Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Fracture | Andrés Neuman #InTranslation


What a wonderful reading experience!

From the beautifully designed hardcover dust jacket (the gold seams actually sparkle in real life), to the impressive translation that seems to have captured the beauty and thoughtfulness of Neuman's original story, Fracture is a journey to savour.

I knew I was in for a treat from the very first sentence, “The afternoon appears calm, and yet time is waiting to pounce.” This leads us into the startling realisation that we are about to feel the tremors of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Tokyo, along with our protagonist, Yoshi Watanabe.

The fear and shock of the magnitude 9 earthquake, followed by the images of the horrifying tsunami and the subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, take Yoshie back in time.

Time and it's passing, memory and what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget become the central themes in Neuman's story about Yoshie, a survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by default. Yoshie is a hibakusha, a person affected by exposure to an atomic bomb, in a country unable to talk about it. His life is fractured, broken. He spends the rest of his life trying to piece it back together.

Neuman is a writer not afraid to take a risk with his writing. 

He's an Argentinian man writing about a much older Japanese man, from the perspective of numerous women living all around the world (Paris, New York, Argentina, Madrid). We have Yoshie's narration about life in Tokyo now and his remembrances of the war, and we have these women reflecting on their time with Yoshie. What he was like at that period of his life, their views on how the war affected him and why their relationships with him ultimately failed.

Writing and reading is all about the journey into someone else's world. The oft quoted Atticus Finch saying about 'you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it' is very true about Yoshie's story. Neuman gives us multiple ways to climb into Yoshie's skin, because if he had left it entirely to the very reserved Yoshie, our insights would be greatly diminished. 

For some unknown reason, I've found it very difficult to adequately document my journey with this book. This response has taken weeks to complete.

Fracture was a slow, considered read. Thoughtful and thought-provoking. It delved into many of my favourite themes. From very early on, I considered this book 'a keeper', deserving of a reread and a much coveted position on my groaning bookshelf. I savoured every minute, every word, but I simply don't feel like gushing or raving or shouting about it from the roof tops. It's not that kind of book, I guess. It's contemplative and quietly spoken, much like Yoshie himself.

Sometimes, some books, just need to be sat with quietly.

A prolific writer, Neuman – born in Argentina, now based in Granada – delights in language and linguistic ambiguity. In Fracture, he explores the fragmented nature of memory, emotional scars, a city’s wounds after a disaster and the cracks in a relationship caused by cultural difference. He draws profound parallels between collective traumas – Japan’s bombing, Vietnam in 1968, Argentina’s “disappeared”, Chernobyl and the 2004 Madrid train attacks. Recalling Japan’s enforced silence in the war’s aftermath, Yoshie’s Argentinian girlfriend, Mariela, ponders: “Maybe the most brutal thing is not that you were bombed. Most brutal of all is that they don’t even allow you to tell people that you’ve been bombed. During the dictatorship here they would kill one of your children and you couldn’t tell anyone.” 

Facts:
  • Originally published in 2018
  • Translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia in 2020
  • Neuman is a poet, short story writer and columnist. 
  • The late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, said of him “The literature of the 21st century will belong to Neuman.” 

Epigraphs:
  • If something exists somewhere, it will exist everywhere | Czeslaw Milosz (Polish winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 1980).
  • Love came...after the kill | Anne Sexton (1928 - 1974 a US confessional poet & Pulitzer prize winner for Poetry 1967).
  • I wonder if there is/any operation/that removes memories | Shinoe Shōda (born in Hiroshima 1910, she was a hibakusha. She died of breast cancer 1965. Tanka (II) finishes with Where is a cure/for my pain-filled heart?)
  • ...and if my body is still the soft part of the mountain/I'll know/I am not yet the mountain | José Watanabe (1946 - 2007 a Peruvian poet with a Japanese father).

Favourite Quote:
...the ancient art of kintsugi. When a piece of pottery breaks, the kintsugi craftspeople place powdered gold into each crack to emphasise the spot where the break occurred. Exposed rather than concealed, these fractures and their repair occupy a central place in the history of the object. By accentuating this memory, it is ennobled. Something that has survived damage can be considered more valuable, more beautiful. (my highlights)

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Stories & Shout Outs #34

 

My Week
  • In the past few weeks I've suddenly been confronted by the ageing process and genes. 
  • I am now taking cholesterol reducing tablets (not so surprising, the numbers have been heading in that direction for a few years now).
  • But not so expected was the sudden sharp spike in my blood pressure. I'm slim, I eat well, and exercise some, but the bad genes will get you in the end! 

What I'm Reading:
  • The Last Migration | Charlotte McConaghy
  • Vesper Flights | Helen Macdonald
  • Phosphorescence, On Awe, Wonder And Things That Sustain You When The World Goes Dark | Julia Baird
  • The Salt Path | Raynor Winn
  • Hansel and Greta: A Fairy Tale Revolution | Jeanette Winterson
  • Duckling: A Fairy Tale Revolution | Kamila Shamsie
  • Cinderella Liberator: A Fairy Tale Revolution | Rebecca Solnit
  • Blueblood: A Fairy Tale Revolution | Malorie Blackman

Read But Not Reviewed:
  • Intimations: Six Essays | Zadie Smith
  • Our Shadows | Gail Jones
  • Fracture | Andrés Neuman
  • The Stolen Prince of Cloudburst | Jaclyn Moriarty
  • Landing With Wings | Trace Balla


    New to the Pile:
    • A Russian Journal | John Steinbeck
    • The Cat and the City | Nick Bradley
    • Coventry | Rachel Cusk

    Bookish Events:
    • Last week I attended my first Zoom book event thanks to Avid Reader Bookshop in Brisbane and Lisa @ANZLitLover alerting me to the fact that they were hosting a chat with Gabrielle Carey about her new bio-memoir, Only Happiness Here. Lisa summed up the chat beautifully and now I just have to find time to read the book!
    • Next week I plan to join another Zoom event, this time with Gleebooks in Sydney for Gail Jones' Our Shadows. 

    Shout Outs:

    • Cathy @746Books has created a trend-setting Venn diagram to help her work out what to read in November with FIVE reading challenges on the cards (listed below).
      1. German Lit Month - is the month for reading all things originally written in German – in whatever language you wish to read it – and then telling the world about it #germanlitmonth - I plan to read The Land of Green Plums by Herta Müller - a very slim book that has the benefit of also being another #ReadingtheNobels contender. 
      2. Non-Fiction November - with 4 weekly hosts & questions/discussion points to help you through the month. I plan to finish Vesper Flights, The Salt Path and Phosphorescence (Australian) and if I have time I would like to read Stasiland by Anna Funder (an Australian writer on East Germany) or dip into The Griffith Review #68 Getting On (also Australian).
      3. Margaret Atwood Reading Month - with Naomi & Marci. I have a slim copy of The Penelopiad waiting for this event. I'm trying to work out if this is slim enough to also register as a novella?
      4. Novella November is still up in the air for 2020, but I have a few possibilities up my sleeve if it firms as an event.
      5. AusReading Month - hosted by moi. I have several non-fiction titles I'd like to finish, plus I have high hopes of dipping into another Miles Franklin-writing-as-Brent of Bin Bin story.

    Wednesday, 14 October 2020

    AusReading Month - Celebration, Anticipation & Promotion


    Back in 2013, I was struck by a desire to celebrate and promote Australian literature. I chose the month of November to coincide with Triple J's annual AusMusic Month

    Now in it's 8th year, AusReading Month has grown from a few bloggers sharing their latest Aussie book reviews to include a host of bloggers around the world sharing their year-long love of Australian literature. 

