Eclectic or what

I just have no tolerance once a book becomes religiousy anymore, certainly not if it extends for a chapter or more. And the further back you go with books, the more religious elements form the central themes. I remember getting a bit worried during Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot, and the same with Life of Pi, or stuff from Umberto Eco. So, Forest Dark (2017) got the heave-ho 100 pages in once Nicole Krauss began moving into a theological direction, citing the Kabbalah, The Tree of Knowledge and Jewish themes. No doubt it’s cerebral, clever and insightful, but I felt tricked into reading a thesis on a topic with no interest to me. 2 stars.

I have a vague recollection I tried another Stanislaw Lem book about 25 years ago, and abandoned it, so I was nervous about this one, his “classic” Solaris (1961). For the most part, I didn’t need to be worried – providing I skimmed the occasional dense section on Solaristics. The planetary exploration elements provided a diversion from the mental challenges and traumas affecting those on the ship. Original, intriguing and pretty hard to make a film of, I would have thought. Not so says Twentieth Century Fox. 3 stars.

The Little Misery (1951) by Francois Mauriac, was indeed mostly misery for all involved, including me. An unloved young French boy, despised by his family, finds hope in a recently-arrived village schoolteacher, who then falters in the face of possible scandal. Utterly depressing, but at least short and sharp. 2 stars.

Good lord this book was long, way longer than needed. Winner of the 2023 Booker Prize, Paul Murray‘s The Bee Sting has plenty of detractors as I found out. Apparently many of them due to the ambiguous ending, something a modern era reader deems unacceptible, needing certainty and THE FULL FACTS in their novels, since they don’t get it in real life. To me, it had the perfect finish – and tons to like along the way; a cast of memorable characters, flawed all, and an open, warm writing style, although it felt Franzen-like and at times I thought it was set in America. A blackmailed Dickie (the closeted second favourite son), seeking escape from a mismatched marriage to his dead-brother’s wife Imelda, becomes involved with a local doomsday prepper and builds a hidden, forrested bunker, with terrible consequences. 4.5 stars.

The shoes on the table and the errant salt shaker are what lured me into buying this mercifully short $30 new book (People who Lunch by Sally Olds) – I’m not totally regretting it, but the term “academically eclectic” comes to mind, and not in a great way. It’s high on analysis and low on entertainment, veering into coldness and self disgust in parts. There’s a great brain at work here and topics like Polyamory, Cryptocurrency and Clickbait headlines promise a lot, but presented so clinically, much of the appeal is lost. 3 stars.

Here’s another book: The Heart of the Matter (1948) by Graeme Greene about a highly moral officer of the English Army, living in West Africa, who is heavily impacted by his religion and what it demands of him. His wife, eternally disappointed by his lack of ambition, is miserable. His pity for her and others allows a brief moment of weakness, which cascades and brings his decline. For someone supposedly so tortured, he is pretty flatly written in most of the novel – perhaps it’s the age though. Engrossing to the end, I enjoyed it a lot. 4 stars.

Reading 2 Sci-Fi books in a calendar year – what is happening to me! A $2 Op Shop internal dare to myself, I swung into it (The Best Australian Science Fiction Writing – 2004 A Fifty Year Collection by Rob Gerrand) with enthusiasm, and then slowly regretted the 600 page odyssey over the next few weeks. I guess I’ve never been a huge fan of the genre besides some early English stuff like Hoyle and Wyndham etc. I only skipped one tedious story from Stephen Dedman, and the best was The Diamond Pit by Jack Dann. David Lake’s Re-Deem the Time was good too. The rest? hmmm. 3 stars.

A major gap in my Australian reading has been Christina Stead, and although I was fearful of the theme, I chose a very foxed 1975 paperback of the 1940 “classic” The Man who Loved Children, which at 480 pages was about 250 more than I recalled from childhood library shelves (not that I read it then). I hadn’t realised that most of her working life, Stead had been in Europe or America until returning to Oz in her 60’s and had assumed it was a “Sydney book” as opposed to one set in Washington and Baltimore. Being a book of this length, the insights into societal life, familial debt / poverty and household economy are extensive and genuinely jaw dropping in parts. It’s a world away from the modern reader and their luxuries. The in-your-face element of the book is the many squabbles between an ill-matched husband and wife and their adaptive gaggle of children who know no different. I increasingly found myself aware of the flaws of both parents, and their characterisation alone by Stead was wonderful. Less tolerable was the tedious baby-talk of the husband to his kiddy widdies and so on – there are many paragraphs that are mildly sickening in that regard, though it does paint a picture of a man who will do anything to have his children on his side (and be his friends), even if it means stifling their personalities and wanting 100 percent conformity. Caught in the middle is his only daughter to a former wife, the sullen Louie (14) who operates as a defacto housekeeper, and who is old enough to see motives the younger children can’t. The decline of the family’s fortunes brings shameful poverty and a wretchedness to wife Henny, who seeks regular escapes to the city for trysts and monetary loans to put food on the table. There were moments reading the book that I questioned I’d finish due to repetition but I’m glad I did. I’m not going to spoil anything here; I find myself thinking about it a lot today and want to read summaries of it tonight. That’s a good sign – 4 stars.