Reading books in situ – Jerusalem by Simon Sebag Montefiore

When I was very young, my favourite book was Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and it wasn’t just for those adorable pink frilly petalled skirts or the thrilling fear of the Banksia Men. No, it was because I knew exactly where the book was set. May Gibbs brought everything to life so clearly that she must, surely, have written it in my own favourite patch of bush, down in the hill from my own backyard. At least, that is what I believed as an eight year old.

Considerably older and wiser now, I still hold a candle for books that I have read while actually being in the place (or as close as possible) in which they are set. Andrew MacGahan’s The White Earth has a special palpability when read on the black soil of the Darling Downs. Alex Miller’s Journey to the Stone Country reads better in central Queensland than it does in Tasmania. I read Tim Winton’s Breath while watching surfers ride breaks from a bleak coastal cliff top – admittedly it wasn’t off the coast of Western Australia but at least it was off the coast somewhere.

I have, on my occasional travels out of the country, tried to apply the same principal. An Angel at My Table (Janet Frame) in New Zealand, Madame Bovary (Flaubert) in northern France and The Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe) in New York. I gave up on reading Arthur Phillips’ Prague in situ when chapter after chapter was irritatingly set in Budapest. I’ll have another shot at it if I ever do make it to Budapest, although I suspect I will be re-reading Sandor Marai’s Embers instead.

Of course, for the few books that I have been lucky enough to read in a suitably appropriate location, there are hundreds that I haven’t. Have any of you read The Master and Margarita in Moscow? What about Washington Square in New York? Half of a Yellow Sun in Lagos? Leave your comments and make the rest of the world jealous – unless of course you are a Muscovite, New Yorker or Lagotian (?) in that order.

All of which leads me to Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore, which is being published next month and is available to pre-order now. This was my constant companion for a fortnight during a recent visit to that most inspiring,  maddening and perplexing of cities. First things first – this is a brick of a book. Don’t be put off. Yes, it is meticulously researched and enormously detailed, but Montefiore could give Bryce Courtney or Ken Follett a run for their money when it comes to historical drama, tales of derring do, rape and pillage, sweeping saga and brilliant characterisation.

This is the perfect platform for Montefiore, who has already won critical acclaim for his Stalin and Catherine the Great among others. However, his pedigree for this assignment is ideal. Having gone backwards and forwards between the UK and Jerusalem all of his life, he is himself descendant from the famous Rothschild and Montefiore families who played key roles in both European finance and the re-population of Jewry to what was then an outpost of the Ottoman empire in the nineteenth century.

Simon Sebag Montefiore

Montefiore’s take on Jerusalem is both a physical and spiritual chronology. And what a subject! Could there be any place on earth that has been so fought over, so prized by so many different people’s across three millenia? I don’t think so.

In many ways, Jerusalem: The Biography is a history of the western world. All the names are there – from the Hebrew Bible, from the Christian Bible, from Islam, from just about every empire that has ever risen and fallen from before the Egyptians to the Crusades, to Napoleon, the Czars, the Ottomans, the competing colonial powers to the present day not to mention the famous and the infamous – Cleopatra to Herod, Sulemein the Magnificent to Rasputin.  But the author’s peculiar skill is to  bring it all so alive with the detail of characters and their particular traits – and let me tell you, if you like to trawl through the depths of human behaviour, you only need read this to get your fill of just about everything. That city has witnessed more varieties of violence and depravity that most of us could ever imagine.

From the preface:

Jerusalem is the house of the one God, the capital of two peoples. The temple of three religions and she is the only city to exist twice – in heaven and on earth. The very face that Jerusalem is both terrestrial and celestial means that the city an exist anywhere: new Jerusalems have been founded all over the world and everyone has their own imaginary Jerusalem. It is the universal city. Prophets and patriarchs, Abraham, David, Jesus and Muhammed are said to have trodden these stones. The Abrahamic religions were born there and the world will also end her on the Day of Judgement. Jerusalem, sacred to the Peoples of the Book, is the city of the Book: The Bible is, in many ways, Jerusalem’s own chronicle and its readers, from the Muslim conquerors to Crusaders and today’s American evangelists, have repeadedly altered her history.

Pre-order Jerusalem: The Biography.

13 rue Therese by Elena Mauli Shapiro

When pre-publication copies of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society were passed around a couple of years ago, it was obvious that the book was going to be a hand-sell sensation. And so it proved to be with a great many editions of this lovely war-time confection going on to sell squillions.

13 rue Thérèse has the same feel. Coming for a February release, this book is being presented as a lovely hardback edition. Told as a series of letters and reminiscences, and peppered with illustrations, scraps of sheet music, fading photos, this is a ostensibly a love story, set in the first half of the twentieth century. Build as a story of  “passion, memory and the seductive power of the imagination”, it certainly fulfills the publisher’s spin – it is sophisticated, imaginative, sexy and escapist. A grown-up treat.

