When Marnie Was There

I bought Joan G. Robinson's When Marnie Was There new, on an impulse, last year, because it's one of my favourite ever childhood books, and I decided I couldn't bear not to own it any longer. It arrived with the intriguing tag-line Major motion picture coming soon, and I now discover that a Studio Ghibli version was released in December -- so I might have to buy that on impulse too..!

My first experience of Marnie was when it was read aloud to my class, at the end of Grade 5, in Mt Hagen, in Papua New Guinea -- worlds away from the desolate Norfolk marshes where the story is set. But the gentle, wistful tale of lonely Anna and her mysterious friend Marnie gripped my imagination. At the end of the reading, the teacher asked, 'Do you think Marnie was really there?' I was indignant; of course Marnie was real, in the story. But our teacher pressed on, insisting, 'That couldn't really happen, could it? It must have been Anna's imagination.' (I wonder now why she read it to us at all, if she was so determined to deny the magic of the book!) But I was hotly resistant to any interpretation that reduced Anna and Marnie's magical connection to dry psychology. I remember the strength of my outrage, and the feeling that I was standing up for the book, somehow, that I needed to defend it. It might have been the first time that my personal interpretation of a book was ever challenged by adult authority. But I didn't give in.

Reading it again, it's just as magical as I remembered, written with such subtle skill that both interpretations are indeed possible. But I still prefer my original take on it (if there's a timey-wimey option available, I'll take it every time!) And I see now what a strong influence Marnie was on Cicada Summer; I even named one of my own characters Anna, without realising.

In many ways, When Marnie Was There is my perfect book.


The Book Thief

This was the second time I've read Markus Zusak's The Book Thief (it's coming up for next month's book group) and I have to say that I approached it with a little trepidation. I've struggled to find a way of expressing how I feel about the experience of reading this book, and finally I came up with this: it feels like walking along a beautiful shoreline, barefoot, on sharp stones.

The first time I read it, the discomfort of the sharp edges underfoot was overwhelming. The Book Thief is written in a very distinctive, deliberate style. Almost every adjective choice is unexpected: wooden tears, glittering anger, the sun was blond, her cardboard face, the bumpiness of love. You can never forget that you're reading a text; it's impossible to lose yourself in the story, because the jarring (often apt and beautiful, sometimes awkward) language constantly jerks you back. And that's without even mentioning that the book is narrated by the character of Death...

On second reading, I was able to adjust better to the language choices, and admire them, and find my way to the actual story. I could lift my eyes to the landscape I was passing through, and appreciate its shape and sorrow. I'm glad I've read it twice.

The Book Thief has been incredibly successful, and ardently loved, and made into a movie (which I haven't seen). It would be a very hard act to follow.


Inventing Imaginary Worlds

I bought this on the Kindle as part of my on-going research for a possible future project (still mulling…)   The full title is Inventing Imaginary Worlds: From Childhood Play to Adult Creativity Across the Arts and Sciences. Michele Root-Bernstein argues that imaginative worldplay should be encouraged as a means of promoting creativity, not just for writers and artists, but scientists, inventors, social scientists and others, and she details many case studies where successful practitioners in the latter fields report having created imaginary worlds as children and adolescents. She sometimes stretches her definitions of 'worldplay' quite far, including imaginary baseball leagues, for example, but it's still an interesting, and encouraging, thesis. Refreshingly, she doesn't condemn computer play out of hand, recognising that participation in a shared imaginary world is often part of the appeal of such activity; but she is also aware that technology will need to progress before children can take full advantage of the potential for world-building online without adult intervention. (Minecraft, which she doesn't discuss, is surely a step in the right direction.)
What I would have liked was more detail about the actual worlds her interview subjects invented, but Root-Bernstein was more interested in the implications of their play for their adult lives; which is fair enough.

(I'm going to start calling these posts 'book responses' rather than 'reviews', because I think reviews demand a more considered, critical and thoughtful analysis than I have time to prepare -- these posts are just a gut-feel reaction, really.)


More New Guinea Moon Reviews!

I find it extremely peculiar that when New Guinea Moon was published, almost a year ago, it received barely a single review, and yet now reviews seem to be popping up from the most unexpected places.

This one is from the Subversive Reader:
This was an absolutely beautiful read which did a wonderful job of bringing the beauty and contradictions of 1970s New Guinea to the reader. I realised, as I read it, that I’d never read a book set in New Guinea before, which seemed like a pretty big oversight.
One of the things Julie discovers in the book is the casual racism of the ex-pat community, especially the diminutive terms used for the local men and women who work for them, regardless of their age (Julie seems particularly conscious of it, which is explained away by having a mother who talks about it at home, but I’m still not sure how realistic it is for a teenager in the 1970s). However, the author doesn’t shy away from showing the reader moments when Julie is also casually racist – the book does a good job of showing the complexities involved and pointing out that there’s always ways to do better.
I think it’s terribly important that we have books which tell stories of Australia’s past – the honest truth beyond what is often taught in history classes. This is a book which points out that we had a colonial past beyond our own borders and that it wasn’t really that long ago – less than 10 years before I was born. It’s not always a nice story to think about, but it is an important one. Books like this help us think more about it and should be celebrated more than they are.
My only complaint about the book is that it felt a little rushed towards the end, almost like another storyline had been pushed in where it didn’t really need to belong. It just felt slightly unbalanced, like it appeared too late in the book.
New Guinea Moon is a really lovely book which does a wonderful job of setting up Julie’s world and the things she sees. I thoroughly recommend it.

