21.10.18

Jane Eyre

Reader, I finished it...

I didn't tell you I was reading this one, either, did I? I hid it from you, somewhat as one might hide away a mad wife in an attic. In fact I've been reading Jane Eyre very slowly, on my iPhone, on trams and in waiting rooms, for a few months now -- what would Charlotte Bronte have made of that? A tiny lighted screen, containing numberless novels, slipped into a handbag or a pocket: what a luxury!

I've always been more of a Jane Eyre fan than a Wuthering Heights girl. Being little and plain and often overlooked myself, I felt that Jane was a kindred spirit, and I still admire her spunk, her self-possession and her refusal to compromise. Some aspects of the novel are hard to read, almost two centuries later. Poor mad Bertha, locked away to rot like a wild animal. Poor little illegitimate Adele, with her 'French defects.' Poor St John Rivers, captive to his merciless God. Poor Rochester, utterly selfish, patronising and obnoxious. A modern Jane would surely never settle for him.

And yet I'm here to tell you that Jane Eyre is still a bloody good read. Well done, Charlotte.

11.10.18

The Virago Book of Twins and Doubles

I've never been a huge fan of anthologies, I could never really see the point. Now I finally get it -- they are perfect for reading in bed! One or two extracts, super-short, lights out, done, and no compulsion to see What Happens Next...

I have been reading The Virago Book of Twins and Doubles for AGES in this nibbley-nibbley way, and very satisfying it's been, too. I didn't buy this because I'm particularly interested in twins (though I have a twin niece and nephew, and twin brothers who died at birth), but because the editor is Penelope Farmer, who wrote the haunting Charlotte Sometimes. It turns out that Farmer was herself a twin, and the memory of her deceased sister hangs over this volume. Of course Charlotte Sometimes is also a story of doubles, separated by time.

Twins as freaks, twins in myth, the writer as twin, twins as curse and as blessing... this anthology is an ordered jumble of fact and fiction, poetry and newspaper snippets. There were several extracts from a compelling book I remember reading in high school, about The Silent Twins, June and Jennifer Gibson, who communicated only with each other, became arsonists, and were locked in Broadmoor for many years. Jennifer died, for no apparent reason, at the age of 29, perhaps to 'set June free.' Many of these twin tales carried a similar eerie shiver.

5.10.18

The Happiness Quest: EDIT

As some of you may know, or have guessed, someone close to me is suffering from severe depression at the moment. Hence my flare of interest in books about therapy, mental health, depression and anxiety, and crucially, how to recover from the all-enveloping darkness.

Lana Penrose's memoir, The Happiness Quest is promisingly subtitled A depression survivor's journey from misery to joy. But it turned out to be not quite what I was looking for. Penrose seems determined to keep things on the light side -- not surprisingly, as it is a real drag reading about other people's mental agony. But sometimes the cute metaphors and breezy tone grated against the grim reality she was describing. I liked the way she organised the book in alphabetical chapters: B is for Breakdown, C is for CBT etc, and I loved her gutsy determination to beat her demons with any tools she could find, from the scientifically proven to the frankly whacky.

In the end, the recipe that saved Penrose (a combination of meditation, talk therapy and EMDR -- didn't I say a couple of posts back that EMDR was a pile of nonsense? Whoops!) might not suit everybody, but it brought her back from the brink. I'm sure I've read somewhere that it doesn't actually matter what form of therapy you use; what helps is the relationship you establish with the therapist. And the same hints keep cropping up: exercise, meditation, mindfulness, gratitude.

I guess the most important message is one of hope -- that this dark journey can have a happy ending.

Edited to say that one thing that really annoyed me about this book (not Penrose's fault) was the amount of sloppy typos and errors that kept leaping out at me. There is no excuse for any editor to let "Virginia Wolfe" slide by uncorrected.

3.10.18

Where Shall We Run To?

This was my birthday present to myself and it finally arrived after a wait of several weeks. I think Alan Garner may well be my most-admired writer of all time. Now I own all his novels, and this lovely memoir, I might sit down and read the whole lot from beginning to end, including his essays The Voice That Thunders (which I didn't find too difficult to understand, though it did challenge and excite me).

Anyway! Garner was born in a Cheshire village where his family have lived for hundreds of years. The landscape is etched with traces of his ancestors -- his grandfather and great-great grandfather built this wall; family lived in this house or that one, climbed these hills, carved in this cave. His sense of being deeply embedded in the land, growing out of its history, is central to all Garner's work, and parallels the Australian Aboriginal experience of belonging to country (a parallel he explored in Strandloper).

