20.11.19

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

I picked up my copy of Gail Honeyman's smash hit, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, from Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Hospital's second hand book shelves earlier this year. My copy is plastered with even more award stickers than the one in the picture, and after reading it, it's easy to see how it's amassed so many accolades.

This is a mystery story, in some ways a horror story, but packaged up in highly entertaining wrapping. Eleanor Oliphant tells her own story, and her voice is fresh, funny and very distinctive, even while she's recounting a story of pain, loneliness and childhood abuse that might be impossible to digest otherwise. At times the reader almost feels guilty for finding Eleanor amusing, as she is clearly dealing with a legacy of tremendous suffering.

As always, salvation lies in connection. Through small acts of kindness, Eleanor re-enters the world she has shut out, and it's rewarding to journey with her, as bit by bit, she blossoms. She is supposed to be about thirty, but sometimes she reads like a woman twice that age. A bonus is that the book is set in Glasgow and lovely Scottishness lies over the whole book like a mist. An excellent pick-up.

16.11.19

Through the Language Glass

The younger daughter begged me to order Guy Deutscher's Through the Language Glass for her, prompted by Stephen Fry's fulsome endorsement (see above: 'jaw-droppingly wonderful' and 'left me breathless and dizzy with delight').

Well, suffice to say that both the daughter and I felt that Stephen Fry had gone a little overboard with his praise this time. She slogged through it first, heroically sticking to her routine of one chapter per night (the chapters are quite long), then handed it to me. That was months ago, but I've finally managed to push through to the end.

This is not a terrible book, by any means. The subject matter is fascinating (how does the language we speak influence our perception of the world?) and Deutscher does his best to jolly us along with linguistic humour. But it's a thorough (some may say, too thorough) survey of a quite dry academic field, and its conclusions are fairly underwhelming, to wit, yes, language does influence some aspects of how we perceive the world, but not much, and only in certain areas (colour, gender, spatial orientation).

Probably the most interesting section dealt with one Australian Aboriginal language (Guugu Yimithirr) which requires its speakers to take note of the compass directions whenever they describe the position of something. So instead of saying, 'there is an ant to the right of my foot,' they would say, 'there is an ant to the south-west of my foot.' This means they are constantly, unconsciously orienting themselves geographically in their surroundings. That would be a handy skill to have.

13.11.19

Sick Bay

Holding Nova Weetman's latest junior fiction novel, Sick Bay, in my hands was a bittersweet experience. The cover of Sick Bay was the last published artwork by my dear friend Sandra Eterovic before she died, almost exactly a year ago, of brain cancer. (And yes, the awful irony of the title is not lost on me.) There is a lovely tribute to Sandra from Nova Weetman in the acknowledgments; Sandra had also supplied the cover artwork for Weetman's previous two books.

Sick Bay is a story of friendship. Riley has diabetes, but dealing with her anxiously controlling mother is a bigger problem than her health. Meg takes refuge in Sick Bay when life becomes too hard -- her father has died and her mother has sunk into a deep depression. Compounding the girls' personal problems is the landscape of friendship at school with one girl, Lina, who dispenses and withholds her approval like a weapon.

Come to think of it,  Sick Bay is really about control -- the things you can control and the things you can't. Riley is struggling to take control of her own diabetes management, while Meg is powerless to help her mother. These are Grade 6 pupils, with high school on the horizon, and the world is about to get bigger and even harder to navigate. Nova Weetman writes so beautifully about friendship and family and the blindsides of mental health. Perhaps it's appropriate that this was the last cover from Sandra before we lost her.

6.11.19

On Writing

I should confess at the outset that I haven't read much -- or any, really -- of Stephen King's works, though of course I recognise what a hugely successful author he is. His subject matter, often shading into horror, is not my cup of tea.

But he certainly knows what he's talking about when it comes to the subject of writing itself, and this slim volume On Writing has terrific, pithy and straightforward advice about the craft, as well as including an interesting autobiographical section and an equally interesting account of the road accident that nearly killed him while he was writing it.

He has paid his dues, beginning his writing career while holding down a hideous job in a commercial laundry and living with his young family in a trailer, tapping out his first books on his knees. So he's earned his success and I don't begrudge it to him.

But Stephen. Come on. He describes his current working day: mornings, writing with the door shut to prevent interruptions until you reach your daily target (for him, 2,000 words; lesser mortals might aim for 1,000). Afternoons: naps and letters. Evenings: hanging out with the family, walking, reading. That sounds, frankly, idyllic.

