3.4.24

Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens

I've been on the waiting list to read Shankari Chandran's Chai Time At Cinnamon Gardens for so long, it's probably time for the new winner of the Miles Franklin Award to be announced. There was even a reserve list at the Athenaeum! But my turn eventually arrived at good old Preston Library.

Despite waiting for so many months I'd lost count, I did not take advantage of this time to find out anything at all about the novel. I think I'd assumed from the title that it would be something like The Thursday Murder Club or those books set in nursing homes -- sorry, aged care facilities -- where people climb out of the windows (extremely unlikely in the aged care homes that I'm familiar with). The cover also led me to believe that this might be a gentle, whimsical story with quirky characters and a heart-warming ending.

Well, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens was sort of like that -- but also not like that at all. To begin with, much of the story centred on the civil war in Sri Lanka, a period of history I'm ashamed to say I knew absolutely nothing about. This brutal and bloody background colours the experience of several characters, and reminds us how many refugees and migrants to this country have come from such horrific situations. Towards the end, the novel becomes quite polemical in sketching an all-too-plausible white reaction to the Sri Lankan facility in their midst -- I'd like to be able to say it seems a little over the top, but alas, it's probably not extreme enough.

Chai Time was a much darker novel than I anticipated, including domestic violence and racist attacks as well as scenes of torture and slaughter, though there are indeed uplifting relationships and quirky characters. It's definitely a story of modern Australia and a worthy winner, a book that deserves many readers. With reserve lists this long, it's defiitely finding them.
 

2.4.24

Some Shall Break

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a HUGE fan of Ellie Marney, and I gobbled up her previous FBI novel, None Shall Sleep, with ravenous glee. Inspired by Mindhunter (which I also loved) and set in the 1980s, these books feature earnest Travis Bell, trainee FBI agent; damaged but resilient Emma Lewis, who escaped from a serial killer; psycho but charismatic monster, Simon Gutmunsson, and his oddly charming twin, Kristin. Some Shall Break sees our team on the track of a copycat, and ends on a beautiful loose end which I'm sure will be the subject of book three (thanks to social media, I know that Ellie is working on book three right now!)

The Shall novels hit a particular sweet spot for me, in that they deal with horrific crimes (rape, murder, abduction, torture) so the stakes are always very high; but they are not so graphic that I get disturbing images seared into my brain. I don't enjoy reading about real world pain and suffering, and I don't enjoy reading about imagined pain and suffering either. But perhaps because these novels are YA, they skirt the margins of the worst crimes, leaving the details mostly to our own imaginations (or not, if preferred; which I do).

I cannot wait for book three. Crack on, Marney!

26.3.24

Yellowface

I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but I was able to pluck Rebecca Kuang's viral satire, Yellowface, off the shelf at the Athenaeum library; there are 87 people in the queue to borrow it from my local.

I raced through this novel, though parts of it were hard to read -- not because they were badly written, but because their forensic dissection of white guilt, overt and unconscious racism, and self-righteous self-justification were so painfully accurate and shameful. Don't get me wrong -- Yellowface is very funny as well as excruciating, not just about racism but also about the world of publishing (fortunately, as a children's author I have been spared the worst excesses of the publicity machine and the cycle of the Hot New Thing). I think I read almost this entire novel with a wince on my face.

Kuang's protagonist, June Hayward (known as Juniper Song after she steals her dead friend's manuscript and passes it off as her own), is monstrous, but she's also pitiful in her longing for admiration, validation and praise. I'm sure I'm not the only author to read this book and catch a glimpse of painful self-recognition in the character of June.

25.3.24

London: The Biography

I feel as if I've been reading this book FOREVER, so it was with some relief that I turned the last page. Don't get me wrong; London: The Biography is a fascinating, exhaustive, endlessly interesting exploration of the history and geography of this ancient and still vibrant city, but at 800-odd pages, it is a marathon, not a sprint, and I had to pace myself, with many breaks in between.

London: The Biography doesn't follow a strict chronological plan; instead, Ackroyd chooses one facet of the city's life and traces that through time. London's rivers, its crowds, pollution, theatre, children, the poor, plagues, fires, railways, all receive their own section. He has obviously pulled together a vast amount of research.