Though on the surface, Where Shall We Run To? is the story of a simple childhood (he's about the same age as my parents) -- playground disputes, frightening teachers, the finding of a 'bomb', encounters with evacuee children -- there are echoes and resonances here that have found their way into his fiction. The book is structured like memory, sometimes shown in vivid flashes, sometimes shaped into the anecdotes we all tell ourselves, the stories that make up our selves.

2.10.18

When I Was A Child I Read Books

How could I not jump on this book? Look at the title, for heaven's sake. When I Was a Child I Read Books -- hooray! Me, too! And it's by Marilynne Robinson, whose novels Housekeeping, Gilead, Home and Lila have left me awestruck and seriously teetering on the edge of actually becoming a Christian. Her novels are both delicate and rigorous, spare and beautifully wrought. I love her fiction; it has uplifted, comforted and inspired me.

So I was disappointed in myself that I almost completely failed to keep pace with this collection of essays. They were simply beyond my comprehension. They are all more or less theological in their concerns, which is fine, and insofar as I understood what Robinson was saying, I mostly agreed with her. She is mostly arguing (I think) for a more nuanced, complex understanding of what it means to be human -- an understanding that takes into account spiritual yearnings, kindness and compassion, and refuses to settle for the brutal neo-liberal conception of humans as merely selfish, economic beings who dance to the tune of the market. I'm all for that.

Maybe I'm just thick, but I felt as I waded laboriously through this slender volume that I was reading a carefully thought-out response to a debate whose start I'd missed -- there were references I just didn't get, figures I'd never heard of, quotes I didn't understand. Who was Oberlin? I'm still not sure. The Boston Globe said, "A glimmering, provocative collection of essays, each a rhetorically brilliant, deeply felt exploration of education, culture, and politics...beautifully intelligent,"and I'm sure they're right. I just wish I was beautifully intelligent enough to understand it.

1.10.18

Taste: The Story of Britain Through its Cooking

There are some books that you can't (pardon the pun) consume in one bite. Ooh, that sounds interesting, I thought, when I came across Kate Colquhuon's Taste: The Story of Britain Through its Cooking on Brotherhood Books -- and don't get me wrong, it was interesting!

But I couldn't have sat down and devoured it in one sitting (for one thing, it's pretty thick). Chapter after chapter detailing extravagant feasts, the evolution of cooking techniques and shifting meal times, the rise and fall of ingredients as the world of trade expanded availability -- if I'd tried to swallow it in one go, it would have proved indigestible. Instead, I rationed myself to one chapter a day, and slowly consumed a dose of British history through the prism of its food and cooking.

From the evidence left in prehistoric middens (butchered bones, cheese sieves), through medieval feasts and the Elizabethan addiction to sugar (some things don't change much), to the pineapple fad of the eighteenth century, the demise of the household cook, wartime rationing and the rise of the 'foodie', Taste leads us through the centuries and shows how social history and food go hand in hand.

As a fan of the BBC's clumsily titled The Supersizers Go... which featured Sue Perkins and Giles Coren sampling the food of different eras with a comic twist, and the recent Australian show Back in Time for Dinner, which also mixed food and history, I was always going to find Taste hard to resist. It was highly educational: the Victorian underclass were literally starving on a diet of adulterated bread and not much more; at the end of the nineteenth century, there was apparently 'a small chain of Australian restaurants in London' (who knew??); and many many more intriguing titbits.

26.9.18

The Art of Psychotherapy

Wow, I have been reading r-e-a-l-l-y s-l-o-w-l-y lately, ploughing my way through a couple of books that are either extremely dense and demanding (Marilynne Robinson) or best consumed in small bites (Taste). But more of those books later (when I actually finish them!). Who would have thought that the book with the dullest title of the three, The Art of Psychotherapy: Case Studies from the Family Therapy Networker, would turn out to be my 'fun read'?

The Family Therapy Networker is a magazine for mental health workers, and the case studies presented in this collection began life in its pages. Each case is described by the therapist concerned, together with their choice of treatment and how the therapy turned out. This is then followed by a commentary from another one or two therapists, who might agree with the approach taken, or vehemently disagree. Sometimes the original therapist then responds with justifications or extra information.

It all sounds pretty dry, but it's absolutely fascinating! I've always been a sucker for those collections of case studies, more literary than this, by author/practitioners like Oliver Sacks or Irvin D. Yalom. This material is less polished, but comes direct from the coalface of the therapist's consulting room. Mistakes are admitted, not all cases are successfully resolved, sometimes huge issues are left completely unaddressed (eg the role of gender in reinforcing a wife and daughter's 'caring' for an alcoholic husband; the possibility that a young boy who 'acts out' being a girl may actually be trans). Published in 1999, it was clear that social norms have shifted dramatically in some areas in the last twenty years, and were in the process of shifting on these pages. Some new and apparently exciting therapy techniques (EMDR, Thought Field Therpay) have now been debunked.