    From the beginning we have trialled various Q&A options. The most popular ones were those that allowed us to make lists. A couple of years ago a book Bingo option made its way into the mix for those who like to play and make lists set around a theme. 

    This year we also have three new ways for you to make lists and talk about Australian books.
    1. Celebration is all about what you've read this year.
      • Simply list, collage and/or discuss the Australian books you've read since last AusReading Month. What were your favourites? Which ones can you recommend? Did you favour a certain genre or author this year?
    2. The second part is all about the Anticipation.
      • What do you hope/plan to read for AusReadingMonth 2020 and into the following year. What's lurking on your TBR pile? How do you find out about Australian books? Which new releases have caught your eye? 
    3. Promotion.
      • This is your chance to shout-out your favourite book event, bookshop, or blogger that features Australian books. You can also promote a publisher or author website that has caught your eye this year.
      • During this 'unprecedented' year, our usual way of hearing about new books by attending events at our favourite bookshops or literary festivals has changed. How have you found out about new online book events featuring Australian authors and books? 
    You can create three separate posts during November - Celebration, Anticipation and Promotion - or you can combine them all into one. Whatever works best for you.

    The idea is to get excited about our Australian stories and share them.

    I will include a linky with the Master Post on the 1st November where all our responses and reviews can be collected in one place.

    Until then, I hope you like the new badge I've created for this year. 
    Please share on social media and spread the AusReading Month love.

    #AusReadingMonth2020

    Monday, 12 October 2020

    Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang | Miles Franklin #1956club


    The first draft of Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang was written in 1928 by Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin (1879 - 1954) upon her return to Australia to care for her ageing parents. However it wasn't published until after her death in 1956. 

    You may have also noticed that the name on the book is not that of Miles Franklin. After writing her well-known first novel, My Brilliant Career, her literary and commercial success was very up and down. And from everything I've read (which is not much really), mostly down. In an attempt to move away from those poor reviews, she wrote under a number of pseudonyms, including Brent of Bin Bin: a colonial gentleman.

    She wrote six books under this name including Up the country (1928); Ten Creeks Run (1930)Back to Bool Bool (1931); Prelude to waking (1950)Cockatoos (1954); and Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang (1956).

    Bill @The Australian Legend has a much more comprehensive understanding of this period of Australian literature and I urge you to read his post for this book to get more of the background information.

    This was my first attempt at a Brent book, having read My Brilliant Career way back when in my university days. I wasn't particularly inspired by MBC into trying any more of her books. I found Sybylla tedious. A drama queen, annoying from start to finish. 

    I didn't know what to expect from Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang, so I was rather surprised to realise I was reading an Australian rural romance, set in the beautiful Snowy Mountains region of Monaro. An area that Franklin knew well, as Talbingo, her home town, is part of this region.

    Bernice Gaylord, our protagonist, was an Australian woman who had a natural ability to paint. Her family sent her to Europe to learn more. While there she unlearns her old school realism technique, developed Continental tastes, took a lover and eventually comes a cropper.
    As a little thing of four or five Bernice had been wont to lie on her stomach and draw men and animals of action and character. When still in her teens, and sent abroad by public subscription because of her promise, she met other budding geniuses contemptuous of her ability to catch resemblance: merely photographic, they said. She had succumbed to the fashion of portraying things seen in terms of things imagined—many of them evidently in nightmares or licentious orgies. She had for a time been infected with "modern" ideas, which had at least shaken her out of mere convention and the frustrations of an inartistic and middle-class environment.

    After her lover dumps her, she returns to Australia heart sore and unable to paint any more. Her father arranges for her to visit her godfather, Sylvester Labosseer, who runs a sheep farm on the Monaro. The aim is to relax in the bush, far from journalists and city life and recover her health (the reason given to the public for her sudden return to Australia).

    In the peace and quiet of the Snowy Mountain region, surrounded by natural beauty and majestic mountain peaks, Bernice slowly rediscovers her creative urge. She begins by drawing portraits of the Cook, and the working dogs, until the wider picture captures her imagination,
    this scene was marvellously captured by Bernice later. The setting was the snow-gum in her bridal bloom and her powdered grey-blue trunk and Alice-blue twigs beside the grey of the men's hut, with the grindstone in one corner and kookaburras above.

    The gentlemen of the title, are all the men who work at the Gyang Gyang Plains station (so named because of the cockatoos that inhabited the area). Naturally, there are two particular gentlemen who come to her romantic attention. 
    The same men returned to him year after year. He had a picked squad of shearers that shore on all his places. The married men brought their sons to him as soon as they could handle axe or shears. He inspired in the berated native working men, who never thought of addressing him as "sir", a voluntary loyalty approaching that of feudal retainers shaped by generations of servitude.

    This is one of the few references to Aboriginal workers in this book. White Australians of this time may have started to appreciate the country they had grown up in, no longer longing for Mother England, like their parents, but the Indigenous population was not necessarily included in this newfound love of country. But that's another story.

    The gentlemanly romance is naturally complicated by an unsuccessful suitor, jealous local women and misunderstandings and secrets aplenty.

    I ended up enjoying Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang far more than I thought I was going to at the start. Many of the descriptions were too over-blown for my taste, but there was no denying Franklin's love of country.

    After dinner the men engaged in a game of five hundred. Bernice retired to her bed on the veranda to be guarded by the blackbutts and snow-gums, fairy-like in their perfumed blossom in the dim light of the stars, and the Southern Cross so near and kind that it seemed as if it could be plucked from the sky.

     

    "Thank God for the kookaburras and magpies, for the sun and trees and whole world of blossom, and especially for the tea-tree and the creek, and all this wide and heavenly country with no awful people to drive one to distraction."

    The city versus country trope, following in the tradition of Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson, was regularly used by Franklin. Obviously, the city folk came off worse.  
    A few months of days in the surf or at the zoo, the moving pictures or the theatre, and Burberry's soul wilted like frost-bitten pumpkin-vines under the realization that he was of no importance in Sydney and had nothing to do.

     

    "Good lord! I was like a cockatoo in a cage," he explained to Labosseer. "There isn't a blasted thing to do in those beastly suburbs. Nothing but that infernal idleness that rots a man, and among a crowd of bally imbeciles who don't know a gummy ewe from a two-tooth wether hogget, or a heifer from a cow, or a store beast from a fat, when they see it."

    Franklin also explored women's issues. 

    Bernice was an independent woman who preferred to work on her paintings than marry and raise a tribe of kids. Bernice has to work hard to convince the gentlemen to see her painting as proper work, and not just something she was filling in her time with until she got married.
    Mr Ced Spires: "You can't live by work alone."

    Miss Bernice Gaylord: "My work is the most important thing in the world to me."

    Mr Spires: "But they all say that love is the most important thing in life to a woman."

    Miss Gaylord: "Men have made up that yarn because they want it to be so."

    After Franklin's death, her will stipulated the establishment of a literary prize to be awarded to "a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases". The first prize was awarded in 1957. The Miles Franklin Award is now Australia's most well-known literary prize.

    Franklin's desire to celebrate Australian life in all its phases, was articulated in her novel. Clearly her ideas on establishing art and culture, by Australians, for Australians, was something she felt passionate about for most of her life.
    The need was for painters and novelists, as well as the ungifted, to break out of the established rut. A way must be found to suggest this different atmosphere both in picture and story—a fresh contribution must be made to technique.

     

    "It's high time that scenes that foreigners and English know nothing about were recorded for a change."

    I suspect this was one of the reasons why her work was not widely appreciated at the time. Europeans (and many Australians) considered Australia a cultural back-water, cringe-worthy and incapable of any kind of unique creativity. Some still do.
     