As it happened, while I was making my way through London: The Biography, I watched Ripper St, set in Victorian Whitechapel; read Square Haunting, about one Bloomsbury square; and remembered Ghost Theatre, set largely in Elizabethan London, south of the river. London: The Biography helped me to imagine all these areas more clearly, even though I have only made fleeting visits to the city and never had much of a clue about its geography. I do remember on my first visit diving into the Underground to travel a few stops, without realising that it would have been much quicker to walk through the streets on the surface!

Ackroyd (who had previously written another volume devoted to the Thames) seems quite enchanted by the city, resorting to almost mystical terms to describe its immensity, variety and unquenchable vitality and resilience. This book was published before the upheavals of Brexit and the Covid pandemic, but I am sure Ackroyd would point out that London has survived many such crises in its history, and these turbulent times will also pass.

22.3.24

A House With Four Rooms

Another treasure from the Melbourne Athenaeum Library -- I didn't even know that this book existed. And isn't this first edition pretty! The title is explained at the very end of the book:

Like everyone else I am a house with four rooms. As a child the physical room was barred to me, I had to fight my way to get into it. The room of the mind has always been mine. In the emotional, I have been marvellously lucky; with the spiritual, it was a long time before I would do more than peer in; now it is where I like best to be alone.

All of us tend to inhabit one room more than another but I have tried to go most days into them all -- each has its riches.

My house is, of course, slightly worn now but I still hope to go on quietly living in all of it, finding treasures, old and new until the time comes when I shall have, finally, to shut its door.

Isn't that absolutely beautiful? What a wonderful way to imagine the balance of life. Rumer Godden lived a full and rich and long life (she died in 1998), somehow managing to write dozens of books in between growing up in India, a failed marriage that led to a spartan life in a hut in the Himalayas, raising two daughters, numerous house moves, illness and tragedy (one house burned down and they lost almost everything), speaking tours of the US, several of her novels being turned into films, and other adventures...

Some of the personages she mentions in A House With Four Rooms are not known to me, others I have heard of. I looked up Stanbrook Abbey, the inspiration for perhaps my favourite Godden novel, In This House of Brede, and saw that it's become a hotel -- due to declining numbers, the abbey's sisters relocated to Yorkshire. It sounds (according to Wikipedia) as if the move was painful; three sisters left the abbey and set up their own establishment. It would have made a perfect, agonising plot for another novel.

18.3.24

The Borrowers Afield and Afloat

 My copies of The Borrowers Afield and The Borrowers Afloat are of course contained inside the omnibus volume I bought at the op shop, so I've picked my two favourite covers to share with you instead. Afield picks up exactly where the first story left off, with the three borrowers racing for their lives from the big house towards the dubious sanctuary of the badger's sett where they think their relatives might be living. 

Most of Afield sees the borrowers camping outside, sleeping in an abandoned boot, gathering berries and hiding from owls as well as humans. This book sees the arrival of the enigmatic Spiller, almost a wild borrower, infinitely resourceful and fortunately willing to help Pod, Homily and Arrietty. Afield ends with the reunion between the Clock family and their relatives -- no longer living in the badger's sett but safely in a cottage.

Alas, the happiness is short-lived, as we discover in Afloat -- the cottage, with only two human inhabitants, can't support all these borrowers, and anyway, as Arrietty learns, even those two are leaving. So our family decamp, with the aid of Spiller, for a thrilling adventure down a drain and along a stream, where they are almost caught again by a human from the previous book, but escape in the nick of time.

I'm so torn about these books, because the adventures are exciting and the whole concept of tiny people, living alongside us and repurposing our discards, is wonderful. But, sadly, some elements of these books are, shall we say, of their time (though I think they could be altered with no harm done) -- Mild Eye, the human who tries to capture them, is a gypsy, with all the squalor and 'foreignness' that implies in children's books of this era. Homily protests that she doesn't want to work 'like a black slave' and a head covering is described as having a 'Klu Klux Klan (sic)' appearance. If I was reading this aloud to a child of today, I would have some explaining to do.

And yet the borrowers themselves are so courageous, inventive and resilient, they are great role models for small people who also feel themselves helpless and vulnerable in a large, unfriendly world.

15.3.24

Blood on the Wattle

I can't believe it's taken me this long to read Blood on the Wattle, Bruce Elder's book about Aboriginal massacres and mistreatment which was first published as far back as 1988. There really is no excuse for saying 'we didn't know;' Elder collects together previously published material into one numbingly awful litany of slaughter.

