Sunday, 12 July 2020

The Dutch House | Ann Patchett #20BooksofWinter

The rave reviews are the hardest, aren't they?

It took me a few chapters to fall into this story, but when I fell, I really fell! The Dutch House turned out to be one of those wonderful, rich reading experiences that you wish would never end. Part gothic fairy tale and part psychological study of two siblings trying to come to terms with their loss and grief as they did battle with a wicked stepmother. Eventually expelled from their childhood home, they spent their adult lives searching for forgiveness, atonement and a way back home.

The character driven storytelling was absorbing, poignant and immersive. Maeve and her brother, Danny were characters that felt real - flawed but lovable. Their shared obsession with the childhood home helped them to gloss over their other losses. Money and possessions didn't matter; they simply worked hard and made good on their own. No parent? No worries; they had each other. 

But this is Ann Patchett we're talking about here, so there are many more layers to the story than that. Mothers and mothering played a big role as did materialism, greed and poverty. The different ways that kindness and love can be expressed and then experienced were explored. Do we ever really know our loved ones or do we waste a lot of time and energy trying to make them fit into the world view that we already have?

And we cannot talk about The Dutch House without talking about the house itself. As a metaphor for childhood and mother we see Maeve and Danny's mother reject and leave both the house and the children. As a place of shelter and protection, it clearly moved away from being a place of safety and security after the mother left and the stepmother wheedled her way in. 

As a symbol for self and personality, it's easy to see the Dutch House as an ongoing search by Maeve and Danny for a way back in, for integration. Their sense of being outsiders, abandoned and alone affected all their relationships. The weight of the grudge they carried around almost became another character, like the house. Spending so much time in the car together, looking at the house from outside, facilitated a kind of therapy session for both of them. Although I was in a constant panic that the stepmother would discover them and that things would turn ugly, but that could just be my fear of conflict!

It's curious that a book that seems designed to discuss mothers and mothering is narrated by Danny. In fact, for the first few chapters, I assumed that Danny was a sister, not a brother. He acknowledged that 'after our mother left, Maeve took up the job on my behalf but no one did the same for her'. Maeve considered herself lucky simply because she'd had many more years with their mother than he did. At every point Danny benefited from all the women in his life who took care and made sacrifices for him, but when their mother finally turned up again and Maeve forgave her and immediately moved to recreate a relationship with her, Danny was pissed off that he's been displaced. I accepted that he didn't want to forgive or let his mother back into his life, but I did resent that he wanted to deny Maeve the chance to decide for herself, when it was so obvious that Maeve was dying to feel mothered again.

But maybe that was one of Patchett's points. It's okay for fathers and men to be distant and absent, we can admire them for their ambition and worldly ways, but when a mother does it, she is lambasted and denied forgiveness or understanding.

Maeve and Danny were not the only siblings in this story. We also had Jocelyn and Sandy, the women who helped run Dutch House before and after the mother left, until they were also expelled along with Maeve and Danny. The wicked stepmother arrived with two children of her own, Bright and Norma. None of these characters were fully fleshed out for the reader as we only ever got to really see them through Danny's eyes. He didn't even realise that Jocelyn and Sandy were sisters until he was about 11 yrs old. He simply accepted them, unquestioningly, as part of the fabric of his young life, as most children do. 

I'm glad that Patchett never gave as any insight into why the stepmother was the way she was. She obviously had her own demons to behave the way she did throughout the story, but those demons remain part of the mystery. All we know is that her parenting style also completely alienated Norma and Bright. Bright didn't even return when her mother was ill and dying.

Patchett was inspired by something Zadie Smith said about writing autobiographical fiction, 
She was saying that autobiographical fiction didn’t have to be about what happened — it could be about what you were afraid might happen. She said the character of the mother in Swing Time was autobiographical because that was the mother she didn’t want to be. I thought that was brilliant. It explained something I’d always been doing but had never put into words. I adore Zadie Smith. At that moment, sitting on a stage with her at Belmont University, I thought, I want to write a book about the kind of stepmother I don’t want to be.

Our book group had a great discussion about all the elements in the story and it was one of the few books where everyone agreed on how much we loved it. A number of them had even read the book twice, saying they got so much more out of the story second time round as they were able to tease out some of the nuances even more.

The Dutch House is a keeper. 
I think this is my first 5 star rating for the year.

Favourite Quotes:
But we overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.
There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you'd been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you're suspended knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.
We had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it.
Norma said that childhood wasn’t something she could imagine inflicting on another person, especially not a person she loved.
  • Finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Longlisted for the Women's Prize 2020
Cover Love
  • I agree with Ann, this is one of the best covers for a book ever. 
  • You can listen to how this came about in this short video.
  • It's not often that an author gets to have so much control over what ends up on the cover.
  • It's not often that the same cover gets used for the US, UK and Australian editions of a book either.
Book 3 of 20 Books of Summer Winter - I'm a little behind schedule this year!

Friday, 10 July 2020

Shelf Life #5

Photo by LAUREN GRAY on Unsplash

Shelf Life is a personal meme to help me in my ongoing attempt to declutter my bookshelves.
However it's more than a Marie Condo of my books.
It's aim is to reflect, honour and let go as many books as possible.

Most likely, in the next 12 months or so, Mr Books and I will be on the move. The thought of packing up everything we own again, gives me the horrors.

Therefore as time permits, I will reassess the many, many READ books stacked on my bookshelves. (The unread TBR pile is another story all together!)

The aim of Shelf Life is to let go those books that I know I will never read again and to give them a proper send off.

My assessment criteria includes:
  • Does this book spark joy?
  • Honestly, will I ever reread this book?
  • How and why did this book come to be on my bookshelf anyway?
  • When and where did I read this book?
  • What are my memories of this book?
  • Is this book part of a series, a signed copy or a special edition?
  • Do I want to pack and unpack this book one more time? Or several more times, during what's left of my lifetime?
  • If I were to let this book go, would I feel regret, remorse or relief?

