Monday, 9 July 2018

Calypso by David Sedaris

This was my very first David Sedaris book.

I know! Where have I been & what on earth have I been doing?

I've been meaning to read him for years and years, but it was the opening line in Calypso that hooked me,
Though there's an industry built on telling you otherwise, there are few real joys to middle age. The only perk I can see is that, with luck, you'll acquire a guest room.

As someone who enjoyed having a guest room throughout my (single) twenties & thirties but lost it when I married with kids - in my middle years - I knew exactly what Sedaris meant about the joys of having a guest room. I'm now past the middle years (it would be nice to think I will reach 100 yrs of age, but highly unlikely given my family history) and I'm still waiting to rediscover the guest room (the kids will move out one day won't they?)

Like Sedaris, I speak in jest, mostly! Mr Books & I are very aware that our time with kids living at home is coming to an end. It is a bittersweet period. You want to enjoy this last phase of the family all living together, but at the same time we can drive each crazy with differing expectations and opinions about cleanliness, how long a shower should last & where to leave the car keys!

Sedaris' writing felt so relatable and relevant that after you finish chuckling about his story, you start thinking about your own!

Sedaris grew up with five sibling ("Six kids! people would say. "How do your poor folks manage?")
I was one of four ("Four girls!" people would say. "How does your poor dad manage?")
I'm not sure how it is in small families, but in large ones relationships tend to shift over time. You might be best friends with one brother or sister, then two years later it might be someone else. Then it's likely to change again, and again after that. It doesn't mean that you've fallen out with the person you used to be closest to but that you've merged into someone else's lane, or had him or her merge into yours. Trios form, then morph into quartets before splitting into teams of two. The beauty of it is that it's always changing.


A fitbit obsession led Sedaris onto a 60 000 step regime - me? I will walk an extra km just to hatch an egg in pokemon go! Sad but true.

The stuff David talks about is personal, which caused this reader to reflect on many of her own personal beliefs and feelings.
One afternoon we scattered my mother's ashes in the surf behind the house....My mother died in 1991, yet reaching into the bag, touching her remains, essentially throwing her away, was devastating, even after all this time.

This is a topic much on our minds at the moment. I always thought I wanted to have my ashes scattered in the ocean, off a cliff or in a garden. But in the past ten years or so, I've witnessed so many people - the survivors of loss - really, really struggle to scatter the ashes of their beloved. It's too hard. So they don't. Instead ashes end up in cupboards or under beds and those who would like to have someone where to go to mourn their loss are left with nothing - no grave, no plaque, no memorial, no special beach, mountain or tree. Sedaris' story confirmed for me that I want my ashes buried, preferably within a couple of weeks of my death, under a rose bush or tree, with a plaque. I don't want to make this time even harder than it may already be for those that I leave behind.

From what I have read, this is the most personal that Sedaris has been in his writing. I enjoyed his stories about family and ageing, but then he started down the road of commentary and anecdotes. I didn't find them funny. The story about what people in other countries call out of cars at bad drivers was laugh out loud funny, but the rest left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

Many of his jokes and tricks seemed rather mean and occasionally cruel. Like his comment about pulling a guess 'out of my ass in order to get a rise out of someone' - someone who had just told him that her mother had cancer. I was also annoyed by his American abroad approach to politics - proud to be ignorant of all things not American. Certainly not someone I would want to sit next to at a dinner party!

So sadly, I think this will be my one and only Sedaris. The annoying bits out-weighed the interesting or amusing.

Book 10 of #20booksofsummer (winter) drop-in title
Sydney 18℃
Northern Ireland 24℃

Thursday, 5 July 2018

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O'Farrell

What an extraordinary lucky (or unlucky) life Maggie O'Farrell has had. Seventeen brushes with death in one lifetime seems rather excessive, to one who can barely think of one close call!

But seventeen there really are.

Some of the brushes are a little more tenuous than others - more like a sliding door moment that many of us may have had - like if I had left the house ten minutes earlier I might have been in the exact same spot where the car accident happened that I am now driving safely by. That's about as close as I get to a brush with death.

My mum's was a much closer call and more like the stories that O'Farrell relates in her book, with a near-drowning experience as a young child. It gets a little weird if I think about what would have happened if my uncle hadn't been there to save my mum. Who would I be now?

All the way through I Am, I Am, I Am I was wondering why O'Farrell chose to write her vignettes out of chronological order. That is, until I got to her story about a much too close brush with a truck on a narrow lane. She was in a relationship but walking out in a forest discussing a different future with another man, who was also in another relationship. No names, no ages, no specifics to pin down when this happened, to protect the innocent I assume.

There were a couple of near drowning moments, child birth traumas and serious life-threatening illnesses. O'Farrell's sliding doors moments centred around a blood test after she found out her boyfriend had been sleeping around and scary moments in her childhood when her mum nearly closed the boot on her head and she stepped off the kerb into oncoming traffic. Death or serious injury averted thanks to timing, quick thinking on someone else's behalf and good old fashioned luck.

The truly frightening story was the lucky escape from a murderer whilst walking in a quiet touristy unnamed area somewhere in the wilds of England. It reminded me of the vignette in Ian McEwan's Amsterdam that was curiously based on a real experience that McEwan had whilst walking around the Lakes District in his younger years. It made me wonder if they had both run into the same creepy guy.

However, most of the stories were closer to mini-memoirs. In amongst the dangerous moment were revealing facts about O'Farrell's childhood, her early career choices, first boyfriends, her travel anecdotes, her studies, writing and thoughts on motherhood.

One of her final stories details her childhood brush with death via encephalitis. This seems to be the formative story about how and why O'Farrell faces the thought of death and approaches the rest of her life with such a 'sanguine' indifference:
Coming so close to death as a young child, only to resurface again into life, imbued in me for a long time a brand of recklessness, a cavalier or even crazed attitude to risk....I leapt off harbour walls. I walked alone in remote mountains. I took night trains through Europe on my own, arriving in capital cities in the middle of the night with nowhere to stay. I cycled blithely along what is dubbed 'South America's Most Dangerous Road', a vertiginous, crumbling, eroding track cut into a steep peak....I walked across frozen lakes. I swam in dangerous waters.

