Dreams Must Explain Themselves

I wish I had discovered The Wizard of Earthsea and its sequels when I was at school, but somehow, even though I loved fantasy, they passed me by. I used to read quite a bit of science fiction in high school, too, but again, I somehow failed to find Ursula Le Guin's classics, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed until I was an adult. However, once I found her -- not coincidentally, just as I was embarking on writing my own fantasy novels -- I was an instant, utter convert to her writing. Her influence on my work is probably clear to see, though I haven't read everything she's ever written. (The character of Ursa in The Singer of All Songs is a nod in her honour.)

I was thrilled to stumble across Dreams Must Explain Themselves, a collection of some of Le Guin's non-fiction work, arranged chronologically, from 1972 all the way to 2014, just a few years before she died. There are speeches, articles, meanderings, and rants here, from an indignant defence of the importance of gender in Left Hand of Darkness (complete with later admissions that she got some decisions wrong at the time), to a wonderful wander through the history of animals in children's fiction, including praise for a 1930s Australian novel which was much lauded at the time, but which I'd never heard of: Man-Shy by Frank Dalby Davison (published as Red Heifer in the US).

It's sobering to note that Le Guin is writing about the banning of her books way back in 1984, and discussing the same issues that arise in Wifedom in 1988. Le Guin's wisdom, her wry humour, her sharp intelligence, shine from every page. I wish she was still around, but I'm glad we had her for as long as we did.


My Sister Rosa

I finally caught up with Justine Larbalestier's 2016 novel, My Sister Rosa (thanks, Athenaeum library). Larbalestier likes to dance on the dark side -- Razorhurst featured legions of Sydney ghosts in the gangster dominated 1920s, Liar centred on a murderous unreliable narrator. My Sister Rosa is about a bad seed, a malevolent manipulative psychopath -- who happens to be a cute ten year old girl. How far will she go, and can her big brother Che stop her in time?

This is a sinister story, raising uncomfortable questions about the nature of evil and morality. Is Rosa irredeemably wicked, or is she just a child with some issues around social adjustment? Rosa is very good at picking holes in other people's arguments, pointing out correctly that everyone else also lies, sometimes takes pleasure in others' misfortunes, wishes people dead, and puts their own interests first -- so what's wrong with her doing it too? And what about Che? With the same family genetics and upbringing, is there a chance that he could be the same as Rosa? His mother is concerned that Che loves boxing, which as far as she's concerned, is just pure violence. Is there a difference between violence in the ring and on the streets? (On this issue, I think I'm on Sally's side rather than Che's, but it's clear Larbalestier is a boxing fan.)

My Sister Rosa doesn't have a happy ending, and there's a twist that I didn't see coming which raises even more awkward questions. As well as a family and friendship drama, the novel also contains a beautiful love story and a peek into the world of the super rich. It would make a great Netflix drama.


A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep

After devouring the second part of Rumer Godden's autobiography, A House With Four Rooms, a few weeks ago, I pounced on A Time To Dance, No Time To Weep when I saw it on the shelves of the Athenaeum. Some of the material was familiar to me from reading Godden's novels, but I'm fairly sure I haven't read this first volume of autobiography before.

It was so fascinating to read another memoir of young adulthood spent in India during the 1920s and 30s, the same time as M.M. Kaye, though I don't think they ever crossed paths. But Godden is fathoms deeper and more thoughtful about her experience, more aware of the local inhabitants outside the Raj bubble, and with many more personal relationships outside of the servant circle. Kaye certainly had fun; but Godden had joy.

I especially love the final section of the book, which deals with Godden's time living in a simple wooden house in the mountains of Kashmir with her two young daughters. Her marriage had broken down and she couldn't afford to live in the town; but the family could afford to live for almost nothing in Dove House. The frightening story of how this idyll collapsed is also told in Kingfishers Catch Fire, but the truth is even more painful than the novel.

