25.4.16

Mrs Dalloway

And after all, even if it were deeply nerdy to read the study notes alongside the novel, she didn't care a bit; for it only enriched her feeling for the story, made her notice details she had never seen before: the way each character was compared to a bird, for instance; the flow of the words, like a river, eddying and swirling one along so deliciously, so that one simply had to surrender, to lie back and submit, dreamily, like Ophelia.

And she remembered how much she had admired Virginia Woolf, years ago, when she was an undergraduate; had worshipped her, read every book she wrote, although a little frightened of her too, this sad goddess who had put stones in her pockets and walked into a river and drowned. And yet there was such a love of life in all those words, a grasping and a letting go, from moment to moment, the sunshine and the flowers and the desperation, the lovely girls and the pompous men; and she had wished that she could write like that!

It was the merest accident of hearing that podcast by Mervyn Bragg that had made her pull down the book from the shelf again; and she was glad, so glad! (And how odd it was, that she couldn't find anywhere a picture of her own novel's cover -- as if only one copy had ever been produced, especially for herself.) But was the gladness enough to make her re-read The Hours as well? No; there were limits to devotion; imitation was all very well, but in the end, there could be only one Virginia.

And there she was.

21.4.16

The Natural Way of Things

Let me say first off, huge congratulations to Charlotte Wood for winning the Stella Prize with this much-lauded novel, The Natural Way of Things, and her inspirational award speech. This is without doubt a powerfully written, deeply interesting novel, a grim, meaty fable set in the not-too-distant future, where a group of young women (all survivors of some sexual scandal or another) find themselves imprisoned in a remote, dystopian location.

There's been a lot of buzz around this book and I was very keen to read it (thanks to Fiona, my hairdresser, who passed it on to me). And there is much to admire -- the concept is strong, the writing is lean and springy, the setting both beautiful and frightening. I'm really glad I read it, and Charlotte Wood deserves every award she gets!

But for some reason I couldn't quite lose myself in this novel. Maybe I'm just at a place in my life where I can't handle too much darkness, and I'm turning away in self-protection, in case I get swallowed up? Maybe I'm just a lazy reader at the moment, looking for cheap comfort? Sometimes I felt frustrated with the women -- they were so judgmental of each other, and they submitted so passively to their imprisonment -- if this was a YA novel, they would have been plotting escape in the hundred pages! The Natural Way of Things remains a remarkable achievement. But it's just not the book for me right now, and that's okay.

14.4.16

From The Outer: Footy Like You've Never Heard It

I got distracted again... My friend Margaret from the Convent book group was the first to alert me to this book, then I saw a review in the weekend paper, and next thing I knew it had arrived on my Kindle, seemingly by its own volition...

From the Outer is a collection of short pieces about AFL football, edited by Alicia Sometimes and Nicole Hayes, it includes chapters by Christos Tsiolkas, Angela Pippos, Alice Pung, and even football hater Cath Deveny, among many other voices -- some famous, some unknown. There are pieces by the first female umpire, a star player in the women's game, the founder of a LGBTI supporters group, disabled fans, many migrants who found that footy was a pathway to a sense of community in a strange land; fans who were born into a team, and fans who made a conscious choice; people who for many reasons speak 'from the outer', in the sense of being on the margins of society, and who (in most cases) experience the game from the outer, as spectators and supporters, rather than on the field. There are passionate fans, ambivalent spectators, those who have fallen in love with Aussie Rules and out again, some who can't stand the game (well, one). As Miriam Sved puts it: '...part of the appeal of footy, maybe of any sport, is stories,' and there are a multitude of stories here.

When I bought this book, it was just before Round 3. My beloved Western Bulldogs had started the year in a blur, blitzing their first two games to sit high atop the ladder. We were looking forward to meeting the all-conquering Hawthorn in our third game, to measure our team against the very best. I took the Kindle to the ground with me, to read it at half time.