My latest Shelf Life choices look a little like this:
  • The Dark Room | Rachel Seiffert
    • Purchased on the 23rd March 2002 in Mudgee
    • Seiffert has a German mother and an Australian father, but now lives in London.
    • This was her first novel in 2001.
    • I bought this book because of it's Holocaust themes, especially the guilt felt by subsequent generations and responsibility of individuals.
    • It was shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize.
    • I remember almost nothing about this book and feel no need to reread it,
    • Perhaps I am finally over my over my Holocaust obsession?
  • Tinkers | Paul Harding
    • Purchased on the 10th August 2010 in Sydney
    • Winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
    • This was Harding's debut novel
    • A follow up novel, Enon, was published in 2013.
    • A wonderful, delicate story about time, memory, suffering and the small stuff that makes up our daily lives. 
    • The writing was gorgeous, full of memorable word pictures that have stayed with more nine years.
    • I loved the reading experience I had with this book, but I do not need to reread this. 

  • Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow | Peter Høeg
    • A secondhand bookshop purchased prior to my first skiing holiday in 2006.
    • Published in Denmark in 1992 as Frøken Smillas Fornemmelse for Sne.
    • Translated from the Danish by F. David in 1993.
    • A book that begins with a map (Copenhagen) is already on the way to becoming a favourite.
    • I loved reading a book set in the snow, in the snow.
    • The book was very different to the movie.
    • I preferred the book, but once was enough.

Have you read any of these books? 
Should they stay or should they go?

Shelf Life #5

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Indigenous Picture Books

Lisa @ANZLitLover is hosting her annual Indigenous Literature Week. Normally this week is also NAIDOC week, but due to Covid it has been postponed until 8th -15th November. The 2020 theme is 
Always Was, Always Will Be. 
Always Was, Always Will Be. recognises that First Nations people have occupied and cared for this continent for over 65,000 years

The picture books below honour this theme with their focus on country, family, success past and present, dreaming, songlines and sharing language & culture. They share a pride in Aboriginal heritage, acknowledging the wrongs and the suffering but looking forward to a more hopeful, inclusive future.

Respect | Aunty Fay Muir & Sue Lawson | Magabala Books | 1st May 2020

You have to respect this book.

It's heart is in the right place. Every page reflects love of country and family.

Respect combines a deep concern for taking care of each other, with acknowledging cultural heritage and traditions. It generously shares a part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture with the wider community.

Magabala Books are planning a series of such books:
Respect is the first title in the ‘Our Place’ series of four children’s picture books which welcome and introduce children to important elements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture.
Lisa Kennedy's illustrations are stunning. Full of warmth and colour and a pleasing simple design that engages and draws the reader in.

I can't wait to see the other three books in this series.

Aunty Fay Muir is a Boonwurrung Elder.
Lawson's first book with Aunty Fay was Nganga: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Words and Phrases.
Lisa Kennedy is a descendant of the coastal Trawlwoolway people of north-east Tasmania.

Family | Aunty Fay Muir & Sue Lawson | Magabala Books | 1st July 2020

Family is book two in the Our Place series of picture books from Magabala Books. It's an Indigenous picture book about heart and home.

These books are designed for a preschool aged audience. Simple, clear language is used to show how caring and sharing for country and mob is an integral philosophy of Aboriginal life. This book focuses on how daily rituals and traditions create belonging and connection.

The earthy tones and palate used by Seymour throughout the book, feature family groups interacting together with country.

Respect and Family are both gentle, positive introductions for younger readers to Indigenous family and culture.

Aunty Fay Muir is a Boonwurrung Elder.
This is the third book that Sue Lawson has written with Aunty Fay.
Jasmine Seymour a Darug writer and artist.

Cooee Mittigar | Jasmine Seymour | Magabala Books | 1st November 2019

The full title for this book is Cooee Mittigar: A Story of Darug Songlines.
Cooee mittigar means come here friend. Seymour & Watson, two Darug women, invite us inside to share their story and to pay respect to country.

Darug country encompasses the greater Sydney Basin and Hawkesbury River.

Seymour & Watson have created a story that celebrates the Darug language by embedding it naturally within the text.

A glossary at the back provides simple meanings for each new word, but each word is also explained on the page where it is used, separate to the main text.

Mulgo, Black Swan takes us on a history lesson through Dreamtime and songlines, before moving onto a seasonal journey through Darug country.
Cooee mittigar. Tread softly on our lands.

Know that this dreaming was here. Is still here.

Will be forever.

Beautifully illustrated with native animals and local plants.
This is my pick of the crop (so far) for Indigenous picture books published in the past year.

Shortlisted – 2020 CBCA Award for New Illustrator
Notable – 2020 CBCA Book of the Year Awards: Eve Pownall Award

Coming Home to Country | Bronwyn Bancroft | Little Hare Books | 1st February 2020

Bancroft's illustrations feel very personal. They feature the rivers of her childhood in northern NSW that flow from page to page. Love of country and nature jump off each page in bold colours as Bronwyn takes us on a journey through her home, past and present.

A sense of where her home is grounds her. Knowing where she belongs allows her to go out into the world to make her own way. 

Over the years, her way, has included time as a textile and fashion designer, artist, activist and children's picture book writer and illustrator.

In 2016 Bancroft was the Australian Finalist for the Hans Christian Andersen Award (Illustrator).

She is now a finalist for the 2020 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.

Born in Tenterfield, in northern NSW, Bronwyn Bancroft is a descendant of the Djanbun clan of the Bundjalung nation.

Our Home, Our Heartbeat | Adam Briggs | Little Hare Books | 1st May 2020

Yorta Yorta rapper Adam Briggs' energetic, enthusiastic personality oozes from every page and lyric in this book.

In 2014 Briggs released a song during Naidoc week called The Children Came Back. The song celebrates successful, well-known Indigenous athletes and artists, past and present. It was written on the 25th anniversary of Archie Roach's song Took the Children Away to continue the conversation originally started by Roach. His aim is to normalise Indigenous success.

Briggs claims his song is a "history lesson, a monologue, a celebration and an education." 

I've included the lyrics from the song below but urge you to search out the various youtube videos of the song, including the live versions done with Paul Kelly and Dan Sultan.

