Happy Isles of Oceania by Paul Theroux

Reading this travel tome from start to finish is almost as mammoth a journey as the one undertook by Theroux himself: island hopping with just his collapsible kayak as company throughout the Pacific from New Zealand all the way to Hawaii.

Theroux’s success as a travel writer comes just as much from his astuteness as an observer as from his uncompromising and unforgiving honesty. Any visions of paradise are quickly tempered with images of shit-covered beaches (“The village beach was the toilet in the Solomons; it was where people shat”); obese islanders gorging tinned spam – circumstantial evidence, Theroux felt, for past cannibalism; and over-zealous Christian missionaries pilfering souls.

The narrative is carried by Theroux’s personal struggles, which were also the catalyst for his epic journey in the first place; his wife leaving him and a thankfully short-lived cancer scare (“I heard melanoma and thought Melanesia”).

While I couldn’t help but cringe at some of the author’s more partial observations (“bandy-legged” Japanese businessmen “Nipponizing” virgin islands), I was impressed at least by the sincerity of his opinions – you get the feeling that nothing is held back, and I also had to take it on the chin as he described his experiences of my own Meganesian countrymen and women.

The pages of Happy Isles are lined with comedy, tragedy, politics and a credible touch of the mundane. A Pacific Island tourism organisation might hesitate to use the book in their marketing, but they’d be foolish not to. Any perceptive reader with a sense of adventure couldn’t help but feel drawn to the islands as Theroux describes them – their idiosyncrasies, history, culture, beauty and repulsiveness in equal measure – which speckle the Pacific Ocean like stars in the night sky.

There were stars everywhere, above us, and reflected in the sea along with the sparkle of phosphorescence streaming from the bow wave. When I poked an oar in the ocean and stirred it, the sea glittered with twinkling sea-life. … It was as though we were in an old rickety rocket ship.

It was an image that afterwards often came to me when I was travelling in the Pacific, that this ocean was as vast as outer space, and being on this boat was like shooting from one star to another, the archipelagoes like galaxies, and the islands like isolated stars in an empty immensity of watery darkness, and this sailing was like going slowly from star to star, in vitreous night.” – Paul Theroux, The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific


Making History by Stephen Fry

The fabulous Stephen Fry first came to my attention during a heartfelt speech he gave on religion at the Intelligence Squared debate I was watching for another writer I admire, Christopher Hitchens.

I then realised this same man graces my television every Tuesday evening as host of QI, and then – low and behold – it turns out we even have one of his books on our shelf. Who it belongs to or where it came from I can’t say, but I extracted it with relish, and was immediately engrossed.

Fry’s presence in the pages is evident from the start. You can almost picture him giggling to himself as his larger-than-life characters gradually materialise on the page. The discernible presence of the author might not be ideal, but to learn more about Fry, to gain some insight into the man, is the reason I picked up his book, so I was delighted to find him right there speaking through the silly, lovable Michael Young (aka Puppy) about the past, the future, life, love , hope and regret, and asking, most importantly, what if?

When Michael Young’s history thesis is laughingly rejected by his cheesecloth and rope-soled sandal-wearing professor on the same day his girlfriend disowns him, he meets an intriguing man and makes a decision that will turn not only his life, but the entire world on its head.

Sprinkled with such gems as “the last granules of dream fizz away” and “the cheering of the men grew and swelled inside him until it burst from his eyes in a flood of hot, disgusted tears” and “you could hardly blame a kid who grew up in Cambridge for redesigning himself as a class warrior”, Making History will have you laughing out loud just as soon as it has you vying for revenge or blinking back an unexpected tear.

Broaching the subject of time travel is fraught with difficulties and the potential for unanswerable questions. In this case it works, because this is a book that – like Fry – doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Next on my list of books to read: The Fry Chronicles: An Autobiography.

Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates

I can’t say why I chose to pick this dusty, dog-eared second-hand book off the shelf when I did, one clear morning at a café in the New South Wales southern highlands. I’d never previously had any interest in its principle subject: the tragic, beautiful Marilyn Monroe. Something in the news or popular media may have spiked my interest, or the book may have simply beckoned more interest than it’s shelved neighbours.

Prior to even the book’s dedication page comes a disclaimer from Oates herself that “Blonde should be read solely as a work of fiction, not as a biography of Marilyn Monroe.” So it is testament to Oates’ writing that I turned the final page feeling as though I’d intimately known the woman, and was more intrigued to learn about her life and work than I imagine any factual biography could have left me.

Oates is obviously a feminist writer, and she delved into scenes and aspects of Marilyn’s life that she clearly can’t have known: her first menstrual period, her various sexual encounters – desires, even – her dreams and nightmares about pregnancy, her fears and countless self-doubts. And yet are those accounts any less true as a result? Oates was clearly well-read on the known facts of Marilyn’s life story, which she pieced together without sacrificing the intimacies of her humanity – a humanity which author and subject and reader alike share and which makes this book all the truer, if strictly fictional.

While written in the third person, it feels almost as though Oates’ decision to do so was to suggest a confused, troubled Marilyn speaking of herself in that manner – perplexed by her constructed identity: Norma Jeane; Marilyn; She; Her. And then there’s the sections separating the book’s chapters: The Child; The Girl; The Woman; Marilyn; (and lastly, The Afterlife).

This book will leave you feeling not just like you know Marilyn, but that in many ways you are her. It also takes a clear side on the controversy of her death, and again, while Oates can’t have known whose (if any) hand really took Marilyn’s life, the truth of her demise and the reasons for it almost render that one detail inconsequential, at least in Oates’ expression of it. Read it, and see if you agree.