25.11.20

Nothing New

 

Robyn Annear is a prolific Melbourne writer (actually I think she lives in Castlemaine) but I'm aware of her from her history of early Melbourne, Bearbrass, and A City Lost and Found, which is the story of Whelan the Wrecker. It's not surprising that she's chosen to turn her pen to a history of second-hand -- well, everything! (Ironically Nothing New is one of the few books I've read lately not sourced from that massive trove of second-hand reading matter, Brotherhood Books; I borrowed this one from the library.)

Nothing New examines many different aspects of secondhand goods and trading, but focuses particularly on clothing. In the olden days, there was no such thing as vintage -- clothes were worn, cut down, and adapted until they simply wore out, whereupon they were transformed into multi-purpose rags. Everyday clothing doesn't get preserved for museums, which is why the historic clothes we see on display tend to be strictly for special occasions - silk dresses, bridal gowns and parade uniforms.

Annear also looks at the enormous trade in used clothing in Africa, the valorisation of mending and making do during times of shortage during the First and Second World Wars, and the subsequent backlash in the 1950s when consumers were encouraged to throw out the old and embrace the new in order to help the economy along. 

These days we are encouraged (perhaps vainly) to reuse and recycle what we can, but at the same time, society isn't organised to facilitate this. It's almost impossible to get major appliances repaired -- why would you, when it's just as cheap to buy a new fridge or washing machine? I'm constantly horrified by participants on House Hunters who cast an eye over a perfectly functional kitchen or bathroom and pronounce that it 'needs to be updated.' Does it, really? Having lived in many houses with sub-standard kitchens and bathrooms and survived perfectly well, I can tell you that having everything new might  be nice, but it's by no means essential.

There is, however, a sub-section of society (which clearly Annear belongs to) which celebrates the pre-loved, the historic, the shabby, the characterful. My sister-in-law is currently making a fortune connecting discarded items with new owners. Long may she and her kind flourish.

17.11.20

The Shepherd's Life

 

James Rebanks' unexpected 2015 bestseller, The Shepherd's Life, chimed well with my recent readings of Underland and Alan Garner -- and also with Tyson Yunkaporta's Sand Talk. Rebanks is part of a farming family in England's Lake District: Beatrix Potter country. For generations, his ancestors have farmed sheep on the fells, and he has witnessed the rise and fall of farming fads, eventually returning to the traditional methods of managing sheep on these marginal lands.

His connection to the land is unbreakable; he glories fiercely in the deep family connection to farming that stretches back for hundreds of years, and which he in turn is passing to his own young children (though he accepts that they may or not not also become farmers). He is no fool, and doesn't suffer fools either, like well-meaning outsiders who take a more romantic view of the countryside and see the sheep and the farmers as a picturesque decoration rather than an integral part of the landscape. His people are proud and prickly, and that comes through forcefully in his prose.

Just as when I read Alan Garner's Stone Book Quartet, I was struck by the parallels, half a world away, with Australian First Nations' visceral connection to country and how these English authors experience their own deep roots in the land. It's not the same experience, but it chimes, and it makes me wonder if all traditional societies share this fundamental sense of connection to the landscape -- if it's a universal experience that modern, mobile societies have lost. 

The Shepherd's Life is divided into seasons and describes the rhythm of the farming year; the book also traces Rebanks' own life. He drifted through school and didn't think much of it, dropping out as soon as he could to help on the farm. But clashes with his father contributed to driving him back to education. He ended up at Oxford (he describes wryly how he found himself suddenly rebranded locally as 'clever') and now finds himself a writer. (I didn't know it, but he has a new book out: English Pastoral.) I've also just discovered a Conversations podcast with Richard Fidler which I am now itching to listen to.

9.11.20

The Stone Book Quartet

 

I think The Stone Book Quartet is my favourite Alan Garner novel. It's really a collection of four novellas, each focused on a child of a different generation of a family strikingly similar to Garner's own: he has said that this is his most personal book. In these slim but tightly controlled stories, each taking place over a single day, Garner explores themes of family and history, memory and craft, belonging and loss.

In The Stone Book, Mary's stonemason father takes her up to the stop of the church spire and then deep into the earth to discover a secret painted cave. In Granny Reardun, Mary's son chooses to come a blacksmith rather than a mason, to work with metal instead of stone. In The Aimer Gate, Robert helps with the wartime harvest but alone of the children, can't find a moment of joy or a vocation. Finally, in Tom Fobble's Day, set during the Second World War, William's grandfather (the smith of Granny Reardun) makes William a perfect sledge on his last day of work.

There are echoes and resonances between the four stories. The demolished house from Granny Reardun reappears as rescued rubble in The Aimer Gate. Robert climbs inside the church tower and finds his grandfather's mark hidden in the 'cave' of the belfry. In each generation, there is deep skill and respected mastery. And Alan Garner himself, descended from these craftsmen, has created a homage to them using the tools of his own craft: words.

There are also gaps and mysteries here. No one seems to know what the 'aimer gate' means. Mary, who longed to work in a great house and care for beautiful things, can't afford to care for her own firstborn son. Robert is not drawn to any particular mastery and we don't know what becomes of him; the last tale centres on William and his grandfather, and William's father doesn't even appear. 

Hot on the heels of Underland, it was especially wonderful to read of the ancient painted cave of The Stone Book with its vivid animal scenes, overlapping footprints and handprints, a secret handed down through a single family. Do the later children know of it, or is the secret lost? The broken loom of Mary's uncle becomes William's perfectly balanced sledge four generations later; some knowledge, some possessions, are passed down unknowingly. 

Like the sledge, swift and balanced, sweeping and sure, the product of hand and eye and history, The Stone Book Quartet itself is close to perfection.

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.