Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Squirrel meets Chipmunk by David Sedaris

As a previous fan of Sedaris, Andrew selected this quirky collection of short stories with high hopes of an an amusing interlude for we Billingsgaters.

Sedaris early works are drawn from personal and family experience, and notably the Santa Land Diaries is an absolute pearl of observation and razor sharp wit.Sedaris always walks a fine line between acerbically observed wit and bitchy queen but when he gets it right, the effect is hysterical and reveals human frailty with wit and wisdom. One can't help drawing occasional parallels with Augusten Burroughs, a previous Billingsgate fave. Both have had a difficult upbringing and both have a keen eye for the human condition as a result. Both are sharp and cutting but both can still reach to the heart within.

Sadly on this occasion Sedaris doesn't get it quite right. The short story form fails him somehow, as the condensed, pared back observations become quite vitriolic and judgemental and with little time to respect the beauty of human frailty. One is left rather with the feeling that one has been watching 'Funniest home videos'. Laughing cruelly at others misfortunes and judging the stupidity of their actions without acknowledging the purity of their intent. The stories are very clever - but oh so very harsh. There seems to be an intentional nod to the moral tone of Aesop's fables, but the one sided view presented does rather leave us feeling that he does not suffer fools gladly!

It does seem rather like an exploration for Sedaris, testing the form, and it has to be said the stories while deceptively simple are superbly created and masterfully spare. Cloaking his characters in animal coats and calling it a bestiary does little to soften the sharp judgements, and the illustrations are generally clever and marry with Sedaris's style. It does all feel like a 'cartoon' or sketch in preparation for a later work.

But you do laugh. Often quite loudly and heartily it must be said. The book is an easy read, and entertaining - and most scored it quite well. But it ultimately feels a bit too cruel, and for many of us the laughter died before the end of the work. But nevertheless our Christmas meeting at the Duck n Swan was lovely with yummy if somewhat boutique sized food, and comfy sofas to sprawl into afterwards. It has been a year full of change and upheaval both good and bad for the Billingsgate clan and we all look forward to 2013 with renewed vigour...

Dennis 7
Andrew 6
Kevin 6
Rajah 7
Alenna 7.5

Average: 7

Thursday, November 08, 2012

'Cooking with Fernet Branca' by James Hamilton-Paterson

It was exciting to contemplate an Italian themed afternoon discussion of  'Cooking with Fernet Branca', not just for the whimsy of the work, but to spend time on Kevin's gorgeous deck.

We devoured delicious antipasto off borrowed Tuscan plates and sipped L'Ambrusco dell Emilia, a deceptively sweet fizz that tinted the glasses a frosty red in the dappled sunlight.
A perfect wine to lead into the sweetly acerbic tale before us.

For in using the digestive liquor of Fernet Branca in the title, one can't help but draw parallels to the bitter kick underlying the lightly amusing characters of the tale. Aptly described as liquorice flavoured mouthwash, we all tried a swig of the titles namesake and discovered it to be as effective a satire of the wine industry as the work was of its characters! Even the South american style of mixing with cola could not disguise the medicinal personality of this black hearted beverage.

Kevin confessed to being given the book in 1974 but it took him several decades to get to reading it!  Book club pays off at last! And very glad we were for the delay, as everyone seemed to enjoy the light style with its sharp satyrical edge.

Key to its comedic success is the juxtaposition of the 2 main characters differing point of view of the same situation, in a careful blending of reality and fantasy. This device was at its strongest and most amusing when each describe the others idiosyncrasies, and the reader delights in the similarities the characters cannot see. A merciless spotlight is cast on the world of celebrity, politics, crime and culture and the clever style of changing character viewpoints ensures no one escapes judgement.

This is a wonderful satire that exposes some quite Olympian snobbery that manifests in various ways. Cultures clash, tastes jar, and the comedic pratfall elements leave the reader reeling in much the same way as a glass of Fernet Branca assaults the tastebuds. And the lesson learned is that we must we wary of the lens through which we view life's events. We leap to stereotypes and judge accordingly, but there is much to discover if we delve more deeply into the detail of each individuals reality. Importantly - don't necessarily believe what other people tell you - sometimes it's worse!!

