Friday, 28 October 2016

AusReading Month 2016

The time is fast approaching to once again search through your TBR pile for any Aussie titles that you'd like to read during #AusReadingMonth in November.

I'm planning to read Ruth Park's 1977 Miles Franklin Award winning novel Swords and Crowns and Rings. I'd love to have you join me for a #SCRreadalong.

Text Publishing produced a new edition with an introduction by Alice Pung in 2012, which is what I will be reading.

Ruth Park’s Miles Franklin-winning novel brilliantly evokes Australia in the midst of the Great Depression. Written with warmth and affection, Swords and Crowns and Rings is a powerful story about human nature and the strength of an unlikely love.

Growing up in an Australian country town before World War I, Jackie Hanna and Cushie Moy are carefree and innocent in their love for each other. But Jackie is a dwarf, and his devotion to the beautiful Cushie is condemned by her parents.

This is the story of their lifelong odyssey, and of the triumph of a special kind of courage.

In Swords and Crowns and Rings, Ruth Park brilliantly captures the mood of Australia in the first part of the twentieth century.

Lisa @ANZ LitLovers Litblog is also planning on hosting a Christina Stead readalong during November. 

I thought that my #SCRreadalong could take up the first two weeks of November and that my participation in the #Steadalong could take up the second half of the month.

I will post a Master Post early on the 1st November where you can sign up or start posting reviews of any Aussie books you've read recently.

I hope you can join me again for #AusReadingMonth. Your company makes it all worthwhile.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

Danny the Champion of the World is a homage to good parenting, especially good parenting by a loving father.

It's also about courage, loyalty and a little bit of class politics.

Danny extols the virtues of working class values, but as with all Dahl books, he subverts it a little. Honesty and the concept of being a law-abiding citizen are given a little Dahl-esque tweak.

Danny could be read as a modern day Robin Hood, except the class divide commentary is never really fully resolved here.

The local rich guy is too obviously the baddie and the idea of poaching being an art form is just a tad too convenient.

We all know that the simple, clean, wholesome life that Danny and his dad enjoyed is not the real picture of working class poverty. There may not be any magical elements in this particular Dahl story, but there is a lot of wish-fulfilment and whimsy.

Danny is rightly concerned about the ethics of stealing the pheasants. Having the entire village in on the scheme, doesn't really make it proper. But Dahl doesn't confront or challenge this dilemma at all which I found very curious and the one thing that would stop me recommending this book whole-heartedly.

Perhaps, though, it could become a good discussion about what to do when the adults in your life are doing something illegal? Or about the shades of grey that exist within some laws and some traditions? Or it could even be the opportunity to tackle the big question of class inequality - why some people are poor and don't have enough to eat well while others wilfully waste the abundance that they do have?

Even Dahl's final message to the reader is loaded with ambiguity and class tension.

As a child I would have found this message quite confronting because I knew from a very young age that your didn't always get what you deserved, let alone what you wanted.

A Message 
to Children Who Have Read This Book 

When you grow up 
and have children of your own
do please remember
something important

a stodgy parent is no fun at all

What a child wants
and deserves
is a parent who is 


Danny is part of my 1001 Children's Books to Read Before I Die challenge.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Top Ten Tuesday! BOO!

The Broke and the Bookish host a weekly meme called Top Ten Tuesday.

This week, in honour of the Northern Hemisphere's Halloween festival, TTT is all about the fright!

My Top Ten Scariest, Creepiest Reads

10. Four Past Midnight by Stephen King

9. The Gunslinger by Stephen King

8. The Stand by Stephen King

7. Misery by Stephen King

(are you beginning to notice a pattern..?)

6. The Shining by Stephen King

5. Salem's Lot by Stephen King

4. Cujo by Stephen King

 3. Carrie by Stephen King

2. It by Stephen King

1. Pet Sematary by Stephen King

My Top Ten Scariest Movies or TV Shows

10. An American Werewolf in London (1981)

9. Amityville Horror I & II (1979 & 1982)

8. The Birds (1963)

7. The Shining (1980)

6. Carrie (1976)

5. Misery (1990)

4. The Omen I & II (1976 & 1978)

3. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

2. Se7en (1995)

1. The Walking Dead (2010-2016)

Which books and movies give you a fright?

Monday, 24 October 2016

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

I am proud to say that I managed to read half of this year's Booker shortlist before the winner was announced.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing was an epic multi-generational family saga, His Bloody Project was a psychological historical fiction crime story, but Hot Milk was...?

Two days later, I'm still not sure what it was.

Hot Milk was definitely the one that came from somewhere completely different though.

I nearly gave up on it at one point, but there was something about the sandy, salty, grungy coastal area of Spain that Levy described and something about the passive-aggressive mother/daughter relationship that kept drawing me back in.

There was a hint of disquiet - who was watching who and who was studying who? A suggestion of danger or dread hung in the air. Careless actions and hypochondria dripped off every page.

