Category Archives: General Fiction

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

I remember first hearing about this story a long time ago watching the Simpsons. I then came across the film, and I remember watching it and thinking, huh. This seems like perhaps it’s a lesbian romance. Turns out I was on the money, so I decided to actually go and read the book. I’m not quite sure where I got my copy of this book from. Somehow it just manifested itself on my bookshelf. There’s no pricetag on it so maybe it was a donation? Either way, it turned out that my bestie and I were reading the same book at the same time, so we thought we’d make it an extravaganza and watch the film together as well.

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“Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” is a novel by Fannie Flagg that spans from the 1920s to the 1980s in Alabama, USA. Jumping back and forth through time, and told through little vignettes and articles, the novel is a sweeping story of a small town and the people in it through the Depression and World War II. In the 1980s is Evelyn, a woman who is losing her identity, her sense of purpose and even potentially her marriage now her children have moved out of home. When she meets the reminiscing Mrs Threadgoode at the same retirement home as her mother-in-law, Evelyn is revitalised by her stories. In particular is the story of incorrigible tomboy Idgie, how she came to meet the beautiful and kind Ruth and the life they built together at a little cafe.

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Flagg is a natural storyteller and this is the perfect book to pick up and read a couple of the short chapters at a time, then come back to again later. It’s a great balance of diverse and interesting characters against charming little stories. Reading this book, you can’t ignore that it was published in 1987. In some ways it absolutely broke ground, especially with respect to disability, women’s rights, homelessness and legitimising LGBTIQ relationships. I loved the character of Stump and how his community and his family rallied around him to help him thrive after his accident. I loved how accepting everyone was of Idgie’s gender identity and of her relationship with Ruth. I loved how much humanity Flagg injects into this novel, especially using the character of Smokey to explore homelessness, alcoholism and a transient lifestyle. In other ways this book has aged a bit, especially regarding the racial commentary. At time it’s hard to separate Mrs Threadgoode’s well-meaning yet archaic comments about African American people, and Flagg’s own views.

I can’t talk about this book without mentioning my favourite part. If you follow this blog, you know how I feel about books with recipes in the back. This book has SO many recipes in the back. Food is such an important part of the story, both in the present and in the past, and really give the book a sense of place. Having the opportunity to cook some of those recipes, including the titular fried green tomatoes which my bestie nailed, really added to the whole experience.

A fun, lighthearted story with some more serious aspects at time, I enjoyed the book a lot and enjoyed cooking the recipes even more.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Cookbooks, General Fiction, Historical Fiction

The Museum of Modern Love

I received an advanced reading copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog Woden and in fact won (and declined) another copy in a contest. This book is the 2017 Stella Prize winner, so already it had very high expectations to be met.

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Taken at the National Gallery of Australia. There is a fantastic exhibition on currently featuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists called Defying Empire which, if you are in Canberra, you must go see.

“The Museum of Modern Love” by Heather Rose is a novel based on a real piece of performance art that was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “The Artist is Present” was both a retrospective and performance piece performed by Marina Abramović. As Abramović sits for 75 days, and people line up every day to sit across from the famous artist and look in her eyes, others gather around to watch the performance. Jane Miller, a teacher and new widow who has taken a holiday to escape her grief. Arky Levin, a successful composer whose wife has left him and made him promise not to follow. Healayas Breen, a journalist and friend of Levin’s. Brittika van der Sar, a PhD student from the Netherlands. Then there is Abramović herself and the mysterious narrator who appears to be watching over her. The performance continues, every day, and the audience becomes a community linked together by this once in a lifetime experience.

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This book just didn’t do it for me. Maybe it was reading another book about the highly glamourised art world after reading not one but two recently, including the 2015 Stella Prize winner, but I think that wasn’t quite it. A very large proportion of this book is dedicated to chronicling the life of Marina Abramović, and at times this book felt almost more like a biography than a novel. I understand the author actually herself attended “The Artist is Present”, and I think I would have enjoyed her own experiences more. To me, for the most part, it seemed like it was piggy-backing on someone else’s creation. In this vein, I was frustrated by the almost incessant pop-culture references throughout this book. In a similar way to “The Elegance of the Hedgehog“, (which this book even references at some stage as an example of a great book, so there you go), there was a consistent undertone of cultural snobbery that irked me.

I also found some of the commentary in this book a bit grating. For a lot of the book, whenever somebody sat down in front of Abramović, Rose described a man with an angelic face, or a woman with strong jaw, unless they were anything other than white, in which case it was a “black woman” or an “Asian man” with little to no other description. I just feel like in 2017, if you’re going to point out a person’s ethnicity, you need to point out EVERYONE’s ethnicity. White is not default. Other comments that left me frowning included things like:

  • “What sort of Japanese child read Tennyson? Levin wondered”;
  • “There are visitors from Brooklyn, Bombay, Berlin and Baghdad. Well, perhaps not Baghdad, because that is a war zone of broken buildings, dust, heat and not a bird to be seen”;
  • “It will all be about money and the Chinese. Who wants that?”; and
  • “But Harlem had been making itself over for millions of years. Before white and black, there were Indians, and before Indians there had been mastadons and bison”.

