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Book Review: Joe Cinque’s Consolation by Helen Garner March 25, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews, Reviews.
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In 1997, Anu Singh, a beautiful young Indian-Australian woman studying law at ANU killed her boyfriend Joe Cinque, an Italian-Australian engineering student, by first drugging him and then injecting him with a lethal dose of heroin while he slept. It was supposed to be a murder-suicide, except Singh couldn’t go through with the second part. Instead, she watched for 36 hours as Cinque died an agonising death. He was only 26 years old.

In Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Australian writer Helen Garner tries to make sense of this brutal, senseless and absolutely bizarre crime. She flies to Canberra to attend the trial of Singh and her obedient friend and ‘accomplice’, Madhavi Rao, befriending Joe Cinque’s parents and becoming more and more emotionally involved.

Why did Singh do what she did? Why did Rao help her? Why did their friends, all of whom knew about Singh’s plans, do nothing to stop them (they even attended a supposed ‘suicide’ party). Were they mentally ill or were they simply manipulating the law? And was psychiatry and the law going to allow them to get away with it?

This is a chilling, gut wrenching book. Filled with intricate details and descriptions of the death, the trial and the aftermath, it is admittedly painful to read at times, and yet I could not stop turning the pages. It is the kind of book that makes me want to devour more non-fiction in a hurry.

Garner writes with a simple, elegant prose that somehow cuts straight to the heart. Given the title of the book and the facts that she became friends with the Cinques and never managed to interview either Singh or Rao, it is no surprise which side she takes.  I suppose she makes an attempt to be objective, to be understanding to the other side, but she never got very far.  But that’s Helen Garner for you.  Say what you want about her, but at least she has the balls to put her views out there, even if she knows she may be crucified for them (like she was when she published The First Stone, which detailed a sexual harrassment claim by two young women against the head of their college at Melbourne University).

I had wanted to read this book since being introduced to it in my non-fiction writing class last year, and was glad to discover that it is compulsory reading for one of my other subjects this year (two birds with one stone!).  I read it all in China (about half of it on the plane ride over) and discussed it in class this week.  I was surprised by lukewarm reception by some of my classmates, who thought this was more Helen Garner’s consolation than Joe Cinque’s because she inserts herself firmly into the narrative.  They didn’t care about her marriage break up, how tired she was feeling, how outraged she felt for the Cinques.  She was pushing her life and personal beliefs onto her readers, and they despised that.

I don’t agree.  It’s her book.  Why should she keep her opinions to herself?  This is not a lifeless news report that purports to be objective.  By being so close to the ‘action’, she had woven herself into the fabric of the story.  She could have written herself out of it, like Capote in In Cold Blood, but instead she chose to tell it from her eyes and heart.  Besides, we have a choice.  We don’t have to read it.  We don’t have to agree with her.

No matter the opinion, few would disagree that Joe Cinque’s Consolation is a fantastic read.  It may be flawed book, but still a very good one, and one that had me captivated from start to finish.

4.25 stars out of 5

[For those who have read the book or are interested, I would recommend checking out this ABC interview with Anu Singh and the Cinques.  Really chilling, riveting stuff (with spoilers of course).

Book Review: Hiroshima by John Hersey August 28, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews.
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Hiroshima by John Hersey is one of the most remarkable, deeply affecting books I have ever read.  I first came across an extract as a part of my non-fiction writing class, but I found it so amazing that I quickly went out and purchased the entire book.

Hiroshima is a surprisingly simple piece of journalistic writing about six seemingly ordinary people who survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima.  It starts on the morning the bomb was dropped, when they were going about their normal lives, and ends several months later as they struggle to piece their shattered lives and bodies back together.  The narratives are simultaneous but The book originally had four chapters, but the modern edition I read had a fifth chapter called “The Aftermath”, written 40 years later after Hersey went back to see what had become of the lives of these six remarkable people (they really are remarkable).

In Hiroshima, John Hersey has created a sublime piece of non-fiction writing.  The skill involved in crafting this book is very understated.  The prose is not flowery or beautiful like Capote’s In Cold Blood — it’s simple, direct, subtle and meticulously described (and researched), but at the same time extremely effective, vivid, and haunting.  Some of the images brought to life by Hersey will stay with me forever.  The strange thing is, Hiroshima is not at all moralistic or manipulative.  It’s just an incredibly detailed and accurately told true story.  I can’t recall a book that has given me a greater urge to weep than this one.

This masterpiece first appeared as an article in The New Yorker on 31 August 1946 (a little after a year the atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima) and caused unprecedented attention as the entire editorial space of the issue was dedicated to the piece.  It was sold out within hours and was scalped for exorbitant prices.  It was read over the radio in its entirety and distributed all around the world for educational purposes.  Albert Einstein reportedly ordered 1,000 copies.  The Book-of-the-Month club distributed hundreds of thousands of copies for free to its members.

