25.5.22

My Year of Living Vulnerably

 

Rick Morton's first book, A Hundred Years of Dirt, was like an electric shock: a blunt, uncompromising tale of pain and struggle. His follow up, My Year of Living Vulnerably, is looser, more diffuse: less of a powerful gut punch, more a series of taps on the head. It's a collection of meditations or reflections on a range of topics -- masculinity, animals, loneliness, humour, touch -- but above all, love and connection, which is, as he accurately concludes, the one thing that gets us all out of bed and out into the world.

Morton is always good company, dry and self-deprecating, but sometimes these essays drift into rambling discursions that might have benefited from a tighter structure. With this title, I almost expected a literal account of a year, but this book is a lot looser than that. It is a sequel to the earlier book in a way, as he explore the consequences of the trauma that he outlines so chillingly in the first volume. I love Rick Morton and he is always worth reading, as a thoughtful and insightful male writer, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.

23.5.22

When We Fall

 I took Aoife Clifford's When We Fall away to the beach with me a couple of weekends ago, and it's perfect beach reading. It's even set in a seaside town! When We Fall is a well-crafted, solid crime thriller which incorporates issues of dementia, forced adoption, family violence, and environment in addition to the familiar Aussie small-town, small-minds tropes. 

Alex Tillerson and her mum (who is described as 'a tough old bird' at the advanced age of, er, 58!!) discover a severed leg while walking on the beach, and the plot immediately begins to thicken from there. Actually now that I think about it, I'm not sure we ever got an explanation for why the leg was severed... but it certainly makes for a striking visual image, of which there are many sprinkled throughout the novel -- a pair of black angel wings, an isolated eco-house perched in the bush, a meticulously copied version of Bruegel's Fall of Icarus with the faces changed.

Like The Dry, When We Fall would make a fantastic Australian movie -- can't wait for the inevitable adaptation.

20.5.22

The House in Norham Gardens

 

I first discovered Penelope Lively's 1986 The House in Norham Gardens a few years ago, but I couldn't resist picking up this copy (signed by the author!!) from a neighborhood street library. It was interesting to notice how my awareness has changed in the intervening years; I definitely read it with different eyes this time around.

Norham Gardens is a real place, a suburb of Oxford which is home to tall, eccentric Victorian houses -- the illustration on this cover is pretty accurate. I like the portrait of Clare, too, quiet and thoughtful, with a lot going on under the surface (though she does look a bit younger than fourteen here). However I have to take issue with the Fly/Sepik shield as depicted here; it should perhaps look more like this:

When Clare finds the ceremonial shield in the attic, a relic of her ancestor's expedition to Papua New Guinea a hundred years before (a real historical expedition, whose artefacts now reside in the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford), she begins to dream about the people who made it: 'brown people' in a jungle village. Slowly Clare's dreams shift and alter; the people in the dreams come closer, right into the house; but then they recede, she dreams of them dressed in Western clothes, living in a modern town, and she senses that they no longer want the shield, that it has lost its meaning for them, and she donates it to the museum.

I do applaud Lively's thoughtful and compassionate exploration of ancient spirituality, how this object becomes meaningful to Clare and helps her to sort out her own muddled feelings about growing older, change and development, death and history and even race. However I felt troubled about the conclusion, and the assumption that the makers of the shield (who traded it to Clare's great-grandfather rather too easily) would no longer value it or the other stolen materials now sitting in the museum. 

Still, The House in Norham Gardens is that rare beast, a children's/YA novel from the 1980s which at least attempts to wrestle with the issue of colonialism, and for that I have to cheer.

18.5.22

A Swim in the Pond in the Rain

 

A Swim in the Pond in the Rain was another title with a long waiting list at my local library. The subtitle of George Saunders' book is (In Which Four Dead Russians Give Us A Masterclass in Writing and Life). I don't know that I've read another book quite like this one. It's an instruction book that teaches us how to read, how write and how to life.