I've never read any of her fiction titles, but here, I enjoyed her way with words and the pictures she painted with them. They felt genuine and heart-felt. I read one or two stories at a time during my lunch break, which was the perfect way to read them I feel. I suspect if I tried to read this is one go I might have got a little tired of the theme and the fact that some of the brushes were a little more tenuous than others to say the least.

Very enjoyable short stories, one dose at a time.

Book 9 of #20booksofsummer (winter) drop-in title
Sydney 23℃
Northern Ireland 20℃

Monday, 2 July 2018

Miagret's First Case by Georges Simenon

Maigret's First Case is my second Georges Simenon book. I'm not reading the Maigret books in any particular order and so far it doesn't seem to matter. Especially as this one, #30 in the series, is a flashback to Maigret's early days in the police force and, as such, provides an insight into how his particular way of working a case came about.

One of the joys of reading a book during a particular reading challenge like Paris in July is that it encourages me to adjust the lens through which I experience the story. Usually when I read books set in other countries, I have nothing more than a vague sense of the geography or the streets the characters might be walking down. But thanks to Paris in July I googled the address where the main action occurs in Maigret's First Case - 17A Rue Chaptal.

It was seven o'clock when Maigret took possession, as it were, of Rue Chaptal....There are bustling streets full of shops and cafes where it is easy to blend in, but Rue Chaptal is not one of them. Short and wide, it has no shops and very few people use it.
All the curtains of the Gendreau-Balthazar mansion were tightly drawn, as in most of the houses in the street. Maigret loitered on one corner and then another, feeling rather conspicuous.

Luckily the Vieux Calvados on the corner of Rue Henner, almost opposite the Gendreaus', had just opened. It was the only place in the street that offered Maigret a refuge....The place itself was rather extraordinary. In this street of private mansions and expensive apartment buildings, the Vieux Calvados looked like a country inn that had been forgotten when Paris spread. The building was low and narrow with a little step down into a rather dark, very cool room with a dull pewter counter. The bottles looked as if they had been standing there for ever.

Google street view allows you to move around the street to see that, yes, it is indeed short and wide with no shops, just a couple of cafes on the corners. I could hear the cry for help from the second floor windows, I could see Minard banging on the door to try to help, and later, Maigret lurking around trying to be inconspicuous as he works his first surveillance.

I also learnt about sausages, andouille from Brittany in particular. Poor Maigret was forced to eat plates of the stuff as well as down glass after glass of calvodos while he staked out the house above. Andouille is,
a coarse-grained sausage made with pork, intestines or chitterlings, pepper, wine, onions, and seasonings. Tripe, which is the stomach lining of a cow, is sometimes an ingredient in the filler of an andouillette, but it is not the casing or the key to its manufacture. True andouillette will be an oblong tube. If made with the small intestine, it is a plump sausage generally about 25 mm in diameter but often it is much larger, possibly 7–10 cm in diameter, and stronger in scent when the colon is used (andouille). True andouillette is rarely seen outside France and has a strong, distinctive odour related to its intestinal origins and components. Although sometimes repellent to the uninitiated, this aspect of andouillette is prized by its devotees. (wikipedia)

Calvodos is an apple brandy from the Normandy region:
Calvados can be served as an apéritif, blended in drinks, between meals, as a digestif, or with coffee. Well-made calvados should naturally be reminiscent of apples and pears, balanced with flavours of aging. The less-aged calvados distinguishes itself with its fresh apple and pear aromas. The longer the calvados is aged, the more the taste resembles that of any other aged brandy. (wikipedia)

I enjoyed this trip through 1913 Paris with a young, newly married Maigret. I'm not sure if I will ever read all 75 books, but I'll be very happy to read whichever ones happen to cross my path. This particular one was translated by Ros Schwartz for Penguin in 2016.

I'll finish with another of Simenon's descriptions of Paris. This time Maigret had been staking out a suspect around the Arc de Triomphe.
It wasn't until eight o'clock that evening, when it was dark and the avenue radiating from the Arc de Triomphe were outlined by the pearly glow from the gas lamps, that Maigret, who was beginning to lose hope, finally found what he was looking for.
He had a golden memory of that afternoon, Paris at its most beautiful, the spring air so mild and fragrant that people stopped to inhale it.  
Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile, watercolor by John Salminen

