2.4.20

Re-Reading Alan Garner: Elidor

For my money, Elidor is where things really start to pick up. Alan Garner once observed that as his writing career progressed, his protagonists grew older, but always staying about the same distance from his own age. With Elidor, we move from children's literature to young adult, from high fantasy to what we would now label 'urban fantasy.'

The children (we are never told their ages, but they seem like young teens to me) enter the ruined land of Elidor through a portal in a derelict church. After a brief quest-and-test journey, they are sent back to our own world with four Treasures -- a sword, a spear, a cup and a stone (these reminded me of the four suits of the traditional tarot deck). But once in our world, the Treasures are disguised as a pair of nailed lathes, an iron rod, a cracked china bowl and a rock: the kind of imagined 'treasures' that any kid might pick up in a game of pretend. But the children are being pursued from the other side of the veil...

The section where the Treasures give off an electrical charge, causing household appliances to malfunction, is funny, and the part where intruders from Elidor rattle the door of the house is genuinely creepy. Garner's prose is beginning to be more carefully pruned in this book, and is much more powerful for its restraint.

The door of the children's house, which Roland conjures in Elidor, is the door of Garner's own childhood home, and the blasted landscape of Elidor is based on the 'ceiling world' he lost himself in as a sick child lying in bed. I think this is my favourite aspect of Elidor, the collision between real and imagined, created and remembered, mythic and quotidian, until the climactic scene with the unicorn rampaging in the demolished slums of Manchester. This is a very strong book.

31.3.20

I Capture the Castle

I've owned this copy of I Capture the Castle for several years (I bought it second hand but it was so long ago I can't remember exactly where it came from -- I paid $12) without realising that the girl on the cover is actually a very young Romola Garai, from the movie adaptation. (I have been trying to watch the movie for days but it isn't on any of the streaming services at the moment. Someone said it was on Kanopy, which I managed to install -- but it wasn't there either! Except in Egypt, apparently...)

Anyway, I had forgotten how much I adore this book. It was absolutely perfect comfort reading, and my only complaint is that it could have been ten times longer and I would have happily gone on reading it until quarantine ends. Thank you, Susannah, for reminding me about it!

It reminds me somewhat of my teenage favourite books, Nancy Mitford's Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate -- but Nancy Mitford can be brutal, there is a sense that she will ruthlessly sacrifice anyone for a laugh. Dodie Smith is far kinder. Her characters are just as charmingly eccentric as Mitford's, but there is more love. Is Cassandra, our narrator, 'consciously naive,' as she is described at one point? She grows less innocent and more mature as the book progresses, as she experiences the bitter bliss of first love, the agony of that love being unrequited, the complicated envy of her sister, and the whole wretched 'game of second-best we have all been playing -- Rose with Simon, Simon with me, me with Stephen...'

A modern reader will find it credulity-straining, perhaps, that none of the family is able to get a job of any kind, but that they all sit around waiting for their father to write another book, but the girls were not educated with employment in mind.

I Capture the Castle is also  very funny -- the scene with the bear, the green hands, the abduction of their father -- but for all its eccentricities and its bizarre setting (they live in a ruined castle, less romantic than it sounds), its heart is true. I'd remembered it as having a more straightforwardly happy ending, but in fact the bittersweet balance between melancholy and hope is pitched perfectly. I don't think I could love this book more.

27.3.20

Freakonomics

I studied Economics in Year 12. It was my worst subject and I have been sceptical of economists ever since -- what they say is either bleeding obvious or irrelevant to reality (in my opinion). But Freakonomics comes at economics from a different, and far more entertaining, angle. It's really about looking at data and asking questions -- not obvious questions, and not irrelevant ones, but questions that produce unexpected answers.

The most striking (and notorious) example of this approach concerns the youth crime wave predicted to swamp the US in the 1990s -- a crime wave that never eventuated. Commentators and politicians put this down to better policing, increased prison terms and a host of other causes, but Levitt (an economist) and Dubner (a journalist) have crunched the numbers and concluded that the real cause of this crime wave failing to occur was actually Roe v Wade -- the pro-choice legal decision which enabled many poor and desperate young women to have abortions. Twenty years later, a whole demographic of unwanted children had not been born and not grown up to become criminals. The crime rate fell.

This is probably the most controversial of their conclusions but the numbers do seem to stack up. There are also case studies involving parenting, names, real estate, crack dealers and many other topics. Since this book came out, Levitt and Dubner have produced several more and a successful podcast, but I think I've dipped my toe in deep enough for now.