Saunders reprises the creative writing class he has given at university for twenty years, inviting us to closely read these seven short stories by four classic Russian authors (Chekov, Tolstoy, Gogol, Turgenev), to notice what they do right and how they achieve it, and also to note their flaws. While he's at it, he points out the life philosophies of these authors: what gives these stories greatness as well as technical mastery. And on top of that, he passes on his own lessons from a lifetime of pursing his own writing career.

It was really interesting to read George Saunders' writing advice straight after Graeme Simsion's. While Simsion is a planner, Saunders seems to be a 'pantser' -- his approach is to 'follow the voice' and let it reveal its secrets. He is a great one for tapping into the unconscious creative mind, the writer's intuition, and allowing the unfolding story to emerge with minimal conscious guidance -- the only question, he says, is to examine each line and judge whether it pleases you. I have to say this is not a method that appeals to me much, though I might try it if I'm really and truly stuck.

Saunders is a wonderful teacher, an accomplished, compassionate and humorous writer, and joyful company on this journey through Russian literature. But I'm not sure if he is the writing teacher for me.

16.5.22

My Age of Anxiety

 

I have anxiety. My mother has anxiety. My grandfather (almost certainly) had anxiety. One of my daughters has anxiety. But I don't think any of us have suffered the extreme torments that have tortured Scott Stossel from his earliest childhood, through adolescence and into an apparently successful adulthood.

It was quite harrowing to read Stossel's struggles with various phobias, particularly his terror of vomiting, which I didn't even know was a thing, but has more victims than fear of flying. He intersperses his personal account of trying to deal with crippling, lifelong dread (psychotherapy, medication, one particularly distressing attempt at exposure treatment) with the latest brain science that attempts to tease out where anxiety comes from, how it serves us, and how we can try to overcome it.

My Age of Anxiety is a very readable and intelligent examination of mental health and a memoir of pain and dread. Stossel is optimistic and nuanced in his approach, recognising the tension in his concern that Americans might be over-medicated, with his own long-term dependence on that same medication. This is not an easy topic but it is very timely and a great summary of the current science.

13.5.22

Only A Monster

 

I so enjoyed Only A Monster by Vanessa Len -- maybe I'm swinging back round to liking YA again, after a fallow time? Maybe I just need to be careful about the novels I choose? Anyway, Only A Monster shares some common ground with House of Hollow -- both by young Australian women authors, both set in London, both centring on young women with a secret family heritage that needs to be unravelled in a spooky Gothic atmosphere of chases down darkened streets, glamorous parties and mysterious, attractive strangers...

Only A Monster is built on a brilliant premise -- that there is a race of beings who look human, but who can steal time from human lives in order to time travel (a little like the original conception of Dr Who's Weeping Angels). These 'monsters' consist of twelve great families, each of which possess particular extra powers (like perfect memory, or the ability to hide and retrieve objects in thin air). I'd love to know more about their world and surely there will be further volumes which explore this universe more fully and wrap up some of the loose ends left dangling at the end of this novel. I should make it clear that Joan is one of the 'monsters' -- the only slight quibble I had was that I found it hard to apply this term to the super-charismatic, elegant and gifted characters who people this world!

Only A Monster is terrific, rich and atmospheric fun.

11.5.22

The Midnight Library

 

Matt Haig's novel, The Midnight Library, had an absolutely ridiculous reserve queue at the library -- I think I was about number 18 when I put my name down. But I can absolutely understand why it's been so popular, and it's a terrific, engaging and uplifting read.

When Nora decides that life is no longer worth living (yes, it's a miserable start, but persist) she finds herself in a mysterious library, rather like Harry Potter's King's Cross station between life and death -- except that this limbo takes the form of a library, filled with volumes that represent every life she might have led rather than the one she ended up with. What follows is a lot of fun, and poignant moments, as Nora tries on one life after another and reconsiders every life choice she's made. Some lives are bold, some are tragic, some are beautiful and fulfilling, and of course Nora ends up realising that life is worth living after all, after a nice swerve to avoid one neat and too easy solution.