I read some reviews that used the word 'dreamy' to describe the pace of this book as well as the narrator's view of the world, but I found it murkier than that. Fear and pain kept this story going. And hidden selves.

The numerous references to breast feeding and maternal nurturing gave us clues to understanding the title. Mythology and story telling also cropped up as themes. The constant reference to medusa's and their stings, suggested that Levy was playing around with whole worlds of symbolism - a mask, unresolved father issues, female rage, nihilism?

There was probably more going on behind this simple story than first met the eye, but it's wasn't easy to discover. It seemed light weight, but it wasn't.

It's after affects are lingering far longer than a simple story about a mother/daughter holiday in Spain has any right to. Levy carefully kept us off balance all the way through and the climax was worth waiting for. Sort of.

But still I have some doubts...I'm willing to accept that there are layers to be mined, but what's the point?

Have you read any Levy before?
Is this meandering, figurative style how she usually approaches her story-telling?

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Dewey's 24hr Readathon

I believe that this is now my 6th or 7th Dewey's 24 hr Readathon.

I love them to pieces.

A whole day devoted to reading as little or as much as you can, with a whole bunch of people all around the world who love reading as much as you do. It doesn't get much better!

Life stuff usually gets in my way of devoting an entire 24hrs to reading, but I do as much as I can.

As per usual I have several half read books cluttering up my bedside table that I would really like to finish & I'm going to use this as my incentive to do it.

I'm also hoping to jump start AusReading month in November by starting a couple of Australian books early.

In an attempt to keep things simple, I will use this post for updates.

I will check into twitter, instagram and litsy (@Brona's Books) as I can.

In fact, I will try to emulate the remarkably organised, and first time readathoner, Nancy @ipsofactodotme by having a 15 minute social media blitz each hour before returning to the books. (I cannot turn off the wi-fi in our house as the teenage booklet would totally freak out!)

Cirtnecce @Mockingbirds, Looking Glasses and Prejudices is also joining us for the first time after she spotted my readathon twitter flurry late last night. Please help to make her feel welcome.

Thanks to twitter I have pulled together a #TeamOz.

In previous years it has got very quiet on social media during the Australian Sunday afternoon period as those on the other side of the world grab a snooze. I thought it would be good for us folk Down Under to know who we all are, so we can cheer each other on.

Any New Zealand readathoner's who'd like to be included please let me know & I will add you to our small (but growing every year) group.

Elizabeth @Earl Grey Editing is hosting a mini challenge for this year's readathon in hour 17. If you only do one mini-challenge this readathon, make it the Aussie one!

Here's the rest of #TeamOz so far - Rebecca, LyssEditor, Elanor, Heather, Gabby, Charlie, Jade, Dimitra, Nikks & hopefully Louise.

(If your page/account was private I haven't included you, but if you'd like to be added, please let me know below with your preferred url).

New Zealand blogger Maree has now also joined our ranks. Perhaps we should be #TeamANZ ?

Starting Meme

Where Are You Reading?

I'm in Sydney, Australia.
My start time is 11pm on Saturday the 22nd October.
Therefore most of my readathon actually occurs on Sunday the 23rd October.

What Do You Hope To Read?

This is my current half-read bedside pile.
I know I wont finish some of the non-fiction chunksters, but I'd like to make some decent headway on them.
Finishing Hot Milk is the one priority before next week's Booker Prize announcement.

Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
Children's fiction, 214 pgs (I will be reading from pg 35)

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
Fiction, 218 pgs (I will be reading from pg 82)

Eden's Outcasts by John Matteson
Biography, 428 pgs (I will be reading from pg 260)

Edith Wharton by Hermoine Lee
Biography, 756 pgs (I will be reading from pf 158)
I have been reading this book for over two years.
The print is sooooooo tiny, I can only read a little at a time before my eyes start leaking!

The Boy Behind the Curtain by Tim Winton
Memoir/Short Stories, 296 pgs (I will be reading from pg 55)

The Middlepause by Marina Benjamin
Memoir, 205 pgs (I will be reading from pg 189)
I thought this book would be more scientific, with practical advice, but it's not.
I've struggled to finish it.

Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das
Mind, Body, Spirit, 395 pgs (I will be reading from pg 82)

If This is a Woman by Sarah Helm
Non-Fiction, Holocaust, 658 pgs (I will be reading from 179)

This is the easier to read, maybe I will/maybe I wont pile of possibilities.

The rest of the questions have been answered above.

What are your plans?


Hour Zero

Ooops! Some premature reading occurred.
After checking out twitter and the opening meme, I accidentally picked up one of my books and accidentally started reading.

16 pgs of The Middlepause (book finished)

Now it's time to make a cup of tea, get into my pyjama's and count down to...

Hour One - 11pm Saturday 22nd October

30 pgs of Hot Milk
"the way imagination and reality tumble together and mess things up."