But what remains constant is the complex, intriguing, troubling field of relationships and mental health -- however they are tackled, those problems will always be with us. It's sobering, but also weirdly comforting, to learn that there is no one 'solution' to any client's difficulties; but that sometimes, it doesn't really matter what the therapist does, as long as they do something.

16.9.18

The Golden Age

How time flies! I remember that Joan London's slim novel, The Golden Age, made all the best-of-the-year lists when it was published, which I vaguely thought was about a year ago? But now, it was way back in 2014.

I really enjoyed this novel. Short chapters, clear, vivid writing, poignant characters -- an easy read, but not a dumb one. Set in Perth in the mid-1950s, it centres on two young patients at a polio facility (the eponymous Golden Age, a pub in its former life), thoughtful Elsa and aspiring poet Frank, the son of Hungarian refugees. There's not a lot of plot, but the story meanders gently and tenderly between its characters, touching them lightly then moving on. My only quibble was the rather abrupt ending -- I wanted it to go on much longer, which is not something I often say these days!

I definitely want to read London's other novels now. This was beautiful. I've even lent it to my mum, who says she can't read books any more. I'll let you know how she goes with it.

11.9.18

The Stone Book Quartet

I have ordered Alan Garner's memoir, Where Shall We Run To? as a birthday present (unfortunately it's going to arrive a little late!). The Stone Book Quartet, the last remaining novel of Garner's I had yet to read, is the perfect preparation for it; this is Garner's most personal and autobiographical work. It consists of four very slender novellas -- almost short stories, really -- each centred on a single day in the life of a child of a different generation in Garner's family, with the last boy, William, growing up during WWII, a disguised version of Alan himself.

Though the quartet is so slim, as usual, Garner packs in a dense mass of material. There are no supernatural elements here, but a deep continuity of place and memory, where family stories and history intertwine. Mary's father shows her a secret, sacred place, deep inside the hill; her son, Joseph, a 'granny reardun' (I'm guessing illegitimate?) rejects his grandfather's stonecraft to apprentice himself as a smith; Joseph's son Robert gropes to find his own place in family tradition; and finally William shares his grandfather's last day as a blacksmith and inherits a craft of a different kind. Characters from different generations and neighbouring families shift in and out of focus, and objects vanish and reappear.

This is a book to treasure, a book that apparently came relatively easily to Garner, and it sings.

8.9.18

A Circling Star

I bought Mara Kay's A Circling Star because I'd seen so many loving remembrances of Kay's Masha books by people whose tastes I share. A Circling Star is not a Masha book, and I'm guessing it's one of Kay's lesser works. Like the Masha novels, this one is set in Imperial Russia (it took me ages to work out that it was in the 1850s). It tells the story of cheeky, impulsive Aniuta, who is sent to join the Imperial Theatre School (a real place!) to train for the Bolshoi Ballet. Students had their board and education fully paid for by the Emperor, and those who didn't make the grade as dancers were shunted into the drama course, or ended up as prop makers or scenery painters.

It wasn't until I'd nearly finished the book and was doing some idle googling that I discovered that some of the characters in the novel were actually real people, too! Anuita's love interest, the intense Liev Ivanov, who writes a ballet especially for her and whose heart she breaks, ended as a renowned choreographer (not as handsome in his Wikipedia photo as he is described in the book), responsible for The Nutcracker and parts of Swan Lake. Other teachers at the school, actors and dancers, also proved to be historical figures.

Published in 1973, A Circling Star felt much more old-fashioned. It was a comforting read, even though it was shot through with the usual rivalries and treachery common to ballet books, and the (to me) unusual setting lent it added interest. I think the Masha books would be better, though!

7.9.18

Busman's Honeymoon

A detective story with romantic interruptions, or a romance with detective interludes? Busman's Honeymoon is the final volume of the adventures of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, and sees the couple married at last. The usual rule is that URST should never be resolved, but I think this novel provides a satisfying conclusion to Peter and Harriet's difficult courtship, because it shows that married bliss may not necessarily be smooth sailing and happy ever after.

Lord Peter has come a long way from the original 'silly ass' dilettante of Whose Body? In fact, the heart of Busman's Honeymoon, despite its comic episodes and farcical interludes, concerns the psychological impact of Wimsey's 'meddling' and its very real consequences -- in this case, the murderer will hang. We know that Lord Peter was damaged by the War; now we learn how heavily the responsibility of life and death weighs upon him. It's almost more than he can bear... until Harriet gently reminds him that if not for his 'interference', she would have lost her own life.