I absolutely adore Rumer Godden's writing, and A Time To Dance alerted me to several early novels of hers which I have never come across. Reader, I broke. I have ordered six previously unread (by me) Rumer Godden novels from World of Books; I couldn't live without them any longer! No Book Buying resolution totally smashed.


Seeing Other People

I was equal parts jealous and admiring of Diana Reid's whip-smart debut, Love and Virtue, partly because I was also working on a novel set in the first year of a university residential college, and she'd taken all my best material! In Seeing Other People, the stakes feel lower, though really, what could be more important than being in love, and family?

The spiky triangle at the heart of Seeing Other People consists of two sisters, Eleanor and Charlie, who both fall in love with the same woman, Helen. But there are other complications, in a Sydney summer of beach swims and share houses, backyard parties and theatre auditions. It's eminently readable, clever and touching, and as the cover art suggests, sits comfortably alongside Sally Rooney and Nina Kenwood (albeit for a slightly older audience than Kenwood's books).

BUT! I was appalled by the sloppy editing which really irked me -- I noticed break instead of brake; discrete instead of discreet; hairbrained instead of harebrained. My daughter scolds me for my pedantry and says I should chill out about the fact that language changes. I can accept that, up to a point, and I'm struggling to relax about it, but perhaps my 'braking' point is here.


The Bastables

I loved E. Nesbit's books as a child, I borrowed them over and over again from the Mt Hagen library, and while my favourites were the magical Five Children stories, I also read the Bastable novels multiple times. However, I'm pretty sure I didn't know that New Treasure Seekers existed until very recently, and I broke my 2024 No Buying More Books resolution to instantly purchase a copy.

The covers of these three volumes make an interesting comparison. The Treasure Seekers is the first Puffin edition, from 1958; The Wouldbegoods is a 1981 TV series tie-in; and New Treasure Seekers is a brand new (2021) reprint complete with blurb by Neil Gaiman. While it's heartening to see that a hundred and twenty year old children's book is still in print, I must take issue with the cover illustration, which bears NO relationship to the contents within -- there is no skating, there seem to be four girls and two boys on the cover while any Bastable aficionado knows that family consists of two girls and four boys...grr. 

The books were originally published in 1899, 1901 and 1904 and yet in many ways they seem as fresh as if they were written yesterday. Obviously the details of the daily lives of these Victorian children are fascinatingly different from our own, and were even when I first read them decades ago, and distressingly there are some words and attitudes that have not aged well (the chapter in New Treasure Seekers where they search for their lost dog in a Chinese quarter of London is... not good). And yet the Bastables are wonderful company -- striving to be and to do good, but constantly getting themselves into trouble.

There are quite a few references to soldiers and war (the Boer War) in these books and Oswald's dearest dream is to die heroically on the battlefield. It's sobering to realise that he is exactly the right age to do precisely that. (I note that Michael Moorcock uses the name Oswald Bastable for the protagonist of his 1970s early steampunk novels.)

The conceit of having one of the children recount their adventures, but not specifying which one, adds a delicious flavour to the narrative (I remember how proud young Kate was at figuring out that our story teller was Oswald). I wish I'd thought to read these books aloud to my own children, perhaps I didn't have them at the right time? With some judicious pruning, they would make wonderful stories to share and discuss. I'll have to save them for the grandchildren!


My Life in France

I went through a bit of a Julia Child moment a few months ago, which was when I picked up My Life in France from Brotherhood Books. I'd watched the first season of Julia with Sarah Lancashire, and I must have seen something else too, because I became quite intrigued by this tall, practical woman with the love of French cooking (and don't tell me that Bonnie Garmus' Lessons in Chemistry doesn't owe something to Julia Childs' story).

