Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Minimalism, Margaret Atwood and crazy mothers



‘Books must pass from person to person in order to stay alive’ – Margaret Atwood (Photo: Dominic Ronzo)













Robert Pirsig’s Zen And the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

is not for the faint-hearted but complex, ambitious, moving and outstandingly original. Still groundbreaking decades after its publication, yes it actually has motorcycle maintenance in it and no that does not make it boring. It’s an impressive narrative device that both illuminates and speeds along this mind-opening mystery/travel memoir/work of modern philosophy.

Margaret Atwood’s On Writers and Writing

is actually a rounded-out version of a series of lectures Atwood gave on this subject, this is a must for anyone interested in Atwood, Canadian writing, or writing in general. Gives a rare and witty insight into the early life of one of the world’s most beloved writers, while musing deeply on the nature of books and the poor saps who write them. Packed to the gills with quotes – worth it alone just as a collection of quotes on writing. A fast, beautiful, inspiring and entertaining read. I got mine at Boffins. Was previously titled Negotiations with the Dead.

Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

I know, I am the last person in the universe to read everything and I should really just give up on back catalogues and read new stuff, especially since Winterson recently released a new work, a ‘cover’ of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. But I’m working my way slowly through the Winterson canon, one of the only bulk collections to survive the Curing of a Bibliomaniac. The most amazing thing was that I didn’t know until I’d heard this podcast interview with Winterson that the reason her books are crazy and awesome and unreal and Biblical in epic proportions, peopled with fantastically grotesque matriarchs, was because that was actually what her childhood was. And right down to the exorcisms, this book tells the story of her childhood and unbelievably crazy mother. If you’re a fan it’s required reading (and the podcast required listening). If you’re not, get out of my face.


As you know, I’m always up for a new challenge and these books have just been given to my excellent friend Jess, who has just returned home bookless and footloose after time abroad, and who I thought of as I read every one of these recently. They’re right up her alley but the gifting was also part of the 30-Day Minimalism Challenge I’ve just embarked on with my brother and sister-in-law, to the general bemusement of everyone else, especially the poor Ministry, who guards like a dragon the few possessions he’s got left after I blitzed through his life leaving destruction and empty rooms in my wake.

Because I don’t know when to stop, I’m also doing Dry July with my awesomely supportive family. Donate to me (and thereby to support Solaris cancer support service in WA) here. Thank you! It’s a damned good cause.


The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1926)


I decided I must re-read this in preparation for the film.

The tatty paperback is covered in pen underlining from my first, compulsory high school reading, and I wondered how much of my love would remain when reading through older and – possibly – more critical eyes.

Nick Carraway moves to Long Island in the 1920s and is drawn into a glamorous, seedy world lit up by his neighbour, Jay Gatsby. No-one knows much about Gatsby and they delight in making up sinister stories; but it turns out Gatsby’s secrets are very close to home.

It’s my habit to take a photo of passages I like, to save writing them all down. I wasn’t halfway through this by the time I had a couple of dozen photographs. The pen marks from the first reading showed I’d felt similarly back then.

Fitzgerald’s writing makes every line seems enchanted. When Carraway finds something lovely, you feel his wonder, and when he describes the dreadful you feel his surges of disgust.

There was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life … No – Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and shortwinded elations of men.

There is plenty of Fitzgerald’s dignified and deft humour in this tale – shown to best effect in his renderings of Gatsby’s drunken party guests and hangers-on.

To the Ministry, shooting zombies a few feet away, it must have seemed as though I weren’t reading at all, but just sitting there, alternately giggling at and taking photos of a stationary object.

A small, flat-nosed Jew raised his large head and regarded me with two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril. After a moment I discovered his tiny eyes in the half-darkness.

I don’t doubt that the beauty and ugliness of it all, not to mention Gatsby’s tortured soul, will be rendered exquisitely on film, but I wonder how the fun poked at peripheral characters, his “pale, dangling individuals” will fare.

A pause. Then, taking a long breath and straightening his shoulders, he remarked in a determined voice:  ‘Wonder’ff tell me where there’s a gas’line station?

At least a dozen men, some of them a little better off than he was, explained to him that car and wheel were no longer joined by any physical bond.

‘Back out,’ he suggested after a moment. ‘Put her in reverse.’

‘But the wheel’s off!’

He hesitated.