By the time I finished reading it, round three was over. The Bulldogs lost -- by the slimmest of margins, and they dominated the Hawks for a good chunk of the game. We are the real deal. But the loss of the match was rendered almost irrelevant by a much worse blow -- an horrific injury to captain Bob Murphy, our club's beating heart, a footy romantic, a seemingly ageless veteran leading a team of young pups toward success... But Bob has done his knee. He won't play for the rest of the season. Given his age, he may decide never to play again.

There could hardly be a clearer demonstration of all the ways that footy can break your heart, or the sweet hopeful promise that lures you back in, despite the pain. Come back, Bob! It wouldn't be the same without you.

11.4.16

Hills End

Goodness, I'm getting behind! I'm going to skip over Tove Jansson's The Moomins and the Great Flood, the junior fiction title for the Convent book group this month, just because it's a such a short little book and I read it on the Kindle, which compromised my appreciation of the illustrations, I think. But it was the first Moomin book, and deserves kudos just for that.

Moving briskly on, I'll talk about Hills End, which was the first Ivan Southall book I read as an adult, a couple of years ago, and which blew me away. In it, a group of children -- the oldest are about thirteen -- find themselves isolated in a flood-wrecked town, with no adults to take charge. (Our theme this month is Flood, if you hadn't guessed!) Will they survive, or be overwhelmed by the challenge? Of course, they rise to the situation magnificently, but not before almost going under.

These kids are very resourceful, brave and determined, but they are also realistically children. They bicker amongst themselves, think it's a great idea to wash in lemonade, decide to make sausages out of rotten meat, burn the stew and almost set the building on fire, are terrified of the dark and the eerie fog. But they are capable of more than they know, and their victory is fairly won.

I think this is my favourite Southall book. The balance between the characters' internal doubts and fears, and the gripping action, is just about perfect here. In Ash Road, the bushfire threat is so overwhelming that it leaves the protagonists little to do beyond mere survival; in To the Wild Sky and Bread and Honey, the interior lives of the characters take up so much room, there's no space for much to actually happen.

I thoroughly enjoyed this re-read, although I raced through it pretty swiftly!

Everywhere I Look

Helen Garner is the writer I admire most in the world, full stop. I love her sinewy, finely balanced sentences (she says she learned from Janet Malcolm 'to make her verbs work hard), her pitiless eye, her wry compassion, the lacerating honesty that spares no one, least of all herself.

Everywhere I Look is a collection of short pieces, many of which I've read before in the pages of The Monthly magazine. (When a copy of The Monthly arrives in our house, I always check eagerly whether there's a Helen Garner piece in that issue.) It includes extracts from her diary - my god, how much would I love to read the whole thing? Some people are discomfited by the way Garner includes herself in what she writes, but to me it seems the most honest and the hardest stance. I wish I had the discipline and the gift for words, the gift of observation, that Garner has.

But I think if I were to meet her, I would be a little bit scared of that merciless gaze. She can be so tender and so humorous, but she reaches for anger quickly, far more quickly than I do. She has a gift for rage, and as she grows older, she is less prepared to censor herself. Which makes her exhilarating to read, but possibly a terrifying friend.

I wish Everywhere I Look was three times longer. In heaven, there will be a new Helen Garner book every week.

7.4.16

The Tower Beside the Bed (Ain't Gettin' Any Smaller)

Image from Etsy; isn't it gorgeous? Apart from the mouse
So this was supposed to be the year when I made a serious assault on the Pile Beside the Bed. I made a secret vow: no buying any more books until I'd made my way through the ones that were already waiting! And here we are, well into April, and the Pile has been upgraded to the Tower, despite all my intentions to the contrary.

So what's gone wrong?

There are distractions: I visit the library (just to return my daughter's books, Your Honour, I swear!) and see something tempting on display. Like the Retro Melbourne photograph book I picked up yesterday... Or I go to the library book sale (just to offload a box of my own discards, Your Honour!) and see a novel I think my mum might enjoy (like Case Histories by Kate Atkinson, which Mum has now finished and lent back to me... onto the Tower it goes.)