I'm Fitzroy where the stars be
I'm Wanganeen in '93
I'm Mundine, I'm Cathy Free-
Man, that fire inside a me
I'm Adam Goodes, and Adam should
Be applauded when he stand up
You can look to us when that time stop
I'm Patty Mills with the last shot

I'm Gurrumul, I'm Archie
I'm everything that you ask me
I'm everything that you can't be
I'm the dead hearts, heart beat

The children came back
The children came back
Back where their hearts grow strong
Back where they all belong
The children came back

I'm Doug Nicholls, I'm jimmy little
With a royal telephone
I'm the world champ in '68
Boy I'm Lionel Rose
I'm William Cooper, I take a stand
When no one even knows
I'm the walk off, I'm the sound of
The children coming home

I'm Gurrumul, I'm Archie
I'm everything you ask me
I'm everything you can't be
I'm the dead hearts, heart beat

The children came back
The children came back
Back where their hearts grow strong
Back where they all belong
The children came back

Let me take it home, I'm Rumba
I'm the sand hills on Cummera
I'm Les Briggs, I'm Paul Briggs
I'm Uncle Ringo with all them kids
I'm Uncle Buddy - everybody love me
Ain't none below, ain't none above me
I'm the carvings outta every scar tree
I'm those flats that birthed Archie

Now Mr abbott, think about it - me and you we feel the same
That might sound strange, I'm just saying,
We both unsettled when the boats came

I'm Gurrumul, I'm Archie
I'm everything you ask me
I'm everything you can’t be
I'm the dead hearts, heart beat

The children came back
The children came back
Back where their hearts grow strong
Back where they all belong
The children came back.

Our Home, Our Heartbeat is a younger readers version of this song. Briggs then made a very deliberate decision to have non-traditional illustrations, choosing a contemporary, almost cartoon style with bold, bright colours and lots of action.

From Lunch Lady interview |  21st May 2020
the Dreamtime stories, which are all fantastic, and all the artwork is amazing and fantastic. But cool, we have that. Let’s not do that, because people who are really good at that are already doing it. Here’s my contribution. It’s not here to take away. It’s here to add....I wanted it to be really super vibrant. I wanted everything to be bright and colourful and not like earthy ochre tones. I wanted it to really pop.

Kate Moon is a Melbourne based designer and 3D artist.
Rachael Sarra is a contemporary Aboriginal artist from Goreng Goreng country.

Sunday, 5 July 2020

Book Stop #2

Book Stop is an occasional meme that allows me to travel and indulge in a good bookshop browse, during these strange, strange times when we cannot travel outside our home state, let alone the country. I plan to combine my bookish instincts with my itchy feet and explore the world via bookshops.

I have a number of bookstores on my to-visit wish list, if I am ever in that country, state or neighbourhood. This is the perfect time to share some of them and my reasons for wanting to visit (beside the obvious reason, of course!)

This edition of Book Stop will also be combined with Paris In July as we head off to Shakespeare & Company, 37 rue de la Bûcherie, 75005 Paris.

In July 1991 I spent three days in Paris. Nowhere near long enough, I'm sure you will all agree. 

We arrived late afternoon and went straight to one of the camping grounds that ring outer Paris. The plan was to set up camp and drive into Paris at sunset so that our first view of Paris proper would be at night, all lit up with the lights that make it so magical. We boarded a Seine River cruise and ooh-ed and ahh-ed at the lights as we glided past all those famous sites I'd only ever read about until that time.

The rest of the evening was spent wandering around the Left Bank, trying to work out how to order and pay for pastries.

Paris was my very first experience in a foreign speaking country. I was 23 and travelling alone within a group. I was rather overwhelmed by the whole thing. So much of my time in Paris is a blur. My photos and a few brief notes in my journal are the only record I have. 

I know I climbed all the stairs up the Eiffel Tower. The lines for the lift were long, even first thing in the morning, and I was young and fit. So climb I did!

1991 was the middle of the Gulf War and we were told that the city wasn't as full as usual with tourists as the war was keeping the American tourists at home. (I had already enjoyed the benefits of this in London during the past 5 months. I was nannying and tripping around the country on the weekends. The weekends I stayed in London, I was able to access last minute tickets for all the West End shows by lining up half an hour before the start. Every show had oodles of returned tickets thanks to the no-show of American tourists. I saw some amazing productions at a great price. No-one likes to perform to a half empty room!)

I still experienced Paris as being busy with bustling, hustling crowds, but apparently, most years it was worse!

The other problem with 1991 travelling, was the smoke haze from the fires in the Gulf. At the top of the Eiffel Tower our view was greatly impaired by the haze. The haze followed us all around Europe that summer.

I also remember climbing all the steps up the belfry of Notre Dame Cathedral in the stifling heat. I tasted escargot for the first (and last) time. I loved buying little cheese snacks at the corner convenience stores. I went through the Musée d-Orsay, walked up the Champs-Élysées and did a dash around the Louvre. But generally, I wandered the streets in a bit of giddy daze. I promised myself that one day I would return, and take my time. I would stay in one of the nicer apartments (not a tent), I would have more money and be a more confident traveller.

When I returned home to Australia four months later, I started a travel wishlist. Whenever I watched a tv program, or read an article, or a book, I would note down places of interest that I wanted to see for myself.

One such note was for the Shakespeare and Company bookstore.

Describe by many as controlled chaos, a place for dreamers and poets, the Shakespeare and Company has a well-known history and an enviable list of famous patrons.

There’s Hemingway, flexing his fists from the boxing ring, stopping by to pick up a book. James Joyce never arrives before noon and usually needs to borrow money. The big woman with the white poodle is Gertrude Stein. By the stove, beautiful and tired, Djuna Barnes is talking about her novel Nightwood to T. S. Eliot.

Scott Fitzgerald likes to sit and read on the stoop in the sun, and Sylvia Beach has made up her mind to publish Ulysses, because no one else will.

Started by Sylvia Beach in 1919 and now run by George Whitman and his daughter, Sylvia, Shakespeare and Company has changed owners, address and been forced to close due to war and more recently Covid-19. It is now part of Parisian folklore and a must-see for many book-loving travellers.

I, for one, (if international travel ever resumes, and we can return to Europe without quarantining for two weeks), will make Shakespeare and Company my first port of call.

