BOOK BOOK by Fiona Farrell
Read a brief biography of the author and you will find a most versatile writer who has written novels, short stories, plays and poetry. She has received a number of literary awards and held a number of residences. Fiona Farrell is one of NZ's most prolific and successful writers, and it all started in Oamaru, home of the more famous Janet Frame. I don't know from reading this book how much is fact and how much is fiction. But it is clear that much of this book is autobiographical. And at the centre of it all is her love of books and reading, and how they are closely associated with events in her life as they unfold.
The story is told in the third person being Kate, a child growing up in Oamaru with her family, her school days, teen years, going to university in Dunedin, falling in love, marrying, travelling to and living in Oxford, then Canada, having babies and rearing children, returning to New Zealand and onto middle age. Which is where the story opens. Kate is sitting reading books from her father's bookshelves, a book about ancient wars in Persia, while a modern day war is also happening in the same part of the world. There are parallels of course between the ancient war and the modern war.
The book then reverts to Kate's childhood and all sorts of books, fact and fiction, from all eras form the backbone to Kate's life. Kate/the author has a very deep love and almost spiritual bond with the books that have shaped her life, and this shines through. What also comes through very strongly is the post-war 1950s childhood and growing up in small town New Zealand, at a time when New Zealand is finding its own identity in the big world, and dealing with the aftermath of WWII. A number of other themes emerge as Kate grows up - university education for women, rise of feminism, mothers and daughters, career vs babies. The one that stayed with me the most was Kate's search for her own identity, particularly when she is in Oxford with her husband, as a 'colonial' in the 'home' country.
I found this whole book very moving. Reading about many of the books in the novel was like meeting old friends, and I can more than relate to Kate's love of and need for reading to keep her grounded and able to deal with the world around her.
A WEEK IN DECEMBER by Sebastian Faulkes
Two weeks before Christmas in 2007 in London the wife of a newly-elected MP is organising a large dinner party for those who are wealthy, or influential, or up-and-coming, or just simply different enough to be important to her husband's career. The husband never actually features in the novel, and the wife exists solely as the mechanism to bring these people together. In fact the invitation list has a very disparate bunch of people, the novel centering on several of them in this particular week. It seems as if the list has been devised to show the MP's wide and varied interests because it is difficult to see how this group of people would really have anything in common!
Anyway the dinner party is due to happen at the end of the week. Meantime there is seven days to get through. Amongst others there is a young man, Scottish by birth of Pakistani Muslim parents who have been invited to the dinner. The parents are the immigrant success story having made their fortune with lime pickles. The son, however seems to be spending far too much time exploring his Islam roots. Then there is Gabriel, a young not-so-successful lawyer, and his latest client, Jenni, who is a tube train driver with a rather fractured life history. There is also R Tranter who is a very successful if embittered and disillusioned book reviewer; John Veale, a most unlikeable character who has made millions and millions from hedge funding, and is in the middle of the deal of his life. Then there is the recent import to the local premier league soccer club, all the way from the hard life in Poland.
So what do all these people have in common? Very little if anything, except they are simply all living their lives in London this particular week. So what ia the novel about then? What ties all these people together? It is everything that makes up the First World, materialistic, consumer-oriented society we live in. From social networking, to religious fanaticism, to obsession with celebrity, mental illness, social isolation, family dysfunction, the list goes on. It is, therefore, a novel of social commentary, and Faulkes does not have very nice things to say about the type of society we have become. This message comes through loud and clear, but not so cleverly that Faulkes is still able to give us a great story, with complicated characters and lots of interlinking threads. I must say though that I was getting a bit glassy-eyed reading the intricacies and details of hedge funding and making money out of nothing.
THE ELEPHANT WHISPERER by Lawrence Anthony
I have never really been big on reading animal related books. I remember reading 'My Family and Other Animals' by Gerald Durell many years ago (when I was 12) because we had to do a book review of an 'adult' book. I was mildly amused by it, but never really felt 'engaged' with it. I have always had a cat or two or three in my life, plus we had a dog at one stage, but it has really only been since we have fostering motherless kittens over the past couple of years that I understand the 'art' of communicating with animals. It took a while but it has surprised me how little kittens of 6-8 weeks old have such very individual personalities and how, as a family, we have become 'cat whisperers'. For each pair of kittens the 'socialisation' challenge is get them to purr! Once they purr when we touch them then we know we are on the right track to having potentially gorgeous pets.
Anyway I digress, but all this has made me much more interested in animal type books. So when Sarah at book club raved about a book that her niece had given her about a man who had saved a herd of elephants I was, surprisingly, interested. Having been exposed to elephants in India also piqued my interest.
