‘Cuentos de Edgar Allan Poe para estudiantes de espanol. Nivel A1’

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There’s a little test you can do of your language skill against the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFRL). “I’ll try that with my Spanish!” I thought, only to end up thoroughly deflated at the realization that I came out at level A1 – absolute, absolute beginner. Or as Wikipedia helpfully puts it:

He is able to understand and use daily expressions of very frequent use as well as simple phrases intended to satisfy needs of immediate type. You can introduce yourself and others, ask for and give basic personal information about your home, your belongings and the people you know. You can relate in an elementary way whenever your interlocutor speaks slowly and clearly and is willing to cooperate.

Well, on second thoughts, that’s about it.  Apparently this level takes approximately 100 hours of study and that would be just about right too.  (Actually, I’ve probably spent more time than that, so I must confess to being a laggard. I’ll blame my advanced age.)

So I downloaded Cuentos de Edgar Allan Poe for the princely sum of $2.04 AUD and found that, yes, it’s exactly the right level.  I had to look up about five words in each page, which was enough to keep me on my toes, but not so much that I felt overwhelmed.  I don’t know if the stories became simpler, or whether I improved as I went along, but it seemed that the later stories were easier to read than those at the start of the book.

It helped that I can’t remember reading any Edgar Allan Poe beyond, perhaps, in short story collections at school.  There were seven stories here: The Black Cat, Berenice, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Mask of the Red Death, The Facts in the Case of Mister Valdemar and Ligeia.  The whole book was only 68 pages in length, so each of the stories was relatively short. There were lots of deserted houses, ghostly women and glittering eyes and my favourite was probably The Pit and the Pendulum.  I did double check some of the stories in Wikipedia to make sure that I had actually understood them, and yes- they were abridged, but they captured the essence of the story with enough tension and mystery to make it worthwhile.

So, if you’re an absolute beginner too- this is $2.00 very well spent.

‘The Pacific Room’ by Michael Fitzgerald

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2017, 237 p.

When I saw that this book was about Robert Louis Stevenson I wondered if I should just spend a little time googling around before I read it. I knew very little about him beyond ‘Treasure Island’ and a vague sense that he was in the Pacific at some stage. No, I decided. Let the book stand on its own two feet and so I launched in.

At first I was reassured, if somewhat underwhelmed, by the ‘researcher as explorer’ framing of the story. It’s a technique  which is becoming a little hackneyed, having been used by several books in the last decade or so, and replayed over and over  with all the misty-eyed emoting in the television series ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ I don’t need to know any background here, I thought, because the fictional art historian Lewis Wakefield is obviously going to tell me, as he tracks down images in the Mitchell Library in Sydney and then travels to Samoa.  In particular, Wakefield is researching a portrait  by the long-forgotten (and real life) Italian artist Girolamo Nerli, who travelled by steamer to Apia in 1892 to capture on canvas the duality of the Jekyll and Hyde characters  through his depiction of their creator.  We don’t actually see this portrait, even though Hyde and the other characters in the book describe it. What we do see is a black-and-white photograph of Stevenson that runs the entire length of the inside cover, stretched out in a garden with two Samoans recumbent on the grass beside him, with a garland of flowers around his head and looking every bit the languorous bohemian.

The book has 36 chapters, some of which are very short. There are several threads to the story. First, there’s the present-day art historian Lewis Wakefield, orphaned as a child when his family, including his twin brother, die in an Antarctic air crash.  Then there’s Teuila, a dancer in a nightclub, grieving as she watches Henry, a Samoan who has returned from New Zealand, as he plans to marry Shema. We have Teuila’s friendship with the other dancers, and her family relationships now and in the past, most particularly her identification with her ancestor Sosimo. Then, moving back narratively to the past, there’s the household revolving around Robert Louis Stevenson, known by his ‘native’ name as Tusitala. Stevenson’s American wife and his widowed mother live with him there too, with Stevenson’s  servant boy Sosimo (Teuila’s ancestor) and the Australian Mary. The whole household is disturbed by the appearance of the painter wishing to paint the author’s portrait.  Rather confusingly, all these chapters- both in the present day and in the past- are narrated in the present tense, and each starts in a rather similar way with an unnamed character. Only gradually does it become clear which thread you are following, in an effect like a kaleidoscope gradually settling into an image.

It doesn’t surprise me that Brian Castro wrote the blurb for this book.  Castro and Fitzgerald are not dissimilar writers, who both revel in language and imagery. I found that Fitzgerald’s language evoked the riot of a jungle, sinuous and dense, and there were a couple of times when I found myself wondering if the image he was drawing even made sense.  Both writers deal with crossing borders and the exotic, and both these themes are important here.  I’ve read several Castro books (even though I’ve only reviewed one because the  others predate this blog) where, just as I felt with this book, I could follow the narrative at close-up but  wasn’t really sure whether I knew quite what was happening on the wider scale.