My friends lend me books. Sandra Eterovic lent me Paul Daley's Collingwood: A Love Story, which joins her copy of Middlesex, waiting on the Tower. My lovely hairdresser Fiona has not just lent but given me her copy of The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood, which is definitely next on my list.

I listen to an In Our Time podcast about Mrs Dalloway and search my shelves under Virginia Woolf and pull out my copy for a re-read... I realise that there are new books out by Jaclyn Moriarty and Helen Garner or an Antonia Forest reprint and I have to Make An Exception to my no-new-books rule. And there are books to read for the Convent book group, two a month, so I can't dig into the Pile -- sorry, Tower -- until I've knocked over those... It never stops! There's always something calling!

And I wouldn't have it any other way. But maybe I need to start reading from the bottom of the pile occasionally!

6.4.16

The Marlows and the Traitor


It's not even a year since I last read Antonia Forest's The Marlows and the Traitor! And yet I enjoyed it just as much, if not more, the second time around. There are many books that I would never even contemplate re-reading, however much I relished them. I once tried to re-read AS Byatt's Possession, a wonderful, rich novel that I adored. But trying to swallow it again, even a decade after the first time around, was just too much. I felt simultaneously daunted and bored. I could remember what was coming next just well enough to be put off continuing... and there were so many pages... I gave up.

Luckily The Marlows and the Traitor is a very different beast, though equally wonderful in its own way (much less ambitious, obviously). I read it with breaks between each chapter, during which I would scurry across to Trennels at LiveJournal, a forum for Antonia Forest fans, to follow the commentary from their MATT read-through from a couple of years ago. To be able to consume a book in the company, so to speak, of a group of witty, erudite, thoughtful and attentive fellow-readers, who mostly know all the Marlows books back to front and have a multitude of opinions, observations and personal head-canon to share, is one of the most blissful benefits of the internet age. I just dive in and wallow, luxuriously, like a hippo.

All this in preparation for the arrival, next month, of Falconer's Lure, the third volume in the series. I feel as excited as if an old and dear friend were coming to visit. So much catching up to do!


31.3.16

A Tangle of Gold

I have been eagerly awaiting A Tangle of Gold, the final volume in Jaclyn Moriarty's Colours of Madeleine trilogy and it did not disappoint! At the end of the second volume (The Cracks in the Kingdom), Princess Ko's deception had been uncovered, Elliot has been catapulted into the World, and the connections between the World and the Kingdom of Cello are surfacing in unexpected ways...

I can't say too much more without spoiling the resolution, but the final episode was utterly satisfying and magical. I have loved this rich and thrilling trilogy so much, I have writer's envy. (Though I don't think much of this last cover.: a very minor quibble...) Now I need to start reading again from the beginning, to pick up the clues that Moriarty has so skilfully seeded throughout the three books, and to start looking for cracks to Cello myself...  I would love to go there...

Rating: one deep, heartfelt sigh of contentment.

18.3.16

Autumn Term

Girls Gone By Publishing recently announced that they would be reprinting Falconer's Lure, the third volume of Antonia Forest's Marlows series, in May this year. Approximately thirty seconds passed between me becoming aware of this and placing my order, and now I'm counting the days until it arrives. But more of that later...

To prepare myself for Falconer's Lure's arrival (and also because there is a Facebook Antonia Forest read-through going on), I decided to re-read the first two volumes in the series. Autumn Term was published in 1948, and in some ways it is a very old-fashioned children's novel.

Twelve year old twins Nicola and Lawrie are joining their older sisters for the first time at their boarding school, Kingscote. Determined not to disgrace the family honour, they resolve to star at everything -- coming top in exams, winning the Form Shield for IIIA, captaining the netball team, excelling at Guides, and anything else they can get their hands on. Of course nothing turns out the way they planned. Instead of going into the 'top' form, the way all the other Marlows did, they end up in Third Remove with the other 'backward, delicate or just plain stupid(s)' who require extra help. They aren't even allowed to play netball. All that's left to them is Guides, but even that goes horribly wrong. But when Third Remove rebel and decide to put on a play, perhaps the twins will get a chance to redeem themselves after all...