One of the best books I’ve read.

5 out of 5

[PS: I really wish I read Hiroshima by John Hersey before visiting the city in May 2008.]

Update: Buying more books than I can read! July 28, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in Blogging, Book Reviews, On Writing.
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Recently I’ve been enjoying the idea of reading books more than actually reading the books themselves.  I don’t know why that is.  I love the feeling of browsing a bookstore for hours, randomly picking up books with interesting covers, those recommended by staff, or those classics that I’ve never had the chance to read.  It makes me feel motivated and makes me want to write (though I rarely ever do anything worthwhile as a result).

Today I bought another couple more at this cheap bookstore (selling “specials” only), bringing my total book purchases for the year to more than 20.

But the problem is, I’m not reading nearly as much as I want to or should be. Including books I’ve borrowed off others and the free ones I’ve received for review, I’ve only read a dismal 12 books for the year (according to the reviews I’ve got on this blog).  I’ve still got 3 or 4 books borrowed from others that I am yet to read.

It’s not like I don’t have the time.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I used to read more when I was working full time.  Every day I’d get at least half an hour on the train, sometimes a whole hour if I didn’t work late (rare, but it happened).

Another problem is that I’ve been having trouble getting into books lately.  I’d be stuck on the first chapter for days and only read sporadic chunks every second or third day.  I’m not sure if it’s because I had been reading too many short stories and extracts of novels for my writing course over the last few months and it’s put me off long stories.  Or perhaps I’m starting to realise what good writing is like and I’ve become too picky with the stuff I’ve been reading.  Either way, it’s frustrating.  Perhaps I need a really good book to help me get back into the swing of things.

Nevertheless, class recommences next week.  This semester is all serious, non-fiction stuff.  Lots and lots of non-fiction reading.  Maybe that’ll help me redevelop my interest in fiction.

I was reading Anne Rice’s autobiography at the same bookstore today and she said that she was a horrible reader until later in life, even though she acquired a masters in English literature.  So maybe there’s hope for me.

PS: I’m finally starting to submit stuff for external publication.  Nothing substantial, just short reviews, etc, but at least it’s a start.

Creative Non-Fiction With Lee Gutkind July 5, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in On Writing.
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This one’s a little overdue.  Weeks before my trip to India and Hong Kong, I attended a free session presented by the “Godfather of Creative Non-Fiction” (not originally his own name but more recently it has become self-proclaimed), Lee Gutkind.

Just what the heck is “creative” non-fiction?  Aren’t the two mutually exclusive?

To be honest, the seminar never explained exactly what creative non-fiction is.  Fortunately, I had come across the term before and had a fair idea.  Essentially, it’s writing a true story (ie non fiction) in a creative way (ie like a story).  I believe Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is a good example of creative non-fiction.  A bad example would be James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces (just kidding, that’s just pure fiction parading as non-fiction).  Other names for creative non-fiction include literary or narrative non-fiction.

What I expected to be an informative seminar about how to write creative non-fiction turned out to be an hour-long pitch by Lee Gutkind to budding writers (such as myself) about how wonderful creative non-fiction is.  Lee was down in Australia for the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and was promoting his magazine Creative Nonfiction and his new book about travelling cross-country with his son.  The session had the same problem as my main issue with the Sydney Writers’ Festival: too much promotion and not enough learning.  Nevertheless, his website can be found here.  The website for the magazine can be found here.

Of course, this is not to say the talk itself was not fascinating.  According to Gutkind, creative non-fiction was the future of writing and publishing.  Creative non-fiction was breaking into education.  Law, medicine, engineering — disciplines previously dominated by textbooks are now using creative non-fiction to teach the new generation.

I can understand why, because textbooks are bloody boring.  It’s much easier to remember elements of a story than rote learn a list.  That’s why when I studied law, it was always easier to remember the facts of a case than sections of a statute.

Actually, a lot of the creative writing stories I have been doing for my classes could be classified as creative non-fiction because many of them were based in fact, if not entirely true.  I definitely see the appeal in such writing because it’s a different type of challenge.  Rather than coming up with a brand new story from scratch, you already have the story right there — you just have to find a way to tell it in a way that is compelling and connects with your audience.

Lee finished his talk with an extract reading of Gay Talese’s creative non-fictional piece, “Frank Sinatra has a Cold”, which was published in Esquire in April 1966 and is regarded as one of the best creative non-fiction stories ever.  Esquire even declared it the “Best Story Esquire Ever Published” in 2003.  It actually is very good.  Check it out here.

PS: When I entered the auditorium, I saw copies of the latest issue of Creative Nonfiction and Lee’s new book on a table by the front.  Thinking that it was free, I almost grabbed a copy, only to find out later that the whole point of the talk was so that he could sell them.  Oops.

Protected: New book idea! December 19, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Novel, On Writing.
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