    Finally, I was struck by the same-old, age-old debate about money, fiscal responsibility and financial bubbles. 
    As far as I can estimate, Australian life—and I suppose it's the same all over the world—rests on inflated values, and can't last....Fellows I've had here for the summer have stayed in the winter and made ten or fifteen pounds, even twenty pounds a week. And do they save that money to better themselves? Not a bit of it!

     

    Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang was rather fun in the end. Like Franklin, I love our country's unique beauty and I appreciated her efforts to bring this to light in a literary way. I will certainly have a go at her other Brent of Bin Bin books.

    A gang-gang cockatoo

    Read for Simon & Kaggsy's 1956 Club.

    Saturday, 10 October 2020

    A Journal of the Plague Year | Daniel Defoe #Classic


    For the first half of this year, I was avoiding plague literature, like the plague! 
    But since reading Camus' The Plague during August, I seem to be verging on obsession. What are the signs, I hear you ask? First up, how many people do you know, who take plague literature with them on a holiday to the beach?

    I did.

    For a week at the beach in September, I packed Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, Emma Donoghue's The Pull of the Stars, Katherine Anne Porter's short story collection Pale Horse Pale Rider and Barbara Tuckman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Enough said!

    I think if I had read A Journal of the Plague Year prior to 2020, I may have found the story a bit difficult to follow and maybe even a bit dull with its attention to detail, death lists. laws and regulations. (See Nick @One Catholic Life who read this in 2017 and said, 'Not a bad read, but not something that I plan on rereading again'). However, reading it whilst in the middle of an actual pandemic, has been another experience entirely!

    Like my reading of Camus, I was particularly fascinated by the thoughts and feelings and actions of other people throughout history, in coping with plague events.

    Once again, it is all there, for us to see (and learn from), if only we would look. 

    Everything we are going through right now, has been gone through before. The people just wore different clothes!

    With all our wonderful advances in technology and science, we still make the same erroneous assumptions, the same mistakes are made and we go through the same psychological trauma. 

    Happily, the same causes for celebration and hope also reoccur with every plague. The hero helpers, the medical staff, and the carers. The law makers who take the time to get it right, who regulate for the common good yet find a way to act humanely and kindly to individuals, the regular folk who do they right things and make personal sacrifices for the greater good. Every time, there are more of these than of the others who rebel, deny or ignore.

    My reading of A Journal of the Plague Year was about finding the common experiences.

    The rather shambolic structure of the book, can be seen to reflect the chaotic nature of the plague. The fears, the rumours and the disbelief that spread, as the plague approached, the changing laws and (dis)information as the first cases were diagnosed, the grief, loss and suffering that ebbed and flowed with hope and relief at different times. Defoe describes it all, in great detail, several times!

    A lot of the rambling style is taken up with the numbers game. 

    Just as we watch the daily news and listen to regular updates about how many people were tested today, how many positive cases, how many deaths, how do we compare to other states and other countries, in 1665, they had the Parish Bills posted on the local church board and Bills of Mortality. Defoe tracked the Plague through the various boroughs and counties of England and he also listed the various trades and jobs adversely affected by the Plague. 

    The city of London is a central player in this story. Defoe did a lot of research to accurately recall the layouts of streets and shops during this time. His character walks the streets and describes what he sees. This was not an easy thing to do. The streets of the city were crowded, confusing and dirty. And everything changed, the following year, in 1666, when the Great Fire of London gutted most of central London. Defoe had to work on memory and old reference books to bring pre-1666 London to life again. 

    Below, I've included a number of quotes, that show the progression and common experiences, as I saw it, during my read.

    • We had no such thing as printed News Papers in those Days, to spread Rumours and Reports of Things...handed about by word of mouth only; so that things did not spread instantly over the whole nation, as they do now. But it seems that the Government had a true Account of it, and several Counsels were held about Ways to prevent its coming over; but it was all very private.
    • it was rumour'd that an order of the Government was to be issued out, to place Turn-pikes and Barriers on the Road, to prevent Peoples travelling; and that the Towns on the Road, would not suffer People from London to pass.
    • that the best Preparation for the Plague was to run away from it.
    • I enclin'd to stay and take my Lot in that Station in which God had plac'd me.
    • Sorrow and Sadness sat upon every Face.
    • the shriecks of Women and Children at the Windows, and Doors of their Houses.
    • already People had, as it were by a general Consent, taken up the Custom of not going out of Doors after Sun-set.
    • It was a very ill Time to be sick in, for if any one complain'd, it was immediately said he had the Plague.
    • it was most surprising thing, to see those Streets, which were usually so thronged, now grown desolate, and so few People to be seen in them.
    • The Apprehensions of the People, were likewise strangely encreas'd by the Error of the times...the People...were more adicted to Prophesies, and Astrological Conjurations, Dreams, and old Wives Tales.
    • These Terrors and Apprehensions of the People, led them into a Thousand weak, foolish, and wicked Things.
    • the people, whose Confusions fitted them to be impos'd upon by all Sorts of Pretenders, and by every Mountebank.
    • the Physicians...to their Praise, that they ventured their Lives so far as even to lose them in the Service of Mankind; They endeavoured to do good, and to save the Lives of others.
    • Every visited House to be...marked with a red Cross.
    • Every visited House to be watched...the shutting up to be for the space of four Weeks after all be whole.
    • That no Hogs, Dogs, or Cats, or Tame Pigeons, or Conies, be suffered to be kept within any part of the City.
    • no wandring Begger be suffered in the Streets of this City, in any fashion or manner, whatsoever.
    • That all Plays, Bear-Baitings, Games, singing of Ballads, Buckler-play, or suck like Causes of Assemblies of People, be utterly prohibited.
    • That all publick Feasting...and Dinners at Taverns, Alehouses, and other Places of common Entertainment be forborn till further Order and Allowance.
    • This shutting up of houses was at first counted a very cruel and Unchristian Method, and the poor People so confin'd made bitter Lamentations.
    • But it was a publick Good that justified the private Mischief.
    • many Families foreseeing the Approach of the Distemper, laid up Stores of Provisions, sufficient for their whole Families, and shut themselves up.
    • this Necessity of going out of our Houses to buy Provisions, was in a great Measure the Ruin of the whole City.
    • the Misery of that Time lay upon the Poor.
    • the Danger of immediate Death to ourselves, took away all Bowels of Love, all Concern for one another.
    • I must acknowledge that this time was Terrible, that I was sometimes at the End of all my Resolutions.
    • Perfumes...Aromaticks, Balsamicks, and Variety of Drugs, and Herbs; in another Salts and Spirits, as every one was furnish'd for their own Preservation.
    • the danger of Relapse upon the whole City, and telling them how such a Relapse might be more fatal and dangerous than the whole Visitation that had been already.
    • in what manner to purge the Houses and Goods, where the Plague had been.
    In the appendix of my 2003 Penguin Classics edition, I was reminded that the plague bacillus was not discovered by science until 1894 during the Hongkong epidemic of that year. Until then, the plague was believed to be an airborne disease. 

    We now know that the plague was spread by the fleas found on black rats. The bacillus can actually survive in textiles and faeces for up to a year in warm, damp places. 

    There are three types of plague - bubonic, pneumonic (or pulmonary) and septicaemic.

    The note is made that 'people rarely communicated the disease to each other (except through the coughing of those with pneumonic plague), but in a flea and rat ridden culture, that is almost beside the point.'

    Defoe did a brilliant job of bringing to life this time in history. The despair and fear was palpable, the confusion and hopelessness felt real, almost too real, during this time. The people of London were brought low and wondered what they had done to deserve this fate. Yet, Defoe was determined to show us, that it is, in fact, our community, and our desire to live a good collective life, that can save us all in the end.  

