Monday, 19 August 2019

Moby-Dick Check in Post #2

Since last we spoke, I've been reading up on Herman to gain more insights into his history, motivations, character and intentions.

I've been feeling quite confused about him actually. I felt that I was getting mixed messages. Or that I had missed the memo that explained everything.

Philbrick in Why Read Moby-Dick? had prepared me for Melville's anti-slavery stance - 'a lie festered at the ideological core of the then-thirty states of America' - and for his first hand experience with the 'democratic diversity' of working life on board a whaling ship. But for some reason I came away from this book thinking that Melville was a devout, religious man - with his biblical stories, analogies and 'divine equality'. Philbrick again, tells us that he was deeply concerned about death and what came next - 'is there a heaven?'

However his story is far more complex than that. And I will probably spend the next 7 months trying to unravel it! After only nine chapters I heard Melville sermonise on Jonah with all that old testament doom and gloom about original sin, guilt and punishment but then there was also moments, via Ishmael, where he was deeply questioning of the (political and religious) status quo as well as the strict beliefs that informed his Calvinistic upbringing. What was going on here?

It was only as I reread parts of Philbrick today, that I discovered a small line that I had missed first time, 'as the agnostic writing outside his own uncertain beliefs, Melville is describing the fantasy he desperately needed but could never quite convince himself existed.'


Now that explains a lot.

His agnosticism now explains to me that amazingly astute, acerbic line in The Spouter-Inn chapter:
The man's a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.

Strange bedfellows indeed (Shakespearean pun intended!)
But it does make me wonder who Melville was thinking of - did he have a particular drunk Christian in mind or was it more of a general philosophical statement? Or was he simply saying that he would rather be with a sober/rational 'other' than with one of those Christians who fail to practice what they preach?

Anyway, below is what I've unearthed (of interest to me) so far.
  • (wikipedia) Melville was 'the descendant of Revolutionary War heroes on both sides, Melville was born in 1819 to a status and prosperity that abruptly vanished when his father failed in business. Allan Melville died insane, leaving his wife to raise eight children on the scant funds wealthy relatives would spare.'
  • Young Herman contracted scarlet fever in the mid 1820's which caused lifelong vision issues.
  • His parents were members of the Dutch Reformed Church - a Calvinist theology.
  • His father's business failed during the 1830's depression, after which he grew ill, possibly with some form of 'nervous delirium' and died in 1832.
  • Herman was taken out of school to start work - first as a banking clerk, then as a teacher (obviously teacher qualifications were different back in the 1830's).
  • In 1839 he studies surveying and engineering before sailing as crew on the St Lawrence from new York to Liverpool and back.
  • 3rd Jan 1841 Melville sailed out of New Bedford on board the whaling ship Acushnet. After 15 months, he and a friend, Richard Tobias Greene, deserted during a stopover on Nukahiva, one of the Marquesas Island in Polynesia. 'Melville was impressed with their sophistication and peacefulness; most Europeans believed that Polynesians were cannibals. He also found reason to criticise European attempts to "civilize" the islanders by converting them to Christianity.' ** 
  • A few weeks later they joined the Australian whaling ship, the Lucy Ann. The crew mutinied and Melville spent a brief period of time in a Polynesian gaol (probably on Tahiti) before escaping with a friend, John B. Troy. 
  • He signed onto another whaling ship, the Charles and Henry. Glutton for punishment, I hear you say, except that this time he enjoyed 'three months of leisure quite different from his previous journeys. Once they arrived at Hawaii Melville was honorably discharged and worked in a bowling alley and in a store (Bradbury 171).' ***
  • During his time in Hawaii, Melville became a vocal opponent against the Christian missionaries trying to convert the local native population.
  • (wikipedia) Melville had an 'obsession for the limits of knowledge that led to the question of God's existence and nature, the indifference of the universe, and the problem of evil.'
  • On 17th August 17 1843 Melville enlisted in the Navy on board the frigate United States. Kirby (1993) noted that “Even though Melville had seen a fair amount of human unpleasantness on his three previous voyages, nothing had quite prepared him for the institutionalized brutality of life aboard the United States.”  ****
  • 1846 Typee published.
  • 1847 Omoo published and marries Elizabeth Knapp Shaw
  • August 1850 meets Nathaniel Hawthorne and wrote a lot of letters.
  • 1851 Moby-Dick published.
  • 1852 Pierre published.
  • Many now think that Melville had bi-polar or manic depression. His wife considered divorcing him 1867 due to insanity.
  • He was troubled by money problems his whole life.
  • I agree with Brain Pickings - it doesn't matter whether Herman was homosexual, bisexual or homoerotic in nature,
  • The quotient of intimacy cannot be contained in a label. The human heart is an ancient beast that roars and purrs with the same passions, whatever labels we may give them. We are so anxious to classify and categorize, both nature and human nature. It is a beautiful impulse — to contain the infinite in the finite, to wrest order from the chaos, to construct a foothold so we may climb toward higher truth. It is also a limiting one, for in naming things we often come to mistake the names for the things themselves. The labels we give to the loves of which we are capable — varied and vigorously transfigured from one kind into another and back again — cannot begin to contain the complexity of feeling that can flow between two hearts and the bodies that contain them. (my highlights)

