The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers(1917-1967) was born in Georgia , USA - and is identified with a very highly regarded group of white Southern women writers of the early/mid twentieth century including Katherine Porter, Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty. All of these women are particularly fine writers of both short stories and novels and add a special dimension to our understanding of the social Southern experience of the time, including domestic race relations. The above four are all well worth reading - I like Eudora Welty and would recommend her but Carson is a special favourite of mine and I am very happy to introduce this gem of a novel. By the way these four are referred to as the Southern Gothic Writers - which I imagine comes from the similar story backgrounds and settings and the fact that there is often a seemingly ominous feel to the short stories especially. Carson , who has written short stories, is best known for her novels several of which are regarded in American literature as masterpieces, particularly the one we are reading and , "The Heart is a lonely hunter" and "Ballad of Sad Cafe" - all of which were made into films.

"The Member of the Wedding" takes place for the most past over a couple of days in a small Southern town in the United States. It was published in 1946 and was also a very successful play as well as film starring Julie Harris. It is a simple plot about an imaginative precocioius girl of 12 years who fantasises that she can escape her humdrum life as she sees it by teaming up with her brother and his new bride on a grand adventure tour of the world - hence the title. Frankie imagines she is a part of their lives and they will want to take her with them as they start off from the wedding. Read in one way it is a novel about escape by an immature person who wants glamour in her life - a novel about adolescent misunderstanding and just reading the world wrongly . As such it sounds overly simple but what sets this novel on another plane is the imaginative range of the telling and its insights; the three main characters and their intense exchanges around the kitchen table and the dark humour and drama which is beautifully worked through by this very fine writer. Frankie is a real character in her own right - not a charicature.

The novel explores 'connectedness" via the thoughts and conversations of the three main character, Frankie Addams ; the coloured housekeeper and minder of the motherless Frankie- Berenice Sadie Brown and a six year old cousin John Henry West. These are such memorable people by the time you have finished the book that , it is not a cliche to say, you feel you know them. The three share an evening meal and talk but also Frankie has a few adventures in the town - one of which is troubling with a soldier from a nearby camp .

All the dimensions in this novel are strong - the atmosphere in the town, the weather, the ambient sounds , the domestic arrangements and the meal and details like the inappropriatness of the clothes Frankie has chosen for the wedding . The dialogue is cleverly interwoven with Frankie's thoughts especially at the memorable kitchen meal of the three on the night before the wedding . Frankie in simple terms makes a fool of herself at the reception and we see it coming . But Frankie is not really alone - she is supported by her caring adults - her father and Berenice and moves on as most adolescents do .

The book is full of memorable sequences - I think of the piano tuner in a nearby house - the significance of this sequence is the affect the sound of the ascending notes as the piano tuner does his work has on the three conversationalists. The passages where the author has Frankie helping out a monkey and his grinder minder down town is tender and full of wonder. Perfect descriptions abound - like "A jazz sadness quivered her nerves" and when Frankie goes into a down town bar for the first time she notes "the beery odour reminded her of a room where a rat has died behind a wall".

The race relations are handled without sentimentality and are salutary to read. Sadie is a pivotal character in the book from various viewpoints not the least of which is her open discussion on the way she would like the world to be - the connectedness theme again. Little John Henry is a well described charater too . They are each very important to the strength of the book.

I recommend this strongly for the brilliance of the writing and psychological exploration. It is a small treasure and a very strong work . I hope you will enjoy it.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Anyone visiting an art gallery, particularly one with a collection of works by Old Masters, is likely to encounter paintings simply entitled 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man'. The phrase normally refers to a self portrait painted early in the artist's career. In using the phrase as the title for his Bildungsroman Joyce is probably suggesting that the work is in some respect a portrait of himself, in some sense autobiographical. But he is also emphasising that it is an artist who is the central figure. The work is not the equivalent in words of a photograph: it allows itself artistic freedom in what it presents, and its focus is not merely on growing to maturity, but on artistic development (or perhaps more accurately on the intellectual and emotional development which provides a basis for an artistic career).