    One can only imagine what was felt, by the good citizens of London, to have their year of plague followed by a cataclysmic fire. We can take heart from the fact, that those before us, have survived and thrived much worse that a year of coronavirus. This too shall pass.

    Previous Plague/Pandemic Reads

    Current Plague Reads:
    • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century | Barbara Tuchman (non-fiction)
    Up Next:
    • Intimations | Zadie Smith (non-fiction)
    • Pale Horse, Pale Rider | Katherine Anne Porter
    Plague/Pandemic Books On My Radar:
    • Station Eleven | Emily St John Mandel
    • Blindness | José Saramago
    • The Last Man | Mary Shelley
    • The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World | Steven Johnson (non-fiction)
    • Nemesis | Philip Roth
    • Love in the Time of Cholera | Gabriel Garcia Marquez
    • The Years of Rice and Salt | Kim Stanley Robinson
    • The Dog Stars | Peter Heller
    • The Children’s Hospital | Chris Adrian
    • Severance | Ling Ma
    • The White Plague | Frank Herbert
    • The Passage | Justin Cronin

    Thursday, 8 October 2020

    The Vanishing Half | Brit Bennett #USfiction

     

    I suspect, like me, many of you have heard about the basic premise of this story. The book seems to be everywhere (which is partly why it was selected as our October book club book). It features a fictional town inhabited by African Americans who have light skin, 'lightness, like anything inherited at great cost, was a lonely gift.' People who felt like they could not, and did not, belong in a white world or a black one. Mallard was a town for those 'who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes.'

    The story is about identical twins, Desiree and Stella, who grow up in this town. One marries a dark man and has a very dark baby, horrifying the inhabitants of Mallard, and the other decides to 'pass' as white and disappears from all their lives.

    However, this is not the only vanishing or 'passing' or pretending to be someone else, that is considered by Bennett in The Vanishing Half.

    The idea of 'passing' is examined alongside gender identity, transgender, drag queens and the games that many twins play, pretending to be the other to confuse their family and friends. Bennett also makes one her characters an actor to discuss what is real, what is make believe and our ability to inhabit a character to tell a story. Another character is a 'hunter' who helps to find people running from the law, bad debt and bad people. He helps find those who want to disappear. He understands disguises and subterfuge and the lies people tell when they create a new life. Mixed in with all of this is the common, every day desire we all feel at different points in our lives, to start over - the end of a bad marriage, the death of a partner, to escape childhood friends etc. 

    Do we create our own identity? Or do we spend our lives deconstructing other people's ideas of who we are (or should be)?

    It was fascinating stuff.

    Naturally, the contrast between one twin living a life as an African American and the other as white is the predominate theme. The life of plenty and ease for one, compared to the hard work, living on the edge of poverty and fear for the other. Yet it's not all ease for one and it's not all fear for the other. Bennett's story is far more nuanced than that.

    Passing requires one to be constantly vigilant and constantly 'in role'. A back story has to be created and remembered. The fear of being exposed creates tension and keeps one on guard the whole time. It's impossible to relax or feel like you completely belong.

    Bennett covers off a lot of very complicated, complex ideas about who we are, how identity is determined or created and how we judge and classify others. She shows us how the childhood experiences of each twin leads to the choices they make. We see it play out again, with their daughters, growing up in very different worlds, struggling to find who they are, where they belong and with whom. The whole idea of nature or nurture is woven through each story line, and each character, in that messy, mixed up way we all experience.

    Coincidence plays a part in the story, which could be annoying for some readers. As can the omnipresent narrator. But both devices worked for me. Bennett incorporates both successfully to negotiate the various time jumps within the story, the 'seeing forward and backward at the same time', that allows the reader to see what all the characters are experiencing. We see that 'passing' or changing identity, can be permanent or temporary, tragic or fun. It can be liberating and painful. A relief and guilt-ridden at the same time. 

    Bennett leaves us with the lies, or stories, we all tell our selves and our families. Are they really lies? Or are they a natural desire to reframe our lives into the one we really want? That 'better' self that makes us feel whole or complete or more like our real selves? 

    Who gets to decide what is real or not, in the first place? The performer or the audience? Are we pretending, performing or projecting? Are they secrets or an act of privacy or a bid for personal safety? Bennett doesn't judge or moralise. She doesn't ask us to condemn Stella for her choices, or Reese, or Barry, or Jude, or Kennedy, or Early or Adele. 

    Stella is not made to pay the ultimate price, usually asked of characters in her position. There is no dramatic moment of exposure. There is no guilt-ridden martyr sent back to where she came from, in disgust and ridiculed, welcome nowhere and understood by no-one. The moral of the story is not to stay with your own kind at all cost. It's about making your own life in whichever why that feels right to you. 

    There's a whole lot more to say about this story and I'm sure my book club will go there tonight. 

    Favourite Quotes
    • The only difference between lying and acting was whether your audience was in on it, but it was all a performance just the same.
    • That was the thrill of youth, the idea that you could be anyone.
    • Jude wanted to change and she didn't see why it should be so hard or why she should have to explain it to anyone.
    • You shouldn’t tell people the truth because you want to hurt them. You should tell them because they want to know it.
    • The hardest part about becoming someone else was deciding to. The rest was only logistics.

    Monday, 5 October 2020

    AusReading Month 2020


    It's that time of year again!

    Time to think about how many Aussie books and author you can read during the month of November for AusReading Month.

    Now in it's 8th year, AusReading Month is a chance to celebrate all the things we love about Australia. Beautiful scenery, amazing characters and great writing. All at a covid-safe distance, of course!

    It's time to break out the lamingtons, open a pack of tim-tams and crack a violet crumble.
    Why not try a vegemite sandwich or some fairy bread!
    Travel our big, beautiful land by book (since you cannot actually travel here any other way this year!)
    It's time to join the true blue, down under, socially distanced reading challenge!

    AusReading Month Bingo is an easy, fun way to track what you're reading. Pick as many books as you like, or just one, to see you on your way. Your book can be set in the state of your choice, or the author can hail from the state of your choice. All book types are acceptable - novels, non-fiction, graphic novels, children's books, travel books, cook books, poetry, gardening books, art and design. Simply blog about it and match it to a square on the Bingo card.

    Retrospective Bingo posts are welcome as well.
    If you're not sure you can read and review something by the end of November, then look back at your reading year that was.
    Our aim at AusReadingMonth is to highlight and celebrate as much Australian literature as we can!


    Flyby Night
    • If time is of the essence, one book from the BINGO card may be the prefect option for you.
    • A quick getaway is better than none!
    Backpacker
    • With their compact swags, backpackers need to travel light.
    • If this is you, simply select one line (horizontal, vertical of even diagonal) on the BINGO card and read three books about Australia.
    Grey Nomad
    • If you have more time up your sleeve, then join the grey nomads in their self-contained campervans and travel around this big, brown land of ours.
    • With every crossroad on the map, there's a choice to be made; you cannot do it all, so select two lines on the BINGO card to be eligible for Grey Nomad status.
    The Whole Hog
    • If you're feeling a little touched by the sun, then the Whole Hog may be for you.
    • Read NINE books this November from all of the 8 states and territories plus one freebie.
    • The FREEBIE can be any book by an Australian author or a book written by an overseas author but set entirely in Australia.
    Easy, right?

    Except that November is a busy month in blogging land.
    Non-Fiction November, Novellas in November and AusReading Month, are all competing for your time and book knowledge. (I'm not sure if Laura will be once again, hosting her novella event, but watch this space for any updates).

    The following AusReading suggestions are designed to help you combine all three events if you so desire.

    Many of the books below are essay collections or memoirs, perfect for your Non-Fiction November or Novellas in November lists. Many of the authors below have written across multiple formats - short stories, essays, poetry and novels. 

