More Monica Dickens

I seem to have had a Monica Dickens mini-readathon. From One Pair of Feet, I progressed to her autobiography, An Open Book, written when she was in her sixties. She describes the background, inspiration and research she undertook for many of her novels. It was intriguing to read that One Pair of Feet made her a pariah in the nursing profession! She was unable to get another nursing job for a long time, and when she did, the other junior nurses were warned not to mix with her, because she had brought their noble calling into disrepute. Once she learned that after she'd taken a particular practical exam, the examiners were discussing her book, and all agreed that she must have been a rotten nurse. Monica's superior said she felt like telling them, you've just passed her for her Grade III (or whatever it was) and praised her poultices… (or whatever it was!) It was also interesting to discover how much insecurity and self-doubt lay beneath her breezy accounts of working in service, and in nursing. She was nothing like as confident as she makes herself sound -- a reminder that even memoirs are often partly fiction.

After An Open Book, I went back to the compendium and read Kate and Emma, which she wrote after accompanying some social workers on their rounds and seeing the poverty and deprivation and abuse they had to deal with, and the way that cruelty to children can repeat down the generations. Sadly, though this book was set in the sixties, I'm sure that not much has changed (more paperwork for the social workers, probably). Kate and Emma charts the friendship between a magistrate's daughter and a teenager fostered away from her neglectful and abusive parents, and, realistically, it doesn't end well.

Monica Dickens founded the first branch of the Samaritans in the United States, where she moved after her marriage. This was a helpline for the desperate and lonely, which provided just a listening ear, someone to talk to, for people in crisis. I'm not sure if they are active in Australia. There seems to be a branch in WA, but perhaps elsewhere Lifeline fills this niche. I once applied to volunteer for Lifeline, but had to pull out because I was planning to travel overseas and couldn't give the required commitment. Maybe I should look into it again. Listening seems like something I could do.


One Pair of Feet

My old mate Brotherhood Books has come up trumps again with this compendium of five novel/memoirs from Monica Dickens, for the very reasonable price of $12.50, delivered to my door less than 24 hours after ordering (how do they do it??)

I started at the back first, with Dickens' nursing memoir, One Pair of Feet, first published in 1946. In the last twelve months I have had more experience with the health system than ever in my life before, last year as a patient and this year as a relative. So I was very interested to read an account from the other side of the screen, so to speak, and Monica Dickens is always amusing. She has a gift for sketching vivid characters very economically (and ruthlessly), and the background of this book, wartime Britain, is filled with telling details. The nurses scramble in and out of the bathroom window when they want to pop out for an illicit night off with the local airmen, and there are brief flurries of excitement when her hospital plays host to some evacuated casualties… Expecting victims of bombing raids, they are surely disappointed when the real evacuees arrive -- dull old men from a nursing home, bumped out to make way for the 'real' casualties. And two shot-down German airmen make a brief appearance on the ward and inspire excesses of patriotic disgust, apart from the one nurse who actually falls in love with one of them.

I do love Monica Dicken's breezy and unforgiving take on her fellow creatures, but oh, dear, this book has some horribly causal racism tossed onto the page. The nurses work 'like negro slaves', a burns victim looks like 'a minstrel', one of the airmen is nicknamed 'Nigger' for his curly hair. It's very off-putting, and it's a real shame, because the rest of the book is good value. I suppose it sheds instructive light on the habits of the times...


How Buildings Learn

Wow, I really enjoyed Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn: What happens after they're built!

When I spotted it on my gifted and lovely friend Sandra's shelves (she always has interesting books), she said, 'Oh! That's one of my favourite books!' I flicked through it and thought it looked a bit dry, but Sandra has such good taste that I swallowed my reservations and borrowed it forthwith (isn't one of the great joys of printed books the fax that you can lend them around?)

Stewart Brand is not an architect, but he has plenty of ideas about what architects should study and how  they should behave. He points out how little attention is paid (or was paid in 1994 when this book was written) to the way that buildings actually function, how their inhabitants interact with them, and adapt them to their changing needs. He provides loads of interesting facts about buildings, like this diagram:
… which illustrates how the different elements of a building age and change at wildly different rates, forcing adaptation and alteration or replacement. For example, Stuff (things like furniture placement) can change at a daily rate, or even several times a day; in contrast, the building's Site will never change (unless you build on the edge of a cliff, I guess!)

