Gaudy Night

My all-time favourite Dorothy L Sayers mystery novel, I've been looking for a copy of Gaudy Night for absolutely ages and was thrilled to pounce on it recently at good old Brown & Bunting. I hadn't read this since high school and I quickly remembered why I'd loved it so much.

First, the setting. 1930s Oxford would be just about top of my list for a visit in the TARDIS, and to make things even better, Gaudy Night is set in a (fictional) women's college, a community of dedicated female scholars. This is what I thought university life was going to be like; alas, it didn't exactly live up to my expectations. Gorgeous, gorgeous Oxford with its spires and punting and naughty students climbing walls after hours... well, maybe some aspects of college life are eternal, after all...

Second, the romance. I love the fact that this is really Harriet Vane's book; Peter Wimsey doesn't even appear until halfway through. She takes the lead in the detecting, and we see her gradually falling in love with Peter in his absence, until the lightning bolt of realisation in the boat on the river (sigh). Both Harriet and Peter become truly rounded characters in this novel, and while Peter has become too perfect to be true, his perfection includes some weaknesses -- he is so sensitive, don't you know. Maybe I was expecting to find my own tall, fair haired Peter at university, too... oh, God! A most sinister retrospective ray of light has just fallen on an otherwise inexplicable relationship!

Third, the philosophy. Central to the mystery, and the subject of many conversational and internal debates, is the question of how women are to reconcile the demands of work and family, career and caring, scholarly truth and personal needs. This book was written in 1935, and eighty-three years later, we are still wrestling with this dilemma. Lucky old Harriet, though tempted by academic seclusion, is able to have it all -- a loving and supportive partner who treats her as his intellectual and emotional equal, and who not only wants her to pursue her own work, but encourages her to a higher standard. Good on you, Wimsey.

I was stunned to discover that Gaudy Night is disparaged in some quarters as a 'women's book' (huh!) and because there is no murder at the heart of the story, a deficiency that I hadn't even noticed until it was pointed out. For me, it's a most satisfying combination of mystery and relationship story. I'll be coming back to this one.


Five Children on the Western Front

Kate Saunders was moved to write this sequel to Edith Nesbit's Five Children and It when she realised that the boys of the family, Cyril and Robert, were exactly the right age to have fought in the Great War. Five Children on the Western Front is the story of a more grown-up, but still young, family of siblings, with the addition of two new members -- the Lamb (who was a baby when the first adventures occurred and is properly known as Hilary) and Edie, who wasn't yet born -- during the course of the First World War.  It's these last two children who most welcome the return of the Psammead, an ancient sand-fairy who used to be able to grant wishes, but seems to have lost all his powers.

I adored all E. Nesbit's books and I read Five Children and It many times. Five Children on the Western Front is a worthy successor, but I can't imagine there would be many contemporary children who are familiar with the original. I tried reading Five Children to my daughters when they were young; I forced them to sit through The Railway Children; I tried The Treasure-Seekers on them, too. But they just didn't take. Perhaps the gap between Nesbit's early 1900s world and mine of the 1970s was just about bridgeable; but the chasm of a hundred years was too wide. So perhaps the audience for this book is nostalgic adults like me.

Like the Psammead itself, this book didn't quite recover the all the magic of the original stories. But it had just about enough to enchant me. Sweet and sad.


Murder Must Advertise

 After my great success with Jane Eyre, I actually splashed out and bought Murder Must Advertise on my phone for the princely sum of $0.99 (though apparently the author is one Dororty Sayers, the content appears to be the same).

Sayers herself worked at an advertising agency, and the book is filled with the minute detail that only an insider would know -- the feuds between copywriters and the art department, the irritating clients who think they know best, the row of errand boys playing with yo-yos and catapults while they wait to be sent out on jobs. Peter Wimsey slots into this milieu as if he were born to the job, naturally.

