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Suburban absurdity: Mark Lamprell’s new novel

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The Full Ridiculous by Mark Lamprell           Published by Text:    $29.99

When a successful cinematographer turns to the art of the novel, the expectations are high. After all, the external, visual world of the screen is closely aligned to the internal universe of the novel – and books are often turned into movies.

First time novelist Mark Lamprell’s  screen credits are impressive and include the memorable Babe, so I was looking forward to reading The Full Ridiculous. But I was, I confess, disappointed.

Lamprell’s narrator is Michael O’Dell, a cinema reviewer turned film book writer who’s struggling with his latest opus, a history of Australian cinema. One day, as he’s completing his morning jog, he is hit by a car. A seemingly random event from which he recovers, but for Michael, it’s life changing.  From that moment on, his life is quite literally turned upside down.

His 14-year old daughter Rosie gets suspended for hitting another girl at her exclusive girls’ school. His son Declan smokes marijuana in his room and is dealing drugs. Michael himself is soon unemployed, as his publisher sees no future for his book. Only his wife, Wendy, sticks by him although, as Michael sinks further and further into depression, even her patience wears thin over the course of the narrative.

Male depression is an important topic and ripe for literary mining. Lamprell’s style is colloquial, easy to read, and captures the lilt, tone and preoccupations of 21st century family life. How do you pay the mortgage when one partner loses his source of income? How do you reprimand erring teenagers in a society where physical punishment is no longer acceptable, but pure verbal recrimination yields no result?  How does a man retain masculine pride when he feels he’s losing his grip on his family and on himself?

These are familiar themes and Lamprell tackles them with aplomb. And yet, there’s something fundamental missing from this novel.  Much as the reader feels sorry for Michael, who’s clearly undergoing a mental catharsis, his passivity and resignation make him a profoundly irritating hero.

And there are inconsistencies too. Chekov famously advised writers never to introduce a gun in Act I unless it was going to be used in Act 2. (Sound advice, which Alfred Hitchcock chose to ignore – the Hitchcockian MacGuffin was a red herring, deliberately planted early on in the script to keep the audience off the scent). There are many MacGuffins jarring in The Full Ridiculous, which add little to the composition of the narrative or the fleshing out of the characters.

Wendy is introduced as Jewish (why? Her religion and its impact on her family is not a theme in this book);  Rosie’s boyfriend,  Juan, an adopted black South American boy, comes to live with them because of family problems of his own, yet his presence is never satisfactorily accounted for.  Themes are introduced and underdeveloped, sacrificed to pace and the need to tie up the storyline in a perfect cinematographic arc, which cloud the central focus of male depression.

Maybe Lamprell wishes to impress upon us that life, like his novel, is full ridiculous, that absurdity reigns, that we have to be grateful for managing to bumble through each day because, who knows, we may be knocked off our feet at any moment.  If that’s the case, Lamprell succeeds – but such absurdities come at the expense of narrative depth.


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Wacky Wednesday: 22 Must Haves for Booklovers…..

Courtesy Simon & Schuster – my name is down for No 13…..

1. This awesome bookcase.

2. This giant book bed.

This giant book bed.

Yusuke Suzuki / via heartanddesign.blogspot.com

3. A literary shower curtain.

A literary shower curtain.

4. This relaxing bathtub.

This relaxing bathtub.

Joshua Simpson / Via fsgworkinprogress.com

5. A book bench.

A book bench.

6. This one-of-a-kind rug.

This one-of-a-kind rug.

7. This book staircase.

This book staircase.

8. And this one.

9. A colorful reading spot.

A colorful reading spot.

10. A cozy nook.

A cozy nook.

11. This cool lounging contraption.

This cool lounging contraption.

12. Colour-coordinated wallpaper.

Color-coordinated wallpaper.

Yes, that is wallpaper!

13. These beach chairs.

These beach chairs.

14. Bookshelves with a built-in slide.

Bookshelves with a built-in slide.

15. Curtain-style book storage.

Curtain-style book storage.

16. This comfortable reading chair.

This comfortable reading chair.

17. A novel headboard.

A novel headboard.

18. This library chair.

This library chair.

19. A library room with big windows.

20. This sunflower book seat.

This sunflower book seat.

