Category Archives: Reading

Rabbit, Run – John Updike

Rabbit, Run, by John Updike (not to be muddled with Upton Sinclair as I often do), has a simple enough plot. Rabbit leaves his alcoholic and pregnant wife Janice, and shacks up with a young woman Ruth for two months. A pastor Eccles befriends him in the hope of convincing him to do the ‘right’ thing. I won’t go into the ending, but in short, everyone is miserable and worse off than they were to begin with.

I disliked all the characters. I found Eccles the least awful. I admire his desire to have an amiable outcome, and his empathy, but I was frustrated by his fence sitting. I did not pity Janice, because she was an alcoholic. I did not empathise with Rabbit, because while I understand his wife was unbearable to live with, he was just as despicable by leaving his child with her. I hate Rabbit for his need for control and adoration. He often talks about how lovable he is, which is an arrogant delusion. He tried to control the women around him emotionally and physically. He did not have any respect for anyone, or the ability to empathise with others.

running rabbit

After I finished Rabbit, Run I Googled it so see if I was ‘supposed’ to hate everyone in it. According to Wikipedia, it was written in response to Kerouac’s On the Road “to depict ‘what happens when a young American family man goes on the road – the people left behind get hurt’” . I certainly think Updike made his point, and wins the debate in my mind. This is no surprise given by feelings for On The Road. I cannot understand what The Washington post was thinking: “…By his compassion, clarity of insight and crystal-bright prose, he makes Rabbit’s sorrow his and our own.” I do not believe Updike had any compassion for Rabbit, nor were Rabbit’s actions portrayed as understandable, relatable, or forgivable.

While I did not enjoy Rabbit, Run, I do think it was very powerful, and would recommend it. It seems many readers on Amazon feel the same. It makes me feel anger, which very few books have. This is not a side of my emotional repertoire I indulge in my personal life and so dislike experiencing recreationally, but certainly this does not discredit Updike’s skill as an author.

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Remebering Babylon – David Malouf

Beautiful book cover

Beautiful book cover

 Malouf is an acclaimed Australian author. Remembering Babylon was published in 1993 but is set in colonial Australia. Being published only 18 years ago hardly makes it vintage, as the publisher claims, but that’s neither here nor there. It deals with the common topic of prejudice and for me comes somewhere between the subtle, intricate analysis of Forster’s A Passage to India, and the brash, dictation of Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Consequently I’d give it half marks.

What I enjoyed about Remembering Babylon were the diverse characters, and the look into pioneering life.

What I didn’t like about this book was the seemingly irrelevant passages, the limited insight, and the unnecessary use of profanity. On the first point, there were a few short incidences that were, while beautifully written, seemingly irrelevant to the central theme. Malouf told single incidents from several perspectives, but he didn’t go deep enough into any one for my enjoyment. As for the profanity, I cannot stand this in written prose. Malouf could have just as easily conveyed the hardened, uncouth characters without it. Furthermore, he uses unpleasant imagery for things which are not unpleasant. For example, instead of saying Mr Frazer made his lips into the shape of an arsehole, he could simply has said Mr Frazer pursed his lips.

This is not a book for those who need a climatic ending, but Malouf poetically captures the nuances of Australian flora and conditions so it is more the journey than the destination.

What I especially loved about this re-release was the beautiful cover, which resembles Delftware, with it’s stark white cover and royal blue line-art. It was 80% of the reason I bought it.

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The Body – William Sansom

There is a bookshop opposite a hotel my grandfather used to own. The hotel was a beautiful multistorey Queenslander-style building and was long ago knocked down and replaced by a square cement TAB. I heard the store next to the bookshop caught fire a few months back and have yet to venture to see if the bookshop survived. It was the sort of shop where you didn’t know how they survived financially, let alone a fire. You could barely walk for the piles of books, you had to climb over turrets and squeeze through caverns of pages of pre-loved stories. It was an adventure ebook readers would never have. On my last trip there, I sat in a corner of the store piled with Penguin classics, surrounded by the susurrus of falling pages for an hour. I picked up about 10 books at 20 cents each, far cheaper than online.

One of these was The Body. It didn’t look much, and I didn’t read the blurb before starting. It was surprisingly a fascinating and well written insight into jealousy and aging. A persnickety, middle-age husband catches his young neighbour peeping at his wife in the shower. He then proceeds to invent an elaborate affair, creating circumstantial evidence, and reading into inconsequential happenings.  The way he imagines theoretical conversations of confrontation is something I can ashamedly relate to. I often make up imaginary arguments about why tearing down beautiful old buildings, to be replaced by cement is responsible for the degradation of Brisbane as a society. A reader will find the husband ridiculous, extreme and humerous, but are secretly counting the times they have followed this train of thought. That’s what makes this book worth reading.

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The Short Reign of Pippin IV

It’s no secret I love Steinbeck. I regularly visit Archives in the hope they have a book of his amongst the ample Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. Last month I found The Short Reign of Pippin IV. Besides telling a story, the pages had the lovely benefit of each falling out as I read them in turn. Who needs a book mark? I will have to use the binding technique utilised by my mother on her copy of 1984; the ancient art of rubber band binding. An no, I am still not any closer to desiring any sort of ebook. My books have personality. This book’s personality just happens to be that of an unstable person. But every village needs the village fool.

