Thursday, November 21

Tim Winton: License to Shock

You want to cover your eyes but you've already seen.  Before you even realise that something is amiss, it's too late to do anything. 

We are reading Tim Winton's modern classic Cloudstreet.  There's this thing that he does in his writing that I find shocking.  I have to talk about it because it's the first time I've experienced something like this in writing.  

The power to shock

Tim Winton keeps shocking me.  We are unsuspecting passers-by, innocently enjoying the scenery.  The same second that we first feel the prickle of something going wrong, it is too late to prevent the tragedy.  

We are now the witness of a horrific accident.  We am scarred.  We would have closed our eyes or run away if only we had known.  But now the trauma of the characters is in part our own.  I am Quick Lamb.  

To resume life

These moments always occur in the middle of a chapter.  This is such a powerful technique.  We become the characters who cannot stop, cannot hide from what they have experienced.  We are forced to continue living the chapter.  There's no time to grieve, only room for moving forwards.  

**SPOILER ALERT**  Quick Lamb witnesses the death of Wogga McBride and because he doesn't tell anyone, he has no choice but to act as though nothing out of the ordinary happened.  This terrible trauma and tension belongs to the reader as well, unable to do or change what we've read, we just keep reading.

In this way, the book mirrors life.  To read Cloudstreet is to experience  life in miniature.  It is not a passive viewing experience, but a forced participation in life.  I will be haunted by every word.

Friday, November 15

1 Cloud Street

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton is hailed as a modern classic and one of the most important Australian books of all times.  My Mum and I are reading it together, chapter by chapter, as a miniature-bookclub.  We tripped down to the library, giddy with anticipation, to collect the copies we had reserved online.  

We didn't read the blurb, didn't know what it was about.  We decided to come to the book with completely clean slates, no expectations.

The pages smell like tealeaves and the edges are just slightly mellowed.  The softness of the paper hints at the passing of many hands.

Cloudstreet.  The title is tipped with enchantment, like a breath of dewy air or the first kiss of waves on hot toes.  And the very first paragraph has etched this book into my soul as a masterpiece of story and language:

'Will you look at us by the river!  The whole restless mob of us on spread blankets in the dreamy briny sunshine skylarking and chinking about for one day, one clear, clean, sweet day in a good world in the midst of our living.  Yachts run before an unfelt gust with bag necked pelicans riding above them, the city their twitching backdrop, all blocks and points of mirror light down to the water's edge.'

Tim Winton.  1991.  Cloudstreet.  Viking.  p 1.

I swooned and sighed "thank goodness".  Falling forwards into the unknown, Tim Winton's words caught and carried me. 

It is so rich.  I want to lick my fingers after every sentence.  I need to wash sand off my ankles and wipe the sweat itching behind my ears.  Even now as I type this post with the book beside me, I can't stop looking at it to make sure that it exists.  It is a box of memory and experience that I open with a mixture of exhilarated fear and enraptured joy, unsure what will happen to me in the next page, the next chapter.

Expect to hear a lot of Cloudstreet this week.

Thursday, November 14

The Spark-Studded Smoke

The grocer opposite had a little daughter whose shadow drove me mad; but with Valeria's help I did find after all some legal outlets to my fantastic predicament.  As to cooking, we tacitly dismissed the pot-au-feu and had most of our meals at a crowded place in rue Bonaparte where there were wine stains on the table cloth and a good deal of foreign babble.  And next door, an art dealer displayed in his cluttered window a splendid, flamboyant, green, red, golden and inky blue, ancient American estampe - a locomotive with a gigantic smokestack, great baroque lamps and a tremendous cowcatcher, hauling its mauve coaches through the stormy prairie night and mixing a lot of spark-studded black smoke with the furry thunder clouds.  

Vladimir Nabokov.  1955.  Lolita.  Penguin.  p 27

Tomorrow, much to my chagrin, I have to return Lolita to the library.  But the plan is to re-borrow it again next year for a re-trial, giving it all the time and attention it deserves.  

I couldn't return it without sharing this passage.  I guess in the grand scheme of the plot its an insignificant moment, but it's just so beautifully described that I swooned over it anyway.  The last sentence is my favourite, that heady image of spark-studded black smoke under furry thunder clouds. It's so sumptuous.  

