26.10.20

The Magician's Book

 

I found out about The Magician's Book from my Facebook friend Neil Philip (expert on myth and folklore, poetry and Alan Garner, among other subjects) and bought it impulsively on Kindle because I couldn't wait to read it. Now I almost wish I'd been more patient and ordered a paper copy (I guess I could still do that).

I am a sucker for books about Narnia. Planet Narnia by Michael Ward (another Kindle impulse I wish I owned non-digitally) reshaped the way I read the Chronicles. The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia was less revolutionary, but still contained much food for thought and plentiful insights for lovers of C. S. Lewis's creation.

Like many of us, Laura Miller fell head over heels in love with Narnia as a child, but became disillusioned as an adolescent when she recognised the 'Christian propaganda' embedded in the stories. But as an adult, she has returned to the books with a more thoughtful eye and acknowledged that they can offer joys and wisdom beyond that obvious 'message.' There is a lot of material here about Lewis and Tolkien, their friendship and the relationship between their respective works and beliefs -- probably slightly more material, if I'm honest, than I really needed (not a fan of Middle Earth); but I did learn a lot and the discussion was illuminating.

I'm going to keep my eye out for a hard copy.

22.10.20

Underland

 

Robert Macfarlane is one of my very favourite current authors (he just writes beautifully about nature and history and science), so when I heard that his latest book was about underground stuff, I was slightly dismayed. I don't like underground. Even going into the little mine at Sovereign Hill makes me nervous; I can't help being conscious of the weight of all that stone and rock hovering above my head. However, I am such a fan of Macfarlane that I reserved a copy from the library anyway.

There was a long reservation queue. There was Covid. I had to wait months to get my mitts on Underland. And boy, it was worth it.

I suppose I had expected a series of visits to mining tunnels or scary caves, and there are indeed some hairy passages where Macfarlane is squeezing through narrow gaps in the dark, deep underground; but he also visits the icy wastes of Greenland; parties deep in the extensive limestone catacombs dug out beneath Paris, inhabited by a whole community of explorers; discovers the wood-wide web life creeping beneath the forest floor; and pays a surprisingly hopeful visit to a nuclear waste facility where people are trying to find a way to communicate the danger of this material ten thousand years into the future, when we will be long gone from the face of the world. Upsettingly, everywhere he goes he comes across plastic waste, even on the shores of the remotest northern islands.

But Macfarlane is not just an adventurer, he is also a philosopher and a deep thinker about the meaning of what he sees below and within ground -- burials, forgetting, hiding, safeguarding, sacred art. His journeys under the surface inevitably become journeys within ourselves and into our own deep past.  

Underland is a wonderful book, and gorgeously written. Here is just a taste:

That night the Northern Lights appear for the first time. A scarf of radar-green flutters in the sky. the mountains shoot jade search-lights into space.

We lie on our backs on the cold black air and watch the show, amazed into silence.

16.10.20

Persuasion

 

This is the only image I could find of my edition of Persuasion, my favourite Jane Austen novel. It's a very dull cover, it's not surprising that it was replaced, but it does show a view of the Cobb at Lyme Regis, the scene of the most dramatic incident in the book, where Louisa Mulgrave falls and injures her head. 

I may be one of the few people in the world to visit the Cobb without thinking of poor Louisa, because I hadn't yet read Persuasion (however I did think of Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant's Woman, also set in Lyme. Here she is, looking suitably melodramatic:

)

Anyway, the reason I was in Lyme with my parents was because my father went to boarding school there. He showed us the secret spot in the woods where they used to sneak off and smoke, and we were able to explore the corridors filled with glass cases of stuffed birds -- it was very creepy!

None of which has anything to do with Persuasion, but it may explain why I approached it with a feeling of proprietorship from the get-go, and I was quickly drawn in by quiet, uncomplaining Anne Elliot, disappointed in love -- no, cheated out of love by her meddlesome friends and relatives, who are some of the most unlikeable characters in Jane Austen's universe. But it's the most satisfying of Cinderella stories, as Anne's patience and steadfastness is ultimately rewarded by a man whose own loyalty shows that he deserves her. Although I have my doubts that in real life, Captain Wentworth would have remained so faithful.

Persuasion is a very comforting book for troubled times, but its razor-sharp observations save it from sentimentality.