25.3.20

Magpie Murders

My beautiful sister-in-law (who is something of a magpie herself) picked this up secondhand and I snaffled it (get well soon, Trae xxx). I am a huge fan of Anthony Horowitz's wartime detective series, Foyle's War, which wonderfully combines history, character and mystery. Magpie Murders is not on the same level, but it is a bit of fun -- which is something we all desperately need at the moment.

Magpie Murders gives you two murder mysteries for the price of one. The book opens with editor Susan Ryeland reading the latest manuscript in the popular Atticus Pund post-war detective series. This manuscript is the first mystery, featuring a classic cosy English village murder. But the last chapter, with the solution, is missing... and then the author, Alan Conway, turns up dead... Did he really kill himself, or was he murdered too? And if the latter, by whom and why? Susan is determined to find out.

I enjoyed this novel, which cleverly plays with many of the tropes of detective fiction by interweaving the 'fictional' and the 'real' mysteries, just as Conway did with his novels. Perfect for curling up with in quarantine.

23.3.20

From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage

So long ago that it feels like a completely different life (I think it was some time in January) on a hot summer's night, I heard Judith Brett talking about this book, a history of the Australian electoral system, and I was so intrigued that I hopped out of bed at 1am and crept to my laptop to reserve it at the library then and there.

I was about eighth in the queue, but it finally arrived a couple of weeks ago -- also in another lifetime, in a different world. Now the libraries are all closed, re-opening who knows when, and I poked the book through the returns slot yesterday. I wonder when I will next be able to borrow a book -- all my lovely reserves are still waiting for me...

Judith Brett's firm contention is that Australia does elections better than just about anywhere in the world. We take our innovations for granted, but we should celebrate them, because a solid, impartial electoral system is one of the best safeguards for democracy. We didn't invent all of the following, but we did invent some, and others we adopted permanently.


  • the secret ballot: for a long time this was actually known as 'the Australian ballot.' Before this, people had to declare their votes publically, which is obviously a problem if you rely on the goodwill of the local landowner or whatever and don't want to be seen to choose someone other than their favoured candidate. Candidates used to bribe voters with alcohol, so election days became violent, riotous gatherings; the secret ballot ended this practice.
  • voting on Saturdays: it still amazes me that the US hold elections on Tuesdays, and in the UK on Thursdays! Australians have prioritised making voting easier, whereas some other jurisdictions seem to try to make it as difficult as possible.
  • compulsory voting: in fact, voting itself isn't compulsory, it's just compulsory to turn up and get your name crossed off the roll; once you're in the booth (another Aussie innovation), you can leave your paper blank, scribble on it or whatever. In Australia, voting was seen as a necessary civic duty, and determining the will of the majority of voters was always paramount.
There are lots of other elements, and not every aspect of Australian voting is a cause for celebration -- for example, the deliberate disenfranchisement of Aboriginal people (though we were early to give the vote to women). The emphasis on ease of voting is leading inexorably to a preference for early, postal and absentee voting before the actual election day (I don't approve of this). But in general, election days in Australia are genial, good-humoured community festivals, and that is in itself a cause for celebration.

From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage is a slim book but it's much more interesting than you might think!

21.3.20

Gone-Away Lake and Return to Gone-Away

I'm indebted to Susan Green for reminding me about these books in her discussion of Elizabeth Enright's The Saturdays (which I must also re-read). I'm feeling a strong need for comfort books at the moment and thank heavens I have shelves and shelves of glorious children's books which I've collected and in which I can immerse myself in the coming days and weeks and -- God help us -- months.

As a child, I was utterly bewitched by Gone-Away Lake (which I bought from the Scholastic Book Club in PNG some time in the mid-70s -- there's no date on the edition, annoyingly -- it was the only way to buy new books in PNG at the time and I would get so excited!) and Return to Gone-Away (I picked up this copy at a library book sale a few years ago).