This summary makes the book sound like the most conventional of school stories. But it's so much better than that. Antonia Forest peoples her school with a cast of complex, realistic and not always likeable characters. Even our heroes, Nick, Lawrie and their new friend Tim (Thalia, the Headmistress's Niece), have their flaws. Nicola can be almost irritatingly stoic, but she is also impulsive (in the very first chapter, she stops the train to rescue her new pen-knife). Lawrie is sometimes babyish and self-absorbed, and Tim, clever and amusing, can also be coolly manipulative. The form mistresses can be unjust, the lofty older girls can be self-deceiving and have feuds of their own.

At every turn, Forest turns the reader's expectations upside down. And she subtly contrasts the stereotypes of school narratives with the reality the twins face. 'Don't pretend you're the tomboy of the Fourth Remove,' says one of their sisters to another. Nicola spins herself a fantasy of running away to sea, and when she actually does break bounds to visit her older brother Giles, the episode ends badly, not because she's discovered and punished, but because Giles himself is furious and disapproving when she appears. There is a constant dialogue in all the books between reality and fiction, and Autumn Term sets up this tension beautifully.

But the absolute triumph of Tim and the twins when they pull off their play of 'The Prince and the Pauper' at the end of term, is nonetheless perfectly satisfying, if somewhat unlikely. At least they realistically fail all their exams because they've put all their efforts into the play! These are some very accomplished and knowledgeable twelve year olds -- something I found inspiring rather than daunting, as a teen reader.

I just love these books and it was a joy to re-visit Autumn Term again, even though it's not actually one of my favourite Forests -- it might just sneak into my top five of the ten books in the series. I'm already looking forward to the next one.

15.3.16

Razorhurst

Stellar YA author Justine Larbalestier was inspired to write Razorhurst after moving to the inner Sydney suburb of Surry Hills and learning about its dark and violent past. A haunt of gangsters, brothels, sly grog shops, standover men and all manner of criminality, the narrow streets of 'Sorrow Hills' and the surrounding suburbs were what you might call 'colourful' in the 1920s and 30s, though these days they are so thoroughly gentrified that few traces of their seedy past remain.

In Larbalestier's reimagining, it's not only the living who teem through the streets of Razorhurst (as the tabloid papers dubbed the area, after nearby Darlinghurst), but thousands of ghosts as well -- some faded and forgetful, some almost as vivid as the living. Not everyone can see them, but Kelpie and Dymphna can. When Kelpie, a naive street kid who has been protected by ghosts all her life, meets Dymphna, a sophisticated young woman who is Gloriana Nelson's 'best girl,' over the freshly murdered body of Dymphna's boyfriend Jimmy, she doesn't realise how much they have in common. For a start, both of them are facing the most perilous day of their lives...

I borrowed this from the library for the Convent book group, as part of our Setting theme for next month, but I'd been keen to read it ever since it came out. While I can't claim to know this area of Sydney well at all, I had a friend who lived in Palmer St, where Tilly Devine (one of the models for Gloriana Nelson) had her real-life headquarters, so I could imagine at least some of the streetscape. I also read Poor Man's Orange by Ruth Park for school, set in those same Surry Hills streets. Historical fiction meets ghostly fantasy -- I'm sold.

7.3.16

Withering-By-Sea

Is there a name for this sub-genre of children's books -- Victorian intrigue, perhaps? There seem to be a few of them around at the moment, with resourceful, sometimes paranormally gifted heroines: Susan Green's lively Verity Sparks series, Jen Storer's spooky Tensy Farlow, and now Judith Rossell's delightful Withering-By-Sea, which promises to be the first of a series of Stella Montgomery adventures. Rossell's lovely blue ink illustrations lend a special atmosphere to this beautifully produced volume.

Stella lives in a big hotel with her three creepy aunts in a gloomy town by the sea, but it doesn't take long before she is up to her neck in mystery -- a burglary that takes place by the light of a dead man's hand, a murder that is not all it seems, a sinister bottle with a supernatural secret. A cast of colourful characters, including many cats, help Stella out, but the central mystery of her parentage is left unresolved -- for now.