David Ebershoff, bestselling author of The 19th Wife, writes that “this is a puzzle-novel and gave me the same fizzy satsifaction as completing a Sunday crossword. It will light up your brain, and your heart”.

All true – 13 rue Thérèse is a most satisfying read. However, to me, these descriptions ignore two really important aspects and to a certain extent, undermine the power of this remarkable novel. Like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary more than a century earlier, and Alex Miller’s very fine LoveSong of last year, Shapiro writes with enormous insight about the confusion between a woman’s desire for a child and her desire for a man. At the same time, her descriptions of the horror of the trenches during World War 1, and the lifetime legacy for those who survived, put me in mind of the extremely powerful Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks as well as parts of Louis de Bernières Birds Without Wings and David Malouf’s The Great World. Indeed, 13 rue Thérèse is so much more than a cleverly constructed love story. Continue reading

The last word on our Popular Penguin competition

Well, I had no idea the affection with which the  Popular Penguin is held, and the special place people reserve for it in their lives. Our recent competition broke all of our records. We received hundreds and hundreds of  entries.  Please excuse me as it certainly wasn’t possible to answer all of your, often very personal and revealing, emails.

I can finally announce the names of all four of the lucky readers. They each now have a very fabulous 20 volume library OF THEIR CHOICE comprising those alluring orange and cream classics.

The winners are Faye O’Brien of Sandhurst VIC, Maggie Kenworthy of Seven Mile Beach TAS,  Felicity Kerkham of Waitara, NSW and Tanya Fischer of Lavington, NSW.

To enter the competition, each person had to explain which Popular Penguin they were most looking forward to reading. The most witty answer was from Tanya Fischer with this gem.

Anticipating

Skilled synopsis:  ‘One Hundred

Great Books in Haiku‘.

As for the most poetic, it would have to be Melissa Angelo from Continue reading

Unfinishable books: Are the publishers eating themselves?

Not so long ago at a gathering of writers, one of my colleagues was sitting next to a woman who had published a book every eight months for more than a decade. This got me thinking about whether or not I could actually finish reading all works by my very favourite authors if they were churned out every eight months and I have to say, the answer was a very definite NO.

I used to subscribe to the view that once you started a book, you definitely had to finish it. It was a matter of respect – respect for the author who laboured over every sentence, nay, every word. And respect for the written word itself. Somehow the mere fact that the words were arranged on paper before the reader, implied an imperative to consume every single one of them.

I came to this idea partly because of the influence of a friend from my 20s who was almost an obsessive compulsive reader. No matter how inexcerable the book, he always finished it. He considered it a character flaw to read more than the first page without getting (in proper order) to the last. He was both didactic and persuasive.

But my need to progress from beginning to end, without deviation and without procrastination, was probably implanted in me in high school days by a certain Mrs Mitchell, my English teacher. Flame haired, of dramatic disposition, it was she that brought literature off the page and into my heart. From Lord of the Flies, to Tess of the D’Urbervilles, from Canterbury Tales to The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock, it was Mrs Mitchell’s well modulated narration that imprinted reading into my brain.

Unfortunately, Mrs Mitchell was no match for the tyranny of the well-oiled usually globalised publishing machine, which churns out thousands of new titles every month. For a bookseller, reading moves from being an idiosyncratic pleasure to an extension of work, and more is the pity. As for always finishing a book, well it is pretty hard to justify if you don’t love it and you have another 30 stacked up all needing to be consumed by the 26th of the month (the date around which all the next month’s new releases come in).

Of course, like thousands before me, I entered the bookselling world arrogantly thinking I was widely read. Little did I realise that I was widely read in about 1 per cent of the book world. Maybe less. A very humbling experience. And it took me only a few weeks to realise that to be a bookseller, I had to find away to make books appealing from Madame Bovary (which I love) to The Five Greatest Warriors (which I hate).

I put this dilemma to a friend of mine recently, a person with many years experience of customers and authors, and he told me his maxim. If he isn’t hooked on a book by the number of pages that corresponds to his age, he gives it away. Now that I am reading for work rather than for pleasure, I have applied the theory and in a great number of cases (The Five Greatest Warriors for example) I can tell you that I wish I was a lot younger.

So how does an online bookseller deal with all of this and still be able to sleep at night? Well, in general I take the coward’s option. I simply don’t bother reviewing the books I hate. Why put off a customer with a damning review plastered all over the “product page” on our site. And afterall, we have sold substantially more of The Five Greatest Warriors than Madame Bovary, so what would I know anyway?