  • 1. The Strange Case of Peter the Lett, The Case of Peter the Lett, Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett (1931)
  • 2. The Crime at Lock 14, Maigret Meets a Milord, Lock 14 (1931)
  • 3. The Death of Monsieur Gallet, Maigret Stonewalled (1931)
  • 4. The Crime of Inspector Maigret, Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets (1931)
  • 5. A Battle of Nerves, Maigret's War of Nerves, A Man's Head (1931)
  • 6. A Face for a Clue, Maigret and the Concarneau Murders, Maigret and the Yellow Dog, The Yellow Dog (1931)
  • 7. The Crossroad Murders, Maigret at the Crossroads (1931)
  • 8. A Crime in Holland, Maigret in Holland (1931)
  • 9. The Sailor's Rendezvous (1931)
  • 10. At the "Gai Moulin", Maigret at the "Gai Moulin" (1931)
  • 11. Guinguette by the Seine, Maigret and the Tavern by the Seine, The Bar on the Seine (1931)
  • 12. The Shadow in the Courtyard, Maigret Mystified (1932)
  • 13. Maigret and the Countess, The Saint-Fiacre Affair, Maigret Goes Home, Maigret on Home Ground (1932)
  • 14. The Flemish Shop, Maigret and the Flemish Shop (1932)
  • 15. Death of a Harbo(u)r Master, Maigret and the Death of a Harbor Master (1932)
  • 16. The Madman of Bergerac (1932)
  • 17. Liberty Bar, Maigret on the Riviera (1932)
  • 18. The Lock at Charenton (1933)
  • 19. Maigret Returns (1934)
  • 20. Maigret and the Hotel Majestic (1942)
  • 21. Maigret in Exile (1942)
  • 22. Maigret and the Spinster (1942)
  • 23. To Any Lengths, Maigret and the Fortuneteller (1944)
  • 24. Maigret and the Toy Village (1944)
  • 25. Maigret's Rival, Inspector Cadaver (1944)
  • 26. Maigret in Retirement (1947)
  • 27. Maigret in New York, Inspector Maigret in New York's Underworld, Maigret in New York's Underworld (1947)
  • 28. A Summer Holiday, No Vacation for Maigret, Maigret on Holiday (1948)
  • 29. Maigret's Dead Man, Maigret's Special Murder (1948)
  • 30. Maigret's First Case (1949)
  • 31. My Friend Maigret, The Methods of Maigret (1949)
  • 32. Maigret at the Coroner's (1949)
  • 33. Maigret and the Old Lady (1950)
  • 34. Madame Maigret's Own Case, Madame Maigret's Friend, The Friend of Madame Maigret (1950)
  • 35. Maigret's Memoirs (1951)
  • 36. Maigret and the Strangled Stripper, Maigret in Montmartre, Inspector Maigret and the Strangled Stripper (1951)
  • 37. Maigret Takes a Room, Maigret Rents a Room (1951)
  • 38. Inspector Maigret and the Burglar's Wife, Maigret and the Burglar's Wife (1951)
  • 39. Inspector Maigret and the Killers, Maigret and the Gangsters (1952)
  • 40. Maigret's Revolver (1952)
  • 41. Maigret and the Man on the Boulevard, Maigret and the Man on the Bench (1953)
  • 42. Maigret Afraid (1953)
  • 43. Maigret's Mistake (1953)
  • 44. Maigret Goes to School (1954)
  • 45. Inspector Maigret and the Dead Girl, Maigret and the Young Girl (1954)
  • 46. Maigret and the Minister, Maigret and the Calame Report (1955)
  • 47. Maigret and the Headless Corpse (1955)
  • 48. Maigret Sets a Trap (1955)
  • 49. Maigret's Failure (1956)
  • 50. Maigret's Little Joke, None of Maigret's Business (1957)
  • 51. Maigret and the Millionaires (1958)
  • 52. Maigret Has Scruples (1958)
  • 53. Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses (1959)
  • 54. Maigret Has Doubts (1959)
  • 55. Maigret in Court (1960)
  • 56. Maigret in Society (1960)
  • 57. Maigret and the Lazy Burglar (1961)
  • 58. Maigret and the Black Sheep (1962)
  • 59. Maigret and the Saturday Caller (1962)
  • 60. Maigret and the Dosser, Maigret and the Bum (1963)
  • 61. Maigret Loses His Temper (1963)
  • 62. Maigret and the Ghost, Maigret and the Apparition (1964)
  • 63. Maigret on the Defensive (1964)
  • 64. The Patience of Maigret, Maigret Bides His Time (1965)
  • 65. Maigret and the Nahour Case (1967)
  • 66. Maigret's Pickpocket (1967)
  • 67. Maigret Takes the Waters, Maigret in Vichy (1968)
  • 68. Maigret Hesitates (1968)
  • 69. Maigret's Boyhood Friend (1968)
  • 70. Maigret and the Killer (1969)
  • 71. Maigret and the Wine Merchant (1970)
  • 72. Maigret and the Madwoman (1970)
  • 73. Maigret and the Loner (1971)
  • 74. Maigret and the Flea, Maigret and the Informer (1971)
  • 75. Maigret and Monsieur Charles (1972)
I hope this post makes sense as Mr Books & I have been suffering under heavy colds all weekend. Like Maigret at the end of this story with his major concussion, we feel befuddled and confused and probably should be keeping to our beds, but like Maigret we're soldiering on. For now.

Book 8 of #20booksofsummer (winter)
19℃ in Sydney
18℃ in Northern Ireland 😃

Friday, 29 June 2018

Paris in July 2018

Tamara @Thyme For Tea is once again hosting the fabulous and very, very chic Paris in July. For details visit her blog and sign up so that you don't miss out on any of the Parisienne panache.

A number of Paris in July regulars have created a gallery of badges to use throughout the month. Isn't this one pretty? It's designed by Lisbeth @The Content Reader.

The rules for Paris in July are très simple: Blog about anything French during the month of July.
Here are some guidelines to help you on your way.
  • read a French themed book - fiction or non-fiction
  • watch a French movie
  • listen to French music
  • cook French food
  • experience French art, architecture, history, culture or travel

My plans for Paris in July:

  • I have another Maigret crime story that I've been saving until now after 'discovering' him last Paris in July.
  • Read the next 31 chapters of Les Miserables.
  • Write up a post on the recent exhibition of The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry at the AGNSW. 
  • Tempt Mr Books to watch Midnight in Paris again. 
  • I also have a few short stories in my Best of Guy de Maupassant left over from last year's Paris in July.
  • Compile a Spotify playlist (I'll let you know when so you can follow along if you like).

Will you be joining us?
Follow along on Instagram and twitter #parisinjuly
Viva la France!

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Classic Club Memes Are Back!

Over the years I have participated in many of the Classics Club events, including the monthly meme. The Club has decided to revisit some of the memes to allow newer members to have their say and for older ones to contemplate the classics journey they've been on over the past 6 years or so.

In May we revisited the very first meme question 'What is your favourite classic book? Why?' and for June we have been invited to mingle and highlight another Classics Clubber on our blog.

Reading – Auguste Renoir (1890-1895)

In the interest of efficiency and economy I will combine both memes in the one post.

Mostly, though, it's because my favourite classic has not changed since I first answered this meme in 2012  - Persuasion is my all-time favourite classic, and probably always will be. However several new-to-me classics have been added to my favourites list, since 2012, thanks to the Classics Club.