When do you do the housework, Stephen? When do you make the lunches and dinner for everyone and do the grocery shopping? When do you drive your mum to the doctor and your anxious teenager to school? When do you clean out the rabbit and vacuum the floors? When do you hang on the phone to Centrelink to sort out the finances of your disabled sibling? How do you shoehorn all that in, Stephen? Or is there someone in the background taking care of all that?

To be fair, he is generous with his acknowledgement of his wife Tabby's help and encouragement along the way, and I have no doubt that he works hard at his job. But wow, wouldn't it be nice to be able to shut that door in the morning and never be interrupted.

4.11.19

The Secret Garden

I first read my mother's copy of The Secret Garden from 1949, which I still own, very battered round the edges now. It was her favourite childhood book, and it's probably my all-time favourite, too (in a very crowded field).

The Secret Garden, published by Frances Hodgson Burnett in 1911, was somewhat overlooked in her lifetime, and wasn't even mentioned in her obituary. The sweet Cinderella story of A Little Princess and the ghastly Little Lord Fauntleroy were praised, but no one thought much of The Secret Garden. These days it's regarded as a classic, a masterpiece.

I love so much about this book. The notion of a secret, hidden, neglected garden, closed in by high walls and a locked door, is deliciously enticing. I love sour, lonely Mary Lennox; sturdy Dickon who communes with the wild animals; and fretful, sickly Colin. The scene where Mary and Colin scream at each other in a furious fight in the middle of the night used to give me such a thrill. And all the while, spring is creeping over the moor and reaching into the children's garden, healing their bodies and their minds.

It's been a few years since I last read The Secret Garden, and this time it was the mental health angle that jumped out at me. Neglected, unloved Mary is isolated and angry with the world; poor 'spoiled' Colin is actually tormented with anxiety; and his father, Mr Craven, is sunk in a deep depression after his wife's death. It's communion with nature, fresh air and sunshine and exercise, and a meaningful project in bringing the garden back to life, as well as connecting with each other, that brings them all back to health and happiness. It's a very simple story, but it's the very simplicity of the message that carries such power.

30.10.19

On The Beach

My elder daughter has been going through a dystopian phase lately (hey, she's doing VCE, what can you expect?). She asked me to buy her Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Nevil Shute's On The Beach, neither of which I had read myself. She devoured both of them at record speed. I haven't dared to open The Road, but I thought I'd give On The Beach a whirl.

It really is a surreal book. Famously, the novel follows the last few months in the lives of a handful of characters stranded in Melbourne, at the bottom of the world, as nuclear fallout from a catastrophic international war drifts southward. At the beginning of September or the end of August, everyone will get radiation sickness, and everyone will die. It's literally the end of the world.

What struck me most was how calm everyone was about it. Life goes on pretty much as usual. Oh, there's some drunkenness, some fast car racing, but people still plant their gardens, fret over their baby's teething, do their jobs, pay for their purchases in shops. Frankly, I would have expected a LOT more lawlessness, with no consequences to come.

Also, the tone is one of emotional restraint. Some characters are in denial, in one breath acknowledging that everything is coming to an end in a matter of weeks, and at the same time 'believing' that their family in the war zone is carrying on life as usual. Paradoxically, this is much more effective and horrifying than melodrama would have been, even if it is quite implausible.

It's weird and old-fashioned and unbelievable, but this is one dystopian novel that will stay with me. And hey, it's set in Melbourne!

28.10.19

Second Fiddle

Mary Wesley's Second Fiddle was her ninth novel, and it is a strange, rather disturbing book. It's not overly long, and some of the subplots fizzle out, with characters who seem to have been introduced for no particular purpose.

The story centres on Laura Thornby, at 45 a resolutely independent woman who guards her privacy and her emotions fiercely. In search of a diversion, she picks up with 23 year old Claud, an aspiring writer, and adroitly finds him a place to live (in a loft, naturally) and gainful employment while he's writing (an antique stall at the local market, which she helpfully stocks with items from her mother's attic). As Claud matures, Laura finds herself becoming more emotionally involved than she intended.

The sting in the novel's tail comes when it's revealed that Laura is the offspring of an incestuous union between brother and sister (not really a spoiler, as this is hinted at very early in the novel). This is apparently why she keeps herself so determinedly single and childless. Her elderly parents are a rather creepy pair, not surprisingly, and this shadow over Laura's origin made the whole novel very dark for me, and not as much fun as Mary Wesley can sometimes be.

