16.8.18

Rethinking Normal

Katie Rain Hill was born Luke; but she always knew that she wasn't a boy. Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition is her story. Though Katie was only twenty when she wrote this moving, honest book, she had already experienced a lifetime's worth of pain, self-loathing, confusion, cruel bullying, rage, pride and triumph.

Growing up in the Bible Belt, Katie was always aware that something about her was 'wrong.' For a long time she categorised herself as gay, but she knew that wasn't quite right either. Suicidally unhappy, she eventually discovered, thanks to the internet, that there were others who felt the way she did, and that there was a name for it: transgender. Her bewildered but supportive mother helped her on her journey through transition, as did an anonymous donor who paid for her surgery. A surprising amount of this story concerns the tangle of dating and relationships -- just like most other adolescents, falling in love is an important part of Katie's life.

I was slightly sad to read just how crucial it was to Katie that she should be pretty, not an ugly girl, and her relief when boys found her attractive. I guess I wanted to be a pretty girl, too, but on some level I accepted that it wasn't to be, and found my self-worth elsewhere. In the 80s, we used to argue that instead of trying to fit ourselves into boxes marked 'masculine' or 'feminine,' we should try to break the walls of the boxes down, and throw the labels away. Now it seems that finding the label that fits, even if that label says 'genderfluid,' is the most vital step in accepting oneself; meanwhile, the walls of those boxes seem to have become more rigid than ever. This seems to me a shame. But I respect the lived experience of Katie, Arin and those trans and gender-fluid kids that have entered my life. Power to you all!

11.8.18

Six of Crows

Not going to lie -- when I retrieved this from the library for the Convent Book Group, my heart sank. Six of Crows is a brick of a book, and I only had three days to read it... But wow, Leigh Bardugo has produced a terrific fantasy page-turner, and the chapters flew by.

Dense, dark, satisfying, with interestingly flawed characters (literally, the Dregs of their mercantile society) and a plot that keeps twisting and ambushing the reader till almost the very last page, Six of Crows divided our group. Those who loved it, LOVED it (I was in that camp). There were some who didn't get on with it -- put off by its length, or the initial profusion of characters, or who just don't like fantasy that much. And that's fine. Big meaty fantasy stories aren't for everyone. But Bardugo hits a YA sweet spot that doesn't mollycoddle its readers. My 14 year old tells me that the series set in the Grishaverse (there are at least five more books, and a movie on the way) is huge in her demographic, and I can see why.

Six of Crows reminded me very slightly of the Chanters of Tremaris books: the types of magic are similar, though there's no singing involved, and the world also has echoes of Tremaris, insofar as both universes have echoes of our own planet. Ketterdam is a cousin of Gellan; icy Fjerdan is a little like Antaris. But where Tremaris is a fairly gentle world, comfortable for upper primary/lower secondary readers, the Grishaverse is squarely YA, with a hefty body count and some pretty adult darkness. It's Tremaris on steroids and sleeping rough. A book, and a world, to sink your teeth into.

5.8.18

How Bright Are All Things Here -- paused

Look at this gorgeous cover -- it reminds me of the Leonard French stained glass ceiling in the National Gallery of Victoria, which as children we used to lie on our back and gaze dreamily up at. I've been looking forward to reading this adult novel by Susan "Verity Sparks" Green for a long time, and when I started it, I delighted in the lovely prose, the compassion for the characters, and the familiar Melbourne setting.

But... it's about a family, a family with troubles. There's the stepmother, dying in a nursing home. There's the daughter who has just lost her job, and her husband with depression. And while something tells me that everything is going to work out okay in the end, this is not the book for me right now. So reluctantly I have set it aside -- not forever, just for now. I'm looking forward to getting back to it, when things in my own life are slightly brighter.

2.8.18

Wildwood

Found in Greensborough Savers, I have been rationing out the beautiful, thoughtful Wildwood at the rate of a chapter a day -- it has been serving me as a meditation and solace. About a quarter of the way through, I realised that I'd read about Roger Deakin before, in Robert Macfarlane's Landmarks -- Macfarlane was Deakin's friend and acted as his literary executor. Reading this book was tinged with sadness, for Deakin died not long after the manuscript was complete. I came to Macfarlane first, but I can definitely see Deakin's influence on the younger writer.

Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees is an extended meditation on all forms of interaction with trees and wood. Deakin visits sculptors and woodworkers, naturalists and farmers, thatchers and forest rangers. His travels take him to Kyrgzstan and Australia (where he goes camping with our very own Romana Koval!), deep into the English countryside and back to his own boyhood. He discusses oak and ash, sycamore and walnut, and though they are not all familiar to me, I feel I know them better after this splendid introduction.

I absolutely love books like this -- slow and reflective, lovingly precise, filled with a lifetime's experience and an eagerness to learn from others. It's almost like a prayer -- to the wild, tangled forests and the ancient hedgerows alike. A slow walk through the woods -- just what I needed.

It's bittersweet to discover an author whose company you enjoy so much, and to know that there will be no more work from them. One day I would like to read the companion volume to this, Waterlog, which describes Deakin's attempt to swim across Britain in bodies of wild water! And also Notes From Walnut Tree Farm.

(PS An intriguing side note: at one point Deakin mentions that the hare, who leaps from the corn as it's harvested, is sacred to Ceres. Instantly I thought of Maria's hare in The Little White Horse, who is named Serena...)

31.7.18

Nella Last's Peace

I've been slowly making my way through two books simultaneously: Roger Deakin's Wildwood (of which more presently) and Nella Last's Peace. The latter is an edited volume of some of the millions of words of diaries kept by Nella Last, a middle-aged, 'ordinary' housewife, as part of Britain's Mass Observation project. She kept the detailed diaries faithfully all through the war, and almost up until her death in 1968, and this book covers the first couple of years of peacetime.

Despite the longed-for peace and victory finally arriving, times were not easy, and in some ways harder to bear than the war itself, when a spirit of community and selflessness swept up many ordinary citizens in sacrifice to a larger cause. Nella finds herself wistful for those times and her own voluntary work in the Forces Canteen, and the friends she made there. The reader senses her frustration, with the continued shortages and hardships, with her withdrawn husband, with her unsettled younger son (who emigrated to Australia and became a celebrated sculptor, Clifford Last), and with her difficult in-laws.

Perhaps this is just about what's going on my own life at the moment, but to me the most moving parts of the diary deal with the struggles of Nella's young friend and neighbour, Jessie, who falls ill with what sounds like postpartum psychosis, and is hospitalised for a time. Nella's husband seems to suffer from an anxiety disorder; her mother-in-law has dementia, and Nella herself is sometimes struck by gastric attacks that seem to be anxiety related. It was quite frightening to realise how little information and treatment and even recognition was available for mental illness, and how terrifying it would have been to be faced with mental illness in the family. Happily, Jessie made a complete recovery.

17.7.18

Unnatural Death

Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter Wimsey (BBC)
The Dorothy L Sayers binge-fest continues with Unnatural Death, the final book in my omnibus with the horrible cover. Ridiculously, though it's the last book in the volume, it was written first, and introduces the character of Miss Climpson, who also appeared in Strong Poison. No Harriet Vane in this one, either.

Miss Climpson is nearly as good as Harriet Vane, though, being brave and resourceful and not as foolish as she appears (not unlike Wimsey himself, come to think of it). And this one features a ruthless and cunning murderess -- not a spoiler, as she is suspected from the first page, it's just that they can't prove that she has actually committed murder. Sadly, and thanks principally to Wimsey's interference by the way, the body count goes up before the proof can be acquired, which makes you wonder if he shouldn't have just minded his own bloody business.

No I only have Busman's Honeymoon in my cupboard, but I think I need to read Gaudy Night first. I just have to get my hands on it.

10.7.18

Holes

I have to admit I wasn't really looking forward to reading Louis Sachar's school reading circle staple, Holes. I don't find desert books especially appealing, particularly American desert books. Also Daughter No 2 had read this at primary school (in one of those aforementioned literature circles) and found it dull.

