Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Australian

The Narrow Road To The Deep North – Richard Flanagan

Another confession from the life of the would-be booklover: I haven’t kept up with the Man Booker prize winners. In fact, The Narrow Road To The Deep North was my very first. The Booker is pretty much the most prestigious international literary award that a book can win, so I had high expectations for Richard Flanagan’s sixth novel…

From the blurb: “August, 1943. In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma death railway, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his love affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier. Struggling to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from beatings, he receives a letter that will change his life forever.” So, we can tell right from the outset that The Narrow Road To The Deep North ticks a bunch of boxes: historical WWII novel, love affair, heavy themes, horrific setting, a sliding doors moment… and, to top it all off, in the Acknowledgements section Flanagan says he was inspired by his father’s experiences as a Japanese POW, so we can probably tick off “write what you know” as well. These are all the criteria for a Man Booker, right?

OK, I’ll stop being sassy. (Just kidding, I can’t turn it off.)

It’s the story of Dorrigo, a POW doctor who can’t stop obsessing over a few lusty weeks with his aunt-in-law back home. It’s another jumpy timeline, which I didn’t love, especially given that in this one there were no helpful year/place markings at the beginning of any of the chapters; the reader is expected to just bloody well figure it out as they read (even though the chapter might be happening ten years after or thirty years before the one preceding). Flanagan really wanted the reader to work for it. He didn’t even bother with inverted commas around his dialogue; I know it’s “artistic” to do that, but it always strikes me as pretentious and try-hard. Hmph.


Anyway, The Narrow Road To The Deep North spirals out around one particularly horrific day on the Burma Railway in August 1943. Some chapters build up to it through Dorrigo’s pre-war childhood and courtship with his wife, while other chapters focus on the post-war lives of Dorrigo, his fellow prisoners, and his prison guards. So, yeah, it’s kind of sprawling and epic; the timeline runs to about a century all up.

(Oh, and you might think that the title refers to the railway they were building, but actually Flanagan borrowed it from a 17th century haiku poet, Matsuo Bashō, whose book “Oku no Hosomichi” translates roughly to “Narrow Road To The Interior” or “The Narrow Road To The Deep North”.)

From the beginning, the book is kind of a mixed bag. Some passages are really great and poignant and immersive, while others seem really over-wrought and ridiculous. The Romeo and Juliet-esque plot twist was a bit much (both Dorrigo and his aunt-in-law, the one with whom he was having the affair before he went off to war, believe the other to be dead, and this little miscommunication fucks up their entire lives). I’m not a romantic, so their whole tragic love story really didn’t “move” me in the way I think Flanagan intended. All the chapters set in Australia basically amounted to a bunch of bellyaching about how Dorrigo really enjoyed fucking women who weren’t his wife. That just wasn’t fun for me, and – taking off my sassy-pants for a minute – I’m not sure it makes for good literature.


On the other hand, I quite enjoyed the sections focusing on the POWs on the railway. That sounds twisted, I know, but those parts were straightforward, no bullshit, and totally gripping. Flanagan did not sugar-coat the realities of war at all, and for me that’s huge points in his favour. There were no ellipses, no fading to black: he described the full physical horror and indignity suffered by the POWs, not to mention their mental anguish, in complete and gory detail. So, as I’m sure you can guess, The Narrow Road To The Deep North is not one for readers with sensitive stomachs (or souls) – I’m a tough bitch, and even I felt queasy in places.

So, it covers off two major themes: the effects of war, and the nature of love. They’re pretty lofty themes, and a lot to tackle in a single book (which is probably why it seemed that Flanagan did the former so much better than the latter). To be quite frank, I think Flanagan would have been better off just chopping off the entire first third off the book, getting rid of it altogether. The story wouldn’t have lost anything that wasn’t reiterated and reinforced later on anyway. It’d be like cutting off a gangrenous limb (the way Dorrigo had to do on the Burma Railway, incidentally).