    Short Story & Essay Collections 

    • Ellen Van Neerven (Heat and Light) Indigenous author
    • Robert Dessaix (Twilight of Love, (and so forth), As I Was Saying, The Time of Our Lives) has some fabulous short stories collections featuring fiction, essays and articles. He has also studied and taught Russian Studies throughout his career. 
    • Helen Garner (Stories: The Collected Short Fiction, Everywhere I Look, True Stories: The Collected Short Non-Fiction)
    • Robert Drewe (The Bodysurfers, The Bay of Contented Men, The Rip, The True Colour of the Sea)
    • Cate Kennedy (Like A House on Fire)
    • Tim Winton (Island Home, The Boy Behind the Curtain)
    • Henry Lawson
    • Tom Carment (Womerah Lane)
    • Lily Brett
    • Fiona Wright
    • Luke Carmen
    • David Malouf
    • Gerard Murnane
    • Don Watson
    • Amanda Lohrey
    • Tara June Winch (After the Carnage)
    • Bruce Pascoe (Salt: Selected Stories and Essays)
    • The Best Australian Science Writing 2020
    • Quarterly Essay
    • Griffith Review
    • Meanjin
    • Overland
    • The Monthly

    Poetry

    • Omar Sakr
    • Alison Whitaker
    • Kirili Saunders
    • Les Murray
    • Judith Wright
    • John Kinsella
    • Dorothy Porter
    • Beverley Farmer
    • David Malouf
    • Judith Beveridge
    • Oodgeroo Noonuccal (aka as Kath Walker)
    • Clive James
    • Kate Lilley
    • Omar Musa
    • Australian Poetry Since 1788 edited by Geoffrey Lehmann & Robert Gray
    • Australian Poetry Review
    • Australian Poetry Journal

    There are OODLES more to chose from, this is just to get you started. 

    For my fellow Aussie bloggers - can you recommend any other collections of essays, short stories or poets for our overseas friends?

    Will you be joining us for this year's AusReading Month?
    #AusReadingMonth2020

    Friday, 2 October 2020

    1001 Books #Update #BookList

     

    My edition of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die is a 2009 reprint by Harper Collins Australia with a Preface by Australian journalist and book lover, Jennifer Byrne. Back in February 2016, I spent one ghastly heatwave weekend, going through this book and compiling my read and to-be -read lists with the idea that I would constantly refer back to it and update it.

    Guess what?

    Neither of those things happened.

    I'm not even sure what I hope will happen now, by revisiting both the read and TBR lists!
    Except, I love lists.

    I love the idea of ticking things off a list.
    I love seeing that list of things completed and what is still to be accomplished.
    It makes me feel organised and like I'm making progress.

    Maybe that's the key word here - progress.

    There has been a lot of standing still, treading water, waiting around, and biding my time this year. You all know why. Most of us are experiencing a similar thing.

    I've always read several books at once, but since Covid, I have taken this habit to the extreme! As a result, I'm not getting that lovely, satisfied feeling one gets, when a good book is finished. I'm curiously delaying this pleasure, by waylaying it with that other glorious book pleasure of starting a new book!

    Which is also making it hard for me to blog regularly as I have less book reviews in the wings. Therefore, a list.

    On my current TBR pile I have these books from the list of 1001 to look forward to:
    • Tale of the Genji
    • The Princess of Cleves
    • Oroonoko (ebook)
    • Robinson Crusoe
    • Moll Flanders
    • Pamela
    • Clarissa
    • The Female Quixote (ebook)
    • Candide (ebook)
    • Dream of the Red Chamber
    • Camilla (ebook)
    • Rob Roy (ebook)
    • Ivanhoe
    • Last of the Mohicans (ebook)
    • The Betrothed
    • The Red and the Black
    • Hunchback of Notre Dame
    • Eugene Onegin (ebook)
    • Le Pere Goriot
    • Oliver Twist
    • Lost Illusions (ebook)
    • The Three Musketeers (ebook)
    • The Scarlet Letter (ebook)
    • Cranford
    • Walden
    • Adam Bede
    • Fathers and Sons
    • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (can't believe I got through my childhood without reading this, but have seen many movie versions)
    • Journey to the Centre of the Earth (ebook)
    • Last Chronicle of Barset
    • Therese Raquin
    • Alice Through the Looking Glass
    • Around the World in Eighty Days (ebook)
    • L'Assommoir
    • Treasure Island (ebook)
    • Une Vie (ebook)
    • The Death of Ivan Illyich
    • Bel-Ami
    • La Bete Humaine
    • Picture of Dorian Gray
    • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
    • Diary of a Nobody
    • The Time Machine
    • Dracula
    • What Maisie Knew
    • The War of the Worlds
    • The Awakening
    • Buddenbrooks
    • The Hound of the Baskervilles
    • Heart of Darkness
    • The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
    • Death in Venice
    • Kokoro
    • The Good Soldier
    • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
    • The Return of the Soldier
    • Ulysses
    • Siddharta
    • Kristin Lavransdatter
    • The Magic Mountain
    • The Professor's House
    • The Trial (ebook)
    • Mrs Dalloway
    • The Good Soldier Svejk
    • To the Lighthouse
    • Remembrance of Things Past
    • Steppenwolf
    • Some Prefer Nettles
    • Parade's End
    • Orlando
    • Passing
    • The Maltese Falcon (movie version only)
    • The Waves
    • The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
    • Tender is the Night
    • Independent People
    • Nightwood
    • Nausea (ebook)
    • Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
    • The Big Sleep (movie version only)
    • Goodbye to Berlin
    • The Outsider | Albert Camus
    • Pippi Longstocking
    • The Heat of the Day
    • The Rebel
    • Invisible Man
    • The Tree of Man
    • The Talented Mr Ripley
    • Voss
    • Cider with Rosie
    • The Tin Drum
    • The Golden Notebook
    • A Clockwork Orange (movie only. Not sure I will ever, ever read it!)
    • The Bell Jar
    • The Graduate (movie only)
    • Silence
    • The Master and Margarita
    • 2001: A Space Odyssey (the movie was enough)
    • Slaughterhouse Five
    • G
    • The Siege of Krishnapur
    • A Dance to the Music of Time
    • Quartet in Autumn
    • Delta of Venus
    • The Beggars Maid
    • The Singapore Grip
    • The Virgin in the Garden
    • The Name of the Rose
    • On the Black Hill
    • Waterland
    • Flaubert's Parrot
    • The Cider House Rules (movie only)
    • Love in the Time of Cholera
    • An Artist of the Floating World
    • Beloved
    • Regeneration (started many years ago, but never finished)
    • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
    • A Fine Balance
    • The Unconsoled
    • The Life of Pi (movie only, found the book hard to get into)
    • The Corrections (tedious, did not finish)
    • Cloud Atlas
    • The Master
    • The Elegance of the Hedgehog
    • The Reluctant Fundamentalist