22. And this Southern-style nook.

And this Southern-style nook.


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August & September Pageturners podcasts now online!

Pageturners On Demand

Sorry for the delay – the gremlins were at work again!

Enjoy our Programs On Demand at your convenience by downloading them to or streaming directly from your favorite POD or media player.

Most 3MBS PODs are contained in stereo MP3 files. Some are quite large and may take a little time to download.

http://www.3mbs.org.au/?q=programs-on-demand

Pageturners episode 7

Pageturners – Episode 7

Pageturners is 3MBS’ monthly book program. In this episode, Maria Takolander talks to Dina Ross about her collection of short stories, The Double. John Collins gives you insights into the life and works of Beethoven.

Pageturners episode 8

Pageturners – Episode 8

special edition of Pageturners. Dina talks to Man Booker prize shortlisted author Ruth Ozeki about her latest book A Tale for the Time Being.

 


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A JOURNEY TO HELL: Richard Flanagan’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”

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Vintage: $32.95

I’m thrilled that Richard Flanagan has won the Man Booker Prize for this glorious novel, So well-deserved! I was puzzled he didn’t win the Miles Franklin Award this year, but no doubt this win will redress the balance. I republish my review here.

Richard Flanagan says: “I feel as if I had written all my books in order to write this book”. The Narrow Road to the Deep North has finally surfaced after five years and numerous drafts. It is an intensely personal novel: as a boy, Flanagan absorbed the stories of his father, a former prisoner of war and one of ‘Weary Dunlop’s Thousand’ who constructed the so-called Thai-Burma Death Railway during the Second World War.

These reminiscences bled into Flanagan’s very soul. The result is a novel that spans fifty years, covers war and peace, sweeps us up into an extraordinary love story, and examines both the good and evil in humanity.

At 467 pages, this is a mighty book with a big heart and I can honestly say it’s one of the most memorable I have read this year.

The title is taken from the Japanese haiku poet Basho, who is frequently quoted by the Japanese camp leaders, and as in any haiku, offers multi-layers of meaning. Ultimately, we’ll all travel the same narrow road and must pay the ferryman. Along the way, we’re moulded by memory and experience, and by shifting past and present, chapters that take place today with those from the 1940s, Flanagan builds up a picture of a singular man, and an infamous time in history.

Like Weary Dunlop, Dorrigo Evans is a surgeon. A fettler’s son who outgrows but cannot forget his working-class roots, part of the novel examines Dorrigo’s uneasiness with privilege after the war ends. He marries well, and as a war hero, lives a life of quiet celebrity after a TV documentary brings him to the nation’s attention. A regular after-dinner speaker and sought-after Board member, he feels a fraud– “his fame seemed to him a failure of perception on the parts of others.”

Flanagan contrasts Evans today –  womaniser, loner, doubter, revered public figure – with Evans in the POW camps, thrust unwillingly into the role of negotiator and intermediary with the Japanese camp officials because of his status as an officer. One of the most heart-stopping passages in the book is his plea for the sickest men to be allowed to rest, whilst having to choose 100 others – only marginally less ill – for slave labour the next day.  The haggling over numbers becomes increasingly desperate and Dorrigo knows that the men he sends off will probably never return. For Dorrigo, each man is precious, to the Japanese, each is simply a pawn for glorifying the Emperor by building the railway. Their different views of loyalty and honour make for powerful narrative parallels.

The atrocious and inhumane conditions of the camp are recreated in vivid detail, and the men themselves, with their varied backgrounds, are a microcosm of Australia, “bank clerks and teachers, counter johnnies, piners and short-price runners, susso survivors, chancers, larrikins, yobs, tray men, crims, boofheads and tough bastards.” In protecting them as best he can, Dorrigo becomes the reluctant hero of legend.

This savage account is bookended by a love story, both erotic and tender, as flashbacks reveal how Dorrigo meets and falls in love with Amy, his uncle’s much younger wife. It’s a doomed passion that flowers, fades but never dies over the course of half a century, and Flanagan gives the reader gradual glimpses of the adulterous affair that build, after a carefully-plotted final reveal, to a truly devastating conclusion that turns him into the complex, tortured man we meet at the start of the novel.  However, the women are never as fully realised as the men and even Flanagan’s portrait of Amy appears token at times.

