An avid reader calls it as she sees it on books, publishing and the written word in general.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do

You might think that a memoir of persecution in Vietnam, of desperate flight on a leaky boat and a struggle to build a new life in Australia, is hardly laughing material. The Happiest Refugee would prove you wrong. Not only did Anh Do and his family live through those harrowing experiences, but he grew up to be a comedian.

One of the most unique things about The Happiest Refugee is the style of the writing. It gave me the eerie sensation that I wasn’t reading a book at all, but rather listening to Anh Do tell the story, or perhaps  watching him on stage. In fact, to some extent the whole book feels like an extended version of a comedy routine, often digressing from the story to cover some incidental event and leading up to a punchline. You get the impression that making jokes is so much a reflex, Do can’t help himself. There are no poetic descriptions of the shadows of leaves on water here, no more than you would hear them down the local pub – Do gives it to us direct. I found this distinctive voice to be one of the strengths of the book, although some may find it an uncomfortable reading experience.

The events covered in the book are in any case dramatic enough without needing further ornamentation. His family’s escape from Vietnam, the attacks by pirates on their boat and the difficulties of adjusting to a new country provide plenty of material. In addition, Do provides the book with a strong emotional core by delving into his relationship with his father, one that is conflicted at the best of times. His journey from hero-worship of his father, to effectively throwing him out of the house as a teenager, to a reconciliation many years later, binds the book together and Do’s honesty is impressive. It must have been tempting to avoid writing about issues that are clearly still sensitive but Do holds little back.

Because of its simple style, The Happiest Refugee is likely to appeal to reluctant readers as well as fan’s of Do’s comedy. I have the feeling that male readers may enjoy it more than female (who may prefer Alice Pung’s Unpolished Gem which deals with similar territory) but the awards it has won show that it also has wide appeal. Do should be congratulated for a dramatic tale told simply and well, and in a distinctive voice that is all his own.

Friday, April 6, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Christmas in the Country by Carola Dunn

It happened quite by mistake, while I was searching for a historical mystery recommended in The Age newspaper a few weeks ago. I rather like novellas so when I saw that the author had written a Christmas-themed book consisting of two novellas I thought it would be a good introduction to her work. Like a plum pudding or a hot cross bun, a Christmas-themed mystery goes down well at any time of year.
Unfortunately, I must have taken a wrong turning at some point, and rather like Alice through the looking glass or the children tumbling through the back of the wardrobe, I found myself in a strange and mysterious place. I found myself reading a Regency Romance.
Rather like a tourist in a strange country, I was quite charmed and delighted by the strangeness of it all. Look, the heroine’s father is a country squire! They are going to a ball! She’s wearing a fur muff! In fact, starting with the muff, there was an entire new vocabulary to learn, most of it consisting of various terms for clothing. I have no idea what a “striped lutestring” or “peach sarsnet” are, except that the heroine was considering wearing them, before she decided on the “deep-rose velvet carriage dress, trimmed with black satin” and accompanied by a “Parisian bonnet of black velvet lined with rose sarsnet and embellished with a wreath of roses about the crown.” As you can no doubt guess by now, it appears that the world of regency romances (at least in terms of their readers) are a firmly male-free zone. The repeated descriptions of clothing might have been enough to send me to sleep, if I hadn’t had so much entertainment trying to figure out what the words actually meant and whether sarsnet was actually a kind of net or not.
The other characteristic of the regency romance (from my highly scientific venture into the genre) appears to be the obsession of the female characters with a state known as “being compromised.” As you can tell from the passive construction, this is a dreadful fate that happens to women at the hands of handsome rapscallion types. It apparently represents a kind of social death. Unfortunately, it also appears to be rather difficult to avoid, as simply being alone with a man in a secluded setting could qualify. Therefore, the characters are generally doomed to cast lustful glances at each other from afar, or restrain themselves to polite conversation about the weather. That is, until some crisis precipitates them into each others’ arms and they begin planning the wedding.
As you may have gathered by now, I found the whole thing rather hilarious. I am clearly not qualified to make any comments on the quality of the books in general – Dunn’s works may be fine examples of the genre or otherwise. I could make some comments about how the fetishisation of this period in history with its impossible restrictions on women’s lives represents a worrying trend, but in order to do that I’d have to take the whole thing seriously. I can’t quite seem to manage that feat. If this rings people’s bells, I wish them good luck with their genuine Valenciennes lace and Yule logs. One visit to the land of regency romance has been more than enough for me.