  • Melville was critical of western imperialism - John Paul Wenke in Melville's Muse (1995) says about Typee, 'Melville not only dramatizes the limitations of the Western point of view but also reveals how Eden Regained is itself a self-gratifying, and fallacious, cultural fiction.'
  • 'When he stopped publishing novels in 1857, it wasn’t because he had run out of ideas—it was because no publisher could afford to print his books, which always lost money,' writes Mark Beauregard, the author The Whale: A Love Story. 'He started writing poetry instead.'
  • 1866 Battle-Pieces (five Civil War poems) published.
  • 1876 Clarel published.
** source
*** source
**** source

Which brings me to my thoughts about -

Chapter 8: The Pulpit

  • The famous Father Mapple!
  • 'Like most old fashioned pulpits, it was a very lofty one'
  • 'Father Mapple after gaining the height, slowly turn round, and stooping over the pulpit, deliberately drag up the ladder step by step, till the whole was deposited within, leaving him impregnable in his little Quebec.' What a performance!
  • 'Its panelled front was in the likeness of a ship's bluff bows, and the Holy Bible rested on a projecting piece of scroll work, fashioned after a ship's fiddle-headed beak.'
  • 'the world's a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.'

Chapter 9: The Sermon
  • Fanda is correct in saying that Simon Callow's reading of this chapter on the Big Read podcast is a real treat - very theatrical, complete with dramatic voices, fire and brimstone!
  • I've actually reread and listened to various versions of this chapter several times in an attempt to unpack its meaning. 
  • I realised after reading Fanda's post about the religious themes in the preceding chapters, that I had missed a lot of Melville's religious purpose. I don't see the world through a lens of sin, or of 'punishment, repentance, prayers' so I impatiently skimmed my first reading of this chapter. But Fanda and the Whale, Whale, Whale podcast prompted me to look a little closer at Melville's meaning and intent.
  • The partial singing of the hymn, Death, and the the terrors of the grave comes from Isaac Watts (1674 - 1748) who is purported to be a distant ancestor of mine.
  • I wonder...does Father Mapple deliver the same Jonah sermon every week? Given he has a church designed by and for whalers and there are only 'four chapters - four yarns' in the bible about whaling, does he just repeat and supplement the same story each time?
  • Themes within the Jonah story (thank you google) - God's mission, nature and character, the nature of evil, salvation, forgiveness, the emptiness of life lived apart from God, repentance, mercy, omnipresence, the unfulfilled and conditional nature of prophecy and compassion. The old testament sure knew how to scare the bejeezus out of you!
  • Jonah had 'no baggage, not a hat-box, valise, or carpet-bag'. Ishmael had a whole chapter devoted to HIS carpet-bag! Melville lesson #1 - don't trust a man without a carpet-bag.
  • Jonah 'paid the fare thereof' while Ishmael worked his passage. Melville lesson #2 - don't trust a man who takes the soft option.
  • Jonah - a 'fugitive finds no refuge' by running away to sea. Ishmael goes to sea with meditation in mind. Melville lesson #3 -  you cannot run away from your problems.
  • Pop culture references brought to mind - (1) movie Master & Commander and the Jonah story told within.
  • (2) The West Wing 'Two Cathedrals' episode with all 'the howling of the shrieking, slanting storm without' and the preacher who 'seemed tossed by a storm himself'. And Jonah who 'feels that his dreadful punishment is just', is like Jed Bartlett railing at his god after the death of Mrs Landingham.
  • If only a few more people could 'preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood!' in the real world White House.
  • Melville finishes with a several long paragraphs all about the 'eternal delight and deliciousness' - his search for heaven continues.

