Thursday, April 21, 2011

Another miserable Henning Mankell: The Troubled Man

This is Mankell's latest in his Kurt Wallander series. I thought I'd give him another go, despite the fact that I loathed and detested his recent effort The Man From Beijing:

Mankell's peculiar and thoroughly dated old-left, cold war politics, laughable in that book, surface again in the new one, The Troubled Man, only here we're subjected to an absurd form of anti-Americanism in place of an absurd anti-colonialism. 

The pity is that Mankell's hero, the Swedish detective Wallander, is a wonderfully entertaining creation, someone you can live with, book after book. He's a crusty old coot of 60, extremely human and fallible, but whose instincts are as sound as ever. In this new outing, Wallander's last - he succumbs to Alzheimer's at the end, Henning clearly killing him off - he thankfully transcends the author's ridiculous political obsessions and is the only reason anyone would bother to read this silly novel.

Do yourself a favour and read something else - anything!

Monday, April 11, 2011

An Excellent Easter Read: The Book of Rachael

With Easter coming up, and the Anzac Day holiday on the Tuesday making it a longer break than usual, you need to read an absorbing book that perfectly suits the season and its deeper meanings, even if you're not a person of particularly Christian views. Provided the book you chose is absolutely exceptional.

Let me wholeheartedly recommend The Book of Rachael by Leslie Cannold. Cannold is a well-known, highly regarded Australian ethicist, columnist and humanist who has written a few non-fiction books but never fiction. I've always liked her perspective on things - the sorry state of Australia's abortion laws, for example - but, frankly, I was a bit hesitant about picking up a mature public intellectual's first piece of fiction. It reeks of the publisher letting her have her way just to keep her on its list. And there have been so many examples of non-fiction authors just indulging a whim, having a go, and turning out quite second rate stuff.

But this is certainly not the case here. In fact Cannold has written a seriously good novel - in fact, one of the best I've read for a long time.

It's the story of Jesus' youngest sister, Rachael, who is smart, edgy, courageous and fascinating. The larger story of Jesus (Joshua in the novel), his family relationships, his friendship with the political radical Judas Iscariot (Judah) whom Rachael marries, his love of Mary Magdalene (Maryam), his three year mission and all the gathering forces that propel events towards their final, dramatic resolution - the whole tale we think we know has been re-imagined by Cannold in an utterly enthralling and powerful way. 

This is grounded, realistic stuff. The Jews of Jesus' time come thrillingly alive: their politics, their culture, their food, their medicines, their blindingly ignorant superstitions and prejudices, their cruelties to each other and to their women in particular. And Cannold succeeds in bringing the key events of specifically Christian belief, the crucifixion and the resurrection in particular, into sharp, dramatic focus without resorting to easy cynicism or cloying piety.

Frankly, I didn't expect to be able to say this, but this novel is a major achievement.  It is seriously good, and exceptionally well-written.

A must read.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Book: The Tiger's Wife; Movie: Never Let Me Go

If you haven't heard of The Tiger's Wife then I'm certain you will fairly soon. It seems to be the literary sensation du jour. Everybody is raving about it - critics, booksellers, writers and readers the world over. It's a first novel by a young 25 year old American woman Tea Obreht.

These are the accolades on the front and back covers:

'Tea Obreht is the most thrilling literary discovery in years'. Colum McCann

'A novel of surpassing beauty, exquisitely wrought and magical. Tea Obreht is a towering new talent'. T.C. Boyle

'The Tiger's Wife is a marvel of beauty and imagination. Tea Obreht is a tremendously talented writer.'
Ann Patchett

Here's Tea's short bio: 'Tea Obreht was born in 1985 in the former Yugoslavia. She was the youngest author on The New Yorker's Top 20 Writers Under 40 list. Her short fiction has been selected for The Best American Short Stories 2010, and the Guardian Summer fiction issue.'

Now there's a clue right there as to why this novel is simply not worthy of all the starry-eyed attention it is receiving. Obreht is primarily a short story writer, and it shows. The problem with the novel is a structural one. The half dozen or so self-contained stories, while fascinating and 'magical' in themselves, are only tangentially meshed into a coherent, meaningful whole. Like units in an apartment block, each with its own life, they don't link into the one, transcendent narrative. There's no resonance, or powerful meanings. No vision. No metaphysics. 

I don't want stories. I want a novel.

Oh, Obreht can write alright. No doubt about that. But I'm so sick of reading novels by graduates of creative writing or literature programs. They are, well, so 'writerly'. I couldn't finish The Legacy, a first novel by Australian Kirsten Tranter, for the same reason. After 200 pages I bailed. It was just so annoyingly show-offy and self-indulgent. It badly need a good editor to take an axe to it. (Though it has just made the long-list for this year's Miles Franklin award. So who am I?)

Then this afternoon I went to see the new movie Never Let Me Go, just because British actor Carey Mulligan was in it. I'll see anything with Carey Mulligan in it, because she's just so beautiful - in an intelligent, interesting way. (If you don't know her, get out the DVD of An Education, and you'll see what I mean).

Never Let Me Go is a superb film directed by Mark Momanek, with a screenplay by Alex Garland (The Beach), that absolutely blew me away. Here is meaning, vision, resonance, metaphysics in abundance. It's PROFOUND. I hadn't read the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro so didn't really know what to expect, but it's essentially about young people and their innocence, and how society fences them in, tells lies to them, shatters their illusions, squeezes the life out of them. It has a sci-fi premise, which most dumb reviewers can't get beyond, but that is a scaffold that makes so much sense as an organising principle for the movie's larger meanings.

And it's also a very moving love story. 

Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield are the other two leads, and the wonderful and ageless Charlotte Rampling has a minor part as well.

See this film.