I finally got around to starting My Life in France while I was on holiday in Cairns, and due to many interruptions I've only just finished it now. I have absolutely zero interest in French cooking, but I am very interested in life in Europe in the post-war years, the gusto for life's pleasures displayed by Julia and her husband Paul, and Julia's unlikely television and publishing stardom. My Life in France was a late-life book, a collaboration between Julia and her great-nephew Alex Prud'homme, who wrote down her memories and anecdotes and shaped them into a book. It's episodic and meandering, but often very charming, punctuated with evocative photos by Paul (an accomplished photographer and visual display producer, despite being blind in one eye) and Julia's idiosyncratic exclamations -- 'Whoops! Merde alors! Ouf!'

It's Julia's appetite for life and her determination to wring every ounce of enjoyment from her experiences that makes her such an appealing character. Her classic cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was a labour of love over many years, and she was convinced (rightly) that American housewives weren't just content to produce over-processed, quick and easy gloop. I'm sure it's no accident that there was a bit of a Julia Child rediscovery during pandemic lockdowns, when we were all trapped inside our own kitchens and with time on our hands to learn how to make bread properly. And now I want to catch up with all the other Julia content I haven't seen yet -- season 2 of the Lancashire show, the film Julie and Julia (tied in with this edition of My Life in France, as the cover attests) and a documentary, also called Julia, on SBS. Bon appetit!


Queen Bees and Wannabes

I can't remember where I picked up Rosalind Wiseman's classic 2002 book about teenage girls, Queen Bees and Wannabes, which informed the making of the equally classic movie Mean Girls. It might have been around the time that I was writing novels for the Girlfriend Fiction series; I'm pretty sure that my own daughters were not teenagers yet, and I wanted all the information I could lay my hands on.

Re-reading Queen Bees and Wannabes at least a decade later, my children have passed through the teen years (well, almost -- the younger one is still technically a teen for a few more weeks) and I can appreciate how much influence this book had, not just on my writing, but on my parenting. Even though it was written before the tsunami of social media crashed over us all, before the strains of lockdown life, and before new awareness of neurodiversity and gender fluidity, there is so much wisdom in these pages. The key messages -- like keeping lines of communication open, no matter what -- are just as helpful now as they ever were.

Much of the focus of Queen Bees is on helping your child to navigate the social hierarchy of high school, and some of it does have a particularly American slant. In this edition at least (I believe there is a revised version available now) there are some glaring gaps like the ones mentioned above, but the heart of the book hasn't changed much. Wiseman insists that the most important priorities are to build and maintain trust, establish boundaries, model the behaviour you want to see. She is realistic about the issues that teenage girls face and the limits of what parents can control. Better to equip your child to solve her own problems rather than march in and to fix everything for her.

It was a relief to put this book down and realise that, despite often stormy waters, maybe we didn't do such a bad job after all.


Black Duck

When I was a baby writer, and Bruce Pascoe edited Australian Short Stories, I sent him a few of my attempts. He rejected them all, but sometimes he'd write a kind note on the rejection slip which was almost as good as an acceptance. In latter years I have become a big fan of his, for his revelatory work on Dark Emu and for his dignity and patience in dealing with the sometimes vicious and deeply personal criticism that the book has attracted.

Black Duck is a very different book from Dark Emu. It's subtitled A Year at Yumburra, Pascoe's Gippsland farm where he is putting some of the discoveries from Dark Emu into practice, growing and harvesting native grains and making delicious flour from them. I love the loose diary format of this book, divided into seasons, and I marvel at the amount of labour that Pascoe undertakes at a time of life when most of us would be planning rest and retirement. It's not just the heavy work of farming and managing a rural property (fencing, clearing, cool burning, chopping wood, mending, building, caring for animals), but the endless demands on his time from the media and from interested visitors. Some are just breezing through, some are more deeply committed, but Pascoe takes the time to show them around and explain his work. He's also deeply involved in the local First Nations community; though he doesn't go into details, there was clearly some conflict to sort out during this particular year, which also takes up time and energy.

