The Narrow Road to the Deep North

In a previous post, I mentioned that I was reading “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Richard Flanagan, and that I had borrowed it from a friend. In that same post, I also mentioned that I’m predisposed to like books that are borrowed from friends. Now, I have finished reading TNRDN, and whilst I really, really, really liked the novel, I am wondering a bit about this bias.

Well, you see, the friend who I borrowed it from hadn’t actually finished reading it before she lent it to me; she just read a few chapters, and then kind of gave up on it. As I was reading TNRDN, I kept telling her how great it was, and that she should persist with it and give it a second chance. But I think at times I also forgot that she hadn’t read it yet – it’s not that I tried to discuss details with her, but in my mind I had this vague impression that she’s read it in its entirety.

Anyway, I’m not sure if my bias/predisposition still works if the person whom I borrowed the book from hasn’t finished the book and/or didn’t like it. And then I’m really grateful and really want to thank her for introducing me to this book, which I will probably always associate with her irrespective of whether she ever does finish it or not, but I’m sort of wondering if it’s kind of a false connection.

Am I overthinking this? Sorry to say, but this is typical of my thought processes sometimes.

Enough rambling.

I actually really, really, liked – wait, I already said that. Ok, let me explain why. But first, a bit of background: TNRDN is an Australian WWII novel about the POWs who helped build the “Death Railway” through Thailand and Burma. It’s mostly the story of one character, Dorrigo Evans, but the stories of some of the side characters are also explored in some detail – other POWs but also those working for the Japanese military as well.

I actually didn’t know anything about the Death Railway before reading this novel, which makes me feel like this was something I needed to read (also makes me feel guilty about my lack of knowledge about Australian history, but supposedly it’s a part of the war that just didn’t get talked about very much, and still doesn’t). The novel’s probably aimed at people like me.

There’s a lot of confronting, gruesome detail in it (not of actual warfare but of things like foul diseases, and crude surgery with makeshift instruments, and the cremation of corpses) but, although some reviews on Goodreads thought it was unnecessary or over the top, I thought it felt honest and was fitting with the story being told. (I should add, though, that the vast majority of reviews on GR are very positive. It’s just that I tend to only read bad reviews (after finishing the novel myself) so that I can gain a different or more critical perspective.)

One of the things about TNRDN that my friend found quite irksome was how Flanagan does not use quotation marks at all throughout the book, so it’s a bit hard to follow. Especially in the first several chapters, I found myself having to re-read sentences because I only realised halfway through that it was actually someone talking. Not sure if I just got used to it after a while, but it stopped bothering me. I’m not entirely sure what the point of not using quotation marks was – I mean, the novel would work just as well with them – but I’m speculating that it’s something to do with the visual flow of the text (if that makes sense).

There’s a lot of poetry in the novel – actual quotes from poems, as well as references to or mentions of poems – but Flanagan’s writing, in itself, is also immensely poetic. I especially like reading novels where the writing is very powerful; and it doesn’t have to be poetic to be powerful, but this novel was both. It was very human.

Dorrigo Evans, who becomes the colonel when the original one dies of dysentery, is more of an antihero, and he struggles with his position of command during the building of the railway, and also with the fame and respect he receives after the war is over. He feels like everything is false and that he is a fraud. And yet, despite this weakness in his character (or perhaps because of it?), and despite all the adultery and his random obsessions (which, strangely, didn’t bother me that much, but apparently other readers found really off-putting), I thought Dorrigo Evans was a likeable character. Definitely a memorable character.

For some reason, I also really liked the characters Darky Gardiner and Jimmy Bigelow. Maybe it’s a sympathy thing. There probably wasn’t a character I just did not like at all. I also reckon Flanagan did a good job of incorporating the Japanese perspective into the story, as told chiefly through Nakamura, but also through Choi Sang-min (AKA the Goanna), who is actually Korean but worked for the Japanese as a prison guard on the railway. There are a number of other reasonably significant side characters, but those are the ones that stand out for me.

TNRDN is probably the best historical fiction novel I’ve ever read (but, to be fair, I don’t read a lot of historical fiction). I feel like I’ve learnt a lot without feeling like the author was trying to teach me something. As such, I don’t think you need to have a keen interest in Australian history (or history in general) in order to enjoy and appreciate this book. It probably qualifies as a “challenging read” though (challenging in a number of different ways), so you probably wouldn’t want to read it if you prefer more straightforward novels. I might re-read it one day. It would be worth re-reading.

aquila audax

I mentioned in my previous post that I was considering writing a post dedicated to the wedge-tailed eagle, my most favourite animal, so that’s basically what I’m going to do here.

From a very young age, I’ve had a fascination with birds. I remember as a kid, I had a poster of various Australian birds. It was a lift-out from the newspaper, so it faded over time, and I eventually took it down (and replaced it with a postcard mural), but it was there, on the wall above my bed, for many years. I’m not sure what it is that I really like about birds, but I have a few theories.

