Is There Life Outside the Box?

Not long after I read Tabitha Carvan's delightful This is Not A Book About Benedict Cumberbatch, what should turn up on Brotherhood Books but this autobiography by my own first obsessive crush. I was introduced to Peter Davison as the charming, rakish vet Tristan Farnon in the 1970s version of All Creatures Great and Small, and when he went on to take over the role of the Doctor in my other obsession, Dr Who, my wildest dreams came true (okay, second wildest dreams -- the wildest would have been if the TARDIS had actually landed in my backyard).

Is There Life Outside the Box? thus refers both to the TARDIS phone box and also to television itself: Davison has worked primarily on British TV for his whole long career. He's currently probably most well known for being David Tennant's father-in-law (DT wrote the introduction). The subtitle, An Actor Despairs, is apparently a play on a famous acting manual, An Actor Prepares, a reference which was totally lost on me but was luckily explained early on.

Davison is an engaging companion, sharing some well worn acting anecdotes, some more surprising stories, and a some personal insights too. He experienced his own wilderness years in the 1990s, unnoticed by me, because I kept seeing repeats popping up. I have a particular soft spot for a brilliant but obscure comedy-drama series called A Very Peculiar Practice, set in a university medical centre and written by Andrew Davies, who went on to write about a million adaptations including Pride and Prejudice. One thing I learned about Peter Davison which was I'd had no idea about is that this apparently super-Anglo, blond and blue-eyed actor has a black father, born in the West Indies.

In high school, my best friend and I made a pact that when our respective crushes (hers was Paul Darrow from Blake's 7) grew old and grey and weren't famous anymore, we would go over to the UK and track them down and take care of them in their dotage. Alas, Peter Davison seems to be still quite hale and active and well-loved, and in little need of my assistance. I might give it another twenty years!


Winter Holiday


Winter Holiday may not be the best of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series, but it is definitely my favourite, and the one I've read the most times -- this old copy of mine is almost falling apart. In contrast to the previous three volumes, there is almost no sailing in this one, and unlike the others, it takes place in deepest winter rather than the height of summer or in tropical heat. The deep snow and hard frost of a northern English winter seemed hugely romantic to me, marooned in temperate Australia or PNG: that was one attraction.

Perhaps the most powerful appeal of Winter Holiday lay in the introduction of Dick and Dorothea Callum -- not experienced sailors and explorers like the Walkers and Blacketts, but town children, unschooled in the outdoors. If there was a place in the adventures for dreamy Dot, always writing stories in her head, and nerdy bespectacled Dick, then surely they might find a place for me?

I love the frozen lake, I love the rescue of the cragfast sheep, I love the final race to the Pole in the snowstorm. But I love even more poor Captain Nancy suffering with mumps, buying the others an extra month of holidays and trying to direct the action from her sickbed; I love Peggy trying valiantly to fill her sister's pirate boots. And I relish the scene when Captain Flint arrives at his ice-bound houseboat, taken over by Arctic expeditioners, and discovers Dick and Dot comfortably at home, surrounded by rabbit skin hats and mittens and sheepskin blankets...

I just wish Dot didn't pin all her self-esteem and pride on her brother's skills! I just know that Dot and I would be friends (though she's a far better skater than me.) And there are no 'natives' and 'savages' in this book, just seals and 'Eskimos,' which somehow doesn't seem so bad.


The Memory Code

This utterly fascinating book was lent to me by my friend Chris Kelly (no relation). I'd previously read Lynne Kelly's book in the First Knowledges series, Songlines, co-authored with Margo Neale, and I'm looking forward to reading Memory Craft, which I gather is more of a practical guide to putting Kelly's insights into practice.

Lynne Kelly's key revelation in The Memory Code is that many, if not all, ancient monuments are actually what she calls 'memory spaces.' Extrapolating from the idea of Australian Indigenous songlines, in which landscape and story are sung together as a way of preserving knowledge (practical survival knowledge as well as sacred stories), she imagines the transitional time in human history between living as hunter-gatherers and becoming settled food producers. She reasons, very plausibly, that the intimate hunter-gatherer knowledge would still be highly valued -- but how to preserve that oral knowledge when walking the landscape was no longer a permanent way of living? She theorises that structures like Stonehenge, the animal shapes traced in the desert at Nasca, the immense statues on Rapa Nui and others, were constructed as memory devices, to be walked or observed as an aid to calling up elaborate images or stories that embed vast amounts of remembered information.

Kelly gives an exhilarating account of her own experience of using her own neighbourhood to absorb and recall more information than she would have thought possible, and gives some hints of the way different streams of knowledge begin to intertwine and inform each other, enriching the whole way she looks at the world -- this is why I'm looking forward to finding out more in Memory Craft. Her theory seems to me totally plausible and hugely important, showing us how Indigeous knowledges can help us to understand other civilizations, and also a key to perhaps deepening our own relationship to our precious world.