Bruce Elder is not an academic, but a journalist, and he suggests that this might be the reason why he and this book were largely spared the attacks that the so-called 'black armband' historians received in the 1990s. There is a chapter included in this edition where Elder explains why the objections of the anti-black armband crew don't stand up; it beggars belief that all these stories, passed down through oral history in First Nations communities, should be invented or exaggerated, especially when there is plenty of other proof to be found, as David Marr's Killing For Country demonstrates.

There is no real central thesis or narrative here, it is a painful list of events which do start to almost blur together. Blood on the Wattle is not as beautifully written as Killing For Country, and Elder makes no attempt to pretend he is being 'objective' -- he is sickened and ashamed, and rightly so. Blood on the Wattle has been used as a school text for decades, and yet it does seem that the average white Australian is still ignorant of this basic history, or worse, knows about it and doesn't care.

Feeling depressed.

13.3.24

The Scent of Water

Inspired by the reluctant dragon I borrowed this first edition of The Scent of Water from the Athenaeum. It has a delicious scent itself, the smell of old books, a scent that takes me back to the small dark Mt Hagen library of my childhood. These days, of course, most old books are weeded from the shelves of modern libraries, so they never have the chance to develop this nostalgic fragrance.

I'm sure I've read The Scent of Water before. It has so many ingredients of a classic Elizabeth Goudge novel -- it may even be the ur-Goudge of which all the others are mere shadows. There are the delightful children, one sensitive and at least one slightly comic and ernest; a seeker (Mary Lindsay, a middle aged single woman who comes to live in the village); someone bitter (Valerie, who sees herself as a martyred wife to her blind husband); a gifted artist (Valerie's writer husband Paul). There is the refuge of the church, a forgotten history of saintly monks, the wonders of the natural world.

The Scent of Water features several varieties of what we would now recognise as mental illness. Mary's older relative, also called Mary Lindsay, suffered from episodes of 'madness' -- perhaps bi-polar disorder. The Vicar's sister, Jean, struggles with acute anxiety. Valerie is probably depressed (luckily, it only takes some masterful behaviour from her husband to snap her out of it). The no-good son of the heroic old couple would probably today be diagnosed with PTSD; in 1963, when the novel was published, he has no support or sympathy at all after his traumatic war experiences, except from his indulgent parents.

But while Goudge can be judgemental, she is also compassionate, and she strives to understand why each of these flawed characters has ended up the way they are. Indeed, the explicit message of The Scent of Water is that love alone is not enough, without understanding.

The miniature treasures featured in this novel (the 'little things') would make perfect gifts for Borrowers; both books also include a cat named Tiger!

10.3.24

Killers of the Flower Moon

I managed to struggle through the film version of Killers of the Flower Moon -- at three and a half hours, it was too long to watch in one sitting. I did appreciate the elaborate, expensive scene setting and the cultural details, but the action moved at treacle pace, and Leonardo di Caprio gives me the irrits (sorry, Leo). However, it's such a horrifying and intriguing story that I wanted to know more.

David Grann wrote the book on which the film was based, and unbelievably, the facts turn out to be even more shocking than the movie version. When the Osage tribe were forced onto what seemed to be worthless land in Oklahoma, no one dreamed that they were sitting on a fortune in oil fields. Before long, the Osage were sharing immense wealth from 'headrights' -- unalienable rights to the minerals beneath the land. However, the white townsmen found ways to grab themselves some of that wealth -- by grossly inflating the prices of goods sold to Indians, by having themselves appointed as 'guardians' to control Osage spending (no full blood Osage was deemed to be 'competent' to manage their own finances) and, most horrifically, by marrying into an Osage family and then conspiring to murder them so they would inherit their fortune.

The film focused on one family -- Mollie Burkhart and her sisters, Mollie's white husband Ernest, and Ernest's conniving uncle Bill Hale, a powerful local figure who was eventually convicted of plotting the murders of several Osage. However, Grann's work shows that there was a wide conspiracy to plan, carry out and cover up Osage killings, and that probably the victims numbered in the hundreds rather than the dozens. It's a truly chilling tale and while Ernest Burkhart and Hale ended up in jail, it's likely that many more men escaped justice entirely.

What's most distressing is the utter cold-blooded racism behind the murders, and the deep, scarring paranoia and fear that this history has left behind for Osage descendants.
 