For one, they are beautiful. They are unusual but they are beautiful. Secondly, they can fly – something that we humans could never execute or replicate with the same finesse. Note here that I don’t have a great affinity for flightless birds (emus, penguins and the like). I mean, they’re ok – I don’t have anything specifically against them – but, to me, they don’t compare to birds that fly.

Of course, there are probably birds out there that I just do not like at all. I just can’t think of any right now.

I used to wonder if my affinity for birds was related to my desire for freedom, or if it had something to do with my fear of falling (I’m ok with heights as long as I’m confidently secure, so I consider it a fear of falling rather than of heights). As a kid, I particularly liked birds of prey. Perhaps that’s saying something too… But then I also liked more peaceable birds. Yes, despite their ubiquity, their reputation as “rats of the sky”, their general lack of anything that usually recommends an animal to “favourite” status – despite all this, I like pigeons. Such simple, unassuming creatures they are.

I was going to include an actual picture of a wedge-tailed eagle but I couldn't decide which one of the many Google results was the best photo, so I'm just giving you my trademark stick pigeon that I drew in about five seconds on Paint.

I was going to include an actual picture of a wedge-tailed eagle but I couldn’t decide which one of the many Google results was the best photo, so I’m just giving you my trademark stick pigeon that I drew in about five seconds on Paint.

But amongst all of these birds, one always stood out for me: the wedge-tailed eagle.

While reading “The Anatomy of Wings” (by Karen Foxlee), I mentioned to a few colleagues that small detail about the protagonist (Jenny) having the same favourite animal as me. I was then asked a few questions about the wedge-tailed eagle (you know, just out of interest), and I realised that I actually didn’t know a whole lot about them.

I probably knew a lot more about them at some stage in my life (probably in my high school years when I had better access to resources that could tell me a lot about them, and when I had time to read such things) but that day at the lunch table at work, I couldn’t confidently recite any facts about the wedge-tailed eagle. A bit concerning, maybe, but I don’t think it’s a big deal.

Nevertheless, this prompted me to question why it is, indeed, my most favourite animal.

At one point, I wondered if it was kind of similar to how (I would presume) Americans might like bald eagles because it’s an iconic American bird. (The “audax” part of the wedge-tailed eagle’s scientific name translates to “bold”, which is kind of similar/close…) But the wedge-tailed eagle doesn’t feature on our coat of arms, or on any sort of official emblems and such. So it’s probably not a patriotic thing. (If patriotism had anything to do with it, I’d probably like emus more. Not that I don’t like them, but they can be scary. Cassowaries too.)

As a kid, I probably just thought they looked cool. They’re such mighty, majestic birds: so much power in their talons, so much strength in their wings. Perhaps, then, they are a sentimental favourite: they made such a big impression on me as a kid that I’ve just liked them ever since. This is very possible.

What else is odd, however, is that I don’t really have anything to show or suggest that I like wedge-tailed eagles. Sure, toy stores don’t exactly sell plush eagles and whatnot like they do for dogs and tigers and bears, but if you went through all of my things, I doubt you’d find anything eagle-related, let alone wedge-tailed eagle-related. You’re more likely to think that owls or cats were my most favourite animal. (I do like owls and cats, though, so that’s ok, I guess.)

In “The Anatomy of Wings”, Jenny says she doesn’t really have a definite reason why wedge-tailed eagles are her favourite bird. They just are. I guess the reason doesn’t really matter; there doesn’t have to be an explanation. Wedge-tailed eagles are my favourite animals just because.

daisies

Where I am, today is the last day of summer, although, tecnically, “summer” tends to extend several weeks (if not a month or two) beyond it’s school-book defined limits (traditionally, summer is only meant to be from the start of December to the end of February).

I’m definitely not a fan of heat and humidity, so it’s actually my least favourite season. I like winter because it’s cold, and I like autumn because it leads to winter. But, because I always try to be positive (the operative word here being “try”), I thought I’d make a list of things that I actually like about summertime. I wonder if I can get up to ten…

  1. There are more daylight hours. This is kind of part of the problem of why it’s so hot, but having more daylight means that when I leave work after 6pm, it’s not pitch dark already. Seasonal affective disorder is a real thing, people!
  2. School and uni students are on holidays for most of summer, which means less people on trains/buses, which means I can commute in peace without thinking angry thoughts about the school kids who take up half the seats.
  3. Every day is a good day to have ice-cream (granted, any day of the year is also a good day for ice-cream)
  4. Summer storms actually have a bit of a nostalgic quality about them – you know, when they’re not being desctructive and all…
  5. I can take cold showers every day. This is mostly important to me because I’m weirdly environmentally conscious, and have a thing about energy conservation. Basically, I’ll think of these three months when I haven’t used any water heating as being a small saving for the environment.
  6. Summer makes me really appreciate the freezing cold aircon at work. On good days, I will be so cold leaving work that I will have only just defrosted by the time I get home (and take a cold shower).
  7. Mangoes are in season. They are delicious. I don’t think I need to elaborate.