I’ve been thinking, too, about the technique of using a present-day researcher as a lens through which to tell the story.  I’m listening right now to Hilary Mantel’s excellent Reith Lectures (available here) . I don’t think – although I may be wrong- that Michael Fitzgerald (or I, for that matter) would describe this book as ‘historical fiction’. The present-day character tethers the book, and the perspectives that it is likely to explore, firmly in the twenty-first century.  It is a revisioning of past characters, not so much on their own historical terms, but through the sensibilities and awareness of the present day.

I chose not to read any background before reading this book, but what I have done since has enhanced my appreciation for Fitzgerald’s skill in integrating real-life characters into his narrative.  I’m still not sure that I understood it completely, which may be my failing, just as much as the book’s. It’s not a particularly easy read, but its imagery is beautiful. And, as I closed the book, I saw all sorts of things in the photograph on the inner covers that I just didn’t see before.

Sourced from:  Review copy courtesy Transit Lounge publishers

 

Movie: Twentieth Century Women

 

Set in Santa Barbara in 1979 this is a coming of age story told from the perspective of fifteen year old Jamie, whose single-mother Dorothea draws on the ‘village to raise a child’ metaphor when she feels at a loss to help her son become a ‘good man’. She turns to her 24 year old boarder Abbie, and Jamie’s best friend Julie with whom he is secretly infatuated. Sheesh woman!- give the kid some SPACE. Let him find his own way- you know he’s a good kid- just trust him.  The little historical-nerd in me enjoyed the interspersed archival film footage, but it was all a little too washed in nostalgia and saccharine for me.

My rating: 3 stars.

‘The Promise’ by Tony Birch

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2014, 219 p.

I was prompted to read this book as part of Lisa’s Indigenous Literature Week at ANZLitLovers.  I’ve read several books by Tony Birch previously, one a novel Blood and the other, Shadowboxing a series of linked short stories. I think of him as a local, who can often be spotted around Melbourne and occasionally I’ve seen him down at our local shopping centre, oddly enough.  While his works are fictional, you sense that the author’s own lifestory hovers nearby. Birch’s indigenous heritage seems to be treated as just one aspect of his character, as it is in amongst the narrators in this series of short stories too. Class, education and a wounded masculinity are just as much markers of identity in his characters as their indigeneity,  where if it features at all, it is mentioned almost in passing. It’s not that it’s downplayed or ignored, but it’s interwoven through his characters’ other experiences and world-views.  (There’s an excellent reflection on Birch and his aboriginality in Eve Vincent’s review of ‘The Promise’ in SRB)

All of these twelve short stories are told in the first person, and although it is not the same character, it is pretty much the same voice. Several of the stories involve young boys, left pretty much to their own devices in the scrubby, abandoned frontiers of an urban landscape in the absence of parents: under freeways, along river banks, playing in the shadows of Housing Commission high-rise buildings  and in deserted bowling alleys. Where the narrator is a grown man, he is often standing on the edge of a loss of a relationship, scorched by grief and toeing the line of defeat or deciding to ‘move on’. His characters are not generally written about in literature. They are workers whose jobs are a means to an end, rather than their own enterprise or a profession. Some of them dance on the edge of criminality, alcoholism and addiction and  families are often absent or fractured.

My favourite amongst the stories is ‘The Money Shot’, about a trio of thieves about to do a ‘job’ only to find that one of their group has to literally mind the baby.  There’s a humour in this story that is not found in the others. In another story, ‘The Lovers’, a waiter in a restaurant speculates about a couple who come in every week.

Birch is good at capturing a moment, a dilemma, a decision and co-opting your sympathy as a reader, almost against your better judgement. However, in several of these stories I found myself turning the page, only to find that the story had ended. I don’t need a resolution, or for everything to be tied up neatly, but the incompleteness of some of these stories frustrated me.  This was more true of the early stories in the collection, and I don’t know if the later stories became more rounded, or whether I’d become accustomed to having the narrative yanked away so abruptly.  So, I think of these stories more as shards, sharp-edged and needing to be handled carefully (just as their main characters are), rather than rounded wholes in themselves.  I just can’t help thinking, though, that some of them are a ‘promise’ left unfulfilled.

My rating: 6.5

Sourced from : Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Movie: Viceroy’s House

Some may find it hard to believe, but I’ve never watched Downton Abbey, and so my credulity was not stretched in seeing Hugh Bonneville play Lord Mountbatten in this film. I would have scoffed at Gillian Anderson’s cut-glass accent too, until I remembered the sound of Queen Elizabeth’s piping and flutey voice when she first took the throne.

