Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Gread reads for January 2011


by Julia Kuttner

Full Dark, No Stars, by Stephen King

Full darkStephen King needs no introduction.  Some of his more fulsome admirers have likened him to a modern-day Dickens, which is certainly true regarding his output;  fans can expect a new novel every year, faithfully arriving regardless of adverse personal circumstance (he had a near-fatal accident one year) and world calamity.  It would no longer be politic to say that he is reliable as the weather, given the current apocalyptic floods occurring world-wide, but you can certainly set your clock by his ability to churn out yet another best-seller.  Having said that, Mr. King’s novels, while not all of a high standard, are ALWAYS wonderfully readable, having just that right blend of the ordinary and macabre which never fails to make the hair rise on the back of the neck most pleasurably.  He says that he has always been interested in exploring the reaction of ordinary people to extraordinary events, and this is never more ably demonstrated than in his latest collection of four novellas, all dealing with themes of retribution:  the first is called  ‘1922’,  the year that a husband hates his wife so much that he plans what he hopes is her perfect murder, only to snare his son into being his accomplice with tragic results;  ‘Big Driver’ is  a cautionary tale of what happens to a lady novelist who accepts an offer of help to change her flat tire on a road to nowhere;  ‘Fair Extension’ recounts the bargain a desperate and dying man makes with a stranger when he reveals to himself as well as the stranger that he hates and despises his so-called best friend;  and ‘Good Marriage’, demonstrates that the true love between two decent people changes irrevocably when large sums of money are involved – and decency flies out the window, too.  Yes, Mr. King has done it again, producing the cleverly plotted page-turner that I always expect of him:  entertaining, readable, reliable:  yep, that’s him!

 Agaat, by Marlene Van Niekerk

 AgaatHere is a story of South Africa, that wild, cruel, beautiful land, written by an Afrikaner woman about Afrikaners in the 50’s and 60’s and beyond.  It is the story of a childless white woman, Milla De Wet, who is trapped in an unhappy marriage with her husband Jak, righteous upholder of Boer ideals and utterly convinced of white supremacy over his brown farm labourers:  ‘Give a Hotnot your thumb and he’ll take your arm!’  Milla is lonely, unfulfilled and severely disillusioned with her young handsome husband;  he’s not happy with her either, or his life on her inherited family farm.  He beats and belittles her constantly.  She sees as her salvation the adoption of a little coloured girl from her mother’s farm;  Agaat has been ill-treated and abused nearly to death:  Milla sees her rescue of the child as an excellent act of charity, a way of proving (especially to her forbidding old Boer mother and Jak) that she can be the perfect Christian, dispensing love and kindness to the needy and less fortunate, and a wonderful surrogate mother to the child who is not hers – and the wrong colour.  The inevitable happens.  Loving bonds are formed, then broken – her husband is jealous of the new-found affection Milla has for her little charge and decrees that Agaat must be trained and treated as a servant - then a miracle occurs:  after many years Milla is finally pregnant, but after the birth of the longed-for son, Agaat is jettisoned, exiled to an outside room ;  her favoured status is over.
Ms. Van Niekerk has created a master work;  her characters are unforgettable:  Milla, finding out that the Road to Hell is truly Paved with her Good Intentions;  Jak, weak, willful, cruel and frightened;  Agaat, relentlessly intelligent, bitter, and most efficiently vengeful;  and Jakkie, the beloved son whom all three desperately adore,  the New Afrikaner outraged by the injustices perpetrated by a Dutch God and his Dutch Disciples against the People of the Land.  This is such a powerful work that it deserves to be seen as one of the classics of early 21st century literature – Ms Van Niekerk makes her prose sing, evoking images painful, cruel, stark and despairing, then bathing the reader in balm and beauty:  I salute her.  FIVE STARS.

 My Architect, a film by Nathaniel Kahn   DVD

My architect Louis Kahn, internationally renowned American Architect, died of a heart attack in Penn Station, New York in 1976, aged 74.  He had just returned from India, and because he had insufficient identification on him his body was unclaimed for three days.  He had also been declared bankrupt, owing half a million dollars at the time of his death and he had two mistresses, each with a child to him – and a wife of many years at home.
This academy award nominated documentary was made by his son Nathaniel, only eleven years old at the time of Kahn’s death, and convinced at that time that his father would eventually come to live with he and his mother:  indeed, it was a conviction that his mother never lost and twenty-six years later she still states her unshakeable belief in the happily-ever-after to her skeptical son.  Regardless, Nathaniel has made an absorbing film in his attempts to unravel the mystery that was his father.  He interviews Lou’s great contemporaries , I. M. Pei, Frank Gehry, Philip Johnson et al, all of whom had the greatest respect for his work and we are taken on a world tour of stunning monuments to Kahn’s genius, but most of all, this beautiful little film is a loving and respectful tribute to his ‘once-a-week’ Dad, and an honest attempt to understand and appreciate the enigma that was his father.  Highly recommended.