In the meantime, I will endeavour to read one of the many books written about this iconic bookshop.
  • Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop | Krista Halverson
  • Shakespeare and Company | Sylvia Beach
  • Sylvia Beach & The Lost Generation – The History Of Lit Paris In The 20′s & 30′s | Noel Riley Fitch
  • Time Was Soft There | Jeremy Mercer
  • Sylvia's Bookshop: The Story of Paris's Beloved Bookstore and Its Founder (As Told by the Bookstore Itself!) | Robert Burleigh & illustrated by Katy Wu 
  • Down and Out in Paris | The Guardian | 7th March 2009 | Jeanette Winterson

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Claris The Chicest Mouse in Paris | Megan Hess #PictureBook

Every time I see these very chic, very elegant picture books, I want to say Cla-reece. I have an acquaintance called Cla-reece. However to read these stories, I have to make a huge mental effort to say 'Paris-Claris' in my head a few times to find the rhyme.

I've been saving this post for today, the very first day of July, to help me get Paris in July off to most graceful, glamorous start possible! If you're not sure what I'm talking about (where have you been darling?) then pop over to Tamara's Thyme for Tea blog to check out the coins et recoins.

2020 is the tenth anniversary of Paris in July. To celebrate this year's theme of élégance, I've invited Claris and Megan Hess to the party. Hess is an international fashion illustration with an expanding range of fashion design picture-books-for-adults on her catwalk, including one all about Coco Chanel, (which may explain my unexpected fascination in such girly, frilly books to those who know my ongoing intrigue with Coco). Other books include Paris Through a Fashion EyeThe DressIconic and Elegance.

Claris The Chicest Mouse in Paris, Hess' first picture book for children, was published in August 2018. From the gorgeous end papers littered with pink dresses and pink & gold bling you know that this foray into the world of fashion will be as girly-girl and frilly as you can get!

I always experience a weird conflict when I read these books. My younger self was a tomboy with a capital T. From about age 8, I hated wearing dresses or anything resembling pink. It has taken marriage and a family of boys to help me embrace pretty clothes and the colour pink. As I read these picture books I move between eye rolling tomboy exasperation to gushing girly awww's as I make my way through all the intense, non-stop cuteness that defines and decorates each page.

Claris is a Vanity Fair reading, éclair eating country mouse who dreams of the big city and fashion and frills. She also ‘longed for an elegant friend of her own.’ A chance meeting with two stylish frogs, ‘one in a beret’,and she is whisked her away in a hot air balloon and on her way to Paris!

However, Paris and dreams come true, not easy. 

Claris has to find herself a new maison in which to live, only to find herself at the mercy of snotty, snitchy daughter and a grey cat! Instead of allowing fear to rule her life, Claris takes a chance, a big risk, in fact, to save the grey cat...from the snotty daughter and sartorial disaster!

Naturally Claris and Monsieur Montage become fast and best friends. He helps Claris with discarded dolls house furniture so she can furnish her new apartment in the attic. And he gathers together all the old doll's clothes rejected by the snooty daughter. Claris gets to work, turning them into works of art for herself and her friend. Her motto is ‘you should always be brave and help someone in need.

Some of the rhymes are not as elegant as the illustrations, which makes reading this book aloud a bit de trop. But I suspect you're turning the pages in this book for the fashion and bling, the charm and the colour, and for the glimpses of Paris life, not the rhyme.


Claris and the Fashion Show Fiasco was published in 2019. The end papers are adorned with yellow dresses and pink & yellow bling. 

It is now springtime in Paris and life is tres belle. This is the season of the fashion show! 

A mishap at the breakfast table means that Claris' family leave without their fashion show invite. Claris, with the help of Monsieur Montage, is determined to save the day. Together, they embark on an adventurous, stylish and iconic journey across Paris on their way to the Chanel show. 

The adventure comes with a map and includes the reappearance of the two stylish frogs from book one. We also meet more animal friends, all enthralled by fashion week in Paris.

Once again, adventure, bravery and friendship are the dominant themes, while kindness, chic and savoir faire are the main flavours.

Claris, Bonjour Riviera is Hess' latest worked published earlier this year. This time our end papers feature blue dresses and blue themed fashion bling. 

Summer has arrived in Paris and the très chic thing to do is holiday on the Riviera, at the Hotel du Cap, no less! The two stylish frogs, plus all the other animal friends from the fashion show, arrive in the hot air balloon for a ‘fabulous soiree.

Naturally, Claris finds an adventure and another opportunity to practice being brave and helpful. This time she rescues a song bird whose wing gets stuck in a thorn. Valerie from Antibes is a bit of a diva, but spectaculaire nonetheless.

Teamwork and bravery is it's own reward of course, but Claris also enjoys the excitement of a new friendship and the pleasures of brie and camembert!

Each book features a fashion spread with six images of Claris dressed in Chanel, Dior, Hermes, Pucci etc. This is where Hess excels. Her love and enthusiasm for the fashion world spills over into every design for Claris.

The final page of each book reveals Hess in one of the dresses she loves so much, surrounded by her illustrations.

I hope you agree, that this has been a truly elegant, truly Parisienne way to begin our #ParisinJuly 2020 tour. 

Bonne nuit and bonne lecture!

Sunday, 28 June 2020

My Favourite & Best Classics

When the Classics Club originally asked this question in August 2012, I waffled on a bit about my love for all things Jane Austen, but eventually I came to the conclusion that my favourite classic of all time was Persuasion by Jane Austen.

Eight years later, it is hard to top this.

Persuasion is a story that bears repeated readings, never gets tired, constantly provides solace and comfort and still amazes me every time with its exquisite writing and plotting. Oh! and the dramatic irony, the social satire that cuts deep but sweet like a cake knife, the on point dialogue and the so, so satisfying relationship arcs. And if by some weird quirk of fate this is not quite the right thing for my mood, then one of Austen's other books will be for sure! She delights me at every turn, every page, every book. Austen is the only author that I have read so consistently and so often throughout my adult life. 

