Saturday, 4 April 2020

Ten Doors Down | Robert Tickner

I recently attended an author talk featuring Robert Tickner talking about the story of his adoption. Ten Doors Down is the book of this story.

You may recall Tickner's name. He was an ALP politician during the Hawke and Keating era and the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs throughout the first half of the 90's. During this time, he was also going through the emotionally fraught experience of searching for his birth parents.

Early on, Tickner makes clear that he is one of the fortunate ones. He was adopted by two loving, generous parents. He had an idyllic childhood growing up in Forster, NSW. And his subsequent experiences in searching for and finding his birth family were mostly successful and positive.

His birth mother had a less happy time though. She grieved her whole life for the child she gave up. Even though she found love and happiness in marriage, she decided not to have any more children as she couldn't bear the thought of losing another child.

After the initial joy of rediscovering her son, she suffered terribly from knowing that she had spent most of her adult life living ten doors down from Tickner's adopted grandmother. A grandmother that Tickner visited nearly every school holidays. Knowing retrospectively that her son had been so close all this time was hard to absorb.

Ten Doors Down is a touching memoir and if you get a chance to listen to Tickner talk with Richard Fidler in Conversations, I would highly recommend it.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

The Fifteen Sonnets of Petrarch

Sketch of Laura as Venus C1444
Early in chapter six of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the suitor, Pietro Crespi is wooing Amaranta. He 'would arrive at dusk, with a gardenia in his buttonhole, and he would translate Petrarch's sonnets for Amaranta. They would sit on the porch, suffocated by oregano and the roses, he reading and she sewing lace cuffs.'

It would seem that Petrarch wrote 366 sonnets. I'm not sure how the translator of The Fifteen Sonnets decided which 15 to chose for his collection but he seems to have created a truncated version of Petrarch's love for Laura, from the joyous start to her death. Although whether Laura was a real person or not, is another story entirely.

Given how things turned out for Pietro and Amaranta, the truncated version seemed most apt.

O joyous, blossoming, ever-blessed flowers!
’Mid which my pensive queen her footstep sets;
O plain, that hold’st her words for amulets
And keep’st her footsteps in thy leafy bowers!
O trees, with earliest green of springtime hours,
And all spring’s pale and tender violets!
O grove, so dark the proud sun only lets
His blithe rays gild the outskirts of thy towers!
O pleasant country-side! O limpid stream,
That mirrorest her sweet face, her eyes so clear,
And of their living light canst catch the beam!
I envy thee her presence pure and dear.
There is no rock so senseless but I deem
It burns with passion that to mine is near.

When Love doth those sweet eyes to earth incline,
And weaves those wandering notes into a sigh
With his own touch, and leads a minstrelsy
Clear-voiced and pure, angelic and divine,—
He makes sweet havoc in this heart of mine,
And to my thoughts brings transformation high,
So that I say, “My time has come to die,
If fate so blest a death for me design.”
But to my soul, thus steeped in joy, the sound
Brings such a wish to keep that present heaven,
It holds my spirit back to earth as well.
And thus I live: and thus is loosed and wound
The thread of life which unto me was given
By this sole Siren who with us doth dwell.

Sweet air, that circlest round those radiant tresses,
And floatest, mingled with them, fold on fold,
Deliciously, and scatterest that fine gold,
Then twinest it again, my heart’s dear jesses;
Thou lingerest on those eyes, whose beauty presses
Stings in my heart that all its life exhaust,
Till I go wandering round my treasure lost,
Like some scared creature whom the night distresses.
I seem to find her now, and now perceive
How far away she is; now rise, now fall;
Now what I wish, now what is true, believe.
O happy air! since joys enrich thee all,
Rest thee; and thou, O stream too bright to grieve!
Why can I not float with thee at thy call?

Doth any maiden seek the glorious fame
Of chastity, of strength, of courtesy?
Gaze in the eyes of that sweet enemy
Whom all the world doth as my lady name!
How honor grows, and pure devotion’s flame,
How truth is joined with graceful dignity,
There thou mayst learn, and what the path may be
To that high heaven which doth her spirit claim;
There learn that speech, beyond all poet’s skill,
And sacred silence, and those holy ways
Unutterable, untold by human heart.
But the infinite beauty that all eyes doth fill,
This none can learn! because its lovely rays
Are given by God’s pure grace, and not by art.

O wandering steps! O vague and busy dreams!
O changeless memory! O fierce desire!
O passion strong! heart weak with its own fire;
O eyes of mine! not eyes, but living streams;
O laurel boughs! whose lovely garland seems
The sole reward that glory’s deeds require!
O haunted life! delusion sweet and dire,
That all my days from slothful rest redeems;
O beauteous face! where Love has treasured well
His whip and spur, the sluggish heart to move
At his least will; nor can it find relief.
O souls of love and passion! if ye dwell
Yet on this earth, and ye, great Shades of Love!
Linger, and see my passion and my grief.

I once beheld on earth celestial graces
And heavenly beauties scarce to mortals known,
Whose memory yields nor joy nor grief alone,
But all things else in cloud and dreams effaces.
I saw how tears had left their weary traces
Within those eyes that once the sun outshone,
I heard those lips, in low and plaintive moan,
Breathe words to stir the mountains from their places.
Love, wisdom, courage, tenderness, and truth
Made in their mourning strains more high and dear
Than ever wove soft sounds for mortal ear;
And heaven seemed listening in such saddest ruth
The very leaves upon the bough to soothe,
Such sweetness filled the blissful atmosphere.

Those eyes, ’neath which my passionate rapture rose,
The arms, hands, feet, the beauty that erewhile
Could my own soul from its own self beguile,
And in a separate world of dreams enclose,
The hair’s bright tresses, full of golden glows,
And the soft lightning of the angelic smile
That changed this earth to some celestial isle,—
Are now but dust, poor dust, that nothing knows.
And yet I live! Myself I grieve and scorn,
Left dark without the light I loved in vain,
Adrift in tempest on a bark forlorn;
Dead is the source of all my amorous strain,
Dry is the channel of my thoughts outworn,
And my sad harp can sound but notes of pain.

