13.12.18

Gaudy Night

My all-time favourite Dorothy L Sayers mystery novel, I've been looking for a copy of Gaudy Night for absolutely ages and was thrilled to pounce on it recently at good old Brown & Bunting. I hadn't read this since high school and I quickly remembered why I'd loved it so much.

First, the setting. 1930s Oxford would be just about top of my list for a visit in the TARDIS, and to make things even better, Gaudy Night is set in a (fictional) women's college, a community of dedicated female scholars. This is what I thought university life was going to be like; alas, it didn't exactly live up to my expectations. Gorgeous, gorgeous Oxford with its spires and punting and naughty students climbing walls after hours... well, maybe some aspects of college life are eternal, after all...

Second, the romance. I love the fact that this is really Harriet Vane's book; Peter Wimsey doesn't even appear until halfway through. She takes the lead in the detecting, and we see her gradually falling in love with Peter in his absence, until the lightning bolt of realisation in the boat on the river (sigh). Both Harriet and Peter become truly rounded characters in this novel, and while Peter has become too perfect to be true, his perfection includes some weaknesses -- he is so sensitive, don't you know. Maybe I was expecting to find my own tall, fair haired Peter at university, too... oh, God! A most sinister retrospective ray of light has just fallen on an otherwise inexplicable relationship!

Third, the philosophy. Central to the mystery, and the subject of many conversational and internal debates, is the question of how women are to reconcile the demands of work and family, career and caring, scholarly truth and personal needs. This book was written in 1935, and eighty-three years later, we are still wrestling with this dilemma. Lucky old Harriet, though tempted by academic seclusion, is able to have it all -- a loving and supportive partner who treats her as his intellectual and emotional equal, and who not only wants her to pursue her own work, but encourages her to a higher standard. Good on you, Wimsey.

I was stunned to discover that Gaudy Night is disparaged in some quarters as a 'women's book' (huh!) and because there is no murder at the heart of the story, a deficiency that I hadn't even noticed until it was pointed out. For me, it's a most satisfying combination of mystery and relationship story. I'll be coming back to this one.

11.12.18

Five Children on the Western Front

Kate Saunders was moved to write this sequel to Edith Nesbit's Five Children and It when she realised that the boys of the family, Cyril and Robert, were exactly the right age to have fought in the Great War. Five Children on the Western Front is the story of a more grown-up, but still young, family of siblings, with the addition of two new members -- the Lamb (who was a baby when the first adventures occurred and is properly known as Hilary) and Edie, who wasn't yet born -- during the course of the First World War.  It's these last two children who most welcome the return of the Psammead, an ancient sand-fairy who used to be able to grant wishes, but seems to have lost all his powers.

I adored all E. Nesbit's books and I read Five Children and It many times. Five Children on the Western Front is a worthy successor, but I can't imagine there would be many contemporary children who are familiar with the original. I tried reading Five Children to my daughters when they were young; I forced them to sit through The Railway Children; I tried The Treasure-Seekers on them, too. But they just didn't take. Perhaps the gap between Nesbit's early 1900s world and mine of the 1970s was just about bridgeable; but the chasm of a hundred years was too wide. So perhaps the audience for this book is nostalgic adults like me.

Like the Psammead itself, this book didn't quite recover the all the magic of the original stories. But it had just about enough to enchant me. Sweet and sad.

5.12.18

Murder Must Advertise

 After my great success with Jane Eyre, I actually splashed out and bought Murder Must Advertise on my phone for the princely sum of $0.99 (though apparently the author is one Dororty Sayers, the content appears to be the same).

Sayers herself worked at an advertising agency, and the book is filled with the minute detail that only an insider would know -- the feuds between copywriters and the art department, the irritating clients who think they know best, the row of errand boys playing with yo-yos and catapults while they wait to be sent out on jobs. Peter Wimsey slots into this milieu as if he were born to the job, naturally.

I think it's around this time that Sayers really began to fall in love with her own hero, because Wimsey is too good to be true. A brilliant mind, an exceptional cricketer (with the 'exceedingly characteristic late cut' quoted by Nicola Marlow in The Cricket Term) and also (urgh) at forty-five, mind you, diving from the tops of fountains in a harlequin outfit. Now that is where I draw the line, I'm afraid.

These quibbles aside, and the odd regrettable hint of casual racism, Murder Must Advertise is a great romp which I raced through much more quickly than I planned.

3.12.18

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

Another classic that I had never read. It just so happened that the week I was reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond, the Doctor Who episode was The Witch Finders -- coincidence? I think not! It also happens that I'm reading another book, set two hundred years later than Elizabeth George Speare's novel, but which also features a ship called the Dolphin... well, okay, the Green Dolphin... but still, spooky enough!

I don't know how I came to neglect The Witch of Blackbird Pond when I was younger. Maybe because it was American, and I tended to favour English stories? But I must say I thoroughly enjoyed it. Poor Kit, born in carefree Barbados (let's overlook the sticky slave-owning aspect of dear departed Grandpa) finds herself marooned in a settlement in Connecticut, surrounded by joyless Puritans and eligible young men. She befriends harmless Hannah, a Quaker, who is ostracised by the rest of the community, and Prudence, a down-trodden child, and manages to improve both their lives. Of course such charity cannot go unpunished!