However in the eight years since I last answered this Classic Club question, I've read so many more classic titles and authors, from a far more diverse range of genres, regions and cultures. None of them have had the pleasure of multiple rereads, like my Austens. But some of the titles listed below are classics I do plan on rereading one day. 

My Best of Classics List

In Translation:
  • French - Germinal by Emile Zola
  • Russian - Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  • I have read many more foreign classics, from all around the world, but these are the two books I really want to reread and delve into far! 
  • Both these books packed an emotional punch that still reverberates years later. They are both set in radical, rapidly changing times - times that the authors also lived through. The personal, the facts and the fiction are interwoven into a seamless, satisfying, epic whole.
Short Stories:
  • Katherine Mansfield - I'm still making my way through her short stories. Each and every one is like peeling an onion in reverse. Each story adds another layer of understanding and insight into Mansfield's mind and heart.
  • The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by (Ethel) Henry Handel Richardson - how on earth this book is not required reading for anyone serious in their English studies at high school, is beyond me. Yes, all three volumes together are HUGE, but the insights into colonial Australia, wrapped up as they are, in the story of Richardson's own childhood, are exceptional.
  • North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell - this list is for the books discovered by me in the last eight years. If I was to include an all-time reading list, then Jane Eyre, David Copperfield and Middlemarch would also have to be listed here.
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston - Janie has an astounding voice. She keeps whispering my name hoping to tempt me back into her world again soon.
  • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville - the effort required to read this book is worth it if you have the time and patience to do so.
  • Absolutely anything by John Wyndham. Yes, I'm pretty tame when it comes to sci-fi. 
  • My recent reread of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J R R Tolkien only confirmed how magnificent these books are. For pure escapism, detailed world building and characters to love (and hate), they are hard to bet.
  • Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. If you haven't read this extraordinary account of WWI yet, you really should stop everything and source a copy now.
Ancient World:
  • Herodotus' The Histories - what a wonderful old gossip he was! One day I will write a post about my own history with Herodotus....
Honourable Mentions: (For those classics from my pre-blogging days that couldn't quite beat out Jane Austen):
  • The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  • Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery
  • Diary of Young Girl by Anne Frank
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  • Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  • Dangerous Liaison by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
  • Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
  • The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy
Each and everyone of these stories is now a part of my story.
They helped to form my view of the world.
They have given me a sense of belonging and connection and fellowship.
They have satisfied my soul and slaked my cravings.
They have asked impossible questions and answered many more.
They have taken me out of myself, to another place, another time, another possibility.
They have inspired me to do better, be better, live life more fully, deeply, kindly and whole-heartedly. 
They have given me hope in dark times, lifted me up when I was down and been a friend to lean on when I thought I was all alone.

I'm sure there are sub-categories and genres that I've over-looked (like modern-day classics), but for now, these are my favourite and best classics.

Friday, 26 June 2020

Moving Among Strangers by Gabrielle Carey

Writing regularly blog posts seems to be something quite beyond right now. But thanks to Karen @Booker Talk I've be revisiting some of my older posts to find fresh inspiration. This post about the rather silent author, Randolph Stow, was originally published on the 29th August 2015.

I've been thinking about Gabrielle Carey a lot, over the past 24 hrs, after learning that she has a new book coming out in October with University of Queensland Press about Elizabeth von Armin called Only Happiness Here

Her website explains that von Armin has been one of her literary passions for quite some time, and like me, Carey is amazed that this Australian born writer (along with her cousin, Katherine Mansfield) is so little known and appreciated here. 

New Zealander's have done a much better job of being loud and proud about Mansfield. Admittedly, von Armin only lived in Australia for the first three years of her life (whereas Mansfield grew up in NZ before moving permanently to Europe). But given our tendency to claim famous folk with far less tenuous links than that, it's curious that we have been so silent on our relationship with von Armin.

I want to know more about the friendship and authorial support that existed between von Armin and Mansfield and how they influenced each other. And I'm keen to find out why Carey is so fascinated by von Armin. Weaving together the biography of an author with her own personal reflections was one of the things I really enjoyed about her Randolph Stow book. 

It has stayed with me for five years now. 

Given how many books pass through my hands each year, for one to stick in my memory so clearly, says something about the strength of the story within, as well as it's ability to get under my skin.

So I give you a slightly revised and updated look at my 2015 post for Moving Among Strangers.

Today I had the pleasure of attending the Honouring Randolph Stow event at the NSW Library.

The Honouring series is the brainchild of my friend Julia Tsalis, the Program Manager at the NSW Writers Centre

On their website she says:
Sometimes we forget about the great when revelling in the new. In its annual Honouring Australian Writers series, the NSW Writers’ Centre pays tribute to writers who have made an important contribution to our literary culture.  
In 2015 we turn to the West Australian writer Randolph Stow. Perhaps best known for The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea and To The Islands, which won the Miles Franklin Award, Australian Literary Society Gold Medal and the Melbourne Book Fair Award in 1958. He was also awarded the ALS Gold Medal for his poetry in 1957 and won the Patrick White Award in 1979.  
A writer fond of silence, known for the metaphysical and existential qualities of his writing but also a master at evoking the Australian landscape, Randolph Stow embodied contradictions. Geordie Williamson, says of him in The Burning Library, ‘In him, as in no other non-indigenous writer in our literature, landscape and mindscape are one.’  
Honouring: Randolph Stow brings together Gabrielle Carey, author of Moving Among Strangers a memoir about her family’s connection to Stow, Suzanne Falkiner whose biography will be released in 2016, Richard Tipping a poet and producer of a documentary on Stow, and West Australian author Alice Nelson (The Last Sky) whose career has been inspired by him.

In preparation for the event, I read Gabrielle Carey's Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family.

Carey's award winning book is a curious, but very pleasing mix of family memoir and grief journal as well as a homage to little known Australian author and poet, Randolph 'Mick' Stow.

I say little known, because when I told family, friends and colleagues (yes, even colleagues!) where I was going today. Only a couple of them had heard of Stow.

My relationship with Stow is not much better. I've only read one of his books and that was his children's story about Midnite, the not-so-bright bushranger and his talking cat. The talking cat put me off too much to ever really enjoy it properly though!

But, like Carey, I do seem to have this fascination for Australia's long lost, forgotten authors.