Meanwhile the included recipes cleverly blur the line between the possible and the gag inducing, and this device again remind us of the multiple ingredients that combine to make a personality - both palatable and unpalatable. And on occasion completely indigestible.

We all enjoyed the work, finding it amusing and witty, with enough of a comedic edge to lift it slightly above the level of mere fluff. Its success has spawned 2 more novels to complete a sharply triangulated trilogy and several of us are keen to continue discovering these funny, deeply flawed but accessible characters.

And now that we have all tasted Fernet Branca... we wish we had remained in blissful ignorance.
Thank heaven the breathtakingly delicious orange and almond cake for Marks birthday erased the bitter memory. And was infinitely digestible.

Kevin 8
Andrew 8
Dennis 8
Rajah 8.5
Alenna 7

Thursday, October 18, 2012

“All That I Am” by Anna Funder

Anna Funder’s first fictional work, “All That I Am” is a story surrounding a group of German dissidents during the years of Hitler's rise to power, whose activities lead eventually to their flight from Germany and their re-establishment as refugees in London. Based on a true story of a friend, Ruth Blatt, the group’s surviving member,  Funder  tells a tale of  bravery and betrayal, and of the heroics and sacrifices people make for their beliefs.

When eighteen-year-old Ruth Becker visits her cousin Dora in Munich in 1923, she meets the love of her life, the dashing young journalist Hans Wesemann. Together they join a number of educated men and women, including the playwright Ernst Toller, who resist the rise of Nazism in 1930s through media, social and cultural activism. Ten years later, Ruth and Hans are married and living in Weimar Berlin when Hitler is elected chancellor of Germany. Together with Dora and her lover, Toller, the four become hunted outlaws overnight and are forced to flee to London. There, they find themselves lonely, impoverished but alive, and racked like hunted creatures by basic concerns of safety. Inspired by the fearless Dora to breathtaking acts of courage, the friends risk betrayal and deceit as they dedicate themselves to a dangerous mission: to inform the appeasing British government of the true threat Nazism poses. However, fears canard from distrust and secrets slowly unravel the bonds of friendship and love, resulting in devastating betrayal.

Alena chose the book after hearing a review, and had previously not been aware of the lives and activities of German dissidents during Hitler’s rise to power. Kevin found the descriptions of London fascinating. Dennis and Andy loved the language “All that we are not stares back at all that we are”. Raj and mark thought the construction of the book; that of interchangeable vignettes of Ruth and Toller made the book more powerful. And Leanne loved it, and appreciated the depth of research.

Scores on the doors:
AS 8.5
KT 8
AB 8.5
DC 8
RS 8
LK 8

Average 8.2

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Stranger's Child - by Alan Hollinghurst

Too infrequently do we acknowledge the moments of culinary delight interwoven with our intellectual wrangling of the written word. But as Mark welcomed us on a cold winter afternoon, with cucumber sandwiches and Edwardian cocktails it became apparent that we were to be treated to an afternoon of multiple delights.

Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child inspired the afternoons frolics and it was fascinating to discover how different the opinion of the work became for those who had read further or completed the novel.

As  a work who's structure consists of a series of slow reveals, imparting facts and discoveries in carefully meted doses, I suspect its major themes are also reserved for the committed reader who completes the work. And several of us found the technique of veils and whispers most successful at the beginning but wore thin with repetition. Not that it is a hard read. Indeed Hollinghust writes in a beautiful 'pre TV' style with dense plots and carefully layered characters. Somewhat ironic really in a narrative that reads like a film script. However while the voice shifts from character to character in this work, the tone is always undeniably the authors.

His superb style is eminently readable and takes you into the action, but requires both time to read and time to digest as the work moves through a series of different eras. It examines how the social mores of that time impact the ways the characters choose to live their lives, most particularly the journey of how gay men have gradually found their visibility in an often hostile world.