This book is going on my list of novels I think my mother-in-law will enjoy, unless she's already read it, which is a distinct possibility.

6.5.22

Unfollow

 

I read Megan Phelps-Roper's memoir, Unfollow on the recommendation of Michelle Cooper, and it was such an interesting read. Even from far away in Australia I was aware of the Westboro Church, founded by Phelps-Roper's grandfather and consisting basically of her extended family, and their hate campaign, picketing with signs reading 'God Hates Fags' and celebrating the deaths of overseas soldiers. I never quite understood the logic of their campaign (and I still don't, really) but they certainly revelled in their own self-righteousness, and formed a self-contained universe which served to reinforce their own beliefs. Hm, remind anyone else of a social media bubble?

For Megan, what deflated the bubble was, ironically, interactions on social media. She enjoyed debating with outsiders, and it exposed her to different points of view. But what really made her lose her faith in Westboro was the appalling, hypocritical behaviour of self-appointed 'elders' who not only sidelined Megan's mother but sought to exert control over Megan and other female members of the church, regulating their clothes and activities, and everything they said or did. Megan's lively intelligence, which is evident in this memoir, didn't allow her to accept the contradictions, and gradually she found herself rebelling -- at first internally, and finally by leaving the church altogether. It was a really brave move to exile herself from her family, her community, the only world she'd ever known, but she found support where she never would have expected it, from those very people on the internet that she'd been debating with all those years.

Essentially Unfollow is the story of escaping from a cult, and it helped me to understand the power of belonging that helps people to stay put, and the true strength required to break free.

4.5.22

One Hundred Days

 

Alice Pung is such an accomplished writer, she slides between memoir, non-fiction, young adult and now adult fiction with ease and grace. Although the central character of One Hundred Days, Karuna, is only sixteen, I'm guessing that the cover blurbs from Maxine Beneba Clark and Christos Tsiolkas position this novel as an adult book. However, I think it could easily be recommended to young adults. 

One Hundred Days is told by Karuna, who is struggling to emerge from what she experiences as the smothering over-protection of her Filipino-born Chinese mother after Karuna's father abandoned them. When Karuna becomes pregnant, the struggle shifts to the expected baby: will it be raised and acknowledged as Karuna's child, or her mother's? Shame and power, love and resentment, anger and humour, are beautifully balanced in this story as Karuna fights not just for herself, but for her baby's future.

I loved this book so much I gave it to my mother-in-law. It's a real family story, though the family has shrunk to its smallest configuration -- mother and daughter. The way that little family eventually expands is the heart of this very Australian, illuminating and warm novel.

2.5.22

His Name Was Walter

 

I'm falling behind again! It seems like ages since I finished this book. His Name Was Walter, from veteran children's writer Emily Rodda, picked up just about every award on offer in the year of its release (2018); its cover is covered in award stickers!

This is such a clever story, effortlessly weaving together three strands: the present day account of a group of children and a teacher stuck overnight in a creepy, isolated old house; the beautifully illustrated fairy tale they find in an old scrapbook, with animal characters, magic and transformation; and finally the historical events underlying the fairy tale which the children manage to uncover. Emily Rodda is a master of her craft, it's not surprising that she's been recognised multiple times and His Name Was Walter shows her at her very best.

28.4.22

The Psychic Tests

 

I enjoyed The Psychic Tests so much! Gary Nunn began this exploration of the appeal of psychics, fortune tellers, astrologers, mediums, clairvoyants etc, firmly on the strictly rational, scientific, it's-all-a-load-of-nonsense side of the fence; in fact he embarked on the project partly to debunk his sister's addiction to visiting psychics. However, partway through the book, he discovers that his sister has abandoned her obsession (well, almost) and feels slightly ashamed of her former preoccupation, while Gary himself has begun to see some value in it.