The Narrow Road’s main concerns remain male-focused. What is the nature of suffering and power, are men who commit evil redeemable through subsequent acts of mercy? Flanagan’s camp leader Major Nakamura is a case in point, a man who recites poetry while men are slaughtered, yet who turns over a new leaf after the war, attempting to do good. Flanagan remains non-judgmental. Dividing the world into “goodies” and “baddies” is too simple. Even Dorrigo is deeply flawed. There is no objective history:  it is selective, malleable, twisted even, frequently by the minds of the men who were there. Everyone has to survive and overcome their past as best they can.

The Narrow Road has “prizewinner” and “film-ability” written all over it. It’s a memorable tribute to Flanagan’s father. Novels rarely make me weep – this one did. I cried for the POWs because Flanagan depicts them as fully-fleshed individuals, for the vicariousness of life, its injustices and disappointments. But the beauty of this novel also brought a lump to my throat. Flanagan’s prose is tessellated, honed with a silver knife. Such poetry in such desperation. Such anguish. Such love.

Read it: Because it’s one of the best Australian books published in 2013. No question.


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Words of wisdom from our newest Nobel Laureate…

“A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.” –Alice Munro, winner, the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature

“A story is not like a road to follow … it's more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.” --Alice Munro/Recipient of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature/


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Into the heart of Haiti: Edwige Dandicat

A conversation with Edwidge Danticat

by Aysegul Sert reblogged from Me, You and Books – MD Brady

My apologies, readers: my corporate life (which, unlike this blog, pays the bills) has been somewhat hectic over the last week. I am currently reading Richard Flanagan’s latest novel for a forthcoming review. In the meantime, I was so pleased to uncover this interview with the multi-talented Edwige Dandicat via MD Brady’s excellent blog. Dandicat’s original short story, Claire of the Sea Light, now turned into a novel, must rank as one of the most heart-rending in fiction and her novels continue to shed light on Haiti and the Haitian diaspora. Enjoy.

edwige

Born in Haiti, Edwidge Danticat moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., at age 12, joining her parents who had immigrated in search of a better life. Her second book, a collection of short stories she published at age 26, was short-listed for the National Book Award. Today Danticat, 44, lives in Miami.

Her latest novel, “Claire of the Sea Light,” tells of a little girl’s disappearance in a seaside town in Haiti. Like many of her works, it inspires reflection on the nature of cultural boundaries, on identity and on human compassion.

What was the genesis of “Claire of the Sea Light?”

I was watching a documentary about children in Haiti. Part of it focused on orphanages for children who actually do have parents, but their parents bring them in because they can’t afford to care for them. I think it was an aid worker who said in the film, “These people don’t have the same attachment to their children. This is why they bring them here.” And I remember feeling in that judgment an echo of my own story. My father and mother left me to the care of my uncle while they went to work in the United States. They could have stayed with me and my brother. We could have been together but struggling. Instead, they made a brave sacrifice and left in order to give an opportunity elsewhere to us all.

In the past decade you devoted yourself mainly to nonfiction. How does it feel to be back writing fiction?

Exhilarating. In fiction, you feel like you own everything. I could make things up at will. I had free rein. While I was writing this novel, I spent a lot of time by the sea in Haiti. I wanted to capture snapshots of this community; my imagination borrows a lot from places where I spend time. The environment in Haiti was changing even back then, even before the earthquake. You could see signs of overfishing, of erosion, of the topsoil washing into the sea.

The 2010 earthquake killed approximately 300,000 people and left about 1 million homeless in Haiti. You were there a few months ago. How is the situation on the ground? 

What I find most encouraging, what you often don’t hear about, it’s what individuals are doing. There are Haitians who are using whatever means they have to help themselves, because they know, having been through disasters before, that the world’s attention is fickle, that ultimately even the large missions and nations who claim they want to help are sometimes looking out for their own interest.

When we look at images of today — natural disasters, wars, inequality — one can’t help but wonder what the place of literature is.

We need stories because when everything else is stripped away, that’s all we have left. When the flood has come through and you lose all your belongings, when you have to leave your country at 24 hours’ notice, stories are all you have. I had been separated from my mother for 8 years and from my father for 10 when they came back for us to join them in the United States. When I left Haiti, I don’t remember what was in my suitcase, I don’t remember what I brought with me. I do remember the stories I was told. I remember the life I had. That’s what I came with.

