Monthly Archives: January 2014

Reviewing Good Reads (including thoughts on The Luminaries)

I’ve been a member of Good Reads for the second time for a month now, and today I received an email from them requesting that I rate their site.

It’s good timing on their part–no doubt, someone has done research into matters of feedback and timing–because I had recently been thinking about the ways that Good Reads has affected my reading.

The first time I joined Good Reads, I attempted to show not only what I was reading at the time but also what I had read in the past.  I soon learned that trying to review every book I had ever read was a fool’s errand. It left no time for reading. And it felt competitive.

I felt inadequate as a by-product of the sense of competitiveness Good Reads engendered in me, so I quit the site and breathed a sigh of relief. If that sounds precious, then I assure you, those feelings emerged at a complex intersection of my personal history of class and capital in sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s understanding of social relations.

Anyway, I rejoined Good Reads with far more modest ambitions. I really just wanted to know how many books I might read in the year ahead.

To this end, Good Reads provides the opportunity to set yourself a reading challenge. I’m not a prolific reader, so I’ve set myself a modest number of 26 books for the year.  A friend noted of the challenge she set herself last year, that while she didn’t meet it, it had the effect of making her sit down and read. I’ve already noticed that Good Reads has  had this effect on my reading habits too, and a sense of purpose about reading is not a bad thing at all.

An effect of Good Reads that I’m more ambivalent about is that I tend to read in anticipation of assigning a star rating and perhaps finding something to say to justify that rating. On the one hand, the description attached to each star is different to what I would intuitively assign to them. For example, if I thought a book was ‘okay’, I would assign three stars rather than the two afforded by Good Reads for that description. No doubt, my rating is a hangover of marking essays and assigning grades. 2 out of 5 stars would be a fail in an essay–not having made the half-way mark–whereas three stars is a pass: it’s ‘okay’. I’ve made every effort to adjust my rating system to that of Good Reads, but still, I feel a bit mean assigning a well-loved children’s classic like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe only two stars. Similarly, my three star rating of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites doesn’t quite convey the degree to which I liked it.  I liked it.  It’s better than a passing grade but, for the reasons I outlined in my review, I didn’t really like it enough to indicate that with a four star rating. (I do wish I Good Reads would allow half-star ratings.)

I recently saw an article on Brain Pickings about Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘How should one read a book?’  Woolf asks the reader to ‘banish all … preconceptions when we read ….’ She continues: ‘Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticize at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read.’

Without a doubt, one of the effects of Good Reads for me is that by Woolf’s measure, I do not read well. I approach each book with a critical mindset; I do, indeed, hang back. For example, while reading The Luminaries, upon encountering the descriptions of the characters representing the stellar bodies, I immediately thought of the composition principle  ‘show, don’t tell’. Why, I asked, am I being told how they will act and react in any given situation? Why aren’t I simply witnessing these characters interacting?

Perhaps, at this point, I was closing myself off to the ‘signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences’ that Woolf suggests the author offers the reader, that were being offered by Catton, that I had ignored in my rush to compose my Good Reads review even while I was still reading.

I had finished reading  The Luminaries, when I was directed to a review of Catton’s reviews in the Sydney Review of Books, which pricked my conscience about my reading as much as Woolf’s instruction. Julian Novitz considers the bad reviews of Catton’s novel in view of her conscious and ironic use of 19th century literary devices. He defends Catton against the critics who dismiss her novel as ‘pastiche’ and a ‘creative writing exercise’ arguing for the merit of formal inventiveness. Here, I reflected,  if Catton did tell her reader about her characters, did not show them by way of their daily interactions, then my reaction to her anachronistic storytelling could only be, as Novitz suggests, due to her ‘wry metafictional reflection on the nature of storytelling’.

Novitz’s defence of The Luminaries is convincing on many levels and it makes me want to appreciate the book more, but ultimately, I don’t know that ‘an awareness of the structure working behind it [does deepen] one’s pleasure and absorption’

At my book club, which I read this novel for, the enjoyment of the mystery story of The Luminaries was unanimous. Most felt relieved that such a large novel was so absorbing and thought, at last the Booker had been awarded to a rollicking good story rather than a worthy tome. The astrologically informed structure and 19th century literary devices were peripheral to their conscious pleasure and absorption.

In the end, I enjoyed the story too, even as I admitted the ‘heavily furred and gowned’ critics of Woolf’s essay into my reading. Still,  as I came to understand Novitz’s pleasure in  ‘the structure working behind it’, I couldn’t share in it.  The astrological premise simply didn’t resonate for me.