And this one comes from the Darien Times in Connecticut, of all places. It's most mysterious, I don't know how their reviewer even came across it!

But thank you!


The White Darkness

Wow! The White Darkness, by Geraldine McCaughrean, wasn't what I was expecting at all. I came across a reference to it recently when I was looking for books about people who invent imaginary worlds and imaginary companions (the first stirrings of a possible future project), and I remembered reading a review in The Age when it was first published (2005, which seems awfully long ago) and thinking, that sounds interesting… And then I found it in the local library. Yay!

All I could recall when I started reading is that the main character, Sym, is in love with Titus Oates (Scott's doomed Antarctic expedition, 'I'm going out of the tent and I may be some time,' you know, him), whose presence she carries around inside her head. But more than an exploration of the comforts and pitfalls of imagined companionship, The White Darkness became an unexpectedly gripping and quite bizarre thriller, set in the wastes of the Antarctic, which is described in gorgeous, vivid and unsettling prose.

Totally, surprisingly, fabulous.


Dirt Music

I picked this up at the library book sale and it's been sitting at the bottom of the pile-by-the-bed for at least two years, until my daughter shamed me into finally reading it. I'm sure neither the book itself nor Tim Winton need my approval (Dirt Music alone has won about a trillion awards), but it's true I did resist starting this one for a long, long time, and the resistance lasted till I got about halfway through, when I finally managed to surrender to the story. For a while I had to break the book up into fifty page chunks and force myself to keep reading one chunk at a time.

It's weird, I love the way that Tim Winton writes about country, and being in the bush, and by the sea -- but I feel so remote from his characters. I couldn't connect to Georgie or Lu or Jim until almost the very end of the book. Maybe they're just not my kind of people, I don't know; if I met them in real life I'd be scared of them. Maybe this is why I don't read much adult fiction? Maybe I felt resistant just because it had won so many awards? Also, I am not a music lover, so that wasn't a way in for me either.

But the descriptions are wonderful.

Note: I've just found this article which asks, why did Georgie sell the boat her father gave her, instead of setting off herself in search of the missing Lu? Hm. Good question!


Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean

A couple of exciting parcels arrived on my doorstep recently: copies of Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean in both its Indian and Australian incarnations. At last I could hold it in my sweaty hands (literally, this week!) and devour its contents (not literally).

I knew that it was going to be a strange and intriguing mixture, but I wasn't prepared for the sheer range of pieces -- styles and forms and different kinds of collaborative process -- that made the book even more fascinating than I expected. There are paired short stories, graphic stories, fairy tales and science fiction. Reading the notes at the back where the authors and artists discuss their collaborative journeys was just as absorbing as the stories themselves! Some pairs (like Priya Kuriyan and me) developed a single piece together; others tossed ideas back and forth across cyberspace and bounced away to create separate but linked stories; others critiqued each other's work. The result is a rich brew of individual, bite-sized morsels, swirling in a single spicy pot (forgive the mixed metaphor!) It was wonderful to be able to read it properly at last. Publication day is the end of January, so it will be hitting the shops soon!

Just to whet your appetite, here is another image from Swallow the Moon, the story that Priya and I created together. Isn't it gorgeous? Priya is so talented!

Also read:
World's End Was Home, by Nan Chauncey
This is an old-fashioned adventure from the 50's, set partly in Tasmania and partly in Melbourne, complete with an orphan, a long-lost (rich) relative, a baby wombat and a sinister pursuit. There were a couple of explicitly cringey moments, as when Dallie is required to write in an exam 'all you know about the Australian blackfellow.' And when the family settle in their pristine, isolated Tasmanian bush paradise, the ghosts of the original dispossessed inhabitants seem to stir silently between the lines of the story.
But overall, this was a light, enjoyable yarn, beautifully illustrated by Shirley Hughes.


The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas

Years ago, I read a discussion of John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas on the blog of my American editor, Cheryl Klein, in which she stated that she hated this book 'with the white-hot loathing of a thousand suns.' It's possible that this prejudiced me; Cheryl is a woman's whose opinion I greatly respect. But seriously, now I've read it for myself, I can confidently state that it really is that bad.

This is not a book written for children; it's written for very stupid people. Bruno is supposed to be nine (ten, by the end), but his level of understanding is about that of a four year old. He's the son of a Nazi commandant who has never heard the word Jew, or Fatherland, or Fuhrer. He calls Hitler 'the Fury', which is 'cute' in a really inappropriate way, and ignores the fact that German and English are completely different languages. In fact the whole book is written in this coy, cutesy way, presumably to highlight Bruno's innocence and naivety; but it's just irritating, and trivialises the dreadful facts of the death camps by pretending that the events of the story could ever have occurred, even in a 'fable.' Also (spoiler alert) I find it really disturbing that the shock ending is (presumably) intended to upset us more than the actual horrific reality.

