November 1

Graphic portrait – Vincent

imageThe troubled life of Vincent Van Gogh is cleverly portrayed in Barbara Stok’s graphic novel, ‘Vincent’.

Van Gogh’s struggles, inspirations and family support are revealed as Barbara focuses on the ‘brief and intense period of time that the painter spent in the south of France.’

In simple ways, ‘Vincent’ also brings to life the way in which artists of the time influenced, and were influenced by Van Gogh, such as Paul Gaugin.

The idea of artist colonies/houses /communities springs up, as does the need for many talented artists to be sponsored by someone – in Vincent’s case, by his dedicated brother, Theo. The good times and the bad are pictured, as Stok reveals the character of Van Gogh, his ‘pursuit’ and ‘purpose’ of painting, and his artistic intensity and drive.

Fans of Van Gogh will recognise the natural elements which inspired the artist at this time – haystacks, starry nights, sunflowers. Within this time, however, there are also periods of mental illness, including when he cuts off his own ear. Ultimately even though family support comes through, Van Gogh’s tortured existence continues.

In many ways, Van Gogh’s art both drives him, and demonises him. The ability to paint sees him through many tough times, but the need to paint also divorces him from many aspects of normal life.

Reading ‘Vincent’ makes you ponder the life of an artist – and offers a little understanding of the life of Van Gogh; the difficulties he faced, the sacrifices and the troubled existence of an infamous Dutch artist and his colleagues.

N.B. I am not an art student, and found this an interesting reflection of an artist introduced to me by a teacher in year 3!

October 24

Twins – Are You Seeing Me?

GrothTwins think and act alike, right? Even fraternal twins do many things the same, right?

Yes, to some degree. I can speak from personal experience of fraternal twins who would often pick the same birthday cards for relatives, and scheme together against the other siblings in the family – often in their own personalised language.

However, as many twins (both identical and fraternal) scream – they are still individuals! The twins in ‘Are You Seeing Me?’ are certainly individuals – both of whom scream for different reasons…

Perry screams when his world gets out of hand. At times when he is faced by the unfamiliar, “Perry has trouble with people – mixing with them and communicating with them – and it sometimes results in inappropriate behaviours.” 

This is the spiel that Perry’s sister regularly rolls out to explain her twin brother’s unusual behaviour. As his twin, she is determined to protect him from the judgemental gaze of others. When Justine screams, however, Perry isn’t the cause – it’s the interfering concern of others, like her boyfriend, Marc.

In ‘Are You Seeing Me?’ much of the journey for Perry and Justine takes place as they travel to Canada, to seek out their estranged mother, Leonie. She left the twins in their father’s care when they were 4, unable to cope with twins – especially since Perry has a ‘special needs’ tag. Unfortunately, in their nineteenth year, Perry and Justine are left alone as their doting father dies of cancer.

There is also an emotional journey for them as they attempt to re-establish links with Leonie – and she has much to learn about Perry. A chance for her to re-connect.

I love the characters Darren Groth has created. They are authentic and believable. The communication between Justine and her father occurs through a diary he kept from birth, and it provides her strength, understanding and support as she strives to support her brother as he tenuously begins to negotiate the adult world. Perry’s comments and insights provide a ‘look inside’ as he struggles to find independence and ‘free’ his sister of her twin commitment.

Finding out that Groth’s own twins were the inspiration behind this book cements the authenticity and appeal of this book. While it has been aligned to Mark Haddon’s ‘Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’, it tells a completely different tale. The relationship of twins shows how the Autism Spectrum Disorder impacts the whole family – and how they adapt and deal with it.

Groth proudly speaks of this in ‘A Dad’s Gift to his Neurotypical Daughter’, which is a very interesting prelude to the novel.

Groth’s tale is funny, informative and optimistic. The bond between Pez and Just Jeans is so lovable, it is a great tale for teens to enjoy.

N.B. I am also looking forward to reading ‘Kindling’, an earlier book by Darren Groth – which also deals with autism.

October 8

Memoirs – Unpolished Gem

untitledOne of the great values of ‘reading’ an audiobook occurs when there is a distinct accent that knits the story together. This is certainly the case for Unpolished Gem, which I have been enjoying recently on my way to work.