Hour Two - Midnight Sunday 23rd October

24 pgs of Eden's Outcasts

Mr Books is a pretty avid reader too.
Tonight we had a mini-read in before bed.
He knocked over a chapter or two in his sci-fi chunkster, The Fireman by Sam Hill.

My #sixwordstoryRAT mini-challenge
'Where roses bloom and pumpkins squat.'

Hours Three to Nine

Good Night #TeamOz

Hour Ten - 8am Sunday 23rd October

Good morning from Sydney.
What's been happening while I slept?

Time for breakfast and a chapter of Hot Milk before the next hour rolls on by.

7pgs of Hot Milk

Buddha's tears tea

Hour Eleven - 9am Sunday 23rd October

18 pgs of Hot Milk
"I have more of an ear for the language of symptoms and side effects, because that is  mu mother's language. Perhaps it is my mother tongue."

Hour Twelve - 10am

27 pgs of Hot Milk
"We were looking at each other with our various points of view."

Skim flat white at my favourite cafe

Hour Thirteen - 11am

My brain was feeling fuzzy so I decided to take my book for a walk and a coffee.

17 pgs of Hot Milk

Hour Fourteen - midday

34 pgs of Hot Milk
Book finished!

Hour Fifteen - 1pm

The sun has come out.
I'm now sitting on our back porch, watching Mr Books clean the BBQ, after its winter hiatus.
B16 is studying for exams & I'm thinking that it could be snack time.

29 pgs of Danny the Champion of the World

Hour Sixteen - 2pm

Snacks - banana, chocolate & Buddha's tears tea.
A quiet house now that Mr Books and B16 have gone to soccer trials.
The hard part will be to NOT snooze!
Snooze for too long, that is!

29 pgs of Danny the Champion of the World
1pg of Marie Claire's, Kitchen.

Guess what we're having with the BBQ skewers tonight?

Hour Seventeen - 3pm

31 pgs of Danny the Champion of the World

Unhealthy afternoon snack to boost my energy levels!
Shhhh don't tell Mr Books or B16!

Hour Eighteen - 4pm

Oops! Fell asleep whilst reading on the bed!

Hour Nineteen - 5pm

42 pg of Danny the Champion of the World

Hour Twenty - 6pm

Some dinner preparation & a beer slowed me down a little this hour.

49 pgs of Danny the Champion of the World
Book finished!

Pear, fennel & rocket salad (tomato & rocket salad for B16)

Hour Twenty-One - 7pm

13 pgs of I Know My Love 

I read this book several times as a teenager.

Last time I visited my parents, I spotted it on their bookshelf. In a fit of nostalgia I decided to reread it for AusReading Month in Nov to see if it was as wonderful as I remembered.
My brain is starting to feel rather book befuddled, so I decided this might be a good, easy option to see out the end of the Readathon.

Hour Twenty-Two - 8pm

13 pgs of I Know My Love

Hour Twenty-Three - 9pm

Time for a bubble bath to get me through the final stages...

28 pgs of I Know My Love

Hour Twenty-Four - 10pm

8 pgs of I Know My Love

Thanks for a great readathon one and all, with a HUGE thanks to our extraordinary hosts for bringing us all together again. A BIG thank you also to all of #TeamOz for making this such a fun day.
Hope to see you all again in April.

Total pages read: 416
Total books finished: 3
Total hours asleep: 8
Walk: 1
Bubble bath: 1

Friday, 21 October 2016

Nelly Sachs - Poet & Nobel Laureate

Nelly Sachs was born on the 10th December 1891 in Schoneberg, an affluent area of Berlin, to a wealthy Jewish German family.
She grew up in a very protective family.
Mental health issues affected her throughout her life in the form of hallucinations, paranoia, mutism and various other breakdowns.
She spent a number of years in mental institutions, but always found a way to continue to write.

Nelly 1910

As a young girl she became fascinated with the works of the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, Selma Lagerlof and began a correspondence with her.

Sachs also became good friends with Hilde Domin (Palm), a German poet who emigrated to Italy in 1932 with her husband, then finally, to the Dominican Republic in 1940, to avoid the 'Nazi menace'.

Sachs fled Nazi Germany with the help of Lagerlof, on the last flight to Sweden in 1940.
She took her aged mother with her, but sadly, both her mother and Lagerlof died soon after.
Nelly became a Swedish citizen in 1952.

Her poetry is described as being lyrical and mystical.
Her early work was influenced by German Romanticism, Christian imagery and an early, unhappy relationship with a non-Jewish man.

He was later killed in a concentration camp.
When Sach's learnt of his death, her poetry evolved in a way that

"bound up his fate with that of her people and wrote many love lyrics ending not only in the beloved's death, but in the catastrophe of the Holocaust. Sachs herself mourns no longer as a jilted lover but as a personification of the Jewish people in their vexed relationship to history and God.

Sachs' fusion of grief with subtly romantic elements...allowed her to develop 
self-consciously from a German to a Jewish writer, with a corresponding change in her language: still flowery and conventional in some of her first poetry on the Holocaust, it becomes ever more compressed and surreal."

