The Lover by Marguerite Duras

Marguerite Duras’s The Lover is the second book I’ve read in as many weeks that’s a memoir, thinly disguised as a novel (the other being by Lily Brett).

The story is set in Saigon in the 1930s, and describes the tumultuous affair between a relatively poor adolescent French girl and her wealthy, older Chinese lover. Interspersed between details of their clandestine meetings are descriptions of the unnamed narrator’s mother – headmistress of a girls’ high school and prone to bouts of depression, and her wayward brothers. Continue reading

Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford

Depending on your attitude, it’s either wildly inappropriate or absolutely hilarious that I was listening to Nancy Mitford’s Wigs on the Green concurrently with the podcast, My Dad Wrote a Porno. If you’ve experienced both, you’ll appreciate that the frequent mentions of hedge mazes, manicured lawns, horses and duchesses are quite similar in one sense… and also very much not. Anyway, the important thing is that both made me laugh. A lot.

There’s a juicy back-story to Wigs on the Green, notably that the novel was truly about Nancy’s two Fascist sisters, Unity and Diana, and that the relationship between Nancy and her sisters imploded after its publication (I really should read The Mitford Girls, which has been languishing on my TBR stack for over a decade). Nancy never allowed the novel to be printed after WWII, on the basis that jokes about Nazis were not funny in any context. And obviously they’re not, yet the elements of the story related to class and marriage are sharp and very, very funny.

‘Marriage is a great bore. Chaps’ waistcoats lying around in one’s bedroom and so on. It gets one down in time.’ Continue reading

Lola Bensky by Lily Brett

My first encounter with Lily Brett was in 1986 when my mum, who had never censored my reading in any way, gently took The Auschwitz Poems from my hands and said, “Enough.” I’d been on a long Holocaust reading binge and Brett’s collection of poems had me in tatters.

Lola Bensky is a different Brett. It’s the story of nineteen-year-old Lola, an Australian rock journalist who is sent to London in 1967 to interview Hendrix, Jagger and Joplin, to name a few.  It sounds fanciful, but Lola Bensky is rooted in Brett’s own experience and although it may be difficult to sort fact from fiction in this novel, a glance through Brett’s bio suggests that Lola is almost a memoir. Almost. Continue reading

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

A story about the sea, swimming, books and relationships. It’s like Claire Fuller was writing just for me.

Despite the blurb hinting that Swimming Lessons is a mystery, it’s not. It’s a book about marriage – specially that of Gil and Ingrid. Gil is a lecturer and a writer, famous for a scandalous novel. He’s also a collector of books, specifically those with notes in the margins and passages underlined.

“Forget that first-edition, signed-by-the-author nonsense. Fiction is about readers. Without readers there is no point in books, and therefore they are as important as the author, perhaps more important. But often the only way to see what a reader thought, how they lived when they were reading, is to examine what they left behind.” Continue reading

Miss Chopsticks by Xinran

If you’ve never read anything by Xinran before then allow me to get bossy: Read something by Xinran.

Actually, I’ve only read her non-fiction, which is invariably so affecting, so powerful that the stories she tells will never leave you. I was keen to see how she tackled fiction and her novel, Miss Chopsticks, was recommended to me by Lisa (an excellent suggestion to meet a tricky reading challenge category).

Miss Chopsticks is the story of peasant sisters – their mother is considered a failure because she never produced a son, and the daughters only merit a number as a name.

“In my village, girls are called ‘chopsticks’ and boys ‘roof-beams’. They all say girls are no good because a chopstick can’t support a roof.” Continue reading

South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami

If you’ve never read any Haruki Murakami, it’s tricky to describe his style. And at the risk of causing the book-blogging corner of the interwebs to implode, his style is not really my cup of tea.

South of the Border, West of the Sun tells of Hajime, a middle-aged man reflecting on his youth and in particular, his relationship with Shimamoto, a fellow only-child and his only true friend. Continue reading

Surrender by Sonya Hartnett

Sonya Hartnett’s Surrender is a story split in half – alternating chapters are told from the perspective of 20-year-old Gabriel, dying of an unnamed illness, and from Finnigan, the town wild-child and Gabriel’s only friend.

When the boys first meet, they make an unusual pact. Finnigan makes Gabriel swear not to do ‘bad things’ –

“I’ll do the bad things for you. Then you won’t have to. You can just do good things.” Continue reading

The Futures by Anna Pitoniak

The Futures by Anna Pitoniak starts as a campus novel and then moves to New York. It had my name written all over it…

Julia’s dating guy #1. She cheats on him with guy #2. Meanwhile, she meets guy #3, and they start a relationship. Julia and #3 move to New York, where #3 starts working long hours and becomes involved in some dubious hedge fund deals. Julia, annoyed, hooks up with #2 again (but doesn’t break it off with #3). Julia heads home for Thanksgiving, disgruntled with both #2 and #3. Guess who she meets in her hometown? #1! Continue reading

Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta

The story of two best friends growing up in the eighties… Well, obviously I was going to read Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others.

Meadow and Carrie meet in high school and although their opinions differ on many things, they bond over movies and become best friends. Both pursue a career in movie-making (it’s LA in the 80s so everyone’s in the business, right?) although take different paths. Meadow makes gritty documentaries while Carrie finds success through lighter films with broader appeal. Continue reading