    I have now read all of these:
    • Don Quixote (once will be more than enough with this one)
    • The Sorrows of Young Werther (ugh! hard work. Read during my pre-blogging days)
    • Dangerous Liaisons (book & movie several times)
    • Sense and Sensibility (book & movie oodles of times)
    • Pride and Prejudice (lost count of how many rereads I've had. No movie or tv series has even come close to capturing this story to date imo)
    • Mansfield Park (book only)
    • Emma (book & movie)
    • Frankenstein
    • Eugenie Grandet
    • The Count of Monte Cristo (book & old tv movie starring Richard Chamberlain)
    • Jane Eyre (numerous rereads & movies)
    • Vanity Fair (didn't finish the book, but watched the 1998 BBC production instead)
    • Wuthering Heights (ugh! Probably should reread)
    • The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
    • David Copperfield (probably my favourite Dickens to date)
    • Moby-Dick (I am now one of those Moby-Dick fanatics)
    • Bleak House
    • North and South (great readalong book that introduced me to Gaskell)
    • Madame Bovary (another ugh! Not sure I finished it either. Read during my pre-blogging days)
    • The Woman in White (book and the old B&W movie)
    • The Mill on the Floss (read a long time ago - can't remember much about it)
    • Les Miserables (my first year-long chapter-a-day readalong book)
    • The Moonstone (the book that turned me onto Wilkie Collins many moons ago)
    • Little Women (numerous rereads and viewings)
    • War and Peace (rereading this year a chapter-a-day)
    • Middlemarch (read so long ago & I feel it's due for a reread sooner rather than later)
    • Far From the Madding Crowd
    • Anna Karenina
    • Nana
    • Portrait of a Lady (book & movie)
    • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (surprised myself by how much I enjoyed this book)
    • Germinal (my favourite Zola to date)
    • The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (underwhelmed)
    • Tess of the D'Urbervilles (makes me angry every time I read it)
    • Jude the Obscure
    • The Wings of the Dove (movie and book)
    • The Ambassadors (watched the tv series way back when)
    • The House of Mirth
    • The Forsyte Saga (books and BBC series)
    • A Room With a View (numerous reads and viewings of the Ivory Merchant movie)
    • Howards End (movie and book)
    • Ethan Frome
    • Sons and Lovers (made to read this at school! Scarred me for life!)
    • The Thirty Nine Steps (book & movie, both a long time ago)
    • The Home and the World
    • Women in Love (made to read this at school!)
    • The Age of Innocence (several times, book and movie)
    • A Passage to India (movie and book)
    • The Great Gatsby (movie and book)
    • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (read during my Agatha Christie binge in Yr 7-8)
    • Lady Chatterley's Lover (all the various versions of it plus a live outdoor performance)
    • Cold Comfort Farm (didn't see what all the fuss was about)
    • Brave New World (a favourite of Mr Books that he made me read 30 yrs ago)
    • Testament of Youth (love, love, love)
    • Gone With the Wind (relationship status: complicated)
    • Out of Africa (underwhelmed. The movie was better)
    • The Hobbit (just the book. Tried to watch the first movie but just couldn't)
    • Their Eyes Were Watching God (thank you to the Classics Club for introducing this booka nd author to me)
    • Of Mice and Men (book and movies)
    • Rebecca (preferred My Cousin Rachel)
    • The Grapes of Wrath (underwhelmed)
    • The Little Prince
    • Animal Farm
    • Brideshead Revisited (three times plus numerous viewings of the BBC series)
    • If This is a Man
    • The Plague
    • 1984 (book and theatre production)
    • Love in a Cold Climate
    • A Town Like Alice (book and TV series)
    • The End of the Affair (book & movie)
    • Day of the Triffids (book and m0vie)
    • Excellent Women
    • The Story of O
    • Under the Net
    • Lord of the Flies (ugh!)
    • The Quiet American (twice plus movie)
    • The Lord of the Rings (book and movies)
    • Doctor Zhivago (book & movie, of course!)
    • The Midwich Cuckoos
    • The Leopard
    • Breakfast at Tiffany's (movie, of course, and book)
    • To Kill a Mockingbird (several rereads & movie)
    • Catch 22 (don't get me started!)
    • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude (twice)
    • The Godfather (movie and book)
    • The French Lieutenant's Woman (book & movie several times)
    • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
    • Surfacing (read during my Atwood phase in the mid 90's but I remember very little about this one)
    • The Summer Book (interesting)
    • The Commandant (loved, a lot)
    • The Shining (book & movie)
    • The Sea, The Sea
    • Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy ( a hoot)
    • If on a Winter's Night a Traveller
    • Midnight's Children (an all-time favourite)
    • Schindler's Ark (book & movie)
    • The Color Purple (movie then book, sans the 'u' both times!)
    • If Not Now, When?
    • The Unbearable Lightness of Being
    • The Handmaid's Tale
    • Perfume (loved in a perverse kind of way. If you've read the book, you'll understand this comment)
    • Contact (book & movie)
    • The Drowned and the Saved
    • The New York Trilogy (not sure if I will ever be brave enough to read this again)
    • Kitchen
    • Oscar and Lucinda (all I can remember is the glass church floating down the Bellinger River)
    • Like Water For Chocolate (book & movie several times)
    • The Remains of the Day (movie & book)
    • Wild Swans
    • Smilla's Feeling for Snow (book & movie)
    • Written on the Body
    • The English Patient (movie & book)
    • Possessing the Secret of Joy
    • The Secret History
    • Remembering Babylon
    • A Suitable Boy (quite possibly my all-time favourite book ever, although it will need a reread to confirm this status)
    • The Shipping News (book & movie)
    • Felicia's Journey
    • Captain Corelli's Mandolin
    • The Reader
    • Alias Grace (my favourite Atwood to date)
    • Fugitive Pieces
    • The God of Small Things
    • Enduring Love
    • The Hours (movie & book)
    • Atonement (book & movie)
    • Kafka on the Shore (read in Japan :-)
    • The Namesake
    • What I Loved
    • Suite Francaise
    • The Inheritance of Loss
    • The Gathering

    I have now read 133 of 1001 books!

    In 2016 I had read 120, or 12%.
    I am making progress, even if it is only 1% in four years!

    Other editions of the 1001 series (as kindly compiled here) include even more books that I have read:
    • Never Let Me Go (underwhelmed)
    • Saturday
    • The Children's Book (loved a lot)
    • The Gathering (read in the past four years & new to the list) 
    • What I Loved (read in the past four years & new to the list) 
    • The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-Time
    • The Blind Assassin
    • Amsterdam
    • Memoirs of a Geisha (read in the past four years & new to the list) 
    • The Robber Bride
    • The Heather Blazing (read in the past four years & new to the list) 
    • Possession
    • Cat's Eye
    • The Passion
    • The Child in Time (read in the past four years & new to the list) 
    • Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
    • The World According to Garp (movie and book)
    • The Nice and the Good (read in the past four years & new to the list) 
    • Chocky
    • Vile Bodies (ugh!)
    • Summer
    • Where Angels Fear to Tread
    • Lord Jim (movie and book)
    • Northanger Abbey (book and TV series)
    • Persuasion (book and movies)

    Now we're up to the interactive part.
    Which books on my TBR list should I prioritise?
    Convince me!

    Wednesday, 30 September 2020

    Stories & Shout Outs #33

     
    My Life This Week:
    • I'm struggling to find blogging time again, now that I'm back at work. 
    • A quick Stories & Shout Out post seemed the best solution for now.
    • Our brief foray into Spring has departed once again, but I guess that's what happens in the springtime; it comes and goes.
    • I've managed to get my phone screen time down to a daily average of 1hr & 27 mins. Yay me!
    • Our relaxing week at the beach, 2 weeks ago, already feels like it happened in another lifetime.

    What I Am Reading:
    • Our Shadows by Gail Jones - I accidentally started this at lunch on Monday & now I'm hooked!
    • The Stolen Prince of Cloudburst by Jaclyn Moriarty - utterly delightful middle grade adventure fantasy that is ticking all my boxes for humour, great protagonist and fantasy that feels real. 
    • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett - my next book club read.
    • Fracture by Andre Neuman - I don't know why I'm reading this one so slowly. I'm enjoying it every time I pick it up, yet I'm not prioritising it. I seem to be doing this a lot this year.
    • I still have lots of non-fiction lying around the house waiting for me to be in the right mood to read it, including:
      • The Golden Maze by Richard Fidler - a personal history of Prague - so far so good.
      • A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuckman - just started. I have no idea why I started another non-fiction book when I have several partly read ones lying all around the house and especially one that is soooo long!
      • Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nostrat (my kitchen read)
      • The Cloud Spotter's Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney - almost finished. 
      • White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo - by my bed.
      • Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald - another accidental lunch time read! Some of the essays are stronger than others, particularly loved Tekels Park, the story about her childhood home and the meadow that turned her into a naturalist.
    • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy - one chapter at a time.