And what about books that are just plainly disappointing? The ones that make you feel guilty that a perfectly good tree has been cut down to make the paper and you just know the book is going to be remaindered? Well at the risk of offending my good friends in publishing, not to mention a few authors, I am going to actually come and out and say it. I had a lot of trouble getting to my requisite number of pages with these three below. In fact, I am going to have to plant a few seedlings this weekend, just to compensate for my part in the carbon that was wasted  unnecessarily on their publication.

So here it is – for once – three books that I wouldn’t buy. But don’t blame me if one of them turns out to be the next Matthew Reilly.

MEMOIRS OF A FAT BASTARD: HOW I LOST MY GUT AND GAINED A LIFE

Chris Gibson grew up in Mel Gibson’s shadow. Actually that is not entirely true. Mel outshone his brother Chris in just about everything, but Chris’ shadow was always bigger because Chris was the said “fat bastard” in the title.

Its publisher describes the book thus:

This is a bittersweet account of how a middle-aged man on the road to destruction turned his life and health around on his own terms. It is a telling and frequently hilarious story of the ways in which some men can lose their way, and the way back to finding meaning and happiness amid the competing pressures of being provider, family man and all-round good Aussie bloke.

I presume the publisher has actually read all the book. I have not. However on the strength of the pages that I read may I just point out that just because you are related to someone famous, it doesn’t make you interesting. Especially if the person to whom you are related is completely odious. And constantly swearing, without having mastered profanity as humour, nor profanity as threat, is tedious in the extreme.

Most of us don’t have very interesting lives and Chris is one of them. What lifts an unexceptional life into an exceptional book, one that someone is happy to pay $34.99 for, is good writing and the creation of emotional tension and I am glad that his publisher, and his wife, care about Chris because I don’t.

Memoirs of a Fat Bastard is a July release and is available to pre-order here.

SOMEWHERE DOWN A CRAZY RIVER: A SPIRITED LIFE CACHING LOVE, FISH AND WISDOM by Robyn Catchlove

Now Robyn Catchlove has had an interesting life.

Robyn Catchlove wasn’t destined for married life and two and a half  kids in the suburbs of Adelaide…So in her early twenties, she walks away from a marriage to seek out adventure and lead the life she’s always dreamed of.

What followed was Les, building a boat in Cairns, and 8 years bouncing around the hallucinogenic tropics of far north Queensland, all of which took her deep into the heart of the exclusively male world of professional fishing.

From all accounts of people who have actually met and spoken with her, Robyn is warm, engaging and marvellously eccentric. And she has a million stories to tell about her fascinating life. The trouble is however, that an interesting life doesn’t make necessarily for an interesting book. The reason that authors are authors is that they are compelled to write and they perfect their craft over a life time. This usually means they have to mine other people’s stories, or use their imaginative powers to conjure up fiction, because they quickly run out of source material going over the who-did-what to-whom of their own experiences. Sorry Robyn, but in my opinion, reading this is like listening to a friend re-count their dreams. Great source material with poor delivery means that any potential emotional impact is frittered away.

Somewhere Down a Crazy River is out now.

And so to fiction.

I really wanted to like COMRADES by Dominic Knight. A co-founder of the Chaser and author of Disco Boy (which I tried and failed to finish), I was attracted to the premise of the book.

Sydney University is Australia’s pre-eminent finishing school for politicians, and its Students’ Representative Council is the nursery where generations of future leaders have cut their first dodgy preference deals and performed their first backstabbings. Comrades is the story of one student President, Eddie Flanagan, and the brutal struggle to replace him, as a menagerie of campus lefties, Liberals and a would-be comedian dressed as a rooster battle for the spoils…Comrades is an affectionate portrait of student life, with its lofty idealism, constant hedonism and irrepressible humour.

That got me in. Having been a student of Sydney University and participated fully in the idealism, hedonism and humour (well, I amused myself) of the day, I clearly remember a certain current leader of the opposition making his run for the SRC (in fact, if I recall correctly, he was known on campus by his hyphenated name, Tony F***-ing-Abbott).

I really wanted to like this book. Alas, it is as hit and miss as The Chaser itself.  Lacking emotional depth and character development, there is no reason for the reader to actually care. All that wonderful material falls sadly flat. Comrades is another book  I was happy I to put aside once I reached my age limit.

Perhaps I really am too old. I like to think not. I think that in fact in their quest for the next bankable author, the next Mao’s Last Dancer or The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, the publishers are eating themselves. Hence them serving up the brother of a disgraced actor whose life is a train wreck. Oh, for a slimmed down publishing industry which is a bit more choosy about what it commits to. In this era of print on demand, e-pub and iPad, discernment is definitely going to be a casualty.

Comrades is an August release and is available for pre-order here.

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