Anyhow, tomorrow I will open the discussion on Cloudstreet by Tim Winton, the modern Australian classic.  It is bound to be a treat.  

Wednesday, November 13

Review: White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Critics agree that Zadie Smith's White Teeth is an outstanding début.  Just listen to this review:
'An impressive début, not only for its vitality and verve, but mainly for the sheer audacity of its scope and vision ... an epic tale ... swooping, funny ... it has ambition, wit and is unafraid' 
- Meera Syal, Express
I read this book with my Mum, holding miniature book-club sessions between chapters to discuss it.  I've thought about it so much that I hardly know how to sum it up for you, but I'll do my best.


White Teeth is an epic story that starts small.  It covers so many loaded topics - family, relationships, roots of tradition and religion - all tied masterfully together by the metaphor of teeth.  The narrative spans several decades with the effect of showing the incredible reverberations of each character's thoughts and actions.  


It was only in retrospect - reflecting on the book as a whole with all the puzzle pieces added up - that I was capable of fully appreciating its beauty.  There are slow moments.  There are long chapters.  But everything has purpose.  It's only visible at the end, but everything is deliberate, significant, fateful.  The themes of fate, chance and doom are run both through the narrative and the structure itself, startlingly smart.  

An incredible thing to remind myself though, is that every reader's experience and interpretation of White Teeth will be different.  It's exciting to wonder what it meant to others, because to me, it meant so much.  Moments of clarity and stunning revelations are inherent.  It is a beautiful book for deep thinking and discussion, for gaining insight by delving into one's personal experience of the work.  


'Quirky, sassy and wise' - The New York Times.  I completely agree with this description of Zadie Smith's unique voice.  Often it feels that the narrator has an almost god-like vantage point over all that takes place, from which she reports with slow-cooked warmth and wisdom.  However this tone is punctuated by laugh-out-loud moments of alarming wit.  It's the sort of book that is a joy to pick up, unsuspecting.    

The images are beautifully fresh.  The observations that stab between the events are authentic, so memorable that I know I'll be constantly prompted to reflect on them.  


The characters are all so memorable.  It is confronting yet thrilling to discover that people you loved are played as villains and the ones you didn't care much for at the beginning emerge from the fray as heroes.  Their voices are unique, their inner thoughts so complexly described that they became completely alive.  


White Teeth is memorable for all the right reasons.  It has stimulated so much wonder and reflection in me.  I've spent hours talking with my Mum, enjoying the many threads of its beautifully woven storyline and layers of meaning throughout.  It is sadly sweet, funny in a fresh way, and lingering.  It is impossible to unfurl its tendrils from my heart now that I've finished reading it.  I know the experience of it has already enriched my understanding of the world.  

Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth

Tuesday, November 12

The Roots of White Teeth

Before writing my concluding review of Zadie Smith's debut novel White Teeth, I want to share two passages that resonated powerfully with me.  My experience of this book has been an epic journey.  Moments like these are gorgeous and grounding.  
She wore her sexuality with an older woman's ease, and note (as with most of the girls Archie had run with in the past) like an awkward purse, never knowing how to hold it, where to hand it or when to just put it down.  
Zadie Smith.  2000.  White Teeth.  London: Penguin Books.  p 24.

This passage startled me with its modesty and authenticity.  I've seen this, I know what this looks like and I feel that she puts it into words perfectly!  Watch out, White Teeth if full of wit like this.  

*     *     *

This next passage is longer but equally beautiful.  Zadie Smith manages to articulate so many aspects of human relationships.  This struck me as something both sad and enchanting.   
But Archie did not pluck Clara Bowden from a vacuum.  And it's about time people told the truth about beautiful women.  They do not shimmer down staircases.  They do not descend, as was supposed, from on high, attached to nothing other than wings.  Clara was from somewhere.  She had roots.  More specifically, she was from Lambeth (via Jamaica) and she was connected, through tacit adolescent agreement, to one Ryan Topps.  Because before Clara was beautiful she was ugly.  And before there was Clara and Archie there was Clara and Ryan.  And there is no getting away from Ryan Topps.  Just as a good historian need recognise Hitler's Napoleonic ambitions in the east in order to comprehend his reluctance to invade the British in the west, so Ryan Topps is essential to any understanding of why Clara did what she did.  Ryan is indispensable.  There was Clara and Ryan for eight months before Clara and Archie were drawn together from opposite ends of a staircase.  And Clara might never have run into the arms of Archie Jones if she hadn't been running, quite as fast as she could, away from Ryan Topps.
Zadie Smith.  2000.  White Teeth.  London: Penguin Books.  p 27.  