A pure delight was discovering Their Eyes Were Watching God thanks to a CC sync reading experience in 2013. I haven't had a chance to reread it yet, but I really, really want to and I still find myself thinking about Janie on a regular basis.

There is a readalong of Testament of Youth currently underway out there in blogger-land which I was very tempted to join in simply to experience, once again, the bittersweet pleasure of this classic memoir about WWI.

A surprise addition to my favourites list was Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. Once considered by me as my least liked Austen, it has now catapulted it's way into my top 4.

I was first alerted to Wallace Stegner thanks to a TV book show here in Australia that read and raved about Crossing to Safety. Although not really a classic since it was only published in 1987, it does, however, fit into my idea of a modern day classic. Four years later I read Angle of Repose with doubts and many reservations thanks to the controversy surrounding the provenance of the story. But you cannot deny an amazing story about an amazing woman. Mary Foote/Susan Ward has stayed with me all this time and I now believe this is a book that is worthy of a reread.

Beauty is a Sleeping Cat hosted an Angela Carter's reading week four years ago. I read through the short stories in The Bloody Chamber. I became a little (okay a LOT) obsessed and I'm curious to see if her stories will have the same affect on me with a reread.

Thanks to Fanda and her annual Zoladdiction Month in April I discovered the joys of Emile Zola. I've now read four books out of his Rougon-Macquart series. The rest are on my TBR pile (I hope that Fanda plans to host her Zoladdiction for another 17 yrs!)

Adam @Roof Beam Reader informed me many years ago that Wilkie Collins wrote many more books than just his famous ones The Woman in White & The Moonstone. I've been slowly working my way through his back list ever since. What an amazing writer of the human condition.

Thanks to various CCspin books and readalongs I have also 'discovered' Willa Cather, Elizabeth Gaskell, Victor Hugo and just this week, Angela Thirkell.

I cannot imagine a time when Persuasion or Jane Austen will ever be toppled from its top perch in my heart but I'm happy to spend the rest of my reading life looking for contenders.

Now on to the June question.

Books By the Cup is a recent discovery of mine and I'm still making my way through her older reviews with great delight. You can find her Classics Club list here. But it's her Instagram page that I adore - she obviously has a beautiful set of classic books that go together nicely with her tea set!

My favourite post to date is The Age of Innocence where she discusses what Newland might have learnt if he had actually read his copy of Middlemarch.

If that wasn't enough to impress, then her love of Austen that shone through in her Sense & Sensibility review was the clincher!

Breaking News

Overnight our Classics Club world has changed.

After six years, our wonderful, long-standing moderators have decided to hang up their collective hats. A call has now gone out for new moderators to continue to run the club. If you think you have something to offer the classics community then please consider applying for a role.

I'm sure we will always read the classics with or without a club, but as this post has highlighted, the classics club has the ability to bring together readers, bloggers and classic authors in a way that may not happen otherwise.

Personally, I have discovered so many new-to-me classics thanks to the club. I would hate to lose this wonderful resource and the sense of community that surrounds it.

A huge thank you to Adam, Melissa, Sarah and Allie for holding the fort for so long in and around their own major life changes and bravo to Jillian and Heather for starting the classics club ball rolling.

Although I have been blogging for nine years, I really only got serious about it, seven years ago. Discovering the Classics Club not long after that made a huge difference in the way I understood blogging. Finding a community that I felt comfortable hanging with changed my attitude to what I was doing and encouraged me to keep on trying.

Viva la Classics Club!

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Northbridge Rectory by Angela Thirkell

Northbridge Rectory was my very first Thirkell. But it certainly won't be my last.
Lucky me! I still have 28 books in Thirkell's Barsetshire series ahead of me to enjoy at my leisure. I've added her to my Author Challenge list so I can keep track of my progress. In fact, I enjoyed my time at Northbridge Rectory so much I have spent the bulk of today trawling the blogosphere for other devotees so we can rave and gush together!

I think I first spotted Angela Thirkell on Heaven Ali's blog many years ago. I fell in love with the new Virago covers, so much so that when I spotted Northbridge Rectory on the shelves of a lovely little Indie bookshop, I knew I had to have it.

Last week, as the winter days drew in, I was in need of something gentle and comforting. I suspected that Thirkell would fulfil this need nicely. From the start I found her to be just like a warm English Breakfast tea served in a floral bone china cup - delicate yet robust, obvious and subtle in the same mouthful with the bitterness covered up by a generous spoonful of sweetness.

Written in 1941, we see Thirkell and her characters making do and muddling through the war years the best they can, in what we now know to be the middle of the WWII. However, neither Thirkell or her characters knew this. They had no idea how much longer they would have to soldier on or how much more making do they would have to do. This sense of uncertainty, stoicism and nostalgia for the pre-war days imbues everything that happened in Northbridge Rectory. From the constant discussions around food supplies (or the lack thereof) to the billeting of soldiers and evacuees from London and the hilarious saga around the 'roof-spotters' watching for paratroopers atop the local church.

The descriptions of war-time England were certainly one of the stand-out features of Northbridge Rectory. Thirkell related, almost by accident, the hardships and dreariness, the speculation and gossip, the stiff upper lip and social decorum at all costs that was so typical of so many of the English at this time. The fact that Thirkell was writing her war story as it happened makes it all the more poignant to the modern reader as well as being a remarkable snapshot in time now long gone. I'd be curious to know if Thirkell realised that her books might become a kind of historical record of England pre, during and post WWII? Yes, there is a lot of author fantasy and wish-fulfilment at work here, but a certain kind of truth and bitter reality shines through the sweetness as well.