11.10.20

The Conversations

 

The Conversations: 66 Reasons to Start Talking is an odd but strangely absorbing little book. Novelist, mother of five sons, and ex-probation officer Olivia Fane loves to talk -- not small talk, but big discussions about provocative and person topics, what we used to call when I was young 'deep and meaningfuls.' 

Here she collects 66 short essays, only a couple of pages long, on various topics (fame, violence, jealousy, forgiveness, mirrors, cooking, sex), lets us know her thoughts on the matter -- Fane might be open to debating, but she is quite decided in her opinions, she reminds me of an English aunty with full confidence in her own conclusions -- and then poses a list of questions for us to explore with a conversational partner, perhaps a friend, a spouse, or a stranger at a party or a bus stop.

Sample questions: At a party, do you often feel an outsider and want to go home?

    Do you believe in ghosts?

    Have you ever tried to change your behaviour to please a partner?

    What has been the loneliest time of your life?

    Have you ever been a feminist? (Der!)

    Can you think of an act of free will which has changed your life?

Well, you get the gist. I enjoyed Fane's company through these chapters, though I certainly didn't agree with her on everything, and I did actually use some of her questions to start conversations with my husband. At the end of each chapter I did stop and think about the questions. Some were easy to answer (like the one about feminism), some were much harder (like the act of free will).

As someone who struggles for small talk at the best of times, I'm planning to tuck this book away for long car drives or boat trips (one day...) with the hope of sparking some really meaty D&Ms in future.

8.10.20

Down in the Cellar


I've been returning to some old favourites from my bookshelf lately. Down in the Cellar stands up brilliantly, sixty years after its first publication. 

The story is told by the oldest sibling, Bruce, in a style reminiscent of E. Nesbit's masterful narrator, Oswald Bastable. It begins as a fairly straighforward kids' adventure -- the four brothers and sisters discover a wounded and delirious escaped convict in a quarry and decide to shelter him in the rambling cellar of their uncle's rectory. But before long supernatural elements begin to creep into the narrative -- mostly things seen by the youngest sister, five year old Deirdre, whose creepy pronouncements about green lanterns and invisible malevolent 'Spoilers' would surely have her instantly referred to a child psychologist in these more enlightened days.

Poor Bruce can't see any of these weird phenomena, though his twin Julia and younger brother Andrew both get glimpses of other-worldly happenings. As the net tightens with the arrival of sinister witches, as well as prosaic police searching for the helpless Stephen, the children find themselves under siege. Deirdre's friend, the mysterious Lady of the Hill, is their only help -- if she really exists.

Down in the Cellar is honestly a masterclass in writing a subtle and unsettling narrative, rendered all the more powerful by the fact that Bruce himself only witnesses the magic indirectly, and doesn't believe in it himself. I get shivers whenever I read it, I wonder if it's too scary for sensitive children? I've never been able to acquire Nicholas Stuart Gray's other books, The Seventh Swan and The Stone Cage, but on the basis of Down in the Cellar I think he is an unjustly neglected talent.

Haunting!

5.10.20

Jane and I

 

Jane and I: A Tale of Austen Addiction by Susannah Fullerton was an impulse buy on the Kindle after my friend Suzanne mentioned that she'd been reading it in a comment on my Mansfield Park post. See how one thing leads to another? Apparently Susannah Fullerton shares my admiration for the much-maligned Mansfield Park. That was enough to get me clicking the BUY button (also it was only $3!)

In truth, Jane and I is a very slender but engaging memoir, containing much more about Fullerton than about Austen. It traces Fullerton's early introduction to the works of Jane Austen, her growing obsession, membership of Austen appreciation societies in Australia and abroad, and ultimately the way in which she has managed to create a whole career out of her love for Austen and her novels -- as a writer of books like A Dance with Jane Austen, Jane Austen and Crime and Happily Ever After: Celebrating Pride and Prejudice; as a literary tour guide; and a popular lecturer on literary subjects (not just Austen).

It's incredible to reflect that Jane Austen is so enduringly popular that she makes such a career not just possible, but profitable! I'm sure Jane herself would be astonished. But I know if I come across any of those other Fullerton-penned Austen celebration books, I won't be able to resist.

1.10.20

Capital


A few years ago I read John Lanchester's brilliant memoir Family Romance and thoroughly enjoyed it, so when Capital popped up on Brotherhood Books, I pounced. For some reason I thought it would be non-fiction, but it's a huge door-stopper of a novel, Dickensian in scope if not in style.