There are clear and obvious autobiographical elements. James Joyce (1882-1941), like the novel's central figure Stephen Dedalus, was born into a Dublin-based Irish Catholic family which in his early years was well off. Like Stephen in the novel, Joyce attended the elite Jesuit Clongowes Wood schook, and later Belvedere, and like Stephen he studied Arts subjects at University College Dublin. The Joyce family, like Stephen's descended from wealth into dire poverty, thanks largely to the improvidence of the father. James Joyce, like Stephen, considered and rejected a career as a Jesuit priest. But Stephen Dedalus is an artistic creation, and it would be naive to believe that everything he thinks, feels, and does reflects similar elements in Joyce's own life.

Portrait is a relatively conventional novel, and presents the reader with little of the obscurity for which Joyce later became famous, or notorious. But it does employ elements of a stream of consciousness technique that was still radical when the novel was published in 1916. Perhaps the most striking and impressive examples of this occur early in the book, when Joyce presents the impressions and sensations of a very young child.

The now ageing Penguin Modern Classic edition in my possession quotes in its 'blurb' the verdict of H.G. Wells: 'By far the most living and convincing portrait that exists of an Irish Catholic upbringing'. Certainly it was this element of the book which remained most in my memory from last reading the book thirty-five years ago. The Christmas dinner argument over that once classic Irish bone of contention, Parnell and the Catholic Church's attitude to him, is a vivid, shrewd and humorous portrayal of an encounter beween people determined at all costs to have the last word, though aware that it is not the time or the place for such a dispute. Not easily forgotten either is the vivid hellfire sermon preached by Father Arnall during a retreat when Stephen is a sex-obsessed teenager at Belvedere school. But readers expecting primarily a narrative of what it was like to grow up Irish and Catholic in an age of growing nationalism and repressive religiosity may be disappointed. The primary focus is not on the typical but on the individual. Stephen's development towards being an artist, his passage through the conventional to a realisation of a distinctive destiny which seems to require the rejection of everything in his upbringing, is at the centre of the novel. There is much in the later pages about aesthetics, and much of this may well seem a rather dry read to many readers. It is probably near heresy to say it about one of the most generally acknowledged masterpieces of twentieth century fiction, but this reader was at times bored, if never blind to the power of the presentation of the central character, whose limitations and sometimes bombastic characteristics Joyce presents vividly.

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

Robert Graves first published this autobiographical work in 1929,when he was thirty-four years old. What we generally encounter today, however, is the revised edition he published in 1957. The new edition does not extend the story of his life past 1929, except for a three page 'Epilogue'. In a 'Prologue' dated 1957 Graves indicates that he revised the original substantially, improving the writing, correcting errors, adding more anecdotes, and restoring proper names 'where their original disguise is no longer necessary'. There are some, however, who regret what they see as the partial loss of the ragged power and anger of the original version, and Graves made deletions as well as additions. Notably, Laura Rider, the American poet, who was his partner and collaborator from 1926 to 1939, has disappeared entirely from the 1957 version.

The Penguin copy I read has a painting of World War I battlefield desolation on its cover, and GTAT is best remembered for its powerful and vivid portrayal of the Western Front, to which Graves went as a teenage officer in 1915, and where he served until wounded about half way through the War. Our view today of what trench warfare was like probably owes a great deal to Graves's account, the work of a masterly prose writer who describes his experiences in for the most part remarkably objective and dispassionate terms. Graves became passionately opposed to the war, and he suffered severe depression and other traumas in the years following it, but there is a strong matter-of-fact quality to his description of the horrors. The book was hailed as a vivid account when it appeared a decade after the war's end, and it sold very well, though some 'patriots' condemned it roundly for its unheroic portrayal of the conflict. (Its descriptions of people encountered also lost Graves some of the friends he had not entirely alienated during the years before 1929, notably his fellow poet and officer, Siegfried Sassoon.)

The book is not entirely devoted to the War, however. A significant portion describes Graves's schoolboy life at one of the leading English 'public schools', Charterhouse, which he hated. A major part also describes his experiences as a young married man with a growing family and limited resources in postwar England. Name-dropping does figure rather prominently here, though as many of the names are those of major writers of the period, the section is not as dull as it might be. But it is less interesting and far less powerful than what has gone before.