There have been a gazillion editions of this book since it first won the Newbery Medal in the 1950s, though I'm not sure how often it's read now. One small thing irritated me for a while, which was Hannah's habit of saying thee when she meant thou. I knew that Quakers used these informal pronouns (though paradoxically they sound more formal to a modern listener) to underscore their belief that all people are equal before God, but hearing Hannah say, Thee must go now grated on my ears. BUT Professor Google reassures me that indeed, Connecticut Quakers did use thee for both forms of address... so I guess I just have to wear it.

1.12.18

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was a present from my book group friend, Cathy, after I'd told her how much I enjoy nature writing (eg Robert Macfarlane). However, I admitted that I'd only really read English nature books, so she generously introduced me to this American take on the subject.

Annie Dillard won the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim in 1974; she was only 27 years old, and indeed, as she admits herself, the book does show the exuberance and boldness of youth, with all the strengths and faults that implies. I had to consume it one bite at a time, lest I become overwhelmed with the rich, showy extravagance of Dillard's writing. However, this extravagance is appropriate, because the author's project is to explore how the unnecessary, profligate exuberance of creation might reflect the magnificence of a Creator; and how the blind suffering and decay of the natural world is the essential dark side of that rich and teeming light.

This is a deeply spiritual book cloaked in the guise of a nature study, struggling to make sense of a world at once so beautiful and so harrowing. Dillard traces a year at Tinker Creek, from the first stirrings of hopeful spring to the return of a clean, sparse winter. Her keen eye observes insects, ripples, the shrivel of a leaf, the horrific death of a frog, the secretive muskrat, the force of a flood. I really loved immersing myself in her world, and I wish I could find an Australian equivalent of this powerful, thoughtful, complex meditation on life and death. Thank you, Cathy, for introducing us.

30.11.18

The Giver

Lois Lowry's The Giver has been a perenniel favourite on school reading lists just about forever, and yet I had never read it. My friend Suzanne pressed a secondhand copy on me last time I saw her, and now finally I can see what all the fuss was about.

I think I had vaguely imagined something like The Maze Runner (perhaps I had seen the cover above??) but The Giver is really more of a fable about memory and conformity than a dystopian story, though it does have elements of dystopia about it.

Jonas's world at first seems like a rather benign dystopia, as dystopias go. Everyone is part of a well-planned, ordered society, where even the weather is regulated, food is delivered to the door, children are assigned their perfect jobs and trained accordingly. However, this paradise comes at a cost. True emotions have been flattened out almost to non-existence. Music and art and books have been lost. 'Stirrings', the beginnings of love, are eradicated with pills. Even the perception of colour has disappeared. And people who are disobedient or no longer serve a social function are 'released' -- a less benevolent action than it sounds.

Just one person, the Giver, holds the memories of everything that has been sacrificed to make this peaceful, bland world possible -- love and war, snow and redness and ecstasy. Now it's time for the Giver to pass those memories to Jonas. But perhaps that burden is too much for one boy to bear...

A deceptively easy read, The Giver is a terrific choice for early high school students. It skims over big issues about difference and conformity, the worth of those things that can't be economically valued (like art, love, or disabled children), and the place of shared stories in building a community. Inspired by Lowry's own father's memory loss, this book is deservedly a modern classic.

29.11.18

Letters to Judy

It's shocking, I know, but I didn't read Judy Blume when I was a kid. I always preferred speculative and historical fiction to realist novels, and English authors to American ones, so it's not surprising that Judy Blume slipped through my personal reading net. However, my friend Heather is a huge fan, and after reading Letters To Judy, I have a new respect for Blume's work and the effect she clearly had (and no doubt still has) on her readers.

This is a moving and emotional volume, directed ostensibly at parents. The letters are grouped into subjects, from sibling rivalry and divorce, to facing death and dealing with sexual abuse. Seeing what some of these kids have had to navigate is quite confronting; in some cases, Blume kept up correspondence with the most troubled letter-writers for years, doing what she could to advise and assist.

Blume is honest in acknowledging her own parenting mistakes, and reveals very personal details of her life, admitting she re-married too soon, and how she struggled with her role as step-mother. Clearly, these experiences have informed her writing and her honesty is part of what attracts her readers. Though it was published in 1986, this book is still filled with relevant advice about listening and supporting children and young adults, about sharing your problems and finding help.



19.11.18

Goodbye Sandra

Photo from Metal Magazine
I first met Sandra Eterovic at a party almost thirty years ago. My best friend had been raving about what a lovely person she was, and I was jealous and determined not to like her. However, after a few minutes' conversation, I grudgingly had to admit that she was indeed completely lovely. She was wearing a pair of trousers that she had made herself. Before long I learned that not only was she an accomplished sewer, she could also paint, draw, knit and cook, and much more besides.

Sandra had two exceptional gifts. She could make almost anything. The name of her Etsy shop was I sew I draw I knit, but she also painted, built models, designed clothes and cushions and prints, made cards and stickers and mirrors, and illustrated books. Her designs adorned Strike bowling alley and Seed children's clothing. Her art appeared in galleries and magazines and on The Block. It was a standing joke among us that there was nowhere in Sandra's house to sit down and relax -- she was always on her feet, making something.