Capital is set in London just before the 2008 financial crisis, and its cast of many characters is centred around Pepys Rd, a once nondescript street where the inexorable rise of property prices has left the inhabitants sitting in houses now worth millions of pounds. The main plot thread concerns a mysterious campaign of anonymous messages to the residents, saying We Want What You Have. Is it the faceless artist, Smitty? Smitty's grandmother, fading Petunia Howe? Greedy Arabella Yount or her obscenely overpaid financier husband Roger? Their gorgeous nanny, Marta? The Kamal family who run the corner shop? Hard-working Polish builder Zbigniew? Senegalese soccer star Freddy Kamo? Or political refugee Quentina, illegally working as a parking officer?

Divided into short sharp chapters, these multiple points of view are brisk and entertaining, but the sheer multiplicity of characters means that the story takes a long time to get going. It's not until about two thirds of the way through that the individual threads begin to tie together, and while most of the plot threads are resolved, there are some left dangling (I was particularly cross about Quentina, who was really left in limbo -- but that was probably the point.)

Capital is a sprawling, generous, funny saga about money, property and the things that have true value. I really enjoyed it.

28.9.20

Red Shift

 

I thought I'd written about Red Shift recently; when I checked, it turns out it was five years ago!  Ah me, how time does fly and double back on itself, which is one of the themes of the book.

Again I was struck by the fact that this novel is not a children's book, maybe not even YA. Not only is the style opaque and challenging, the events are violent and bloody, though because of the oblique style, they are not graphic. And again I noticed links of dialogue and description between the three interwoven story strands that I hadn't noticed before. 

This is such a slender book, but it's so packed with layers and echoes. I noticed quite a few similarities between modern Tom and the Colin of Boneland, their wordplay, their wariness, their interest in stars. Red Shift marked a decisive turn in Garner's writing, away from overt magic and toward resonance through time. I wouldn't say that it's a book I love, exactly -- it's too frightening and lonely for that -- but I do admire it perhaps more than any other.

24.9.20

The Year The Maps Changed

 
This is such a lovely book! Danielle Binks' debut is an accomplished middle grade novel set in Sorrento (a town I know well) on the Mornington Peninsula in 1999, the year that Kosovan refugees were brought to the old quarantine station at Portsea for 'safe haven,' told through the eyes of eleven year old Fred.

The obvious reference for the maps changing thus applies to the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the terrible conflict in Kosovo. But it also applies in a deeply personal way for Fred herself. Her mother has died and her step-father Luka, a policeman, has re-partnered with Anika, bringing Fred an unexpected younger brother in the form of ten year old Sam. And then Luka and Anika announce that they are having a baby. Where does that leave Fred? Is she still part of their family?

The arrival of the refugees unsettles the whole town, even though they are kept far down the road at Portsea, but as Fred finds herself drawn to the strangers, she finds herself reassessing what really matters.

This is a beautiful story about belonging and welcome, about fear and suspicion, and ultimately about the elastic bonds of family and love. The Year the Maps Changed has had rave reviews everywhere, and deservedly so. This is a terrific book.

21.9.20

Let's Talk About Harry

 

I don't really have anything new to add to this story. I was a huge fan of Harry Potter. The success of the books was probably responsible for my own fantasy books being published; certainly there was more cash for my publishers, both in Australia and the US, to risk on a new author. My US editor, the incomparable Cheryl Klein, was the continuity editor for the series, and that gave me a one-degree-of-separation thrill. So I owe quite a bit to Harry.

I'm also grateful to Harry for another reason. Because I loved the old-fashioned magical universe and Rowling's intricate and often funny world-building, I shared the books with my daughters. They adored them. I read the entire series to them both, not just once but multiple times; they were one literary taste that we all shared. Both girls also played the Stephen Fry audiobooks to lull them to sleep, many times over many years. And of course we watched the movies. 

This deep familiarity meant that when my dyslexic daughter, at the age of twelve, finally picked up a book and began to read independently for the first time, the book that did the trick was Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Because she knew the story so well, the words came more easily. Seven years later, she has read Anna Karenina and The Lord of the Rings and she is almost as addicted to books as I am, though she still has to work much harder at reading than I do.

I thought that JK Rowling had achieved a remarkable feat. She had created this rich, complex universe which had captured the imagination of countless children; she had got kids reading! I saw the midnight queues, I went to the parody musical, I saw the joy and delight, and it was good. I knew there were problems -- if Dumbledore was gay, why wasn't he gay in the books? What about the house-elves? But I shrugged them away. But now it seems that those problems were a sign of an underlying conservatism that has now exploded in a different forum.