This is a very pro-Mountbatten film, which portrays him as the unwilling pawn of dastardly Colonial Office operators. The story of the partition of India is big enough in itself that it didn’t need the Romeo-and-Juliet story amongst the two younger characters superimposed onto it.  Still, if you stick around for the credits at the end of the film, it’s perhaps not as far-fetched as I thought.

Good, but the book Midnight’s Children was better!

My rating: 3.5 stars

‘In the Country of Men’ by Hisham Matar

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2006, 245 p.

When reading this book I found myself thinking of Ian McEwan’s Atonement or L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between.  An odd connection to make, in many ways, with their golden summers and racketty affluence.  Late 1970s Libya does not at all have the benign somnolence of Edwardian England: instead, it is edgy, tense and brutal.  However, what Matar’s book does share with these other two is the child’s-eye view  that misconstrues events and wreaks an unwitting destruction.

The narrator is nine-year-old Suleiman, the only child of his ‘Baba’ (father) Faraj el Dewani and ‘Mama’ Najwa. His father is emotionally distant and caught up in political activities, and Suleiman prefers his father’s friend Moosa, who although a fellow-activist, has a more demonstrative and affectionate relationship with the young boy.  His mother Majwa is an alcoholic (no small thing in a country where alcohol is banned).

Suleiman is an observer, not understanding the political ramifications of what he is seeing. Sulieman exists in a world of  “quiet panic, as if at any moment the rug could be pulled from beneath my feet”. In the mess that Libya has become since Gaddafi’s overthrow, it’s easy to forget the menace of his regime.

It was good to read about a country and politics that is unfamiliar to me, even though the tropes of innocence, bravery and courage are universal.  The book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and I enjoyed it. It was my selection for my bookgroup, and I was a little apprehensive about how it would be received, but ‘the ladies’ liked it too.  (Unfortunately I left this blogpost half-written, and I’ve forgotten the detail about the book. Sorry!)

Rating: 8.5

Read because: It was a CAE bookgroup.

Some Rare Book Week exhibitions

Melbourne has hosted Rare Book Week between 30 June and 9 July 2017 (an extended week, it seems). As is my usual practice, I missed most of it. It was a beautiful sunny winter’s day on Friday so we popped into the city to see two of the free exhibitions associated with Rare Book Week. Both exhibitions continue beyond 9th July for a few weeks.

First, down to Docklands library to see By a lady: the world of Jane Austen. Docklands is a strange, strange place. It is an urban renewal project built on the site of the old Victoria Dock which itself was built on the drained West Melbourne swamp. The Docklands Authority was constituted in 1991 and several attempts were made to get development off the ground.  Although a number of large companies have moved there, it’s generally regarded as a bit of a dud and a template for what not to do in urban renewal.  I’ve only been once or twice, each time on a cloudy, cold, windy winter’s day.  So how would it shape up on a beautiful winter’s day?

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Well, here we are just after lunch on a Friday afternoon, on the corner of Bourke and Collins Street.  Melburnians will howl “But how can it be on the corner of Bourke and Collins when they run parallel??” but apparently they meet in Docklands.  The city proper was heaving with people- but not a single pedestrian here.

The Docklands library opened in 2014. It’s a beautiful building but with barely a person in it. There was a conference of some sort being conducted in the community room, but other than that, it was very very quiet.

The exhibition itself combined multimedia with displays of different versions of Austen’s works. Of course, the books themselves are precious and so you can only gaze at the beautifully-crafted covers, especially of those of the early 20th century, with their Arts Nouveau influences. The multimedia renderings displayed various pages and their illustrations, which helped you get inside the books more, although one or two of the displays moved through the images too quickly to really appreciate the text and illustrations. It also highlighted for me the Austen family ‘industry’ that has coalesced around the books, with publications of her letters, unpublished works and spin-offs arranged by various Austen relatives.  The exhibition is open Monday to Friday 10.00 – 5.00 until 23 July 2017.

Then back to the real world with people in it, and up to the University of Melbourne.  The exhibition Plotting the Island is on at the Noel Shaw Gallery, Level 1 of Baillieu Library and it closes on 16 July 2017.  Drawing on books, maps and artifacts from the University of Melbourne’s rich archives and collections, it explores the idea of the ‘island’ in both an imaginative and geographical sense. Although there is a focus on Australia, as might be expected from an Australian university, the exhibition also deals with mythology, literature, geography, mapmaking, collecting and anthropology. There was a fascinating film ‘Too Many Captain Cooks’, made in 1988 which combined indigenous artwork with story-telling of the ‘first’, loved,  Captain Cook before all these other Captain Cooks came and took the land.  It’s well worth catching before it closes.

The warmth was draining from the sun as we headed back towards the tram, passing the new Arts West building. We were too close to it to be able to make any sense of the patterning on the outside of the building.  You can see it better in this rather grand video. Fair enough. It’s a stunning building.