This is a thoroughly engaging trip through the history and pseudo-science of mediumship of all types -- the sincere, the openly fraudulent, the mysterious, the fun and the solemn. Nunn begins to feel sympathy for those, like his sister, who use psychics to help them work through deep grief or psychological confusion, though he doesn't have much time for the supposed 'clairvoyants' who pronounce on crimes, like one who told a mother of a missing child to give up hope. Alas, the mother died of grief and the child was eventually rescued from her abductor. Unforgivable.

The Psychic Tests finishes with Nunn converting to the enemy camp (not really) and learning how to read tarot cards himself. This is hands-down the best account of what it feels like to read tarots that I have ever read. Nunn is upfront with his 'clients' that he claims no supernatural powers, and is merely regurgitating what he's read about the meaning of the cards; nevertheless, he describes the seductive power and playful fun of interpreting a tarot reading; the eagerness of his subjects, leaning bright-eyed over the cards; the subtle art of favouring one interpretation or another; the delight of the rich symbolism of the cards themselves. The Psychic Tests was worth reading for this section alone. Lots of fun.

25.4.22

The Novel Project

 

The Novel Project: a step-by-step guide to your novel, memoir or biography comes from a well-credentialled author: Graeme Simsion has written multiple novels, non-fiction and screenplays, both solo and with his partner in life and writing, Anne Buist, so he knows this caper inside out. In particular, his Rosie trilogy has been massively successful. The Novel Project had a waiting list at the library as long as my arm, so I wasn't the only one seeking wisdom at the feet of the master.

I must admit, part of my motivation in borrowing The Novel Project was to reassure myself that I was doing some things right -- after ten novels published, and number eleven coming out next year, you'd hope I'd have some clue. And I did find reassurance here that my methods are mostly sound. But I also found the other thing I was looking for, which was some fresh ideas to shake up my usual routine. 

Simsion has a lot to say about structure, but before planning out an outline (a step I usually take a smidgeon too early, I think now), he recommends building up a bucket of story 'beats' -- scenes or steps that either develop character or take the story forward. He also recommends writing each beat on a separate card, so the whole lot can be laid out, shuffled, recombined and stared at as a whole. I took to this idea with glee and soon had my rug covered with cards. I actually found this process incredibly helpful, to see at a glance where the shape of my work-in-progress was too top-heavy; to mash together 'beats' that weren't contributing to the story's forward momentum but added colour and quirk, with 'beats' that were a little dull but necessary to the plot; to re-balance the four acts that Simsion recommends into a more smoother and more satisfying structure. This was actually also a lot of fun and I think I've emerged with a stronger prospective novel (I should add that I've struggled a lot with the structure of this particular WIP and I'm currently up to my seventh draft).

The Novel Project is packed with sensible, straightforward and reality-tested advice from someone who really knows what he's talking about. I took heaps of notes, and I think I'll definitely go back to the card process again. I won't follow all Simsion's advice -- I don't think I'll ever be someone who seeks out beta readers, I'm way too insecure and suggestible -- but this is one of the best and most helpful How To Write guides I've come across.

22.4.22

Swallowdale

 

I've decided to gradually re-read all the books in Arthur Ransome's Swallows & Amazons series, which I adored as a child. Swallowdale is the second volume, and not a book I returned to often, so most of the story felt fresh. It's so good (mostly!) -- the mystery of the missing Amazons; the heartbreak of sinking Swallow; the excitement of discovering the hidden valley; the crushing weight of the Great Aunt who makes adventures almost impossible, even for the adults; the thrilling trek up the mountain; Susan's panic when the younger Swallows don't return... It's a terrific adventure.

BUT I'm newly conscious of the thread running through the whole story of "natives" (adults) and "savages" (the charcoal burners). Just as I was thinking, well, it's toned down a bit in this book, there appears one horrific chapter where Titty makes a voodoo model of the Great Aunt out of candle grease. It's a really well-written episode, with Titty's eager delight in the magic ritual, then her horror when the model slips into the fire, and her on-going guilty terror that she might have done some real harm to the old lady. Ultimately Titty regrets her foray into 'Negro witchcraft' -- and the reader does too. It's such a shame, because there is so much else that has held up so well -- I suspect this is going to be a running theme. But I wouldn't feel comfortable handing this book to a modern child, even though the realistic, independent adventures and the heady mix of imagination and reality are so superbly handled. I think Swallowdale is actually better than Swallows and Amazons -- but not yet good enough for a contemporary reader.