She ruled in beauty o’er this heart of mine,
A noble lady in a humble home,
And now her time for heavenly bliss has come,
’Tis I am mortal proved, and she divine.
The soul that all its blessings must resign,
And love whose light no more on earth finds room
Might rend the rocks with pity for their doom,
Yet none their sorrows can in words enshrine;
They weep within my heart; no ears they find
Save mine alone, and I am crushed with care,
And naught remains to me save mournful breath.
Assuredly but dust and shade we are;
Assuredly desire is mad and blind;
Assuredly its hope but ends in death.

Dreams bore my fancy to that region where
She dwells whom here I seek, but cannot see.
’Mid those who in the loftiest heaven be
I looked on her, less haughty and more fair.
She took my hand, she said, “Within this sphere,
If hope deceive not, thou shalt dwell with me:
I filled thy life with war’s wild agony;
Mine own day closed ere evening could appear.
My bliss no human thought can understand;
I wait for thee alone, and that fair veil
Of beauty thou dost love shall yet retain.”
Why was she silent then, why dropped my hand
Ere those delicious tones could quite avail
To bid my mortal soul in heaven remain?

Gentle severity, repulses mild,
Full of chaste love and pity sorrowing;
Graceful rebukes, that had the power to bring
Back to itself a heart by dreams beguiled;
A tender voice, whose accents undefiled
Held sweet restraints, all duty honoring;
The bloom of virtue; purity’s clear spring
To cleanse away base thoughts and passions wild;
Divinest eyes to make a lover’s bliss,
Whether to bridle in the wayward mind
Lest its wild wanderings should the pathway miss,
Or else its griefs to soothe, its wounds to bind;
This sweet completeness of thy life it is
Which saved my soul; no other peace I find.

The holy angels and the spirits blest,
Celestial bands, upon that day serene
When first my love went by in heavenly sheen,
Came thronging, wondering at the gracious guest.
“What light is here, in what new beauty drest?”
They said among themselves; “for none has seen
Within this age arrive so fair a mien
From changing earth unto immortal rest.”
And she, contented with her new-found bliss,
Ranks with the perfect in that upper sphere,
Yet ever and anon looks back on this,
To watch for me, as if for me she stayed.
So strive my thoughts, lest that high heaven I miss.
I hear her call, and must not be delayed.

Oft by my faithful mirror I am told,
And by my mind outworn and altered brow,
My earthly powers impaired and weakened now,—
“Deceive thyself no more, for thou art old!”
Who strives with Nature’s laws is over-bold,
And Time to his commandment bids us bow.
Like fire that waves have quenched, I calmly vow
In life’s long dream no more my sense to fold.
And while I think, our swift existence flies,
And none can live again earth’s brief career,—
Then in my deepest heart the voice replies
Of one who now has left this mortal sphere,
But walked alone through earthly destinies,
And of all women is to fame most dear.

Sweet wandering bird that singest on thy way,
Or mournest yet the time for ever past,
Watching night come and spring receding fast,
Day’s bliss behind thee and the seasons gay,—
If thou my griefs against thine own couldst weigh,
Thou couldst not guess how long my sorrows last;
Yet thou mightst hide thee from the wintry blast
Within my breast, and thus my pains allay.
Yet may not all thy woes be named with mine,
Since she whom thou dost mourn may live, yet live,
But death and heaven still hold my spirit’s bride;
And all those long past days of sad decline
With all the joys remembered years can give
Still bid me ask “Sweet bird! with me abide!”

Lust and dull slumber and the lazy hours
Have well nigh banished virtue from mankind.
Hence have man’s nature and his treacherous mind
Left their free course, enmeshed in sin’s soft bowers.
The very light of heaven hath lost its powers
Mid fading ways our loftiest dreams to find;
Men jeer at him whose footsteps are inclined
Where Helicon from dewy fountains showers.
Who seeks the laurel? who the myrtle twines?
“Wisdom, thou goest a beggar and unclad,”
So scoffs the crowd, intent on worthless gain.
Few are the hearts that prize the poet’s lines:
Yet, friend, the more I hail thy spirit glad!
Let not the glory of thy purpose wane!

O ye who trace through scattered verse the sound
Of those long sighs wherewith I fed my heart
Amid youth’s errors, when in greater part
That man unlike this present man was found;
For the mixed strain which here I do compound
Of empty hopes and pains that vainly start,
Whatever soul hath truly felt love’s smart,
With pity and with pardon will abound.
But now I see full well how long I earned
All men’s reproof; and oftentimes my soul
Lies crushed by its own grief; and it doth seem
For such misdeed shame is the fruitage whole,
And wild repentance and the knowledge learned
That worldly joy is still a short, short dream.

Petrarch or Francesco Petrarca born 20th July 1304 - died 18th or 19th July 1374.
The Fifteen Sonnets selected and translated by Thomas Wentworth Higginson 1900
A Poem For A Thursday
One Hundred Years of Solitude Readalong

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

The Covid Chronicles #2

I left you at the end of The Covid Chronicles #1, heading off into the wild, wild west with Mr Books.

Our first stop was to visit my parents. This was the first time we found ourselves considering how social distancing might work in the real world. As we drove into town, we realised that we shouldn't hug my parents hello, or even shake their hands. The news was full of images showing Prince Charles bowing to people to avoid shaking hands. So we waved and bowed too!

We also decided not to visit my sister and her two young children, who live in the same town. It was a bit weird, but all very jokey and jolly.

We drove onto the next town to stay with another sister for the night. More jokes about not hugging, but then we settled down to share a platter of cheese and biscuits (with one shared cheese knife) and a bottle of wine over dinner. It's easy to forget all the ways we come into casual physical contact with one another.

This was the weekend the government cancelled all mass gatherings. National and local sporting events were postponed, including the Melbourne Grand Prix. It seemed to be the international teams strongly questioning the wisdom of running this event, given what was going on in their own countries, that finally made our government react.