The story is the memoir of Alice Pung’s immigrant family – their heritage including past lives in Vietnam and in Cambodia under the regime of Pol Pot. Alice, now a successful writer and lawyer, recounts her impressions of life as a child living across two very different cultures in suburban Melbourne.

Her family arrives in Australia and is in awe of all it has to offer – so different from their homeland experiences, and indeed, so different from the current migrant experience. For them, the suburban streets, shops and government support systems provide so much. In fact, every day her grandmother blesses ‘Father Government’ for giving old people money.

As refugees from the Pol Pot regime, her parents have great expectations of their new homeland, not the least of which is the value of education for their family. The family works hard – her mother as an outworker, while her father eventually becomes a ‘business entreprenuer’ embracing the miracle of franchising.

Naturally, though they embrace the Aussie dream, theirs is tempered by many strong cultural ideals. Insights into the Chinese culture are given with snippets of family conversations revealing their thoughts on how things should be done, must be done, as Alice struggles at times to bridge both cultures.

Listening to Unpolished Gem was fun – to hear Chinese expression, and the repetition and patterns of stilted Chinglish. The frustrations and struggles of Alice’s childhood also feel very authentic in the audio version, as her voice switches from recounts of the things she needed to learn, and things she needed to help her parents (particularly her mother) understand. Pung also loves language and Unpolished Gem is full of quirky sayings, and vivid playful language, so also dipping into the physical book was immensely satisfying.

Published in 2006, Unpolished Gem received much acclaim, and I imagine it would be an interesting contrast to the refugee experience of today. With the authentic insights it gives of a cross-cultural childhood, it is an unforgettable story with moments of tenderness, humour and bittersweet struggles well worth revisiting.

In an interview Writers Talk, Pung reflects on her family, inspiration for writing the book and the migrant experience:

A great book for concepts of belonging, cultural identity or journeys. Or simply a great read!

March 20

Life of Pi – the book, the audio and the movie

It’s been interesting getting into Life of Pi in a number of different ways, as I have read the book from both a paperback and while driving my car (obviously with an audio version…).

Life of Pi has been on my to-read bookshelf for some time and, of course, came to my attention again recently, when promotion of the movie began. By ‘reading’ using combined audio and paperback, I found an unusual richness was added to the story with the contribution of a quality audio production*.

Martel’s writing is where all the magic begins, however, as he tells the tale of a young Indian boy on his journey to manhood. Pi has struggled for many years with taunting at school, derived from his name, Piscine. In spite of this, (or because of this?) Pi is a strong willed young man with a great curiosity of life and how the world around him works.

With a somewhat unusual homelife as a zookeeper’s son (what child wouldn’t love to grow up in a zoo?), Pi has developed keen powers of observation of animals of all kinds – humans included. This awareness of animal behaviour provides a great background later in the story, when he is set adrift in a lifeboat with a menagerie of different animals. His survival skills are well and truly tested to the limit!

His questioning nature is also revealed as he digs into the 3 main religions which exist in his Indian homeland – Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. As a curious child, he seeks an understanding of the differences and similarities of these faiths, and commits to all 3 – much to the ire of each of his religious teachers!

A move by his family, away from the politics brewing in India, results in their journey on a Japanese cargo ship to Canada. Their zoo is dismantled and animals are sold afar; some of which journey on the ship with them. The tragic sinking of the cargo ship begins another section of the book, where Pi faces the many challenges of being afloat on a lifeboat with very unusual company – including Richard Parker!

Martel’s writing is memorable, poetic and so rich that it is believeable. It is a book to make you think long after you finish it. It is fantasy, but also holds many truthful observations within it, and doesn’t necessarily provide a neat ‘happy ending’. As a winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2002, Life of Pi has had many reviews over the years, and has now been made into an award winning film (which I can now see, having first read the book!)

What messages did Life of Pi relate to you? Is it a believeable tale? Or is it an abstraction from reality? An allegory about human existence perhaps?

* the Audible.com version of Life of Pi was well narrated – the Indian accent added so much to the story, and made it even more compelling to listen to Martel’s poetic tale.

You can also view the film trailer:

(I have now seen the movie, and while it was great, I do prefer the book!!)