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When Rip and I first fell in love, I sometimes used to imagine us as romantic characters in a great tempestuous love story set against the turbulent background of the miners’ strike, transgressing boundaries of wealth and claims to be together. I was his door into an exotic world where noble savages discussed socialism while soaping each other’s backs in t’ pit baths. He was my door into Pemberley Hall and Mansfield Park. We were so full of illusions about each other, maybe it was bound to end in a splattering.

I’m home alone this evening, which is why this review is being posted so late. See I’m someone who lacks any real self-discipline. This is why I am very lucky to be married, because if I ever slack off my wife kicks my arse. Stephanie is in Canberra today, so I have been pottering around the house, trying to convince our old dog to eat its medication, googling funny pictures with cats and generally not reviewing the book I chose this morning!

Finally I wrenched myself back to the business and found myself laughing out loud for most of this afternoon.

Georgie (aka Georgina aka Georgia aka Georgine) has been living a quiet life of writing freelance articles for a specialist magazine (“Adhesives!”), and managing to raise her two children while her husband synergises the world from his blackberry. One day something snaps. She kicks her husband out of the house, orders a skip and dumps all his belongings into it.

Which is how she comes to meet Mrs. Shapiro. An elderly Jewish lady followed by a pride of house-cats, Naomi Shapiro stops in front of Georgie’s house to retrieve Rip’s collection of classical records. The two begin a slow intimate friendship, with Georgie’s own attempts at a poisonous novel based on her own marriage dropped in favour of her new friend’s past, filled with tragic love, young lives ground up by the second world war and escape from certain death at the hands of the Nazis.

Then Mrs. Shapiro has a bad fall and winds up in hospital. Georgie unwittingly has become her carer and it falls to her to have her home, stinking of cat-piss and damp, in order so that the hospital doesn’t have social services dump her friend in an institution. What began as an innocent friendship is soon swallowed up by bureaucratic fencing with hospital officials and wolfish estate agents. As Georgie slowly begins to piece together the history of Mrs Shapiro, the house itself becomes a disputed zone between several parties, all laying claim to the property. Meanwhile her own son has developed an obsession with religious prophecies about the end of the world. It is all too much for Georgie, her head swimming in eschatological trivia, disputed geography, inventive uses of velcro and, of course, the erotic uses of adhesives.

This story is warm, inventive and far cleverer than it has any right to be. The creation of the Israeli state, the Holocaust and apocalyptic prophecy, are all neatly bound up with one lonely middle-aged woman desire for a meaningful life. Throughout the novel seemingly innocent oppositions are teased out to reveal more fundamental conflict. Georgie break from Rip seems initially trivial, but the more we learn about their relationship, there appears an essential imbalance present from the very start. Her son’s pursuit of fundamentalist Christian concerns is a neat irony, showing how her hard-won parental liberalism is quick to collapse in the face of something so monolithic.

But it is Mrs Shapiro who proves to be the secret treasure of this book. Marina Lewycka‘s dialogue is quite funny and far more convincing than the tortured English of Alexander Perchov. With her random combinations of Yiddish and English slang I found her to be a far less self-conscious creation. Think Everything is Illuminated meets Sue Townsend, if you’ll pardon the high concept.

Witty, very clever and studied, a fine novel from Marina Lewycka. Strongly recommended.

Ah, the old doggie has gone to bed for the evening. That’s a relief.

And so as with our idea of entertainment, our idea of genre  one of those French words, like crêpe, that no one can pronounce both correctly and without sounding pretentious – is of a thing fundamentally, perhaps inherently debased, infantile, commercialized, unworthy of the serious person’s attention. The undoubted satisfactions that come from reading science fiction or mystery stories are to be enjoyed only in childhood or youth, or by the adult readers only as “guilty pleasure” (a phrase I loathe).

My mother-in-law and Michael Chabon have something in common. They both dislike the word genre. It has become an arbiter of taste – genre-fiction obviously is of less value than ‘literature’, or serious writing. Not only that, but a book written according to the rules and precepts of a specific genre is somehow less meaningful than a tale about individuals struggling with day-to-day problems and perhaps if the reader is lucky, arriving at an epiphany before the plot runs out.

Chabon here defends the stalwarts of genre fiction, from Arthur Conan Doyle to M.R. James; from ghost stories to comic books, Will Eisner‘s The Spirit to Howard Chaykin‘s American Flagg; running the gamut between Philip Pullman‘s Miltonian Young Adult fiction, to literary darling Cormac McCarthy’s sf-not-by-name The Road. This is also, as the book’s subtitle states ‘Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands’ a collection of essays about writing, as much as it is about reading. The first half of the book is concerned with writers who represent the influences Chabon wishes to credit for his own development as a writer. The second half describes his beginnings as a novelist, as well as the aspects of his own life that inspired his fiction.

The central theme can be reduced to the power of lies to tell the truth. Chabon’s love of Loki found expression in his own children’s novel Summerland, where the villain was identified as the archetypal Trickster. He credits Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World for identifying the role played Loki/Satan/Coyote/Prometheus in symbolising that freewheeling creative spirit of the imagination. The conflict between genre fiction, wild and magical, dark and mysterious, and literature, enshrined (perhaps entombed) by consensus as ‘valuable’, in a coldly calculated manner, that lies at the heart of this collection.