For me, all these books seem to share a line of inheritance descending from Joan Aiken -- I found lovely echoes of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (the seminal Victorian intrigue, for my money) with a sprinkling of Dido Twite. I adored Aiken's novels and I hope that a new generation might re-discover them, led by the hand by Stella, Verity, Tensy and the rest. But I guess that current fans of the genre might have enough reading to be getting on with!

3.3.16

I Never Promised You A Rose Garden

I have a friend who used to say that she found the idea of being shut up in a mad house quite appealing. She has continued to be fascinated by abandoned lunatic asylums (I know we don't call them that any more). Me -- not so much.

I don't know where my copy of I Never Promised You A Rose Garden by Hannah Green (Joanne Greenberg) originally came from. I found this battered paperback in my parents' house, and I know I've read it before, so long ago that I can't remember. I've been re-reading it very slowly, nibbling away at it at bed-time, because I find it quite frightening.

The book (a huge bestseller) is a semi-autobiographical account of a sixteen year old girl's battle with mental illness, her three year stay in a mental hospital, and her eventual emergence into engagement with the real world. Deborah has invented an internal world which served first as a retreat from the pain of her reality, and then became an all-consuming, punishing reality of its own. Deborah is described in reviews as suffering from schizophrenia, but apparently this is not an accurate diagnosis; she seems instead to have depression, with elements of somatization (psychological illness presenting as physical symptoms). Well, whatever the case, Deborah is clearly very unwell.

I think what I found frightening was the fact of Deborah's immersion in her invented world, which became far more real to her than the external world. Yr is a poetic, beautiful and terrifying realm with its own language, peopled with gods who fall through fire, veiled goddesses, and harsh judges who end by tormenting Deborah instead of protecting her. As a teen (and younger, and older), I had an internal world of my own, albeit not as vivid, scary or powerful as Deborah's, and I also shared the 'strange and seductive' pull toward becoming lost there. With distance and time, I don't feel that any more; my own internal, parallel existence has lost its sheen and its power.

But reading Rose Garden, I sensed the shadow of that ancient, tidal tugging, the wobbling of the tightrope, and the shadow of that ancient fear passed over me again.

29.2.16

Strandloper

I bought Alan Garner's Strandloper after finding it on the shelf at Brown & Bunting, my favourite secondhand book shop (they had two copies, so if you're interested, and you live near Northcote, you could pick one up yourself...) It is an adult novel, so don't look for it in the Children's/YA section.

Strandloper traces, in sparse, elliptical fashion, one version of the true story of William Buckley, a convict from Cheshire (Garner's own country), who was transported to Australia at the turn of the eighteenth century, escaped from the colony, and lived among the Aborigines of Port Phillip Bay for thirty years before reuniting with the white settlers. In Garner's novel, Buckley then returns to Cheshire, bringing his life full circle, and uniting Aboriginal and ancient Cheshire spirituality in his own person.

I have complicated feelings about this book. On one hand, it was a thrilling read, though it requires alert attention -- like Red Shift, the style is oblique and centred on dialogue. The period and local dialect is not translated for us and we must navigate by context and ear. Garner has taken liberties with Buckley's story - he remained illiterate until the end of his life, and he never returned to England after he was re-captured, spending his last years in Hobart; but the 'pattern' of Buckley's life as told here, from ancient fertility rites enacted in rural England, to the rich spiritual belief and practice of traditional Aborigines, and the final understanding that the patterns of ancient wisdom can overlap and speak to one another, is deeply satisfying and moving.

To me, the sections of the book dealing with the long period that Buckley (or Murrangurk, as he becomes) lives with the people of Port Phillip seem authentic and plausible. But what would I know? Murrangurk's tribe is designated the Beingalite, which seems to be a made-up name, which is problematic in itself, but as an account of lived, traditional tribal life, it feels as real and genuine as the sections dealing with Buckley's life before transportation. But again, how would I know? One reviewer accused Garner of resorting to faux-Biblical language to give these parts of the story a false weight -- I disagree with this judgement completely.