Chapter 10: A Bosom Friend

  • Lots of comparisons about what is supposedly civilised and what is 'heathenish'.
  • 'Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.' 😅
  • 'I'll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindness has proved a hollow courtesy.' Again with the Christians who give religion a bad name.
  • 'to do the will of God.' Melville lesson #4 do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
  • 'There is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends....this, then, in our hearts' honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg - a cosy, loving pair.' 

Chapter 11: Nightgown
  • 'Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine, and then drawing them back; so entirely sociable and free and easy were we.' I suspect that such intimate contact between a male/female couple would not have been written about and read without censure in 1851, let alone between two men.
  • 'truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold.' I read this chapter in rural NSW last week during a sudden cold snap that produced snow on the ranges around us. I was snuggled under multiple covers, with Mr Books for a hot water bottle, and nothing but my ears, nose and fingers sticking out, and slowing turning into icicles. This quote felt truly alive with personal relevance.
  • 'yet see how elastic our stiff prejudices grow when love once comes to bend them' almost reads like a Benny Hill (the master of double entendre) skit!

Thank you to those who posted their #MobyDickintheWild pics on instagram and twitter. I also loved how Laurie is now finding whales everywhere she goes!

Sorry about another long post; I seem to have absorbed some of Melville's verbosity and love of detail!

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Dirge by Herman Melville

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash
Herman Melville not only wrote novels, but spent the last decades of his life, in particular, writing poetry.

His first book of poems, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) followed the timeline of the Civil War. According to the Poetry Foundation 'the poems deflate core myths of American exceptionalism.'
His son, Malcolm fought in the Civil War and later committed suicide as Melville was writing his second book of poetry, Clarel (1876). His cousin, brother and mother also died during this period of time. No wonder Melville was fully across Ishmael's lament about 'whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul.'

His last two publications were self-published - John Marr and Other Sailors, with Some Sea-Pieces (1888) and Timoleon and Other Ventures in Minor Verse (1891).

Weeds and Wildings with a Rose or Two, was an unfinished collection that Melville had been working on at the time of his death. It was published posthumously as a private edition.

Everything I've read about Melville so far, would seem to indicate that he was a complicated man full of contradictions, confusion and philosophical doubt. His energy levels and passions ran hot and cold, high and low. He was plagued by depression, financial insecurity and religious conflict.

His poetry reflected his search for meaning, truth and peace.


We drop our dead in the sea,
The bottomless, bottomless sea;
Each bubble a hollow sigh,
As it sinks forever and aye.
We drop our dead in the sea, –
The dead reek not of aught;
We drop our dead in the sea, –
The sea ne’er gives it a thought.
Sink, sink, oh corpse, still sink,
Far down in the bottomless sea,
Where the unknown forms do prowl,
Down, down in the bottomless sea.
‘Tis night above, and night all round,
And night will it be with thee;
As thou sinkest, and sinkest for aye,
Deeper down in the bottomless sea.