It’s a better book than All The Light We Cannot See, I’ll give it that; in fact,  it’s probably one of the better historical WWII fiction books I’ve read in that it highlights quite well the ongoing and intergenerational effects of war (setting it apart from the ones that end on V Day). I suppose I can even (begrudgingly) see why it beat out We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves for the Man Booker in 2014; it’s a more “literary” book in that snooty, elitist sense… but I know which one I’d rather read, and which one I’d recommend more highly. Can you guess? 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Narrow Road To The Deep North:

  • “I picked 4 because of the start of the book. It tired in well, but took a bit to catch my attention. It was dreary and sad and I enjoyed it.” – Megan Vandewall
  • “Why can’t writers just tell a story, instead of trying to be clever? I’m not sure Flanagan actually has a decent story to tell, but this is a piece of junk.” – ggh
  • “The protagonist is an unappealing narcissist with a sophomoric attitude towards love.” – S. Luke
  • “Had trouble reading and staying interested in it. Too much narrative.” – saunabear
  • “Horrible pictures in my mind! Don’t need any more examples of man’s ability to be cruel and stupid. I’m going to go hug my cats.” – Diane Denham

The White Mouse – Nancy Wake

I’ve been obsessed with the story of Nancy Wake ever since a friend told me about her a couple of years ago. She was one of the most highly decorated women of WWII, and the stories of her exploits in resisting the Gestapo are legendary. That’s why I added this book in particular to The List. Peter FitzSimons wrote a far more popular biography (which I would also like to read some day), but I really wanted to hear the story of this incredible woman in her own words. The White Mouse wasn’t hugely popular upon release, and it didn’t have a massive print-run, so I thought I had sweet fuck-all chance of finding it in a secondhand bookstore. I always checked the biography section just in case, never expecting much… until one day I ducked into my local while I was waiting for a bus, and there it was! To this day, I can’t believe my luck.

OK, it turns out that Nancy Wake was actually born in New Zealand, even though we claim her as an Aussie (we will claim any decent Kiwi as our own without blinking an eye, it never ceases to amaze). In The White Mouse, she only gives us a page or two about her early life, though; she speeds right ahead to the ascendancy of Hitler and the beginning of WWII. She was living in Marseilles with her French husband at the time, and she found increasingly inventive ways to help the French efforts resisting the Germans, helping sneak refugees out of France when the Occupation began. She went on to become a leading figure in the Resistance, using her “native cunning and beauty” to overcome the suspicions of German guards and get through checkpoints. Yep, she literally flirted her way through the war, all the while killing German soldiers with her bare hands. That’s girl power, folks.

The Special Operations Executive training reports say that she was “a very good and fast shot”, noted for “put[ting] men to shame by her cheerful spirit and strength of character”. She also won a lot of drinking contests. By 1943, there was a 5-million franc price on her head. The Gestapo took to calling her “the White Mouse”, referring to her ability to elude capture – thus, the book title.


Her story is incredible, but the editing is shithouse, which is a real shame. There’s more than a few typos, and a lot of repetition; I quickly lost track of the number of times she described something as “extraordinary”. Little things like that could have been easily (and quickly!) fixed, and that would have made for a much more engaging read. We can hardly fault Wake herself for that; she was a bad-ass assassin spy, not a writer. And the level of detail she manages to recall is unbelievable – she must have kept really meticulous journals.

“For weeks now I had been subjected to more than my fair share of drama. I had been forced to flee from home, separated from my beloved husband and my darling [dog] Picon, made six fruitless journeys to the Pyrenees, been thrown in prison and kicked around, jumped out of a moving train, been fired at by a machine gun, sprinted to the top of a mountain, lost my jewellery, walked for five nights, been starved for eight days, and infected with scabies. There was no way I was going to let the little matter of a password deter me…. I crossed the road, went up to the front door and knocked. A man opened it and immediately I said, ‘I am Nancy Fiocca, you are in charge of our guides, I work for O’Leary, so do you, I want to go to Spain, I’ve had enough trouble getting here so don’t give me any crap.’”