Before leaving home I had bought a couple of Sydney Writer's Festival tickets. As we left, I had received an email saying that all ticket sales were now suspended. Our booking was secure, but pending further advice no more ticket sales would go ahead. Another email, as we started off on our road trip proper, sadly explained that the festival had been cancelled for 2020. Bookings could be refunded or donated back to the organisation.

The messaging coming from all government sources at this time was mainly about social distancing. Stay 1.5m away from each other, and wash your hands with soap often and for the length of the 'Happy Birthday' song, sung through twice.

If you were a returned international traveller, or had been in contact with a recent international traveller, you must stay at home and quarantine yourself, or self-isolate, as we were learning to say. But everyone else was free to continue on with some sensible precautions.

If you had a job that allowed you to work from home, you should do so. Elderly people and those with auto-immune issues were urged to stay at home. Schools were still open, but parents who could have their children at home were encouraged to do so.

The drive between Hillston and Menindee

As we drove further into western NSW, it felt like we were not only moving into new territory for us, but also into a brave, new world where social distancing would be easy and natural.

We felt confident that we didn't have the virus as we had not been in contact with any international or cruise ship travellers. Community transmission of Covid-19 was confined to specific events like a wedding in the Hunter Valley and a nursing home in Sydney. It felt like we were moving away from danger, into a much safer space.

Our first stop was the Parkes Observatory. At The Dish Cafe, the lovely young cashier, invited us to use the hand sanitiser on the counter and asked us to use our card, not cash, for the transaction. We had seen nothing like this type of precaution in the city before leaving. We weren't sure if this was the latest response to the new messaging (and therefore Australia-wide), a sign that we were in a science-based environment on top of germ-control or if it was a major difference between city and country. It certainly seemed that this small country town was taking the virus far more seriously than inner city Sydney.

We had cause to revise these ideas a number of times throughout the road trip.

We were told by coffee shops that they weren't going to accept our keep-cups anymore, yet we observed baristas manhandling the cups and lids of the takeaway versions without washing or sanitising between customers. Some businesses wiped down door handles, counters, tables and eftpos machines conspicuously and often, and some didn't. Some places provided hand sanitiser for staff and customers, and some didn't. Some shops accepted cash, some didn't. Some bathrooms had soap dispensers, and some didn't. Public toilets were their usual disgrace.

By the end of the first few days, we realised that the unclear messaging was allowing everyone to interpret the government advice as they saw fit. Including us, as we drove further west.

Around this time, I heard about the podcast Coronacast, a daily, ten minute chat between Dr Norman Swan and Tegan Taylor. They answered Covid-19 related questions and provided updates. After we caught up on the previous episodes, Norman and Tegan became our daily habit.

On our long drives over wide, open highways between small country towns in NSW and South Australia, we binged on ABC News Radio, only moving onto our next West Wing Weekly episode when we couldn't take it any longer! We also discovered the Coronavirus Live Update site. I started off every morning by checking the latest world wide stats, taking some small comfort from how low down on the list Australia was.

When we arrived in the Clare Valley, messaging was beginning to ramp up. Most of the wineries, cafes and restaurants had moved furniture to enforce the 1.5m distancing rule. Most had signs on their doors asking anyone who felt ill to not enter. Hand sanitiser tables were set up near the entrance for customers to use. Some had demarcation lines around the counter, so we couldn't stand too close.

Outside dining at Sunset on Kangaroo Island

Restaurants and cafe were still open, but with tables at the required distance. We chose to eat takeaway options for the majority of our meals, or dined outside. Many of these communities had been badly affected by last year's drought and the summer bush fires. Many of the wineries had to dump this year's grape harvest as it was too badly affected by the smoke. By the time we arrived on Kangaroo Island, a week later, we also saw whole vineyards completely razed to the ground.

These were areas desperate for things to get back to normal.

They were looking forward to an influx of Easter holiday-makers, as well as the local marathon being run, the weekend markets returning, the local arts and craft festival, food fair and hockey tournament. Everyone seemed so grateful for each bottle of wine, olive oil or honey that we purchased.

But on the weekend that we caught the car ferry to Kangaroo Island, the South Australian government came out strongly, saying it was time for them to protect their state and close their borders. By Tuesday 4pm, only South Australian residents would be allowed to enter SA, and even then, anyone arriving after the 4pm cut-off, would have to self-isolate for two weeks.

Bush fire damage on Kangaroo Island

This came on the back of the bungling of the Ruby Princess cruise ship in Sydney and the failure to stop flights from Europe and the US, in the same way we had stopped flights from Wuhan earlier in the year. At this point overseas travellers were responsible for 80% of the virus cases in Australia, yet very little border control or airport testing was in place.

The SA government had been shocked to discover that a group of German tourists had turned up in the Barossa Valley, from interstate, with signs of the illness. A number of them returned positive tests, causing a whole resort to go into immediate lockdown. As this news broke, we were at first simply thankful that we had not been to the Barossa this trip, but it was becoming more and more apparent that the virus numbers in Australia were heading into the badlands.

As we drove around bush fire devastated Kangaroo Island, we realised it was time to call our road trip off. Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Victoria were all making noises about joining SA in border closures. It was time to head home.

Monday, 30 March 2020

The Covid Chronicles #1

This may, or may not, become a thing, but right now I cannot get my head around writing a book response for love or money, let alone reading anything for any length of time. So, The Covid Chronicles it is!

My last two weeks worth of posts were pre-scheduled ones written over three weeks ago (and I still have two more to come). Three weeks ago, Mr Books and I spontaneously decided to go for a long drive to the South Australian wine districts, so I scrambled to get all my outstanding book responses finished before we left.

As it turned out, our time away coincided with the escalation of Covid-19 emergency updates and restrictions. Looking back over those two weeks now, it is fascinating to observe how quickly our lives have changed.

However, my year has been weird almost from the start.

