Reading Notes: December 2010

In the beginning of December, I read Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, which recorded the “true” accounts of infamous Australian outlaw Ned Kelly in a haphazard fashion, the prose not unlike learning to ride a horse. Just as you are feeling comfortable with Carey’s rendition of Kelly’s prose, he bucks, taking one along a wild ride, holding on, but barely so. I recommend this novel to anyone who has had a hankering for adventure as this is the more adult version of one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s tales of adventure and misfortune.

Continuing on the theme of down-under literature, I continued with Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan’s Wanting, which unites the unlikely histories of the Aboriginal “settlement” in Van Diemens Land and Charles Dickens. A study in the strange course of fate, Flanagan recounts the story of the once governor, Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, and his wife, Lady Jane, adopting an Aboriginal child, the strange aftermath of the adopted girl, and the unlikely (but historically accurate) role Dickens plays in trying to restore the “civility” of the deceased Sir Franklin, accused of reverting to cannibalism on his last exploration. Reminding me more than once of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Flanagan lures the reader into two disparate landscapes, tempered by the discussion of the meaning of humanity, and ultimately united in the strange journey of history.

Recommended by one of my Scottish friends (or more precisely, she said, “I want to see what you think about this,”), I picked up David Nicholls’ One Day at the airport after arriving too early and knowing a copy of the New Yorker wouldn’t begin to fill the hours. One Day, based on a Thomas Hardy quote, is the zeitgeisty, literature student novel thrown against the jarring remnants of pop culture iconoclast.

While the cover told me it was an “international bestseller,” I found the story of Dexter and Emma, college acquaintances who go home together after a college graduation party leading to the tumultuous friendship and the basis of the plot, to be lacking in either the zaniness and sheer pop-absurdism of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary or the snarky, cultural coming of age of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. (All three are by British authors.)

I just did not care enough to read several chapters worth of Emma’s mediocre job in a Tex-Mex restaurant in London or Dexter’s alcohol sopped days as a Carson Daily-esque tv figure, it being neither interesting, novel, or heartbreaking.

For a lighter novel, Nicholls also overworked a lot of his elements, including the ending, which became a strange farce of liberal environmentalism mixed with romantic tragedy. I would hate to think any of the inanity of the novel is the cultural emblem of current youth—I don’t think I’ll be able to weather that artistic storm.

However, for the return flight home, I was pleasantly surprised by the contrast of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn. Toibin describes the life of an Irish girl, Eilis, in 1950s Ireland and Brooklyn, juxtaposing old world with new, fate with luck. A story that occasionally sets down upon political topics, but never fully delving in, Toibin underscores the challenges and decisions of youth, in an ever-inconstant world. I was both pleasantly surprised and alarmed by the overwhelming reaction I had to the end of the book, which is always the mark of a strong, and possibly brilliant, writer.

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