So, yeah, as you can tell, Wake had a really matter-of-fact voice, and she talks really nonchalantly about the most terrifying of circumstances. Her affect doesn’t change between describing a dinner party and a major Resistance operation. I get the feeling she was much like that in real life as well.

Unfortunately, after the war, she didn’t exactly get a happily-ever-after. Her first husband, Henri Fiocca, had stayed behind in France after she was forced to flee, and he was captured, tortured, and executed by the Gestapo when he refused to give them her location. Wake, however, was unaware of her husband’s death until after the war ended. Her dog survived, and the story of their reunion in peace-time was one of the most heart-warming anecdotes I have ever heard.

She was also denied a medal by the Australian government for over five decades (shame!), on the grounds that she was “not fighting in any of the Australian services” during the war (double shame!). Indeed, from what I can tell, the Australian government treated her like shit in all other regards as well. When her second husband died in 1997, she was deemed ineligible for any pensions or benefits, and she had no children or family to support her. She ended up having to sell her war medals to support herself in her advancing years. Even so, she hardly seemed bitter; she said “There was no point in keeping them [the medals], I’ll probably go to Hell and they’d melt anyway”. She died in 2011, aged 98, of a chest infection.


Reading The White Mouse, I had to examine my own biases really closely. Why was I so enamoured with Nancy Wake, I kept asking myself, when I was so repulsed by Chris Kyle, the “American Sniper”? In the end, I think it came down to the fact that Nancy seemed far more grounded in reality, and far more self-aware. While she (self-admittedly) “loathed” the Gestapo, she came across as someone who had quite natural biases and constantly re-evaluated the evidence at hand. She watched the Nazis sack a city that she had lived in and loved for most of her life, first hand. Kyle, on the other hand, came across as someone who had been brainwashed into hating brown people and loving guns, and had never thought to question it.

Nancy Wake’s autobiography isn’t a romantic narrative, so if you’ve come here looking for a non-fiction version of The Book Thief or All The Light We Cannot See, you can move right along. The White Mouse is not a work of art, it’s not going to win any literary awards, but it’s deeply – unavoidably! – charming. It’s a story of incredible bravery and hardship, told without any sentimentality or self-effacing bullshit. Imagine if you got your no-nonsense grandma drunk, and found out she’d spent most of her life killing enemy combatants and doing courier runs for an underground resistance movement: that’s what reading The White Mouse is like. I fail to understand our collective obsession with fictionalised WWII narratives when there are books and stories like this out there (and they go out of print due to low sales). I can’t recommend The White Mouse on its artistic merit, but I think that you should read it anyway, and pay your respects to this incredible woman who probably could have won the war single-handedly if she’d needed to.

The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion

It’s hard to believe that The Rosie Project was Graeme Simsion’s debut novel. Shortly after Text Publishing released it, in 2013, it won both the ABIA Book Of The Year award and their General Fiction Book Of The Year award. International sales have topped 3.5 million copies. A couple of years ago, when I started putting together The List, this book was everywhere! It hardly seems fair that a debut novelist has that much success that quickly, eh?

The main character is a genetics professor, Don Tillman. He’s never had much “luck” with women, which will come as no surprise when I tell you that his proposed solution to that problem is to create a questionnaire to assess the suitability of each “potential mate”.