I think it's around this time that Sayers really began to fall in love with her own hero, because Wimsey is too good to be true. A brilliant mind, an exceptional cricketer (with the 'exceedingly characteristic late cut' quoted by Nicola Marlow in The Cricket Term) and also (urgh) at forty-five, mind you, diving from the tops of fountains in a harlequin outfit. Now that is where I draw the line, I'm afraid.

These quibbles aside, and the odd regrettable hint of casual racism, Murder Must Advertise is a great romp which I raced through much more quickly than I planned.


The Witch of Blackbird Pond

Another classic that I had never read. It just so happened that the week I was reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond, the Doctor Who episode was The Witch Finders -- coincidence? I think not! It also happens that I'm reading another book, set two hundred years later than Elizabeth George Speare's novel, but which also features a ship called the Dolphin... well, okay, the Green Dolphin... but still, spooky enough!

I don't know how I came to neglect The Witch of Blackbird Pond when I was younger. Maybe because it was American, and I tended to favour English stories? But I must say I thoroughly enjoyed it. Poor Kit, born in carefree Barbados (let's overlook the sticky slave-owning aspect of dear departed Grandpa) finds herself marooned in a settlement in Connecticut, surrounded by joyless Puritans and eligible young men. She befriends harmless Hannah, a Quaker, who is ostracised by the rest of the community, and Prudence, a down-trodden child, and manages to improve both their lives. Of course such charity cannot go unpunished!

There have been a gazillion editions of this book since it first won the Newbery Medal in the 1950s, though I'm not sure how often it's read now. One small thing irritated me for a while, which was Hannah's habit of saying thee when she meant thou. I knew that Quakers used these informal pronouns (though paradoxically they sound more formal to a modern listener) to underscore their belief that all people are equal before God, but hearing Hannah say, Thee must go now grated on my ears. BUT Professor Google reassures me that indeed, Connecticut Quakers did use thee for both forms of address... so I guess I just have to wear it.


Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was a present from my book group friend, Cathy, after I'd told her how much I enjoy nature writing (eg Robert Macfarlane). However, I admitted that I'd only really read English nature books, so she generously introduced me to this American take on the subject.

Annie Dillard won the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim in 1974; she was only 27 years old, and indeed, as she admits herself, the book does show the exuberance and boldness of youth, with all the strengths and faults that implies. I had to consume it one bite at a time, lest I become overwhelmed with the rich, showy extravagance of Dillard's writing. However, this extravagance is appropriate, because the author's project is to explore how the unnecessary, profligate exuberance of creation might reflect the magnificence of a Creator; and how the blind suffering and decay of the natural world is the essential dark side of that rich and teeming light.

This is a deeply spiritual book cloaked in the guise of a nature study, struggling to make sense of a world at once so beautiful and so harrowing. Dillard traces a year at Tinker Creek, from the first stirrings of hopeful spring to the return of a clean, sparse winter. Her keen eye observes insects, ripples, the shrivel of a leaf, the horrific death of a frog, the secretive muskrat, the force of a flood. I really loved immersing myself in her world, and I wish I could find an Australian equivalent of this powerful, thoughtful, complex meditation on life and death. Thank you, Cathy, for introducing us.


The Giver

Lois Lowry's The Giver has been a perenniel favourite on school reading lists just about forever, and yet I had never read it. My friend Suzanne pressed a secondhand copy on me last time I saw her, and now finally I can see what all the fuss was about.

I think I had vaguely imagined something like The Maze Runner (perhaps I had seen the cover above??) but The Giver is really more of a fable about memory and conformity than a dystopian story, though it does have elements of dystopia about it.

Jonas's world at first seems like a rather benign dystopia, as dystopias go. Everyone is part of a well-planned, ordered society, where even the weather is regulated, food is delivered to the door, children are assigned their perfect jobs and trained accordingly. However, this paradise comes at a cost. True emotions have been flattened out almost to non-existence. Music and art and books have been lost. 'Stirrings', the beginnings of love, are eradicated with pills. Even the perception of colour has disappeared. And people who are disobedient or no longer serve a social function are 'released' -- a less benevolent action than it sounds.

