Barkskins – Annie Proulx

Barkskins

“In the late seventeenth century two penniless young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord, a “seigneur,” for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters—barkskins. René suffers extraordinary hardship, oppressed by the forest he is charged with clearing. He is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman and their descendants live trapped between two inimical cultures. But Duquet, crafty and ruthless, runs away from the seigneur, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business. Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years—their travels across North America, to Europe, China, and New Zealand, under stunningly brutal conditions—the revenge of rivals, accidents, pestilence, Indian attacks, and cultural annihilation. Over and over again, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse.”

And that’s just the back cover! I picked out this 700 page tome to carry with me around Melbourne last year and while I ended up with a slipped disk, I loved sinking deep into the worlds spun together through this generational epic. The forests are the real protagonist of this story and the exploration of the human relationship with nature is, for me, what made this such a compelling read. What this novel lacks in clean-cut, conclusive narrative, it makes up for in atmosphere, landscape and character. It is a vastly ambitious feat where Proulx, not unlike Seuss’ Lorax, “speaks for the trees” making it a profound story for our time. Stunning.

4stars
M

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The Shipping News

 

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“Quoyle is a hapless, hopeless hack journalist living and working in New York. When his no-good wife is killed in a spectacular road accident, Quoyle heads for the land of his forefathers – the remotest corner of far-flung Newfoundland. With his delinquent daughters, Bunny and Sunshine, in tow, Quoyle finds himself a part of an unfolding, exhilarating Atlantic drama. The Shipping News is an irresistible comedy of human life and possibility.”

This novel is dark, comedic and set in Canada. As a long-time resident of the HSC Extension 1 English list and winner of the Pulitzer, it is considered an excellent work of fiction and for good reason. I love stories set against compelling landscapes. Barren, wintry, harsh and wildly remote, it is a dying, dwindling place much like many of the people who find themselves there. And while it is set in modern North America, don’t expect sentimental realism from Proulx’s postmodern novel. Her meandering narrative is bizarre and the rich gambit of characters are comical in their extremity. But it is through these and a
swath of intriguing motifs, visuals and metaphors that she weaves together a mesmerising story of redemption. It is a story about being human, about brokenness and family, about ancestry and identity, about love, forgiveness and the acceptance of self.

4stars

MA

Breath

breath.jpg“Bruce Pike can hear the sea at night and longs to go to the shore. When he befriends Loonie, his small town’s wild boy, that dream is realized. Together, intoxicated by the treacherous power of the waves and by the immortality of youth, the two boys defy all limits and rules. Pikelet learns what it is to be extraordinary, feels exhilaration for the very first time, and — caught up in love and friendship and an erotic current he cannot resist — he understands the true meaning of fear. These are experiences that will far outlast his adolescence. How, then, to mask the emptiness of leaving such intensity behind?”

Hemingway says a writer should know his content fully and write it simply… Winton epitomises this sentiment stunningly in ‘Breath.’ Set in Western Australia in the 1970’s and viscerally written, this book explores surfing, growing up, self-discovery, fear, rebellion, identity, and the heady excitement of escalation. Very mature themes.

5stars

MA

 

 

The Weak Suffer What They Must

YanisAfter hearing Yanis Varoufakis speak at the Sydney Writers Festival I went straight out and bought a copy of his book. For those of you interested in global economics at a tectonic level, Yanis is your man. This book is delivered with a sense of energy and vision, added to this Varoufakis provides detailed academic support for his many insights – culminating in an informative and interesting read that challenges the current social disadvantages of modern economies.

4starsG

Pride and Prejudice

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“With the arrival of eligible young men in their neighbourhood, the lives of Mr and Mrs Bennet and their five daughters are turned inside out and menide down. Pride encounters prejudice, upward-mobility confronts social disdain, and quick-wittedness challenges sagacity, as misconceptions and hasty judgements lead to heartache and scandal, but eventually to true understanding, self-knowledge, and love. In this supremely satisfying story, Jane Austen balances comedy with seriousness, and witty observation with profound insight. If Elizabeth Bennet returns again and again to her letter from Mr Darcy, readers of the novel are drawn even more irresistibly by its captivating wisdom.”

Jane Austin’s classic love story is still very readable for modern audiences and the relational dynamics explored remain universal. I first read this book as a teenager thanks to my sister’s enthusiasm for the character of Lizzy Bennet and now count it an important part of any English canon of classic writing. Go on, have a read and say hi to Mr Bennet for me!

5stars
PG

The Garden of Eden

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‘The Garden of Eden’ is one of Hemingway’s final works and was published posthumously. This character driven novel frolics though the European summer and follows the writer David Bourne and his wife Catherine as they Honeymoon together. Hemingway captures the flavour of an uncrowded and idyllic French Mediterranean, and he makes important statements about the nature of art and of love.

5starsMA

Graceling

Katsa has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight—she’s a Graceling, one of the rare people in her land born with an extreme skill. As niece of the king, she should be able to live a life of privilege, but Graced as she is with killing, she is forced to work as the king’s thug. When she first meets Prince Po, Graced with combat skills, Katsa has no hint of how her life is about to change. She never expects to become Po’s friend. She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace—or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away… a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone.

607gracelingPG3stars

Pieces of Sky


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“Lucy’s life was going as smoothly as any teenager’s could. She was the state backstroke champion, and swimming obsessed. She lived with her parents and her brother, Cam, in the small coastal town she’d known all her life. She had friends, she had goals – she had a life.Now Cam is dead, her parents might as well be – and Lucy can’t bear to get back in the pool. All she has to look forward to now is a big pile of going-nowhere.Drawn to Steffi, the wild ex-best-friend who reminds her of her artist brother, and music-obsessed Evan, the new boy in town, Lucy starts asking questions. Why did Cam die? Was it an accident or suicide? But as Lucy hunts for answers she discovers much more than she expects. About Cam. About her family. About herself.”

Pieces of Sky is an effortless read from beginning to end. The voices are real, the emotional tenor rings true and within pages I was hooked. In a clever way the narrative progression orbits around a dead character and there is a really exciting sense of getting to know Cam vicariously despite his death occurring before the story begins. This novel works on so many levels, an adolescent expose of east coast life in Australia and a reflective journey through the process of grief, acceptance and healing. It’s a beautiful world to be in, so pick this gem up and let yourself sink beneath the waves.

5stars

M

A Moveable Feast

a-moveable-feast-232x377Reading ‘A Moveable Feast’ is a sensory indulgence. The narrative follows Hemingway though his early years in Paris and gives insight into the art scene of Europe during this exciting time in history.  Although romantically focalised by an older Hemingway, there is a ring of authenticity in the emotional quality of the book and you can almost hear the hum of poignant memories brought back to life. I actually read ‘A Moveable Feast’ while bouncing around cafes in Melbourne; once you’ve read this little gem you’ll appreciate the parallel satisfaction I had during this experience. Heaps of fun and typical crisp Hemingway.
5stars
PG

A Visit from the Goon Squad

“Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption”

I really thought that this 2010 Pulitzer-winning novel by Jennifer Egan was gorgeous. Very clever structure that defies chronological ordering or a straight forward plot-line. The characters a beautifully drawn and despite the fragmented layout of the story, I found I was hooked on the characters’ stories and the way they weaved in and out of each other’s lives. The ‘goon’ in this story is time itself and Egan explores how none of us are exempt from it. A funny, insightful and very intelligent novel.
4stars MA