She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966 along with Shmuel Yosef Agnon.

The Academy stated that

The Nobel Prize in Literature 1966 was divided equally between Shmuel Yosef Agnon 
"for his profoundly characteristic narrative art with motifs from the life of the Jewish people" and Nelly Sachs "for her outstanding lyrical and dramatic writing, which interprets Israel's destiny with touching strength".

Sachs observed that Agnon represented Israel whereas "I represent the tragedy of the Jewish people".'

Her later poetry explored an eclectic religious transcendentalism.
Sin, vulnerability, suffering, redemption, rebirth, grace and peace were some of her recurring themes.
Her poems regularly referenced earlier pieces (metafiction again!) which caused some commentators to say that she only ever wrote one poem, with numerous components.

I certainly struggle to understand all the layers of imagery in the few poems I've read so far.
Perhaps Sachs needs to be read in her entirety, in chronological order?

 Sachs died of cancer on the 12th May 1970 in Sweden.

You've Lost Your Name

You’ve lost your name
but the world rushes up
and offers you a grand choice
You shake your head
yet your beloved
once found you the needle in the haystack
Hark: he’s calling you now

Translation Catherine @Beauty for Ashes

Whoever Comes from the Earth

comes from the Earth
reaching for the moon
other heavenly mineral flower –
will soar high
wounded by blasts
of memory
shot from the explosive burst of yearning
out of Earth’s painted night
his winged prayers arise
out of daily destructions
seeking the inner pathways of the eyes. Craters and arid seas
filled with tears
travelling through starry stations
escaping from dust and ashes. Everywhere the Earth
is building its colonies of homesickness.
Not to land
on the oceans of addicted blood
only to sway
in the luminous music of ebb and flood
only to sway
to the rhythm of the unscathed
mark of eternity:
life – death –

Translation by Catherine @Beauty for Ashes

O The Chimneys

Job 19:26
“And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God"

O the chimneys
on the carefully planned dwellings of death
When Israel’s body rose dissolved in smoke
through the air –
To be welcomed by a chimney sweep star
Turned black
Or was it a ray of the sun?

O the chimneys!
Paths of freedom for the dust of Jeremiah and Job –
Who dreamed you up and built stone upon stone
The path of smoke for their flight?
O dwellings of death
Set out so enticingly
For the host of the house, who used to be the guest – 

 O you fingers
Laying the stone of the threshold
Like a knife between life and death –
O you chimneys
O you fingers
And Israel’s body dissolves in smoke through the air!

Nelly Sachs by Helga Tiemann, 1968


where children die
the quietest things become homeless.
Sunsets wrapped in a mantle of pain
where the dark soul of the blackbird
laments the approach of the night –
soft winds wafting
over trembling grasses
dousing the ruins of light
and sowing death – 

where children die
the firefaces of the night
burn up in their lonely secret –
and who knows of the signposts
death sends out:
scent of the tree of life,
cockcrow shortening the day
magic clock bewitched into the nurseries
by the grey horror of autumn –
waters rippling on the shores of dark
the rushing, tugging sleep of time – 

where children die
the mirrors of their doll’s houses
are hung with a breath,
seeing no more the dance of the
finger puppets
dressed in satin of children’s blood;
a dance that stands still
like a far-off moonworld
in a telescope 

where children die
stone and star
and so many dreams become homeless.

Translation by Catherine @Beauty for Ashes

Bewitched indeed!
Bewildered as well.

Poetry appreciation doesn't come naturally to me.
It's a learned process.

I feel like she's writing way above my level to understand.
I feel her poems rather then understand them.

The Nobel Prize states

The fate of the Jewish people casts a dark shadow over the 20th century. It is also the basis for Nelly Sachs' literary works. She borrows subjects for her poetry from the Jewish beliefs and mysticism, but her authorship is also strongly coloured by Nazi persecution of the Jews, with the horrors of the death camps as its ultimate expression. Nelly Sachs' poetry combines echoes from the poetry of ancient religious texts with modernist language.

The Nelly Sachs website has a number of her poems in German and English which I used as a starting point. 

I also found a wonderful blog hosted by Catherine @Beauty for Ashes.
She is gradually translating Sach's poems into English and welcomes commentary and discussion about interpretation. 
Catherine kindly gave me permission to use four of her translations above.
Please take the time to visit her page (she has the original poem plus her translation on each post). 
It is truly an extraordinary thing she is doing to bring Sach's work to a wider audience.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

His Bloody Project has been shortlisted for this year's Booker Prize. It was a surprise inclusion to my mind. Historical crime fiction?

But, as it turned out, I loved it.

It's a psychological thriller as opposed to a detective story. The crime - victims and perpetrator - are presented straight up. The unfolding story reveals the how and why of the crime. It's a page-turner - easy to read and thoroughly entertaining.

However it's not a reread.

For me a book is reread if it touches a deep emotional chord that needs more exploring and prodding or if it contains layers of meaning that will take several reads to unpack.

