Category Archives: New stuff

The New Republic by Lionel Shriver

Journalists, you guys.  Does it naturally draw the sanctimonious or do you just have to be that way to apply for the job?  And is any profession more self regarding?  If I have to read another defence of journalistic free speech/vitriol against regulation/hagiography of the Reporter, praising the nobility of taking photos of lady celebrities’ vaginas I will… not be remotely surprised.  Like shoegaze was known in the early 1990s, journalism is the scene that celebrates itself.  Except, you know, shoegaze was actually worth listening to.  So it is wonderful that Lionel Shriver’s book, written in 1998 and full of this smug, self important type has been released now.    If I needed another reason to be a fan of hers after So Much For That (my favourite book of 2010, and in our shop for only $19.99!  Though the trade off for that is a TERRIBLE cover).  It follows misanthropic former lawyer Edgar Kellogg, who all his life has longed to be a larger-than-life character, someone popular on whom every conversation would hang, someone that inspires awe, instead of merely a follower.  Ironically it is his following of his old high school idol Toby Falconer which leads him to journalism as a method of becoming this person.  Kellogg is posted to Barba, a backwater, desolate province of Portugal which is nonetheless home to a violent terrorist group, the Soldados Ousados de Barba or SOB (lol good one Shrives).  Mysteriously, attacks claimed by the SOBs (still funny) have dried up, just as Kellogg’s predecessor Barrington Sadler (just the type of person who Kellogg wants to be) has disappeared.  What follows is a rollicking romp (yup) which, while definitely humorous in tone, has a lot of questions to ask about terrorism, journalism, ethics, and, to lamely quote the blurb, “What makes charismatic people so magnetic, while the rest of us inspire a shrug? Whats their secret? And in the end, who has the better life – the admired, or the admirer?”.  As usual, Shriver’s writing is crackling and full of attitude (I hate myself for saying that but it’s true), and she vividly brings Barba to life in such a way that you never question it’s awfulness.  The characters too are highly entertaining, characters, especially the collective of fellow journalists and Edgar’s mental image of Barrington, with whom he converses often.  An important theme in the book is how we perceive things: Edgar is a master of ‘inversion’, or how the same fact can be presented in two diametrically opposed ways, which allows him to see the positive side of the thoroughly un-positive things he is doing, and his slide into immorality, like the metaphorical train wreck, is engaging in a horrible way, and even though you know what’s going to happen it’s still it remains eminently readable.  Also, unlike a train wreck it’s hugely fun.

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Steven: Well Fay, your favourite/the worst book of the tournament is out.  HOW DOES IT FEEL?  Look, this isn’t a chatz format, let the readership know that I wrote these arguments in advance giving Fay PLENTY OF TIME to rebut.  (Fay: while Steven has more time to research, as referenced by his prodigious referencing.) But I hope the truth shines through and that EUGENIDESTRUCTION 2012 is a resounding success.  Allow me to begin with the most glaring fault, Madeleine.  As one of the three central characters, probably the one with the most pages devoted to her, you’d expect her to be more than just a hollow, agency-less shell right?  Noooope.  Madeleine is boring.  Here is what we know about her: she’s preppy, she likes order and neatness but ALSO she secretly loves the punishment of disorder.  Aaaand that’s as far as her depth goes.  To quote Hmgillispie in the ToB comments, “Madeleine has no personality except for her views on literature”.  Amen brudah, and something a number of people seem to have picked up on.  What I’ve seen mentioned a bit in the ToB comments and elsewhere is that the people who like Madeleine either associate her with themselves, or someone they know, thus filling in the gaps in her character.  Fay, if I may be so bold to suggest that you may well fit into this category.  In addition!  Name one thing that Madeleine does in the book that isn’t about either Mitchell or Leonard OH WAIT YOU CAN’T.  Oh sorry, she goes to a conference and decides to study post-grad Victorian literature WHOA SLOW DOWN THERE EUGENIDES!  Throughout the book, all of her actions are precipitated by one of these two men.  She goes to Cape Cod to be with Leonard, and then… actually I’m just going to paste this same argument from a discussion here by Nika Knight at Full Stop: “Even when she scandalizes her mother by moving in with her boyfriend, she’s just following him to a place where she has no job and no goals and no friends. Even when ending her marriage, she does so by acquiescence”.