Graves's background could be described as 'upper middle class', and he had aristocratic connections, particularly in Germany, which he visited several times as a child. His perspective remains that of someone from an educated middle class background, even though he rejects many of the values of that background and embraces a kind of socialism, at least for a time. He may be in part ironic when he tells us in his epilogue that during World War II he was not prepared to travel third class in a train along with people such as a common policeman, insisting on the first class to which his status as an officer on the pensioned list entitled him, but his saying 'Goodbye to all that' before leaving England to go to live in Majorca was by no means a total rejection of his background. Herein, perhaps, lies a major part of the book's success: Graves describes the upper middle class English world of the early twenty century as someone who understands it intimately, shares many of its values, but also sees many of its limitations.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The novel, "Half of a Yellow Sun" is based around the Nigerian-Biafran War 1967-70 and as such is a fascinating telling of the conflict from a Biafran/Igbo point of view. I found it very moving to be reminded so lucidly about these tragic events of such a short time ago. In a note about the book, the author tells of her father's stories about the war and the fact that he always ended his stories with the phrase "war is very ugly". This book re-inforces that truth very convincingly. So there is a lot about human suffering but it is told always with graceful prose and fine characterisation. What is more it is an exciting, pacy read - and even though told from the Biafran point of view it is certainly not simplistic and provides fascinating insights into recent history and this wealthy part of modern Africa - Nigeria. Also it is fair to say that the first approximately half of the events of the novel take place before the civil war starts and sets the scenery so well for us that when the conflict unfolds it is all that more sad because of what is cast aside with the conflict.

Having started off my comments about the conflict based part of the novel I would like to emphasise the fine style of the writing especially the liveliness of the personal stories throughout and the brilliance of the novels composition. This comes out particularly for me in the narrating style. It is not told in a first person style - the story is played out through the experiences of three main characters and several secondary and also important characters. You don't get the sense of one all-knowing-narrator telling you about whats going on either - the characters show it to you. The writer uses these three and other characters to carry the story along - in particular - Olanna , an female upper middle class Igbo academic , who marries a Igbo/Biafran academic and patriot; Ugwu - their houseboy who is undertaking self improvement and education as the action paced story goes along and Richard, an English journalist and lover of Olanna's twin sister, Kainene. Consequently it is a visually clear, easy flowing style of a novel - I think it is very well constructed. We as readers are watching and feeling the episodes unfolding as the characters experience and learn of them too. The fine personal stories and detail contribute greatly to the liveliness of the book.

There is such a lot to enjoy in this book - fast paced story-telling, humour, romance, sex , colourful background, and there is a lot to ponder. Along with this good read stuff there is the background of world politics as it affects the civilians sruggling to survive and protect each other from the ravages of a war fought all around them in villages and towns. I would recommend it from several points of view not the least of which is that the author is an exceptionally fine writer. She manages to deliver a complex story seemingly effortlessly.

August is shared short review month

In the last month or so I read two recent Australian biographies which bring to life some fascinating aspects of Austalian social life and history.

1." Joan in India" by Suzanne Falkiner - This biography is about a relative (Joan) of the author who married an Indian Prince in 1939/40 . Joan was a member of the wealthy grazier socialite family and left Melboune by boat to go to india and marry her Prince. It was a big cause for gossip and amazement in Melbourne of the day. Joan was a beautiful - her Prince was Indian, Muslim , quite a bit older than her and had one other wife. The marriage was apparently successful. The book is well researched and gives the reader a wealth of fascinating information about the politics of India including Independence and partition. Well worth reading, strongly written and not at all salacious.
2. "An Exacting Heart : the story of Hephzibar Menuhin" by Jacqueline Kent. This book tells us about the life of the beautiful Hephzibar - fine concert pianist and sister of the renowned Yehudi Menuhin. Hephzibar married into the wealthy Nicholas family of Melbourne (Aspro fortune) as did Yehudi in late 1930s- brother and sister married brother and sister. Hephzibar came to live on a property outside Melboune and threw herself energetically into her new life which was so different from her European experience. An amazing woman from an incredibly talented family - she performed concerts for the ABC as well as threw herself into the life of countryside. Her life in Australia and after she left and remarried is engrossing and very well told.