His Bloody Project doesn't fit either of these reread categories for me.

Burnet has set this book up as true story. A part of his own family history that he unearthed during some genealogical research.

He plays around with this idea right from the start with the title page - His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrea: A NOVEL, edited and introduced by Graeme Macrae Burnet.

The tension between what's real and what's not continues throughout the reading of Macrae's journal, the medical reports (citing real doctors) and the trial proceedings. Metafiction at it's best!

I normally only read cosy crime, so I thought this story might be outside my comfort zone. But His Bloody Project is really a delicious piece of creative writing decidedly sitting inside the historical fiction genre. Burnet delves into the mind of someone charged with a heinous crime. It's a psychological study about sanity, reason and motivation, set in the Scottish Highlands.

I'm glad this book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize otherwise I would never have read it. The bloody fingerprints on the cover would have been enough to put me off for good!

Maybe the Booker shouldn't have to be about shortlisting the well-known, much loved authors who consistently write interesting books that we will all read regardless. Maybe book prizes, like the Booker can be about bringing to light some unknown, newer writers who deserve a much wider audience.

I've just realised this is the issue that has been bugging me around Bob Dylan winning the the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Nobel Prize is designed to go to
an author from any country who has, in the words of the will of Alfred Nobel, 'produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction'. (wikipedia)
I have no problems with another American winning the prize, or a poet/songsmith instead of an author. I can even accept that another privileged white guy wins again - that's the world we live in after all!

But one of the reasons I've enjoyed reading the Nobels over the years (very spasmodically I confess) is the insight into other cultures, the chance to discover new authors that I would never have come across otherwise and for lesser known, but important and culturally significant writers to become more widely known and appreciated.

That kind of diversity is a very good thing any way you look at it.

Bob Dylan is already well known, well regarded and well awarded for his cultural and creative efforts. He will not be forgotten by history.

It feels like this was the easy choice, a nostalgic choice and I will always be left wondering who missed out.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Brona's Salon

Brona's Salon is a new meme which aims to gather a group of like-minded bookish people 'under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation.'

I will provide a few prompts to inspire our conversation.
However please feel free to discuss your current read or join in the conversation in any way that you see fit.
Amusement, refinement and knowledge will surely follow!

What are you currently reading?

I'm currently reading His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. 

How did you find out about this book?

The Shadow (wo)man Booker group read and reviewed this book.
It was one that was generally enjoyed, with some reservations about it being worthy enough for a literary award. 

Why are you reading it now? 

I'm trying to read half the Booker shortlist before the big announcement next week. 

First impressions? 

Entertaining historical fiction with a metafiction touch - is this a memoir or not? 
What is real? What is fiction?
Is there such a thing as fictional true crime?

Metafiction seems to be a literary device that lots of writers are playing with right now.

I'm thinking of Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien with her book within the book, Elena Ferrante's ambiguous 'is it memoir is it real' Neapolitan tetraology, Michelle de Kretser's Springtime: A Ghost Story with its discussion mid-story about the nature of ghost stories, Kent Haruf's use of the same fictional town in all his stories and the referencing of his previous books in Our Souls At Night and Alain de Botton's use of footnotes to address issues brought up in his narrative in The Course of Love.

And that's just some of the books I've read this year that can be classified as metafiction!

Wikipedia describes metafiction as -

A story about a writer who creates a story.
A story that features itself as a narrative or as a physical object.
A story containing another work of fiction within itself.
Narrative footnotes which continue the story while commenting on it.
A story that reframes or suggests a radically different reading of another story.
A story addressing the specific conventions of story, such as title, character conventions, paragraphing or plots.
A novel where the narrator intentionally exposes him or herself as the author of the story.
A story in which the authors refers to elements of the story as both fact and fiction.
A book in which the book itself seeks interaction with the reader.
 A story in which the readers of the story itself force the author to change the story.
A story in which the characters are aware that they are in a story.
A story in which the characters make reference to the author or his previous work.

Have you read any metafiction books recently?

Which character do you relate to so far?

I'm not sure if relate is the right word, but I certainly feel empathy for Roddy's sister Jetta.
She has no rights, no protection but all the care and responsibility of looking after her family.

Are you happy to continue?

So far.
I can see Burnet building a case whereby the bullying, mean, officious Mackenzie Broad family got what they deserved (by being murdered), but it seems too neat and too obvious.
Is Roddy a reliable narrator?
The Macrae stoicism and acceptance of fate as being their lot in life feels a trifle overdone.
I'm enjoying the details of Scottish croft life - as bleak and as hard as it was.

Despite the topic, this is a fun psychological thriller read, but I can feel a bit of a drag creeping in.
I hope Burnet doesn't get bogged down or lose his way.

Where do you think the story will go? 

We know that Roddy killed the Mackenzie Broad's from the start. 
He didn't hide or deny what happened.
But is he covering for someone - his father? his sister?