When we read about our favourite writers, the temptation is there to find some aspect of their true selves in their fiction. Chabon describes how he himself felt terrified the first time he submitted material that featured a gay love scene. Similarly Wonder Boys convinced certain readers that Chabon himself was a pot-smoking ladies’ man. It is with these caveats that he sets about describing the life of Arthur Conan Doyle, presenting what he has learned (I loved  that The Sign of Four and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray were commissioned at the same time over lunch by magazine editor J.M. Stoddart), while also making tentative guesses at some insight into the author’s life. M.R. James’ ghost stories possess none of the overt Freudian undertones of modern horror writers, but beneath the precise phrases and clipped prose, Chabon detects an unconscious sexual undercurrent to the paranormal horrors the writer visited upon his protagonists.

He criticises Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for losing sight of the first book’s sense of wonder, as well as its heroine Lyra’s whimsical character. However, he also lauds the series for not condescending to its readership, reinvigorating the tropes of the adventure serial and seriously exploring its allusive relationship to Milton’s Paradise Lost. The series, in Chabon’s view, acts as a celebration of the adventure that can be found in childhood, one that is slowly being extinguished in mainstream culture, even in comic books! In a general essay about the medium, he notes that few comics today actually feature child protagonists. Compare that to the blockbuster Harry Potter series, or Lyra and Will leaping across dimensions in Pullman’s books.

This being Chabon of course, the auto-biographical segments of this collection need to be taken with a grain of salt. From his remove as a forty-something author his childhood becomes a tableau of unguessed at future potential; his first novel credited to the efforts of Fitzgerald and Roth. He discusses his life as an American Jew, the break-up of his first marriage, the ‘exile’ of an author and how it relates to his culture. How a conflict on a Yiddish message board led to The Yiddish Policemen’s Ball!

Inspiring, truthful and humorous.

Shortly Tom came upon the juvenile pariah of the village, Huckleberry Finn, son of the town drunkard. Huckleberry was cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town because he was idle, and lawless, and vulgar, and bad – and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society and wished they dared to be like him. Tom was like the rest of the respectable boys in that he envied Huckleberry his gaudy outcast condition, and was under strict orders not to play with him. So he played with him every time he got a chance.

I find it amazing how often a story heralded as a classic soon becomes divorced from any sense of what made it special in the first place. I am sure everyone is familiar with the story of Tom Sawyer and can conjure up in an instant the appearance of Tom’s friend Huckleberry Finn. The story has been filmed countless times, there was even a Soviet version in 1947, but to people of a certain age who grew up in the 80’s, I imagine this is the version you are most familiar with. What I find surprising is that my would-be ‘knowledge’, of the book is a pale and diluted imitation of Twain’s work, still full of wit and vigour.

There’s a line in The West Wing that I’ve always been fond of – Ich hub uuz deh gebracht which apparently is Yiddish for ‘I’m having the strongest memory’. When I started reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer I suddenly found myself remembering an afternoon sitting in class in a Christian Brothers school in Ballyfermot, Dublin. The teacher would sometimes read books to us, including J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe inspiring in me a life-long love of reading, particularly fantasy novels. On this day she read to us from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and chose the scene where Tom meets Becky Thatcher. My teacher enjoyed putting on the accents and started to imitate that high-pitched drawl common to Southern belles. Suddenly I felt my cheeks burning, my shoulders tensed and I found myself trying to squeeze beneath my desk. Strange new feelings of excitement, embarrassment and shame came over me. It was very unsettling, the sensation alien and perplexing.

It strikes to the heart of Twain’s writing, however, which is to depict the adventures of his child heroes in the American South with all the nostalgic innocence that is demanded, but also allowing for the adult intrigues and mysteries that children witness without fully understanding.

Tom Sawyer is an impulsive, yet fiercely intelligent young boy, living with his Aunt Polly, half-brother (and snitch) Sid and cousin Mary. He is forever getting into scrapes of one kind of another, fighting in the streets, or exploiting the gullibility of the other children. He runs a rapid trade in bartering marbles and curiosities. The incident with the white picket fence that occurs at the beginning of the novel is two-fold scheme of Tom’s that allows him to pocket the many odds and ends offered to him by the other boys in tribute, and fool his Aunt into thinking he has completed his punishment. He enjoys playing Robin Hood with Joe Harper. They both know the book by heart and recite each line as they trade blows. The arrival of Becky Thatcher sets Tom to wooing her, with his own particular take on ‘engagement’.

Of course Huckleberry Finn is the most well-known of Tom’s companions, who lives the kind of life that Sawyer desperately wants to lead. While he goes to school and attempts to learn Bible verses for prizes, Huck Finn wanders the town at his leisure, sleeps wherever he chooses and does not care to dress in his Sunday best. One night the boys stumble upon a sight that terrifies them, something far more horrible than anything they could have dreamt of in all their imaginary adventures as pirates on the high seas, or thieving in Sherwood Forest. The murderous Injun Joe stalks Tom’s dreams as he tries to decide what to do in this all-too-real adventure.

Twain writes in a manner that is familiar and warm, yet also cutting. Real romance and real adventure occur in childhood, everything afterwards is just an echo. His descriptions are dense, yet essential to the breezy mood. A beautiful read.

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