The depth of my delight in the stories is mirrored in my disappointment and sadness that that magical world, which seemed to have a place for everyone, has been spoiled by Rowling's own poisonous beliefs. Trans kids are hurting. This matters. Can we still love the books, while ignoring or condemning their author's opinions? I wish with all my heart we could. But in these days, when Rowling herself seems hellbent on spreading her views as widely as possible, any trans fan of the books can easily find out what the author really thinks of them. The betrayal is real.

I'm not sure there is any way back now. I will remember Harry Potter fondly, for the special place he occupied in my family's history. But I can't imagine ever reading the books again.


14.9.20

Are We Nearly There Yet?

 

Ben Hatch's 2011 bestseller, Are We Nearly There Yet? arrived in a mystery box of books that Elder Daughter and I treated ourselves to earlier in lockdown. When I chose it from the box, I thought it might be a mildly diverting companion to Bill Bryson's Road to Little Dribbling, another amusing travelogue of Great Britain. But it proved to be much better than that.

Hatch's account of travelling round the UK with his wife and two kids (both under four) researching a family-friendly guidebook is definitely amusing. The usual tribulations of parenting young kids (lost toys, food meltdowns, poo and vomit) are added to a punishing timetable that can require up to four or five 'attractions' per day. Add to that some darker episodes, including a serious car accident, inexplicable pain and hospitalisation (Ben has a kidney stone), and raking over the marital coals as their travels lead them down memory lane to the sites of childhood holidays, first houses and first jobs.

But the real gravitas of this book is provided by the illness and death of Ben's father which unfolds over the months of their trip. Sir David Hatch joined the Cambridge Footlights at the same time as comic luminaries like John Cleese, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graeme Garden, but he diverted into producing, becoming a BBC bigwig. Young Ben rebelled against his larger-than-life father, and his reflections on this rebellion and their ultimate gradual understanding (not explicit, because they are English, after all) is the most moving strand of this story.

Ben Hatch has also written several novels, one of which was published this year. With his impeccable comic timing, ear for dialogue and acute observational skills on display in this memoir, I'm interested to see what he's come up with.

7.9.20

The Road to Little Dribbling

 

I was quite startled to realise, when I went looking, how many books by Bill Bryson are lined up on my shelves. There are his many travel memoirs, like this one, and Down Under, his book about Australia; his popular science book, A Short History of Nearly Everything; his wonderful history of domestic life in the West, At Home, and I'm sure there are others tucked away that I didn't spot. I've certainly read more of his books than I actually own, and there are plenty I haven't read yet, like his new history of the human body, which sounds like fun.

Bill Bryson is an utterly reliable literary companion. He is the genial, charming, slightly grumpy uncle (he has grown grumpier with age, I find) who is always ready to whip out a fascinating fact or a bizarre anecdote as you stroll around together. It's easy to dip in and out of his books; they are always interesting, never demanding, invariably good fun, sometimes poignant, sometimes cross.

The Road to Little Dribbling is a kind of sequel to Notes From a Small Island in which Bryson wanders around his adopted home of Great Britain, often delighted by what he observes but occasionally annoyed -- mostly by what he sees as people taking for granted the things that delight him and thus paving the way for their destruction. He adores the English countryside and hates seeing it despoiled by litter or unsightly development. He loves the fact that national parks are places where people live, not areas of wilderness specially cordoned off (I hadn't realised this either and I've always been somewhat bemused by UK real estate listings headed 'Houses in National Parks.')

Of course, this veneer of relaxed charm belies the huge effort that goes on beneath the surface of the writing -- the extensive research, the search for the precise phrase that brings a smile, the actual hoofing it around the country and actually visiting these places. Bryson makes it all look so easy, but to produce book after book of such reliable enjoyment is very hard work. Respect, Bill.

31.8.20

Mansfield Park

 

I know I've read Mansfield Park before, and I've seen at least one film version, but this least popular of Jane Austen's novels hadn't left much of an impression. It's a long, complicated novel, and it suffered in this reading from the fact that I went off and read (the immensely long) The Other Bennet Sister after I'd started it, and I'd forgotten all the characters and their complex interrelationships in the meantime, and had to learn them all again. (This was rendered more difficult because I was reading on the Kindle, so I couldn't simply flick back and skim the pages as required.)