What I loved most about this reflective, generous book was the model Pascoe presents on how to live in harmony with Country -- grateful for its bounty, tending it with care, sensitive to the presence of birds and animals and vegetation, always aware of its stories. It's a glimpse of an approach to life which holds the possibility of so much richness and nourishment for us all, just as the native grains might teach us to appreciate the flavours of our own place instead of food imported from the colonisers. The shadow of death, infirmity, the disastrous Mallacoota fires, and petty back-biting falls over Black Duck, but at its heart this is a joyous and celebratory book.


Golden Afternoon

As a teenager, I had a very romantic view of the British Raj. In my mind, it was all potted palms and linen suited chaps sipping gin and tonics on shaded verandahs; the miniseries of Paul Scott's Staying On and The Jewel in the Crown, which led me to Scott's Raj Quartet novels, as well as the film of A Passage to India, created a misty, glamorous image of the exotic East and the melancholy of lost glory. I had no idea of the cold economic reality, oppression and violence that underpinned these romantic images.

I started reading M.M. Kaye's memoir of her 1930s youth in the light of this nostalgic glow. Oddly I have never seen or read The Far Pavilions, Kaye's novel which propelled her to bestseller status and was certainly a contributor to the rosy-hued view of the Raj which was floating around in the 1980s. I have read and loved Rumer Godden's memoirs and novels of her Raj childhood (like The River and Two Under the Indian Sun), also tinged with romantic nostalgia, but also informed with at least some political awareness. Perhaps I'm drawn to memoirs of colonial childhoods because I grew up in a colonial milieu myself, though expat PNG was a long way less romantic than British India. In any case, I suppose I was expecting another wistful, elegiac remembrance of a vanished world.

However, Golden Afternoon did NOT fulfil this brief, and my reading of it was interrupted, and complicated by, reading Empireland. I was expecting something of Rumer Godden's exquisite prose; I was not expecting a posh, breezy voice not unlike my English aunties (may they rest in peace), chattering about endless parties, high jinks on Kashmiri lakes, feasts with local princes, death-defying drives through flooded landscapes -- 400 pages of largely unreflective japes and frivolity in a gorgeous but politically neutered setting. The occasional remark is tossed out: 'No wonder they wanted to get rid of us!' but the existence of empire is accepted as merely a colourful background to a very personal story.

I had been reading Golden Afternoon (which is only the middle volume of a three volume autobiography, mind you) as a bit of a guilty pleasure, but after finishing Empireland, the pleasure largely drained away and only the guilt remained.



I found Sathnam Sanghera's Empireland at the local library after hearing him speak on a podcast in the middle of the night -- it was probably Empire (funnily enough) with William Dalrymple and Anita Anand, which is reliably fascinating -- because he's spruiking his new book, Empireworld, which examines the ways in which the globe has been shaped by British imperialism.

Empireland has a more modest scope, focusing on the sometimes unexpected ways in which imperialism has created modern Britain. While the Brits often congratulate themselves on their part in abolishing slavery, they tend to skate over the part where it was a major part of their economy (and I was shocked/astonished to learn relatively recently that the British government has just finished paying abolition compensation -- not to the descendants of the enslaved people, mind you, but to the slave owners!)

Sanghera sees the roots of many contemporary British attitudes stretching back to the imperial era: for example, the exceptionalism that encouraged many to believe that Britain would be better off out of Europe than in it; the foundation of so many venerable British banks and companies; the distrust of 'cleverness' when what was needed to run empire was solid, unquestioning loyalty; the amnesia about the presence of people of colour all the way through Britain's history, right back to the Romans; and the unsurprising desire of the colonised to move to seat of empire. 'We're here because you were there,' as some activists have pointed out. And that's not even touching on the topic of loot (see another excellent podcast, Mark Fennell's Stuff the British Stole), including human remains. While of course Australia was part of the empire project, Sanghera focuses mostly on India.

This is quite a short book, only about 250 pages, but it's eminently engaging and readable, and it made me think a lot. Elements of Empireland have kept popping into my head while I'm reading other books, and I think I will need to read the follow up, too.