20.4.22

The Dreaming Path

 

I can't remember how I heard about this book (I suspect it was mentioned on the radio) but it's a dream come true -- a combination of two of my favourite subjects, self help and Indigenous thinking! Written by Paul Callaghan with substantial input from Uncle Paul Gordon, The Dreaming Path places its main emphasis on two areas, connecting with country and focusing on strengthening relationships, two of the foundations of traditional Aboriginal society. The Dreaming Path also highlights the importance of story in finding structure and meaning in life, and encourages us to discover our own story.

It's refreshing, after being brought up with a lightly Christian emphasis on sin and guilt, to read that we are all 'born into love and surrounded by love.' The two Pauls encourage us to go out into nature, to stand barefoot on the ground and feel a connection to the place where we live; they also share the healing power of walking country. It occurred to me that my morning bike rides around my neighbourhood, begun during lockdown, and the neighbourhood walks that many of us undertook when we were restricted to a 5 km radius from our homes, are versions of this slow, healing local travel.

Uncle Paul Gordon's introduction brought a lump to my throat:

In our stories, everything started from Country and our people went out throughout the world, and over time their skin changed, language changed, Lore was forgotten. 

In 1788, some of the forgotten children came back.

Now, children, you are home... It is time for you to learn what you have lost.

The Dreaming Path succeeds on both fronts. It's filled with practical, sensible advice for people feeling lost or overwhelmed -- slow down, draw strength from Country, lean on others for help. But it also serves as a wonderful introduction to Indigenous narrative and philosophy: the interconnectedness of all people, land, nature and story; the security of belonging in a web of family and society, and the strength that comes from clear reciprocal responsibilities as well as rights. Well worth reading.

14.4.22

Puff Piece

 

Reading a book by John Safran is a singular experience. He has a distinctive voice and an individual approach, always immersing himself in his subject matter. He must be very charming in real life, because he seems to make friends with people on all sides of whatever controversy he's currently exploring. In Puff Piece, he takes on Big Tobacco -- specifically, Philip Morris, vaping and e-cigarettes. Safran dances back and forth in the grey areas of hypocrisy, ambiguity and self-interest, including his own. He's not afraid to tease out his own conflicted viewpoints -- everything is complicated!

Philip Morris haven't surfed out the global opposition to cigarette smoking without being slippery customers; Safran is especially intrigued by the way they've co-opted language to their own ends. They have invented a device they call the 'IQOS' -- sometimes they are at pains to distinguish this from a vaping device, but at other times, they are happy to conflate the two. The nicotine delivery device that is used with the IQOS is called a 'Heat Stick' -- definitely NOT a cigarette, they assure us, because it's 'heated' rather than 'burned.' And yet it looks like a cigarette and serves the same purpose as a cigarette ie getting nicotine into your body. Ah, doesn't it produce smoke, just like a cigarette? No, no, that's not smoke, it's 'vapour.' And so it goes. It really does make your head spin.

John Safran draws some interesting parallels between Philip Morris redefining a cigarette as a 'Heat Stick' and lethal tar as 'Nicotine Free Dry Particulate Matter' when in a different context he finds Jewish people being redefined as 'white people' and thereby disqualified from commenting on matters of racial discrimination -- an ironic decision for someone whose parents survived the Holocaust. It's not a shock that Safran is a little sensitive on these subjects.

I was dismayed, but not really surprised, to discover the extent of Philip Morris's duplicity. Corporations really will stop at nothing in the pursuit of profit. At least it makes a great topic for a book, and Safran is always entertaining company on the journey.