He realises that we need to think deeply about our buildings before we build -- not to predict every eventuality and try to produce the perfect solution for eternity, but to leave room for flexibility and ease of adaptability -- because our relationship with the buildings we live and work in will inevitably change.

I have a personal stake in this discussion. Our house was first built in 1927 and its core has endured, with various paint jobs, ever since. In the 1990s, Stephen and Colin, who owned the house before we did, updated the kitchen and bathroom, built a back porch and a separate artist's studio in the backyard, filled the garden with native trees, and added their own leadlight and mosaics touches. Five years ago, we added a big living/dining room at the back of the house, bringing the outdoor laundry inside the house, and converted the previous living room into a library, which also gained a window. Later, we lined the roof space to create a light and useful attic storage room. Now we're planning another extension, to add a second bathroom in the space between the house and the studio, incorporate the studio into a granny flat and add a small extra bedroom.

I think because we lived in the house for years before we renovated, we resisted eating up big chunks of the garden, like so many of our neighbours have done. It feels as if the house has grown organically, creeping out of its original footprint but preserving its essential soul intact. In fact, by including a huge window and a window-seat nook in the back room, the garden feels more like part of the house than ever. This still doesn't feel like a big house; we don't have the cavernous single space, (dining/kitchen/family room) that most of our neighbours have added, but we have plenty of room to move and spread, and lots of connected nooks where people can work and read and type and listen to their own devices, but still be within speaking distance of each other.

All the time I was reading How Buildings Learn, I was thinking, this would make a fantastic TV series. Well, it seems the BBC had the same idea. I think you can find it on YouTube.


Not My Cup of Tea

Over the years, my various book groups and the members thereof have introduced me to many wonderful titles that I might not have come across otherwise. Unfortunately, the flip side of this phenomenon is the unpleasant duty of occasionally being forced to read books that you don't enjoy at all.

It's not often that two out of the three books assigned for my convent book group prove uncongenial, but such was the case this month. I've already mentioned that I found The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn hard going, despite the odd amusing scene or pithy social comment. At least I did better than many of my fellow book groupers, who didn't manage to finish the whole book. On balance, I'm glad I read it, because it was such a ground-breaking text and so influential on American literature, and it was an interesting picture of a period of America history that I only know through books. But I won't be rushing back for a re-read, that's for sure. If the whole middle section with the con-men had been edited out, I would have enjoyed it much more. Hucksters are just boring to me, I'm afraid.

The other book we'd chosen for our Slavery theme was Alexa Moses' Slave Girl, which is apparently the first of a series in which the deeply shallow 13 year old Jenna will be whisked back in time to Ancient Egypt. I'm afraid I had no patience for this one. I made my 11 year old read the first chapter and she didn't like it either, though she admitted that it might appeal to some of her friends. I just couldn't overcome my dislike of the central character, who was so selfish and unimaginative that I couldn't summon up any sympathy for her plight at all. Perhaps she's an accurate portrait of modern youth… The publishers must hope so!

But now I've slogged through them both, I'm free to read whatever I feel like! More positive reports coming your way soon, I hope.



I'm feeling slightly flat at the moment.

Things on the home front have been difficult of late, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. My own writing is in a bit of a slump; I've spent too long on this particular project, second-guessed myself, and re-written so many times I've lost track of what's included in any given draft. Also (this has happened to someone else on Facebook recently!) I had the misfortune of reading a book earlier this year which was exactly the book I wish I'd written, in the setting I was planning to use. (I was heartened that the universal advice to this other person was to go ahead and write her book anyway.)

And to cap it all off, even the books I'm reading at the moment are proving, shall we say, hard work… I'm trying to enjoy The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I've started another book assigned for book group, and set it aside with a shudder after one chapter. And for the moment, I've given up on Far From the Madding Crowd completely. If I could trust myself, I'd turn to an old fave for comfort… but the way I'm feeling at the moment, I'd never go back to the other books I have to finish before next Tuesday! So I'll have to soldier grimly on.

On a brighter note, I've been reading chapters to Miss 14 from the delightfully dated The Years of Grace, edited by Noel Streatfeild and rediscovered over at Memoranda, where Michelle has beautifully surveyed the contents. Although we're spending plenty of time mocking the 1950s attitudes, it has still been an opportunity to pass on some quite wise advice which might not be welcome in a more direct format (being cheerful and helpful around the home *cough*). So at least that's been fun!