First the drought and bushfires absorbed all my attention and energy, then the dramatic, torrential rain storms in early February changed my work situation. Our beautiful new bookshop was badly flooded and after trying to trade for a few days, we realised we couldn't safely continue to do so until remedial work had taken place.
My new boss has spent the time since going through all the insurance red tape. Most of the books survived, but the flooring and shelving were cactus. We had to pack up ALL the books, for the work to go ahead. Since then I have worked a few office days to catch up on paperwork and see some reps, essentially though, I have not been working since mid-Feb.

Mr Books new job (of a year ago) was also not going well. A takeover meant that he was no longer doing the job he had been signed up for. He was unhappy and dissatisfied with the new direction (or lack thereof).

At the end of January, B19 suddenly informed us that he planned to transfer his uni degree from Canberra Uni to Macquarie Uni and was moving back home. Transfer and move proceeded smoothly, but he was three days late in getting his recognition of prior learning paperwork in, which meant they could not guarantee it would be awarded by the cut-off date for enrolment. It wasn't. So he made the decision to defer for six months and look for full-time to work to tide him over.

B22 and his lovely GF moved in to their first place together. They invited us over to be their first dinner guests. We discussed the possibility of Coronavirus coming to Australia, what it might look like if it did and what would be the best way to combat it.

Mr Books then came home one Friday evening, saying that a number of people in his office had 15 minute early morning meetings with management on Monday. He was first up.
Over the weekend, we figured it either meant he was being offered another role within the new group or he was going to be told that his services were no longer required. If it was the latter, we decided to jump in the car and take off for our first two week break in nearly two years.

As I was walking into my first rep meeting on Monday morning, Mr Books sent a text message, 'pack your bags'.

In and around this, news about the growing Covid-19 epidemic was increasing. Somewhere along the way, we stopped calling it Coronavirus. A few international travellers had returned to Australia with the virus, but were (supposedly) self-isolating. We were being careful and cautious and starting to plan for a different future. It didn't feel real or even particularly likely, despite the news coming out of China and Italy. I bought an extra pack of cold & flu tablets and panadol, plus some soup, pasta and tinned tomatoes. I felt a bit silly for preparing for something that might not even happen, or if it did happen, was still too far away to really worry about yet.

The government was telling us to keep our distance, especially from the elderly and people unwell with auto-immune issues. Washing our hands thoroughly became the big news message. I was still going about my usual (off-work) routine. I was conscious of not touching door handles or elevator hand rails or touching my face, but it was basically life as usual with a few modifications.

But then...

As we were packing our bags for the roadtrip, the toilet paper panic suddenly came out of nowhere. Images of people fighting over bags of tp in the supermarkets were distressing and surreal. It highlighted the level of fear building up in Australia, and our bizarre attachment to bathroom routines.

The panic bred more panic as our government failed to provide clear and precise messaging. I understand that the situation was changing rapidly each week, but rambling conferences with conflicting advice only made the public more fearful, or more dangerously, dismissive. The news from overseas was starting to get a bit scary. Not only was Italy having a terrible time, but Iran, Spain and the US were quickly catching up.

Many Australians consoled themselves with the idea that we were an island, used to strict quarantine measures, a long way from anywhere. But, of course, nowhere is a long way from anywhere, anymore. And strict quarantine measures only work if over 90% of the people do the right thing. Or we know what we're quaratining.

Good news came our way when B19 was successful in getting a full-time position at a local chemist chain, starting immediately.

We went for a grocery shop to make sure B19 had enough of the basics for the time we were going to be away, but there was no toilet paper, no hand sanitiser (a product we had never bothered with before) and almost no pasta.

As Mr Books and I headed off into the sunset with a precious two-pack of toilet paper in our bags, we were being admonished by our Prime Minister to stop hoarding. To just stop it! It was un-Australian behaviour and we should just stop it.

Crossing the Great Divide felt like a great escape. The term social distancing had materialised out of nowhere and became a hashtag for our trip. Driving west, we congratulated ourselves on being in a place and space (our car, just the two of us) where it would be relatively easy to practice this social distancing thing.

The skies opened up, the roads cleared and Mr Books and I (both country kids at heart) felt our usual sense of relief and comfort as we entered rural NSW.

Saturday, 28 March 2020

The Heather Blazing | Colm Tóibin

Oh, this was utterly delicious. Deliciously melancholy, if that's a thing.

The Heather Blazing is the story of Judge Eamon Redmond, and the loss and grief that has defined his whole life. Tóibin writes these rather sad, introspective characters so well. Like Nora Webster, you're left wondering, if perhaps Eamon's first person story is missing an important piece to the puzzle of his life. There are hints, in his relationship with his wife and children, comments they make about his distance, lack of loving gestures and affection, that suggest he wasn't an easy to person to live with. Eamon also struggles with his emotional life, constantly afraid to show his true feelings. Taught from a young age to stay on the sidelines, always watching but not included in the adult decisions being made around him. Seeking solace in solitude, books and walking.

Eamon's sad, lonely childhood affected his ability to show the people in his life that he cared. We, the reader, can feel his emotional pain and see how much he loves those around him, but we can also see that it's all internal. Eamon thinks and feels and deliberates, but he doesn't express or show or share.

The frustrations of his wife and children are tangible, but Eamon is powerless to change.

The political and environmental story line that ran alongside Eamon's story was almost an allegory, with shifting political allegiances and houses slowly crumbling into the sea. The inevitable march of time and natural forces beyond our control reflecting Eamon's faltering progress through his own life.

I also learnt a bit about the history and differences between Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Fine Gael.

Donaghmore, Wexford County, Ireland
Highly recommended to anyone who loves their Irish Lit to be gentle and thoughtful.

Nora Webster

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Do not go gentle into that good night | Dylan Thomas

Photo by Jack B on Unsplash | Snowdon, Wales

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Do not go gentle into that good night | Dylan Thomas | 1947

You can listen to Dylan Thomas read the poem himself.

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

High Rising | Angela Thirkell

Given these weird and scary times we now live in, Angela Thirkell seems like the only sensible option! Her gentle social satire, quintessential British humour and lightness of touch in the face of adversity is not only comforting but inspiring.

