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Category Archive for 'Australia'

In 2012 Australian author Thomas Keneally’s prodigious imagination was captured by a special exhibition of “Napoleon’s garments, uniforms, furniture, china, paintings, snuffboxes, military decorations, and memorabilia” on display at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. The exhibition catalogue featured the name of Betsy Balcombe, age thirteen, and information about her family, people Napoleon knew during his exile on the tiny island of St. Helena (1815 – 1821), halfway between South America and Africa. Betsy’s journal of her experiences with Napoleon inspired Thomas Keneally to write his own “journal” modeled on Betsy’s – this novel. Thirteen-year-old Betsy, as she emerges in Keneally’s captivating novel, is a perfect foil for Napoleon Bonaparte, who has brought with him all his war-time memories, a few furnishings, some assistants, two French ladies (the owners of the clothes on display in the Melbourne museum), and a strong need to adapt to a new life. Betsy, energetic and uninhibited, has no awe of Napoleon, a characteristic which charms him – she talks back, argues with him, and acts without fear as his life plays out in exile. Though the novel is character-based, rather than action-filled, an intense and dramatic conclusion occurs after Betsy creates a social disaster which permanently affects the lives of everyone she knows. Keneally never says whether the dramas of this conclusion are real or fiction. By the time the novel ends, the reader is so charmed that he does not have to. Elegantly written and old-fashioned in the best possible ways, this novel is my favorite so far this year.

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Highly lauded Australian author Joan London, sets her newest novel in The Golden Age, a rehab facility for children suffering the paralyzing aftereffects of polio in the sparsely settled outskirts of Perth, Australia, which, during the 1950s, had a disproportionately large percentage of child polio victims. Filled with realistic, straightforward details, and a complete lack of easy sentimentality, the novel presents vibrant pictures of the people, places, and moods of the communities in and around Perth affected by this world-wide disease. Main character Frank Gold, a twelve-year-old who has immigrated to Australia from Hungary, has already survived the Nazi terrors in his country, in which his father was captured and assigned to a work camp. Eventually reunited as a family and living in a community near Perth, the family must face disaster once again. Frank “catches polio” and is paralyzed, unable to walk. Assigned to The Golden Age facility for therapy, he and his only friend, Elsa Briggs, also age twelve and paralyzed, are the oldest children there, dependent upon each other. As the book develops, the emphasis is on character, and the reader soon gets to know the people in the facility, including the nurses, therapists, and teachers; the families of Frank, Elsa, and all the patients Frank comes into contact with; and all his fellow patients there, along with their stories. Details, no matter how significant, are revealed casually, in the manner of children, creating great drama in their irony. Frank and Elsa, desperate for some sort of connection with the outside world, and anxious to live according to their own desires, soon begin to experiment with ways to show their love to each other. Major prize-winner, certain to be a favorite of book clubs.

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I for Isobel, written in 1979 and first published in Australia in 1989, focuses on a tough main character, a child who fills the novel with a kind of mental violence against both herself and those who “cross” her, as she endures a coming-of-age essentially alone. All her possible role models – parents, teachers, family, and contemporaries – damage her more than aid her as she grows up. “Her mother’s anger was [like] a live animal tormenting her,” and when Isobel says she knows her mother hates her, the reader will have no problem actually believing her – her mother does hate her, for reasons unknown. The one area in which Isobel is able to achieve some kind of escape and happiness is through books. Even as a nine-year-old, she is a voracious reader, and the reading gives her a kind of personal outlet, too, when she soon turns her attention to her own writing. As Isobel slowly begins thinking beyond the specifics of her day-to-day life, she comes to conclusions about the grand themes of life, death, friendship, creativity, and social responsibility. A classic novel by one of the grandes dames of Australian writing.

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Like so many others who read voraciously – all kinds of books, from experimental modern fiction to the classics, from thoughtful novels of ideas to thrillers, and from analytical non-fiction to other-worldly fantasy – I have often been asked to name my favorite author, as if it were possible to choose just one. And as Lloyd Alexander points out above, I tend to read according to mood and what appeals at different stages of my life. My all-time favorite books, however, tend to be those which deal with ideas in a unique way, capturing my imagination at the same time that they convey a new slant on a universal theme. If they are also written with a touch of humor, so much the better. Among my long-time, special favorites are several authors who are little known in the United States, authors whose unique work has continually entertained and surprised me, often moving me to tears at the same time that it has left me with a smile on my face. One such author is Australian author Elizabeth Jolley (1923 – 2007). Simultaneously daring and subtle, insightful and bold, sensitive and sometimes sexy Jolley’s novels are absorbing and satisfying on many levels, and I hope I’ll persuade a few who are unfamiliar with her to take a look at her novels.

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The “sensitivity” of Japanese soldiers, their “wisdom in understanding,” and the “higher side of themselves” which they celebrate in the novel were lost on the allied Prisoners of War under their control, and these qualities will be just as lost on readers of this novel as they read about unconscionable examples of gross inhumanity. Set during World War II, when many Australians became POWs after the Fall of Singapore to the Japanese, the novel details the brutality of the conquerors, their starvation of prisoners, their forcing of dying soldiers to work until they collapsed and expired, their murders and tortures, and even their use of conscious prisoners as guinea pigs for Japanese officers who wanted to test their bayonets. The sadism which paralleled the officers’ interest in poetry was cultivated and celebrated among themselves as proof of their dedication to the Emperor, who could do no wrong. Much of the action here takes place during the building of the Siam to Burma Railway, known as the Death Railway, which the Emperor wanted finished immediately so that it could eventually be extended to India. Balanced against these horrors, which Flanagan depicts in grim and uncompromising imagery, is a non-traditional love story, which shows aspects of the Australian society from which most of the soldiers have come and hope to return, and particularly the society of Tasmania, which several main characters call home and where author Richard Flanagan himself grew up and has spent most of his life.

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