Incest is a theme in several of Wesley's books (though seldom as overtly as here) and it's possible that she had a wartime romance with two brothers; it seems to have been an idea that intrigued her, at the very least. I wouldn't class Second Fiddle among her finest work.

24.10.19

Sand Talk

A few times in your life, you come across a book that opens your eyes and your mind to a new way of looking at the world. For me, Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines was one of those books (though I now understand how problematic that book is). More recently, Alan Garner's The Voice That Thunders and Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu have had a similar earth-shaking effect. And now there is Tyson Yunkaporta's Sand Talk.

This is a book I've been looking for for a long time. Ever since I started my research on Crow Country, nearly ten years ago now, and began to perceive tantalising hints of the Aboriginal world view, diametrically different to the Western assumptions I'd inherited, I've been longing for a clear, comprehensive guide to what Yunkaporta calls 'Indigenous thinking.' Now at last I've found it.

It's not easy to summarise the Aboriginal viewpoint and experience of the world, and I'm not going to presume to try to do it here. But one fundamental difference is that the Indigenous worldview never considers any one factor in isolation, never separates out one element of the picture to examine it 'objectively.' In the Aboriginal world, everything is connected, including us: land, Law, story, spirit, weather, plants and animals, humans, all inextricably intertwined. This is wisdom that the Western world is only just dimly beginning to reclaim.

Time is not a straight-line arrow into the future; it's an endlessly repeating cycle as the universe breathes in and out. All trouble begins with the thought I am greater than you. Aboriginal societies devote a lot of effort to trying to wipe out that tendency, the root of inequality, greed and oppression. Yunkaporta has an easy, engaging style, sprinkled with plenty of humour and anecdote -- this is far from a dry, academic read, but it's packed with ideas and questions nonetheless.

I don't necessarily find all of Yunkaporta's ideas comfortable. The chapter on violence was very confronting, the section on male-female relations didn't chime with my Western feminist standpoint. But Sand Talk has given me plenty to ponder on. I first read this book on the Kindle, and now I'm going to read it again in hard copy.

So good I've bought it twice! For a tight-arse like me, that's recommendation indeed.

21.10.19

Mr Romanov's Garden in the Sky

Isn't this a beautiful cover?

I chose Robert Newton's 2017 novel Mr Romanov's Garden in the Sky for the Convent Book Group, to fit with our November theme of Gardens. But it turns out that the book doesn't actually have much to do with gardening at all.

This is a terrific novel. But while I was reading it, I was haunted by the feeling which all writers know, which I'll call Authorial Serendipity. This happens when Author A (in this case, me) has a book coming out soon, and reads a book by Author B (in this instance, Robert Newton), which shares some of the characteristics of Author A's book... It's disconcerting, it happens all the time, and there's nothing you can do about it except grit your teeth and assure Author B that you have NOT plaigarised their work... it's just coincidence.

So. Mr Romanov's Garden in the Sky is about two kids and an old man who go on a road trip together. My forthcoming book, The January Stars, is also about two kids and an old man going on a road trip together. Mr Romanov's Garden is set in Melbourne (and also the road to Surfer's Paradise). The January Stars is also set in Melbourne (and various places around Victoria).

But. Mr Romanov's Garden is a fair bit darker than The January Stars. Lexie's dad is dead, her mum is a junkie, Mr Romanov has dementia, and the novel opens with someone throwing his dog off the top of the housing commissions. At this point, I confess, I almost abandoned the book. I'm glad I pushed on, but it was a hard hurdle to pass. I promise that there are NO dead dogs in The January Stars.

Also, The January Stars has a bit of magic in it. So I guess maybe they're not so similar after all.

16.10.19

The Winter of Our Disconnect

The subtitle (see above) says it all. About ten years ago, American-born, Perth-based academic Susan Maushart decided to give her family a temporary digital detox -- no screens for six months. No television, no computer games, no internet, no phones, no iPods. The Winter of Our Disconnect is their story, and a rumination on the effect that being permanently plugged in has on us all.

Times change fast in the world of technology. In 2009, being deprived of their iPods was a major hurdle. In 2019, I'm not sure that iPods even exist any more. Now music and podcasts are streamed through our phones. Maushart's kids didn't care that much about losing their phones, because back then phones didn't do as much as they do now. I laughed at the fact that Maushart's elder daughter, at 19, was addicted to Facebook. Ten years later, no 19 year old in their right mind would go anywhere near Facebook (so I'm told). Facebook is for nanas!