So I was pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up enjoying it. After a rather grinding start, the story picked up pace for me once the historical back story was introduced -- I would have liked more about the outlaw Kissin' Kate Barlow, and less about the brutality of the camp. Perhaps it's just my tender Australian sensibilities but I was quite shocked by the casual violence and the nonchalant firing of guns  -- why are the 'counsellors' even carrying guns, in a juvenile facility in the middle of nowhere? Anyway, the details of the historical story and the events of the present day dovetailed with satisfying neatness, and issues of race, courage and loyalty were handled with a degree of subtlety.

I was planning to jettison this one after reading it, but I think I'll award a place on the permanent bookshelf after all.

6.7.18

Strong Poison

Can you believe this cover? Both hideous and inappropriate. Clearly the designer had never read the novels or even cast a cursory glance over them. I have taken the liberty of stripping off the dust jacket and hurling it into the nearest wastepaper basket (actually the recycling bin). (Perhaps the war on plastic will result in a revival of the art and craft of basketry? I hope so.)

This omnibus volume (which I picked up in a local secondhand bookshop) contains Strong Poison, Have His Carcase (so I've doubled up there) and Unnatural Death. Annoyingly, they are presented out of order, so that a significant character featured in Strong Poison is actually introduced in Unnatural Death. This character is Miss Climpson, who is a smart, shrewd, observant, middle-aged woman who is nevertheless capable of appearing to be a mere harmless gossip... I suspect Miss Climpson may have provided the template for Miss Marple? In fact they first appeared in 1927, with Miss Marple making her debut in December of that year. Hmm. I guess we will never know.

Strong Poison is however, most notable for the introduction of Harriet Vane, wrongly accused of murder. I was a bit disappointed that Lord Peter seems to fall for her at first sight rather than gradually coming to appreciate her qualities, which are pretty subdued here -- no wonder, since she's sitting on Death Row for the entire book. In her brief appearances, though, she is clearly both intelligent and the owner of a sense of humour, which bodes well for their future.

Apparently Sayers based some of this book on her own experience of an unhappy love affair with a bohemian author. Must have been so satisfying to kill him off!

5.7.18

Behind the Sofa

Well, this is a funny little book for a niche audience -- I doubt it was even published in Australia. But it turned up on Brotherhood Books and, Doctor Who geek that I am, I couldn't resist. The subtitle of Behind the Sofa is Celebrity Memories of Doctor Who, edited by Steve Berry as a fundraiser for Alzheimer's Research UK.

Berry has collected anecdotes and memories from writers, actors, broadcasters and comedians -- some have worked on the show, some are just fans. Most discovered the show as children, and they each have their 'own' Doctor -- it tends to be the first one you saw, and the show has been going for so long that there are loyalists from William Hartnell right through to Matt Smith (the book was published before Peter Capaldi took over, and well before Jodie Whittaker was announced as the first female Doctor).

This was a diverting addition to my collection of Doctor Who books (they live in a drawer).

If I'd been asked for a contribution, I might have talked about my gang in Year 8 who all worshipped the fourth Doctor and Romana. My friend Fiona even looked like Lalla Ward. We especially adored the Paris-set story, The City of Death, and adopted the bumbling policeman Duggan as our mascot. We even developed a clapping game (yes, we were thirteen!) which involved chanting 'K-9, Duggan, Romana, Doctor...'

I might also add the story of Peter Davison's visit to Melbourne, where as earnest environmentalists at the height of the Franklin Dam controversy, we lined up to gift him a copy of the single 'Let the Franklin Flow' by Goanna. (We were 17 by this stage.) I was wearing my Fair Isle vest as a tribute to his character in All Creatures Great and Small. Lord knows what he made of it, poor guy!

29.6.18

Sophie's World

I think I first bought and read Jostein Gaarder's bestselling book about philosophy for young people, Sophie's World, when it was first published in English (translated from the original Norwegian) back in the early 1990s. I revisited it for the Convent Book Group's Philosophy theme this month.