I thoroughly enjoyed the gentle English humour and charming nostalgia that this book evoked. The lovely relationship between the Rector and his wife, Mrs Villars, shone with gentle understanding and tenderness. The kindhearted noisy nieces (one named and one unnamed throughout the entire novel) with their love interests and common vocabulary made me smile at every encounter. The dear old ladies in Glycerine Cottage with their terrible French and chere amie's living a quiet life of love with nobody blinking an eye. Mr Holden and his weird devotion to Mrs Villars health, the co-dependent relationship between the studious Mr Downing and tough-as-cookies Miss Pemberton, Ex-navy man Father Fewling happily manning the air raid shelter and keeping everything in tip top shape. Kitchen maid Edie carrying on behind the scenes with Corporal Jackson in constant fear of Mrs Chapman finding out. I really loved them all by the end, even the truly ghastly Mrs Spender with her 'believe it or not's, 'I'm funny that way' and 'if you know what I mean's. Mrs Spender is one of those gloriously awful characters that you love to hate, rather like Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice or Miss Bates in Emma (or even Emma in Emma!)

Hermione Lee in her essay ‘Good Show: The Life and Works of Angela Thirkell’ in Body Parts: Essays on Life Writing, says ‘these light, witty, easygoing books turn out to be horrifying studies in English repression’. For me, that was the lovely surprise. That these lovely, light, fluffy looking books in fact hid an underbelly of dark social observation and clever characterisations.

I also enjoyed all the literary references, word play and class consciousness that Thirkell oozed onto every page - although after reading through the 'relusions' for Northbridge Rectory at the Angela Thirkell Society I quickly realised that I had only got about half of Thirkell's literary and cultural allusions.

During my search of the blogosphere, I discovered that Claire @The Captive Reader classified NR as one of her least favourite Thirkell's, which has now bumped up my expectations for the other 28 books to ridiculous heights!

Hayley @Desperate Reader  described NR as a book where 'not very much happens, but it doesn't happen in a very enjoyable way.' She also mentioned the rewards and pleasures of rereading Thirkell - I can't wait!

However Booker Talk was not so much a fan. She found that High Rising was 'as substantial as eating an enormous meringue; it looks impressive but once you get your teeth into it, it dissolves into a sugary tasting nothingness.'
Given that High Rising was Thirkell's first book, written in 1933, to escape a disastrous marriage and socially backward Australia, perhaps we shouldn't expect too much at the start. There was a sugary sweetness to Northbridge Rectory too, but I unearthed so much Jane Austen-like satire and social commentary lurking under the surface, that I found myself becoming more and more thrilled with each chapter.

I feel that this book response has gotten clunkier as I've gone along, when all I really wanted to say was how much a adored this deceptively simple war story. It won't be for everyone, but it suited me just fine!

Book 7 of #20booksofsummer (winter)
Sydney 17℃ but felt like 12℃ (brrrr)
Northern Ireland 24℃ (how lovely!)

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Tokyo Style Guide by Jane Lawson

Thankfully Jane Lawson's book, Tokyo Style Guide is more of a walking tour of Tokyo than a pure style guide, as my interest in shopping is minimal. Unfortunately, it's also a hardback book, so it didn't get to come on holidays with me. I browsed it a little before leaving, but have thoroughly enjoyed going through it properly now that we're back - it has helped to make sense of some of what we saw and experienced as well as providing fodder for next time! 

This is not a comprehensive travel guide for all the things to see and do in Tokyo.
It's best used in conjunction with other guides (unless you're a complete shopping junkie, then Jane is your guru!)

Most of Lawson's walks feature specific shops and areas of Tokyo renown for their stylish wares or style icons, but there's also a lot of important, practical stuff, like where to get a good coffee, yakitori and tasty dumplings. Lawson also includes temples, parks, markets and other interesting sites that the first-time, overwhelmed visitor to Tokyo might miss. We skipped most of the shopping experiences in this book but I still found lots to inspire me in planning where to go and what to expect.

Lawson stresses the 'magic' of finding your own way, 'getting lost in Tokyo is to be expected, so take a deep breath and make it part of the fun.' I was very grateful to have read this particular section BEFORE going to Tokyo. We only got a little bit lost once, although one or other of us got bamboozled by directions numerous times, just luckily not both of us together! (Which probably what makes us such a good travelling combo). It's not always easy to go with the flow when you're tired and stressed in a strange country, but Japan was certainly one of the easier countries in which to do so.

What I really loved about Tokyo Style Guide though were the pages and pages of fabulous, colourful street photography. They prompted me with good ideas before heading off as well as giving us lots of good memories when we got back home.

Lawson's other helpful tips included wearing slip on shoes and checking your socks for holes.

She went through some useful phrases which included the Japanese characters so that you could feel confident about walking into the right toilet block or out of the correct doorway.

Some of the train travel info was out of date as the big wide world of phone apps has made this much easier in just two years.

Tokyo Style Guide was a December 2016 publication - a lot can happen in Tokyo in 18 months!

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Winter is Coming...!

You know how it is. 
Some days you just wake up in one of those moods! 
For no apparent reason everything feels wrong, out of sorts and prickly.

After grumping my way through another wet, dreary, Sydney morning, I slunk off to the Art Gallery of NSW for one last peek at The Lady and the Unicorn exhibition.

Beauty always helps.
As does a walk.
Especially if that walk includes the sun finally breaking through the grey clouds, making the leaves sparkle and glisten like little green diamonds.

It was then that I realised that today was the Winter Solstice.
The shortest day of the year.
The beginning of the astronomical winter.

Oh woe is me!
The six coldest weeks of the year still lie ahead of us.

The solstice officially occurs in Sydney at 8:07pm.
Our day will only be 9:53:50 hrs long - a whole 4hr 31mins shorter than the Summer Solstice.

I've been thinking that we need to reinstate or establish some kind of warming ritual to make this short day/long night more enjoyable.

The Japanese celebrate by soaking in a hot bath with yuzu fruit, the English gather at Stonehenge to watch the sunrise, the Koreans eat red bean porridge and the Irish gather at Newgrange to see a shaft of sun light up an ancient burial chamber. At Casey Station, in the Australian Antarctic Division, they cut a hole in the ice and leap in briefly before retiring into a mobile hot spa. In Hobart, for Dark Mofo, the brave and foolish go for a nude solstice swim!

Maybe we could start National Doona Day - when we go to bed early and snuggle up with the ones we love under the covers?
Or we could bring back firecracker night - light a huge bonfire and let off catherine wheels?
Or perhaps we could simply speak a word of kindness.