    Read but not Reviewed:
    • A Journal of a Plague Year by Daniel Defoe
    • Landing With Wings by Trace Balla

    New to the Pile:
    • Intimations by Zadie Smith
    • People of the River by Grace Karskens
    • The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida by Clarissa Goenawan
    • Piranesi by Suzanna Clarke

    Gratitude:
    • To all the many wonderful blogger friends who took the time to offer constructive feedback about my blog during Personal Bloggiesta week. Thank you all so much for your generosity and support. I hope the tweeks have made it easier for you to navigate Brona's Books.

    On My Radar:

    Underwhelmed
    • I think I'm in a minority of one, but completely not excited by this year's Booker shortlist
    • Had planned on reading The Shadow King at some point.
    • Will probably also read Burnt Sugar.
    • I miss the Commonwealth community. 
    • Feels like this has just become another prize for British and American authors.

    Contemplating:
    • AusReadingMonth in November. Will I or won't I? 

    Friday, 25 September 2020

    Books that Delight

    Photo by Luca Upper on Unsplash


    During a long road trip yesterday, my mind eventually wandered off into book land. One book in particular, has been on my mind a lot lately - A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. At work, in the past month or so, I've been asked more and more for books that will lift spirits, spark joy and make one feel better during these unsettling Covid times. The fiction book I always turn to for this is A Gentleman in Moscow

    It has been two years since I read it, but it continues to enjoy a long warm afterglow in my memory. So much so, I believe I will now reread it, as well as give it to Mr Books to read.

    What makes A Gentleman in Moscow so memorable and so perfectly delightful?

    • The Count's positive attitude and determination to make the best of his circumstances.
    • His enthusiasm and passion to keep on learning new things and exploring.
    • His ability to embrace the work available to him and to find something meaningful and purposeful to do.
    • Despite difficulties, losses, and grief, he continues to find the joy in every day events and relationships.
    • He embodies resilience.
    • He honours his past, faces forward, but lives in the present.
    • Amor Towles writing.

    The story of A Gentleman in Moscow, a man sentenced to live out his life in isolation in a hotel in Moscow, has taken on a new meaning during these Covid times. Is that why it has been on my mind so much lately?

    The Count's life is not a rosy, sweet journey. He has heartache, disappointments, depression. Each time he makes his way by getting outside of himself, even though he cannot actually go outside. He looks to others, to work, to books. He keeps busy, with purpose and passion. He doesn't just do a job, he does it to the best of his abilities, even the dull duties. He uses his skills and contacts and knowledge to make life better, not only for himself, for those who share his world. He is not a saint; he is quite simply a good man.

    Obviously he was blessed with a happy, healthy and wealthy childhood that gave him a good education, a loving nature and a solid foundation. This could have so easily been a story about a man who descended into a morass of melancholy and despair when his life circumstances changed so dramatically. Instead, he went the other way. He decided to embrace the change. He didn't linger on what used to be or what he had lost. He didn't spend his days wishing that things would go back to the way they were. He just got on with making the best of what he had right now (eventually). As I said, he wasn't a saint. He stumbled along the way, but he always got up again.

    His story is inspiring and uplifting, pre-Covid as well as right now. It sparks joy and delights in a truly genuine way.

    But it got me thinking about what other books have I read that do the same. I realised that there were very few books which had that extra special spark of pure delight running through them. 

    Firstly, what do I mean when I talk about delight?

    For me, delight is a pure emotion that contains happiness, joy and grace. It uplifts, charms and entrances. It's pleasurable and gratifying. It can be amusing, bewitching and captivating. It makes my day brighter and better. It's a lot to ask from a book, but A Gentleman in Moscow has done that for me. The real test will lie in the reread though...!

    Which books come close?

    There are books like The Color Purple that makes me cry buckets of tears of joy every time I read it or watch the movie, but, golly, you really have to work hard to get to that point. Harrowing is where most of the story lives. 

    Same goes for To Kill A Mockingbird. The injustice and inequality that lies at the heart of the story acts as a counterpoint for the loving kindness that Atticus displays and tries to instil in his children. The story is emotionally satisfying but not necessarily one that I would describe as full of delight. 

    I also found A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth emotionally satisfying. It was utterly immersive and engaging and absorbing and a joy to read, so much so, when I finished it, I hugged it to my chest and declared that this was the book I had to be buried with!

    Are there any other books that spark pure delight like A Gentleman in Moscow?

    During my childhood Little Women fit the delightful bill to a tee. There was sadness and disappointment and difficulties to overcome, but there was also so much love and kindness and a determination to do good and be good. It was the kind of book I would hug to my chest in pure delight. I always finished it determined to be a better person. To be more kind, loving and generous. A recent reread confirmed that this delightful feeling has carried over into my adult years.

    In my teen years and early twenties Pride and Prejudice entered my life and sparked an untold amount of youthful exuberance and delight. A story that gets better and more delightful with each reread is a thing of pure joy indeed! The witty remarks, the romance, the exquisite plotting an planning by Austen herself all add up to an abundance of delightfulness. 

    However, in my thirties, my pathway to delight took a slight left turn, into the more mature, thoughtful love and happiness that is the lot of Anne Eliot in Persuasion. Her gentleness and journey of self-discovery is inspirational. From insecure young woman, persuaded by others to do 'right', she becomes a strong, resilient woman able to see through the motivations and agendas of others, to determine what is right for herself in the end. 

    That's it though.

    I have four books in my life that I can turn to for pure delight and joy. Four books that make me glow with good will and happiness and loving kindness. Four books that have the power to ease any heartache of my own. Four books that me feel better and warm the cockles of my heart, every single time.

    Do you have any books that delight you in that special way?

    Wednesday, 23 September 2020

    The Pull of the Stars | Emma Donoghue #HistoricalFiction

     

    After reading a number of slow, reflective reads lately, I needed something a bit easier and faster. The Pull of the Stars fit the bill nicely. It was easy to read, even with the rather detailed 1918 midwifery and autopsy scenes that left me gasping and wincing in sympathy!

    In keeping with my current Plague Lit phase, this is a book about the 1918-19 influenza that devastated the entire world as World War One was coming to an end. 

    The book charts three days on the maternity/fever ward in a hospital in Dublin, Ireland, with Nurse Julia Power and her young volunteer, Bridie Sweeney. The hospital is extremely understaffed, and Nurse Power is working a room barely bigger than a cupboard with just enough space for three beds. Power has already had the fever and recovered, as is now considered immune.

    Donoghue weaves in all the rumours and myths that surrounded the Spanish flu including it being a 'miasma' coming off all the dead bodies from the war in France, a religious judgement about said war, the consequence of so many people travelling or 'milling about across the globe', or an alignment or influence of the stars (hence the name of the book).

    My reading tended to focus on the points of connection or similarity between then and now. On her way in to work, Power notices 'so many shops shuttered now due to staff being laid low by the grippe...many of the firms that were still open looked deserted to me, on the verge of failing for lack of custom.'

    There were the contrarians who didn't like having their personal freedoms curtailed for the greater good and therefore, chose to believe that the effects of the flu were being exaggerated. There was suspicion about government propaganda and oodles of old wives tales about how best to prevent catching the flu - from using eucalyptus oil, carrying raw garlic in your pocket or around your neck, gargling brandy, eating an onion a day, carrying rosaries and other charms and amulets.

