October 9, 2017
If you’re not into boxing, you might dismiss Mike Tyson as a thug, convicted rapist and washed-up sell-out. There’s some truth in all these labels, but his autobiography, The Undisputed Truth, is a portrait of an infinitely more complex and confronting character, one who is completely outside the box. His voice, too, is entirely unique, the product of a rough upbringing, years of therapy and rehabilitation and a more-than-passing interest in history and philosophy.
Tyson’s uniqueness comes from having lived life at the extremes. He grew up in unimaginable poverty in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a brutalising environment which he would become his element and he would return to throughout his life. His father was absent, his mother was a madam who filled their house with domestic violence, all night parties and strings of men. For young Mike, there is a straight line from neglect to leaving school at seven to finding a sense of belonging with local petty criminals. His lisp and poor hygiene made him the subject of bullying, and when he lashes out violently, his community gives him accolades. At the age of eleven, he has taken revenge on all those who persecuted him, and has become so infamous that grown men come to fight him. In a dark reflection of the American dream, mugging, robberies and burglaries bring him material success in the form of clothes and pigeons, the latter a local passion that will stay with him into adulthood. By the time he’s thirteen, he’s in juvenile detention. Read the rest of this entry »
October 12, 2016
‘The great Australian silence’. It’s a phrase I’ve heard, referring to our country’s whitewashing of its history with its Indigenous people, but one I’ve never really understood. Having read Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country, I feel like I’ve begun to amend my ignorance.
Grant is a Wiradjuri man and journalist who has worked for numerous Australian news networks, as well as internationally for CNN. He has long been an advocate for Aboriginal issues, but has risen in prominence this year on the back of a powerful speech at the Ethics Centre IQ2 Debate in January 2016.
Talking To My Country is a brave, honest and raw book that communicates how it feels to be Aboriginal. It covers, briefly, the history of European and Aboriginal contact: the occupation of land, the genocidal government policies, the theft of children, the sundering of culture, the racism, both official and societal, that plagues Australia to this day. It talks, too, of how the dominant narrative ignores the many atrocities committed by the British during the frontier wars. Read the rest of this entry »
June 3, 2016
Escapism. It’s a term used for stories that are entertaining, light, and inconsequential. Nothing more than an escape from reality. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay doesn’t just revel in escapism; it makes a two-fisted defence of it.
The novel tells the story of Joseph Kavalier and Sam Clay, two Jewish cousins growing up in the era when Nazism began to cast its shadow across the world. Joe is a talented artist with a passion for escape artists and stage magic. Aided by his family’s life savings, his magic teacher and an inanimate golem, he escapes Europe just as the fascists are closing the trap. Sam lives in New York with his stereotypical Jewish mother (who doesn’t love a stereotypical Jewish mother?) and grandmother, having been abandoned by his circus strongman (really) father. Despite coming from such burly stock, Sam is short of stature and spindly of leg due to a bout of polio at a young age. He has a big mouth, he is able to conveniently translate into a knack for bombastic writing. Read the rest of this entry »
March 18, 2016
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Of all the writers I’ve read, Tolstoy is best able to capture the totality of human nature. Again and again, I was floored by the depth of his characters’ internal worlds, his ability to sketch out the motivations and contradictions and fantasies of people whose circumstances are so varied and different from his own.
Anna Karenina is, for those that don’t know, the story of an aristocratic woman who has an affair. There’s also a lot about a guy who likes farming. That’s it. As far as plots go, it’s not the greatest hook, but around this unexceptional subject is more insight into the human condition than you’ll find in a hundred best sellers. Read the rest of this entry »
January 25, 2014
Set in Cuba and Key West, against the background of prohibition, the Great Depression and the spread of communism, To Have and Have Not, as the title suggests, is about the difference between the rich and the poor. The first half of the novel focuses in Harry Morgan, a tough, often cruel rum runner who works the Gulf Stream. He’s in the classic Hemingway mold, but is neither as noble nor as colourful as some of the author’s more beloved protagonists.
After a rich passenger stiffs him for a season’s work, Harry is forced to take a job smuggling ‘ Chinamen’, typical of the dangerous assignments he feels he has to take on to feed his family. At this point, the theme is subsumed by the exotic setting of Cuba and the adventure of the smuggling trade. Read the rest of this entry »
December 22, 2013
If I have a daughter, I’ll get her to read The Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen is a great heroine – smart, resourceful, and pretty handy to have around if there’s no meat in the freezer. Sure she’s a little grim, but she provides a nice counterbalance to the passive princesses and attention-seeking twerkers that young girls have to look up to.
She’s also a product of her world. There’s a bit of backstory to The Hunger Games, but it’s all pretty familiar. Dystopian future America. Totalitarian government. Teen death match. In many ways, it’s like a concentrated, exaggerated version of our world, and I was surprised at how political it is. It’s savage in its depiction of wealth disparity, the media, and corruption. Although the central conceit of gladiatorial bouts to keep the populace subdued is a bit ridiculous, it did strike me as echoing our individualistic, cruelly competitive culture. Read the rest of this entry »
November 5, 2013
Haruki Murakami wrote After the Quake in response to the 1995 Kobe earthquake. In his characteristically unconventional memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, he states that the short story collection was a turning point in his fiction, when his writing become less introspective and more outward-looking. His new perspective is evident in the greater range and depth of his characters, the third person narratives, and the more mature themes which he explores.
It deals with the earthquake very indirectly. Rather than exploiting the tragedy for drama, he explores it as a psychological phenomenon. In most of the stories, it is ancillary to the main story, but pivotal.
Still present are all the things I love about the writer – the championing of mundane courage, the conversational prose, the off-beat sensibility. My personal favourites in the collection are the last two stories, Super-Frog Saves Tokyo and Honey Pie. In the latter, the main character, also an author, ends on a note that I suspect is autobiographical:
‘I want to write stories that are different from the ones I’ve written so far, Junpei thought: I want to write about people who dream and wait for the night to end, who long for the light so they can hold the ones they love.’
From now on, I’ll be reading Mr Murakami’s later works with this in mind.