Where and how will you be celebrating today's solstice?

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Cold Spring Harbor by Richard Yates

My first experience with Yates was way back in 2012 when I read Young Hearts Crying. It was so depressing, I haven't been able to try another one until now!

I love the covers that Vintage have selected for all their Yates books, they capture the melancholy and dissatisfaction that seems to infect all of his characters in one way or another. Cold Spring Harbor was no different, although ultimately less emotionally exhausting than Young Hearts Crying.

So many hopes dashes, disillusionment and mental health issues. Media reports often comment on the rise in mental health problems in our modern world, but Yates' novel remind us that they were always there, just not diagnosed and often self-medicated with copious amounts of alcohol.

Belonging was obviously a major theme in Yates' own life that carried through into all of his novels. His parents divorced when he was four, he moved around a lot, always short of money. His mother drank too much, he was bullied at school, joined the army in WWII, became a journalist, married, had children, divorced, remarried and had another child. He also drank too much, smoked and suffered from bouts of bronchitis, tuberculosis and bi-polar behaviours, before dying at age 66 of emphysema.*

In Cold Spring Harbor we have alcoholic mothers, absent fathers, divorced families, a family who moves around a lot and is always short of money, prep school bullying and army life. Everyone seems to be living a life of quiet desperation.

'My characters all rush around trying to do their best, trying to live well within their known and unknown limitations,' Yates explains. 'Doing what they can't help doing, ultimately and inevitably failing because they can't help being the people they are.'*

It's bleak stuff, on the very edge of hopeless. As with Young Hearts Crying, I got to the end and wondered what was the point of all that angst? Did I learn anything new about human nature? Did the characters learn anything new about themselves? Was there some political or social commentary being made by the author? I think it's probably a big fat no to all of that!

Cold Spring Harbor was most likely Yates' final attempt (it was his last published book) to work out his own sad life story. I can't decide if Rachel's closing words to her new born son were a sign of hope, wish fulfilment or irony on Yates' behalf.
"Oh you little marvel," she said. "Oh you're a wonder, that's what you are. You're a miracle. Because do you know what you're going to be? You're going to be a man."

* Nick Fraser Rebirth of a Dark Genius, The Guardian 17th Feb 2008

Book 6 #20BooksofSummer (Winter)
20℃ in Sydney
16℃ in Norther Ireland

Sunday, 17 June 2018

What To Do When I'm Gone by Suzy Hopkins & Hallie Bateman

I'm glad this is a book I don't actually need right now. What To Do When I'm Gone: A Mother's Wisdom to Her Daughter is exactly what it says it is. When Hallie had one of those moments during her early twenties when she suddenly realised that one day her mum would die, she felt devastated by this future loss. She discussed it with her mum, who promptly sat down to put together a list of things to do and not do in the event of her death.

Told in diary form with graphic style illustrations, Suzy proceeds to give advice on how to handle the days after she is gone. The first 8 days contain all the stuff Suzy feels a young woman would need to get through that phone call, that first day, the funeral. We then jump days to include things like that first birthday, the first dream as well as all those times when a young woman turns to her mum for support (the break up of a relationship, having kids of her own, changing jobs, growing older, bad days etc).

It's deeply personal, heart-breaking and so, so poignant. But it is also life-affirming, positive and feels very authentic. This book is designed to help younger women cope with loss and grief, but with an end date 20 000 days later, the advice and support within these pages could help anyone who has experienced death and loss. In a nutshell, it's resilience, memories and courage that will keep you going, keep you strong and keep you safe. Nothing unusual in any of that, but having it all together in a lovely book package can help it to feel like the great, big, warm fuzzy it sets out to be.

Even if you haven't lost someone close, reading books like this can prepare you a little for that time. In the middle of your grief, pages from this book may pop back into your mind to help you get through the next bit.

Book 5 of #20BooksofSummer (Winter) Drop-in title
16℃ in Sydney but the wind chill factor made it more like 7℃
15℃ in Northern Ireland

Friday, 15 June 2018

The Child in Time by Ian McEwan

The Child in Time was my latest book club read and one of McEwan's earlier works that I had yet to read. For this particular book club gathering we agreed to extend the meeting to include a viewing of the BBC movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Kelly Macdonald.

I thought it might be interesting to do a before & after type post to compare the two mediums for telling this story.

I finished the book last weekend. During the week I jotted down these thoughts about McEwan's 1987 Whitbread award winning book:

My previous experiences with McEwan helped me to ride through the consistently inconsistent feelings that his books always seem to evoke in me. I find him to be such a frustrating writer - moments of utter brilliance that leave me breathless and wowed followed by rambling, self-indulgent musings about time, memory and love. Normally I love rambling musings about time, memory and love, but McEwan struggles to find the point, any point, for the reader to catch ahold of (at least this reader anyway).

The car crash in The Child in Time had all the early makings of the infamous ballooning accident in Enduring Love, but somehow the scenes featuring the loss of the child left me cold. The pacing and voice wasn't quite right - I couldn't really engage. I fully expected to feel the panic, the fear and the disbelief but instead I was kept firmly at arms length. Perhaps it was McEwan's way of showing us Stephen's way of grieving. He kept busy, searching and questioning. By trying to fix the problem, bloke-style, he kept his grief at bay, sedating it with alcohol and routines.

Meanwhile Julie allowed herself to succumb to her grief. She embraced the grieving process, chick-style, although it also had the same outcome as Stephen's way, in that they both ended up isolated and alone. The difference being that Julie chose her isolation, it was part of her plan to deal with the pain and loss she was suffering.

Stephen floundered his way towards letting go and acceptance, whereas Julie understood that this was exactly the process she was going to have to work through.

There was some weird shit going on with time that almost made this a ghost story or a time travel story or even a homage to Benjamin Button. A dream-like or perhaps nightmarish quality infused the story. Puzzled by the whole Charles and Thelma storyline though.

