I’m a sort of reader who doesn’t like to give up on books easily, but this latest book club read, an acclaimed debut novel from a Serbian-born Australian writer, really tested my patience for a good hundred pages before I finally started to find it somewhat rewarding.
Time for some classic French literature! I first read Guy de Maupassant while still in Russia, and the worn-out collection of his short stories was one of the few books I took with us when we emigrated to Australia. In addition to being one of the greatest short story writers of all time, during his tragically brief time on earth (42 years to be exact) Maupassant also penned a few novels, which I never got around to reading in either language. Published in 1885, Bel-Ami is his second novel. I still think that Maupassant’s short stories are the best display of his strengths as a writer, but I very much enjoyed this book.
Our latest book club reading was this extraordinary, beautifully written memoir about growing up in rural Idaho in a family of Mormon survivalists.
One frequent comment in the discussions I had was that to many Educated felt like reading fiction rather than a memoir. This is in no way a swipe at its credibility, but rather a compliment to the quality of Westover’s writing, which is a few notches above your typical memoir or autobiography. The impression could also be partly due to the voice of the narrator, which is rather distanced, matter-of-fact and remarkably perceptive. Perhaps it comes from looking back at a life that feels like a different life altogether. In many ways, this memoir is a book about memory and its fragility, and trying to piece together a portrait of the family from the often contradictory recollections.
I’ve always been fascinated by what if scenarios in fiction, and the one explored by this Norwegian author is devastatingly simple: what would happen to the human society if the bees went extinct? Spread across almost 250 years and three stories, all involving bees to some degree, Lunde’s book finishes with a tentative note of optimism but not before taking the reader on a dark ride of dashed hopes and bleak prospects for our world.
Other than a cautionary tale, the major thread of the novel is the bond between parents and children, the joy and heartbreak it brings, and the different legacies we leave behind. While Lunde doesn’t experiment with style to the degree of, say, Cloud Atlas, the novel is a mix of historical, modern and speculative fiction, only spelling out the direct connections between the three narratives at the very end.
I’ve always been fond of the “how well can you really know even your closest loved ones” theme, and I quite enjoyed this quick and easy read, which doesn’t waste any time instantly pulling you into the story with the opening paragraph. I wasn’t all that impressed with another Anita Shreve book I’ve read a while ago, but she sure knows how to write a gripping beginning.
It begins with a late-night knock on the door that awakens Kathryn, the titular wife married to Jack, a pilot whose plane went down off the coast of Ireland after an explosion, with no survivors. From the moment Kathryn receives this terrible news, her life turns into a rollercoaster of grief, media whirlwind, and slow unravelling of who she had thought her husband was.
More book club reading. This one was an interesting experience – the author’s intent became obvious to me only after I finished the novel and read the acknowledgements at the back, which recast the whole thing in a very different light. If I remembered my classic Greek literature better, I’d probably have realised sooner that Home Fire is a modern-day retelling of Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone. This made me understand the author’s story choices better, while also making it easier to pinpoint why, overall, the book didn’t quite work for me. There’s still a lot to like about it – the prose is simple and lucid, it explores the timely topics like terrorism and anti-Muslim attitudes with insight and intelligence, most characters are well-drawn and their wildly different life choices are easy to understand and empathise with. But in the end, it did feel less than the sum of its parts.
I’ve read and loved a few Maugham novels without realising that he also excelled at short stories. This is the first one of a four volume collection, which I’ll no doubt complete one day as I love both short stories and Maugham’s brilliant writing. As in any collection, the quality varies somewhat, but most entries are great little gems of economical, elegant storytelling.
The thirty stories contained in the volume are grouped together by geography, as they move from the islands of the Pacific Ocean to England, France, Spain and back to Borneo. They vary wildly in length – some stories take up forty pages and others stop at four – and in tone, with some stories light-hearted and dryly comical, almost resembling a witty punchy epigram, while others are almost luridly tragic.
I’ve resolved not to buy any more clothes from the second-hand stores to prevent the wardrobe explosion, but I can’t stop buying really cheap books! I very much enjoyed this charming, off-kilter first novel from the Indian author who later won the 2006 Man Booker Prize with The Inheritance of Loss, about a young morose slacker who leaves his home town to take up residence in a guava tree, and becomes an accidental guru. Hilarity and chaos ensue.
Last book club read for this year before we regroup in January, Purple Hibiscus is an engaging and beautifully written coming-of-age story set in postcolonial Nigeria. Its heroine, Kambili, is a shy and timid 15-year-old girl growing up within the confines of her wealthy family, ruled by her devoutly religious, authoritarian, verbally and physically abusive father Eugene. When Kambili and her brother Jaja get a chance to spend time with their liberal aunt Ifeoma and her children, freed from Eugene’s oppressive regime, Kambili slowly begins to find her confidence and her own voice.
In between book club reading, I’ve revisited one of my favourite short story collections, which is destined to be one of those books I take off the shelf again and again. I’ve heard a few people say that they find short stories frustrating; it’s probably the way they toss you out of the world created by the author just when the reader gets into the story and characters. And for sure, a novel offers a more engrossing experience you can get properly lost in. But as a reader, few things are as satisfying to me as an effortlessly perfect short story that makes an impression and creates a lived-in world in a space of a few pages, and Lahiri is one of the best authors I’ve read (Pulitzer Prize people agreed as well, since this collection won the 2000 fiction prize).