And the Winner Is...

You're not surprised, are you? Initially daunted by the sheer size and heft of this volume, I ended up deeply enjoying it and galloping to the finish. (Far From the Madding Crowd has completely fallen by the wayside, I'm afraid.) Once I'd twigged to the astrological dimension, I found it even more satisfying -- in fact I think this ended up being the element of the novel that I liked the most, though you certainly wouldn't need to know anything about the influence of the stars to enjoy the story. The mystery was complicated (even now I'm not entirely clear about the order of events), but it was absorbing and the interactions between the characters (linked with both star signs and planets) were fascinating, as was the setting -- a gold rush town in New Zealand -- literally the ends of the earth! -- in the 1860s. I must admit I found the first third or so pretty heavy going, but it was well worth the effort. So glad my daughter forced me to take it from the bottom of the pile!


The Luminaries Update: Astrology Au-go-go!

I'm powering ahead with The Luminaries, which has surprised me, because I was so intimidated before I started reading it. It's just so HUGE. You could do a burglar a serious injury if you heaved this book at him.

I've just realised (lucky the book is so long, or I would have missed it altogether) that the twelve main characters represent the twelve signs of the zodiac. I don't know how I could have overlooked this, as it was discussed in the reviews I read, and also clearly mapped out in the star charts provided at the start of each section, but ANYWAY… now that I've twigged, it's added an extra layer of enjoyment to my reading. 

I used to be a bit of an astrology nut -- it was one of those things that I liked to pretend that I believed in, like the tarots… and maybe, deep down, I'm not really sure whether I believe in it or not… I know, logically, it must be nonsense, but it's fun nonsense, and it can be surprisingly illuminating. I dabbled in it just enough to be able to appreciate details like the Libra character wearing his cravat in the latest style, and the Virgo man being so meticulous and adhering to his own peculiar code of honour. So now I'm keenly looking for little clues like this, and chuckling, and feeling superior. Which is the best thing about astrology, isn't it?


Parallel Reading: Update

So… the book race. How's it coming along?

Well, after a slow start, Eleanor Catton is well out in front, with about fifty percent read. The first chapter takes up about half the book, weaving the twelve strands of story from different viewpoints into the central mystery (which I'm hoping will be resolved in the second half…) And now I've finally got a handle on what's actually going on, I am gripped.

Thomas Hardy, at the moment, is coming a rather poor second, with only about a third read. (I'm just up to the point where Bathsheba sends the valentine to Mr Boldwood.) It's possible that Far From the Madding Crowd is suffering because, having seen the film, I already know the story, so I'm not driven by pure narrative curiosity… but it's also undeniable that the meandering nineteenth century prose (two pages of description of snow!!) is trying my patience somewhat. Bathsheba Everdene is a terrific character, though, and I think Carey Mulligan was inspired casting.

I'll try to catch up a bit with FFTMC in the next couple of days… and the meaty melodramatic bits are still to come. I'll let you know how I get on.


Parallel Reading

Generally speaking, I am a one-at-a-time kind of reader (hence why I can have a neat list of What I'm Currently Reading on this blog, and tick the books off one by one). But at the moment, I am making an exception, and reading two books at the same time!

This began as a coping strategy, because I was frankly intimidated. The Luminaries is a very fat book --  over 700 pages. Far From the Madding Crowd is an old-fashioned book, with elaborate phrasing, philosophical digressions and some unnecessary (to my modern eye) detail. Neither of them presented as easy reads. Interestingly, though they were written over a hundred years apart, both novels are set in the nineteenth century, and Eleanor Catton has reproduced the rich, expansive, leisurely writing of that era in her 2013 Man Booker prize-winner. I'm exercising some reading muscles that I don't often use, to be honest. But I needed to ease into it -- so I decided to break these two chunky books into more manageable bite-sized pieces. Ten pages of one, a chapter of the other, back and forth.

The Luminaries has been sitting next to my bed (at the bottom of the pile, natch!) for over a year. I acquired Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd on the Kindle after enjoying the new movie recently -- it was free (I felt slightly guilty, but not much). So far, my side-by-side experiment is going pretty well. I have worked up good momentum on The Luminaries, and I'm nearly halfway through, though I've fallen behind a little on FFTMC (because my Kindle was in the cold half of the house and I couldn't be bothered going to fetch it…) 

Which one will I finish first? I'll keep you posted.