I could go on, but I'll save it for book group, which is the reason I read it. Should be an interesting discussion...


To The Wild Sky

I remember picking up To The Wild Sky by Ivan Southall from the classroom bookshelf in Grade 5, starting to read it, and putting it back. Perhaps it was too confronting; my father was a pilot, who flew small planes much like the one featured in the book. In the early chapters, the pilot of this plane suddenly drops dead, leaving the six children on board to cope as best they can. One of them, Gerald, has luckily tried his hand at flying this plane before, under his father's supervision (even though he's only 13!), and he takes the controls. The book follows their flight, their crash landing, and what happens next.

Even after nearly forty years, I still found this a difficult read; I started it before Christmas and only just managed to finish it yesterday. It might be the almost excruciating detail of the flight itself that put me off, especially in light of recent aviation disasters. It was just too vivid for my imagination, too realistic. I very much enjoyed Southall's Hill's End last year, and this is similar in theme -- stranded kids forced to draw on their inner resources, and co-operate, to survive -- but this version came perilously close to be being too harrowing for me. It was all so grim, lacking the flashes of humour that lightened Hill's End. It was well done, despite the traces of sexism and racism of the time -- it was published in 1966 --but I soldiered through this one rather than enjoying it. Even the ending is pretty grim; the kids aren't rescued, but they manage to light a fire, and might be about to find fresh water in their remote location. It's not much to feel cheerful about!


2014: Reading Round-Up

Time to review my year of reading in 2014. This year I read a total of 94 books; my totals below won't add up because of things like multiple authors (also I'm doing my sums on the back of an envelope!) This total is a lot lower than last year's. I didn't read much while I was getting over my op, in the middle of the year; I watched hours of TV on the couch instead. And a couple of blockbusters (Far From the Tree and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) chewed up weeks of reading time.

Adult: 44
YA/children's: 50
This was actually the hardest category to define. I read a number of books that could have fallen into either classification: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Sea Hearts, The Cartographer, To Kill A Mockingbird? But it's come out in a pretty even split. The proportion of adult books was slightly higher this year.

Female author: 65
Male author: 31
My pro-female bias is showing again! This split is about the same as last year. And I must admit, going over my list, I realised that the books I didn't enjoy were usually by male authors. Sorry, guys! But I hasten to add that I did read some really excellent books by men this year -- the two titles mentioned in the intro, for example.

Fiction: 84
Non-fiction: 10
Yikes! Last year the split was about 75% fic/ 25% non-fic. I've read hardly any non-fiction this year, with, again, the notable exception of Far From the Tree, which was massive. Maybe I was looking for escapism in a fairly tough year? I must give a shout-out to Helen Garner's This House of Grief, which was also wonderful.

New: 21
Second-hand: 35
Library: 16
E-book: 7
Borrowed from friends: 9
Re-read/already owned: 7
I bought a higher proportion of new books this year, partly thanks to a book voucher I received last Christmas, but also due to a scary new on-line book habit (thanks, Readings.com.au and biblio.com...) Again, most of my reading matter was sourced from second-hand books shops and library book sales. Interestingly, I bought fewer e-books this year. I made a lot of visits to the library, but looking at the number of books I actually read, I realise that I spent most of those visits borrowing for my children. Sometimes I feel guilty about the number of second-hand books I buy, but even if I bought two a week it probably wouldn't equal my husband's coffee habit, so I won't feel too bad! My re-reads this year were To Kill A Mockingbird and my Antonia Forest collection. The joys of the latter were enhanced enormously by an on-going on-line read-through via Live Journal (I might talk more about this in a later post).

Australian author: 31
UK: 40
US: 16
Canada: 2
Germany: 1
NZ: 1
India: 3
This spread is slightly more diverse than last year, but not much. I forgot my resolution to read more non-Anglo authors and my bias toward British authors is still apparent. This reflects a lot of comfort reading this year -- eg multiple Agatha Christie and Antonia Forest titles which I return to repeatedly for reliable pleasures. I did, however, start to address my ignorance of Australian children's writers like Nan Chauncey, Ivan Southall and Hesba Brinsmead.

New releases (since 2000): 46
1950 - 2000: 36
Pre-1950: 13
New category! I'm actually quite relieved to see that my reading preferences are not entirely antique! A clear majority of the books I read were recent releases, and most of those were brand new. Doing my bit to support the publishing industry… In future I might break this down more precisely, as there's a big difference between a book published in 1999 and one published in 1950.

This year I'm going to try to be a bit more diligent in reviewing the books I read on this blog, and try to overcome my aversion to reviewing books by authors I might meet (or already know). They might not be long reviews, but I will try to stretch those critical muscles slightly.

Happy New Year, everyone, and I hope you got lots of books for Christmas! (I scored four.)