 But what she was especially good at making was friends. In the days before she died, her hospital room was so crowded with people that the staff had to shoo us away. She never neglected her friendships, cultivating them with the same love she devoted to her garden. She always arrived with a gift in her hands -- wine or muffins or a book.

Sandra was a part of our family. She was Michael's high school girlfriend, and they remained close, affectionate friends. She was the closest thing our daughters had to a godmother; they both slept beneath a cot quilt Sandra made. Our house is filled with her art, including the beautiful painting she made for our wedding invitation, which hangs above our bed. Alice wears skirts and shirts and jackets that Sandra made. She and I would compare notes on the ups and downs of the creative life.

Sandra has left an incredible legacy of art, but more, so much more than that, I will miss her laugh, her generosity, her compassion, her friendship and her love. Goodnight, my darling friend.



To see some of Sandra's artwork, visit her website here.

14.11.18

Changing History?

The indefatigable local author Goldie Alexander has produced three books based loosely on Shakespeare. I went to the launch and picked up this one, though I was strongly tempted to buy the anthology which contains all three volumes, including Gap Year Nanny (based on Macbeth) and The Trytth Chronicles, which transplants The Tempest to outer space!

Changing History? takes the eternal story of Romeo and Juliet to late 1920s Berlin. Eighteen year old Australian tourist Taylor is bopped on the head and time-slips from 2017 to 1928, where she finds a job at the Hummingbird nightclub, rubs shoulders with all kinds of louche Berlin types, and debates whether to share her knowledge of the future with her new friends, Jewish Rom and gentile Juliet, whose parents have forbidden them to marry. And when Taylor learns that a guy called Adolf Hitler is coming to town, she has a very big decision to make...

After lapping up the sumptuous series Babylon Berlin earlier this year, and now embarking on Ku'damm 56 (set in Berlin in the 1950s), I seem to be going through a Berlin phase. I especially enjoyed the period detail of Changing History? which cleverly drops plenty of historical information into the novel without overwhelming the human story. Taylor learns to appreciate her modern creature comforts, while picking up the political parallels with our own time. This book might even be more useful to students of modern history than those studying Shakespeare!

12.11.18

Getting Your Life Back

As some of you know, someone close to me has been suffering from severe depression for the last few months, so I've been reading lots of self-help books and trying to push the better ones in their direction. Getting Your Life Back is nearly twenty years old, but it's a thorough and logical workbook which leads the depressed person step by step through useful approaches toward recovery.

Jesse Wright and Monica Basco divide their method into five crucial 'keys': Thinking, Action, Biology, Relationships and Spirituality. Each emphasises a different element -- the Thinking section tackles distorted thoughts via CBT; Action encourages a healthy approach to exercise, nutrition and sleep; Biology offers a comprehensive (though possibly slightly dated now) overview of anti-depressant medications and chemical imbalance in the brain; and the Relationship section gives useful and sensible advice to improve your interactions with others. The Spirituality Key is perhaps the boldest, exploring ways to find meaning, purpose and connection, whether it be a religious path, devotion to family, creativity, or giving to the community.

All these Keys are important for each of us to lead a balanced and fulfilling, though not every depressed person will find all the sections equally helpful. Working your way through this book, which includes worksheets, questionnaires and exercises to complete, would certainly benefit anyone struggling with depression. My only concern is that they might find the task too daunting; you'd need to be pretty motivated to tackle the whole thing, and if you have that much motivation to get well, you're halfway there already.

7.11.18

The Witch's Daughter

I picked up Nina Bawden's The Witch's Daughter from a box of books that a friend was discarding, because I'd never read it. Published the year I was born, on one level it's a very old-fashioned adventure story which deals with jewel thieves and hidden treasure on a remote Scottish island. On another level, it's a skilful and engaging exploration of what it means to be different.

Our three child protagonists are Perdita, the so-called witch's daughter, a half-wild girl who is teased and bullied by the local kids; her greatest dream is to be allowed to go to school. Brother and sister Janey and Tim are visitors to the island. Imaginative, sensitive Tim is desperate for his father's approval; Janey is blind, and keen for more independence than her anxious parents will allow. Janey is particularly interesting, because her special strengths shine during the adventure -- she is extremely observant, with an excellent memory, and (spoiler) at the crisis of the story, it's Janey who saves the others by leading them out of a pitch-black cave. 

This is a beautifully written novel for younger readers, but alas, I fear they might find it a little slow to get going. I think I find these old books so satisfying because they don't talk down to their readers, and the quality of the writing is wonderful.

6.11.18

Momma and the Meaning of Life

I had this earlier book by Irvin Yalom sitting on my shelves, but it's a very long time since I read it, so it felt quite fresh. Momma and the Meaning of Life is a collection of pieces, mostly memoir, a couple of fictionalised tales, all centering on the dance of therapy, the relationship between therapist and client. Yalom likes to relate to his patients in a direct, compassionate way. Though traditionally therapists shy away from any physical contact with their clients, Yalom is prepared to shake hands, hold hands or hug his patients if he feels it's necessary. His emphasis on the 'here and now' of therapy means that the interactions in the therapy room take on a particular importance. In the hands of a lesser practitioner, you can see this leading to trouble!

