in Melbourne when one of Cashin's colleagues was killed and Cashin injured - this all happened before our story began . We get a picture of how nervous he is with the love interest Helen in his seaside rural shack as he takes her through to the kitchen. These few lines illustrate humour and the way in which a little conversation means a lot in this story. and I quote ...

"this is where you go after balls" said Helen . "The less formal room . It's warm"
"This is where we withdraw to", he said "The withdrawing room" . He had read this term somewhere, hadnt known it before Rai Sarris, that was certain.

2. Page 285 and the chapter following when Cashin goes to the Daunt Aboriginal settlement to talk with Chris Pascoe is brilliant - it's tough with strong vernacular but clear and full of the personalities of the people involved. Very good realism.

3. Page 335 - the chapter where Cashin confronts Erica Bourgoyne with the facts relating to her brother and step-father and her cold overseeing of the dreadful revenge on the paedophile is very stark . The reactions of Joe Cashin and Erica are brilliantly laid out through the spare and pointed dialogue .

These are just a few sections towards the end of the book which indicate, I hope, the range of the plot in this very literary thriller - it has many turns and is played out with a very well drawn cast of characters.

The Broken Shore by Peter Temple

The Broken Shore , an Australian crime thriller, was first published in Melboune in 2005 by Text - a small clever local publishing house. It has won prizes internationally (Inc the UK Dagger and the Australian Ned Kelly -and isn't that a great name for a crime writing award? ). The book has been very positively reviewed and published in many countries. Temple is often referred to as a literary crime writer. Kerryn Goldsworthy writing in the Australian said of it as a book of the year selection "The writing is tight, the plot gallops along, the atmosphere is intermittently spooky with truly chilling moments, the characterisation is masterful" . I totally agree with this quote which I think is a succinct summary of the main attributes of this book.

I read it first about 18 months ago, enjoyed it then and that is why i am now recommending it. I am now half way through reading it again and finding that I like it even more and getting more out of it.

Some of the special elements I would highlight, along with those in the quote above, are the brilliant dialogue and the evocation of atmosphere with attention to unusual detail. The dialogue is as good as it gets. The richness of the characterisation comes through the masterful way the dialogue unfolds. The scenic and other narration details round out the tapestry well. Dog and animal lovers will find much to wonder at and the Victorian countryside and southern coastline are painted as well as an artist might.

The book requires careful reading because it is so tightly written and evokes authenticity. I note the major US Publisher, Farrar Strauss needed a legend re the vernacular for its US edition. I dont read very much in this genre however Temple is one I admire very much- and if you as with me don't venture into this category much - please try Temple. In summary - it is a tough plot with very fine characterisation, vernacular dialogue and verisimilitude re the country side and Australian social reality. It is a surprisingly rich tapestry for a crime thriller - and by the way there is an engaging investigating cop - Joseph Cashin who gets you in.

I am yearning to get some feedback on this one - I will post with some of the sections which illuminate special aspects of the book a little later when I have finished my second reading.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

New York, New York - a wonderful town - here depicted from the point of view and life style of the wealthy high society in the 1870s. It is a fascinating mannered, historical view of this iconic metropolis outlining the day to day lives and concerns of the very privileged and wealthy of Dutch,French and English heritage. Washington Square, Fifth Avenue, On the Hudson and Newport - locations to conjure with. Edith Wharton herself grew up in this society and class and I think presents a warm view via her many characters and the detailed pictures of their surroundings and way of life. Whilst I dont think this is humorous as such there is considerable irony and some parody of several of the family situations and characters.

The book was published in 1920 - Wharton had lived and worked hard for dispaced persons in her chosen home town of Paris during World War 1 so she had seen great social change first hand. She had not lived a simple or an idle life herself by any means. The changes that were to come in New York society after 1870 would therefore be seen clearly by readers in 1920 when the book was published - overall , as mentioned, I think it is a warm picture but not a sentimental one.

