The Harp In The South, Ruth Park
I've been working my way through the Popular Penguins (published here in $10 editions) that I haven't read, and so finally got round to this Australian classic. This book is entertaining enough--it's a simple story of a poor family in inner-suburban Sydney, when inner-suburban Sydney was still a slum. It fits neatly into the mould of such urban history stories... there are the classic tales of childhood antics, melancholy old (often drunken) characters, the rare highpoint (a day at the beach!) and some limited exploration of the society of the time. It's dated (it was written in the 40s), and the societal norms presented read as prejudice to modern eyes--for instance, the family openly speak warily of anyone with dark skin--though ultimately they befriend the Chinese grocer and one daughter marries a part-Aboriginal man. But it's an entertaining story, an easy enough read, and presumably true to the era.
Graceling, Kristin Cashore
My token young adult book of the month. :) I confess I picked this up on the strength of the cover. Yeah... probably not the best way to go, but the blurb sounded promising (it's about a girl that's graced with fighting skills!), and it proved to be a solid find. Graceling's Katsa is not dissimilar to the heroine of the Hunger Games series. Like her, Katsa is independent, resourceful, a fierce fighter, compassionate, and romantically awkward. The central story follows Katsa as she frees herself from her uncle's patronage, defines her own values and rescues a child princess from an evil tyrant in a neighbouring kingdom. Great, yes? Especially as she is accompanied on these adventures by a charming young man (clearly in love with her), not her equal in fighting, but smart and courageous in his own way. Basically, it's all good. Very lightweight writing, but it romps along. The perfect airport novel, really.
Nine Lives, William Dalrymple
Every so often I have a pancheon for travel writing, and when I do, William Dalrymple often delivers. I first read him yeeeeears ago (maybe 'In Xanadu'?). So his latest offering was a bit of a nostalgia trip. I admit one of the appeals in Dalrymple's writing is the fact that he goes to place I will never go to (why else does one read travel writing?!), as well as his intelligence. In Nine Lives he puts himself in shadow more than in his earlier works (and he points out in the preface that this reflects the trends of the period he is/was writing in). 'Nine Lives' is subtitled 'in search of the sacred in modern India', and as you can probably guess, it offers the stories of nine different characters in search of religious or spiritual enlightenment, how they came to chose this path, how it clashes with the world around them, and what forms of expression (some extreme) their faith takes. In someone else's hands this could be very dull. In Dalrymple's it was good escapism.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery
This is a book-club book of the moment... The story centres on a middle-aged Parisian concierge in an apartment building. Self-educated and passionate about the arts, she hides her true self from her employers, the other residents. The narrative is shared by a twelve-year old girl, Paloma, of above-average intelligence, who is planning to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday. A new resident moves into the building, an older Japanese gentleman, acting as a catalyst for change in both characters' lives.
It's engagingly and intelligently written, interspersed with observation about literature and music (in Renee's sections) or society and human nature (in Paloma's). There's some gentle social critique of the Parisian upper class, and it's atmospheric (which has no doubt helped its appeal among English speakers who love to romanticise Paris, though actually the Parisian characters are busy romanticising other countries... principally Japan). It was a great holiday read, very entertaining, and I warmed to both female characters, though I preferred Paloma as a construct.
Renee was a little more problematic for me, though I liked the idea of exploring the issues of class through her--she is more intelligent than her upper-class employers, but is not 'allowed' to be seen as such in her role. The latter half of the book centres on Renee facing her fears about this and (inevitably!) unpacking her childhood trauma... it's touching, but the book actually fails to deliver on its promise. (SPOILER!!!!!!!!) Renee gets knocked over by a van, oh-so-conveniently, meaning that she can't end up with her Japanese suitor after all. Well, I was huffy about that. It seemed like a massive cop out, though it's constructed for the reader to think that she was 'healed' and on the verge of a new life when she died, therefore her death had meaning. *eyeroll* The danger, apart from the trite-ness, is that it kind of reads as if the author couldn't really imagine a concierge getting together with an elegant Japanese retiree either.
On the plus side, the stories tie together well, and I was more comfortable with Paloma's journey, even though it was predictable.
I did find the construction of Japan as an aesthete's heaven, and of Japanese cinema and culture as full of meaning (with the implication that such meaning is void in the West) to be a bit sickening, though amusing. The Japanese are francophiles, and much that they see in France (elegance, restrained food, depth of history and culture) is exactly what the French characters here were seeing in Japan. Having been to both countries, but having rose-tinted glasses about neither, I find this amusing. :)
In perhaps the most LOL-ish passage of all, Renee wazes lyrical about the 'mowing' scene in Anna Karenina. Sorry. That scene is interminable. I'm not buying it. But probably most of the people reading the book won't have read 'Anna' so the author is safe. ;)
Despite my snark, it was a refreshing read. :)