‘No harm in trying,’ he said.

My mate Sturdy dislikes this book. She says there’s no-one to love here, and she’s right.

Oddly enough, soon after this conversation, another friend asked me whether she was supposed to find Daisy loveable, because she couldn’t. I replied that she’d hit the nail on the head: Daisy doesn’t “gleam like silver” and that’s the lightbulb moment.

Daisy tumbled short of his dreams – not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything.

For those also interested in the “likeability” problem, I direct you to something showed to me recently: the take of writers including Margaret Atwood and Jonathan Franzen on the subject.


Likeable or not, The Great Gatsby is spine-tingling. I hang on the words, they give me goosebumps. I am breaking my neck to get into that cinema.

Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood, 2003)

A blend of science fiction and literature, the story of Jimmy, Oryx and Crake is set against the backdrop of the destruction of the human race.

Their story is partly an echo of this process, played out on an intimate scale.

The book also points out, as does Crake himself, that human development comes down to individuals.

That is, nobody, no matter how great in scale their plans, is immune to their own humanity. In the end people make their decisions according to this incontrovertible humanity.

Although for this reader, a question mark still hangs quietly over Crake’s own motives.

By remaining silent on this Atwood seems to say that some things cannot be explained.

She forces your mind to bend, comprehend, to reconcile causes and outcomes. And this – to me – is the point of literature, to explore what inside and outside yourself and others, whether you end up with understanding or a greater sense of the  incomprehensibility of the world.

Oryx’s past happened, and yet again it did not. Her scars were those of human beings in general, her nameless sisters.

Oryx’s feelings may be genuine, or may not. Her experiences are hers yet she does not own them. This decentralisation of human experience is repeated in various guises. News and the internet feature heavily in the “before” scenes. People are put on display, removed from reality. Jimmy watches old movies in silence, precious artifacts of a world forever removed from him.

The story is so incomplete, as all life feels in a way to those who are living it, always striving for greater understanding, greater security, greater happiness. Stories do not really end (well, we and the characters live as though they don’t) and nothing is explained, either by the Almighty All-Powerful or Margaret Atwood (or perhaps, as I have long suspected, the two are the same.)

Some critics perceived this element as a lack of emotional depth; I can see how a reader could feel that way. There is a definite element of the parable in this book.

And yet Atwood’s creation is so richly detailed, so full in its suggestions. The blanks are pointed out, rather than painted over.

This makes Jimmy’s consciousness of his own very apparent mortality especially devastating. Wounded but proceeding, he brings to mind thoughts of immortality. As Crake describes it:

“Immortality is a concept. If you take ‘mortality’ as being, not death, but the foreknowledge of it and the fear of it, then ‘immortality’ is the absence of such fear…”

Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2006)


I’d never heard of Biafra. It was a country that existed for only 3 years (from 1967) and inhabited mostly by the Igbo people. They led a secession from Nigeria, declaring themselves an independent country and causing the Nigerian Civil War, or Nigerian-Biafran war, a war that resulted in them suffering terribly.

Though I don’t know enough on the subject to be critical on the subject of authenticity, as a historical novel, this has all the best features of the genre. It transports you. It moves you. It soaks you in the sights, smells and sounds of another place and time.

Its main impact on me was that it gave such a vivid evocation of this tiny country, a miniscule part of Nigeria, which was able to bring such emotion to people – not only those who fought and died for its existence, but also to the author and to me, reading a fictionalised account written 40 years later through the eyes of a modern Nigerian woman born seven years after the country’s lifespan was over.

What an amazing thing, I thought, this tiny country that only existed three years, motivating people to give their lives to its cause. I’m amazed by people who feel this committment to seeing that the horrors of history don’t go silently into that good night. Perhaps they feel a sense of responsibility towards their fellow human beings, or to history itself, or to the memory of those who died.

In this sense, Adichie has done her job and made me imagine a country that in my 20th-century Gen-Y ignorance I had never even heard of. She has made me mourn for it, made me think and look up information and try to understand what it was all about.

Is this enough for a work of fiction? Does it do anything that a very well-written non-fiction book could not? Perhaps not, unless you argue that I might never have read the book at all if it were non-fiction, which is a valid point. Adichie has reached a larger audience, and broken into the chick-lit genre with its love of weepy stories with colourful covers.

