stefan hertmans: war and turpentine

shutterstock_487184152
Image © 2018 Kvocek via Shutterstock

“It was all so long ago, a century ago,” writes Stefan Hertmans in the closing pages of War and Turpentine, “I am walking here with his DNA in my body, lonelier than alone and too late for it all.”

This should not be misconstrued as an admission of failure. His book is successful at a number of levels: a touching tribute to a grandfather, a subtle sketch of a bygone era, a modern story laden with irony and self-reflection.

Continue reading

Advertisements

elena ferrante: my brilliant friend (2011)

shutterstock_409503085

Naples streetscape – copyright ilolab 2016

You have to love a novel that starts with the disappearance of one of its protagonists. When Elena discovers that Lila, her childhood friend, has not only disappeared, but also removed all physical traces of her existence, she gets angry. She resolves to write a novel in which she will record all she has found out about Lila over the past sixty years. Story-telling as a corrective, an act of vengeance.

Having thus framed the novel in the prologue, Ferrante takes the reader back to 1950s Naples, a gritty and at times violent urban environment, where being male is a distinct advantage, and being streetwise a necessity. Enter the unlikely protagonists: two six-year-old girls.

Continue reading

emma donoghue’s room: terrific or terrifying?

2016-04-29 15.25.03This is a novel I dreaded reading. The story of a young woman imprisoned in a single room, told from the perspective of Jack, her five-year-old son, who was born into captivity and has never seen the outside world.

The person who recommended it to our book group had introduced the novel in terms of its philosophical implications, but I could only think of the depravity underpinning the plot. So, was I able to overcome my bias and finish the book? Continue reading

liane moriarty: the husband’s secret

2149157649_0534cb8ff7_z

Photo: Wolf Soul (2007) by Romel, under Creative Commons licence.

In the opening scene of The Husband’s Secret, Liane Moriarty introduces Cecilia Fitzpatrick as “a school mum and part–time Tupperware consultant.” Happily married, mother of three, memories of her younger self stored in the attic in neatly labeled plastic containers, checking off tasks as she moves through the day. As readers we know that so much control and organisation constitutes hubris; it is rattling the cages of the gods of narration. Continue reading

awkward moments with authors: meeting harry mulisch

I had just started working in the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet in 1988 when a former colleague rang to let me know that Harry Mulisch would be visiting the University of Melbourne on 19 September. Harry Mulisch (1927–2010) was one of the towering figures in postwar Dutch literature and my colleague, knowing how highly I thought of Mulisch’s oeuvre, was kind enough to invite me to join the party for lunch at University House. I was blown away by the invitation and immediately went to see my supervisor to beg for a day’s leave. So far so good… Continue reading

happiness is a skill, not an emotion

Buddha’s core teaching, the Dhammapada, opens as follows:

What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind.

The central thesis of Matthieu Ricard’s Happiness (2006) is that happiness is not an emotion, but a skill that can be learned and developed. It is, he says, ‘a way of interpreting the world’.

Matthieu Ricard has a PhD in biology from the Pasteur Institute and spent the last thirty-odd years as a Buddhist monk, and the last decade as the French interpreter to the Dalai Lama. He is one of a group of scientists who have been collaborating with the Dalai Lama to explore the commonalities between the teachings of Buddhism and the findings of modern science as to how emotions emerge in the mind and can be managed. Continue reading