The links between the loss of a child with governmental child care policy and the innocence of childhood felt rather clumsy to me. As did the comparison between (bad) city life and (good) country life. In the city we saw the breakdown of transport systems, the rise of poor people wearing beggar's badges to identify them and regulate their movements and invasive technology. Politicians practised disinformation and deception on their constituencies, authoritarian ideals were becoming the norm and the weather seemed to be unpredictable. Meanwhile our characters who returned to the country were searching for an innocence and purity of old. Nature acted to comfort and solace our characters. It worked for Julie, but not, ultimately for Charles.

I have no idea what year the book was set in? It felt slightly futuristic, yet old-fashioned as well. The badges for the poor added to this uncertainty. Beggars badges were phased out of the UK a century or so ago. But they provided another example of an authoritarian government. The kind of government that peddles in disinformation & propaganda & nationalistic policy. Sounds remarkably familiar!

Was the PM gay or was the PM a woman? No name or pronouns used. Was this McEwan's political novel, having a go at Thatcherite England?

I enjoyed the happy-ish ending. I didn't need to know the sex of the baby (but I assumed it was a boy - having another girl would have been too painful. I want Stephen & Julie to be able to enjoy this baby without constantly comparing it to the one they lost).


So first - Cumberbatch - excellent choice for Stephen. He did that British, stiff upper lip, slightly weedy, prone to drinking too much when melancholy character so well. However, in the book, I found it hard to care for him beyond the surface empathy that his loss evoked. In the movie, Cumberbatch was able to convey so much more of Stephen's interior life via his gestures and expressions.

Extra scenes helped to connect the dot that were confusing in the book.

The film had to make some visual leaps of faith - they assumed the PM was male. They also made it clear that the new babe was a boy. The extra bits with the ghost-like boy gave the film a narrative cohesion that the book just missed.

In the film Charles refers his role in the Childcare Book as a joke book which gave me a clearer understanding of what his issues may have been. It didn't even occur to me in the book that his childhood may have been overly authoritarian and harsh, I assumed it was more of a mental illness affecting his behaviour, or perhaps I missed that bit?

The film was softer on the separation and distance between Stephen and Julie. They saw each other a number of times and had regular phone contact. In the book they were far more isolated and alone with their sorrows. The book highlighted how they had to work their own stuff out, on their own, so they could come together again at the end, stronger and more grateful. The film suggested they both just needed some space.

No car accident in the film. Why did they leave it out? Why did McEwan include it?

I felt more emotional throughout the film.

The film helped me to make more sense of the book. But the book explored the layers and themes more than the film. The film was a human drama. The book was more about ideas and politics.

The movie is well worth a watch, but pack a tissue.
The book is not my best McEwan, but it's also not my worst.

4/20 #20booksofsummer (winter)
 11℃ in the Blue Mountains
 18℃ in Northern Ireland

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Sugar Money by Jane Harris

A big thank you to the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction for shortlisting Sugar Money by Jane Harris otherwise I may never have stumbled across this gem of a story. Based on real events in Grenada in 1765, we follow young Lucien and his older brother Emile as they attempt to convince the hospital slaves to runaway, on behalf of the French priests of Martinique who used to own them when the French were in control of Grenada.

It's a story that shows up Anglo-European greed, manipulation and disregard for human life.

A few horrific, disgusting acts of violence were described by the slaves that almost defy belief. They were hard to read. I can't imagine how they were borne by the people they were inflicted on. Except that the scars inflicted during this time still linger on today. How it is even possible for one human being to think up these atrocious acts of torture let alone commit them against another human being is one of those things I have struggled with all my life? Man's inhumanity to man seems to know no bounds, whether it's in concentration camps, gulags, refugee camps, the slave trade or the modern-day human traffickiing problem. We've moved on from that time, but not that far.

Fortunately, Sugar Money is also a story about family, loyalty and courage.

The bond between the two brothers is complicated by the usual jealousies and age differences. Lucien's voice (that narrates the story in the patios of the time) is funny and vibrant. The story reads like a boys own adventure story (thanks to Lucien's attitude) with lots of action and tension to keep the pages turning. It's a period and place that I know very little about, so I was on tenterhooks the whole time, fearing what might happen next and suspecting that a story about slavery was never going to end happily ever after.

Issues around white appropriation of a black story are bound to be raised when a slave narrative is written by a young white woman - is this just a softer version of the greed, manipulation and disregard that allowed slavery to occur in the first place? I can't quite subscribe to this idea, but I appreciate the concerns. Yes, I'm another white person discussing this issue, but I learnt a lot about the horrors of the slave trade via this novel. Stuff I may never have learnt otherwise.

It is this particular curly issue that has caused me to delay this reader response for so long. In the end, though, I believe that any book or story that allows the reader to walk in another's shoes or bear witness to human tragedy is a powerful tool towards understanding and empathy, whatever the race, religion or gender of the author. Not every single survivor can bear to talk about their suffering, and nor should we expect them to relive their trauma for our edification. Add ancestral guilt (or pride) to the mix and we could talk around and around this topic until the cows come home.

Harris' story has got under my skin. I was horrified and fascinated in equal measure. She brought the cast of secondary characters vividly to life, as well as the lush landscape of the Caribbean, but it was the wonderful voice of Lucien that gives this book the sparkle and magic that will make it live in my memory for a long time to come.

3/20 #20booksofsummer (winter)
15℃ in Sydney & over 33 ml of rain
19℃ in Northern Ireland

Thursday, 7 June 2018

The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier

I wanted to read The Lady and the Unicorn thanks to the exhibition currently on at the Art Gallery of NSW. As a long-time cross-stitcher, the tapestries fascinate me. I've been to see them twice so far, & hope to see them one more time before the exhibition ends later this month.

This is only the third time that the tapestries have left France in 500 years. Designed around 1500 in Paris, they are an extraordinary example of medieval art. Very little is known about their exact provenance which has created much speculation. Chevalier has used 'sensible suppositions' to weave her fiction.