***

Despite my reservations about the effects of Good Reads on my reading, I won’t be deleting my account again.  I’m still curious to see how many books I’ll read and it will be nice to have a contained record to review my thoughts on my reading. As well, I enjoy seeing my friend’s ratings and reading their reviews–they’re smart and insightful and I get ideas for things to read. With a bit of effort and some help from Virginia Woolf, I think–I hope–I will, eventually, be a good reader on Good Reads.

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Requiem for a Stray Cat

She said, ‘It’s still alive’ and
Went to see if the neighbours 
Were home. 

I looked down at its 
Open eyes, measuring
The symptoms of shock.

It’s mottled, patchy fur
Didn’t heave as it lay there,
Ears warm and soft, 

Mid-dream.


Refresh: January

I started my reading year by signing up for things:

I rejoined Good Reads, mostly out of curiosity to know how many books I read.  There was some discussion over at Facebook on my book club’s group page about people’s individual book counts.  Our most prolific reader had a total of eighty-eight, which made the person who had read thirty-six feel very humble in comparison.  I had no idea how many I’d read, but I’m fairly sure it was fewer than thirty. I’ve set myself the very modest goal of reading twenty-six books in their 2014 reading challenge.

My reading count would almost certainly have received a boost in the last months of 2013 after I rejoined the local library.  I’d avoided the library for years after accruing a fine for keeping a copy of American Psycho out until they sent me a bill to replace it.  I returned the book (yes, I did read it), but avoided the library out of shame for at least a decade.  Yes, I knew all about the end-of-year amnesty, but I was too scared to face them.  Anyway, I plucked up my courage and it turns out there was no record of my misdeeds in their system at all. And in the meantime, the ebook has arrived, so I’ve been spending my time happily catching up on the Harry Potter series, both books and films, as well as The Hunger Games series, and a few missed childhood classics, including The Narnia Chronicles.

It’s through the library that I’ve been able to supplement my book club’s first novel of the year, the Man Booker Prize winner for 2013, The Luminaries, with some eye-saving audiobooks for the Australian Women Writers Reading Challenge, which I’ve signed up for again in 2014.  So far, I’ve read and reviewed Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites and I’ve just started listening to Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. 

Actually, neither of these books are part of the official challenge I’ve set myself, which is again focussed on creating audiobooks via Librvox of works in the public domain by Australian women writers. I started the first book for this project, Human Toll,  towards the end of last year, with the intention of completing Barbara Baynton’s catalogue. I have planned to record another two works in addition to that for the AWW2014 challenge, but I haven’t decide which.

I’m looking at anything I read or listen to and review beyond the Librivox recordings as a bonus with respect to the AWW challenge.  I’ve come to the conclusion that just as writers must read to be better writers, then audiobook readers must listen in order to become better readers. It’s with this thought in mind, in addition to the pleasure of the stories themselves, that I’m listening to other audiobooks, taking mental notes of the various factors that make for a good telling of another’s story.

Meanwhile, January is also the Month of Poetry, an event I only became aware of via the tweets of Penni Russon and Anna Ryan Punch. I’m following both of their MOP14 efforts  and attempting to retweet the links to their poems via my @ReadingSheilas account. I’m not sure how I would count these if I included them in the challenge; perhaps, as two anthologies? No matter. As a reader, I look forward to the tweeted announcements of both of these writers. It’s a great way to ease into a new year of reading.


Burial Rites

Burial RitesBurial Rites by Hannah Kent

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s a note at the end of this novel that says it’s an attempt to make more ambiguous the historical record of the central figure, Agnes Magnusdottir. I think the outcome of the characterisation is far less subtle than that; indeed Agnes is rendered a victim of poverty, circumstance, a particularly manipulative lover, and blinkered judiciary–far from the ‘inhumane witch stirring up murder’ of record . By now it’s a frustratingly familiar story, but it’s one that bears repeating as long as societies continue to condemn the socially and economically disadvantaged, without examining how the very structures of those societies produce ‘criminals’ like Agnes.

Still, while the ‘truth’ of the events in Iceland in 1829 are unknowable, part of me does wonder at the desire to so thoroughly whitewash any historical figure; it’s seems to be motivated by a conviction that people must be wholly good to deserve our sympathies. The same might be said for the characters that we are encouraged to condemn–do they need to be so wholly bad? There seems to be very little to love about Natan Ketilsson–but there must have been more to him for him to gain the affections of Agnes, surely?

The audiobook I listened to was read by Morven Christie at a good pace and with deft pronunciation of the Icelandic names. Her reading evoked the pathos of the story and Agnes to great effect.