7.3.24

The Borrowers

I'm trying not to buy new books this year -- I have the most enormous backlog to work through:

Plus, now I have a whole new library to explore... But when I found this Borrowers omnibus in the op shop for $2, I just couldn't resist. I loved the original Borrowers book as a child, and I managed to acquire The Borrowers Afloat from a library book sale years ago, but some of these six titles I have never even read before. It would have been churlish to walk away -- right?

Anyway I have now reread The Borrowers and I remember why I was so enchanted. There is something magical about a world in miniature and I remember that what captivated me most as a child was the way that Pod, Homily and Arriety repurposed human possessions for their own uses -- a cotton reel as a table, postage stamps for art, sliced chestnuts toasted like bread, a ring worn as a tiara. It's a very simple story, bookended by the device of Mrs May telling the Borrowers' tale to young Kate. I had completely forgotten Kate and Mrs May, which is surprising as I tended to latch on to any character sharing my name.

Funnily enough I am also reading Elizabeth Goudge's The Scent of Water, which features a collection of 'little things' -- tiny precious treasures which cast a spell over several generations of little girls. And my daughter, though not a little girl anymore, has just been putting together a miniature scene in a tin, which also clearly caters to this thirst for the tiny and detailed. I wonder where this fascination comes from and what purpose it might serve, and whether it is truly universal?

May Norton said that she began thinking of the Borrowers as a story during the years of World War II; perhaps the experience of feeling very small and vulnerable beneath falling bombs triggered a fellow feeling for these very small and vulnerable, though resilient and inventive, people?


5.3.24

Square Haunting

A loan from my dear friend Chris McCombe which I have enjoyed making my leisurely way through. Francesca Wade's Square Haunting is right up my alley of interest -- a study of five women who all lived in a single Bloomsbury square in the first half of the twentieth century. HD (Hilda Doolittle) was a modernist poet; Dorothy L Sayers, an mystery author and scholar; Jane Harrison, a classicist who first suggested the possibility of matriarchal and goddess-worshipping societies pre-dating the familiar male-dominated pantheon; Eileen Power, an economic and medieval historian who pioneered educational broadcasting (and probably ending up spawning a gazillion podcasts); and last but not least, the ground-breaking novelist and feminist, Virginia Woolf.

Using Mecklenburgh Square as a common element in all these women's lives is inspired -- some of them knew each other, some even lived in the same house. As free-thinking, unconventional women, they were all drawn to the area of London where bohemians gathered. In my uni days I was inspired by Virginia Woolf; I've loved Dorothy L Sayers since high school; and at uni I became slightly obsessed with HD and the modernists and the women who congregated on Paris's Left Bank (I wonder what happened to that book...). But I had never heard of Eileen Power or Jane Harrison and I'm dismayed that they disappeared from view so rapidly given the important work they did.

Square Haunting highlights the struggle of these early modern women to be taken seriously, and to live full lives with their personal integrity intact; but it also celebrates the value of the communities they belonged to and the strength they drew from one another. I absolutely love the detail with which the book ends: Virginia Woolf's former house has been replaced with a huge international college, but in the approximate space where her study used to sit, a room is made available each year for a woman scholar, complete with a copy of A Room of One's Own.

4.3.24

Cold Enough For Snow

Jessica Au's award winning novella, Cold Enough For Snow, was the other extra book I picked up from the Athenaeum Library last week -- at less than a hundred pages, it doesn't really count as a book, right? 

Wrong. Reading Cold Enough For Snow is like taking a leisurely swim in cool, still water -- bracing, but refreshing. It's a meditative little book, following a trip to Japan by a mother and grown up daughter. The daughter reports their small excursions, interspersed with memories of her childhood, working in a restaurant, travelling with her husband to his childhood home. There's no plot. We observe the weather, the path through the woods, the museum exhibitions; we see the daughter's attempts to please her mother, usually not guessing exactly right; the book seems to be about our essential inability to really know other people, the way they are sealed inside themselves, occasionally revealing glimpses of their inner, private lives, and perhaps our inability to know ourselves. (This theme echoes the similar preoccupations of Virginia Woolf, who I was reading about at the same time in Square Haunting.)