I’m actually really struggling to think of more reasons now. I just keep thinking of reasons why I don’t like summer. Then I did a search of my blog to see if I’d written stuff about summer before, and it turns out that I did a similar post (although not as elaborate or list-y) at about this time last year. It seems like I’ve always had a bit of trouble coming to terms with this dislike of summer… but no matter how hard I try, I just cannot make myself like it more.

Perhaps instead of trying to cover up the dislikes with likes, I should just come out and vent away all my frustrations with summer:

  1. Of course, problem number one is that it’s too hot and too humid.
  2. In winter, if it’s too cold, I can just wear more layers or grab an extra blanket, but in summer you have no choice but to have the air conditioner running 99% of the time (may or may not be an exaggeration), or otherwise risk melting and evaporating away (assuming the humidity will permit you to evaporate). This is related to my slightly obsessive must-try-to-be-environmentally-friendly mentality.
  3. There are more mosquitos. I don’t know where mozzies go in the colder months (are their natural lifespans long enough to justify hibernation?) but when it’s summer, they are everywhere.
  4. There’s no AFL or NRL – only cricket. At risk of sounding a bit “un-Australian”, I really don’t understand cricket; I have exactly zero interest in cricket. Ok, maybe, like, 0.01 interest.
  5. The sun rises earlier and disturbs my week-end sleep-ins by shining brightly through my curtains. To be fair, this is partly my fault for not closing the curtains properly, but that is probably because I’m too busy trying to fall asleep in a puddle of my own sweat. I’m just kidding – I’d probably have the aircon on.
  6. The UV danger rating is always “extreme”, which means I’m thoroughly discouraged from going outside anywhere between about 8am and 6pm. We’re always being reminded of the high risk, and hence the high rates of melanoma in our sunny state, so I think it’s no wonder that I’m so afraid of sunlight.
  7. Storms can take out powerlines and be generally quite destructive. And no powerlines means no power, which means no aircon and no refrigeration.

Actually, even with this list, I’m struggling to get to ten. Maybe summer’s not that bad after all… or maybe the intensity of the items on the second list is greater than that of the items of the first list, which means overall I still don’t particularly like summer.

I’m kind of predicting that I’ll have this same dilemma next year…

sought & found

After a dreadful week-end of hot and humid weather where the very thought of going outside, away from the comfort of aircon can make you sweat profusely, it looks like maybe we’re finally getting some relief.

On Saturday, I went to the bi-annual Lifeline Bookfest, which is thankfully held in the pleasantly air-conditioned Convention Centre. As I still have many books from previous years that I have not yet read, I made a short list of wanted titles/authors, and set out determined to stick to this self-imposed limit. Now, before you all go and predict the obvious outcome to this, let me tell you that there were only eight things on the list, and at the end of the day I came out with only five books. Amazingly, one of the books was from the list. So, overall, I’d say that’s not too bad…

For those who are interested/curious, the listed novel was “Never let me go” by Kazuo Ishiguro. He was actually on my “authors” list, so I was quite excited when the one Ishiguro novel that I (eventually) found was the only one that I’d actually heard of before. However, as soon as I picked it up and saw that it had the film cover, I swear the change in my expression must have been plain as day. For one, I don’t like book covers with pictures of people (especially if they’re photos of real people), and secondly, I just don’t like movie tie-ins. As much as I try to not be judgemental of book covers, I will admit that these two, very superficial things are enough of a deterrent to make me put down a potentially very good book. Well, almost enough.

I did actually have to phone a friend on this one. Of course, by “phone a friend” I mean I messaged a friend who I thought could understand my dilemma (apparently there aren’t many people these days who like talking on the phone). So, ever the voice of reason, she asked me if I want to look at it or read it. That was easy enough to answer; totally put it in perspective.

The other four fortuitous acquisitions were “Wool” (Hugh Howey), “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (Truman Capote), a Readers’ Digest “Select Editions” book which included “The Rosie Project” and “Six Years” together in the one tome, and “Catch 22” (Joseph Heller). Strangely, the one that I’m particularly stoked about is “Catch 22”, even though that’s the one novel in the list that I have read before. The reason I was so excited to find it was because, as you may (but probably won’t) recall, that was the one book that I had really wanted to find a few Bookfests ago. After a fruitless search, I then despaired that I would never be able to find a second-hand copy, as no one who had read it would just give it away to charity.

I did buy a new copy after that time, but I subsequently lent this to a friend who, shortly thereafter, moved to the other side of the country… Not to worry! I have another copy now! Well, I had another copy; I’ve already lent this one to a friend as well. In truth, however, I’m not too fussed about getting it back any time soon. After all, I have so many other novels to read before I get back around to re-reading it!

As I’ve been typing this, we finally got some rain – some refreshingly cool rain. The only unfortunate thing is that we have to keep the windows closed when it rains, and hence miss out on the cool breeze. Summer rain also seems to bring mosquitos. Sorry, usually I’m more of an optimist, but this heat has just been positively stifling! But now, as I finish this post, the rain has stopped, which means it’s time to get the windows open again, and let the cool air in! I’m looking forward to not waking up in the middle of the night feeling like I’m in some sort of gigantic slow-cooker.