Stories are essential — to our survival as an individual and as a community.

Once you strip people of their stories you strip them of their humanity. There is a story of slavery: They would force the slaves who lived on the islands, transitioning from the ships to new places, to go under a tree, which they called the forgetting tree, and it was supposed to make them forget their stories. In Haiti, what inspired a revolution, what inspired people to fight and to become the first black republic, was that they remembered that once they had been free, that they had a different past. Whether we are still in the places where we were born or whether we are migrating somewhere else, stories are ultimately what we have to pass on to the next generation; everything else could be taken away from us.

Life and death are deeply intertwined in your writing. What’s at its origin?

My uncle who helped raise me in Port-au-Prince was a minister; he was very active in the community. We witnessed all the cycles of life up close — on a Friday he might be presiding over a wedding, on a Saturday over a funeral and on a Sunday over a baptism. People who come from places like I come from are very aware of these cycles. Being in church and watching my uncle, I learned early on that death is a part of life. We continue to have a connection with people even after they die. That was always a strong element of my childhood; there was a sense of continuity after life.

You are viewed as an immigrant writer. Does one write better when away from home?

I live in Miami now, and people ask me, “When are you going to write about Miami?” And I tell them, “When I leave Miami.” For the work and for one’s life, there is a kind of richness.  The anguish and the longing for home still exist, but there is also an interesting layer of experience, of having different cultures to draw on. That gives you a rich sphere to create from. It used to be that when people thought of the immigrant experience they immediately thought of a culture clash. These days, there is more fluidity.

We live in a much more connected world.

When I was about to come from Haiti to the United States, I didn’t think anything about the U.S. except for the fact that it was where my parents lived and that it was sometimes cold. My cousins who live in Haiti now wouldn’t stand out as much as I did when I got here. They sort of dress like American teenagers. Some of them even speak a little English. They watch all these Hollywood movies. Children who become immigrants today — even before they leave their native country they have to some degree been exposed to the culture of where they are going.

Integration and immigration are at the crux of political and social speeches, particularly in Europe and the United States, raising serious questions about tolerance and hostility.

At the same time that some borders are crumbling, people are making the physical borders even harder to transcend. Walls are being built, while the world is opening up in cyberspace. There are more exchanges possible, but the physical borders are harder to cross. I think it has to do with the economic climate: People become xenophobic when opportunities decline.

Your memoir, “Brother, I’m Dying,” was in part about that.

My uncle Joseph, who was 81 years old and who had been coming to the United States for 30 years, died in immigration custody. He asked for asylum, he was detained, his medication was taken away, and he died in the custody of Homeland Security.

Did you always have the sense you’d one day become a writer?

I loved stories and I loved reading. I didn’t dare dream I’d be a writer. It was still the dictatorship in Haiti and when I would tell people I might become a writer someday they would tell me what happens to writers: They either end up in prison or they end up killed. So I kept it to myself for a while. I didn’t think it would become my lifework; I knew it would always be my passion. Even when I wrote my first book, I thought it would be my only one.

How did English become the official language of your prose, instead of Creole or French?

I spoke Creole at home, and everything at school was in French, but I never felt at ease in French. I had to write my parents letters and it was always a chore. I felt like I couldn’t say exactly what was in my heart. When I got to the United States and started writing in English, it just kind of stuck.

Almost two decades have passed since your first book. When you look back at your younger self, what do you see?  

I see in that young girl a lot of who I am today: someone who is open to exploring, someone who is trying to understand how the world works. Things are always changing, and the stories we tell are important. I don’t think of myself as a Haiti expert; I think of myself as a person who loves Haiti and as someone who still has a lot of learn. Haiti is a place I love, a place I’ll always be attached to, a place I know well yet still surprises me and teaches me.

What do you hope will stay with readers as they put this new novel down?

I try to present a microcosm of a world, to paint an image of a small place with big problems but also with big possibilities. I hope they think about Haiti a little differently, not just as a place of disaster but also as a place of hope, as a place full of people from all walks of life who are just trying to live a life and who are trying to do the best they can.

This interview has been condensed and edited.