Deadly Quiet City


I borrowed Murong Xuecun's Deadly Quiet City from the library after seeing it mentioned on Crikey (my go-to news website). Wow, what a read. It recounts the first hand stories of Wuhan residents in the very first days of the pandemic, before anyone knew or admitted that it was a pandemic -- stories gathered at great personal risk by Murong Xuecun, whispered in hotel rooms and smuggled out of the country, told by people who still feared the repercussions if it was discovered that they had spoken: in the parlance of the Chinese Communist Party, 'made mischief' and 'stirred up trouble' or 'supported foreign propaganda.'

The stories these citizens tell are truly hair-raising. There is a wide variety of experiences here -- a hospital cleaner, a grieving mother, a doctor, a volunteer at a health station, a defiant rebel. Some remain faithful to the Party despite everything they've gone through, others became totally disillusioned, others were always inclined to be suspicious of power. But all their stories of the chaos and cover-ups, the desperation and horror of those early days, are vivid and terrifying.

Deadly Quiet City includes an appendix timeline compiled by Australian academic Clive Hamilton, which has really convinced me that the 'bat in the wet market' line doesn't really stand up, and perhaps the 'virus escaped from the lab' story might be the correct one after all. But Deadly Quiet City isn't just a book about a breaking pandemic -- it's also a book about what it's like to live in China, in a tightly controlled society, many of whose members are content to trade personal freedoms for security. As a person who inclines towards favouring safety myself, it's made me think twice about the costs of living under a one party state.




I borrowed Dani Shapiro's memoir, Inheritance, from the library on a whim after seeing it recommended on Facebook -- I'm a sucker for stories about family mysteries and secrets and long lost relatives. In fact I've recently also become addicted to the British TV show, Long Lost Family, which has eight seasons available on ABC iView, and has reduced my own family to tears every time we've watched it.

Inheritance is Dani Shapiro's own story of accidentally discovering, through an impulsive DNA test, that she was in fact not related to her own deceased father, nor, by extension, to her much older half-sister, or her large extended family on her father's side. This was a devastating blow; Shapiro had always felt closer to her father than her mother -- who was she, if she was not her father's child? Inheritance tells how she unravelled the mystery of her paternity and gradually came to terms with her experience of her identity shattering. 

The discovery was all the more shocking because Shapiro identifies strongly as Jewish; while she was still Jewish, because Jewishness is traced through the mother, the loss of her whole father's family rocked her sense of self. But paradoxically, the uncovering of the secret also made sense of the silence at the heart of her parents' marriage; of her mother's ambivalent love; of her father's hollowness; and of a persistent uncertainty in Shapiro's own consciousness.

Inheritance is a fascinating story, though it might have been more satisfying as a long magazine article than spun out into a whole book.


The Magic City


Not the cover of my copy, which is a hardcover without a dust jacket, so it's plain orange -- I chose this one to post because it's the most colourful. The Magic City is unusual in that it's an Edith Nesbit novel that I'd never read, and it's marvellous, up there with the classics like The Phoenix and the Carpet or Five Children and It

Philip is upset because his older sister (ahem, mother figure in all but name) is marrying another man, who is fortunately rich and lovely and already has a daughter about Philip's own age. But Philip won't make friends with Lucy and occupies himself with building an enormous model city out of blocks and vases and books and various household objects, which then magically comes to life. Philip and Lucy become trapped there and have to defeat the almighty Destroyer, Lucy's nurse, who wants to pull down the whole fabulous construction. The Destroyer/Pretenderette is ultimately beaten, but she's not a totally unsympathetic figure, pointing out her own rotten experience in being a servant, and unloved, and her fate is not such a terrible one.

The illustrations by H.R. Millar are generally wonderful as usual, except that the two dogs, clearly described in the text as daschunds, are drawn for some reason as dalmatians?? Otherwise this is a lovely old-fashioned escapist fantasy with a comforting happy ending and an appealing pair of protagonists (because of course Lucy turns out to be brave, loyal and much cleverer than Philip, and they end up becoming friends after all). E. Nesbit truly is the master from whom all the rest of us can learn.


Peter Duck


I seem to have embarked on a read-through of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series, which were such childhood favourites that when I received the (almost) complete set for Christmas when I was about twelve, it was the Best. Present. Ever. 

Having said that, I wasn't massively looking forward to re-reading Peter Duck, which is one of two books in the series (the other is the deeply problematic Missee Lee, which interestingly was absent from my Christmas set and had to be bought years later) which isn't a 'real life' adventure, but as Swallowdale makes clear, is made up over Christmas holidays by the Swallows and Amazons themselves, with assistance from Captain Flint -- a story within a story, with Peter Duck himself a fictional character invented by the children (meta, eh?).

However, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book! Yes, it's a fantastical adventure involving a race for pirate treasure, water spouts, stormy seas, a hurricane, some pretty scary violence and some racist language, but it retains the realist, believable atmosphere of the other more mundane adventures, with lots of practical detail about sailing (maybe too much detail for some), stores and sewing. (Though the one detail missing from the floor plan of the ship is the toilet...)

I noticed this time through that the nasty villains (one of whom is a 'big Negro,' oh dear) take out all their violence on Peter Duck and the rescued cabin boy Bill, so none of our regular protagonists suffer any injury. If it wasn't for the aforementioned racist language, which honestly I think could be edited out without much trouble this time) this is a cracking adventure story with a satisfying conclusion.

ETA: Forgot to add that Captain Flint was dozing when he had Peter Duck tell the story of Pelorus Jack, the welcoming dolphin, who was indeed real, but lived in New Zealand rather than Sydney Harbour.


Scribbles, Sorrows and Russet Leather Boots


Liz Rosenberg's Scribbles, Sorrows, and Russet Leather Boots is that rarest of beasts: a young adult biography, charmingly illustrated by Dian Sudyka. It's the life story of Louisa May Alcott, who wrote a version of her own autobiography in her best-known and deeply beloved novel, Little Women

However, as Scribbles, Sorrows makes clear, Little Women is a look at Louisa's youth through rose-tinted glasses. She did have three sisters, who conformed more or less to the images of the March sisters as we know them, and the family did live in Concord and did enjoy a life that combined good deeds, hard work and the freedom of picnics, boating, and amateur theatricals. But Louisa's real life was much harder and more bitter than the version she created for Little Women.

Mr Alcott was not exactly the wise, benign pastor we met in Mr March -- he was a man of high principles but little practical sense of responsibility. He started schools (all of which failed) and gave philosophical lectures, but refused to enter paid employment, which he regarded as a kind of slavery, despite the fact that this decision plunged his wife and children into utter poverty. He enjoyed the big book-lined study, which Louisa, the one who actually earned money with her writing, was forced to scribble at a cramped desk in the corner of her bedroom.

All the weight of responsibility for the family landed on Louisa's shoulders. The illness of Lizzie (Beth), the early death of Anna's (Meg's) husband, her parents' increasing frailty, May's (Amy's) artistic education, and eventually the raising of May's daughter -- all fell to Louisa to deal with, supporting the whole family with her writing. Tragically, her own health took a downward slide after a stint nursing during the Civil War. Louisa fell ill with typhoid pneumonia and was generously treated with calomel, then regarded as a wonder drug, but now exposed as toxic. Louisa suffered for the rest of her life with mercury poisoning, which eventually killed her.

Rosenberg attempts to paint Alcott's life as ultimately fulfilling and positive, but reading the details of her daily struggles, it's difficult to take such a rosy view. I've also read a Twitter theory that Alcott was trans, regarding herself as male, and certainly Louisa, or Louie, did take on much of the traditional masculine role of family breadwinner and guardian. However I think ultimately, without access to Alcott's private papers, I'm more comfortable with Greta Gerwig's interpretation of Jo and Laurie as blurring gender roles, with Jo leaning to the masculine and Laurie to the feminine. Rosenberg also seems inclined to this view.

Scribbles, Sorrows and Russet Leather Boots was lent to me by my friend Sian -- thank you!


The Nancys


For a while I wasn't sure if New Zealand-born author R.W.R. McDonald's debut novel, The Nancys, was supposed to be a book for adults, young adults or children. Our protagonist is Tippy Chan, eleven years old; but she is aided and abetted by a couple of gloriously adults-only characters in her uncle Pike and his flamboyant boyfriend Devon (the secondary meaning of Nancys has only just struck me -- der!). Tippy aspires to be her mystery-solving heroine, Nancy Drew (I was a big fan of Nancy D, too, at the same age, as well as Nancy Blackett) and when murders start to happen in Tippy's hometown, the scene is set for a dangerous quest while Tippy's mum is away on a cruise. But there are other secrets to be uncovered, the most important being how Tippy's own father died.

Tippy is a great narrator, observant and smart, but allowing space for the reader to put together clues she doesn't quite understand. The Nancys is wonderful fun, packed with jokes but also warm and sweet as well as an absorbing mystery. There is a sequel, Nancy Business, and The Nancys has been optioned for a film -- I really hope it happens, because The Nancys will make a fantastic movie.


This Is Not A Book About Benedict Cumberbatch


I absolutely adored Tabitha Carvan's This Is Not A Book About Benedict Cumberbatch (in fact there is a lengthy appendix which is about Benedict Cumberbatch, and he is sprinkled generously throughout). I think I must have heard Carvan discussing her book on the radio and I immediately reserved it at the library. This book is tremendous fun; I laughed aloud, was moved and related to it deeply.