The premise is fabulous -- two children discover, by the shores of a swamp which used to be a lake, a collection of long-abandoned holiday houses, now inhabited only by aged brother and sister, Pindar Payton and Minnehaha Cheever. The relationship the children form with the old people is gorgeous, respectful but fun, and 'Uncle Pin' and 'Aunt Minnehaha' tell them entertaining stories about their own childhood adventures when the lake was there. There is humour and excitement (Portia's little brother almost drowns in the swamp, they search for the lost safe and treasure of the formidable Mrs Brace-Gideon) but the most enjoyable aspect for me, of course, is the idea of the deserted houses, still filled with furniture and old stuff for the taking, sinking into gentle decay. Min and Pin are vigorous and wise, perfect godparents, and in the second book, Portia's family have bought and are restoring one of the more-intact houses.

Throughly enjoyable, and the illustrations are terrific, too. The books were written in the 1950s, and the houses haven't been inhabited for fifty years -- they would be about 120 years old now. Which makes them even more enticing... I don't really fancy the swamp, though.

19.3.20

Avalanche!

It feels timely to be talking about a book that deals with natural disaster, community, courage and selflessness in the face of danger and uncertainty.

Though set in Switzerland, Avalanche! was published in Holland in 1954 and subsequently translated into English in several editions. Anna Rutgers van der Loeff sets her story in a small Swiss village in an unusually heavy winter, where even a shout can bring a deadly avalanche of snow roaring down the mountainside to bury houses and people. In Australia we are more familiar with fire and flood as natural disasters and I've never really considered the perils of avalanche (I've spelt that word wrong every time I've typed it). Precautions like carrying lengths of coloured rope, so that people know where to dig for you, were all new to me.

There is lots of action here but the heart of the story is centred on the boys of the Pestalozzi Children's Village who had travelled to the Alps for a skiing holiday and become caught in the disaster. I'd never heard of these villages, set up for war time orphans, but they still exist to provide homes for displaced youths. These boys, from a variety of nations, speaking different languages, have formed a family of sorts and in turn they connect with the local boy, Werner, whose parents and little sister  have been buried in an avalanche early in the book. The friendship between stoic Werner and excitable Italian Paolo is the true core of Avalanche!

I would like to hope that in the current crisis, we could all show the bravery, fortitude and practical compassion displayed by the characters in this book.

17.3.20

Rebel on a Rock

Not a very appealing cover -- a friend gave it to me, knowing that I collect old books, I probably wouldn't have picked it up otherwise, though I am a fan of Nina Bawden (author of Carrie's War and The Peppermint Pig). Thanks, Cathy!

Rebel on a Rock actually features a grown-up Carrie herself and her children, and is mostly told from the point of view of her daughter, Jo. The family, complete with new step-father Albert, have arrived on holiday in Ithaca. We're not told what country Ithaca is, because it's a dictatorship, but it's not too hard for the adult reader to guess the identity of this hot, sunny country with its honey and olives and goat's cheese, with a capital city called Zenith. (Greece was in fact a dictatorship in the 1970s, when this book was written and set, period of history about which I know absolutely nothing.)

I enjoyed Rebel on a Rock, it's an engaging story featuring Carrie's four children and the relationships they form with the townspeople of Polis. Because this is Nina Bawden, there is a lot going on, a subtle to-and-fro: Jo is torn between idolising her new step-father and suspecting he's a spy; soft-hearted young Alice befriends a policeman who is shunned by the rest of the population as an informer; their new friend Alexis is simultaneously irritating and brave. The story is mostly about not taking people at face value -- hardly anyone in the book is exactly who or what they seem at first.

Looking for an image for this post, I was surprised to find several different editions out there. I'd never come across Rebel on a Rock before. It's a shame it's such a naff title, not to mention this off-putting cover, but some of the others are better!

15.3.20

Shy

I'm shy. I think probably most writers are inclined to be shy, or at least introverted, which is why we feel so comfortable in the world of books and imagination.

Sian Prior has had a very public persona as a broadcaster, journalist and singer so it was a surprise to me that she describes herself as having always been shy. In this memoir she distinguishes between Shy Sian (fleeing from a party with clammy hands) and Professional Sian (who can be calm, confident and chatty when required). She describes a constant battle between two elements of her personality: Look at Me/Don't Look at Me. She speculates that this is the difference between the shy and the introverted. Introverts are quite happy not to be looked at and content with their own company, whereas the shy crave social attention but are terrified of asking for it.

Prior was already working on Shy when 'Tom,' her partner of ten years, unexpectedly broke up with her. This event gives the memoir a raw, agonising immediacy, and it's as much a story of grief and loss as it is a tale of shyness. Horrible for Prior, but Shy is probably a better book as a result. It's also interesting to juxtapose this loss with the death of Prior's father when she was an infant, and the ripple effects of this early absence on the rest of her life. (Prior doesn't name 'Tom' in the book, but it's easy enough to find out his identity.)

