Sunday, June 28, 2009

Latest Reading

As per usual I've been reading madly and here are my highlights from the last few weeks ...

The Outcast by British author Sadie Jones is an assured debut novel which was shortlisted for the 2008 Orange Prize. A sobering tale about a teenage male protagonist outcast from upper middle class British society in the 1950's due to perceived wrongs, it is immensely readable, with taut characterisation and a filmic quality to many of the scenes (it started life as a screenplay apparently).

I was particularly impressed that the author decided to make her main protagonist male -considering she is female -and the young Lewis Alridge, though deeply damaged, is catnip for female readers everywhere. Young, sexy and enraged, but with a kind soul at bottom... yum yum indeed.

I did find some of the dialogue a bit forced and the plotting repetitive at times, but overall it was an enjoyable read. Published by Random House.

The Women in Black by Aussie author Madeleine St John originally came out in the early 90's but has just been reissued. This is a serious gem of a novel - insightful, darkly funny and heartwarming - that I can't recommend highly enough. Perfect for a cold winter's day spent huddled under a blanket on the couch, The Women in Black follows the adventures of four women who work in a fictionalised version of David's Jones' flagship Elizabeth St store in Sydney in the late 1950's. Set over the course of one summer, each woman's character is deftly drawn and St John's observations of middle-class Australian life at that time are brilliantly realised. With not a word out of place, fashion fans like myself will enjoy immersing themselves in the cocktail frocks, and everyone else will enjoy the wry humour and joyful ending. Published by Text Publishing this one went straight to Mum so she can read it next.

I've been meaning to read Ayaan Hirsi Ali's autobiography for quite some time. My Mum read it yonks ago and raved about it and I saw Ali in conversation at the Sydney Writers' Festival in 2007 where she really made an impression. Regardless of how you might feel about her politics, Ayaan's story makes a riveting read. Before she was even forty it was like she had already lived nine lives, born in Somalia, a daughter of a revolutionary; growing up in Somalia, Saudi Arabia and then Kenya; a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in her teens; leaving an arranged marriage by escaping to the Netherlands; living as a refugee in the Netherlands; her political awakening and subsequent entry into Dutch politics; a murder than thrust her into the international spotlight ... and much much more.
Although Ali's story is only one woman's experience, I do think her story speaks volumes about the lives of Muslim women in Africa and the Middle East, as well as those now living in Europe, North America and Australia.
This isn't a political blog by any means but I challenge any man or woman to read this book and not come away shocked and angry. Interestingly French President Nicholas Sarkozy suggested this week that the burka be banned in his country (France has the largest Muslim population in Europe). On Bust Magazine's blog I was interested to read the comments to a story about this- all from intelligent, politically aware women (as that is the magazine's readership) - and note that many of them (though not all) are apologetic of this bizarre cultural practice, claiming that many of the Muslim women "choose" to wear this type of dress. But if your community would call you a prostitute if you didn't wear a burka, you'd probably choose to wear one too, right?

READ THIS BOOK (published by Simon and Schuster).

On a lighter note I'm in the midst of the Elizabeth Gaskell classic North and South which has got me thinking about how many awesome female role models there are in the literary canon including the dependent and independent Margaret Hale in this book, Elizabeth Bennett, Anne Elliott, Jo March, Dorothea Brooke and more. If I am ever lucky enough to have a daughter one day, I can't wait to introduce her to these amazing characters.

I also can't wait to watch the fab BBC North and South mini-series again when I finish the book. Richard Armitage is such a spunk as John Thornton ... sigh. North and South is a must-read and must-see for hardcore romantics.

Available as a Penguin Classic.

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