I would recommend the above to any lover of well written biographies and current social history.

Please tell us a good book you have read lately.

Faye Lawrence

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

I first read Wuthering Heights in 1964, when I was sixteen years old and it was required reading for the NSW Leaving Certificate exam. I did not re-read it between then and July 2009. I wondered how much I would recall of my experiences and reactions forty-five years ago. In fact, it seemed it was not very much. It is hard, moreover, to know how much of what I thought I remembered is genuine memory of my adolescent reading, and how much stems from the fact that Wuthering Heights is a part of the cultural heritage shared in the English-speaking world even by people who have never read the novel. Over the years I have seen comedy sketches in which the novel is swiftly evoked by a stormy moorland scene, a dark and sombre figure called Heathcliff, and a blond heroine called Cathy. A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit Haworth parsonage, home for most of their short lives of Emily and her sisters Charlotte and Anne (though plans to walk to 'Wuthering Heights' were thwarted by lack of time). The town of
Haworth lives as much by the Brontes as Stratford on Avon lives by Shakespeare.

I do recall being warned as a schoolboy that Wuthering Heights is not just the story of the passionate romance between Heathcliff and the elder Cathy, a mistaken view which the famous 1939 film, starring Lawrence Olivier and Merle Oberon, encourages, as it presents only the first half of the book, stopping soon after the elder Cathy's death. On rereading the book I in fact found this celebrated love affair a bit tedious and melodramatic. I appreciate that this is probably an heretical view, and may be in some eyes almost a sacrilegious one The introduction to the edition before me claims that 'There are few more convincing, less sentimental accounts of passionate love that Wuthering Height' and it is indeed true that the novel is no uncritical celebration of the love of the Heathcliff and Cathy. One sees clearly its limitations and its destructive power. But there is something very adolescent about it (as is realistic - the chronology of the novel reveals that the elder Cathy is not yet nineteen years old when she dies, and Heathcliff seems only slightly older). For this reader, at least, most of the other character interactions are more interesting. It is impressive how Emily Bronte makes convincing what is really a wildly improbable plot: two small households living a few miles apart are linked in a couple of generations by no fewer than four marriages.

A small world is brilliantly evoked. Though popular culture encourages us to think of the setting as bleak and stormy, summer and sunshine on the moors are presented no less vividly than winter. Even relatively minor characters emerge vividly: Lockwood, the narrator who purportedly is writing the book, is an amusingly self-obsessed and emotionally limited representative of the 'outside' world who briefly finds his way into the Wuthering Heights world, and Nelly Dean, who tells most of the story to entertain Lockwood while he is unwell, clearly has her own quirks and prejudices. Even Joseph, the sanctimonious servant, emerges as a distinctive figure, comic in his hypocrisy (though he is not always easy to understand!).

The 1939 film ended, basically, and controversially, with the ghosts of Heathcliff and Cathy united and wandering the moors. The novel has a more life-affirming conclusion, with the prospect of happier times emerging from the union of the younger Cathy and Hareton. But perhaps more memorable at the end is the description of the last days of Heathcliff, in which the monster (for so he is, in most respects) wins a measure of our sympathy that most of his career does little to evoke.

Wuthering Heights is a novel of its times and of the circumstances in which it was created. It is frequently melodramatic and improbable. But it is beautifully written, magnificently plotted, and possesses an archetypal power which helps explains why it enjoys a place in our culture matched by only a handful of novels .

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

Afetr reading this book again I now feel as though I know the sisters Makioka - Tsuruko, Sachiko, Yukiko and Taeko . It was written after WW11 , and translated and published in English ca 1957 . The main story however takes place over a few years in the late 30s and early 40s in Regional Japan - Osaka , Kobe, and Kyoto and also Tokyo. Much has been said about it as a record of the changing way of life of an era seen through the fading fortunes of a once great and rich family and this is fascinating aspect of the book, The beauty and great strength of the book for me however is the individual characterisation . Each of the four sisters becomes known very thoroughly by her conversation, letter-writing and thought and feeling processes which the author details for us. Sachiko is very well drawn and we know more about her thought processes than the others but they are each richly drawn.