However, as a work of fiction Half of a Yellow Sun falls short of being as riveting and devastating as it could be. The comparison that leaps to mind is Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things. Though a good writer and artistic at times, Adichie fails to pull you in as inexorably as Roy does.

Maybe it is unfair or ignorant to compare the two, but to my mind they aimed for similar ends. To highlight history through experience, show the human face of tragedy; expose our beauty and our cruelty; use beautiful language to describe ugly things; to sear them on the mind of the reader and force them to feel for another people, to care for a history not their own.

That’s the point of a “historical” novel. To make history come alive, to make you think about the facts, how they have been and can be interpreted. Half of a Yellow Sun does this, certainly, but ” literary masterpiece and a classic” as one reviewer enthused, is an overstatement. It ultimately fails to transcend the ‘historical novel’ genre to the point where you could give it to anyone and tell them that it will change their life if they give it a chance. I will lend Roy to anyone who will take it. I will not be pushing Adichie, though I would recommend it without hesitation to someone already interested.

It has moments of greatness but not magnificence. It’s well written, very much so, but fails to be a genre-buster – my favourite kind of read, a genre novel that becomes so much more than the type of book it is and therefore can be given to anyone regardless of whether they enjoy that type of novel or not.

“Historical fiction” has always been a problematic idea to me. I’m often uncomfortable with “genre” fiction which seems to voluntarily exclude itself from “literature” when it seems to me to be an unnecessary sacrifice. Margaret Atwood, for example, never makes this sacrifuce but still remains exciting and accessible. Books like hers, that use yet transcend their genres, are my favourites.

After all, if you are writing to move people, why only write a novel that will move only a select group? It seems to me that pigeonholing your work reduces its audience. This is partly the fault of hackneyed cover design and marketing. But is it possible to make everyone interested in Biafra with the sheer power of brilliant writing?

I think so.

Perhaps I feel there is something pretentious or profiteering about historical and war novels as a genre, especially ones that deal with war. As though they are an attempt to mine history for its scary stories that we think are educational but are really just sophisticated forms of schadenfreude  that titillate us in the comfort of squashy armchairs, and feed obsession with how much better/more exciting/more meaningful everything used to be.

But I don’t suggest Adichie sets out to give vicarious thrills to middle-aged women. She seems to want people to remember, nothing more, and must use shocking detail to achieve the end and justify the telling of the story. It’s the motivation of publishers and readers that is murkier. Adichie has, however, made us remember. On her website, she says that she grew up in the shadow of Biafra and that the novel is her “re-imagining of something I did not experience but whose legacy I carry”.


I will remember this story because small details and not so small events brought it home to me, the kwashiorkor, the woman reusing her filthy tub of water, Olanna finding the bodies of her family, Kainene’s disappearance.


These details are what prompted me to research and care about Biafra and the war I had never heard of. Is this why the excitement and horror you derive from hearing these horrible stories is (in some cases, if done well enough) worth it?

The thing I liked about Half of a Yellow Sun is a much more abstract notion lurking behind the premise of “show-tell-understand-remember-appreciate”. It’s the idea of solidifying a place that no longer exists, of showing Shadow Lines, as Amitav Ghosh called them. Memory and anecdotes crystallise and exert their influence. Every reader makes the idea of Biafra stronger and more enduring by incorporating it into their living minds, and thus make it continue to exist.

Surely a country that has been fought for in living memory and is being written about by a descendant is still a country by virtue of this remembrance. It’s part of humanity’s mental landscape. As much as it exists in the past and in memory it exists as a future country too, a having a power of potential like kinetic energy, a power perhaps even stronger because of this limbo status, its place in mythology and literature.

And how strong is a love that causes someone to write about something that is dead and gone? Who loves the loser? What’s the point? Why must people remember? Is it a good thing to remember something that was only a tragic waste of lives that achieved nothing, as those would say who oppose the veneration and idealisation of Gallipoli? Or is it our duty to remember innocent people who had no choice and who died?

Any book that makes you ask so many questions is probably worth a read, and if you have plenty of time and some generosity of spirit, I think you’ll get into it.

If you’re after a horrors-of-war story to move you while you sit on the couch, with the extra punch that comes from knowing it all actually happened, I recommend it for that too, although with a twinge of conscience for the turning of human life and death into entertainment.

But I guess that’s what entertainment’s all about.