Just one person, the Giver, holds the memories of everything that has been sacrificed to make this peaceful, bland world possible -- love and war, snow and redness and ecstasy. Now it's time for the Giver to pass those memories to Jonas. But perhaps that burden is too much for one boy to bear...

A deceptively easy read, The Giver is a terrific choice for early high school students. It skims over big issues about difference and conformity, the worth of those things that can't be economically valued (like art, love, or disabled children), and the place of shared stories in building a community. Inspired by Lowry's own father's memory loss, this book is deservedly a modern classic.


Letters to Judy

It's shocking, I know, but I didn't read Judy Blume when I was a kid. I always preferred speculative and historical fiction to realist novels, and English authors to American ones, so it's not surprising that Judy Blume slipped through my personal reading net. However, my friend Heather is a huge fan, and after reading Letters To Judy, I have a new respect for Blume's work and the effect she clearly had (and no doubt still has) on her readers.

This is a moving and emotional volume, directed ostensibly at parents. The letters are grouped into subjects, from sibling rivalry and divorce, to facing death and dealing with sexual abuse. Seeing what some of these kids have had to navigate is quite confronting; in some cases, Blume kept up correspondence with the most troubled letter-writers for years, doing what she could to advise and assist.

Blume is honest in acknowledging her own parenting mistakes, and reveals very personal details of her life, admitting she re-married too soon, and how she struggled with her role as step-mother. Clearly, these experiences have informed her writing and her honesty is part of what attracts her readers. Though it was published in 1986, this book is still filled with relevant advice about listening and supporting children and young adults, about sharing your problems and finding help.


Goodbye Sandra

Photo from Metal Magazine
I first met Sandra Eterovic at a party almost thirty years ago. My best friend had been raving about what a lovely person she was, and I was jealous and determined not to like her. However, after a few minutes' conversation, I grudgingly had to admit that she was indeed completely lovely. She was wearing a pair of trousers that she had made herself. Before long I learned that not only was she an accomplished sewer, she could also paint, draw, knit and cook, and much more besides.

Sandra had two exceptional gifts. She could make almost anything. The name of her Etsy shop was I sew I draw I knit, but she also painted, built models, designed clothes and cushions and prints, made cards and stickers and mirrors, and illustrated books. Her designs adorned Strike bowling alley and Seed children's clothing. Her art appeared in galleries and magazines and on The Block. It was a standing joke among us that there was nowhere in Sandra's house to sit down and relax -- she was always on her feet, making something.

 But what she was especially good at making was friends. In the days before she died, her hospital room was so crowded with people that the staff had to shoo us away. She never neglected her friendships, cultivating them with the same love she devoted to her garden. She always arrived with a gift in her hands -- wine or muffins or a book.

Sandra was a part of our family. She was Michael's high school girlfriend, and they remained close, affectionate friends. She was the closest thing our daughters had to a godmother; they both slept beneath a cot quilt Sandra made. Our house is filled with her art, including the beautiful painting she made for our wedding invitation, which hangs above our bed. Alice wears skirts and shirts and jackets that Sandra made. She and I would compare notes on the ups and downs of the creative life.

Sandra has left an incredible legacy of art, but more, so much more than that, I will miss her laugh, her generosity, her compassion, her friendship and her love. Goodnight, my darling friend.

To see some of Sandra's artwork, visit her website here.


Changing History?

The indefatigable local author Goldie Alexander has produced three books based loosely on Shakespeare. I went to the launch and picked up this one, though I was strongly tempted to buy the anthology which contains all three volumes, including Gap Year Nanny (based on Macbeth) and The Trytth Chronicles, which transplants The Tempest to outer space!