High Rising is the first book in a 29 book series, the Barsetshire Chronicles, a homage to Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire books. Barsetshire is a fictional English county used by both authors for their cast of characters - mostly gentry and clergy - to run around in.

Thirkells’s light, amusing, romantic stories are given an added extra something when we take into account that most of the early books in particular, where written contemporaneously. The WWII books were written as they were living it, without knowing when or how it would end, how many lives would be lost or what sacrifices they might be called on to make as a society. Doubt and fear underlie every action in these books. Yet you cannot live every single moment of every single day like that. Daily life continues, even though it’s different to ‘before’. New things become normal, hardships are sudden and unexpected. But carry on, you must. And if you must carry on, then you might as well do it with as much good grace and humour as you can.

High Rising takes place in 1933. Events are unfolding in Europe that will have profound effects on this world one day. We know that, but Thirkell and her delightful, charming characters do not. They are still in the grateful to have survived The Great War phase. Their quiet, domestic arrangements have not been impacted by the wild, crazy 20’s or the Depression. They’re enjoying the new freedoms and new emerging technologies that make their daily lives easier. Getting electricity put in for the first time or even a telephone, having the bathroom plumbed or a new motor car. These are the great advances of society to be celebrated and enjoyed.

It’s hard not to feel nostalgic about this innocence today.

Laura Morland is a wonderful creation. Independent, caring and very practical. She embodies resilience and strength of character. A widow with four boys, all but one grown up and out in the world, she earns her way by writing frivolous romances.
She was quite contented, and never took herself seriously, though she took a lot of    trouble over her books. If she had been more introspective, she might have wondered at herself for doing so much in ten years, and being able to afford a small flat in London, and a reasonable little house in the country, and a middle-class car. The only thing that did occasionally make her admire herself a little was that she actually had a secretary. 

I hope to see a lot more of Laura in the future.

Monday, 23 March 2020

Sand Talk | Tyson Yunkaporta

Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World by Tyson Yunkaporta is a book almost designed to be provocative and contentious. I only say that because I know that there will always be people who feel the need to pull down or dismiss any point of view that diverges from the dominant, mainstream view.

Whereas I'm LOVING how the publishing world is currently embracing a wide variety of views from within our Indigenous community. There is no longer the expectation that all Indigenous thinking should be the same, and that all Indigenous people should speak with the one voice and the one purpose. It is also useful (if not challenging) for the dominant culture to have it ways of life reflected back via a completely different lens.
Our knowledge is only valued if it is fossilised, while our evolving customs and thought patterns are viewed with distaste and scepticism.

I'm not convinced that any one way of thinking, Indigenous or otherwise, will save our world but books like Sand Talk can open our minds and hearts to seeing the world through another's eyes. They may even give us a new way of seeing and thinking about our world that expands and enriches our current position. 
Apocalypses have proven to be survivable in the past, although on the downside it usually means that your culture will never be the same again.

I'm all for having your mind expanded by other possibilities and other perspectives. Yunkaporta has very definite opinions and beliefs, but he doesn't expect you to follow him and he doesn't harangue you. He acknowledges there are other ways, even within his own community.
The invisible privilege of your technocratic, one-sided peacefulness is an act of violence.

It's obvious that he is on a life-long search for meaning and understanding, he is simply sharing where he is on this journey at this moment. Evolving, emerging, reflecting, bringing together his thoughts so he can move onto the next phase, whatever that may be.
Living cultures and languages evolve and transform.

This is a book that deserves to be revisited.
It was a lot to take in with one sitting. And I'm not sure, I was ready to hear some of what Yunkaporta had to say. Or more accurately, the use of yarning to convey information was one that I struggled to fully connect with. It was a bit like those long, long poems in The Lord of the Rings, that I usually skim over to get to the next bit of the story.

Sand Talk is definitely a book you should read for yourself to make up your own mind, though. The writing style is accessible and engaging. Yunkaporta clearly states his aims and addresses his own biases. He doesn't expect his readers, black or white, to embrace everything he has to say. He simply feels that it is important to put his ideas out there to be part of the ongoing discussion about Indigenous life in Australia.


Saturday, 21 March 2020

Actress | Anne Enright

I have to ask straight up - who is Norah's father? Could you work it out? I wasn't sure. There didn't seem to be any repercussions or exposition after the reveal. Was it all about the #metoo element? But since you kind of figure that out for yourself very early on, it wasn't so much a shock revelation, but a quieter 'I thought so' moment. I'm confused.

Anyway, let's put that all that aside for now and talk about the lovely, lovely writing in Anne Enright's Actress. I loved her descriptions of Norah and her mother, the famous Katherine Odell, her observations of daily life and her empathy for the thinking of a 21 yr old.

  • We had the same way of blinking, slow and fond, as though thinking of something beautiful.
  • I think I mentioned that my mother was a star. Not just on screen or on the stage, but at the breakfast table also, my mother Katherine O’Dell was a star.
  • The boiling eggs chittering against each other and along the metal bottom of the pan.
  • My life felt like an imitation, and I was terrified it might become the real thing.

Actress was an fascinating story but there were many times when it felt rather like trying to drive a car and forgetting to put it into gear. The engine was revving sweetly, but we were going nowhere! Which is maybe why I felt the father revelation late in the story was more of a frustration than anything else. I was waiting patiently for a burst of speed that never happened.

I enjoyed my time in Enright's hands, but it's not the best example of her work.

#Begorrathon2020 #ReadingIrelandMonth2020


  • 'the more I applauded, the better, it seemed to me, did Berma act.' In Search of Lost Time

Enright Reviews:

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

A Month in Siena | Hisham Matar

Sometimes you read a book, or discover an author, that opens up a new world to you. Or a world that you knew existed, but one that doesn't really intersect very often with your own every day, ordinary life.

A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar was one such book and one such author.

It's hard not to feel a little envious of someone who has allocated and prioritised their time for thinking, wondering and pondering. Someone who has made their life around really understanding art, history and sociology. I wonder what it would take to live that kind of life. What are the sacrifices? How do you earn a living? Raise a family?