I admired Cold Enough For Snow and I can see why it's won so many accolades. It's unusual and pleasurable to experience a novel so different from so many contemporary novels with their emphasis on 'hooking' the reader from the first page, delivering non-stop action or plot twists. Au's book is a reminder that novels can also be small and quiet and beautiful and thoughtful. I think Cold Enough For Snow will stay with me when some novels are quickly forgotten.
 

3.3.24

Gender Queer

I went to the Athenaeum Library intending to restrict myself to borrowing two books. Needless to say I came away with four... Gender Queer was one of them. I was aware of Maia Kobabe's 2022 graphic memoir vaguely as one of the most banned books in America, and there are some elements of this book that might be a bit 'graphic' for younger readers, but honestly, most teens will see much more explicit content than this on the internet every day.

Gender Queer is a detailed, honest and moving account of Maia's journey through questioning eir gender identity and sexuality (Kobabe uses Spivak pronouns, e, em and eir, which I wasn't aware of before, but which I quite like). It was super easy to read -- I almost finished it on the tram on the way home -- funny, engaging and very relatable. It really makes plain that every person's experience is different and nuanced, and it underscores the ridiculously arbitrary nature of the boxes we put ourselves into. (As an old school eighties feminist, I probably incline more towards the ideal of removing the boxes, rather than creating more and more of them, but that seems to be the way society is moving.) Maia doesn't feel comfortable identifying as a woman, but also doesn't see emself as a man -- ey are looking for gender balance, are attracted to androgyny, and are delighted when people aren't sure if ey are male or female.

I really enjoyed Gender Queer. I don't think it's anything to be afraid of, and I certainly don't support it being banned anywhere. I found it a helpful, enlightening and fascinating story, clearly and simply told. More power to you, Maia.
 

29.2.24

The In-Between

Full disclosure: I used to be sort-of friends with Christos; we had mutual friends in our twenties. Though I haven't seen him for years, I follow his work with warm interest and admiration. I sometimes find Christos's novels confronting, and they certainly aren't comfort reading, but I know he would say that that's not what fiction should be.

However, The In-Between is much closer to 'my sort of novel' than some of his other work. It's essentially a love story, about two middle-aged men who connect later in life, with all the compromises and potential and baggage that entails. Two chapters are from Perry's point of view, and two from Ivan's, and the novel finishes with a section from the point of view of the daughter of Perry's former lover, a woman seeing the couple from the outside. The In-Between is mostly set in my Melbourne -- Preston, the city, the bayside suburbs where my husband's family live (though I'm having trouble exactly placing Perry's Preston apartment -- perhaps Christos... invented it???)

There is simply no better Australian writer on class, and the central section of the novel is the strongest and the most excruciating to read. There is a dinner party where all the shifting fault lines of Perry's milieu are laid bare -- between middle and working class, women and men, gay and straight, parents and non-parents. Conversations about politics become painfully personal, and accepted moral stances are paraded. Do we all have to think the same about everything?? There is raging against the timid conformity of Australia, our inability to face passion, life and death.

The In-Between is a visceral novel, packed with smells and sex, undercurrents of fear and loneliness and violence. But it's also a very tender, compassionate novel, shot through with everyday beauty and yes, love.

28.2.24

The Goblin Emperor

Katherine Addison's novel The Goblin Emperor was published almost ten years ago, but I hadn't come across it before. It was a recommendation from author Francis Spufford; I know we share very similar taste in books because I was captivated by his 2002 memoir, The Child That Books Built. So I was pretty sure I was onto a winner, and so I was.

The Goblin Emperor is high fantasy, set in a steampunk world of airships, pneumatic messages, elves (white skinned and blue eyed) and goblins (dark skinned and orange eyed). When Maia's father, the emperor, and his three older brothers are all killed in an airship explosion, this eighteen year old half-goblin finds himself unexpectedly ascending to the throne and having to negotiate the intricacies of court intrigues and competing political interests. As Spufford says, Maia succeeds by 'being nice to everyone,' and while it's not quite as simple as that, the story is all the more satisfying for having a solid moral heart of kindness.

The world building underpinning this novel is extraordinary -- trade, language, formal courtesies, food, technology, racism -- nothing is forgotten (there is an extensive glossary at the back of the book and some helpful notes, which I wish I'd read at the beginning). The Goblin Emperor is filed under adult fantasy in my local library, but it could easily be a young adult book (except there's not much sex or romance, which seems to be mandatory for YA books these days), or even a sophisticated older primary reader who would love to be immersed in this complete, complex world.