The most striking chapters in this book deal with cases where Yalom's doubts and irritations are squarely faced -- where he initially forms a strong dislike to a patient, or in a one-off group therapy session where the participants don't seem to have much to offer, but where Yalom is determined to show off his skills for some observing students. Here his humour and self-awareness shine, and you can see what has made him such a successful therapist over so many decades.

2.11.18

Flora and Ulysses

Kate DiCamillo's Flora & Ulysses is our junior fiction choice for the Convent Book Group this month, on the theme of Friendship. It's very sweet. Flora is a human girl, a sceptic who doesn't believe in romance. Ulysses is a squirrel who undergoes a magical transformation when he is accidentally vacuumed up -- now he can understand human speech, fly and type out poetry! But the pair have a number of potential villains to foil and allies to win, before they can live happily ever after.

The story is adorable and the illustrations perfectly match the sentimental, slightly melancholic mood. I know I should be suspending my disbelief (magical vacuum cleaner, squirrel with the gift of flight etc) but it did bother me that the squirrel could suddenly type in perfect English... I don't know why I balked at that particular aspect but it did bug me. Not enough to spoil the book for me, though. Flora & Ulysses won the Newbery Medal a few years ago and it's not hard to see why.

31.10.18

The Gift of Therapy

I love Irvin Yalom. His wry and wise observations on the work of psychotherapy, and by extension, the work of being human, are entertaining, moving and enlightening, and at the age of nearly ninety, he is still going strong. The Gift of Therapy is structured as a book of tips for therapists, but it makes interesting and educational reading for the lay person, too. There are 85 tips, each explored in very short chapters, most less than three pages long. Some examples: Avoid Diagnosis (Except for Insurance Companies); The Here-and-Now: Use It, Use It, Use It; On Being Helped By Your Patient; Freud Was Not Always Wrong; Learn About the Patient's Life From Dreams.

Yalom draws freely from his decades of experience, admits his own mistakes, uses humour and surprises, and makes me long to have him as my own therapist. I abandoned a course of therapy more than twenty years ago (when Medicare paid for psychiatrists, but not psychologists), and reading this book has made me think about my (not entirely satisfactory) experience in a new light. Maybe I should have persisted -- I jumped ship before it had a chance to do me any good.

28.10.18

How To Write A Novel Using the Snowflake Method

I can't remember exactly when or how I discovered the Snowflake Method. Probably I was stuck one day and in despair googled 'how to write a novel.' I came across Randy Ingermanson's website, which contains a skeleton outline of his theory. The basic premise is that you can build a snowflake, an incredibly complex and intricate structure, by building upon a simple shape that becomes more elaborate with each step. Therefore, you can build a novel by starting with a simple sentence and elaborating it until -- ta da! -- you end up with a book.

Over the years I have found the snowflake method very useful, generally when I've amassed a messy pile of material and ideas, but I'm having trouble shaping it all into a coherent form. The first step is to summarise your plot in a single sentence -- easier said than done! I have found this incredibly productive when I'm attempting to decide exactly what the hell this story is supposed to be about. (Think of this as the description of your book when it appears in the bestseller chart.) The next step is to summarise your story in a four sentence paragraph -- replicating a four act structure, each act ending in a disaster. Now this might not suit your novel, and it doesn't always suit mine, but the paragraph summary is also a useful tool (think of it as the back cover blurb of your published book). Then you start on character work, and from then on you alternate plot and character steps until by step nine you have a list of scenes and a plan for each scene. Then all you have to do is start writing!

I've never done all the steps, and I find some more useful than others. For instance, when it comes to Step 7, I replace Ingermanson's "Character Charts" with a monologue in that character's voice. But this time, I was starting to piece together some ideas for a junior fiction novel and I saw that Ingermanson's manual was only $4 on the Kindle, and I thought, what the hell, why not try and do it properly this time?

So I did. And it was good. I still adapt Step 7 into my monologues, and while I write a Step 8 Scene List, the Step 9 Scene Plan doesn't work for me and I abandoned it halfway through (I did give it a crack though). I spent about a week doing the Snowflake. And now I've started writing!

25.10.18

Just A Girl

I'm a big fan of Jane Caro, I love her columns in The Age and I love her forthright, no-nonsense appearances on Gruen and the Agony series. Apparently she may be running against Tony Abbott at the next election, which gives me huge delight!

It turns out she is also a bit obsessed with Elizabeth I, and she has written a trilogy of YA novels about her life. Just A Girl is the first, and covers young Elizabeth's life up to her coronation at the age of 25. It's a fascinating story, and Caro does an excellent job of keeping track of a large and confusing cast of characters by focusing closely on Elizabeth herself. The story is told in retrospect by Elizabeth as she waits for the dawn of her coronation, and occasionally this device creates a slight distance to her account: almost everything is told, not shown. Some of the dialogue is taken from Elizabeth's own words, which is a nice touch. The novel really comes to life during some of the big set-piece scenes, like Elizabeth and her sister Mary arriving in London to the acclamation of the crowd when Mary becomes queen, or Elizabeth being transported to the Tower of London in pouring rain. These scenes pull us right into the moment, and I would have liked more of them.