The joys, to me, are obvious.
Spending hours in front of your favourite art work to really see everything there is to see. Spending a month, on your own, in Siena to facilitate your obsession with this period of art history. Then writing a book about what you've learnt.
A picture changes as you look at it and changes in ways that are unexpected. I have discovered that a painting requires time. Now it takes me several months and more often than not a year before I can move on. During that period the picture becomes a mental as well as a physical location in my life.

At a micro level I can also obsess, research and blog about certain topics (most recently Moby-Dick and Herman Melville) and over the years I have become addicted to the peace and calm that radiates out of The Sea Hath its Pearls | 1897 | William Henry Margetson on regular view at the Art Gallery of NSW. Maybe it's simply that Matar has found a way to turn this into a career, whereas for me it's something I fit in around my working life. One of the things I have taken from this book, is to make this habit of observation a more conscious act and I no longer think I'm weird for returning to the same painting every time I visit the Art Gallery.

I thoroughly enjoyed Matar's detailed, intimate descriptions of his favourite Sienese paintings. I especially loved the colour plates that were included in my hardback edition of the book, so that I, too, could spend time pouring over every detail in the painting, marvelling at Matar's observational skills and interpretative ability.
Only love and art can do this: only inside a book or in front of a painting can one truly let into another's perspective. It has always struck me as a paradox how in the solitary arts there is something intimately communal.
The Effects of Good Government in the City | Ambrogio Lorenzetti

Matar also gives us a potted history of Siena and walks around a number of the main areas, describing what he sees, including the local cemetery.
It is one thing to consider the particular intimacy of a single grave, another to glimpse death's endless brave and heroic we are in the face of undeniable evidence that life cannot be maintained, that regardless of what armour we choose, all things must pass.

Given the Covid-19 news at the moment, his reflections on the Black Death that decimated the world in the 14th century felt very relevant. The decline of civilisation as more and more people died, the growth of fear and fanaticism in the face of such chaos and the need for scapegoats to shoulder the blame that 'provoked violent sectarianism and social division.' Criminal groups and rebellions increased. Christianity viewed the plague as a form of guilt (we did something wrong and are being punished approach). Muslims saw it as something else to be endured or resisted, in a long line of God decreed acts to be endured or resisted. But out of this devastating event, came the Renaissance and the Baroque periods.

I have yet to read The Return by Hisham Matar, but I understand that A Month in Siena grew out of the time he needed after writing The Return to come to terms with not being able to find out anything about what happened to his father. Such a profound loss needs a special solace.

A Month in Siena is part of that process for Matar. It's about art and history and philosophy and sociology, but underlying every chapter, every idea, is the loss and grief for his fatherless state.

Monday, 16 March 2020

#JustSaying - Stay Calm & Read

Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash

Jennifer @HoldsOnHappiness
wrote a post recently about keeping calm in a world suddenly gone mad. Her simple solution was to stockpile books, not toilet paper. And tea.

It would seem that all the end-of-the-world stories I've read over the years, have seeped into my subconscious, as I would have to self-isolate for well over a year before I even went close to running out of unread books or tea!

But it got me thinking, what WOULD I read if my family had to go into quarantine thanks to one of us being exposed to Covid-19?

Plagues and pestilence have been the scourge of human life since time began. Which reflects the extraordinary number of stories that have been written about this topic since then. As soon as we started recording and remembering stories, natural disasters got the starring role. For instance, plague and pestilence visit the characters on the battle field in Homers' The Iliad. You'll also find a far bit of this going on, with the whole wrath of God behind it, in the Old Testament stories as well.

Giovanni Boccaccio went there in the 1350's after the Black Death with The Decameron, as did Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales. Daniel Defoe gave us Journal of the Plague Year written in 1722 and in 1826 Mary Shelley wrote The Last Man.

More modern takes include Katherine Anne Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider (which sounds fascinating by the way - a 1918 Spanish flu story), Albert Camus' The Plague, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders, Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt, Peter Heller's The Dog Stars, Chris Adrian's, The Children’s Hospital, Ling Ma's Severance, and Philip Roth's Nemesis (a polio outbreak story).

If man-made bio-disasters are more your thing then you could try Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake trilogy, Frank Herbert's The White Plague, Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, Dean Koontz' The Eyes of Darkness, Justin Cronin's The Passage and Stephen King's The Stand.

But would we really turn to plague-lit as a form of comfort during these trying times?

According to Buzzfeed last week, the 2011 movie Contagion is now the second most watched Warner Bros movie and the tenth most popular Apple iTunes movie. Maybe it should be reclassified as a documentary?

If I had 2-3 weeks off work, where I had to stay quietly at home I would have no trouble filling my time. I have several unopened jigsaw puzzle boxes, cupboards full of our favourite DVD's (for when Netflix falls over due to high demand!) and mountains of unread books. But I do feel sorry for my more extroverted friends. Two weeks stuck at home is their worst nightmare!

I might be tempted to reread King's The Stand. But I'd like to think I would use the time more fruitfully and finally tackle some of those more challenging books on my TBR like, Ducks Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann and Milkman by Anna Burns. Or maybe I will finally read all those delightful Angela Thirkell books stacked under by my bed for reasons of pure comfort and escapism.

Have you prepared your self-isolation reading list yet?
What are you looking forward to reading if you suddenly get two weeks at home?

For more Bookish Covid-19 posts try BethFishReads food post and Paula's positive spin here.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

The 2020 Booker International Longlist

I no longer post about longlists and shortlists like I once did. I have various pages on the right hand side of my blog that now feature all the book prizes that I'm keen to follow and read. Generally speaking, I don't feel like I have anything new to say that hasn't already been said, so I leave it in the capable hands of others.

However, this year's International Booker is another matter entirely.