Fay: Ok let me jump in here for a second. This is a complaint I’ve heard a lot and I think it is by people being thoroughly uncreative and unrealistic. Madeleine is not a Mary Sue! She’s kind of wry, but not particularly funny. She’s pretty  enough to make life easier but is not defined by her looks. She’s smart, but not a genius and not confident enough to voice her thoughts in class. [Steven: So far you’re only kinda ADDING to the boring thing] Quiet you! She’s glad that someone else says ‘Barthes’ first so she doesn’t embarrass herself. You know what that sounds like to me (ok other than me [except for the pretty part], I’ll give you that [Steven: Ha!])? A REAL PERSON. Real people aren’t all stunningly and interestingly characterised, they’re ok at stuff, and nervous and unsure sometimes. [Steven: Agreed!  I’m not asking to read a book about perfect people (if I was I’d just write my autobiography HEYOOO) because that would be boring.  My complaint isn’t that she’s not perfect but that she’s boring.  So all this would be fine as a basis for the character!  But there is no development or journey, no change or transformation.  She stays that way through the whole book, and that’s not enough to make an interesting character.]

And yes, she doesn’t do a lot by herself. May I remind you the book is called The Marriage Plot? It’s a take on the freaking Victorian marriage plot and if Madeleine was full of agency and practical ideas about where her life was going she wouldn’t be at the centre of this book. [Steven: Well, first things first, it’s meant to be a late modern take on the marriage plot which takes feminism into account.  It seems that part was forgotten by Eugenides.  ADDITIONALLY, if the book didn’t remind you every 10 seconds (look here’s the name of a book, aren’t YOU clever) it would just be taken as a good ol’ fashioned love triangle.  FURTHERMORE that’s not what I’m saying.  I’m not saying she has to know everything but I am saying that Eugenides short shrifts her.  I can’t say I’ve read any marriage plot books but I assume the women at their centre aren’t simply the pawns of everyone else for the entire book?  EVEN FURTHER she’s not really at the centre of the book.  It starts as hers but really ends as Mitchell’s, which emphasises all the more her lack of agency.  The book ends, once again, in her simple aquiescence] She follows Leonard because she doesn’t know what else to do with herself. Again, REAL PEOPLE may totally finish college and be at  a loss and grab onto whatever is going rather than go back to live their parents’ house. The uncertainty of the newly graduated is part of the setting of this book and why it works the way it does. Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell are all on the edge of something, moving from a day-to-day life full of literary debate and beatnik one-upmanship into a world where they are suddenly expected to know what to do and how to do it. Madeleine doesn’t, and that’s precisely the point. And who hasn’t clung onto a love affair hoping to recapture their initial feeling? Why does everyone find Madeleine so hard to deal with? To me she is completely real and perhaps fairly ordinary but that is precisely the point.

Steven: Mitchell and Leonard, on the other hand, have a lot more going on.  More depth goes into Mitchell’s idolisation of Madeleine than goes into her character.  Mitchell and Leonard both have Stuff Going On, as well as character development.  Leonard is the most interesting of the three, suffering from bipolar disorder he is either a manic force of nature, bringing joy and excitement into Madeleine’s (and others’) life (until it inevitably goes too far) or he is helpless and demure, in need of Madeleine’s attention.  Both of these states are vividly detailed, and a lot more of Leonard’s personality shines through than Madeleine’s (oh no, she just doesn’t have one).  Mitchell too is more interesting.  Though I found him a whiny, annoying jerk who needs to shut up always (which further says something about Madeleine).  Admittedly THAT last complaint is a personal taste thing.  But let me tell you if there is one thing I don’t want to read about it’s people backpacking in Europe/India.  Actually, that was another thing.  That section was too disjointed from the narrative.  I found in the (roughly) last third everything became a bit too loose and messy, in an unsatisfying way.

Fay: Again, DISAGREE. I found the backpacking section another example of a real person being lost that rang true. The romance of the adventure compared to the realities of being lonely and confused and quite literally lost is something that most travellers will be able to identify with. Especially the scene at the start with Mitchell’s friend ditching him for his annoying girlfriend. I also found it particular interesting as a period piece, a time when backpacking meant being constantly disconnected from everything you knew. Mitchell’s isolation is highlighted by all the letters sent and not sent. And I thought the looseness was again indicative of mental state. Mitchell is isolated and confused, stringing his experiences together in the hope of finding some religious or spiritual meaning. I thought the writing conveyed that really well. [Steven: All of that, MAYBE!  Not caring about white people backpacking and despairing is clearly a personal thing.  But you haven’t addressed its disjointed-ness from the rest of the book.] Ok, maybe because I didn’t find it so disjointed really.  This is a post-college self definining story and it fits in perfectly, as well as being a common experience, with that theme.  Mitchell, who seems to have everything going for him tries to physically distance himself from everything in an attempt to define HIMSELF rather than fall into a path defined for him. Each character spends a lot of the novel feeling profoundly alone, Mitchell just happens to experience this physically as well. It worked for me. Furthermore while I agree with your liking the intensity of the Leonard section, may I controversially say that I found him and not Mitchell to be the annoying one.