This is a terrific introduction to a complex era in English history, and a complicated character.

24.10.18

Regarding Jane Eyre

This book was a gift from my beloved in 1997 -- it must have been one of the first presents he ever gave me. Regarding Jane Eyre (ie both looking at Jane Eyre, and about Jane Eyre) is a collection of essays, letters and short stories which comment on, argue with, and riff off Charlotte Bronte's novel. Carmel Bird delights in the rich imagery of the novel (fire, redness, ice, windows and wombs); Rosie Scott argues that the intense and harrowing opening of the story doesn't match the controlled fairy tale of the ending. Amy Witting supplies a parallel narrative through the figure of Jane's imagined school friend, Mary Ann; Jean Bedford writes a modern alternative to Jane's tale, with a very different ending.

A thoroughly enjoyable commentary on a classic text -- and it's Australian!

23.10.18

The Bone Sparrow

Shortlisted for just about every award going, Zana Fraillon's The Bone Sparrow is a beautiful book about a painful subject.

It's oddly timely that this review coincides with the long-overdue news that children are being removed from detention on Nauru. It seems the tide of public opinion has turned at last, and perhaps the chilling cruelty of Australia's detention policies may be reversed. Meanwhile, The Bone Sparrow is set in an unnamed mainland detention centre where conditions are almost as inhuman as they are on Manus and Nauru. Subhi was born there; he knows no other world than the harsh reality inside the fence, but he fins his own sources for hope in his friend Eli, his sister and mother, the pictures he draws, the games they invent, and the stories they tell to each other and themselves.

I found The Bone Sparrow a difficult book to read -- not because of the writing, which is lovely, hopeful and sometimes humorous -- but because the subject matter is so shameful. At the end of the book, it seems there may be grounds for hope. Let's pray that there is hope for the real-life victims of refugee detention, too.

21.10.18

Jane Eyre

Reader, I finished it...

I didn't tell you I was reading this one, either, did I? I hid it from you, somewhat as one might hide away a mad wife in an attic. In fact I've been reading Jane Eyre very slowly, on my iPhone, on trams and in waiting rooms, for a few months now -- what would Charlotte Bronte have made of that? A tiny lighted screen, containing numberless novels, slipped into a handbag or a pocket: what a luxury!

I've always been more of a Jane Eyre fan than a Wuthering Heights girl. Being little and plain and often overlooked myself, I felt that Jane was a kindred spirit, and I still admire her spunk, her self-possession and her refusal to compromise. Some aspects of the novel are hard to read, almost two centuries later. Poor mad Bertha, locked away to rot like a wild animal. Poor little illegitimate Adele, with her 'French defects.' Poor St John Rivers, captive to his merciless God. Poor Rochester, utterly selfish, patronising and obnoxious. A modern Jane would surely never settle for him.

And yet I'm here to tell you that Jane Eyre is still a bloody good read. Well done, Charlotte.

11.10.18

The Virago Book of Twins and Doubles

I've never been a huge fan of anthologies, I could never really see the point. Now I finally get it -- they are perfect for reading in bed! One or two extracts, super-short, lights out, done, and no compulsion to see What Happens Next...

I have been reading The Virago Book of Twins and Doubles for AGES in this nibbley-nibbley way, and very satisfying it's been, too. I didn't buy this because I'm particularly interested in twins (though I have a twin niece and nephew, and twin brothers who died at birth), but because the editor is Penelope Farmer, who wrote the haunting Charlotte Sometimes. It turns out that Farmer was herself a twin, and the memory of her deceased sister hangs over this volume. Of course Charlotte Sometimes is also a story of doubles, separated by time.

Twins as freaks, twins in myth, the writer as twin, twins as curse and as blessing... this anthology is an ordered jumble of fact and fiction, poetry and newspaper snippets. There were several extracts from a compelling book I remember reading in high school, about The Silent Twins, June and Jennifer Gibson, who communicated only with each other, became arsonists, and were locked in Broadmoor for many years. Jennifer died, for no apparent reason, at the age of 29, perhaps to 'set June free.' Many of these twin tales carried a similar eerie shiver.

5.10.18

The Happiness Quest: EDIT

As some of you may know, or have guessed, someone close to me is suffering from severe depression at the moment. Hence my flare of interest in books about therapy, mental health, depression and anxiety, and crucially, how to recover from the all-enveloping darkness.

Lana Penrose's memoir, The Happiness Quest is promisingly subtitled A depression survivor's journey from misery to joy. But it turned out to be not quite what I was looking for. Penrose seems determined to keep things on the light side -- not surprisingly, as it is a real drag reading about other people's mental agony. But sometimes the cute metaphors and breezy tone grated against the grim reality she was describing. I liked the way she organised the book in alphabetical chapters: B is for Breakdown, C is for CBT etc, and I loved her gutsy determination to beat her demons with any tools she could find, from the scientifically proven to the frankly whacky.