Then there was the character of Levin. I resented every second of air time Levin was given, and I resented how we were supposed to empathise with basically the world’s worst husband. Jane, Healayas, Brittika and even Levin’s daughter were all far more interesting characters and I think should have been emphasised more in this story. Instead we’re forced to watch as Levin sacrifices his family for his own career and then give him a gold star when staring into a woman’s eyes gives him the courage to do the bare minimum required for an active participant in a marriage.

Ultimately, I think there are two kinds of readers: the readers who will enjoy books like “The Museum of Modern Love” and “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”, and those of us who won’t. Maybe this will be the book for you, but it wasn’t for me.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction

The Bluest Eye

Content Warning: this review contains discussion of fictional child sexual abuse. 

As I continue to try to real more diversely, I decided that it was finally time I gave Toni Morrison a go. Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature (among many, many others), I picked one of the two books I have of hers waiting on my shelf and gave it a read.

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“The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison is a short novel set in a community in Ohio, USA in the early 1940s. African American sisters Claudia and Freida, 9 and 10 years old respectively, have begun to become aware of the social implications of skin colour, and conduct small rebellions against white-skinned dolls and lighter-skinned schoolmates. When another girl from the community named Pecola fosters with their family, the sisters are confronted with a new level of poverty and disadvantage. It is revealed right in the beginning of the story that Pecola has been impregnated by her own father. With a number of main characters, “The Bluest Eye” unpacks the circumstances that led to Pecola’s ultimate betrayal and abuse.

It’s no surprise that Morrison has won so many awards, she is an extremely talented writer with a particular gift for characterisation. First person narrator Claudia is an extremely likeable character and a great lens through which to begin the story. Morrison’s exploration into the psyche of Pecola’s parents is also well-done, and she manages to elicit a very uncomfortable empathy for Pecola’s father Cholly. Pecola herself maybe didn’t quite get a fair shake of the stick, and we only get a short and confusing glimpse into her perspective. The main difficulty I had with this book is that despite the excellent writing, some unique stylisation and the way it deals with important themes was the plot. The book is a bit more like a long, fictional memoir or essay without much of a narrative arc. I think this is compounded by the fact that the event the book is building up to is the graphic rape of a child by her father. Additionally, Morrison focuses a lot on bodily functions giving this book a very visceral feel. Maybe that’s the point: this book is more social commentary than it is parable. It is easy to imagine this story as a real series of events.

A well-written but troubling book, I’m very interested to read Morrison’s other novel “Beloved” to see how it compares.

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Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, I confess I hadn’t heard of this book until the author came to visit Canberra and speak at the National Library of Australia. Although softly-spoken, Madeleine Thien is clearly a passionate and deeply knowledgeable person. She very kindly signed a copy of her book for me and I was very much looking forward to reading it.

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“Do Not Say We Have Nothing” by Madeleine Thien is a family saga set in Mao’s China. Crossing a generation and a continent, the story is about a young Chinese-Canadian girl Marie and a mysterious girl called Ai-Ming who comes to live with Marie and her mother after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. As Marie learns more about Ai-Ming’s family, she grows to understand how they are connected and the lasting impact of the Chinese communist regime on the generations that survived.

This is one of those books where I’m really reluctant to say too much because I really don’t want to detract from the whole experience. Although it begins slowly, this book gradually unfurls into an extraordinarily beautiful novel. In fact, if you find you’re struggling with it in the beginning, I would strongly recommend that you put on the Goldberg Variations referenced so frequently to better ground yourself in the story. I also found the music better connected me to the characters, especially the beloved trio Zhuli, Sparrow and Kai.

I’ve read a number of books set around different aspects of Mao’s rule and the Cultural Revolution, and some excellent ones are Wolf Totem and The Four Books. This is the first one I have read that I have come away feeling like I now have a deep, nuanced and holistic understanding of the history and trauma of those tumultuous decades in China. This is also the first time I’ve seen an author pit two generations against one another in quite this way, capturing both how devastating and inspiring the power of the people can be when harnessed.

I think I might just about leave it there, except to say that this is a profound and beautifully written book that warms up to a crescendo ending that will leave you changed forever.

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Big Little Lies

This book is generating a bit of attention lately because of the TV adaptation that was released earlier this year starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Alexander Skarsgård. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to watch the series (but I’ll keep my thoughts on Foxtel to myself), so I thought I’d give the book a go and see what the hype is about.

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“Big Little Lies” by Liane Moriarty is a novel set in a small coastal community in Australia. The story follows single mother Jane who has just moved to Pirriwee Peninsular and has enrolled her little boy Ziggy into kindergarten. Although she forms a friendship with fiery Madeline and beautiful Celeste, two other mums with kids in Ziggy’s class, an incident on orientation day sets her offside with another parent. Meanwhile, Madeline grapples with a teenage daughter who is spending more time with her ex-husband and his new wife, and Celeste struggles to make sense of the brittle veneer of her seemingly perfect life.