Carvan's journey begins when she, as a young mother, develops a massive crush on Benedict Cumberbatch's character in Sherlock (been there), which then morphs into an obsession with Cumberbatch himself (I went a short way down that path, but nowhere near as far as Carvan). What's interesting is the feelings of guilt, secrecy and shame that accompanied this new and absorbing interest. 

The book sensitively and thoughtfully (and very entertainingly) follows Carvan's evolution toward embracing this source of pure pleasure as legitimate and joyous, rather than something to be embarrassed about. She talks about being a young music fan, and how she felt that she wasn't loving music the 'right' way ie like a man, and how women's interests in general are dismissed as frivolous and inherently unworthy, and also about how hard it is as a wife/mother/carer/woman to unapologetically carve out time and space for one's own pleasure. I loved the part when Carvan looks across at a (male) work colleague's desk, festooned with emblems of his football club, and then at her own, adorned with Cumberbatch mugs and calendars, and thinks, well, what's the difference?

This book led me to ponder the celebrity crushes I had as an adolescent and young woman, and the revival of those feelings when I became a mother of young children. I plunged into a fierce crush on David Tennant when he became the Tenth Doctor. This was not the first time Dr Who and a celebrity crush had collided in my life; I was also in love with the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, for many years. Carvan reflects on the difficulty of finding a space for mental and emotional privacy and pleasure when your daily existence revolves around the needs of others; when David Tennant/Benedict Cumberbatch takes up residence inside your head, he is always there for you. And there is absolutely nothing with that!


Comet in Moominland


As a child I had a handful of Tove Jansson's Moomin books, but I had never read Comet in Mooninland, so I was extremely pleased to discover that it is effectively the first in the whole series.* (You would think Finn Family Moomintroll whould be the first, but no.) Comet in Moominland introduces the important characters of the wanderer Snufkin, the Snork and his beautiful sister, the Snork Maiden, and the studious Hemulen, all of whom feature heavily in Finn Family Moomintroll and the following volumes, so it was lovely to meet them for the first time on this adventure.

But the main focus is on Moomintroll himself, who sets out along with timid Sniff to discover more about the sinister comet which is looming over their peaceful world. Parts of Comet are quite scary, as the seas and rivers dry up, leaving behind a creepy landscape which out little adventurers have to navigate on stilts.

As a child I enjoyed the Moomin books and found them charming, without ever totally falling in love with them. There was an edge of weirdness to them that threw me slightly off-kilter so I was never able to completely relax in their world. Also big scary things did keep happening, like being washed away in a flood or a jungle growing through the house, so they were not exactly comforting books. But I'm still very pleased to have filled in a big gap in my Moomin experience.

* Technically, the first book is The Moomins and the Great Flood, but that book is less substantial than those that followed, and much closer to a picture book, so I'm not really counting it.


We Have Always Lived in the Castle


Confession: I plucked Shirley Jackson's 1962 gothic novel from my elder daughter's room because it looked short and easy to read. A day later I was texting her: I'm reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle, it's creepy af, to which she replied I know!!

This is one of the most darkly disturbing novels I've ever read. Told from the point of view of Merricat Blackwood, living with her two surviving relatives in an isolated mansion, the tragic history of their family is gradually revealed, and the tension ratchets up as their precariously sheltered existence comes under threat, to end in a catastrophic climax and a weirdly happy ending. 

Merricat is brilliantly drawn and utterly chilling; in less than 150 pages we are completely drawn into her crooked world. I'm glad this novel was so short, I'm not sure I would have been able to bear to spend any longer inside her head, but We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a masterclass in character writing and a devastating story that will haunt you.


The Idea of Australia


I reserved Julianne Schultz's The Idea of Australia from the library long before the federal election was called, but it turned out I was reading it during the last couple of weeks of the campaign. Talk about perfect timing. While policy debates (such as they were) swirled around us, there were demands for Murugappan family to be returned to Biloela, our relationship to Pacific nations became an election issue, a band of impressive independent women took on the overwhelmingly male 'safe' Liberal party seat (and ended up winning!)... as all this was going on, I was reading about the political history of Australia, its shames and triumphs, as interpreted by another very impressive woman.

Julianne Schultz spent years on this book, subtitled A search for the soul of the nation. She examines the troubled history of Indigenous resistance and reconciliation, immigration, suffrage, the pandemic, Australia's place on the world stage, war and many other issues, all informed with her expertise as an academic, journalist and publisher. She intersperses her analysis with snippets of personal experience that are sometimes funny, sometimes horrifying, but she maintains throughout a bracing sense of optimism that things can and will change for the better. This was a message I very much needed to hear, and now that the government has changed, I'm allowing myself to hope, too. I know there will be disappointments ahead -- there always are -- but I can't help feeling that a great weight has been lifted off the shoulders of our nation and we can raise our heads to the horizon after a long period of despair.