I did recall some elements of the book, but not the central twist (though I saw that coming). And alas, I had forgotten most of the actual philosophy information which was the whole point of the novel. I have to admit that this time around, I found those sections fairly hard-going -- talk about info-dump! But when the actual mystery/twist part of the book ramps up, I found myself more engaged, and the interplay between the philosophical debates and Sophie's personal situation is cleverly plotted.

I'd be interested to know if any young people actually read this book these days. It's a useful primer on the history of (Western) philosophy and much more fun than the textbooks I had to plough through at uni doing Philosophy 101 -- though that's not setting the bar very high!

28.6.18

Have His Carcase

Once again, unable to find a picture of my own copy of Dorothy L Sayers' Have His Carcase, I've stolen an image from the  BBC series, which surely shows Lord Peter and Harriet Vane looking for clues on the beach, the scene of the crime. I'd really love to have seen this series, this is exactly how I imagine Peter and Harriet.

Have His Carcase comes before The Nine Tailors, but I forgot it was tucked away on my shelves. Now this one I remember well -- I must have re-read it a few times, and I remembered the twist at the end perfectly. The series does catch a new lease of life once Harriet Vane appears, and I really enjoy the interactions between her and Peter. The key is that they WORK together so well; they respect each other's intellect as well as fancying each other, and they obviously just enjoy each other's company -- not a bad romantic model. (This from someone who married her boss -- ahem!) I love the way Peter clearly adores Harriet ('By the way, will you marry me?'), and she briskly fobs him off ('No, thank you'), though there is a lot of angst under the surface which we are only allowed to briefly glimpse -- no wallowing here! (Peter has previously rescued Harriet from a false charge of murder, thereby saving her life.) Of course Harriet is a stand-in for Sayers herself (a novelist of detective fiction, no less) but who cares.

Lots of confusing stuff about ciphers and alibis, which is slightly better than train timetables, but it's the relationship between the sleuths that holds this one together.

25.6.18

The Anxiety Book

One of my most memorable panic attacks struck on my first day alone in Paris. I was staying in the back two rooms of an apartment kindly lent by a family friend, in an otherwise deserted house, and a seemingly deserted suburb (everyone in Paris had departed for summer holidays). It was hot, I couldn't speak French, I was tired and under-nourished and scared. I ended up sitting on the bathroom floor (I couldn't open the shutters in the only other room), eating tinned peas with my fingers and drinking orange juice.

Sometimes I tell this story on school visits, and I do my best to make it amusing. I threw up peas through my nose! And the moral of the story is, no matter what a crappy experience you're enduring, you can always use it in your writing. But at the time, it wasn't funny at all. I was terrified.

I didn't tough it out. The next day, I fled back on the ferry to England and the safety of my aunt's house. Instead of tramping the youth hostel circuit, I went camping in Wales with my cousins, and waited to do the backpacking thing until a friend arrived from Australia to keep me company, and hold the anxiety at bay.

Looking back, I see that I've suffered from anxiety all my life. All the signs were there, I just didn't put them together until recently. I vomited before every exam and elocution performance. I felt sick before every major decision. Under stress, I always threw up or sometimes fainted: twice in hospital rooms where my loved ones were under threat. When I realised that the sick feeling, the formless dread, was there in the pit of my stomach every single day, I started medication. I took up yoga, and knitting, and piano. Things are better now.

Anxiety and depression run through both sides of our family. Four out of five members of my household are currently taking some kind of medication to suppress it (and it's probably just a matter of time for the fifth). So reading Elisa Black's memoir of her own struggles with "phobias, flashbacks and freak-outs" covered some very familiar ground. Black's book switches between her own personal journey and a chatty, accessible account of the latest treatment options and stories of others' experiences. In the end, the message is one of hope and encouragement. Black's demons haven't entirely disappeared, but she has them pretty well under control these days. With help, therapy, medication, meditation, exercise -- whatever works for you -- you and I can get better, too.