According to The Voice That Thunders, Garner consulted closely with an indigenous anthropologist while writing the book (annoyingly, he doesn't name her), and to me, he seems to have done an outstanding job of capturing the texture and flavour of Aboriginal life and belief. BUT at the end of the day, he is a whitefella from the other side of the world. When he describes sacred ceremony, sacred objects, sacred experience, is he speaking the truth, and if he is, should he be? Or is it an approximation of imagined, reconstructed belief? Or is he just imagining how things might have felt to Buckley, stitched together from William's own past (the Shick-Shack rite) and filtered through his own understanding, which is basically what Garner himself is doing in telling Buckley's story, and what we as readers of Strandloper are doing, too?

I guess I don't know what to make of the whole project, really. I love the idea that these ancient wisdoms are all related, and I love the idea of using William Buckley's story as a portal to explore that possibility, and the writing is (of course) superb. I didn't actually find this a difficult book, not as hard as Red Shift -- maybe having a little bit of background helped me, because there were certainly some bewildered readers and reviewers out there. But should Garner have even attempted to recreate traditional Aboriginal experience in the first place? Does he have the right to try? It took him twelve years to write this book. I'm in awe of the attempt and I'm very glad to have read it. I think it is extraordinary.

If anyone else out there has read Strandloper, I'd love to know what you think.

23.2.16

When Marnie Was There (Again)

It's only a year ago since I last read (re-read!) Joan G. Robinson's When Marnie Was There, so I'll spare you my thoughts, which are pretty much the same as last time. Suffice to say that this is one of my favourite childhood books, for many reasons.

But now I have also watched the Studio Ghibli film adaptation, so I might tell you about that. Book to film adaptations are always tricky, but this one did a pretty good job of preserving the dreamy, lonely atmosphere of the book, the beautiful setting of the marshes and the sea, and the friendship between two isolated children, who are linked in a way that isn't revealed until the end of the story. It was slightly weird, but not jarring, to see Anna transplanted to contemporary Japan, eating with chopsticks and riding fast trains.

The major difference to me was that Robinson's book is divided into two clear halves, the first dealing with Anna's friendship with Marnie, and the second to her friendship with the Lindsay family, who uncover the secret of Marnie's identity. In the film, these relationships overlap, and the big boisterous Lindsay family is pared down to just one brother and sister. I was a little sad about this, because the chapters with the Lindsays are some of my favourite parts of the book. But the section of the film where Anna's family history is explained is elegantly done, in a way that film can handle so subtly and neatly, where a book's explanations are a little clunky and awkward.

Overall, I think it's a success, if not a perfect one.

20.2.16

The Voice That Thunders

I can't believe that I had never even heard of this extraordinary collection of essays and speeches by Alan Garner. It popped up when I was searching Brotherhood Books, and I ordered it from curiosity, but I am so glad that I did. Reading Garner's reflections, spanning twenty years, on writing, research, the land, history and archaeology, myth and language, mental illness and the creative process, was such a privilege. I read it slowly, to savour every word, and I have a feeling this will be a volume that I will return to over and over, for inspiration and wisdom.

Garner is not an easy writer, nor an easy man, one suspects, but his reverence for old stories, and for the corner of his country in Cheshire  that his family has inhabited for generations, parallels the Australian Aboriginal experience -- it's no wonder he ended up writing Strandloper, the story of William Buckley, a Cheshire-born convict who escaped, then was rescued by and lived with the Wathaurong people for thirty two years. That book is the next on my to-read pile.

I found myself challenged by some of the things Garner says, but there is no doubt that he takes his responsibilities as a story-teller and a guardian of myth very seriously indeed. I was taken with a small school group to meet Alan Garner at The Little Bookroom in the early 80's; we were awed enough back then, but if I'd read this book first, I would have been completely speechless.

I've just done a clearout of books. I don't think I will ever discard this one. It might even join a very select collection indeed: books too precious to lend.