Re the plot - this is a domestic, family saga at one level (the big problem for the household is the imperative to have the two younger sisters married - in the right order - a familiar idea perhaps to readers of Austen and 18th century English novels). What perhaps sets this novel apart for me is the realism of the writing - there is some humour but there is huge sympathy and respect for the characters and the way of life. The scenes are always very well set - you are conscious of a japanese artistic quality - poetical and visual . Naturalism and realism are the backdrops against which this poetical but robust story plays out. There are also a fair share of dramatic events -a horrific death scene , and a dangerous typhoon for example. The typhoon flood and rescue scenes are told as realistically and excitingly as any good Australian author would do in describing a flood or bushfire drama for instance. However the plot does revolve around the need to arrange a husband for Yukiko -various women act as marriage brokers including one marvellous hairdresser character. The traditional roles of women and men in these exercises are engrossing.

Another major aspect of the book is the detailing - we get to know so much about the way of life pre-antibiotics through the health episodes of which there are plenty in the novel - beri-beri was a common complaint with the Makioka women - we learn also for instance that when dressed as a geisha to dance the woman would eat small amounts only and place the food directly onto her tongue so as not to touch her makeup. There is much loving commentary about Kabuki theatre , actors of the day , artists etc.

The book starts about mid 1930 and goes up to about the beginning of 1941. The backdop of the horrific world events is touched upon only - we know there is a feeling of austerity in the provinces of Japan e.g.In the later years of the novel, the traditional cherry blossom promenades in Kyoto are undertaken in a more austere fashion - less jewellry and finery is worn for instance. The Chinese-Japanese war is referred to as the China Incident and the war in Europe is seen from the German point of view. However this is merely occasional background comment . The novel is focused on the domestic , social concerns.

I enjoyed this novel even more the second time I read it - I will be very interested to hear other including dissenting opinions

The Plot against America by Philip Roth

The Plot against America is probably not what would be regarded as a typical Philip Roth novel. There is little sex or sweating in it likely to offend anyone. It is in part an 'alternative history', imagining what might have happened in the USA had Franklin Roosevelt been defeated in the 1940 presidential election by Charles Lindbergh, the weathly, handsome, personable and still relatively young aviator who had captured national attention by his solo flight across the Atlantic, and who won widespread sympathy when his small son was kidnapped and murdered. Lindbergh has many charismatic qualities, but in the book, as apparently in real life, he also displays significant anti-Semitic tendencies and a relatively tolerant attitude towards the German Third Reich.

But this is not just a political novel. It is told through the eyes of a partly fictional child, Philip Roth, a young Jewish boy growing up in an America which is gradually becoming a less and less attractive place in which to be a Jew. The novel is at one level a bildungsroman, and the family at its core, Philip, his older brother Sandy, and his parents Bess and Hermann, are vividly and convincingly created. There is clearly a limited autobiographical element - Philip in the novel was born in the same year as the novelist and haa a similar name and background. At one level this is a story of growing up in a Jewish enviornment at the time the novelist himself was growing up. By no means everything that happens in the family is the result of the political enviornment outdoors (though we do see its influences impact on the family and on its personal relationships).

Roth displays considerable skill in making his early 1940s America seem real. I particularly enjoyed the evocation of the family's big but sadly half-spoilt holiday in Washington. The gradual development of the anti-Semitism seems very well portrayed: we are not presented with Nazi Germany thinly disguised as America, Things start gradually and in ways that could be seem as innocuous. Some of the initiatives, such as 'encouraging' Jews to leave areas domianted by Jews and scatter among the rest of the community in rural areas, are shown to be supported by some members of the Jewish community, incluiding a leading rabbi, who seem prone to flattery and blind to their more sinister implications. Roth's world, with radio as the dominant communication and entertainment medium, and stamp collecting an obsession for small boys, seems convincingly real.