Firstly, the longlist looks a little something like this:

  • Red Dog | Willem Anker, translated by Michiel Heyns from Afrikaans
  • The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree | Shokoofeh Azar, translated by Anonymous from Farsi
  • The Adventures of China Iron | Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, translated by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh from Spanish
  • The Other Name: Septology I-II | Jon Fosse, translated by Damion Searls from Norwegian
  • The Eighth Life | Nino Haratischvili, translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin from German
  • Serotonin | Michel Houellebecq, translated by Shaun Whiteside from French
  • Tyll | Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Ross Benjamin from German
  • Hurricane Season | Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes from Spanish
  • The Memory Police | Yōko Ogowa, translated by Stephen Snyder from Japanese
  • Faces on the Tip of My Tongue | Emmanuelle Pagano, translated by Sophie Lewis and Jennifer Higgins from French
  • Little Eyes | Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell from Spanish
  • The Discomfort of Evening | Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, translated by Michele Hutchison from Dutch
  • Mac and His Problem | Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes from Spanish

Secondly, take another look at book 2 on the list.

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree was one my favourite reads of 2018 and I can't express how excited and thrilled I am for Shokoofeh Azar that her book is now getting such international attention too.

It is now two years since I finished and reviewed the book. It is one of those books that grows larger in my imagination and in my remembering of it. My fondness for it has grown as has my appreciation of the story and what Azar was trying to achieve. It's a book that keeps on giving and stays with you for a long, long time.

I've included part of my 2018 review for it below and hope it convinces you to give this amazing, beautiful story your serious consideration.

I have The Eighth Life and The Memory Police on my TBR pile, but without knowing anything else about any of the other titles, I'm throwing all my blogging weight behind The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree.

The cover alone might have been enticement enough (a collage of three of Azar's art works), but the promise of a mystical, magical tour through the horrors of revolutionary Iran, 'using the lyrical magic realism style of classical Persian storytelling', was the final prompt I needed to make this my first book to read from this year's prize. 
Magical realism can be a problem for many readers I know. I'm happy to embrace some forms of magic realism more than others. I especially like those that draw fairy tales, fables and myths into our modern real-world setting. (FYI: I'm not so keen on the type of magic realism that brings in a lot of deliberately disorientating layers and details. I like my magical realism to still make sense somehow!) 
Azar's use of magic realism did that and more. It's quite a skill to weave a story that allows your somewhat sceptical reader to accept the existence of ghosts, jinns and mermaids. But Azar did it for me - I was with her from the start, on that level at least.
However, it did take me a while to get going. It may have been a translation thing or it may have been a slightly different approach to sentence structure. Many of the books I gravitate towards lately are ones with concise, short sentences. So maybe it was simply my lack of practice in reading longer, flowing, complex sentences. Whatever it was, I found the start of The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree choppy and erratic. 
It wasn't until the special circumstances of our narrator were revealed at the beginning of chapter 5 that I was hooked. Suddenly the 'playful, poetic and deeply melancholy' Alice Pung quote on the back cover came to life. 
I dropped into a dreamy, almost trance-like state every time I picked up the book. Jinns and groves of trees haunted my own dreams as fleeting childhood memories of news items about the 1979 Revolution were triggered by events in the story. It was angry, it was heart-rending, it was glorious, mesmerising and confronting. 
Azar has given us a classic story of good and evil. Her words are fluid as is her approach to time and truth. Belonging, love and loss are the major themes while the search for solace is the main concern for her characters. Given the horrific events that occurred during the Iranian Revolution, it is easy to understand why and how an author would choose to wrap these unreal events up in mythology. When the real world you live in suddenly gets turned on it's head, sometimes the only response is imagination and the only hope is magic. 
I, for one, hope with all my heart, that this story gets shortlisted for the Stella - it deserves to get as much attention as possible.

I'm not the only one who loves this book.
Check out Meredith's recent review here

Thursday, 12 March 2020

The Fast 800 | Michael Mosley

Back in 2013, Mr Books and I embarked on the original 5:2 Fast Diet. It was easier and harder than we thought. We both lost the weight that we wanted to, we enjoyed the fasting days (weird but true) and we ate a much healthier diet throughout the whole week as a result of what we learnt. However we may have annoyed our family and friends with our evangelical approach to the diet!

Then we moved house halfway through 2015, and things began to slide. One of the booklets moved in with us full-time, and we lost our natural, easy fasting days. Our work routines changed as well and complacency set in.

We still eat well, but portion sizes have slowly crept up, fast days have crept out to once a month, instead of once a week and eating late at night has become a bad habit once again as changes at work have completely reworked our meal time schedules.

I bought a copy of the new and improved version, The Fast 800, when it first came out in Dec 2018. I read the first handful of chapters with the eagerness and excitement of a new year's resolution. But then book sat by my desk, unfinished and untouched, looking askance at me every time I sat down to blog, until I stacked a pile of books on top of it!

A recent clean up unearthed it. But, really, it was my soft, squishy, slowly expanding peri-menopausal tummy that made me open the book again. I want to get back on track and reclaim my waistline!

The Fast 800 differs from the earlier book with a slight increase in the calorie intake for the fast days. Mosley shares the research from studies that have been undertaken since the writing of the first book. For instance, 800 is the new magic calorie number as it's,
high enough to be manageable and sustainable but low enough to trigger a range of desirable metabolic changes.

He goes over information about carbs, insulin, the Mediterranean diet, rapid weight loss, food fads, junk food, sugar, exercise options and various food myths. Mosley also discusses the science behind the benefits of Time Restricted Eating (TRE) and High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). Practical, how-to information is suggested for how to get started and the last part of the book is dedicated to recipes with their calorie counts.

I'm now into week two of my new fast 800 and I'm feeling good. It only takes a little bit of extra thought and care to count and measure food options for the fast days. And I know from last time, that once I work out a few meal combinations that I particularly like, I will just use those as my go-to meals each week. The magic 800 means that I can also have a skim flat-white coffee (72 calories) on my fast days, something I couldn't do when I had to restrict my calories to 500 under the old regime.

My plan is to have a month (or two) of the 5:2 diet (or until my winter jeans fit more comfortably). Then I will move back onto the maintenance diet of 6:1.