In the end, the recipe that saved Penrose (a combination of meditation, talk therapy and EMDR -- didn't I say a couple of posts back that EMDR was a pile of nonsense? Whoops!) might not suit everybody, but it brought her back from the brink. I'm sure I've read somewhere that it doesn't actually matter what form of therapy you use; what helps is the relationship you establish with the therapist. And the same hints keep cropping up: exercise, meditation, mindfulness, gratitude.

I guess the most important message is one of hope -- that this dark journey can have a happy ending.

Edited to say that one thing that really annoyed me about this book (not Penrose's fault) was the amount of sloppy typos and errors that kept leaping out at me. There is no excuse for any editor to let "Virginia Wolfe" slide by uncorrected.

3.10.18

Where Shall We Run To?

This was my birthday present to myself and it finally arrived after a wait of several weeks. I think Alan Garner may well be my most-admired writer of all time. Now I own all his novels, and this lovely memoir, I might sit down and read the whole lot from beginning to end, including his essays The Voice That Thunders (which I didn't find too difficult to understand, though it did challenge and excite me).

Anyway! Garner was born in a Cheshire village where his family have lived for hundreds of years. The landscape is etched with traces of his ancestors -- his grandfather and great-great grandfather built this wall; family lived in this house or that one, climbed these hills, carved in this cave. His sense of being deeply embedded in the land, growing out of its history, is central to all Garner's work, and parallels the Australian Aboriginal experience of belonging to country (a parallel he explored in Strandloper).

Though on the surface, Where Shall We Run To? is the story of a simple childhood (he's about the same age as my parents) -- playground disputes, frightening teachers, the finding of a 'bomb', encounters with evacuee children -- there are echoes and resonances here that have found their way into his fiction. The book is structured like memory, sometimes shown in vivid flashes, sometimes shaped into the anecdotes we all tell ourselves, the stories that make up our selves.

2.10.18

When I Was A Child I Read Books

How could I not jump on this book? Look at the title, for heaven's sake. When I Was a Child I Read Books -- hooray! Me, too! And it's by Marilynne Robinson, whose novels Housekeeping, Gilead, Home and Lila have left me awestruck and seriously teetering on the edge of actually becoming a Christian. Her novels are both delicate and rigorous, spare and beautifully wrought. I love her fiction; it has uplifted, comforted and inspired me.

So I was disappointed in myself that I almost completely failed to keep pace with this collection of essays. They were simply beyond my comprehension. They are all more or less theological in their concerns, which is fine, and insofar as I understood what Robinson was saying, I mostly agreed with her. She is mostly arguing (I think) for a more nuanced, complex understanding of what it means to be human -- an understanding that takes into account spiritual yearnings, kindness and compassion, and refuses to settle for the brutal neo-liberal conception of humans as merely selfish, economic beings who dance to the tune of the market. I'm all for that.

Maybe I'm just thick, but I felt as I waded laboriously through this slender volume that I was reading a carefully thought-out response to a debate whose start I'd missed -- there were references I just didn't get, figures I'd never heard of, quotes I didn't understand. Who was Oberlin? I'm still not sure. The Boston Globe said, "A glimmering, provocative collection of essays, each a rhetorically brilliant, deeply felt exploration of education, culture, and politics...beautifully intelligent,"and I'm sure they're right. I just wish I was beautifully intelligent enough to understand it.

1.10.18

Taste: The Story of Britain Through its Cooking

There are some books that you can't (pardon the pun) consume in one bite. Ooh, that sounds interesting, I thought, when I came across Kate Colquhuon's Taste: The Story of Britain Through its Cooking on Brotherhood Books -- and don't get me wrong, it was interesting!

But I couldn't have sat down and devoured it in one sitting (for one thing, it's pretty thick). Chapter after chapter detailing extravagant feasts, the evolution of cooking techniques and shifting meal times, the rise and fall of ingredients as the world of trade expanded availability -- if I'd tried to swallow it in one go, it would have proved indigestible. Instead, I rationed myself to one chapter a day, and slowly consumed a dose of British history through the prism of its food and cooking.

From the evidence left in prehistoric middens (butchered bones, cheese sieves), through medieval feasts and the Elizabethan addiction to sugar (some things don't change much), to the pineapple fad of the eighteenth century, the demise of the household cook, wartime rationing and the rise of the 'foodie', Taste leads us through the centuries and shows how social history and food go hand in hand.

As a fan of the BBC's clumsily titled The Supersizers Go... which featured Sue Perkins and Giles Coren sampling the food of different eras with a comic twist, and the recent Australian show Back in Time for Dinner, which also mixed food and history, I was always going to find Taste hard to resist. It was highly educational: the Victorian underclass were literally starving on a diet of adulterated bread and not much more; at the end of the nineteenth century, there was apparently 'a small chain of Australian restaurants in London' (who knew??); and many many more intriguing titbits.

26.9.18

The Art of Psychotherapy

Wow, I have been reading r-e-a-l-l-y s-l-o-w-l-y lately, ploughing my way through a couple of books that are either extremely dense and demanding (Marilynne Robinson) or best consumed in small bites (Taste). But more of those books later (when I actually finish them!). Who would have thought that the book with the dullest title of the three, The Art of Psychotherapy: Case Studies from the Family Therapy Networker, would turn out to be my 'fun read'?