I'm curious about why we, as a nation, do not seem to celebrate, embrace or cherish our award winning, highly acclaimed authors.

Their childhood homes do not become museums.

No "so and so was born here" plaques pop up on suburban streets and rarely do they have university or school wings named after them. They're lucky to have a street named in their honour!

Carey echoes my concerns in her book when she reminds us that:
Other countries seem to be able to preserve significant writers' houses - why are there so few in Australia?

However, after the Honouring Randolph Stow event today, I wonder if part of this lack of recognition starts with the authors themselves.

All four panelists spoke of Stow's famous silence.

Suzanne called it his "authorial invisibility". 

Richard told us how Stow had said, "writers are writers because they're not talkers." 

And Alice quoted poet Louise Gluck's "eloquent deliberate silence" to describe Stow's personality.

Meanwhile Carey's tender memoir is an endless parade of Stow's reticence and quietness which she sums up towards the end by saying,
Stow's silence doesn't appear to have been an unfriendly one. His temperament and philosophical bent both point towards a faith in silence and deep doubt about language.
This is not someone searching for the limelight or to have his name forever blazoned across the skies. His story writing and poetry were personal, they were part of his search for home. Home, for Stow, was not one house or place either.

Maybe we don't need to make a fuss about his childhood home or where he went to school, except of course, there is no denying, that it is these things, these places of our childhoods that shape us is so many ways, consciously and unconsciously.

Stow himself also said (in reference to Joseph Conrad) that "I think one does need to know a great deal - well, a certain amount, anyway, about an author's life...and not only what he chooses to have known."
(my highlight).

So, what have I learnt about Stow in the past week?

He could speak and read about five languages, he was fascinated by the Batavia wreck (so much so that he taught himself to read Old Dutch so he could research the source materials), he loved to read Conrad and Joyce and he 'wrote' his books in his head whilst walking and only physically wrote them down once he had it complete in his head. Sadly, he had two such books in his head when he died. 

Stow also had an incredibly mellifluous voice (not unlike Princes Charles but with an Australian undertone) that we heard thanks to the resurrecting of Richard Tipping's interview with Stow from the 1988 film A Country of Islands. More than preserving old homes and the placing of plaques, we need to ensure that archival films and interviews like this are conserved for future reference. The 8 minute excerpt we heard today was one of the highlights of a stimulating afternoon.

I look forward to reading one of Stow's adult novels (now republished by Text Publishing) or seeing one on the big screen soon. I also highly recommend Carey's memoir for those who love their family memoirs and author biographies entwined in a happy embrace.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

7 Steps to Get Your Child Reading | Louise Park #NonFiction

As an early childhood teacher with 18 years experience, there was nothing new for me to discover in Louise Park's 7 Steps to get Your Child Reading. The only good and encouraging thing I learnt was that since my teaching training days, thirty years ago, they have finally realised that just teaching the whole language approach is a mistake. 

When I was at Uni the whole language way was drummed into us relentlessly. Yet, I had very vivid and fond memories of my own kindy teachers taking us through the phonics approach. I loved learning about the sounds and their blends and how they went together.

The whole language approach is great for kids who already know how to read, or who are well on the way to reading independently. But if you still can't make sense of the all those squiggles on the page, you need some phonics to get you going. 

I made the slightly daring decision to teach both methods when I started my career. Within a decade, Jolly Phonics made its first appearance into NSW classrooms, followed by the Reading Eggs program, and I felt vindicated.

However, Park's book is much more than an educational evaluation of the various teaching methods. This is after all, a book for parents, despite it's rather juvenile cover.

In particular, it is a book for the parents of Gen Alpha. Gen A includes those kids born from 2010 onwards. They are the first generation of kids to be fully immersed in a world of ipads, smart phones and apps for learning. How on earth do you get your fully switched on, modern data kid to interact with such an archaic thing as a book? How can you make reading a book as fun and as interesting as a colourful, noisy app designed to capture your imagination?

This book is full of bite-sized facts and figures and tips and tricks to do just that. 

But the main thing everyone needs to know is quite simple really - read to your children, early and often, for as long as you can.

Pick books that you love, with colourful pictures and interesting content and language and start reading from the day they are born. Be prepared to read the same books over and over again (which is why I always stress the bit about picking books you love too). Your love and enthusiasm will spill over onto your child too.

As the child gets older, Park's provides suggestions on how to help your child select their own books. She stresses how okay it is for your child to read easy comforting books to help them gain competence and to keep reading fun. She only talks about stepping things up with more challenging texts, if your child is still reading those same books, at the same easy level, for years.

One easy way to step things up, is to continue reading aloud with your child all through the primary school years. Even at this age, if you love the book you're reading together, chances are, they will too. 

Schools will provide the explicit literacy learning within a group situation, but as Park's says, 
The reality is that the one-on-one sharing of quality literature has to come from the child's family, extended family and out-of-school environment.

There is simply not enough time or opportunity for this kind of one-on-one approach in any school. The hard part for the modern parent, is to detach ourselves long enough from our devices, to model another way. Children, always have and always will, model the behaviour they see. 

The benefits of being a reader as overwhelming. From imagination to education, from connection to understanding, from belonging to empathy. A book can be a friend in good times and bad. 

In these politically heightened times, the words of Barack Obama ring ever truer than before,
the most important stuff I've learned I think I've learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of greys, but, there's still truth to be found, and that you have to strive for that, and work for that. And the notion that it's possible to connect with someone else even though they're different from you.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Winter Solstice Reading


Today is the Winter Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. The shortest day, and therefore, the longest night of our year.

We have had a delightful time of it in Sydney this past week. Brisk mornings, clearing up into lovely sunny, almost warm days. Great for long walks, sitting in the sun with the family over a long lunch and even longer evenings for curling up on the lounge with a glass of wine and a good book. But today, the solstice, is grey, rainy and miserable.

I'm always thrilled to reach the winter solstice every year. From here on in, the days will slowly lengthen again, even though the worst of winter is yet to hit us, the promise of brighter, sunnier days is on the horizon.