And I hope, that by leaving the book lying around the house, Mr Books will be tempted to join me again.

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Under Milk Wood: The Definitive Edition | Dylan Thomas

In 1991, I spent a lovely long weekend with my Welsh cousins in Pendoylan. One of the many tours we managed to fit into my brief visit, was an afternoon in Laugharne to wander around Dylan Thomas' boathouse and writing shed perched on the side of a hill above the River Taf.

Growing up in Australia, with our broad expansive, open vista's everywhere you look, I was struggling somewhat to appreciate the more compact, grey-green, misty views of England, Wales and Scotland. I spent a lot of time, in 1991, visiting famous sites and sights in the UK, thinking, 'but where is the rest of it?' My imagination had super-imposed Australia-sized space onto all those well-known, well-trod British places that I had read about all my (very young) life.

I had the same experience in Laugharne as my Welsh cousins raved about the beauty of the sea and sand at the estuary. All I could see was a muddy stream running out to sea, with more muddy sand in a tiny strip beside it. I wondered how on earth Thomas could wax so lyrical about this rather grey, dismal, wet view. I refrained from saying anything, but I think my cousins were disappointed with my lacklustre enthusiasm.

Back in Australia, in 2012, Mr Books and I saw a production of Under Milk Wood at the Opera House, starring Bruce Spence, Jack Thompson and Sandy Gore. I went into the show knowing next to nothing about the play, except that it was one of Mr Book's favourites from school. It may not have been the best way to start my Milk Wood journey. I was bemused and confused by most of it. I remember a mad-cap, slightly manic stage romp with a group of actors clearly enjoying themselves.  Mr Books was spell-bound though.

I bought him a copy of the 2015 definitive edition as a love-token.

As Dewithon 2020 loomed large, I went searching through our bookshelves for books by Welsh authors. Sadly, given my Welsh heritage, there were not very many options. So I plundered Mr Books shelves.

I felt a little daunted about reading the play after my experience with The Tempest earlier on this year, so I decided to listen to Richard Burton's full cast BBC recording as I read along - the only way, I believe, to really appreciate the rhythm, pacing and beauty of the language used by Thomas Dylan in this, his play for voices.

It was a delicious rainy Sunday afternoon experience.
Time passes, Listen. Time passes.

As it turns out, I read/listened to Under Milk Wood during the early days of my One Hundred Years of Solitude readalong, and enjoyed the crossover of ideas between the two - dreams, ghosts, time, love and loss - in particular.

But I will leave it to those far more learned to discuss the merits of this play. I was enchanted by Burton's retelling. His rolling r's, his use of pauses and pacing that brought the narration to life and his inflections were spot on.

Mr Books career has been made on the back of his lifelong love of words. I can now appreciate one of his early influences.

Sunday, 8 March 2020

Shelf Life #3

Photo by LAUREN GRAY on Unsplash

Shelf Life is a new personal meme to help me in my ongoing attempt to declutter my bookshelves.
It's more than a Marie Condo of my books though.
It's aim is to reflect, honour and let go of 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 have loved, but know I will never read again and 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?

The Winter Vault | Anne Michaels
  • Inscribed 2nd Feb 2010.
  • I adored Fugitive Pieces, Michaels' 1997 award winning debut book, so I was curious to see what she could do as a follow up.
  • Fugitive Pieces flowed like poetry, but The Winter Vault was much harder. 
  • The research showed and I could see the writer at work.
  • Despite a number of connections - the name Avery, the setting of Aswan Dam, art, architecture and history - I never really fully engaged with the story.
  • Fugitive Pieces will be staying with me, but The Winter Vault can now find a new home.

The Beginner's Goodbye | Anne Tyler
  • An ARC from April 2012, not inscribed.
  • A heartbreakingly good story about learning to say goodbye to someone you love.
  • A ghost story of sorts, that reduced me to tears at my local swimming pool, as I lay on my towel in the sun, drying off after doing laps.
  • Trying not to imagine the pain I would feel if Mr Books should die first.
  • A memorable read, but not a keeper.

Crossing to Safety | Wallace Stegner
  • Inscribed Aug 2012.
  • Came into my life thanks to the First Book Tuesday Book Club episode for this book, where all the presenters RAVED about it.
  • I was impressed too, so much so, that I ordered in a copy of his Pulitzer prize winning book Angle of Repose to read too.
  • At the time, Crossing to Safety was my favourite and I planned to give my copy of Angle of Repose away.
  • Yet when it came time to let it go, I couldn't. I still can't. Mary Foote's story haunts me to this day.
  • However I am now ready for Crossing to Safety to go to a new home.
  • I feel no need to revisit the lives of these two couples.

The Magnificent Ambersons | Booth Tarkington
  • Inscribed 4th Nov 2011.
  • Read for the very first Classic Club spin in 2013.
  • A wonderful story, atmospheric, full of human drama.
  • I loved researching this book for my post.
  • I'm still waiting to read another book by Tarkington or to see a movie version of the book!
  • But I don't feel the need to ever reread it.

Possessing the Secret of Joy | Alice Walker
  • Inscribed 10th Oct 1997, Sydney
  • I had never heard of Alice Walker until I saw the movie of The Color Purple on TV in 1990.
  • It sucked me in and spat me out a blubbering mess.
  • Naturally I had to read the book not long afterwards.
  • I was a blubbering mess by the end of the book too!
  • Possessing the Secret of Joy didn't have the same impact.
  • It can go out into the world to find new readers.

The Reader | Bernhard Schlink
  • 24th Aug 1998.
  • Translated by Carol Brown Janeway.
  • I remember being disturbed and moved by this story about memory, truth and atonement.
  • It brings up grey, bleak, torturous feelings.
  • It was one of the first books I read about the effects of WWII on the next generation of Germans, as they came to terms with what their parents and grandparents did and knew during the war.
  • I couldn't make myself watch the movie though and I've never tried to read any of Schlink's other books.
  • Once was enough.

Did you read any of these books?
What memories do they bring up for you?

Shelf Life #1
Shelf Life #2
Shelf Life #3