The penultimate section, where Harriet tours the ancestral seat, including an encounter with the family ghost, tips into twee wish-fulfilment territory. But the real power and agony of the final vigil makes up for it.

29.8.18

Coromandel Sea Change

I couldn't find a sharp image of my edition of Rumer Godden's 1991 novel, but perhaps that's appropriate because Coromandel Sea Change is quite soft-focus in itself.

This is an old-fashioned novel. Once again we are introduced to a young, naive but headstrong woman who is encountering India for the first time and finds her world expanding in unexpected ways. It took me a little while to realise that I have visited the beautiful seaside hotel, Patna Hall, before, in the clumsily-titled novella Cromartie v The God Shiva Acting Through the Government of India, published in 1997 and also featuring wise Auntie Sannie and her loyal lieutenants, Hannah and Samuel. Coromandel Sea Change is more dramatic, featuring a mismatched honeymoon couple, a charismatic young aspiring politician, a slimy journalist and a benevolent diplomatic couple. But it's the tranquil hotel on the beach, surrounded by flowers, that is the real star of this novel.

I don't believe that there is any such thing as a bad Rumer Godden novel, but this is a lesser offering. Still worth a weekend away, but maybe not a lingering stay.

24.8.18

Everything Everything

Of course it's 'now a major motion picture!' I shouldn't be surprised. Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon is a typical contemporary YA novel, and as such, it was crying out to be adapted for film.

There were some aspects I liked about this novel:
  • it was short and easy to read (thanks to some very short chapters, and many illustrations)
  • it had a female protagonist of colour (half-Japanese, half-African American) (like the author, which I also liked)
  • it was pacy 
There were some things I didn't like so much:
  • another hot and heavy teen romance (rolls eyes) 
  • without being too spoilery, I found the plot totally implausible, and therefore the Big Twist did not take me by surprise
I felt quite ambivalent about this book. It's clearly been well-read at the local library, as I had to reserve it and it's been thoroughly thumbed. For what it was, it was fine, it was nicely put together and easy to fly through. But it's just not the kind of book that I really enjoy... Which is fine, because it wasn't written for me.


23.8.18

Ugly

Another Australian memoir, but a very different story. Robert Hoge was born with such devastating facial difference (as well as deformities to his legs) that his own mother didn't want to bring him home from hospital. But his four older siblings voted otherwise and soon his mother was little Robert's fiercest advocate. His early childhood was a parade of surgeries and what must have been terrible pain and struggle. However, Ugly, adapted from an adult memoir and aimed at primary school children, focuses on the everyday obstacles of Robert's life: teasing, nicknames, pratfalls when he tries to run too fast on his artificial legs on school sports day.

This is an upbeat account, emphasising the funny side of Hoge's experiences, but clearly he had a rough time at school. It's a terrific way of getting kids to think about their own responses to classmates with differences of all kinds. The book ends on a defiant note, with teenage Hoge refusing to undergo yet another massive, dangerous operation that might 'improve' his looks. He decides to take his chances with his 'ugly' face, just the way it is.

22.8.18

Leather Soul

Have I mentioned that I love Bob Murphy? A writer's footballer, he earned his stripes as a quirky commentator for The Age newspaper in a series of delightful, left-of-centre columns that sometimes concerned his sausage dog Arthur or buying coffee rather than the usual earnest ruminations or boasting of some player/analysts. Those columns were collected in Murphy's Lore.

Leather Soul: A half-back flanker's rhythm and blues is a meandering memoir, with memories of a carefree childhood interleaved with a diary of the Western Bulldogs annus mirabilis, 2016, when they joyously, unexpectedly, snatched the premiership with a month of magnificent football. But poignantly, Bob himself, captain of the team and its heart and soul, wasn't able to play in that premiership team because of injury. On Grand Final Day, when the coach called Murphy up onto the dais and put his own premiership medal around the injured captain's neck, it was a moment of the most perfect love and sportsmanship, a bittersweet and precious gesture.

Bob is honest about how much missing out on that year hurt him; he put on a brave face all year, swallowed his pain and gave whatever support he could to 'his boys.' But the pain didn't go away. He is honest about his own failings (even though the conventional wisdom in our house is that he is a perfect human being!) when it would have been easy to leave out those incidents from his story. Maybe that makes him even more perfect, who knows!

If you're not a Western Bulldogs supporter, or at least an AFL football fan, you probably won't pick up this book. That would be your loss. Get to know this lovely, wise, funny man, who happens to have played wonderful football for half his life, a little better. You won't regret making his acquaintance.