The book does have weaknesses. The ending, which sees Lindbergh mysteriously disappear after taking off on a solo flight and Roosevelt return to power, is not at all convincing. One critical has compared it to the deus ex machina said to be used to tie up opera plots in earlier centuries. An interest in the politics of the time would probably be an asset is one wished to enjoy the novel.

The novel has apparently been seen as a roman a clef about the George W. Bush administration, of which Roth was an open critic. Those who take this view note inter alia that the more forceful and unpleasant characters are those around the president, such as the vice president, rather than Lindbergh himself. However, Roth has denied the validity of this interpretation, and I cannot say the idea crossed my mind until I read some criticisms of the novel (which has been praised as one of Roth's best written works in years but damned as dull and as maligning the dead, Catholics, middle America, etc.)

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

Catherine Meeber, aka Sister Carrie, is a compelling character to read about. She leaves her Wisconsin home at 18 years to come to Chicago to make a living. She has dreams and yearnings but the simple reality of work in the tough non-unionised shop conditions of the 1890s is hard. She is just not able to cope with it all. The attentions of a dapper travelling salesman save her from an inevitable return to her home in Wisconson as a failure. She moves in with the salesman, Charles Drouet. Life becomes reasonably pleasant but her dreams continue . She yearns to be happy,stylish and admired and we follow her yearnings throughout her young life as she leaves Drouet and ends up in New york with her next lover George Hurstwood. From then on the plot takes on a paricularly socially realistic atmosphere.

The way in which the story is told through the characters experiences is fascinating - the all-knowing narrator makes no moral judgment of the actions of his three main characters - Carrie, Drouet and Hurstwood. The reader fears there are slippery slopes for them to negotiate- especially for Carrie and Hurstwood - the tension in this seemingly simple story line is very strong . The tension moves to heightened reality with the misfortune of Hurstwood who steals from his employers , regrets this and makes restitution but cannot regain his sophisticated hold on life. Carrie, throughout the graphically described decline of Hurstwood , is still yearning for the better life - she has luck with chorus line work then as a successful broadway actress in New York where she is living as a defacto with Hurstwood. She leaves him for her own ambition and betterment and his life goes from bad to worse in a harsh unemployment environment - he is literally cold and starving towards the end of the book . She is a success and is well to do. He ultimately commits suicide in a flop house without her being aware of his whereabouts.

This rush through the plot of 'Sister Carrie" serves as a backdrop to emphasise Dreisers non-judgemental approach to his characters which contributes so much to the interest in this fascinating book. Carrie is a victim at times - she is actually tricked by Hurstwood into going away with him and leaving Drouet but on the other hand she has shown herself somewhat willing to be compromised by him whilst she is still living with Drouet. So the reader cannot stay with one theme of sympathy only - there are no goody two shoes here and no real monsters either. Dreiser's moral concerns are with poverty , excess materialism as a religion and loss of opportunity. The scenes of starvation and degredation in the second part of the book are reminders of Gogol, Dostoevsky, Orwell and Lawson. The masterful telling of a strike and scab situation and the plight of the workers and police involved on a tramway service in New York is chilling .

Dreiser had difficulty getting this, his first novel, published . It was refused by Doubleday despite the enthusiasm of their editor. It was published by Heinemann in London in 1900. Some of the controversy about it has to do with its depiction of non-marital social relationships and of course, an immoral, successful woman . Carrie was a financial success - albeit as an actress - the career open and suitable for fallen women. Sinclair Lewis said about Sister Carrie in 1930 when receiving his Nobel Prize, " Dreiser"s great first novel, Sister Carrie, which he dared to publish thirty long years ago and which I read twenty-five years ago, came to housebound and airless America like a great free western wind, and to our stuffy domesticity gave us the first fresh air since mark Twain and Whitman" .