Steven: The first third of the book was pretty orright!  I like college/university stories, probably because THAT’S WHERE I LIVE! and I particularly like wanky theories and such because THAT’S WHAT I DO!  So the bits at Brown were fun, where there was still the potential for Madeleine to become not boring.

Fay: Me too! It inspired me to go out and buy a copy of A Lover’s Discourse by Barthes (which I now know how to pronounce correctly) from the one and only Sunflower Bookshop! Buy books there now! I honestly think that you may have liked it more if you had finished uni and were trying to make your life work in the real world. That’s where I live. It is confusing and scary and you don’t always know where to go or what to do. And you’re not the smartest person or the most beautiful person or the most creative person [Steven: speak for yourself! Fay: I saw that coming the second I wrote that.] so you just see what comes along and go where it will take you. Eugenides captures this perfectly [Steven: I will accept this!  But unfortunately that’s not all the book’s about].

So the verdict? We must agree to disagree! Agree or disagree with us Agree with Steven in the comments.

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ToB: The Stranger’s Child vs The Tiger’s Wife

I am on a lucky streak! Loved The Sense of an Ending, hadn’t read the other, it won! Refused to read Salvage the Bones, it lost! Just finished The Tiger’s Wife, loved it, it won! Watch out Steven! Here comes The Marriage Plot ftw! No, I sincerely think my luck will have run out by then. I want The Marriage Plot to win first round just as much as Steven wants it to lose, but I am very worried that my run will have been used up by then.

But I am happy for it to be used up on The Tiger’s Wife. Loved it. LOVED it. I literally just finished it about half an hour ago which I know always helps but still I thought it was great. It’s my new  personal Sisters Brothers. But with a better title.

The Tiger’s Wife is Natalia, a young doctor taking medical supplies across a war torn Baltic region to an orphanage. As she learns of her grandfather’s death she finds herself in a foreign landscape filled with superstition and myth and finds herself tracing her granfather’s own story, that of the woman who loved tigers so much she almost became one. As Natalia traces the story of the tiger’s wife, the deathless man and the diggers at the vineyard where she is staying, legend and reality fuse, superstition and medicine intertwine. Truth becomes lost in the mythology of the past while stories live on and provide a basis for the future

The deathless man and the tiger’s wife are both stories of fear and awe, possibility and impossibility and Tea Obreht tells them simply and lyrically. Her style effortlessly swoops from folk tale to harsh realities and past to present. She perfectly catures a plausible, passionate and not in any way twee relationship of grandfather and grandaughter. Meanwhile all this is set against a history of war and violence in the region, unobtrusive yet influential. And it’s her first novel. And she’s only 26. And she wrote it when she was 24! I am so, so jealous of her talent.

May I add that I don’t think the attacking of the judge was fair or justified at all? And as some further comments have said that sometimes judging reveals more about the person than the book, perhaps attacks on the judge reveal more about the attacker than the judge?

But I definitely recommend The Tiger’s Wife to anyone. ANYONE. Apart from being enjoyable it’s also, as Bethane Kelly Patrick comments,  significant, full of big questions and demands active reading. Steven, care to weigh in?

Steven: Nope. They’re both in store? At the wallet pleasing price of $19.99 each!

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ToB: 1Q84 vs The Last Brother

Fay: For once I’ve actually read both books. Quel excietment! I’ve talked about 1Q84 in a previous review so feel free to refer back for my explicit praide of the books. I’m sorry if I overlap.

1Q84 follows the dual stories of Aomame, a gifted personal trainer who kills irreperably violent men who beat their wives. She is self contained and largely friendless, but has a secret and perfect love that keeps her going. Tengo is an aspiring writer convinced to ghostwrite a crazy story written by a seventeen year old so that it will win a prize and shake up the literary world. But she is a very unusual girl and the usually chill Tengo finds himself getting involved with cults, private detectives and hiding missing people. Aomame gets similarly involed and although their paths do not interesect together they tell to story from different angles, revealing different information and insight into a reality that can’t possible be true.

So I complained a lot about 1Q84. I know I did. It made me feel better about spending weeks wading through the biggest book I think I’ve ever read. I think I actually read The Last Brother during one shift at work WHILE I was reading 1Q84.