Changing History? takes the eternal story of Romeo and Juliet to late 1920s Berlin. Eighteen year old Australian tourist Taylor is bopped on the head and time-slips from 2017 to 1928, where she finds a job at the Hummingbird nightclub, rubs shoulders with all kinds of louche Berlin types, and debates whether to share her knowledge of the future with her new friends, Jewish Rom and gentile Juliet, whose parents have forbidden them to marry. And when Taylor learns that a guy called Adolf Hitler is coming to town, she has a very big decision to make...

After lapping up the sumptuous series Babylon Berlin earlier this year, and now embarking on Ku'damm 56 (set in Berlin in the 1950s), I seem to be going through a Berlin phase. I especially enjoyed the period detail of Changing History? which cleverly drops plenty of historical information into the novel without overwhelming the human story. Taylor learns to appreciate her modern creature comforts, while picking up the political parallels with our own time. This book might even be more useful to students of modern history than those studying Shakespeare!


Getting Your Life Back

As some of you know, someone close to me has been suffering from severe depression for the last few months, so I've been reading lots of self-help books and trying to push the better ones in their direction. Getting Your Life Back is nearly twenty years old, but it's a thorough and logical workbook which leads the depressed person step by step through useful approaches toward recovery.

Jesse Wright and Monica Basco divide their method into five crucial 'keys': Thinking, Action, Biology, Relationships and Spirituality. Each emphasises a different element -- the Thinking section tackles distorted thoughts via CBT; Action encourages a healthy approach to exercise, nutrition and sleep; Biology offers a comprehensive (though possibly slightly dated now) overview of anti-depressant medications and chemical imbalance in the brain; and the Relationship section gives useful and sensible advice to improve your interactions with others. The Spirituality Key is perhaps the boldest, exploring ways to find meaning, purpose and connection, whether it be a religious path, devotion to family, creativity, or giving to the community.

All these Keys are important for each of us to lead a balanced and fulfilling, though not every depressed person will find all the sections equally helpful. Working your way through this book, which includes worksheets, questionnaires and exercises to complete, would certainly benefit anyone struggling with depression. My only concern is that they might find the task too daunting; you'd need to be pretty motivated to tackle the whole thing, and if you have that much motivation to get well, you're halfway there already.


The Witch's Daughter

I picked up Nina Bawden's The Witch's Daughter from a box of books that a friend was discarding, because I'd never read it. Published the year I was born, on one level it's a very old-fashioned adventure story which deals with jewel thieves and hidden treasure on a remote Scottish island. On another level, it's a skilful and engaging exploration of what it means to be different.

Our three child protagonists are Perdita, the so-called witch's daughter, a half-wild girl who is teased and bullied by the local kids; her greatest dream is to be allowed to go to school. Brother and sister Janey and Tim are visitors to the island. Imaginative, sensitive Tim is desperate for his father's approval; Janey is blind, and keen for more independence than her anxious parents will allow. Janey is particularly interesting, because her special strengths shine during the adventure -- she is extremely observant, with an excellent memory, and (spoiler) at the crisis of the story, it's Janey who saves the others by leading them out of a pitch-black cave. 

This is a beautifully written novel for younger readers, but alas, I fear they might find it a little slow to get going. I think I find these old books so satisfying because they don't talk down to their readers, and the quality of the writing is wonderful.


Momma and the Meaning of Life

I had this earlier book by Irvin Yalom sitting on my shelves, but it's a very long time since I read it, so it felt quite fresh. Momma and the Meaning of Life is a collection of pieces, mostly memoir, a couple of fictionalised tales, all centering on the dance of therapy, the relationship between therapist and client. Yalom likes to relate to his patients in a direct, compassionate way. Though traditionally therapists shy away from any physical contact with their clients, Yalom is prepared to shake hands, hold hands or hug his patients if he feels it's necessary. His emphasis on the 'here and now' of therapy means that the interactions in the therapy room take on a particular importance. In the hands of a lesser practitioner, you can see this leading to trouble!