But, unlike some critics (including Claire Tomalin, who wrote the Jane Austen biography that sent me down this rabbit hole in the first place), I found Mansfield Park a very satisfying and intriguing book. Claire Tomalin describes it as a flawed work, because the supposed villains of the piece, the Crawford siblings, are so much more attractive than the supposed heroine, meek Fanny Price.

Well, let me declare it now: I like Fanny Price. And I've found support for my position online from other introverted, quiet, anxious, but inwardly strong readers who identify strongly with shy but staunch Fanny. Mary Crawford is much closer to the conventional Austen heroine, like Lizzy Bennet or Emma Woodhouse. She is lively, witty, sparkling -- okay, I admit it, she does sound superficially more attractive than Fanny. But in this novel, she is not the heroine; she is the rival who comes dancing onto the stage crying, look at me! while Fanny fades into the shadows. (This is why Mansfield Park doesn't work for the cinema -- they have to turn Fanny into a more 'typical' sparkly Austen heroine, and the whole point of the novel is lost.)

But in the end, it's Fanny who sticks to her principles, despite the mockery and outright anger of her rich relatives, and it's quiet Fanny who wins the day (and the best husband). Hooray! Joan Klingel Ray makes a persuasive argument that Fanny is actually a victim of child abuse, so her survival and her thriving is even more satisfying.

Mansfield Park is Austen's most socially nuanced novel. It explicitly examines class and privilege. The fact is that poor relation Fanny can't afford to act with the cavalier flirtatiousness of her rich cousins; without money, she lacks protection from society's harsh judgement, and faces the very real threat of crushing poverty and extinguishment. Her physical weakness reflects her social vulnerability. She has to be a 'prig' -- her principles are her armour.

I think this might be another reason why Mansfield Park is difficult for a modern reader. The sins of the Crawfords and Bertrams seem so inconsequential to us -- putting on a play? Totally harmless. Flirting? Who cares! Leaving your husband? You go, girl, be your best you. But all these actions in Austen's time had very real and serious moral consequences, consequences which only Fanny, because of her disadvantage, can see clearly.

Fanny is a quiet heroine, like Anne Elliot in Persuasion, and like Anne, it's her loyalty and faith which ultimately prove her strength. Funnily enough, Persuasion is my favourite Austen -- maybe time for a re-read?

26.8.20

The Time of Green Magic


When I grow up, I would like to be Hilary McKay. In my mind she ranks with the classic writers for children that I loved most when I was young -- Noel Streatfeild, Penelope Lively, E. Nesbit -- a safe pair of hands, an ever-reliable story-teller, someone with whom you can relax and enjoy the ride.

The Time of Green Magic is the kind of novel I wish I'd written myself. It's a gentle tale of a blended family, a spooky house and mysterious magic, linked with books and art. It touches on feelings of displacement and belonging, friendship and connection, but it's not an 'issue' book, it's a warm, often funny, touching story which wraps around the reader like a comforting quilt.

Thoroughly enjoyable.

23.8.20

Ghost Empire

 

I picked up Ghost Empire from Brotherhood Books and I feel as if I've been reading it for a long time -- but a very engrossing, entertaining time it's been. The Byzantine Empire is a huge hole in my historical knowledge, a vague impression of golden icons, labyrinthine politics, and purple shadows. Richard Fidler's masterly and very readable history of this thousand-year empire has finally shone some light on this dark corner.

For instance, I had no idea that when Emperor Constantine moved his base to Constantinople after the sack of Rome in 330 (well, let's face it, I had only the haziest idea that that was how Constantinople started in the first place) that he and his successors still regarded themselves as Romans, albeit Christianised Romans -- right up until the city and empire was lost to the Persians in 1453, they were still calling themselves Romans! 'Byzantine' was a label slapped on them by later chroniclers.

As anyone knows who has listened to Fidler's Conversations series on the ABC, he is the perfect companion for a journey like this -- intelligent, lively, and well-informed. He leads us through a complex and confusing history with a solid rope of fascinating anecdote and piquant trivia (apparently the Emperors all wore special thigh-high purple boots -- so very disco!) and threads through an account of a trip to Istanbul with his teenage son which brings a personal angle to the uncovering of history. (Joe sounds delightful, too.)

At nearly 500 pages, Ghost Empire was a big commitment, but it's well-illustrated and broken up into bite-sized chunks. Well worth the effort, and I think I might look out for Richard Fidler's books about Prague and the Icelandic sagas, too.