As I write this on Sunday morning it is 10℃ outside with a predicted top of only 18. A cold day but not terribly so. However we're about to head up to our house in the mountains where it is currently 3℃ with a predicted high of 12. Brrrrr!

I do not enjoy being cold and wearing layers and layers of clothing. I do not enjoy waking up in the dark and then walking home from work in the dark. The day always seems to disappear before it has even started. As an introvert, I should be revelling in the hibernating aspects of this solstice, instead I find myself counting down the days until spring and summer return once again!

These long, dark nights of the soul should give me more time to read, but somehow that never seems to happen. And this year, two winter solstice events will make that even less likely to occur.

Firstly, Radio National is hosting their Big Weekend of Books, with great names like Bernadine Evaristo, Hilary Mantel, Bruce Pascoe, Tara June Winch and Tony Birch on offer.

And secondly, a friend of mine who writes for - a blog that offers up an independent, in-depth look at social journalism for health - alerted me to their solstice reading event. This is their third annual #CroakeyReads, although this year's offering is truncated thanks to Covid. Join in from 7-9 pm at their website or on twitter using the hashtag. You may even find a book or two recommended by me!

If I find time to read today, I will be falling back into Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar. It has been my lunchtime read at work for a week or so, but I'm now at that point where I no longer want to wait to read it in short bursts. I had hoped to spend more time with it this weekend, but so far that has not happened.

What will you be reading during your Winter/Summer Solstice weekend? 

Friday, 19 June 2020

Rodham: A Novel | Curtis Sittenfeld

What a fascinating premise!

What a fascinating story!

What an amazing story teller!

Rodham: A Novel is hard to define, and even harder to classify or deconstruct. What is real and what is fiction is the thing that haunts you the whole time you're reading this story. At least it did for me.

The idea of sliding doors, alternate histories or the road not taken have always intrigued me, so it was only natural that I would be sucked into Curtis Sittenfeld's world, where Hillary Rodham refused to marry Bill Clinton.

Living on the other side of the world, my understanding of the nuances of American politics is basic, though. I suspect a lot of the references to real life stuff passed me by. Especially once we moved into the alternate story of a single Hillary, forging a career path unhindered by a husband or children (sorry Chelsea). I didn't know enough about what Hillary Clinton actually did do, to know how different things were for Hillary Rodham. Was that youtube video in Ohio something that really happened? Did she really go on a cooking show and was there some gaff about baking cookies? 

So I had to read the book assuming that the basic relationships were based on reality (with family, friends, colleagues, senators, media and backers etc), but that the paths they took were changed by her third 'no' to Bill. 

I assumed that all the conversations were purely imagined and the sex scenes nothing but fantasy! Please let the sex be nothing but fantasy. It was like reading about your parents having sex. You know they probably did it, but you definitely do not want to know any of the details. Ever!

After reading a couple of other reviews (Susan @The Cue Card and Girl With Her Head in a Book) I believe that being on the other side of the world and far removed from many of the incidents and people referred to, I did miss some of the cleverness and the humour. I spent a lot of time worrying about what was real and what wasn't. And I certainly found the middle section of the book rather dry and dull, as only stuff about politics can be dry and dull to the outsider.

It wasn't until we got to Trump and more recent times, that I was able to appreciate the changes that rippled out from that third 'no', to bring Rodham to her third run at the presidency in 2016. It was highly amusing seeing Trump's own words being used against him here, to support Rodham against her long-ago ex, Bill Clinton, who was running against her in the Democratic nominations. With Trump's support, Rodham was able to move into the White House on her own terms!

One of the things I really enjoyed about the book, was the thinking involved in Hillary's decision to leave Clinton back in the 70's. For two pages, Sittenfeld's shares the internal dialogue of a woman torn by her love for a man and her growing concern about his philandering ways. Should she stay and accept his wandering eyes (and hands and lips and penis) or should she go? Should she stand by her man or put her own needs first? Which choice could she live with? 

In the book, she decides (with Bill's support) that she should go her own way. This changes everything (and sometimes) nothing for both Hill and Bill. 

Sittenfeld said in an Esquire article in May 2020,
it's really thinking about fate versus free will and the butterfly effect and how potentially small choices that any of us make can have... Do they have huge consequences, or does our life resemble itself no matter what small choices we make?

I'm not sure that I believe in fate, or soul-mates or even that everything happens for a reason. Even though my life story with Mr Books could be held up as a perfect example of all three. In the end it's the stories we chose to tell ourselves about our lives that make all the difference.

In real life Hillary chose to stand by her man, warts and all. The love they felt for each other was strong enough to get them through the tough times. The compromises made, were ones they chose to live with. They embraced the life they made together. I don't imagine that they have ever imagined different lives for themselves than the one they have lived through together. They do not seem to be the kind of people who live with regrets.

Sittenfeld has not imagined a world of regret either. Instead, she has cleverly shown us how a completely different life might be possible. How bit by bit, experience by experience, it's possible to evolve into someone else if another path was taken.

I found Rodham to be fascinating in a voyeuristic kind of way, sympathetic in a very human way and fun and delicious in a rather daring kind of way.

Book 2/20 Books of Summer Winter

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Stories & Shout Outs #30

I'm feeling rather blah today. 

It's my day off work and we should be heading off to lunch with friends, but their daughter has come down with a cold - tested for Covid and not positive - but in this new world we all live it, it's enough to put a lunch date on hold for a week.

I spent last night down a Twitter dark hole when I tried to research the furore around J K Rowling. I deliberately curate my twitter account to only included bookish people, so I forget how hateful some people (or bots) can be on social media platforms. I learnt nothing edifying and still feel dirty this morning.

So I need some bookish solace to cleanse my soul! And I need it now!

What I'm Reading:
  • Rodham: A Novel | Curtis Sittenfeld (fascinating but now finding the political manoeuvrings dull as we near the end.)
  • Humankind | Rutger Bregman (nice to be reminded that human beings generally err on the side of kindness. Not always easy to remember that at the moment.)
  • Homeland Elegies: A Novel | Ayad Akhtar (I have no idea where this is going, but loving the ride so far!)
  • The Fire This Time | Jesmyn Ward (it was time to read this book that has been lingering on my TBR pile for too long.)
  • War and Peace | Tolstoy (chapter-a-day readalong that has fallen off the rails a little. A rainy day today & a cancelled lunch date, may mean that I catch up this afternoon.)
  • The Parisian | Isabella Hammad (started reading this in March, but put it aside as Covid lockdown started. I was enjoying it, but it required concentration....)