Shy is part memoir, part meditation, part psychological exploration of social anxiety. Next time I'm forced to make small talk with people I don't know, I'll remember that something like 40% of people describe themselves as shy. Maybe it's just as excruciating for them as it is for me!

12.3.20

Re-reading Alan Garner: Boneland

I have written about Boneland before. This time I was reading it primarily with an eye to its being a sequel to Weirdstone and Moon of Gomrath, and it succeeds surprisingly well, considering that it's an adult novel completing a trilogy initially aimed at 10-12 year olds.

Like all Garner's work, this is a multi-layered work. Without help, I would never have picked up the references to Camelot (the round table at Colin's workplace, his boss R.T. (Artie = Arthur) and colleagues Gwen and Owen), Gawain's quest, the medieval poem Pearl... And yet Boneland (only this morning I wondered if there is an intentional resemblance to homeland in the title?) contains magic, too. Who is the unconventional psychiatrist Meg (Morrigan/Margaret = Pearl?), and her offsiders Bert and Fay? If she is indeed the sinister Morrigan of the previous books, what are we to make of her helpful aspect here?

I keep forgetting to mention the other strand of the story, the ancient shaman who is guardian of the land, and whose role it seems Colin has inherited. His loneliness is almost unbearable, and it echoes Colin's own unbearable isolation. And yet the Watcher's story has a happy ending, of sorts.

It's been suggested that the whole of Boneland takes place in the last few moments of Colin's life, that its events occur inside the 'boneland' of his skull, a last frantic firing of the neutrons before death. But perhaps ultimately that is where all stories take place, in that mysterious territory between place and thought and dreaming.

10.3.20

The Likeness

I seem to be working my way backwards through Tana French's back catalogue: The Likeness is her second novel, and part of the Dublin Murders series currently screening on SBS (which I've managed to hold off watching so far...)

The Likeness opens with a bit of a gimmicky premise -- a murder victim who just happens to be a nearly exact double for a Dublin detective, who then goes undercover as the victim to discover the murderer. That notion was pretty hard to swallow, but once I accepted it, there was lots to enjoy. This is the third book of French's (The Wych Elm, The Secret Place) that has featured a beautiful, tight-knit, idealised group of young friends in a beautiful, slightly shabby but gorgeous setting (a private school, a run-down mansion), so this is obviously a theme that appeals to her. It appeals to me too, and The Likeness is perhaps its most perfect iteration.

Like Cassie-posing-as-Lexie, I was seduced by the world of Whitethorn House and its brilliant, socially dysfunctional student inhabitants, though I found it hard to believe, however close the resemblance and however many phone videos the victim had helpfully provided for Cassie to study, that she could really impersonate Lexie so perfectly that the others didn't suspect something! This book is all about identity and pretence and secrets and turning yourself into somebody else -- Cassie falls so far down the rabbit hole that she has trouble pulling herself out.

The Likeness was such a rich, luxurious, though ultimately really sad, read. I absolutely wallowed in it.

3.3.20

Listening to Country

Listening to Country is a memoir by Ros Moriarty, who is a white woman married to an Aboriginal man, John Moriarty. In 2006, she was taken on a journey to country, deep in the desert, with members of her husband's family, and included in traditional ceremony. The book is partly an account of that trip (excluding ritual details which need to remain secret), and partly the story of hers and John's marriage and their very successful design business, which has brought Aboriginal imagery and colour to everyday Australians and the world (they designed the Qantas planes with the indigenous paintings, among many other things).

Moriarty is aware of her privilege, both as a white woman, and as a welcome member of her husband's extended family. Listening to Country is her sharing of the insights and experiences she has gained from family, and also a sharing of their personal histories, stories which remain largely hidden from many Australians.

One element that made me sad was Moriarty's conviction that the time of deep connection to country is coming to an inexorable end -- that when these old women and men die, ritual, ceremony and knowledge will die with them. I'm not so sure -- my recent readings of Tyson Yunkaporta and Bruce Pascoe, among others, give me hope that these traditions are still highly valued and that real effort is being made to preserve and build on them. I really hope so. In these days more than ever, humanity is crying out for a closer connection to country, to the swing of the seasons and the balance of the natural world. Indigenous Australians have so much to teach the rest of us and this knowledge is more essential than ever. I feel as if we are, at last, almost ready to listen. Or maybe I just spend too much time on the ABC?