View all my reviews


AWW2013 in Review

awwbadge_2013

My Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2013 started off with the completion of a large Librivox project, where I  found and recorded ten short stories by Mary Fortune (aka Waif Wander) published in The Australian Journal in 1880. The stories were from a long-running series by Fortune, The Detective’s Album, mostly narrated by Victorian detective, Mark Sinclair. The stories are less about an idiosyncratic detective, however, than a detailed account of a series of crimes from inception through discovery, investigation, trial and punishment. So, to make a comparison with more familiar detective fiction, the series is less like the Sherlock Holmes stories than Law & Order: Criminal Intent, based on the conceit that these are real cases investigated by the Victorian police at the time. There are investigations on the goldfields and in vineyards, of  bush rangers in hiding, and femme fatales. The stories are Victorian, in the sense of the era, too, with contemporary concerns about the social scourge of alcohol, and the link between crime and madness is ever-present. 

Stories from The Detective’s Album is freely available for download from the Librivox site and the Internet Archive

While completing  ‘Stories from The Detective’s Album‘, I listened to a Librivox recording of Henry Handel Richardson’s Australia Felix, the first in her three part series, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. I very much enjoyed tabithat’s reading, as well as the story itself, which begins on the gold fields of Ballarat on the eve of the Eureka Stockade rebellion. Here, the character of Richard Mahony, trained as a doctor in Edinburgh, is running a grocery store–with very little aptitude, it must be said. Richardson conveys the goldfields of Colonial Australia as a place populated by people of  multiple classes, ethnicities, religions, and political persuasions, who, while not entirely living in harmony, are united in their opposition to the corrupt authority of the law. Mahony is, at heart, an intellectual and very much out of place, difficult in his relations with others and often unwell with depression. Nevertheless, he meets and marries Polly, who encourages him to return to his medical practice. Together, the Mahonys build a life in Ballarat, Polly growing into a consummate diplomat and hostess for her husband, as well as her brother’s political aspirations. Two things have stayed with me about Australia Felix. The first is Richardson’s talent for drawing difficult characters via niggardly, everyday interactions; and the second is the evolution of Polly from a teenage bride to a remarkably poised young woman, signified in her later use of Mary, to avoid confusion with her new sister-in-law.

In part, I listened to Australia Felix, in anticipation of reading The Getting of Wisdom, also by Henry Handel Richardson, which was my first full recording for AWW2013. It was also one of my book club’s novels for this year. While not everyone in the book club liked Richardson’s coming of age tale, it’s here that her talent for drawing difficult personalities is first evident in the character of Laura Tweedle Rambotham. Again, this recording is available at Librivox and the Internet Archive. At the time of writing this post, the recording had been downloaded over 100, 000 times, a statistic of which I’m very proud.

In between reading and listening to Librivox audiobooks, I read a memoir by Michelle Dicinoski.  Ghost Wife is Michelle’s telling of her and her partner Heather’s decision to travel to Canada to get married, a union that would have no legal status on their return to Australia. In between are woven other stories from Michelle’s family history of events and persons never acknowledged by institutions and their documentations, present only in hearts, memories and anecdotes. While I can’t review this book, I can and will recommend you read it as a way of thinking through one of contemporary Australia’s most pressing ethical issues.

Before discussing the final book I recorded for the year, it’s worth mentioning a seminar I attended as part of the University of Queensland’s events for the 2013 Brisbane Writers Festival, where Rob Spillman, the editor of Tin House magazine, spoke about his publication’s response to VIDA’s campaign and survey of bias against women in US literature. I made some notes and tweeted a summary of them afterwards:

Bush Studies by Barbara Baynton was the final complete recording I did in 2013. In preparation, I listened to a recording of Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife by way of seeing what Baynton’s writing was responding to in the national cultural imagination of the time, since, after the number of her marriages, her reaction to the writers of The Bulletin School, seems to be the next most frequent way of discussing her (work).  Lawson’s wife is hard working and often alone with her children, but she is ultimately safe and content in her life. In contrast, the women in Baynton’s stories are used and abused by their husbands and itinerant swagmen. Similarly, the bush man is intolerant and exploitative of Aboriginals and (principally) Chinese settlers, while the bush itself is full of dangers. For me, The Chosen Vessel was utterly chilling, while Bush Church runs the gamut from charming, amusing moments where the naivety of a newly arrived clergyman is exploited by the less God-faring population (I was going to use citizenry, but that would be inaccurate), to the grimness of everyday violence.

Upon reflection, I had a good, if sporadic AWW year in 2013. From reading over my first post for the year, I basically set my own challenge and I seem to have covered everything I mentioned in that, if I didn’t say much more about the poetry. But more on that in the 2014 challenge. See you there!


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