*Thanks for Evie for help with formatting this post.



Daughter the younger says it's been too long since I mentioned the dog on this blog, so here she is. She's two years old now, but still quite puppyish at times. In this photo you can see her cuddling her furry bone-toy (nb must wash that again soon…), and sitting in her favourite spot on the window-seat, from where she can keep an eye on events in the garden. She likes to rest her chin on the sill. If her nemesis, the grey and white cat from over the road, appears, stalking along the fence, Willow is perfectly placed to explode in a frenzy of barking and scrabbling at the glass. Likewise, when the possums creep out at dusk and make their way along the tree outside the window, Willow has a box seat to admire their progress (i.e. more frenzied barking and scrabbling, sometimes accompanied by frantic whining and crying). It's hard to tell with the possums whether she wants to eat them or befriend them; she often wags her tail while all the noise is going on. The other event that sets her off is when she can glimpse movement over the top of the fence, in the schoolyard beyond, which we are pretty sure she confuses with the arrival of the cat (dogs' eyesight is not that sharp). This means that recess and lunchtime can be noisy times of day… Thank goodness it's the holidays now, and we can all enjoy a bit of peace.

From Kinglake To Kabul

I bought this on the Kindle as my local library didn't seem to have it (or maybe only had one copy) and I needed it for book group, but I wish I'd had a hard copy. I think this was one book that would have benefitted from being able to see the proper, full production -- photos and layout -- as I could glean from the Kindle copy that a lot of work has gone into the production, which the Kindle can't reproduce. I'm looking forward to examining other people's copies at book group next week.

From Kinglake to Kabul grew out of a writing project where teens from the international school in Kabul, Afghanistan, exchanged pieces of writing with young people from Kinglake in Victoria, after the devastating bush fires of Black Saturday in 2009. On different sides of the world, these kids have been through a lot, and their parallel accounts of catastrophe and war are both shattering and hopeful. I found it very moving to read their fiction and reportage, and especially their responses to each other's work. Those tentative fingers of empathy reminded me of the tender green shoots that regrew after the fires, and are a wonderful reminder of the power of words to heal and to connect.

This book was edited by Neil Grant, a local writer, who travelled to Afghanistan initially to research his excellent, confronting novel, The Ink Bridge, and by David Williams, a Kinglake teacher who lost his house in the fires and whose account of that dreadful day is also included here. All the stories are very personal, some clumsy, some very accomplished, but all unmistakably rising out of the trauma of direct experience. Well worth reading.


The Players and the Rebels

Yes, Antonia Forest AGAIN! I bought this modern reissue, from the excellent Girls Gone By, at considerable expense, as a Christmas present for myself. The Players and the Rebels is actually part two of a pair of books about one of the Marlow family's Elizabethan ancestors, Nick Marlow, who after a series of misadventures, ends up in London working in the theatre as Will Shakespeare's apprentice. I know my school had these books in the library, and I certainly read them, but at the time I preferred the modern family stories and I have only a hazy memory of the plot, so I came to this book almost completely fresh.

As it's part two of two, it took me the first few chapters to reacquaint myself with the cast and adjust to the setting. Antonia Forest researched these books meticulously, but I gather Elizabethan and Shakespearean scholarship has moved on since the 1970s, so some of the details may not be quite accurate, but she brings the world of the theatre, Elizabethan London, and the tangled political situation vividly to life. In this book, Nick and his best friend Humfrey, a page to the Earl of Southampton, get mixed up in a failed rebellion -- a coup that doesn't come off -- and the muddle of the treachery is brilliantly told. But as always in Forest, it's not really the plot that counts, but the network of friendship, hero worship and obligation between the various characters: the debt of patronage between Southampton and Will; the deepening friendship between Will and Nick; the rivalries and jesting, and the bond between the various players; and the subtle shifts in Nicolas's loyalties as he matures and finds himself torn between conflicting duties of love and honour.

The Players and the Rebels is excellent historical fiction, subtle, intelligent and satisfying. I think I got more out of it as an adult, even though it was written for children.

Now I really need to get hold of The Player's Boy and fill myself in with what happened first!