 My Life as a Dog, a film by Lasse Hallström    DVD

 This classic little Swedish movie was made in the 80’s but it has lost none of its impact;  nothing is dated – the world according to adolescents is still unexplored, wondrous – and frightening.  12 year-old  Ingmar and his older brother can no longer live with their beloved mother;  she is very ill.  Older brother goes to their Granny and Ingmar is sent to his uncle in a little town a long train ride away.  He is forced to leave his beloved little dog behind but  is assured it will be taken care of:  that is the first betrayal.  Despite missing his pet terribly, Ingmar makes friends easily, and looks forward to going back to live with his mum and ‘making her laugh again’ when she is better.  The trouble is – well, Mum doesn’t get better and Ingmar and his brother are forced to learn some of life’s very hard lessons whether they want to or not.  Lasse Hallström directs and guides his actors effortlessly through low comedy and high drama and all his actors respond accordingly, especially Ingmar – he is a delight:  I can’t believe that this wonderful child will now be getting on to forty;  he will always be twelve to me, mischievous, poignant and funny.  Be warned (those who don’t like them!) there are subtitles, but they will be secondary after the very first scene.  What a beaut little movie!      

Saturday, 1 January 2011


AN UNFINISHED LIFE  by Mark Spragg

JAn unfinished lifeean Gilkyson has been round the block more times than she cares to admit after the accidental death of her 21 year-old husband Griff in a car which she was driving.  The child of their union, 9 year-old Griff never knew her father but knows with certainty the relationship her mother is in now will end in violence and tears – if they are lucky. 
They flee to a little town in Wyoming, her dead husband’s birthplace;  Jean is desperate enough to throw herself on the mercy of her father-in-law Einar, who blames her utterly for his son’s death.  She can’t break down his hatred for her – but Griff can:  gradually, old and terrible wounds heal, the sun shines again and hope, that most elusive and tremulous emotion in the grief-stricken, lifts its delicate face to bask in its rays.
Mark Spragg writes beautifully of all the trials we must face as family – and all the rewards we can gain, too.  There is a wonderful vein of humour throughout the story, softening the hard truths. 
Highly recommended.

BORN UNDER A MILLION SHADOWS by  Andrea Busfield

Fawad, aged ‘around ten or eleven’ lives with his mother and her sister’s teeming family in Kabul; Fawad’s aunt suffers their presence because Allah decrees that she must be merciful to family members more unfortunate than she – and how true that is: Fawad’s father and brother are dead, fighting the Taliban, and his older sister has been abducted years before and taken who knows where in a midnight raid by the same fanatics. Life is hard, but, he reasons, no harder than for any other Afghan; everyone he knows has suffered similar if not worse hardships, so what’s the point of complaining? Instead, he gets on with his life, begging money from tourists in Chicken Street (Fawad has turned his ability to look pathetic into an art form) so that he and his mother can survive on more than her sister’s reluctant charity, and who knows – if God is good, they may even get enough behind them to find their own place to live; it will be as Allah decides. Journalist Andrea Busfield lived in Afghanistan for many years and in this, her first novel, she pays homage to the country and people she loves, creating unforgettable characters and spinning a magical tale of love and loss, friendship and hope. And Fawad will stay with the reader for a long time – optimistic, devil-may-care in the way of all children, but tough and wise beyond his years: I was sorry when I reached the last page. Please, Ms Busfield, may I have some more?

A  FRACTION OF THE WHOLE by Steve Toltz

It’s impossible to categorise this novel: is it a tragicomedy or a comic tragedy? Either way, the reader is fated to join the wildest ride ever as the Dean family – father Martin, his brother Terry and Martin’s son Jasper – speed inexorably towards Hell in a handbasket. As they hurtle towards the abyss there is a chortle on every page; even the most shocking and heartrending events are disarmed by a delicious wit, and though that hapless family’s misadventures are entirely unbelievable they take on an unexpected credibility in the reader’s mind which makes one say –‘Hey: hang on a minute – this shouldn’t work!’ But it does. Mr. Toltz demonstrates admirably in this, his first novel that despite being the most dysfunctional family in Australia (if not the world), the Deans are ultimately ennobled by their love for each other, even as they indulge themselves in the most extreme forms of familial selfishness and betrayal. This novel is a paradox, a work worthy to be shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize – and also a manic, messy, heartbreaking, chaotic, hilarious tour-de-force that shouldn’t be missed.  May 2010

POOR LITTLE BITCH GIRL by Jackie Collins

Jackie Collins always produces the perfect beach and Airport read; fast-paced, unbelievable and full of the most improbable characters, all of whom we mere mortals will NEVER meet in real life: the babes are hot; the lawyers are cold; the heroes have brooding good looks, heaps of money and rippling abs to match, and the villains are murderous, evil and out to sin as much as they can, (the thugs!) until they are ultimately vanquished by the forces of Truth, Justice, and the American Way. What more could we possibly ask for? It goes without saying that Ms Collins has employed her old, tried and true pulp formula here –(she’s inclined to have her heroines speak ‘crisply’ and her characters to take a long or a short ‘beat’ before replying) - but why shouldn’t she? This formula sells books by the tonne. I’m sure that she would be the first to admit that she doesn’t write Lofty Literature, but this lady knows her subject (Hollywood and its Denizens) intimately; no-one writes more truthfully or shrewdly about LaLaLand than she who has lived there for many years and survived brilliantly to tell its tales. Last but not least, she’s very, VERY funny. May 2010