This short story I found is in the same vein as The Moon is Down. It is a satirical look at politics and society, acted out by idiosyncratic eccentrics. The Short Reign of Pippin IV is purported as some of Steinbeck’s funniest novellas, however I found The Moon is Down to be much wittier. Having said that, Pippin is full of very clever descriptions and imagery of caucuses, it’s only that the humour is a bit more literal than that found in The Moon Is Down (at least to my mind).

If you’re feeling a bit lazy or can’t get your hands on a copy, the concept (minus the political insights) of the story have been put into a few terrible films, such as King Ralph.

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Great Expectations

For some reason, I go into Charles Dickens thinking I dislike him and it will be a chore. This is not logical because A Christmas Carol is my most read book (every year). I quite enjoyed A Tale of Two Cities, despite early confusion. I think the ill-conceived notion was born of the fact that as a child I despised the movie Oliver Twist, and due to vivid history lessons in year 4, the Dickensian era evoked images of children having their fingers hacked off in machinery, and bitter cold.

I am glad I overcame this aversion, as Great Expectations is certainly worth it’s place on the shelf. I wasn’t sure that I would enjoy it, knowing the ending. However, there was a lot I didn’t know, and so there were several plot twists that caught me by surprise. (This might be because the renditions I recall seeing consisted of the Gwyneth Paltrow film, a South Park episode satirising of the story, and accumulated general knowledge from goodness knows where).

I love how multi-layered the characters are, and how they are allowed to stray from their original beliefs and behaviours in reaction to their experiences, like real people. I strongly disliked Pip, and thought him incredibly insolent, and was not convinced he  truely learned his lesson.

The scenery created in my mind was always terribly foggy (literal fog) and tinged with mossy green. While certain scenes were described this way, I think it was also quite symbolic of the mystery, and gradual emergence of truths throughout the novel. Overall, a good read, and I look forward to my next Dickens adventure.

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On The Road

On The Road, by Jack Kerouac, is infamous for causing a stir in the 1950s. It follows the philandering of a young man into the underground of America. I loved Catcher In The Rye and the in-depth insights it gave into the main character’s psyche, while he broke away from the expectations of his conservative society. On The Road doesn’t linger long enough to even express whether the narrator was happy or sad. It’s made up of one page events filled with a cacophony of interchangeable characters, each less developed and less memorable than the next. You don’t know their motivation for anything, only that they “go with it” and like to “dig” things. Now I am from a notoriously apathetic generation, but even I can’t relate to these layabouts; even the dullest adolescents have reasons for sitting around in car parks and lacking drive. There is no sense of the atmosphere of the American highway, or the cultural idiosyncrasies of the Hispanic neighborhoods. There’s little insight into the characters’ interaction with, or opinion of, the society in which they exist, beyond a superficial level. Kerouac’s language can only be described as jazz, in that it is unstructured, goes in all directions, runs on and on without form or adequate punctuation, jumps backwards and forwards with no reference point, uses unnecessarily obscure and inconsistent language – at times you need the Oxford dictionary, at others urbandictionary.com – and if you think this has been a long sentence and bulky paragraph, just wait until you read the book, because this collection of the meaningless gibberish drugged beatniks say goes on for 300 pages. I think there is a particular breed of Hipster that would enjoy this book, however, I did not.

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Beyond the Black Stump

 Beyond The Black Stump is by my sister’s favourite author, Nevil Shute. If you like Steinbeck, you’ll probably like Shute. He is best known for On The Beach and A Town Like Alice, which were both made into film, the former notably featuring with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardener.

This author, who started life out as an engineer, writes books about foreigners and their interactions with Australians and Australia around the 1950s. As a English immigrant to Australia at the time, he has a talent for capturing the sensibilities and curiosities of Australia of the time, and expresses a true fondness for his new country, often in comparison to an England he saw as deteriorating.

The Australia Shute writes about no longer exists in many parts, due to immigration, adoption of multiculturalism and globalisation, however the characters in Beyond the Black Stump are quite close to my ancestry. They are an assortment of people whose family arrived in Australia generations ago, who worked to overcome the hardships of the land, and pioneer a young nation. In better words, the second and third verses of “I Am Australian” (lyrics at the bottom of this post).

The arrival of American oil prospectors stirs up the small community, and is quite an imposition on the slow and simple way of life they are accustomed. The storyline centres around the American, but examines internal changes of those around him. There is a slight predictability to the end, is but it is enjoyable to see the characters get there. The last line is particularly beautiful.

extract from I Am Australian

Lyrics by Bruce Woodley and Dobe Newton

I came upon the prison ship, bowed down by iron chains.
I cleared the land, endured the lash and waited for the rains.
I’m a settler, I’m a farmer’s wife on a dry and barren run
A convict then a free man, I became Australian.

I’m the daughter of a digger who sought the mother lode
The girl became a woman on the long and dusty road
I’m a child of the depression, I saw the good times come
I’m a bushy, I’m a battler, I am Australian

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