I was surprised by this book. I think I have a lot of automatic prejudice against chick-lit or books that seem a bit mumsy. This book in particular has a strong focus on the interpersonal relationships between the kindergarten mums (and dad) at Pirawee Public and I was expecting it to be a bit…well…suburban. What I found was a book of significant depth with a wry and sometimes irreverent tone that tackled some heavy issues such as domestic violence and sexual assault. Moriarty has a real talent when it comes to her characters, and in particular I enjoyed the humerous interjections at the beginning and ending of chapters of various characters giving their amusing (and often contradictory) opinions about events as they unfolded.

I think probably the only think that frustrated me about this book was that the characters, while interesting and engaging, weren’t particularly diverse. Without mentioning any spoilers, there was a particular reveal about a character late in the book that I thought wasn’t very well done and which marred the story somewhat.

Nevertheless, this is a fun read that balances flippant jokes against serious insights. I was pleasantly surprised and I think it will do a lot to break down the stigma of domestic violence.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction

The Natural Way of Things

This book was already on my radar before it won the Stella Prize. It really got on my radar when I saw the author speak at the National Library in March. I was so stoked to hear what she had to say and get my book signed.

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“The Natural Way of Things” by Charlotte Wood is a book that I’m a bit reluctant to give too much background to. Two women wake up to find themselves drugged and in an unknown place. As the drugs wear off, they begin to understand the severity of their situation. Humiliated, degraded and isolated by an unlikely pair of guards, they realise that they are one of a group of ten women. As time goes on, what it is that links the women together begins to come clear and the power the guards wield over them begins to grow more tenuous.

First things first, this is the best book I’ve read so far this year. It is utterly compelling, unbelievably disturbing and uncomfortable in how close it hits to home. Wood is an extremely tactile writer and captures the full range of human experiences both physical and emotional. Although the location is fictional, the detail is so vivid and so…Australian that imagining it is effortless. Again, I don’t really want to give too much away about this book because I really believe it is an experience that you should simply let wash over you. Nevertheless, I do want to say some things about the characters. It was pretty appalling to me how familiar the characters of Teddy and Boncer were when I was reading about them. How people who consider themselves to be so unique end up being the worst kind of followers.

Reading this book, it’s impossible not to imagine yourself in the shoes of these women and wonder how you yourself would react in such a situation. I think the only criticism I could possibly have about this book is that Wood really demands a lot from her readers. She is deliberately vague about a lot of the details of the story, the “before” and “after” of the narrative. Although I think it’s largely a good thing (I think a lot of modern books suffer from bad cases of “tell” instead of “show), there are points where the lack of information can border on the frustrating.

Anyway, this is a phenomenal, visceral book that is confronting as it is engrossing. I read it a few weeks ago but I still find myself flashing back to it and thinking about it. I would highly recommend this book, and it winning the Stella Prize was no accident.

 

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A Thousand Splendid Suns

I’ve been saving this book. I absolutely adored the author’s first novel, the incredible book “The Kite Runner”, and I was really looking forward to reading his equally as acclaimed second novel.

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“A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini is a novel that spans several decades and the lives of two women in Afghanistan. The illegitimate daughter of a wealthy man with three wives and many other children, Mariam grows up in a secluded hut with her mother. Although she relishes her father’s weekly visits, she longs for more than her mother’s pessimism and when she is 15, she risks everything and ventures alone into town to confront him. Years later, Laila, another 15 year old, is living in another city but it might as well be another world. Raised in a loving family, although somewhat in the shadow of her absent older brothers, Laila is taught that she can be whoever she wants. However after disaster strikes again and again, Laila finds herself in a desperate situation – one very similar to that of Mariam.

I wanted to like this book. I wanted to like it so much. I was absolutely blown away when I read “The Kite Runner”, by its creativity as well as its expression, but this book just didn’t do it for me. Part of it was the writing. For some reason, in this book I really felt that Hosseini did a lot of telling, but didn’t do much showing. A lot of the plot felt as heavy-handed as Mariam’s husband. You could see the blows coming a mile away. Story-wise, this book actually reminded me a lot of “The Colour Purple” by Alice Walker. The abusive husband, the lies, the family sent away, the unlikely but enduring female friendship. I felt like Walker’s novel was written much more from the heart. You really feel for Celie in a way that I just couldn’t feel for either Mariam or Leila. Mariam the martyr and Leila the angel. One thing that really bothered me (and which bothers me about a lot of fiction) was Hosseini’s treatment of virginity. He just seemed overly fixated on the seemingly inevitable pain and blood involved in a woman’s first time having intercourse – regardless of the context. Hosseini just didn’t really seem to do a convincing job getting inside the heads of his two female main characters.

There were two things that I did like about this book. The first was that it gave me a bit more understanding about the relentlessness of the conflict in Afghanistan. I did admire Hosseini’s goal of trying to share insights with the reader into the impact of war on ordinary life. The second thing was that where Hosseini’s female characters were a bit two-dimensional, the main antagonist, Mariam’s husband Rasheed, was a brilliant example of the mercurial, complex and often inescapable nature of domestic violence.

I was expecting a brilliant book and I got an OK book. Readable without being groundbreaking, descriptive without being immersive, this book simply doesn’t hold a candle to “The Kite Runner”.

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