Dreiser went on to write several other works notably his acclaimed "An American Tragedy" which was made into film on two occasions including the much awarded "A Place in the Sun" with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. It seems the American tragedy which is wrapped up in the American Dream is a powerful theme in American literature exemplified by "The Great Gatsby". I think "Carrie" can be see as fitting into this contextual way of thinking to some extent. Did Dreiser see Carrie herself as really successful ?- the two major endings of the book which went through many editing changes have it finishing with the death of Hurstwood or the alternative ending with the additional philosophising which sees Carrie sitting in her rocking chair oblivious of Hurstwoods death, "Sitting alone, she was now an illustration of the devious ways by which one who feels, rather than reasons, may be led in the pursuit of beauty. Though often disillusioned, she was still waiting for that halcyon day when she would be led forth among dreams made real" . Dreiser edited the book somewhat himself and others did as well - to make it more morally acceptable to the reading public and the publishers. There is a large number of web site links to information about all this and much scholarship as you would expect.

I have read that Dreisers verbal style is viewed by some critics as inept - I dont go along very far with this but I can understand why this would be said. For example I sometimes found his philosophising passages obscure. He revels in the contrasting comment about a set situation to sometimes an overblown level. However the substantial power in his prose sustained my enjoyment along with the intense examination of the human condition told in a uniquely strong and descriptive story.

Finally, a couple of other very interesting scenarios in the book which readily come to mind are the early scenes in Carrie's sister's apartment and her relationship with her sister and brother-in-law - strangley cold and sad. By vivid contrast the physical descriptions of a developing industrious ,retail Chicago are wonderful - Dreiser did like Chicago i think. Overall this is a fascinating piece of social writing.

Breath by Tim Winton

Like The Time We Have Taken by Steven Carroll this is a recent Australian novel by an author already enjoying a considerable reputation. Both novels are set mainly in 1970s Australia, and both are characterised by exceptionally lucid, often rather lyrical prose. But the differences between them are considerable.

Breath could be regarded as a bildungsroman, a novel of growing up. Told by a middle-aged narrator, Bruce Pike (Pikelet), who works as a paramedic, it focuses on a time when he was aged about eleven to fifteen. Living with rather colourless parents in a Western Australian logging town close to the sea, he befriends and is befriended by a boy of a similar age, Ivan Loon (Loonie), who is far rougher and wilder than the somewhat bookish Pikelet but shares with him a love of the daring and the risky. The two boys are taken under his wing by Bill Sanderson (Sando), a somewhat enigmatic ex-surfing champion in his mid-thirties who lives a somewhat hippy existence on the coast with Eva, his embittered wife. Coached by Sando the boys embark on a series of ever more extreme and dangerous surfing adventures, until Pikelet eventually indicates that he does not wish to take the risk involved. This produces a split: Sando and Loonie head off on a series of overseas trips without Pikelet, who in their absence becomes sexually involved with Eva, a physically handicapped ex-champion in a form of extreme skiing who can derive sexual satisfaction only from a procedure involving asphixation almost to the point of death. The relationship ends when Eva becomes pregnant, Sando and Eva more away, and Pikelet returns to his studies.

This is a novel about surfing, but only in the sense that the novels of Joseph Conrad are about the sea. Winton seems to know surfing, and gives the non-surfer a sense of its attractions, but his real interest is in facing risk, confronting one's fears and death, and getting to know oneself. The writing is powerful and often very graceful, and the short but powerful work is easily digested.

Reviewers I have examined all praise the book very highly. Their main criticism is that the ending is unsatisfactory: it is described by some as too long, by others as rushed. Paradoxically, both criticisms probably contain some truth: what we learn about the future careers of the four main characters is a bit unsatifying, and it might have been better either to have omitted it, or to have treated it in more detail.

For this reader the character of Sando is a problem. For Pikelet and Loonie he is for a long time a macho superhero to be worshipped. We do see another side through the comments of Eva, who suggests his friendship with the boys more than twenty years his junior reflects a refusal to acknowledge he is growing older and who reveals that she and Sando live on trust funds provided by her family (though there is more than a hint of darker sources of income). Winton' s portrait of him is quite sympathetic: Sando is exceptionally well-read, we are told, a meticulous planner, and ultimately a very successful businessman. We do see the dangers into which he leads the boys, and the longterm harm he does them, but one wonders if Winton, like Lawrence and Hemingway, may not be a bit enamoured of the idea of the powerful, ruthless Adonis. Arguably Sando is a criminally irresponsible idiot who wants to be 'king of the kids' and the fact that his foolhardy activities do not kill or seriously maim his young disciplies owes as much to good luck as good management. The samples of his philosophy we encounter are trite in the extreme.