Initially I was dismayed by what I felt was lacklustre writing. By the end of the first chapter, I wasn't sure I would be able to continue.

I may have been too critical as I was coming off the back of the incredible Sugar Money by Jane Harris written in the patios of 1765 Martinique and Megan Hunter's poetic cli-fi story, The End We Start From where the poetry existed in every word as well as in the gaps between. After two such innovative, exciting narratives, perhaps any regular story would have been a bit dull.

I'm glad I persisted as Chevalier's suppositions were enlightening and entertaining. She obviously researches her subjects thoroughly, then weaves this knowledge through her story with a deft touch. 

With a tapestry you stand close as you would to a friend. You see only part of it, and not necessarily the most important part. So no thing should stand out more than the rest, but fit together into a pattern that your eye takes pleasure in no matter where it rests.

Chevalier took the time to show us (via the faces of the women and the stories behind them) that not only can an artists intent and interpretation change with time but that different people view different things in the work, depending on their mood and experience. All theses ideas are valid as well as being the very thing that makes all art such a personal and rewarding experience.

I learnt a lot about the life and times of medieval France, the art of weaving and the lot of women in a strict patriarchal society.

Unlike many of the books I've read recently, Chevalier wrote a good old-fashioned ending complete with epilogue and a what-they-did-next wrap-up. Very satisfying.

2/20 #20booksofsummer (winter)
19℃ in Sydney
22℃ in Northern Ireland

Monday, 4 June 2018

The End We Start From From by Megan Hunter

There is a lot of space in Megan Hunter's The End We Start From. Known as a poet until now, her debut novel is written almost like a poem, but not quite. It's not prose as we know it either. It's fragmentary, somewhere in between.

Stark, sparse paragraphs, poetic words, no names, just letters of the alphabet. Everything is pared back to the bare minimum to create a startling story about the end of times. The End We Start From got under my skin.

Hunter's choice of epigraph was a poem by T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets,
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from

She then shows us the end of our known world (via an environmentally disastrous flood that covers London) through the eyes of a young woman about to give birth to her first child. The story reads almost like her journal entries. Brief snatches of time captured through the lens of baby love.

Many reviewers talked about the not-so-new idea of comparing first-time mothering with the end of the world. Curiously it wasn't this particular idea that captured my attention. I was intrigued by how this baby (and the other newborns) will be growing up in this new world which will be the only world that they know and understand. They won't have to accommodate or change or adapt to this new world order; it is their world. They won't spend their lives thinking about and regretting the wonderful old ways and wishing it could be like that again. They won't be climate change deniers or head-in-the-sander's; they will know, they will be living with it as a fact. They will belong to this new world. This is our hope and the way forward.

The story is contained not only within the carefully chosen words but also in the gaps and all that is unspoken. Hunter mentioned several times that she was trying to find a way to move between poetry and prose to find a form that suited her. It worked for me just fine.

London. Uninhabitable. A list of boroughs, like the shipping forecast, their names suddenly as perfect and tender as the names of children.
The cupboards reveal themselves more by the day: their wooden backs, the greying corners we never used to see.
Days are thin now, stretched so much that time pours through the
Z has learnt to smile. He has cracked with it. The smiles built up inside him, R and me smiling madly into his face until it couldn’t hold any more. It cracked, and out came his smile, urgent, almost demented.

Hunter also interspersed these fragments with flood mythologies. They reminded us that since the beginning of recorded time, humans have been grappling with the chaos that mother nature throws our way. We make up stories to help us make sense of the unknown. It made me wonder what stories would then be made up for future generations about this disaster.

My only quibble was the ending. However so many authors these days fail to capture a satisfying end note that I'm becoming used to that feeling of let down after a great read. So much thought seems to go into the epigraph but the search for an equally apt epilogue is not always given the same care.

Benedict Cumberbatch's company has apparently bought the movie rights to the book.

A shout-out to the brilliant cover design by Naomi Clark and illustration by Kazuko Nomoto. I picked this book up for the first time purely thanks to the lovely, lovely cover.

1/20 #20booksofsummer (winter)
16℃ in Sydney
20℃ in Northern Ireland

Saturday, 2 June 2018

#6degrees June

#6degrees is a monthly meme hosted by Kate @Books Are My Favourite and Best.

Oftentimes I haven't read the starting book for this meme, but I can assure you that I only play the next 6 books with ones I have actually read. 
If I've read the book during this blogging life, then I include my review, otherwise, you just have to take my word for it!

This month the starting book is The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.
Are you game?

Old image alert - Kate @Books Are My Favourite & Best now hosts #6Degrees but this is a good refresh of the rules.

The Tipping Point is a book I know about, but not one I've read.

The best link I could think of was thanks to the tag about little things on the front cover.
I automatically started humming Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly's song, From Little Things Big Things Grow.

The song was turned into a picture book a number of years ago with illustrations by Queensland artist Peter Hudson and the kids from Gurindji country.

Another book inspired by a song is Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.
One of the characters is obviously a huge Beatles fan.

Essentially Norwegian Wood  is a nostalgic coming of age story about lost love and lyrics.
The logical place to go after that is Nick Hornby and High Fidelity.

Although sadly, this is one of the few times when I preferred the movie over the book.
The movie had a killer soundtrack...and John Cusack.
Say no more!

Cusack also played a role in another book-to-movie classic, Stephen King's The Body, which became Stand By Me at the movies.

The Body is a short story in King's Different Seasons collection.

I love short story collections.
One of my favourite short story writers is William Trevor.
His brick of short stories is one of the most brilliant pieces of story-telling I've ever read.

Sadly he died in 2016, along with a slew of other well-known authors.
Including Richard Adams.
Watership Down was one of my favourite childhood reads.
The rabbits in this story are a perfect literary example of how little things can make a big difference.

And so we go back to The Tipping Point.

For the first time, in #6degrees history, I have created a loop rather than a chain.
How did you fare this month?
By the by, it's 14℃ outside, but feels like 11.
Which is better than #6degrees (see what I did there?)
Winter has arrived with a vengeance!