Recognising how lucky we now are to generally be able to shout out loud the 'love that dare not speak its name', Hollinghurst explores a series of chapter long vignettes with its genesis in a sweet stylistic tribute to Evelyn Waugh. Hollinghurst uses different characters eyes as he moves through the decades, all who have connections to the original tale, albeit becoming more tenuous with time.

And there I think the tales theme starts to take hold. What is history and how can we ever be sure of its authenticity? History is told from the winners point of view, and there have been very few gay winners ready to put the story straight until recent times. So to speak!
Selectively told history throws a dust sheet over all those lives, all those loves. Andrew observed that the worst you can do is deny the point of a person. He observed it as a potentially very English trait and noted the relief of living in later times.

As different characters reveal the changing mores of society,  this book gradually reveals that every generation has its own fight. And perhaps the strongest underlying plea is that those struggles not be forgotten, or overwritten by a more convenient truth.

But it takes time to get to this truth. It only coalesces late in the book, and those readers who do not reach the final chapter would be forgiven for finding the work inconclusive and directionless. Kevin was finding it a trudge mid way through. However as with many things in life, satisfying conclusions can sometimes take time and perseverance. At least Hollinghurst's signature elegiac style is a soothing journey.
And given the structure of this tale, one can't help expecting to see the film version in the offing.  Although gay tales are difficult Hollywood fodder without Cowboy hats, and that in itself further reinforces the assertion for the rights of visibility.

And all this revelation interwoven with a delightful Edwardian afternoon tea. A perfect Billingsgate gathering.

Rajah 7.5
Mark 8.5
Dennis 8
Kevin 7
Andrew 7.5
Alenna like the green cover!

Total 8 (well almost - averaged up!)

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The Hanging Garden by Patrick White

…‘It’s salmon pie’, Raj told us, with no similarity to Mrs Bulpit at all. Mark was more than ever disbelieving, his chin tilted in that way of his. Kevin, more interested for something foreign, was glad that it was at least salmon – nice segue into Alaskan tales to be had there. Andrew and Leanne rounding out the gathering were seriously impressed with the meal placed at table.
It was about time the BBC collective consciousness read a Patrick White.  But considering I’m probably the only White initiate from the group, perhaps I should say it was about time I got around to reading one of White’s books.

In Mark’s words it wasn’t a brilliantly enjoyable read. But it was an adventure back into his and Australia’s past that he appreciated. White’s descriptive phrasing and fascination with bodily functions, putrid and otherwise, were as sharp as ever for Mark. Which, given the fact that White never finished the book, are a mark of his true ability.

Raj likened reading Patrick White to playing Brahms (using ten fingers all the time) – too much heavy going to be able to be enjoyed constantly. He was pleasantly surprised by this book and enjoyed the simple yet elaborate descriptions that White gave of people and places.

Spurred on by the Greek connections in the book our chatter wandered around current events in Greece and a conversation that Kevin had with an elderly Greek woman in Chippendale. And wandering around these digressions Andrew quipped ‘Morris dancing and incest, two things in life you should never try.’

For Andrew the gaze of the book was too intense and narrow, he needed something broader. He did get a sense of how distant Australia was from the rest of the world at that time. It felt ‘old fashioned’, ‘stuffy’. (I’ve seen nicer versions of those words used to describe the author).

Telling this story through the eyes of children was an unusual choice. The several comments around the table were that ‘their psychological insights were too knowing for their age’ (Andrew), ‘White could not write the point of view of a young girl’ (Leanne), ‘the girl was too (read unbelievable) critical of her mother for someone so young’ (Raj).

You can’t really denigrate the writing of someone who has won a Nobel Prize for Literature (more fool you if you do). But in Kevin’s words there ended up being ‘too much texture and not enough plot.’ Maybe that was the sense of it he got over our salmon pie and cake… because I’m sure he said he was too distracted by Alaskan vistas to actually read The Hanging Garden.

Alena – 6
Mark - 7.5
Kevin – 6
Raj - 6.5
Andrew – 4
Leanne - 5

Average 6

The next book is "The Strangers Child" by Alan Hollinghurst