Jennifer @Holds Upon Happiness posts a lovely Poem for a Thursday each week. I'm enjoying sourcing poems from my recent reads to join in with her at the moment.

Monday, 12 August 2019

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things has been sitting on my TBR for a few years now. I was fortunate enough to be gifted it during an #AusteninAugust competition with Adam @Roof Beam Reader, and I hang my head in shame that it has taken me so long to finish it.

My only excuse is that I save it to read during August. I digest about 5-6 chapters each year, sometimes jumping ahead to read sections that relate to the Austen I'm reading that year as well. This year I am not rereading any Austen's (shock! horror!). Instead I'm reading Moby-Dick (and finishing off The Count of Monte Cristo for another readalong). However, I still decided that this year was the year to finally finish The Real Jane Austen. with or without an accompanying Austen reread.

Byrne has created a delightful biography of Jane Austen with lots of insightful commentary about her novels by linking them to various objects that belonged to Jane, her family or were specific to her time. She tells us that each chapter will begin 'with a description of the image that sets its theme.'

From a water colour of Lyme Regis to Jane's vellum notebooks and a royalty cheque, Byrne 
follows Austen on her travels, which were more extensive than is often recognised, and it sets her in contexts global as well as English, urban as well as rural, political and historical as well as social and domestic. These wider perspectives were of vital and still under-estimated importance to her creative life.

It's a whimsical yet very personal way to reconstruct someone's life story. I've read a lot about Austen over the years, but I still learnt a lot by reading this book. Mostly by how Byrne connected the dots between known events in her life, her various story lines as well as historical elements. She wove all these disparate threads together to create a rich, perceptive and captivating portrayal of our Jane's life.

Lyme Regis and the Dorsetshire Coast (1784) Copleston Warre Bampfylde

Byrne also brought everything together in a logical, cohesive and entertaining way. Jane would have approved wholeheartedly!

For example, the first chapter on early family life began with a shadow profile by William Wellings depicting the adoption of Jane's brother, Edward Austen, at age 12. Byrne used this artwork to introduce Jane and her family to her readers as well going into the influence that the Knight family had on the Austen's for years to come. While an East India shawl in chapter two highlighted the international connections that Jane had via her aunt Philadelphia and her brothers who went into the Navy.

Introduction of Edward to the Knights (1783) William Wellings

Jane's voice is clearly heard on every page, via her letters and her novels. It has been a lovely way to fill in the blanks of Jane's life and to flesh out certain events within her stories.

I will finish with some points I want to have to hand for future Austen reread's.

  • William Cowper was JA's favourite poet (Tirocinium = Mansfield Park). He wrote about everyday life & scenes of English countryside.
  • Catharine, or the Bower replicates 'almost exactly the fate of her own aunts' - Philadelphia and Leonora.
  • Admired Fanny Burney's Cecilia and Camilla & Maria Edgeworth's Belinda. (Cecilia = P&P).
  • 'heroine-centred novels of courtship
  • 'coming-of-age novels in which guardians & parental figures are often flawed. The heroine is not taught a lesson: she learns from her own mistakes.'
  • 'one of the ideas that she was interested in was how people in the same situation act in very different ways.'
  • There are only 5 surviving letters from JA's time in Bath. This has caused much 'misunderstanding and speculation.'
  • Emma = mind games & manipulation, adults behaving like children, plain-speaking vs verbal ambiguity.
  • 'moments of emotional intensity' are 'mediated through the witnessing presence of small children.'
  • excess of Romantic feeling mocked in NA, S&S and Sandition.
  • 'the sophisticated Austen device of seeming to be both inside and outside her characters, with the author sympathetically animating their thought processes while simultaneously directing her irony against them.'
  • the power of words...and rewriting and editing.
  • realism
  • Sir Walter Scott on Emma in the 1815 Quarterly Review.
  • Persuasion is full of 'damaged characters'...'deeply affected and afflicted' by life.

