6 April 2009

Things I've read lately

At http://morvahouse.blogspot

Apart from the short stories I've been happily reading, I have also read a few novels lately. These were, Cafe Sheherazade, by Arnold Zable, When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Iziguro, and Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K Jerome.

Three Men In A Boat (Not to mention the Dog), which is its full title, is easy to talk about because it is a light and silly book, meant for laughs. First published in 1889, which I mention to give an idea of the era in which the story takes place, it is about three young men who decide to take a boating holiday on the Thames. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

This slight story is really an excuse for a series of anecdotes about various things that the narrator finds amusing. Nearly everything that happens reminds him of at least one other thing that he cannot resist recounting to us.

He reminds me a little of JD in the TV series Scrubs, who is forever lapsing into daydreams. At one point the narrator of Three Men In A Boat is so engrossed in the scene of fishermen on the Thames at sunset that her steers his boat into them. It doesn't make them happy.

This is a story that can easily be read in short bursts

When We Were Orphans is a quite different book. It is a strange book, in some ways, because the narrator, Christopher Banks, is completely unreliable. He is inclined to present things as he would like them to have been. What makes it worse is that his memory is hazy on some points, and the information he has been given is, on at least one crucial point, a lie.

This is clearly the sort of book written with the idea that the reader will have to make up their own mind on some points.

When Chris was little, and living in China, his father worked for a company in the opium trade. His mother campaigned against that trade. One day, his father disappears. Some time later his mother disappears. He is told that the best detectives in China are searching for his parents, and he is sent away to boarding school in England.

He decides to become a detective. This he does. He claims to be famous, but given his fancifulness, it is hard to be sure if this is true. He certainly takes his time about returning to China to search for his parents.

By the time he returns to China, he has adopted an orphan girl, whom he leaves behind in England. It is through his conversations with her, though, that we can begin to sense the one truth about these fellow orphans. What they really seek is to be able to feel, just once, from someone, a sense of unconditional love.

A couple of points of interest is to compare When We Were Orphans, which is about a detective in England and China in the 1930s, with Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, a detective story set in 1930s America. Another point of interest is the portrayal of Shanghai in Iziguro's novel with what we learn from European refugees who wound up there in Arnold Zable's book about them, Cafe Scheherazade, another book I've read in the last month or so.

Cafe Scheherazade is loosely about a cafe in the Melbourne beach suburb of St Kilda. It was a home away from home for Europeans washed up by the post-war tide of immigration onto Australia's shores. Cafe Scheherazade was a place where they could eat familiar food and hear a familiar language. Zable interviews the people, learning the stories of the couple who run the place, of what happened to their parents, and also the stories of some of the people who frequent the cafe. Many of the stories are sad. The people who have survived to tell these stories have survived terrible things.

Cafe Scheherazade seemed to take a while to get going, but the chapters have a pattern to them, something about the cafe and the scenes around it, something about the people, and a story that someone tells. Once you get used to it the stories become easy to follow.

Here is a link to an interview with Arnold Zable.

Morva Shepley

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