I can see that his advocate is leaning towards an insanity plea - is this a ploy? Or a real concern about Roddy's mental state.
His journal currently presents a logical, thoughtful, intelligent man.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Springtime: A Ghost Story by Michelle de Kretser

This slim, stylish short story has got under my skin.

I wasn't really expecting it to - before, during or immediately after reading it. But somehow, two days later, Springtime has subtly tiptoed into my imagination and opened up a whole host of possibilities.

The power of de Krestser's story is in her descriptions and in the very looseness of form that she plays with.

The images are vivid and the form is ripe for individual interpretation.

At a dinner party, halfway through the book, our protagonist, Frances, and the host, Joseph, discuss the nature of ghost stories with the other guests.

The ghost story discussion goes like this,
'Do you know this idea that electricity put an end to ghost stories? People stopped seeing ghosts when rooms were properly lit.'
George Meshaw said he didn't think it was the change of lighting. 'The way stories were written changed around that time. Ghost stories work up to a shock, but the modern form of the short story is different. When a loose, open kind of story came in, writing about ghosts went out.'
We know what to expect.

De Kretser tells us on the front cover that this is going to be a ghost story. Therefore when Frances sees a shadowy figure in a pink dress, that no-one else can see, whilst Frances is out walking along the Cooks River in Marrickville, with her rather nervous dog, we're not surprised.

The surprise comes from the lush, steamy, wet weather of a Sydney summer through the eyes of a Melbournite. The disquiet comes from Frances' relationship with her new partner - an older, recently divorced man. The anxiety creeps in as we learn about her childhood dreams and meet the knowing young son of her partner. Who is haunting who?

And what form does the haunting take?

Is Frances haunted by unmet ambitions and desires? Troubled by cold hard reality? Preyed upon by other peoples histories and memories? Consumed by strange smells, colours and textures? Swamped by the consequences of her unwise choices?

What is very clear is that Frances is not comfortable in her skin or in her new life. She doesn't belong.

Springtime is only a short story, but de Kretser has actually packed a lot in, when you take the time to unpack it.

My lovely gift hardback edition has several coloured plates from artist Torkil Gudnason. His elegant floral designs also grace the covers.

This book is my one and only feeble attempt to join in R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril this year.

Peril of the Short Story allows me to fit in one quick, easy scary book and still feel like I've participated in something fun! You have until the 31st October, if you'd like to join in too.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander Von Humboldt The Lost Hero of Science has been on my radar ever since it first came out in 2015.

But it was our forthcoming trip to Cuba that brought it front and centre. There is a national park near Baracoa, in eastern Cuba that is named after Humboldt that we hope to visit. I wanted to know what on earth Humboldt was doing in Cuba.

It turned out that Humboldt was an extraordinary scientific adventurer who had a profound and lasting effect on the way we view the world, nature and the place of humans to this day.

In her prologue, Wulf mentioned that
the irony is that Humboldt's views have become so self-evident that we have largely forgotten the man behind them.

Her book set out to reveal the forgotten man, follow the web of his influence as well as remind us of all that he achieved during his lifetime.

The chapters that detailed his influence on men like Simon Bolivar, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, Ernst Haeckle, George Perkins Marsh and John Muir felt like an intrusion at first.
I didn't feel that we needed these bio's within a bio, but as each one wore on, I found myself caught up in what these men also achieved and how far-reaching Humboldt's influence actually was.

Below are some of the basic facts about Humboldt's life, with a few of his observations and theories that I gleaned from this very accessible, easy to read and enjoyable homage.
  • Born in the same year as Napoleon
  • Older brother, Wilhelm
  • Father died when he was nine.
  • 'formal, cold and emotionally distant' mother (pg 13)
  • privileged but unhappy childhood.

  • invented isotherms.
  • 'He came up with the idea of vegetation and climate zones that snake across the globe'. (pg5)
  • more place names are named after him than anyone else.
  • in 1869, huge world wide public celebrations occurred in honour of his centenary birthday.
  • First job was as a mining inspector. He became interested in the working conditions of the miners and invented a breathing mask and a lamp that would work in the 'deepest oxygen-poor shafts'. (pg 21)
  • 'Comparison became Humboldt's primary means of understanding nature.' (pg 32)
  • Good friends with Goethe - 'That something of Humboldt was in Goethe's Faust - or something of Faust in Humboldt - was obvious to many.' (pg 37)

  • June 1799 sailed to South America on board Pizarro, a Spanish frigate, with Aime Bonpland, a French scientist as his companion.
  • Slave market at Cumana made 'Humboldt a life-long abolitionist'. (pg 53)
  • Nov 1799 experienced first earthquake.
  • (pg 54) 'memories and emotional responses...would always form a part of man's experience and understanding of nature.'
  • 7th Feb 1800 set off to explore the Orinoco.
  • Travelled via Lake Valencia where locals told him that the lake was rapidly disappearing 'he concluded that the clearing of the surrounding forests, as well as the diversion of water for irrigation, had caused the falling water level.' (pg 57) 
  • 'The action of humankind across the globe, he warned, could affect future generations.' (pg 58)
  • 'Humboldt did not regard the indigenous people as barbaric....In fact, he talked about the 'barbarism of civilised man' when he saw how the local people were treated by colonists and missionaries.' (pg 71)