The most striking chapters in this book deal with cases where Yalom's doubts and irritations are squarely faced -- where he initially forms a strong dislike to a patient, or in a one-off group therapy session where the participants don't seem to have much to offer, but where Yalom is determined to show off his skills for some observing students. Here his humour and self-awareness shine, and you can see what has made him such a successful therapist over so many decades.


Flora and Ulysses

Kate DiCamillo's Flora & Ulysses is our junior fiction choice for the Convent Book Group this month, on the theme of Friendship. It's very sweet. Flora is a human girl, a sceptic who doesn't believe in romance. Ulysses is a squirrel who undergoes a magical transformation when he is accidentally vacuumed up -- now he can understand human speech, fly and type out poetry! But the pair have a number of potential villains to foil and allies to win, before they can live happily ever after.

The story is adorable and the illustrations perfectly match the sentimental, slightly melancholic mood. I know I should be suspending my disbelief (magical vacuum cleaner, squirrel with the gift of flight etc) but it did bother me that the squirrel could suddenly type in perfect English... I don't know why I balked at that particular aspect but it did bug me. Not enough to spoil the book for me, though. Flora & Ulysses won the Newbery Medal a few years ago and it's not hard to see why.


The Gift of Therapy

I love Irvin Yalom. His wry and wise observations on the work of psychotherapy, and by extension, the work of being human, are entertaining, moving and enlightening, and at the age of nearly ninety, he is still going strong. The Gift of Therapy is structured as a book of tips for therapists, but it makes interesting and educational reading for the lay person, too. There are 85 tips, each explored in very short chapters, most less than three pages long. Some examples: Avoid Diagnosis (Except for Insurance Companies); The Here-and-Now: Use It, Use It, Use It; On Being Helped By Your Patient; Freud Was Not Always Wrong; Learn About the Patient's Life From Dreams.

Yalom draws freely from his decades of experience, admits his own mistakes, uses humour and surprises, and makes me long to have him as my own therapist. I abandoned a course of therapy more than twenty years ago (when Medicare paid for psychiatrists, but not psychologists), and reading this book has made me think about my (not entirely satisfactory) experience in a new light. Maybe I should have persisted -- I jumped ship before it had a chance to do me any good.


How To Write A Novel Using the Snowflake Method

I can't remember exactly when or how I discovered the Snowflake Method. Probably I was stuck one day and in despair googled 'how to write a novel.' I came across Randy Ingermanson's website, which contains a skeleton outline of his theory. The basic premise is that you can build a snowflake, an incredibly complex and intricate structure, by building upon a simple shape that becomes more elaborate with each step. Therefore, you can build a novel by starting with a simple sentence and elaborating it until -- ta da! -- you end up with a book.

Over the years I have found the snowflake method very useful, generally when I've amassed a messy pile of material and ideas, but I'm having trouble shaping it all into a coherent form. The first step is to summarise your plot in a single sentence -- easier said than done! I have found this incredibly productive when I'm attempting to decide exactly what the hell this story is supposed to be about. (Think of this as the description of your book when it appears in the bestseller chart.) The next step is to summarise your story in a four sentence paragraph -- replicating a four act structure, each act ending in a disaster. Now this might not suit your novel, and it doesn't always suit mine, but the paragraph summary is also a useful tool (think of it as the back cover blurb of your published book). Then you start on character work, and from then on you alternate plot and character steps until by step nine you have a list of scenes and a plan for each scene. Then all you have to do is start writing!

I've never done all the steps, and I find some more useful than others. For instance, when it comes to Step 7, I replace Ingermanson's "Character Charts" with a monologue in that character's voice. But this time, I was starting to piece together some ideas for a junior fiction novel and I saw that Ingermanson's manual was only $4 on the Kindle, and I thought, what the hell, why not try and do it properly this time?

So I did. And it was good. I still adapt Step 7 into my monologues, and while I write a Step 8 Scene List, the Step 9 Scene Plan doesn't work for me and I abandoned it halfway through (I did give it a crack though). I spent about a week doing the Snowflake. And now I've started writing!