New to the Pile:
  • Mammoth | Chris Flynn (looks quirky and unusual.)
  • Griffith Review 68 Getting On (my last GR took me 6 months to read all the articles. I wonder how long this one will take?)
  • The Plague | Albert Camus (for all the obvious reasons!)
  • Love in the Time of Cholera | Gabriel Garcia Marquez (ditto!)

Read, but not Reviewed:
  • 7 Steps to Get Your Child Reading | Louise Park

Cover Lover:
  • Is it bad that I want to read a book based entirely on the cover?

  • I started The Golden Bough Readalong with Jean and Cleo in the hope I would finally finish the edition I've had lurking on my bookshelves for a couple of decades now. But alas! The first chapter defeated me. I just couldn't work up enough interest in the 'dodgy anthropology' as Jean has so delightfully tagged her most recent recap posts. I admire her tenacity.

Latest Find:
  • The Great | series stars Elle Fanning as Catherine, Nicholas Hoult, Phoebe Fox, Adam Godley, Gwilym Lee, Charity Wakefield, Douglas Hodge and Sacha Shawan.
    • "the wildly comedic rise of Catherine the Nothing to Catherine the Great, in a genre-bending, anti-historical ride through 18th Century Russia."
    • What a hoot! Three episodes in and I'm hooked. Huzzah

Keeping an Eye On:
  • Rather excited to hear that Kazuo Ishiguro has a new book coming out next year - Klara and the Sun.
  • The Miles Franklin Award is announcing their shortlist via Youtube at 4pm today.
  • The winner of this year's Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction is Christine Dwyer Hickey with her book The Narrow Land.
    • The Judges of the Prize said:
    It’s a risky business, portraying the marriage of two artists, particularly when both the marriage and the art have already been picked over by biographers and art historians. Christine Dwyer Hickey has embraced the risk and created a masterpiece. In The Narrow Land, she reaches into the guts of the marriage of Jo and Edward Hopper and into the heart of the creative impulse itself. And more, much more. Quietly, inexorably, and with pinpoint perception, our winner has brought to dramatic life not just the Hoppers’ intimate eruptions but the tensions and complexities in those around them, from two young boys scarred by war to the transient summer crowd at Cape Cod, and though this forensic lens we glimpse the upheavals that were to shake all Americans in the post-war world. With the pull of a shifting sea, The Narrow Land drew the judges back again and again, each reading richer than the one before.’

Shout Outs:
  • Tamara is once again hosting her very elegant, very enticing Paris in July. Sign up here and share the badge. I have a couple of Maigret's to while away a grey winter's day and a new French cookbook with which to experiment!
  • Coco Chanel | "Elegance is when the inside is as beautiful as the outside."

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Housekeeping - Blogger

Photo by Mimi Garcia on Unsplash

Behind the scenes, Blogger has been slowly modernising and updating.

The changes have been gadually eked out over the past year.

I first noticed that the stats page was set up differently last year some time.
Then earlier this year, the comments moderation area was updated.
Now the posting template has been modernised.

I seriously hope this means they will also look at making commenting easier for non-Blogger users, and for those who prefer not to use a google browser, especially when trying to comment from a smart phone. A like button for visitors to register their visit/interest would be nice too. 

The commenting options within Blogger currently allows for a pop-up box which is unable to use thread commenting, or in-post commenting system that allows for threaded comments (which I prefer). Both options are prone to spammers, the only solution being to adopt stringent moderation procedures.

Sadly, I've noticed a pattern that whenever I leave a link on an InLinkz linky, I suddenly get inundated with spam comments (which is what has just happened after leaving my link on 20 Books of Summer). Some are anonymous and some come from accounts with 'proper' names. It's frustrating that so many spammers can leave comments on my blog with such ease, but the people I'd really like to hear from, cannot.

The new post tab on my home screen still take me to the old style template for writing up a post, with all the old familiar icons in the places I know where to find them.

To use the new posting template, I have to go to the dashboard area. 

It's a bigger, cleaner looking template, but different icons have been used and everything is placed in different locations. I don't mind it; in fact I think I will come to really like it, once I've used it more. It's just that I have 10 years with the other format.

A few tips and hints:
  • To create a new post in the new template is now a + symbol in an orange circle down the bottom right hand side of the screen. 
  • The preview icon is a rather scary 1984 eye symbol.
  • To clear formatting, use quote format or to use strikethrough, click on the 3 vertical dots on the right hand side of the toolbar.
  • A new 'insert video' icon is available. 
  • A number of new paragraphing options are available.
  • It appears that the old html option has been replaced by 'format as code', but I haven't needed to explore this yet. 
  • Labels are found in the right hand column. Type in the ones you want (one at at time) and tick the box. Or scroll down to find the ones you want.
  • You still have to check the 'allow comments' box in Options otherwise your page will be published with no commenting button.
  • If you need to update a published post BE VERY CAREFUL to hit the UPDATE button and not the REVERT TO DRAFT icon. The icons are VERY similar. It's a mistake you'll only want to make once!

It would have been nice if Blogger had petitioned or surveyed it's users to ask for feedback, but so far the changes are fine. Blogger has felt like the forgotten child for too long, so signs of life behind the scenes are welcome and encouraging - someone in google is actually paying attention and values this platform after all!

Having used both wordpress and blogger, they both have their good points and flaws. Adding images and clearing formatting on wordpress is very hard to do properly. The number of times I've posted wordpress posts with weird line spacing and gaps around images that I cannot remove no matter how much I play with the html code frustrates me no end. I so often post without using any images at all to save me the hassle.

I had been thinking about moving platforms again recently and was almost ready to sacrifice 11 yrs worth of hyperlinks, when the most recent changes in Blogger appeared. So I will stick around for now to see what else gets modernised. I may even be tempted to refresh my heading template and layout.

In the current climate, a change is as good as a holiday right?