Thursday, 25 April 2013

Another free library idea - at a bus stop

A friend posted this pic on Facebook for me the other day, and it reminded me of the free tiny libraries I posted about a few months ago. It makes me wonder just how many freely available bookshelves there might be scattered around the world, where they are, and who is accessing them. At work - St James' Anglican Church in King Street, Sydney - there is a bookcase in the crypt (no dead bodies down there, it's all very cool funky spaces that are used for all sorts of things, including the parish library) for the express use of the neighbourhood's homeless people, who are also catered for with a lunch on Sundays by a team of volunteers from the parish.

So, if you have pics, or know of free 'libraries' like these let me know and I'll post them here - it would be great to see where they are.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

A Secret Kept - Tatiana de Rosnay

I bought A Secret Kept on the basis of having read de Rosnay's Sarah's Key after seeing the movie of the same name. Some time, I'll go back and re-read that one and do a post on it as well. A Secret Kept is a beast of a different colour in some respects - the underlying subject matter is quite different. Having said that, de Rosnay uses a similar structural device - memory, different time zones and personal perspectives of the one story mean that the whole story unravels unpredictably, out of sequence, and isn't complete until the very end.
The narrative begins in a drab waiting room of a provincial hospital where Antoine, shocked and alone, is waiting to hear whether his sister Melanie will survive the car crash they've just had while driving home from his surprise long weekend for her fortieth birthday. Antoine's internal dialogue is the spine of this section, setting the pace for the rest of the novel, which centres largely on Antoine's journey of discovery about the secrets of his childhood - secrets that began when his mother died.

Antoine and Melanie had, up to that point, enjoyed a happy childhood with their loving, if slightly distant father, their mother - whom both children idolised - and their sternly traditionally upper class grandparents and aunt, with whom they shared the annual family holiday to the island where the siblings had spent their long weekend. Antoine took Melanie there to begin a process of uncovering the mysteries surrounding their mother's death, which have begun, increasingly and in the wake of his divorce, to haunt him. He wants Melanie to join him on his quest, to help him find the truth of his mother's death and why in the aftermath she became a complete non-topic in their lives and their father withdrew so totally from them.

Melanie is ambivalent, and it is partly this, and a secret that she alludes to in the moment before, that cause her to loose both focus and control of the car.

What could become an overly intense internal monologue, given the focus is so weighted by Antoine's experience is rescued by interspersed letters - in italics and with no introduction or other context-providing devices - from Antoine's mother to an unknown party. It gradually becomes clear they were written to a lover during that last summer holiday before she died, but the identity of the lover isn't disclosed. Initially, they are a disembodied extra voice, but as Antoine progresses with his search, running the gauntlet of his antagonistic stepmother to brave his ailing father, bearding his grandmother, and enlisting the unwilling help of the reluctant Melanie, the voice from the past in the letters comes to be stronger and more embodied.

Antoine, crippled by his love for his now remarried wife has all but shut down on his life at the point where the story begins. He has to deal with his increasingly alienated children who arrive for their regular weekends but appear to be growing away from him fast. At the hospital with Melanie, he meets the enigmatic, motorcycle riding mortician, Angele, who seduces him and opens his eyes to the possibility of a life post-divorce.He digs and delves for clues about his mother, using the project as a means to re-activate his life.

While there is an end point to the search and he does uncover the story, it is the search and the often surprising other, unrelated discoveries along the way that ultimately become the more important element of this novel. On reading this, my second de Rosnay novel, I'd have to say that stylistically, she is particularly adept at creating a gripping narrative from the smallest and most mundane elements of ordinary lives. The most obviously dramatic moment in the book is the crash at the beginning, but that is really just a catalyst that shakes Antoine out of the living rigor mortis he's allowed himself to reach in his funk about picking himself up after his divorce, his apathy about declining relationships within the family and a shrinking circle of friends. It was an absorbing read, and one I'd recommend for one of those quiet afternoons when you want something that will hold you without requiring the more rigorous energy of an old classic.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

The Stella Prize - inaugural award for women's literature

Everywhere I look - in the papers, online, etc - there are shortlists for literary's that time of year. One that has caught my eye is the inaugural Stella Prize, named after Stella Miles Franklin. It is not, as the original Miles Franklin Award is, an open award; it is intended for women writers only. The latest article from this weekend's Sydney Morning Herald, contains some interesting statistics about the representation of women writers in literary awards, including the Miles Franklin, and some discussion about the possible reasons why women continue to be under-represented in award shortlists, let alone on the winner's podium.