BUT that being said I enjoyed every minute I spent reading it! I honestly did. I found it immensely readable, very wacky, excellent fun. And not just fun, also interesting thoughts about love and space and time and justice and parenting and the nature of reality. I was excited to get back to reading it, even though it was a complete pain to hold up in bed. Sure, there were flaws. Putting the three books into one meant that there was some overlap at the start of each new section as they explained what had just happened. NOT NECESSARY when you’ve just read what just happened. And it would have been such an easy edit/rework to sort that out! Also I found some of the translation a little clunky. BUT AGAIN, I loved reading it. For weeks! I didn’t get sick of the story, the characters, the general weirdness or the unusual dialogue.  I think that’s quite an achievment.

The Last Brother
on the other hand is very very short. Translated from the French, it tells the story of Raj, a young boy who lives with a violent father in a secluded spot on a Mauritian island. Poor and friendless he takes to following his father to the jail where he works as a guard. Here he encounters David, a young Czechoslovakian boy who has excaped from his home and the Holocaust to find refuge in then Palestine, only to be turned around and sent to jail. The two lonely boys become friends but when Raj decides to break David out of prison the results are…. not good.

The story takes the form of an older man reflecting on his past and as such it is filled with a mix of nostalgia and sadness. The language is lovely, very poetic. And it paints a vivid picture of the jungle that Raj find salvation in, as well as the easy friendship of two young boys who have each been through a lot of suffering. It was good, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as ANY of 1Q84. I don’t know if that’s how you’re supposed to judge books, and there are more constructive things I could say. It was easy to see where The Last Brother was going right from the start. Part of it’s charm lies in it’s simplicity. But 1Q84 was not just literally but literarily a much bigger work, so carefully constructed around a work of insane imagination, pulling in characters and storylines at all the right moments to keep it compelling

I think the jusge made this point (more or less) and that was their reasoning for awarding the win to 1Q84. But I disagree with their judgement that is was 400 pages too long (maybe 200?) and I also disagree that the end fell apart. I thoguht the introduction of the noir element was a successful way to draw the book to a finishing point and a climax to the ending. I think it was even better than Misha Angrist gave it credit for (for more check my previous post).

I also agree with the commenters who found the The Last Brother was emotionally manipulative. I agree that it sometimes felt like it was working for you to cry, which actually worked against it’s sadness at some points.

Steven, any thoughts?

Steven: Nope, haven’t read either.

Fay: Ok, so in summation: my favourite won, both good books, both in store, come by them now.

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Lack of Chatz on Sat(urday)

Hi Sunflower companions!

I’m sure you were all extremely disappointed to miss your regular dose of petty sniping and vaguely book related talk so I have decided to make up for it by telling you about a book I’m reading at the moment, The Wrong Boy by Suzy Zail.

WARNING! This is a rave, completely devoid of snide comments and lame jokes, so if you were looking for a Chatz on Sat(urday) replacement I’m sorry. You’ll just have to go bicker with your own brother or similar.

So The Wrong Boy follows the story of Hanna, a fifteen year old Hungarian girl who is expelled from her home and sent to Auschwitz. Hanna is a talented pianist and the sheltered younger daughter of a middle class family but once in the camp she must become the protector. With her mother slowly losing touch with reality and her siser Erika fading away, Hanna is selected to play piano for the Commander Jager and his guests, a job which earns the ire of her fellow prisoners. And that’s even before she starts talking to Karl, the Captain’s son who is hiding some secrets of his own…

This book is amazing, starkly and brutally depicting the horrors of Auschwitz while at the, same time, a human and touching story, beautifully told. While it’s marketed as a young adult novel I think is it (another) one of those great books that crosses over for an older reading audience. As in Morris Gleitzman’s Once series, the disbelief and innocence of a younger protagonist matches our own disbelief and inability to comprehend what happened.

Hanna is made vivid due to a wonderful mix of emotions: fear, hate, anger, shock, determination all bound together by love. The book also takes a fascinating look at the politics within the camp, from the brutal block leaders to the Polish prisoners who hate Hanna and her companions for their bodies still working.

The Wrong Boy is definitely a book worth reading for people of any age!

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The epic review of 1Q84

I promised you a review of 1Q84 and I think after all my whining about it I should deliver!

1Q84 is kind of hard to explain without revealing too much but I will not spoil anything I promise. Whatever information I give here you will find in the first few chapters.

1Q84 follows the parallel stories of Aomame and Tengo. Both are unusual characters whose lives are about to get considerably more unusual.  Aomame is an unusually self reliant and introspective woman who has a knack for human anatomy. Tengo is a maths genius and aspiring writer who works at a cram school. Both live mostly solitary lives and at the start of the novel both are about to embark on jobs that will make their lives much more complicated. Because Aomame’s talent for muscles makes her the perfect hired killer of particularly brutal husbands, and Tengo’s editor wants him to rewrite an imaginative story by an enigmatic 17 year old girl.