  • Dec 1800 arrived in Havana, Cuba.
  • March 1801 sailed to Cartagena. Planned to 'cross, climb and investigate the Andes' as they trekked towards Lima.
  • Climbed Chimborazo, then thought to be the highest mountain in the world.
  • 'He saw the earth as one great living organism where everything was connected, conceiving a bold new vision of nature that still influences the way that we understand the natural world.' (pg2)
  • Produced his first sketch of the Naturgemalde - a visual representation of the different zones of plants in relation to climate, location, altitude.
  • discovered the magnetic equator.

  • Spent 1803 in Mexico.
  • March 1804 sailed to the US via Cuba.
  • 'Monoculture and cash crops did not create a happy society'.  'All problems in the colonies, he was certain, were the result of the 'imprudent activities of the Europeans.' (pg 150)

  • August 1804 arrived back in Paris.
  • April 1805 Rome.
  • November 1805 Berlin.
  • Wrote the Essays on the Geography of Plants - first ecology book - discussed global patterns, continental shift.
  • Published Views of Nature - 'poetic vignettes' about the web of life (pg 132)
  • Nov 1807 returned to Paris.
  • Published his four volume Political Essays on the Kingdom of New Spain between 1808-1811.

  • 1829 travelled to Russia and the Siberian steppes, 'following the border that separated Russia from China' (pg 210).
  • Created the 'Magnetic Crusade' to measure magnetic variations across the globe. In three years his magnetic stations collected nearly two million observations.

  • In 1834 he started work on Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe (published in 1845).
  • 'As science moved away from nature into laboratories and universities, separating itself off into distinct disciplines, Humboldt created a work that brought together all that professional science was trying to keep apart.' (pg 235)
  • Second volume published in 1847. 
  • Third in 1850.
  • 'Humboldt had become the most famous scientist of his age, not just in Europe but across the world.' (pg 273)

  • Fourth volume of Cosmos published in 1856.
  • Fifth in 1859.
  • Two days after he sent the manuscript to the publishers, he collapsed. He died two weeks later at age 89.

  • Humboldt's ideas 'seeped into the poems of Walt Whitman and the novels of Jules Verne.' (pg 282) 
  • Also Aldous Huxley, Ezra Pound, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the paintings of Frederic Edwin Church.

Humboldt was friends with, sponsored or mentored almost every well-known scientist that was alive during his lifetime. He was courted by presidents, royal families and artists. He wrote thousands of letter every year and read thousands more.

Wulf's biography has been thoughtfully arranged, with a few gorgeous coloured plates, extensive notes (at the back of the book where they don't clutter up the narrative) and an inspiring bibliography.

One of Humboldt's strengths was his ability to make science and the wonder of nature accessible to everyone. Wulf has replicated this strength in her award winning biography.

Along with 'Humboldt's disciples, and their disciples in turn, (Wulf has) carried his legacy forward.' (pg 336)

Winner of the 2015 Costa Biography award and Winner of the 2016 Royal Society Science Book Prize.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Top Ten Tuesday

The Broke and the Bookish host a weekly meme called Top Ten Tuesday.

This week is all about recommendations. 

So many of my books appear on my TBR pile thanks to a recommendation from family, friends, reps, or customers. Book reviews, podcasts, writers festival events, interviews on the TV and radio also play a part. 

The hard part is remembering where each recommendation came from!
I'll do my best.

Top Ten Books I've Read (or Acquired) Because Of Another Blogger (Or Bookish Person)

My good friend @girlbooker has been responsible for several of my favourite recommended reads over the years. I thoroughly enjoyed them all, especially The Children's Book, which will be reread one day.

1. When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman
2. The Children's Book by A S Byatt
3. The Secret History by Donna Tartt  (review here for all three)

4.Germinal by Emile Zola thanks to Fanda @Classiclit.
A thank you and shout-out is not really enough recognition to Fanda for getting me started on the whole Zola thing.
Between Fanda and O @Behold the Stars's enthusiasm for all things Zola I now have years worth of incredible reading experiences ahead of me.

5. The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty thanks to Melissa @Avid Readers Musings
Melissa's rave review made me pick up Big Little Lies one rainy weekend. I was hooked.

6. Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan thanks to Nancy @Ipsofactdotme. This is one is still sitting on the TBR pile tempting me each time I finish a book.

7. Thomas @My Porch gave me Excellent Women by Barbara Pym during Pym Reading Week a couple of years ago.

8. It by Stephen King thanks to a young Mr Books. Nearly 30 years later and we still both love Stephen King (although I'm a bit pickier about which ones I will read).

9. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte thanks to my mum.

10. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen thanks to Mr Geerlings, my Yr 12 English teacher - I am forever in your debt.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

For four days I've been trying to write a review that would do this rich, engrossing, mosaic of a book due justice.

It wasn't so much writer's block as writer's muddle.

There was soooo much to say! I couldn't even decide which lens or which perspective to choose?

Because I was enjoying Do Not Say We Have Nothing so much, I began researching stuff before I had finished reading.

I looked up the classical pieces of music conducted by Glenn Gould* that Thien mentioned throughout the book (Bach's Goldberg Variations and Sonata for Piano & Violin no 4) and listened to them as I read the book.

I researched the politicians and artists who were real people. He Luting (1903 - 1999) was a real composer and he really did say 'shame on you for lying' when hauled before a televised interrogation during the Cultural Revolution.

I researched the L'Internationale** to find out the various interpretations of the phrase that Thien used in her title.

I simply couldn't get enough of this book - I wanted to know more, delve deeper. I wanted to totally immerse myself in the reading experience.

On the surface, this is a story about a Chinese composer called Sparrow and the things that happened to him and around him during his lifetime. A lifetime that encompassed the extraordinary events from the Chinese Revolution to Tiananmen Square.

However, Thien weaves in many threads and motifs, until we have a story within a story, across three generations and two continents. She plays with recurring themes, copies of copies and the cyclical nature of history.

Music is a big part of the story and I found her descriptions of the creative process and the interpretation of music mesmerising.

Equally mesmerising, but in a horrifying way, was the astounding use of double-speak by politicians and revolutionaries during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in China.

Thien showed some of the effects of 'self-criticism', 'struggle sessions' and 'denunciations' on the creative mind as they learnt to silence their talents and learnt to live without their language.

One of the major themes developed throughout the story was the life of homosexuals in China*** during the Mao years. Sparrow and Jiang Kai obviously had an intense loving relationship that could not be realised openly. One had to become a hard-line revolutionary, destroying art and lives, while trying to protect his friend from within, who eventually fled the country. While the other stayed, gave up his career as a composer, married and worked in a radio factory of the governments choosing.

Later on, Sparrow's daughter, Ai Ming, also developed very strong feelings for her female neighbour during the heightened times surrounding Tiananmen Square.

Thien intertwined mathematics, etymology, translation, calligraphy, memory, disappearance, loss, free-will, and the nature of time seamlessly. There were moments of humour and moments of pathos.

I have read some reviews that felt Do Not Say We Have Nothing was too wordy. Not for me. I loved every single moment and thoroughly enjoyed the multi-layered, enchanting nature of Thien's loquaciousness.
However this book will not be for everyone.
Hopefully this review will help you decide whether it's for you or not.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a keeper for me. I plan to reread this one day and I will be devastated if this book doesn't win one of the book awards that it is currently shortlisted for (Booker and Giller Prizes as well as the Canadian Governor General's Literary Award).

Below are some of the results of my research (thank you wikipedia):

  • The Chinese Soviet Republic (1931-1937) adopted a 19th century French socialist worker's song called L'Internationale** as their anthem. There was a line in the original (Nous ne sommes rien, soyons tout) that according to Wikipedia could be translated as 'we are nothing, let us be all'.
  • Qu Qiubai translated a version of this song from Russian into Chinese in 1923 which changed this line to mean 'Do not say that we have nothing.'
  • To my mind, the Chinese version has a sense of martyrdom inherent in its phrasing. They are being watched and judged by others who say they have nothing. Whereas the English translation seems to resound with solidarity and a proactive intent.
  • The anthem later became a rallying cry for the students during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
  • Glenn Gould* (25 September 1932 – 4 October 1982) was a Canadian pianist. He became famous for his interpretations of Bach's music. His methods of recording, splicing, mixing and editing his performances in the studio caused controversy at the time. Critics questioned the authenticity of his work and made claims of imitation. More delicious multiplicity on Thien's behalf.
  • Historically China, was tolerant of sexual experimentation and same-sex couples. However in 1949***, homosexuality was declared to be a sign of Western bourgeois decadence and vice by the Communist Party. 
  • Treatment of homosexuals during the Cultural Revolution was harsh, many were humiliated in public and some were executed. They were forced into heterosexual marriages and all LGBTQ art and culture was destroyed. However, all sexual activity and discussion was considered lustful and decadent during this time. Personal choice was not important. Affairs, sexual freedom and even sex education in schools were all considered enemies of class. Neutral gender clothing was promoted and monogamy expected.
  • Some of the books read by the characters during the story - David Copperfield by Charles Dickens and Notes From the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Friedrich Schiller's On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Kang Youwei's Book of the Great Community and Border Town by Shen Congwen.
  • Thien was born in Vancouver. Her mother was born in Hongkong and her father was born in an ethnic Chinese area of Malaysia. They met whilst studying in Australia. The immigrated to Canada in 1974 just before Thien was born.