Tillman doesn’t fit in particularly well anywhere, really – there’s a lot of very heavy-handed hints that he has undiagnosed Asperger Syndrome. That in and of itself would be fine, but there’s something about his character that makes me feel… well, icky. Simsion pushes the socially-awkward-adult-male-nerd angle very hard, to the point where it started to evoke for me a salivating, entitled, MRA/incel keyboard-hero fucknuckle. Tillman seems to believe that he is an “ideal mate” for any woman, given his intelligence, physical health, financial success, and social status. I mean, doesn’t that sound just a little bit entitled and misogynistic? Plus, he says stuff like this:

“… but I immediately recognised Julie, the convenor, from Gene’s description: ‘blonde with big tits’. In fact, her breasts were probably no more than one and a half standard deviations from the mean size for her body weight, and hardly a remarkable identifying feature…” – page 7

I got used to it after a while. In fact, I even came to appreciate (a little) how Simsion managed to communicate to the reader a more objective perspective on Tillman’s beahviour without the character being consciously aware of it, which is quite tricky to do when the book is narrated in the first-person. But I still couldn’t help but wish his portrayal of Tillman’s symptoms had been written more carefully. Based on that alone, I knew that The Rosie Project could never be one of my favourites, or a Recommended read here on Keeping Up With The Penguins.

Anyway, this socially-awkward guy meets a fun-loving girl with Daddy issues (Rosie, natch), and she spectacularly fails his questionnaire. Yet (steel yourselves!) he finds himself drawn to her. He winds up helping this “unsuitable” bartender hunt down her biological father. Is Rosie a Manic Pixie Dream Girl? Well, kinda. I think she gets afforded more depth than MPDGs normally do, with the Daddy issues and all, but her character doesn’t actually “develop” all that much. Her entire presence in The Rosie Project is pretty much predicated on (1) finding her father, and (2) letting Don love her.

The real upside of the story is that it ends up inverting the much-maligned Grease storyline: the man is the one who ends up changing to win the girl, instead of the other way around. That’s something, at least!

I hope I haven’t put you off The Rosie Project completely, because plenty of other people love it and highly recommend it, so maybe you should take my garbage opinion with a grain of salt. Bill Gates included The Rosie Project on his list of “Six Books I’d Recommend”, and it’s hard to argue with one of the world’s most brilliant minds, eh? (And you can check out more surprising book recommendations from brilliant minds here, if you’re curious.)

Simsion pumped out a sequel pretty quickly, with The Rosie Effect being published in 2014. A sequel to the sequel, The Rosie Result, will be released any minute now. And a film adaptation of The Rosie Project is also in the works, but it’s hit a few roadblocks. The script is written, apparently, but Jennifer Lawrence (who was slated to play Rosie) pulled out, and directors have been playing pass-the-parcel with it ever since. I think it would translate particularly well to the big screen, so fingers crossed it finds a home eventually.

The Rosie Project is another book that you can burn through pretty quickly (a la Still Alice or The Book Thief), but I didn’t love it. I seem to be pretty alone in that opinion, though, so the only way to work out whether I’m right or wrong is to give it a go yourself… 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Rosie Project:

  • “Good argument, perfect development!
    This is a good book and I Was Entertainmented by the first person describing his life perceptions.” – elianasantos
  • “Absolutely love these socks. They fit beautifully and stay odor free for a long time.” – Magster
  • “I had the good fortune to discuss this book with someone who actually has Asberger’s. They said it was quite accurate except for where it needed to serve the plot.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Big Bang Theory wannabe” – Amazon Customer
  • “If your interested in a pregnancy b ook, then this is your book. No interest to me, sadly it went on a bit.” – Melissa
  • “Not again.” – Mark walker
  • “Story interesting and writing poor.” – Seattle Native

The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham

I’ve got to be honest: The List doesn’t feature as many Australian authors as I’d like. If you have a favourite, please do let me know so I can put it on The Next List! In the meantime, I’ve picked up The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham.