Before long both are involved with shady characters, cults, mysteries and the supernatural ‘Little People’.

1Q84 is crazy original and super quirky, as you would expect from Murakami. But more than that it’s incredibly enjoyable. The alternating chapter format kept me constantly engaged, especially as the two characters’ stories come closer and closer together, without quite touching. It’s full of metaphor and allusion and would be much more wanky if Murakami didn’t stop to explain some of his metaphors as he goes along, playfully undercutting them.

As in other books, Murakami mixes the strange fantasy elements of his novel with grounding physical details. Aomame’s clothes and Tengo’s cooking serve this purpose, with detailed descriptions that add an element of mundane real life to the crazy occurrences of the book.

It’s a story where you’re never quite sure what isreal, what is true and who the good guys really are. It’s freaking big and totally worth it!


Some thoughts on Jennifer Egan

For those of you who are unaware of Jennifer Egan, she is a wonderful American writer. I hadn’t hear of her either, until her latest novel A Visit from the Goon Squad won the Tournament of Books last year. (It also won the Pulitzer but then Geraldine Brooks also won the Pullitzer so I value the ToB win more highly.)

I loved Goon Squad a lot. I recommended it to pretty much everyone who walked into the shop in December and EVERY BODY LOVED IT. (Disclaimer: that may be an exaggeration, but a huge number of people came back in and told me they loved it and bought copies for friends. I only had one person come back and say they didn’t like it that much.) If I haven’t already recommended it to you, let me tell you about it. It’s a series of interconnected stories centred around Benny and Sasha who are record label people. There are stories from them, stories from people who are close to them, people who used to be in their lives, and some from people who you can’t figure out how they connected for ages. (That sentence sounds wrong. Thoughts?) Together the stories build up a picture of their lives from 1970s punk bands through success and the trouble it brings into musings on the near future of music. It’s a broad picture of time and people and music and failure and ultimately, for me, hope. It’s funny and sardonic and witty and quirky and beautifully constructed. You should read it.

I’m thinking about Goon Squad today because we just received some copies of Egan’s novel-before-last, Look at Me, eleven years after it was first published in America. I am looking forward to reading it, although in a recent interview Egan recommended reading her novels in reverse order so I’m going to reed The Keep first.

Here’s a fun fact: you couldn’t get any Jennifer Egan books published in Australia until after she found success with Goon Squad. I feel like Australian publishing is very conservative, as evidenced by the SEVEN oversubscribed print runs of The Street Sweeper that Random had to put out, and I’m still not sure if they’re too worried to do a bigger run. Anyway these are some thoughts that I am having on a Wednesday. I hope you’re having a lovely day and reading some exciting books.


Fay (the least crazy member of the Sunflower blogging team)



The Art of Fielding hits a home run!

I have always hated sport, any sport. I started wilfully sitting out sports days in protest when I was 14. That year was my first sports day without a fake note, dressed all in black in protest against the sporting house spirit. Across my years of

 sports day I have variously skipped it, protested it, started petitions against it and held picnics in the middle of the grounds. It probably started when I was an uncoordinated, chubby six year old, terrified of being hit in the face with something. Since I still possess these qualities as a 23 year old, I think it is safe to say I will not be joining a netball team or enthusiastically taking up bike riding any time soon.

All this is to say: we would think a 500 page novel about baseball would not be the one for me. And that is where you and I would apparently both be wrong!

The Art of Fielding is famous for earning Chad Harbach, an unemployed Harvard graduate, a $665 000 advance for a first novel. It’s about small town guy Henry Skrimshander, a skinny, lanky guy who doesn’t look like much but is in fact preternaturally gifted as a short stop. It’s about Mike Schwartz, the bear of a captain who discovers Henry but worries that he’ll never achieve anything close to Henry’s talent or focus, on or off the field. It’s about Dean Affenlight who, after a lifetime bachelor existence, finds a reason to come to the baseball and his daughter Pella, who flees to Westish University after a failed marriage. It’s about Owen, perhaps the most unlikely athlete ever, a genius with a great sense of style. He spends practise reading, refuses to run, often doesn’t even show up and is still respected by the rest of the team. One of my favourite lines in the book: “‘There’s so much standing around,’ Owen said when Henry asked him what he liked about the game. ‘And pockets in the uniforms.'”

It would be easy to say that The Art of Fielding isn’t really about baseball but about a group of different guys at college coming together and breaking apart. But it actually is a lot about baseball, and I found myself eagerly reading about plays and practises and games because the writing is that good. So whether or not you like sport I would definitely recommend The Art of Fielding.