Tales from the Inner City – Shaun Tan

Tales from the Inner City is a powerful reflection on the nature of existence and the urban relationship we have with the animals within our human world.  From the dog to the crocodile; from the tiger to the frog, world renowned artist Shaun Tan explores the perennial love and destruction we feel and inflict on our fellow creatures.

Shaun Tan always creates enjoyable and thought-provoking work, and in Tales from the Inner City he explores nature, our co-existence – or not – with animals and how our way of life effects the natural environment around us.

This heavy, lavish hardback tome of 225 glossy pages, is full of atmospheric illustrations, each set over two pages which accompany the numerous short stories, and sharply contrast the differences in two opposing worlds and have an air of the dreamlike about them.

The stories themselves are a mixed bag in terms of their messages, some are obvious, but due to the trademark whimsy and surreal of Tan’s style, others fail as the point being made is sometimes too veiled.  Despite this, I find all them enjoyable and full of depth. Continue reading “Tales from the Inner City – Shaun Tan”

The Castle of Crossed Destinies – Italo Calvino

A group of travellers chance to meet, first in a castle, then a tavern. Their powers of speech are magically taken from them and instead they have only tarot cards with which to tell their stories. What follows is an exquisite interlinking of narratives, and a fantastic, surreal and chaotic history of all human consciousness.

When my friend Chris passed this book and 100 Years of Solitude to me at the pub years ago, it really opened my eyes to literature beyond the bestsellers, and books that publishers pay to go in the ‘featured’ section.  Thankfully it sent me on a trajectory to discovering some of the best written and most imaginative works of literature, and then beyond to other genres.

As always, Calvino styles this books differently to all his others, it really is impressive to read an author who can consistently change his approach and write such strong works, each of the six books of his that I have read so far have been challenging and ambitious.

The introduction is atmospherically written in the style of Le Morte d’Arthur, presenting us with a medieval castle, a dream like atmosphere and then we are into the story.  Silently telling tales invites interpretations of body language as the placing of cards invites widely differing and not always clearly (for he narrator) conveyed ideas.  Handily for the reader, there are reproductions of the cards in the margins of the book, as they are introduced, the detailed ones do suffer from the necessary smallness of the illustrations.

Interpreting Tarot cards in a direct fashion is not only a refreshing plot device but proves to be equally as subjective as their traditional use is. It is a clever medium in which to tell various stories but not in the original intended style as symbolic, of cabalistic, astrological, alchemical, etc, but of stories the reader will be familiar with in some way.

The structure of the book contains nods to the literary styles of both Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s The Decameron. There are also plenty of references to a whole plethora of well-known stories based around such characters as Roland, Oedipus, King Lear, Mephistopheles, Parsifal, and Orlando Furioso to name a few.  It’s a delight to read and encompasses the need for humanity to understand both the world around them and our inner selves.
Continue reading “The Castle of Crossed Destinies – Italo Calvino”

Dream Stories – Merlinda Bobis

A village holding back the rising of the moon.  A White turtle ferrying dreams of the dead.  A queue of longings in Sydney.  A river sweet with lemon grass.  A working siesta in a five-star hotel.  An anomalous kiss in Iraya.  Or the secret of the tightening shoes.  These are among the twenty-three dream stories that Merlinda Bobis conjures between the Philippines and Australia.  The mythic weave with the wistful, the quirky with the visionary, and always in a storytelling that sings.

Confusingly this book has already been published in Australia as White Turtle, and in the U.S. as The Kissing, why it needs a different name in every country its published in is beyond me.  Looking at this in the local bookshop, it seemed like a very enticing read but thanks to the habit the shop has of wrapping them all in clear plastic I was unable to read any of the contents.

It is hard to write about short stories without big spoilers but I shall endeavour to give you a flavour of the work whilst avoiding any key points.  I may as well start with a note about two stories mentioned above as I have to begin somewhere.

White Turtle is a story about cultures, the meeting of old ways, of old story telling and modern, and how they can be understood in different more flexible ways. The Kissing, tells of a stolen kiss and the consequences it brings upon the lives of a house.  Both of these stories were the major highlights along with The Sadness Collector which talks about family bonds and the struggle of a long distance relationship, one involving a child.

Bobis is a strong writer and her feminist views are shown in full force.  Her anger at the stereotypes about Asian women are particularly vivid as are her portrayals of horrible foreign men, especially Australians.  Getting past all the vitriol, there are some interesting stories but I think less is more when it comes to making an impact when about such experiences. Continue reading “Dream Stories – Merlinda Bobis”

Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks – David Lavery

Full of Secrets contains virtually everything you need to know about Twin Peaks. This fascinating collection of essays considers David Lynch’s politics, the enigmatic musical score, and the show’s cult status, treatment of violence, obsession with doubling, and silencing of women. Also included are a director and writer list, a cast list, a Twin Peaks calendar, a complete scene breakdown for the entire series, and a comprehensive bibliography.

What a comeback event the first few episodes of the third season  of Twin Peaks was. No doubt one of the seminal shows of television history, this book analyses the first two seasons and prequel film Fire Walk With me but rest assured as ever, there are no spoilers contained anywhere within this review.

The twelve detailed analyses contained in this collection are part of the fascinating world of deconstruction that never ceases to revolve around this enigmatic show.  It is a shame, then, that it is such a challenge to tease out the interesting bits from a lot of overblown posturing.

Any attempt to intellectualise Twin Peaks (as written by these authors all with a Ph.d) will predictably straddle the fine line between pretentious and sometimes insightful.  There is a lot called on here to illustrate points from art and literature all the way through to Semiotics.  It underlines the point that when something is a mystery, more obscure references must be pulled in to explain points and thus widen and convolute the original enigma.