Elephants are truly incredible animals. I won't say anymore about the wonder of elephants because you need to discover it for yourself by reading this book so you too can be amazed. Lawrence Anthony has spent his whole life in South Africa and its surrounding countries, living mostly in the rural hinterland where he has built up a close and empathetic relationship with the land, the animals and the native Africans. He owns and runs the Thula Thula wildlife reserve in South Africa and finds himself landed with the monumental task of taking on a herd of wild elephants that are under threat of being shot. The enormity of this task is seen in the first 76 pages of the book which focus on getting the elephants safely corralled on the reserve behind 8000 volt fences. From then on Anthony's relationship with the elephants slowly develops and the reader learns a lot about the majesty of these animals. As well as life on a wildlife reserve - the other animals, gaining the trust and confidence of the native Africans, the development of the reserve as a tourist destination. It is all a most enticing mix. And I now want to visit a wildlife reserve in Africa!
As an aside the author was involved in rescuing the animals in the Baghdad Zoo after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. And that is another book in itself. He was gone from Thula Thula for six months, and not once during that time did the elephants come to the Lodge where Anthony and his wife lived. But on the day he returned to the reserve the elephants were waiting at the main entrance gates for him. How did they know? That is the magic...
THE SPELLMAN FILES by Lisa Lutz
On the surface the Spellmans are a very dysfunctional family. 30 year old David, the perfect child, who has 'escaped' by becoming a lawyer; 28 year old Isabel, the lead narrator who is desperately trying to find herself away from her family while she works for the family; and 14 year old Rae, really just a typical teenager trying to find her own place in the big complex world she lives in. Heading the family are Albert and Olivia, the parents, who run a successful private investigation business in San Francisco. Then there is Uncle Ray, ex-cop and health freak who after a cancer scare transforms the way he lives. All these people, in the daily management of their lives and each others as does happen in any family, do the wrong thing for the right reasons. That is, they all love each other desperately, but have mighty peculiar ways of showing it!
Isabel is the narrator. She really is a mess, desperately wanting out of the family firm, but not knowing how to do anything else. Her life is controlled by her over-zealous parents, each with their own peculiarities! The novel jumps around a bit at the beginning as the various characters and their backgrounds are introduced and I found it took a short while to get the drift of what was going on and who was connected with who. But once it got going, this is a rollicking good read, full of witty dialogue, funny happenings, unexpected twists and turns, and full of surprises. Extremely easy and quick to read, and highly entertaining, I look forward to reading the two sequels on my bookshelf. Apparently a movie is being made...I can only hope that it is as witty and sharp as the book!
NED AND KATINA - A TRUE LOVE STORY by Patricia Grace
A few years ago, after the death of Katina, Patricia Grace was approached by Ned and Katina's family to write the story of their love and life together. The result is not only a story of love, but also a story of two ancient cultures coming together, of urbanisation, of war, of families, of the best and worst of humankind, personal courage and above all hope.
Ned came from rural Northland, from a hard-working, self-sufficient Maori family. Katina came from rural Crete, also from a hard-working and self-sufficient family. In 1939, Ned was 20, and he immediately signed up to go to war. He joined the Maori Battalion and before he knew it, he was on his way to Europe with the rest of the Battalion. His war did not last long as he was injured during the assault on Crete. Along with a large number of other New Zealanders and Australians who were left on Crete after the evacuation, he roamed around the island, hiding in caves, trying to stay alive, and one step ahead of the Germans. He (and all the other soldiers) was aided by a number of families on Crete who risked their lives to feed and protect as best as they were able the fugitives. One of the families looking after Ned was Katina's family and very slowly love developed between the two. Ned was captured and spent the latter part of the war as a POW, but he never gave up hope of returning to Crete and marrying Katina. Which of course he did.
The couple sailed back to New Zealand, initially settled in Northland, had three children, moved to the Wellington area where they ran a number of successful businesses, before returning back to the extended family when they were elderly. This can't have been the easiest of marriages especially for Katina who left her roots, travelled to the other side of the world to a country she knew nothing about, alien food, language, culture and so on. This, I think, is the remarkable story, and one that I would like to have learnt more about.
An enormous amount of research has gone into this book and as a result it is extremely interesting, informative, and with plenty of history. There are lots of photos, copies of letters, documents and so on. The author has done a great job of documenting a crucial time in the history of two countries and peoples. And for me, herein lies the problem with this being a 'love story'. I didn't feel like I was reading about 'love'. I felt like I was reading a historical narrative, a report, an account of events. I felt detached from Ned and Katina, I didn't feel involved in their 'love'. There is plenty of courage, bravery, determination, tenacity and hope in this book, but as a reader, I didn't feel involved in it. It goes without saying that Ned and Katina were amazing people, of exceptionally high character and moral courage, and their story is very inspiring to anyone. I just wish I could have felt more involved with them rather than just simply reading about them! Hard to explain...