The Family Therapy Networker is a magazine for mental health workers, and the case studies presented in this collection began life in its pages. Each case is described by the therapist concerned, together with their choice of treatment and how the therapy turned out. This is then followed by a commentary from another one or two therapists, who might agree with the approach taken, or vehemently disagree. Sometimes the original therapist then responds with justifications or extra information.

It all sounds pretty dry, but it's absolutely fascinating! I've always been a sucker for those collections of case studies, more literary than this, by author/practitioners like Oliver Sacks or Irvin D. Yalom. This material is less polished, but comes direct from the coalface of the therapist's consulting room. Mistakes are admitted, not all cases are successfully resolved, sometimes huge issues are left completely unaddressed (eg the role of gender in reinforcing a wife and daughter's 'caring' for an alcoholic husband; the possibility that a young boy who 'acts out' being a girl may actually be trans). Published in 1999, it was clear that social norms have shifted dramatically in some areas in the last twenty years, and were in the process of shifting on these pages. Some new and apparently exciting therapy techniques (EMDR, Thought Field Therpay) have now been debunked.

But what remains constant is the complex, intriguing, troubling field of relationships and mental health -- however they are tackled, those problems will always be with us. It's sobering, but also weirdly comforting, to learn that there is no one 'solution' to any client's difficulties; but that sometimes, it doesn't really matter what the therapist does, as long as they do something.

16.9.18

The Golden Age

How time flies! I remember that Joan London's slim novel, The Golden Age, made all the best-of-the-year lists when it was published, which I vaguely thought was about a year ago? But now, it was way back in 2014.

I really enjoyed this novel. Short chapters, clear, vivid writing, poignant characters -- an easy read, but not a dumb one. Set in Perth in the mid-1950s, it centres on two young patients at a polio facility (the eponymous Golden Age, a pub in its former life), thoughtful Elsa and aspiring poet Frank, the son of Hungarian refugees. There's not a lot of plot, but the story meanders gently and tenderly between its characters, touching them lightly then moving on. My only quibble was the rather abrupt ending -- I wanted it to go on much longer, which is not something I often say these days!

I definitely want to read London's other novels now. This was beautiful. I've even lent it to my mum, who says she can't read books any more. I'll let you know how she goes with it.

11.9.18

The Stone Book Quartet

I have ordered Alan Garner's memoir, Where Shall We Run To? as a birthday present (unfortunately it's going to arrive a little late!). The Stone Book Quartet, the last remaining novel of Garner's I had yet to read, is the perfect preparation for it; this is Garner's most personal and autobiographical work. It consists of four very slender novellas -- almost short stories, really -- each centred on a single day in the life of a child of a different generation in Garner's family, with the last boy, William, growing up during WWII, a disguised version of Alan himself.

Though the quartet is so slim, as usual, Garner packs in a dense mass of material. There are no supernatural elements here, but a deep continuity of place and memory, where family stories and history intertwine. Mary's father shows her a secret, sacred place, deep inside the hill; her son, Joseph, a 'granny reardun' (I'm guessing illegitimate?) rejects his grandfather's stonecraft to apprentice himself as a smith; Joseph's son Robert gropes to find his own place in family tradition; and finally William shares his grandfather's last day as a blacksmith and inherits a craft of a different kind. Characters from different generations and neighbouring families shift in and out of focus, and objects vanish and reappear.

This is a book to treasure, a book that apparently came relatively easily to Garner, and it sings.

8.9.18

A Circling Star

I bought Mara Kay's A Circling Star because I'd seen so many loving remembrances of Kay's Masha books by people whose tastes I share. A Circling Star is not a Masha book, and I'm guessing it's one of Kay's lesser works. Like the Masha novels, this one is set in Imperial Russia (it took me ages to work out that it was in the 1850s). It tells the story of cheeky, impulsive Aniuta, who is sent to join the Imperial Theatre School (a real place!) to train for the Bolshoi Ballet. Students had their board and education fully paid for by the Emperor, and those who didn't make the grade as dancers were shunted into the drama course, or ended up as prop makers or scenery painters.

It wasn't until I'd nearly finished the book and was doing some idle googling that I discovered that some of the characters in the novel were actually real people, too! Anuita's love interest, the intense Liev Ivanov, who writes a ballet especially for her and whose heart she breaks, ended as a renowned choreographer (not as handsome in his Wikipedia photo as he is described in the book), responsible for The Nutcracker and parts of Swan Lake. Other teachers at the school, actors and dancers, also proved to be historical figures.

Published in 1973, A Circling Star felt much more old-fashioned. It was a comforting read, even though it was shot through with the usual rivalries and treachery common to ballet books, and the (to me) unusual setting lent it added interest. I think the Masha books would be better, though!

7.9.18

Busman's Honeymoon

A detective story with romantic interruptions, or a romance with detective interludes? Busman's Honeymoon is the final volume of the adventures of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, and sees the couple married at last. The usual rule is that URST should never be resolved, but I think this novel provides a satisfying conclusion to Peter and Harriet's difficult courtship, because it shows that married bliss may not necessarily be smooth sailing and happy ever after.