Reading the article reminded me of a conversation I was part of many years ago in my mother's living room. Present were my mother and a number of her friends, including an old family friend who was very well read, and male. The discussion centred around the ABC radio programme Life Matters, compered by Geraldine Doogue, which covers (I think it's still running) a myriad of topics. There had been a programme that week about literature and Doogue had interviewed someone - can't remember who it was now - and they discussed the difference between the work of male and female writers. Again, memory is failing me, but either Doogue or the interviewee made the comment that, by and large, they only read women writers. Old Family Friend was quite agitated by the very idea... A vigorous discussion ensued as to the various merits of men and women's fiction, of - to his way of thinking - the limited experience to be had by reading the work of only one gender, and that someone should be on the radio admitting to being so limited! It all got a bit heated at one point - and I must confess to not helping with that... At the time, I was up to my eyes in a visual arts degree course, and was hitting the wall in history subjects that appeared contain few, if any, women artists - at a time where the backlash of feminist history publishing was at its height - so I weighed in from a feminist viewpoint, which clashed badly with a number of strongly held generation viewpoints!

So, here are two quick snaps of two of my bookcases:

The top one is part of my adult fiction collection and the bottom is part of the children's literature. Taken randomly - shelf choice was governed purely by how clear the shelves were, as there are a number of extraneous objects that shouldn't be on the shelves elsewhere that I haven't yet cleared away!

If you click on the images you can make them bigger, and hopefully read the spines. Both collections are skewed more to women writers. This isn't intentional, and I'd not thought about my own collection of books in gendered terms until all the things that came together in my head this morning prompted me to write this post.

With the children's literature, it may just be that more women write for children - I don't know. Anecdotal evidence suggests that girls tend to read more than boys, so perhaps that market has always been larger and more open to women writers. Conversely, perhaps that very fact has also tended to pigeon-hole women writers in the eyes of a largely (for a long time) male-dominated publishing industry. Rogue books/series such as J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books create isolated phenomena that bring reading to the fore in a way it isn't generally as a popular recreational pastime, crossing both gender and age. The recent rise in vampire and fantasy literature that has made its way down into YA shelves has possibly also caught the imagination of a more balanced gender spread of readers. I don't know - I'm supposing here... Admittedly, what can be seen on my children's lit shelves is also skewed heavily in the vintage and classic eras, when there were definitely more women writing for children, and across much wider subject matter too - although, rather lacking in vampires! The 'boys' literature of the vintage and classic writers tended to be more heavily adventure based.

The top photo is a more balanced selection of both contemporary and vintage fiction - but again, I realise, there are far more women writers up there than men. I don't know what that says about me... There is a quote from the article I've referenced, by the only male judge for the Stella Prize, Rafael Epstein, who says, in summing up whether there is a huge difference in the way that men and women write (if you click on the link at the end of the quote, you can read the whole article):
Epstein, an avid reader of male authors, is wary of making generalisations, but after ploughing through scores of books by female writers, he has come to the conclusion that women do indeed write differently. ''They have more of an organic writing style, an ability to weave every aspect of life seamlessly into the character considerations rather than having a more singular focus.''
This is most noticeable when it comes to writing about sex. ''It is far more real, far more integral to the character and necessary to the plot.''
I wonder if it is that organic, seamless and 'real' quality of women's writing that appeals to me subconsciously. It feels natural...after all, I AM female! It's not that I don't read men's writing - I do - on the stack to the right of my computer that are waiting to be written about, it's a fifty-fifty split of men and women's books. Although, the three titles I have listed in my diary as 'must go buy SOON' are all women's titles. The writer who, more than any other, inspires my writing is Drusilla Modjeska, another woman... I don't know. Ultimately, what I read is about personal taste, and if that means I'm reading more women writers, I don't see it as a hugely political statement.

I have no critical opinion one way or the other because to make one purely on the basis of gender flies in the face of what I believe to be true and fair - there are great writers of both genders, as there are some crappy writers of both genders. Ditto for practitioners in all the arts, and indeed, all areas of human endeavour. Is representation equal for both genders though...? History demonstrates that it hasn't been, and despite all the revolutions and legislation, the reality is that we still haven't reached a point where both genders are represented equally across the board in any field.

So over to you, my fellow readers...what's on YOUR bookshelves, and who are you reading?