In so few words, she summarises such complex ideas.  I was surprised to hear her put them in a way that was so true to me.  In particular, the image of people having roots, affecting every aspect of their lives including how they choose to start afresh.  

It often worries me thinking about the lives of other people - how what they've experienced affects my ability to relate to them personally and vice versa.  But I wonder if it relates to the idea of everyone being the sum of all the people they've met and the things they've seen and done.  In which case, do people run to me because of that?  And then I empathise and connect to them the best I can through my own well of experience and understanding.  Wow, a bit deep, but I think White Teeth has prompted me to start articulating some things I've been thinking about recently.  Oh well.  

Anyway, expect my concluding review on White Teeth tomorrow!  After that, I have grand plans to begin reading Tim Winton's Cloudstreet.  

Monday, November 11

Bus Ticket Alibis

I'm only a chapter and a half away from finishing Zadie Smith's debut novel, White Teeth (2000).  This excerpt really captured my imagination and I couldn't resist the urge to chronicle it.  

'When I was a kid,' said Irie softly, ringing the bell for their stop 'I used to think they were little alibis.  Bus tickets.  I mean, look: they've got the time.  The date.  The place.  And if I was up in court, and I had to defend myself, and prove I wasn't where they said I was, doing what they said I did, when they said I did it, I'd pull out one of those.'
       Archie was silent and Irie, assuming the conversation was over, was surprised when several minutes later, after they had struggled through the happy New Year crowd and tourists standing round aimlessly, as they were walking up the steps of the Perret Institute, her father said, 'Now, I never though of that.  I'll remember that.  Because you never know, do you?  I mean, do you?  Well.  There's a thought.  You should pick them up off the street, I suppose.  Put 'em all in a jar.  An alibi for every occasion.'  

Zadie Smith.  2000.  White Teeth.  Penguin Books.  p 517.

I am sure that this is something I will always remember, every time I pay for a paper ticket on public transport.  It actually makes me want to start an alibi jar.  It's just a lovely concept, similar to rainy-day or lucky coin collections.

Definitely expect a review on White Teeth in the next couple of days.  I have a lot to share about it!

Saturday, November 2

Intoxicated by Transpotting: A Review

I finished reading Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting a week ago.  It's grittier and grimmer than anything I've ever read before.   It has been such a weirdly eye-opening experience, so I couldn't resist rambling on about it for a little bit longer.  

If you missed my introductory post to Trainspotting, you can catch up on it by following the link: The Idiot's Guide to Trainspotting.

The trainspotting experience

I think the most obviously unique thing about Trainspotting is the fact that it's written in dialect.  It takes patience to get used to it initially, but suddenly you'll find it just 'clicks'.  The vernacular wrecks havoc in your head until even your inner thoughts have a Scottish accent!

I love the 'grit' of Trainspotting.  Anyone who's watched the 1996 film adaptation knows what a raw and grisly affair it is.  But that I think is part of what makes it irresistible.

If you allow yourself to sink momentarily into the lives of the characters, the world that awaits you is terrifying and intoxicating.  

There was one moment that I literally threw the book away from myself mid-sentence, because what I read was so confronting and repulsive.  But no matter what happened to disgust me, I could never abandon it.  I went back for more, over and over again.

Wit and humour are the constants that weave through the story.  The characters are so true to themselves that I felt I knew what they would say even before they said it.

The story is cram-packed with adventure and misadventure, an exhausting yet exhilarating trip into an alien landscape.  I emerged, buzzing from what I had seen, and ready to take on the world, braver and smarter.

I've added Trainspotting to our list of 100 Books to Read Before You Die, because I believe that the experience is something that you can't afford to miss.