Ash Road

I bought Ash Road on the Kindle, too! I thought it would be pretty easy to pick up second-hand, but it never seemed to be on the shelf in any of the stores I checked, and even Brotherhood Books only had a hardback fancy copy for $35. So Kindle it was…

Our topic for the Convent book group this month is Fire, and Ivan Southall's classic Ash Road is partly based on his own experience of living through the horrendous bushfires in the Dandenongs in 1962. My childhood home is in the foothills of the Dandenongs, and the threat of bushfire hung over us almost every summer, which made this novel particularly resonant. I had recurrent dreams about fleeing from fire, what to grab and what to leave, which haunt me to this day.

Southall's (mostly) young protagonists respond to the emergency and their unexpected isolation in different ways, with varying degrees of terror, resourcefulness, ignorance and courage; but in contrast to Hill's End, another Southall classic which I very much enjoyed, they don't really get the opportunity to work as a group, or to defeat the threat which overwhelms them. I guess this is because the catastrophe is just too big -- the only realistic response available is to hide or to run. This does rob his characters of some agency, and makes a less satisfying tale than Hill's End, where the kids rise to the challenges of the flood and to some extent overcome them, working together.

I found the scene where Grandpa Tanner lowers the two small children he is caring for into the well for safety, and stoically prepares to meet his own inevitable death, almost unbearably moving. He tells Julie to call out when people come -- Here I am, safe and sound, down the well! -- and reassures her, They'll find Grandpa, then they'll find you. Of course he means, the searchers will find his body first...

Southall's evocation of the fire, its immense power and force, is masterly and terrifying. I remember when I was a kid, I avoided Ivan Southall's books because they were just too frightening, too confronting for me. And I still don't know if I could bear to read Ash Road if I had ever been closer to a real bushfire.


The Paying Guests

Sarah Waters' latest novel, set in 1922, has been sitting on the pile beside the bed since Christmas -- I've been saving it up as a nice fat treat for myself. And it did not disappoint. What I most enjoy in Waters' books is the thick, immersive quality of her writing, the heft of domestic historical detail, so that I really feel as if I'm living alongside her protagonists -- I know exactly what they wear, what they eat, the objects in their houses, the way their kitchens smell. This vivid, painstaking detail might seem slow to some readers, but I find it deeply nourishing. And the social detail is equally vividly drawn -- in this case, the awkward relationship between the genteel poor Frances Wray and her widowed mother, and their 'brash' new lodgers, a married couple 'of the clerk class.' The polite clashes and awkward moments as the quartet adjust to their new circumstances are exquisite. And then awkwardness mutates into something more loaded, and the fun really begins.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Paying Guests, blurbed as 'a love story which is also a crime story.' Though it was fairly easy to predict the events of the plot, living them out through Frances' eyes, moment by moment, was a completely satisfying experience. I'm looking forward to whatever Sarah Waters does next.


Every Move

Please don't think that the fact that it's taken me a few days to write a book response to Ellie Marney's final volume in the Every series, Every Move, means that I didn't like it: reader, I loved it. (I've just had a busy few days.)

Writing the final book of a trilogy is hard. You have to wrap up the loose ends, and the eager reader knows that you're going to wrap up the loose ends. Your two protagonists have been building their relationship all this time -- they've earned each other, and your reader knows it. But you can't tie them up together too soon, because that's boring. You need to introduce a bit of tension -- enough to make it interesting for them to overcome, not so much that you frustrate your loyal reader who is longing for the fulfilment of their love almost as much as your characters are…

Ellie Marney handles this dilemma superbly. When Every Move opens, Rachel is suffering PTSD after the traumatic events of the last volume (this is all too plausible). Then Mycroft shoots off overseas and is absent for the first portion of the book, leaving a space open for a new character, Harris, to steal onto the scene. And it's all too clear to us (though not to Rachel) what Harris's feelings are. Meanwhile, their arch-enemy from the previous volume is closing in, and everyone is heading for a showdown, this time back in Rachel's home turf, the country home she left at the start of the series.

I just couldn't wait to get my hands on this. The minute I finished this blog post about Every Word, I picked up the Kindle and zap! There it was, waiting for me, instant gratification. If only I hadn't had to finish a book group title first, I would have devoured it on the spot. Ellie Marney mentions in the acknowledgements that she found this book hard to write, because she didn't want to say goodbye to her characters. And why would you? They're smart, great company, complicated, sexy. If they were mine, I wouldn't want to let them go either.