The 1970s are well evoked. Winton seems correct in pointing out that the friendship described between a mature man and two young boys would not have been regarded with immediate suspicion then as it would now. (One review erwrites of 'thinly disguised homoerotic tension' but I do not detect this.) On a more trivial note, however, I do not think male speedos were called 'budgie smugglers' in the 1970s, or that they were then regarded as unduly revealing beach attire!

The Time We Have Taken by Steven Carroll

This novel which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2008 is the third part of a trilogy. Probably needless to say it reads perfectly well if you havent already read the earlier two - which I havent yet but intend to. The novel is set in Melboune outer suburbia and around a City University in 1970. There are a small set of characters who each speaks for him/herself as he/she faces a change in a relatively ordinary life which is also reflected in the change in society as a whole which is happening apace at that time.
It is a quiet, philosophical novel played out with beautiful prose - it is also painterly , I think. You feel and see the ordinary suburban surroundings , the main characters and the people of the town very strongly.

The plot device is Progress in the suburb which is deemed to be 100 years old in 1970 and the Town luminaries celebration of the landmark occasion, however the book is about much more.

To me it seems to be about - the way people think as they go about their lives - it is philosophical and a book of the mind . By saying this I dont want to give the impression it is difficult - on the contrary but it does repay quiet , careful reading.

Time is an important theme in the novel - Time , present, past and what may come. Relationships is another important theme - dealt with sadly often, but in a particularly gentle way.

I will come back with some other thoughts but I do hope there are some comments forthcoming on this book because I think there is so much one can say about it.

Your FAVOURITES - 2008

On the theory that most readers like to hear suggestions from others - Classic readers are requesting suggestions on favourites you have read for say the past year or so. If you would like to please go ahead and whet our appetites - Just tell us why .

I will start the ball rolling with three Australian books I read or re-read last year which I would recommend for one reason or another.
Tim Winton's ' Breath ' - Tim Winton has not been one of my real favourites but I was reading this for another group and I have to say that I found such a lot to admire in this work that i would recommend it. The lyrical, easy flow of his language really bears close examination. It is beautifully written without a loose sentence in sight. I am now convinced he is one of the best . This is a most unusual story set in Western Australia of course - it is at the one level a paen to surfing and youthful daring .The lyrical descriptions of this boys own and rites of passage stuff is wonderful. Along with this aspect of the book there is another hard theme about what daring can do to a person and linking it to loss and sexuality . Overall it is the writing itself which won me over - it is no wonder he took several years to write it.

Miles Franklin's 'My Brilliant Career" - Having read this years ago and been influenced and impressed by it (and loving the film too) I was fascinated to pick it up again . What an astounding work it is - a novel written by an 18 year old in the late 19th or early 20th in the Australian countryside about an 18 year old . I had to keep reminding myself this was not a mature woman developing the character of Jo March for our edification and delight , nor an established adult writer exposing Holden Caulfield to us - the writer is only as old as her heroine. Have a look at it again. No wonder we thought it a marvel when we were young as did Henry Lawson when he was given the anonymous manuscript to appraise. He loved it and he rightly picked it was written by a woman - despite the name she adopted. It was originally published in England because A & R rejected it. It has a lot of faults but it is a glorious read.

Dorothy Hewitt's "The man from Muckinupin'. Dorothy is another of the daring women of Australian writing and in this play she wrote a classic. The Belvoir St Theatre in Sydney is showing it this year and I cant wait . It is a Melbourne theatre and 30th anniversary production. One of the characters called a "Touch of the tar" personifies a statement of pure resonance. In my preview notes from Belvoir, Hewitt is referred to as one of our great poets and ratbags. It is a little bit wheatbelt Shakespeare in comedy mode. It is a musical also. See it if you can - and read it anyhow - It reads very well.