29.2.20

Re-reading Alan Garner: The Weirdstone & The Moon of Gomrath


Alan Garner is an extraordinary writer, but in my opinion, his first two books are nowhere near his best work. It seems strikingly unjust that they are by far his most successful (as far as I can tell).

Garner has stated that his nine novels, written over a span of decades, are really all one long book. This reminds me of Aboriginal story-telling, in which one simple layer of the tale is told to children, and deeper layers of myth and meaning are gradually revealed to adults as they grow in wisdom and understanding. Thus Garner's stories become ever more complex, more resonant, more meaningful and in some ways more obscure, culminating in Boneland, which completes the trilogy begun by these two novels in a very adult, subtle and intricate way.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen didn't appeal to me as a kid. The Moon of Gomrath is much better, creepy and sinister and centred around female magic. Cadellin the sorcerer, central to the first book, barely appears in the second one; this guardian figure will re-emerge in Boneland, in the form of a long-ago shaman, and as adult Colin himself.

I've read these two volumes a few times now, and I still find the elves and the dwarfs a bit much. But they helped to introduce several generations of readers to Garner's more sophisticated work, and without them, we might not have the magnificent triumph of Boneland. For that I'm grateful.

24.2.20

The Call

I picked this up from Brotherhood Books a while ago, and seeing as footy season is just around the corner (go, Dogs!) I thought I'd pull it out.

The Call is an odd book; it's described as a novel, but it reads like non-fiction -- except that Flanagan invented many (but not all?) of the 'documents' he 'quotes': contemporary letters, newspaper articles, diary entries. It's impossible to tell which of these texts are actually primary sources and which are imaginary, which is a testament to Flanagan's powers, but makes for a rather uneasy reading experience.

The Call is the story of Thomas Wills, the founder of the Australian Rules code of football in the 1850s. While NSW and Queensland adopted rugby, as played in the public schools of England, Wills drew up the rules for 'a game of our own.' Aussie Rules was actually codified before soccer! It's probably that Wills was inspired by the local Aboriginal game marngrook, which involved leaping and catching the ball as well as kicking and running with it, and gives Australian Rules its distinctive, exhilarating flavour.  I don't know much about sport, but when I've watched rugby and soccer, the games seem to be played in two dimensions, up and down the field, whereas AFL is truly 360 degrees.

Wills straddled two worlds, between the white colonists and the Aborigines he grew up with (he famously took a team of Aboriginal cricketers to tour England). He was a consummate sportsman, a cricketer first and foremost, but the brutal murder of his father in outback Queensland by local tribes, and the inevitable loss of his sporting prowess as he grew older, seemed to rob him of meaning and purpose, and he ended up taking his own life.

The most moving section of this book invites us to imagine Tommy Wills returning to the MCG, the ground where he experienced many of his own sporting triumphs, and witnessing a modern Grand Final -- a crowd of 100,000 fans, the power of the athletes, the speed and skill of the modern game. And today (The Call was published in 1998) we could add the AFLW to the list of developments that Wills would never have foreseen.

PS Last night I watched Stan Grant's documentary about Adam Goodes, The Australian Dream. Sadly, Australian racism doesn't seem to have improved much, even after more than a hundred years.

21.2.20

The Trauma Cleaner

The Trauma Cleaner is a remarkable book, multi-awarded and much discussed. It tells the story of Sandra Pankhurst, a transgender woman who has survived childhood abuse, exploitation, drug addiction and rape, and who now operates a highly successful business as a trauma cleaner -- cleaning up crime scenes, the houses of hoarders, places where people have died.

Sandra's story is compelling enough on its own, but it's told brilliantly by Sarah Krasnostein. The book loops between Sandra's history -- her imperfect, patchy memories, supplemented by Krasnostein's own researches -- and her current life, the various scenes where her work takes place, in all their heartbreaking and sometimes revolting vividness. These poignant encounters, Sandra's empathy and compassion, and the strange hollowness within, are beautifully described. This is an incredibly moving book.

I read The Trauma Cleaner simultaneously with Lost For Words, and it was interesting to compare the two accounts of damaged and resilient women, one fictional, one true. Now that I've begun reading books concurrently, I'm astonished at how frequently these correspondences crop up, without any planning on my part.