The details may have changed, but the central lessons are still valid, in fact more valid than ever. Boredom is good for us. Without a screen in the way, we can see the real world more clearly. Constant distraction is robbing us of deep concentration. Hanging out with our friends is more rewarding than social media. Access to screens stops us sleeping properly.

The three teenagers (heavily bribed to take part) survived. Maushart's son picked up his neglected saxophone and embarked on a musical career. Her daughter rebooted her disordered sleeping patterns and hugely improved her mood and her health. And Maushart, with more time to reflect deeply on her life, decided to relocate the family back to her home, the US. (How the kids reacted to this decision is not recorded.)

When I talked to my own teenagers about this experiment, their reaction was swift and predictable. No way. Impossible. And sadly, I fear they might be right. I don't think the digital world we live in now is all bad, but it does come at a cost, and I'm not sure our kids even realise what that price is.

11.10.19

Minnow on the Say

Philippa Pearce wrote one of my favourite books of all time, a book that had a huge impact on my imagination, Tom's Midnight Garden. I was aware that she'd also written Minnow on the Say, though I'd never read it; what I didn't realise was that Minnow was her first novel for children, published in 1955. When I found this copy in Brown & Bunting, I snatched it up.

Minnow on the Say is a lovely, very enjoyable, old-fashioned children's story, but it lacks the transformative brilliance of Tom's Midnight Garden. The Minnow of the title is a canoe, and the Say is a river, and the two boys on the cover, Adam and David, are searching for a lost treasure that is the only thing that will save the home of the canoe's owner, Adam. There is an enigmatic rhyme to guide them, penned by a mysterious ancestor, and Adam's grandfather's failing memory.

Adam's grandfather, old Mr Codling, is a poignant figure. Suffering from what we would now call dementia, he's trapped in a melancholy past, looking forward only to his son's return from the war. But his son is dead, and Mr Codling doesn't even recognise Adam, his grandson. The moment that stays with me, and reminds me most of Tom's Midnight Garden, is when old Mr Codling sees Adam in the moonlight and is joyfully sure that his son has at last returned home.

The treasure hunt itself is painfully slow and I doubt that a young modern reader would persist with the story. The Edward Ardizzone illustrations add greatly to the charm of the book -- when I think about it, I realise that Ardizzone illustrated so many of my childhood favourites (I'm thinking particularly of Nicholas Stuart Gray's creepy and moving Down in the Cellar). Why don't kids books have illustrations any more? (Answer: because it costs too much, I suppose. What a shame.)

9.10.19

How Bright Are All Things Here

I started reading Susan Green's lovely novel How Bright Are All Things Here about a year ago, but set it aside because there was a character with a depressed husband -- a theme that was a little too close to home at the time! Fortunately that particular situation has resolved itself and I was able to return, and I'm so glad I did. In fact I needn't have shied away so soon, as the husband's depression doesn't play a huge part in the story and (spoilers) it also resolves happily in the end.

How Bright Are All Things Here is a story about family and identity, regrets and joys, secrets and masks. It contains lots of my favourite elements: art, London in the 1950s, a Melbourne setting, relationships between siblings. Bliss is in the last days of a long, rich and crowded life, and her memories intertwine with the lives of her adult step-children, who are struggling with their own problems as well as their sometimes fraught relationship with Bliss herself.

This is a beautiful novel about a complicated woman that reminded me (serendipity!) of Mary Wesley's life story -- lots of relationships, some joyful, some sad; the struggle between creativity and family responsibilities; the wry humour and delight in sensual pleasures. Bliss and Mary might not have hit it off in real life, but they have quite a bit in common.

I'm so happy that I came back to this novel, I enjoyed it tremendously.

6.10.19

Any Ordinary Day

Leigh Sales' Any Ordinary Day is subtitled Blindsides, resilience and what happens after the worst day of your life. Understandably, I've put off reading it because I thought it might be too harrowing. And I did cry a few times. But though it was upsetting at times, overall the experience of reading it was comforting and hopeful.

Sales begins with her own 'worst day' -- the birth of her second child where (almost) everything went wrong (they both survived, but it was close). She's had another few pretty bad days as well -- her older child has medical issues, and her long-term marriage collapsed. This was the impetus behind her quest to discover how other people manage to pull themselves through terrible experiences.