    The science was not as quick as it is now, but facts about the nature of the Influenza constantly changed and evolved as more research and tests were done. As now, this added to some people's confusion and allowed conspiracy theorists to thrive. The Spanish flu was referred to by numerous names such as the great flu, khaki flu, blue flu, black flu, the grippe, or the grip, the malady, and the war sickness.

    The government propaganda signs were confusing, contradictory and often laughable. 
    A new foe is in our midst: panic. The general weakening of nerve power known as war-weariness has opened a door to contagion. Defeatists are the allies of disease.

    The public is urged to stay out of public places such as cafes, theatres, cinemas and public houses. See only those persons one needs to see. Refrain from shaking hands, laughing, or chatting closely together. If one must kiss, do so through a handkerchief. Sprinkle sulphur in the shoes. If in doubt, don't stir out.

    The Government has this situation well in hand and the epidemic is actually in decline. There is no real risk except to the reckless who try to fight the flu on their feet. If you feel yourself succumbing, report yourself, and lie down for a fortnight. Would they be dead if you stayed in bed.

    The Pull of the Stars was a great holiday read (I read it in two days lying on the beach). I learnt probably more than I ever need to know about certain birthing matters and I was curious to learn about the colour phases of the flu's development - from red to brown, to blue, to black, that Donoghue used to create her chapter headings. Overall, an engaging read with plenty of parallels to our times.

    Facts:
    • Donoghue is Irish born but now lives in London, Ontario, so The Pull of the Stars will probably appear on many of the Canadian literary prizes starting with this year's longlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.
    • On her website, and in her author's notes at the back of the book, Donoghue said,
    A personal note: I began this novel in October 2018, inspired by the centenary of the Great Flu of 1918-19, and I delivered the final draft to my publishers in March 2020, two days before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. In researching the Great Flu, one fact that leapt out at me was that women before, during and for weeks after birth were particularly vulnerable to catching and suffering terrible complications from that virus. I’ve put into this story some of the labour dramas of women I know (and one of my own), and all my gratitude to frontline health workers who see us through our most frightening and transformative experiences. I could have set The Pull of the Stars anywhere, but I went for my home town of Dublin partly because Ireland was going through such a fascinating political metamorphosis in those years, and because I wanted to reckon with my country’s complicated history of carers, institutions and motherhood.

     

    • Dr Kathleen Lynn (a secondary but memorable character) was a real life rebel doctor whose worked focused on the well being of infants and their mothers.
    • Bridie's back story, as well as that of one of the young mum's in the ward with Nurse Power, were based on real life events as told to the 2009 Ryan Commission and discussed in this article here.


    Other Books by Donoghue:

    Previous Plague/Pandemic Reads

    Current Plague Reads:
    • Journal of a Plague Year | Daniel Defoe
    • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century | Barbara Tuchman (non-fiction)
    Up Next:
    • Intimations | Zadie Smith (non-fiction)
    • Pale Horse, Pale Rider | Katherine Anne Porter
    Plague/Pandemic Books On My Radar:
    • Station Eleven | Emily St John Mandel
    • Blindness | José Saramago
    • The Last Man | Mary Shelley
    • The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World | Steven Johnson (non-fiction)
    • Nemesis | Philip Roth
    • Love in the Time of Cholera | Gabriel Garcia Marquez
    • The Years of Rice and Salt | Kim Stanley Robinson
    • The Dog Stars | Peter Heller
    • The Children’s Hospital | Chris Adrian
    • Severance | Ling Ma
    • The White Plague | Frank Herbert
    • The Passage | Justin Cronin

    Sunday, 20 September 2020

    A Study in Scarlet | Arthur Conan Doyle #CCSpin

     

    I've been wanting to read a Sherlock Holmes story for a long time now. I purchased my lovely Knickerbocker classic editions about five years ago with the good intentions of reading them in chronological order. Ever since then, I have been putting A Study in Scarlet on my CC Spin list, in the hope it would give me the good excuse I obviously needed to finally get started. 

    Last month, CC Spin #24 was the charm!

    And I am now a convert to the Victorian world of Sherlock Holmes. I may be a little influenced by certain images from recent movie versions though, as in my head, Holmes looks rather like Robert Downey Jr and Watson looks quite a bit like Jude Law.

    My edition has an Introduction by Roger Boylan, who helped me to understand that it was in fact, Watson, who was more like Doyle, in personality, than Holmes.
    Sherlock Holmes is surely the one fictional character who is not only more famous than his creator, but whose personality, attitudes and interests are so completely his own, so different from those of his creator.

     

    A Study in Scarlet is a quick, easy read. Many reports have suggested that this is not the best Holmes story by any means, which gives me high hopes for what comes next, as I thoroughly enjoyed this gentle, rather charming, 'consulting detective' story.

    Narrated by Dr John Watson and set in 1881, we see Holmes through the eyes and opinions of others. Watson, of course, is our main source, but we also hear from the friend of the friend "Holmes is a little too scientific for my tastes - it approaches to cold-bloodedness", and even Holmes himself, "I get in the dumps at times, and don't open my mouth for days on end."

    I really enjoyed seeing how Holmes and Watson met for the first time, and part of the pleasure of this story, is watching Watson, watching Holmes, as he experiences for the first time how Holmes likes to solve cases.

    This one begins with a dead American, a message scrawled in blood across the wall and a ring. Holmes describes this case as,
    the finest study I ever came across: a study in scarlet....There's the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.

    Act two of the story is a bit clunky albeit fascinating as we unexpectedly get a back story about the Mormon's arrival in Utah (which was new to me and therefore very interesting. So much of US history seems to be tied up with religious fanatics and separatists, discord and intolerance). 
    Part way through this back story, some of the names start becoming familiar and we, the reader, realise we are getting the motive for the murders.

    This section of the story caused Doyle some problems in later years. The Mormons were unhappy about how they had been depicted, especially the influence and behaviour of the Danite Band, who he described as being controlling, secretive, murderous thugs. At one point he came out and said, 
    all I said about the Danite Band and the murders is historical so I cannot withdraw that, though it is likely that in a work of fiction it is stated more luridly than in a work of history. It's best to let the matter rest.

    Rather like an Agatha Christie whodunnit, the secret to discovering the who, why, when and how, with Holmes, is about understanding motivations and learning to see what is a clue and what is red herring. Holmes appears to be particularly skilled in this area.

    A Study is Scarlet was thoroughly entertaining, and I will be back for more.

    Facts:
    • Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle (22 May 1859 Edinburgh, Scotland – 7 July 1930 Crowborough, East Sussex) 
    • Conan is one of his middle names (after his godfather, Michael Conan), not a part of his surname.
    • That is, he should be shelved under the 'D's not the 'C's!
    • Graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery from the University of Edinburgh in 1881.
    • Holmes was based on one of Doyle's university lecturers, Joseph Bell, 'round the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man.'
    • Written in three weeks in 1886.
    • Original title: A Tangled Skein.
    • Published in 1887 in Beeton's Christmas Annual & illustrated by David Henry Friston.
    • First book published in July 1888 by Ward, Lock & Co & illustrated by ACD's father, Charles Doyle.
    • Doyle had five children with two wives. But no grandchildren. 
    Favourite or Forget:
    • My very first Sherlock Holmes story & I'm in!
    • Will definitely read more.
    • I love a good origin story & this, the first meeting of Holmes and Watson is memorable for it's ordinariness. The age-old 'friend of a friend' introduction for two people in need of a room mate.
    • The Mormon back story may suffer from some historical inaccuracies or exaggerations, but it is memorable nonetheless.
    Other books by Arthur Conan Doyle, read and reviewed by me:
    CC Spin #24