18.6.18

The Little Prince

Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince is one of those classic children's books that is probably more popular with adults. Its romantic allure is enhanced by the fact that the author, a fighter pilot, was killed in action during WWII, not long after writing it. Saint-Exupery was primarily an essayist and writer for adults, but The Little Prince has proved to be his enduring legacy, with an animated series and countless translations. We are reading it for the Convent Book Group, under the theme of Philosophy.

Can I make a confession? Not really a fan. I won a copy, picked up cheap at a library book sale, because it is a classic and I felt I ought to have it. But it just doesn't do it for me. Twee. Sentimental. Vaguely misogynist. I find the illustrations just badly drawn rather than naively charming. Him and his devotion to his bloody rose and his volcanoes and his boababs. It's all a bit try-hard for me. It comes across as a book written to order, by a publisher who said, hey, Antoine, why don't you write something for kids, mate? Something whimsical yet profound? Which is exactly how it happened.

Not for me, thanks.

12.6.18

Love in a Cold Climate

One of my favourite books of all time, I've read Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate (and its predecessor, The Pursuit of Love) so many times that the pages have acquired a soft, worn texture, almost like cloth.

I haven't read them for a long time, though. I decided that A might enjoy a dose of Mitford, as I was about her age when I fell in love with her books, so I started reading her The Pursuit of Love. But she found Davey Warbeck irritating, and when she realised that the children grew up and married, and didn't spend the whole book being hunted across country by their father, she lost interest. However, she has required my company while she studies from time to time lately (it's the SAC time of year), so I took the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the story of beautiful Polly, terrifying Lady Montdore, creepy Boy (aka the Lecherous Lecturer) and flamboyant Cedric.

Reader, I remembered almost every word. It was like sinking into a deliciously scented, decadent warm bath with a bottle of champagne and a box of chocolates on the side: pure, slightly guilty delight. I know from reading her letters that Nancy Mitford worked hard on her novels, but they read as if they were effortless, like an amusing, politically incorrect friend telling you an endlessly entertaining story. Mitford might be an acquired taste, but she has sunk into my reading DNA and I doubt I will ever be able to dig her out.

11.6.18

The Nine Tailors

Photo from kidbucketlist
Now this is a good Lord Peter Wimsey novel -- I read this several times in high school (though I still couldn't remember whodunnit!) As Lawrie Marlow says when she finds her twin reading this novel, 'Sewing?' To which Nicola replies, 'No -- bell-ringing,' which leaves Lawrie more perplexed than before.*

When I last read Dorothy L Sayers' The Nine Tailors, I had no idea what the art of change-ringing was, and happily allowed all the novel's complicated references and descriptions sail over my head. These days, thanks to Google, I was better able to inform myself. Change-ringing involves ringing a set of bells in an ever-changing sequence -- it's more to do with mathematics than music, running through every possible permutation of the order in which they can be rung. To me, the ringing of church bells is one of the most glorious sounds in the world: I cherish the memory of hearing bells ring out on a cloudless autumn's day in Avignon. But apparently change-ringing is a particularly English obsession!

This is perhaps the ultimate 'cosy' English mystery, centred on a country church in the fens of East Anglia. (As an aside, I note that Kevin Crossley-Holland's Waterslain Angels, which also featured cherubim on -- along? under? -- a church roof, was likewise set in the Fens. Is this a peculiarity of East Anglian churches? Google has thus far been unable to answer this question.) Several volumes in to the series, Lord Peter has thankfully shed most of his annoying mannerisms and become good company, though he has acquired yet another improbable skill to his repertoire -- he is an accomplished (though rusty) bell-ringer, as well as an amazing cricketer, expert on old books etc etc. But I forgive him.

No Harriet Vane in this book, though she first appeared several novels ago in Strong Poison. I don't think we had Strong Poison in our school library, though I certainly remember Gaudy Night (from which book, along with Brideshead Revisited, I formed all my ideas about life in Oxford. Oh dear.)

I think I must get my hands on Strong Poison. Perhaps Harriet Vane has already mellowed him? Also I want to read Murder Must Advertise, which has a cricket match in it. Lots of catching up to do!


*The nine tailors, or nine single strokes of the bell, are tolled to mark the death of a man. For a woman, it's six.