Lord Peter has come a long way from the original 'silly ass' dilettante of Whose Body? In fact, the heart of Busman's Honeymoon, despite its comic episodes and farcical interludes, concerns the psychological impact of Wimsey's 'meddling' and its very real consequences -- in this case, the murderer will hang. We know that Lord Peter was damaged by the War; now we learn how heavily the responsibility of life and death weighs upon him. It's almost more than he can bear... until Harriet gently reminds him that if not for his 'interference', she would have lost her own life.

The penultimate section, where Harriet tours the ancestral seat, including an encounter with the family ghost, tips into twee wish-fulfilment territory. But the real power and agony of the final vigil makes up for it.

29.8.18

Coromandel Sea Change

I couldn't find a sharp image of my edition of Rumer Godden's 1991 novel, but perhaps that's appropriate because Coromandel Sea Change is quite soft-focus in itself.

This is an old-fashioned novel. Once again we are introduced to a young, naive but headstrong woman who is encountering India for the first time and finds her world expanding in unexpected ways. It took me a little while to realise that I have visited the beautiful seaside hotel, Patna Hall, before, in the clumsily-titled novella Cromartie v The God Shiva Acting Through the Government of India, published in 1997 and also featuring wise Auntie Sannie and her loyal lieutenants, Hannah and Samuel. Coromandel Sea Change is more dramatic, featuring a mismatched honeymoon couple, a charismatic young aspiring politician, a slimy journalist and a benevolent diplomatic couple. But it's the tranquil hotel on the beach, surrounded by flowers, that is the real star of this novel.

I don't believe that there is any such thing as a bad Rumer Godden novel, but this is a lesser offering. Still worth a weekend away, but maybe not a lingering stay.

24.8.18

Everything Everything

Of course it's 'now a major motion picture!' I shouldn't be surprised. Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon is a typical contemporary YA novel, and as such, it was crying out to be adapted for film.

There were some aspects I liked about this novel:
  • it was short and easy to read (thanks to some very short chapters, and many illustrations)
  • it had a female protagonist of colour (half-Japanese, half-African American) (like the author, which I also liked)
  • it was pacy 
There were some things I didn't like so much:
  • another hot and heavy teen romance (rolls eyes) 
  • without being too spoilery, I found the plot totally implausible, and therefore the Big Twist did not take me by surprise
I felt quite ambivalent about this book. It's clearly been well-read at the local library, as I had to reserve it and it's been thoroughly thumbed. For what it was, it was fine, it was nicely put together and easy to fly through. But it's just not the kind of book that I really enjoy... Which is fine, because it wasn't written for me.


23.8.18

Ugly

Another Australian memoir, but a very different story. Robert Hoge was born with such devastating facial difference (as well as deformities to his legs) that his own mother didn't want to bring him home from hospital. But his four older siblings voted otherwise and soon his mother was little Robert's fiercest advocate. His early childhood was a parade of surgeries and what must have been terrible pain and struggle. However, Ugly, adapted from an adult memoir and aimed at primary school children, focuses on the everyday obstacles of Robert's life: teasing, nicknames, pratfalls when he tries to run too fast on his artificial legs on school sports day.

This is an upbeat account, emphasising the funny side of Hoge's experiences, but clearly he had a rough time at school. It's a terrific way of getting kids to think about their own responses to classmates with differences of all kinds. The book ends on a defiant note, with teenage Hoge refusing to undergo yet another massive, dangerous operation that might 'improve' his looks. He decides to take his chances with his 'ugly' face, just the way it is.

22.8.18

Leather Soul

Have I mentioned that I love Bob Murphy? A writer's footballer, he earned his stripes as a quirky commentator for The Age newspaper in a series of delightful, left-of-centre columns that sometimes concerned his sausage dog Arthur or buying coffee rather than the usual earnest ruminations or boasting of some player/analysts. Those columns were collected in Murphy's Lore.

Leather Soul: A half-back flanker's rhythm and blues is a meandering memoir, with memories of a carefree childhood interleaved with a diary of the Western Bulldogs annus mirabilis, 2016, when they joyously, unexpectedly, snatched the premiership with a month of magnificent football. But poignantly, Bob himself, captain of the team and its heart and soul, wasn't able to play in that premiership team because of injury. On Grand Final Day, when the coach called Murphy up onto the dais and put his own premiership medal around the injured captain's neck, it was a moment of the most perfect love and sportsmanship, a bittersweet and precious gesture.

Bob is honest about how much missing out on that year hurt him; he put on a brave face all year, swallowed his pain and gave whatever support he could to 'his boys.' But the pain didn't go away. He is honest about his own failings (even though the conventional wisdom in our house is that he is a perfect human being!) when it would have been easy to leave out those incidents from his story. Maybe that makes him even more perfect, who knows!

If you're not a Western Bulldogs supporter, or at least an AFL football fan, you probably won't pick up this book. That would be your loss. Get to know this lovely, wise, funny man, who happens to have played wonderful football for half his life, a little better. You won't regret making his acquaintance.

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.