The main plot revolves around a romance which has more in common with the grand Russian romance stories of Pushkin and Tolstoy than say, Austen. I thought the author portrayed Newland Archer well - I was caught up in the drama of the romance and the way in which the author uses the device to portray her key individuals, their beliefs and their relationships. Archer's thinking is narrated throughout the story so we can get to know a lot about him. The two main female characters - May Welland and Countess Olenska - are vital to the purpose of the book in examining the way in which the individuals live out and maintain their family and societal obligations.

The structure of the work - with smallish chapters - seems to suit the scenic , almost theatrical style of book . In fact one of the continuous activities in the book is theatre going. Along with the strong emphasis on the importance of belonging to the right tribe and doing the right thing by the family - the deep sense of business probity was a little surprise to me. However a career in politics as such was not worthy of the gentlemen of this group ( and it is interesting to note that the period is just after the Civil War which is mentioned only briefly in the book). A new generation has taken its place at the end of the story and all manner of changes are afoot.

The authors control of the narrative is tight and the style is fluid and for me, very enjoyable and easy to read. I think it is a powerful social and psychological look at a very particular group in society in a very particular City at an interesting time in its history. What do you think of this American classic?

JOHNNO by David Malouf

Johnno is Maloufs first novel - published in 1975. It is set mostly in Brisbane in the 40s and 50s. This is a Brisbane of colonial, weatherboard, verandah homes and pubs - even in the City Centre. After studying at University the young narrator travels and works in Britain for several years - then comes home to find a Brisbane already changing in say, the late 50s. The story is about young people, their relationships and change - it has many sub themes - friendship of young males, the mythology and pull of place and its effect on us, the difficulty of understanding others . The eponomous Johnno is a character who fascinates the narrator - a school companion of his at Grammar school in Brisbane. The novel follows them for a couple decades as their lives touch from time to time in Australia and Europe and then back to Brisbane. Exploration of the narrator's views and adventures with Johnno and often, despite Johnno, form the intellectual basis of the plot . The sense of place and environment are palpable. I could feel the heat of the day at times with powerful descriptions such as coming out into the glaring Brisbane sun from a cool , dark interior. There is a wonderful description of the old State Library and its clientele ,in chapter 5, which must be essential reading for all Queensland librarians - and the rest of us can identify and enjoy it too. "The Library had its own people. You never saw (them) anywhere else in the City...." will ring a clear bell with most of us. By the way - Malouf's descriptions and settings are lovingly detailed with a poets eye.

I found it a very satisfying and challenging read. It provides strong incites to relationships and personal development - however I have some questions . The big one for me is - is Johnno believable ? And does the narrator pull off the relationship fixation ? - I just about think he does but I would love to hear others views.

David Malouf , b 1934, has a most impressive body of work which now includes several novels , short stories along with volumes of poetry, memoirs and libretti. He has won international literary prizes and several Australian prizes . There are many literary criticisms and biographical notes on him in databases and web sites. Johnno is in print - Penguin at $22.95 (approx 170 pp) and is readily available in most Australian libraries. As a major Australian writer who has never ceased to explore the options of style and genre in developing his communication - it is important and enjoyable to look at where he started.I recommend it the experience.

Dickens - a map

David Perdue's website has information about Dickens's life and work and lists many more sites around London connected to him. It also includes a map of both biographical and fictional sites.

Great Expectations

Why don't we get started with that great classic from Charles Dickens, Great Expectations? This is our choice for the month of April. If you have already read it please do a refresher and comment. If you havent yet read it , you are in for a treat. Tell us what you liked or disliked about it. Think about the narration style, the social settings, the language/s used, the range of characterisations and character development, and many more elements - present aplenty in this rich, extensive story. I certainly have a positive prejudice about it. We've linked to the Project Gutenberg copy but you might already have it on a shelf at home and it would be held in your local library. It is readily available for purchase in Penguin Classics.