Believe it or not, The Dressmaker is actually Ham’s debut novel – and yet it’s sold over 100,000 copies since publication in 2000, and it was adapted into a major motion picture (starring Kate Winslet!) in 2015. What’s more, Ham has said that she wrote The Dressmaker by “accident”: it’s the product of participating in an RMIT creative writing course that she had never actually intended to join. She just showed up and started spitting fire, inspired by her mother’s life as a dressmaker in a small country town. Lifelong unpublished struggling writers everywhere are eating their hearts out…

The Dressmaker is set in a (fictional) Australian country town in the 1950s, so everyone has names like “Gertrude” and “Muriel”. The protagonist (Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage) returns to her hometown to take care of her ailing mother – who is more than a little cracked, it must be said. The locals shun her, but Tilly finds one friend in the local cross-dressing cop (of course!). He’s the one who spots her talent for dressmaking. She also has a bit of a flirt now and then with a poor bloke who lives in a caravan up the road.

It takes Ham a couple hundred pages (full of veiled references and allusions) to reveal Tilly’s “dark secret”: the locals blame her for the death of a boy who was bullying her when they were children. That’s pretty heavy, I suppose, but then Ham goes and kills off Tilly’s love interest in the same breath, so it’s a fair wallop for the reader. What’s more, he has the most ridiculous death ever – he jumps into a silo (of all things), believing it to be filled with wheat, when it is actually filled with sorghum. The sorghum can’t support his weight, he sinks and suffocates. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: men are stupid.


Anyway, this second death really sets the locals off, and Tilly is forced to do dressmaking work for people from neighbouring towns. They’re the only ones who don’t care about her small-town scandal(s), and they actually pay her on time, which is very nice of them. This goes on until the community decides to put on a play, and they come to Tilly – hats in hands – asking her to make their costumes. She agrees to do so on the condition that they pay her in full, up-front (fair enough). They pay her using the funds they had saved to insure all the town buildings. Can you see where this is going?

It’s probably a darker ending than you’re imagining (spoiler alert, etc. etc.): Tilly makes the costumes, waits until the whole town has left to perform the play in the next town over… then she burns the whole damn place to the ground. Every single building. All personal effects – even the dresses belonging to her friend the cross-dressing cop – up in flames. Whoosh! The end.

It’s pretty much what we’ve all dreamed of doing (“I’ll show them! I’ll come back when I’m rich and famous, I’ll have my revenge!”), only none of us are crazy enough to actually do it. The Sydney Morning Herald called it “a feral version of Sea Change”, which is pretty much spot on. Despite the dark ending, there are quite a few laugh out loud moments. The humour is deeply Australian, though, so I’m not sure how it would translate for an international audience.




Now, when you’re reading The Dressmaker, you can skip over a lot of the seamstress and fashion lingo, if you want. You won’t miss anything as long as you don’t care about being able to picture all her outfits with 100% accuracy. I didn’t bother looking any of it up, and I’m pretty sure I still got the gist. There are a lot of really obvious sewing and clothing similes (“the fog resting around the veranda moved like the frills on a skirt”), but for those an intimate knowledge of dressmaking isn’t required.

Side note: Ham starts to run out of those metaphors and similes about half way through, and has to start using clumsy imagery like this:

“… his toupee had washed off and lay like a discarded scrotum on the grass by his bald head…”

(This was, without parallel, my favourite line from the entire book.)

I took the liberty of watching the film trailer after I’d finished the book. Judging by that alone, the film is a lot more upbeat, and the Tilly character is much more expressive and likeable. Almost every review I’ve read of The Dressmaker says the same thing. So, although it was nice to read a homegrown book for once, I’d probably recommend you give it a pass and check out the movie instead.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Dressmaker:

  • “An absolute steaming pile of rubbish. The author lives up to her surname as she hams it up for the novel. There is a multitude of characters that I didn’t connect with or care about, it might translate well to the big screen but don’t let that tempt you into reading this.” – James Motgomery
  • “I suppose this book is supposed to be humorous, but I found it disgusting. After reading about ninety pages, I was sick of the lurid vignettes of perverts, so I stopped reading. I had expected a story about a young woman who earns her living with her Singer sewing machine. Perhaps that comes further along than I managed to read.” – Linda Appleton
  • “This has to be some kind of satire on life as the characters were totally unbelievable. I give this no stars and think it should be tossed in a fire. Since I have to Star rate it I give it a negative 1.” – Psyched!
  • “No not my type of book. Kept waiting for something nice to happen. Never did.” – diane bradley

 

My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin

I chose a considerably shorter and more recent local novel for my fourth Keeping Up With The Penguins read (I was gun-shy after the mammoth undertaking that was Vanity Fair). I was sure that My Brilliant Career would be knocked on the head far more easily, and I was right (as always).