She interviews high profile survivors like Walter Mikac and Rosie Batty, as well as professionals in the field of trauma like coroners, journalists, and police. While she reminds us that some people don't recover from trauma, all her interviewees have succeeded in remaking their lives to some degree, though they all stress that life is never the same.

I came away from this book marvelling at the strength and faith of human beings in the face of horror that most of us try not to even imagine. My family has faced some challenges in the last few years, though nothing approaching the terrible experiences recounted here, and I have to concur with Sales' closing message: to cherish the ordinary days, because they are the most magical times we will have.

30.9.19

Wild Mary

I've been hanging onto Wild Mary, the biography of Mary Wesley, for some time while I read a few of her novels to get a sense of where she might be coming from. But wow, the story of her life beats the novels hollow (and now I'm keen to read the rest and see what else made its way into her work).

Born in 1912, Mary Wesley found her writing career late in life -- her first adult novel was published when she was 70, and she wrote about nine more (all bestsellers, with TV adaptations and international sales etc) before she died. After a few decades of grinding poverty, she was catapulted into sudden wealth: a dream come true!

Mary Farmar was born into a genteel military family. Her father was the British liaison with John Monash's Australian regiment, and he landed with the Australian troops at Gallipoli. But, with some justification, she felt neglected by her parents and older siblings, and rebelled with a defiant adolescence and young adulthood (this is where she picked up the nickname 'Wild Mary').

She made a conventional marriage into minor nobility, but the marriage was not a success, and the couple drifted apart during the Second World War. Mary was working for British Intelligence and had quite an adventurous time, with many lovers and entanglements before she met her second husband, Eric, with whom she remained until he died. (They were friends with Nancy Mitford.) But Eric had a truly ghastly wife, who stalked and harrassed them for years until they managed to shake her off, and the strain of this reign of terror took its toll on Eric's own mental health.

Eric aspired to be a writer, but never really had anything published. It makes you wonder what Mary might have been able to achieve if she'd had the freedom to write earlier... There was another complicated family scandal later on when a nasty solicitor tried to get Mary's second son disinherited so that he could take control of the whole estate. By the time Eric died, Mary was on the bones of her arse, ill herself, contemplating suicide, having to sell her house which she could no longer afford to live in -- and then her manuscript, Jumping the Queue, was accepted for publication and everything changed. (Jumping the Queue is about a widow contemplating suicide after the death of her husband.)

Mary's books struck a chord because they combine the recklessness and adventurous spirit of youth with the experience and cynicism of old age. They can be really dark at times -- there's incest, betrayal, violence and deception -- and yet they have an exuberant devilry about them which is kind of thrilling. With such rich and racy material to draw from, thank god 'Wild Mary' didn't succeed in 'jumping the queue' after all.

26.9.19

The Story of the Amulet

I picked up this omnibus edition of E. Nesbit's Psammead trilogy a looong time ago at a library book sale. As a child, Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet were my favourite Nesbit novels (after The Railway Children) and I read them both many times. I was quietly devastated when I tried to read them to my girls and they just didn't take -- I might have tried too early.

Anyway, for some reason, I wasn't as fond of The Story of the Amulet, though it was a time travel story and contained lots of the same elements as the other two stories: the same cast of children, the same sly humour, the same absorbing magic, and the delightfully grumpy Psammead.

But... I was surprised and dismayed to note how the story is marred by several instances of really gratuitous anti-Semitism. Did I pick up on that as a child reader? I think I actually did, and it made me so uneasy that I didn't return.

I decided to re-read this time because the elder daughter and I have just finished reading a 1940s book about archaeology* which has proved to be surprisingly engaging (it was a classic of its time, apparently, and may have kick-started the Indiana Jones trope of the archaeologist as adventurer), and took us to Babylon, ancient Egypt, Tyre and even the destruction of Atlantis. And apart from the gross and disappointing anti-Semitism, which was completely unnecessary to the plot, The Story of the Amulet is great.

Another episode I had forgotten was the chaotic visit of the Babylonian Queen to Victorian London, which surely must have 'influenced' a very similar scene in CS Lewis's The Magician's Nephew, though the figure of Jadis is more chilling than the flighty young Queen.


*Gods, Graves and Scholars by C.W. Ceram, 1949. Apparently Ceram is the pseudonym of a former Nazi propagandist -- I bet he was successful, he writes really well, even translated from German.