The selection of subjects is of varying interest, the internet chatrooms – in their infancy in the early 90’s – is interesting, as the state of US TV and how programmes are marketed to different demographics. Any mention of Umberto Eco is always likely to make my day as well. Continue reading “Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks – David Lavery”

Clay Tongue – Nicholas Conley

claytonguenovFrom the author of the award-winning Pale Highway and the radio play Something in the Nothing comes a short fantasy of love, shyness, and the secrets of human communication.

Katie Mirowitz is a small little girl with an even smaller little voice. She possesses a deep love for her grandfather, who suffers from aphasia after a bad stroke cuts loose the part of his brain that processes verbal language. When Katie uncovers a miraculous secret inside the pages of her grandfather’s old journal, as well as an ancient key, she goes out into the woods in search of answers — hoping to uncover a mythical being that, if it exists, may just have the ability to grant wishes.

Author, blogger and all round good chap Nicholas Conley is at it again with another fine offering which, although short is an excellent read and well worth some of your currency.

The succinct nature of such works as this always leaves a challenge for the hard done to reviewer but nevertheless the workout is good after the Christmas binge.  The cover is a wonderful piece of art and gives nothing away, only what the imagination speculates on.  More of this type of book presentation would certainly be a more pleasing state of affairs for all readers and casual observers alike.

The first chapter is a genuinely moving entrance into the life of a young girl Katie, who is trying to understand her grandfathers sudden change after a stroke.  Her lack of comprehension is a challenge to read but perfectly realised by the author.  This is paralleled by her grandfather’s ingenuity and tenaciousness to overcome the communication problems that aphasia brings.

communication is a big part of this story, coupled with time and its cruel effects. It feels totally believable and I found myself hooked, reading through in one sitting.  There is much scope for self-reflection as well and a reminder to view life through the eyes of a child every so often.

Continue reading “Clay Tongue – Nicholas Conley”

The Book of Speculation – Erika Swyler

speculativeOne June day, an old book arrives on Simon’s doorstep, sent by an antiquarian bookseller who purchased it on speculation. Fragile and water damaged, the book is a log from the owner of a traveling carnival in the 1700s, who reports strange and magical things, including the drowning death of a circus mermaid. Since then, generations of “mermaids” in Simon’s family have drowned–always on July 24, which is only weeks away.

As his friend Alice looks on with alarm, Simon becomes increasingly worried about his sister. Could there be a curse on Simon’s family? What does it have to do with the book, and can he get to the heart of the mystery in time to save Enola?

Having started American Horror Story: Freak Show at the weekend, I was reminded that I needed to write a review for this book.  One which takes me back to a sunny day on Salem Common where I first delved into it, nothing beats reading in a place with a bit of atmosphere.

Browsing the shelves in Barnes and Noble earlier that week, my eye was caught by the cover featuring a lady handling books, which is the high mark of sexiness in my opinion.  Having browsed the blurb and noted the key features, family curse, carnival and old book, I thought I would speculatively pick it up for review, it was only after leaving the shop that I realised it was coincidentally called The Book of Speculation.

Whilst being a familiar theme, the time-worn, ornate book with obscure secrets to decipher never gets any less enticing or mysterious.  Having an old tome as the centre piece is always going to keep book lovers reading and I enjoyed this one, it built slowly and kept my attention with its fantastical and melancholy elements swirling agreeably into one another.

The book is structured with a dual timeline running in alternate chapters as we are first introduced to Simon, a librarian who’s soon becomes caught up in the history of a carnival, his researches into this travelling oddity unfold alongside his own personal life and the ultimate link between them, his sister.  Continue reading “The Book of Speculation – Erika Swyler”

The Fall of the Stone City – Ismail Kadare

Stoney FacedIn September 1943, German soldiers advance on the ancient gates of Gjirokastër, Albania. It is the first step in a carefully planned invasion. But once at the mouth of the city, the troops are taken aback by a surprising act of rebellion that leaves the citizens fearful of a bloody counter-attack.

Soon rumours circulate, in cafes, houses and alleyways, that the Nazi Colonel in command of the German Army was once a school acquaintance of a local dignitary, Doctor Gurameto. In the town square, Colonel von Schwabe greets his former classmate warmly; in return, Doctor Gurameto invites him to dinner. The very next day, the Colonel and his army disappear from the city.

The dinner at Gurameto’s house changes the course of events in twentieth-century Europe. But as the citizens celebrate their hero, a conspiracy surfaces which leads some to place Gurameto – and the stone city – at the heart of a plot to undermine Socialism.

Thanks to Sarah over at Hard Book Habit for bringing this book to my attention and thanks to the well-known chain of bookshops that actually bothered to stock it, rather than just pander to the popular books and terrible novelty things clogging up the entrance that one has to wade through before getting to the good stuff.

World War II is a natural hotbed for history and literature (although perhaps it is reaching saturation point on the latter), yet Albania and its inhabitants aren’t mentioned in anything I have read.  Neighbour Greece has plenty written about it but it is surprising that Albania hasn’t had as much coverage as it makes for an interesting study.  Part of Italy’s empire until their eventual capitulation, taken over by Germany and then under the yoke of communism, there is certainly plenty of scope for exploring the political and human aspects of the conflict.

Mixing fact and fiction Kadare creates a thought-provoking story, filled with satire and darkness where fact and fiction mingle to manufacture confusion and fear at every turn.  From the outset there is a feel of magical realism to the book, slightly reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez but this is layered over with a nightmarish quality that runs through the book, hinted at in the beginning and coming to brutal fruition towards the end. Continue reading “The Fall of the Stone City – Ismail Kadare”