Published in 1901, My Brilliant Career was written mostly for the enjoyment of Franklin’s friends – until she took a punt and sent it to Aussie literary giant Henry Lawson. He took such a fancy to the story that he added his own preface and forwarded it on to his publishers. That preface itself is notable in that he famously refused to comment on the “girlishly emotional” parts of the book – I mean, I think the story would have been hella boring without them, but I would think that, being an emotional girl and all… Anyway, Franklin ultimately withdrew it from publication until after her death. Apparently it bore just a little too much resemblance to her real life, and the ignorant bush peasants took offense to being described as such (can’t imagine why).

So, a 16-year-old girl living in the bush writes a story about a 16-year-old girl and the trials and tribulations of living in the bush: shocker. The opening chapters could be summarised as “I have no time for romance, and this book is all about me, so strap in, fuckers!”. Franklin captures the mind of a teenaged girl (Sybylla) perfectly, but that’s really no significant achievement, seeing as she was one at the time of writing.




Teenaged me would have hated this book. I would have found it condescending, and rolled my eyes at the well-meaning adult who handed it over saying they thought it would give me “perspective”. The thing is, angsty teenagers will automatically reject any intrusion on their belief that they are uniquely misunderstood little snowflakes, and Franklin’s book demonstrates pretty clearly that angsty teenagers are all the same and haven’t changed much over the last 100+ years. My Brilliant Career is full of dramatic hand-wringing and tear-soaked pillows and teenage strops. I’m actually kind of surprised I never had to read it in school; it seems right up the alley of an English teacher trying to provide “relatable content” on “teen issues” (à la The Breakfast Club, which we watched approximately four hundred and seventy two times).

Even though My Brilliant Career is determinedly not romantic, there’s a lot of flirting and teenage girl wish-fulfillment. Beecham, the primary love interest, is nice enough to be flattering without being creepy or boring, he doesn’t put up with Sybylla’s shit (but in a flirtatious way, not a mean way), he’s persistent and charming despite falling on hard times, and he wants to marry her even though she’s ugly. Can you imagine? There are no truly dirty bits, but plenty of impassioned exchanges and a random BDSM scene where Sybylla goes all weak in the knees over bruises and horse whips. Never fear, there’s no sentimentality in the ending at all: Sybylla ultimately chooses a “brilliant career” over marriage, and ends up with neither. Franklin reportedly suggested the title as “My Brilliant(?) Career”, which is laughably more apt, but the publishers vetoed it.

“At the time of my departure for Caddagat my father had been negotiating with beer regarding the sale of his manhood; on returning I found that he had completed the bargain, and held a stamped receipt in his miserable appearance and demeanour.”

– Sybylla, My Brilliant Career (oh, snap!)


The main highlights of My Brilliant Career are the language and Franklin’s turn of phrase, which often made me think of my grandmother (makes sense, given the shared time period and geography). On the whole, though, I found writing this review a little tricky, as I didn’t develop a strong feeling about the book one way or another. It’s okay. I probably won’t read it again, but I wouldn’t tell anyone else that they shouldn’t bother. Just avoid giving it to your 16-year-old daughter: she’ll hate you for it and go back to looking at memes on Tumblr.

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Brilliant Career:

  • “… I understand that at 16 we are all fairly self-absorbed although hopefully not quite so nasty. Nevertheless, while I can appreciate the beautiful writing I really got to the point where I was waiting for someone to take Sybylla over their knee and give her a corporal lesson in manners…” – Sharon Wilfong

 

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