Highly recommended for all Jane fans.
Book 19 of 20 Books of Summer Winter
Sydney 16℃
Dublin 19℃

Friday, 9 August 2019

Moby-Dick - Check in Post #1

I've been so absorbed and fascinated by these early stages in our #MobyDickReadlong that this first post has come along much faster than I initially thought. I may, or may not, continue this level of enthusiasm as we go along!

Below are my notes and research, favourite quotes and points of interest...with a few challenges (in  bold) for you to join in.

Etymology & Extracts:
  • the work of a consumptive "He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality."
  • GAWURA - whale in Dharug & Dharawal language. My Aussie contribution to the list. What is the indigenous word for whale in your local area?
  • the sub-sub-librarian "random allusions to whales".
  • "Prior to the whaling era, Nyungar people, including the Mineng, had traditionally consumed whale meat only on an opportunistic basis when animals stranded on the beach or carcasses washed ashore. When this vast bounty of meat became available, it acted as a trigger mechanism for nearby groups to gather and feast. Meat was roasted or eaten raw and the people rubbed blubber on to their bodies. There was a festive air to the week-long gatherings." (Nebinyan's songs) My Aussie contribution to the extracts. What's your favourite whale extract, quote, poem that wasn't included in Melville's list?
Jibbon Aboriginal rock engravings in Royal National Park, south of Botany Bay. Photo: David Finnegan

Chapter 1: Loomings
  • I was challenged by Nancy to find the symbolism behind the names chosen by Melville - "Call me Ishmael" - A biblical name meaning ‘God has harkened’ & a name that symbolises orphans, exiles, outcasts & wanderers. Refers to Genesis 16:11 ‘Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael.
  • description of depression - "whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul".
  • humour - "Pythagorean maxim" - a reference to Pythagoras' dislike of beans because of their relationship to flatulence - a fart joke in the first chapter. Nice one Herman!
  • philosophy - "the ungraspable phantom of life" & "there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid".
  • rhyming - "I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts." I only noticed the lovely rhythm between these 2 sentences when I listened to the Whale, Whale, Whale podcast on Wednesday.

Chapter 2: The Carpet-Bag
  • Compounds and alliteration - "the swinging sign had a poverty-stricken sort of creak to it."

Chapter 3: The Spouter-Inn
  • Fanda found a version of the painting that Melville spent almost two pages in describing! "in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads."
Aaron Zlatkin, The Spouter-Inn–Revealed, oil on canvas, 1996

  • word play - "a boggy, soggy, squitchy picture".
  • "skrimshander" (see image below)
  • Bartender called Jonah!
  • Bulkington - "this man interested me at once; and since the sea-gods had ordained that he should soon become my shipmate (though but a sleeping-partner one, so far as this narrative is concerned)." A tall man with "noble shoulders and a chest like a coffer-dam", "fine stature" - bulky in fact?! And mysterious - "slipped away unobserved", "I saw no more of him till he became my comrade on the sea."
  • Queequeg symbolism: name is devoid of any meaning, he's a symbol of all mankind, exotic and foreign, pagan with Islamic beliefs, democratic, equality, bringer of knowledge, source of enlightenment, resourceful and loyal, based on Te Pehi Kupe. (Melville & Gnosticism???)
  • "Ignorance is the parent of fear."
  • "Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian."

Chapter 4: The Counterpane
  • Homo-eroticism - "I found Queequeg's arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife."
  • lots of references in this chapter to 'civility', 'savages', 'propriety', 'indecorous', 'breeding' - who is civilised and respectful and who is not?

Chapter 5: Breakfast
  • philosophy - "a good laugh is a mighty good thing".
  • Queequeg not only shaves with his harpoon, he eats with it as well!

Chapter 6: The Street
  • "any considerable seaport will frequently offer to view the queerest looking nondescripts from foreign parts."
  • "harpooners, cannibals and bumpkins".
  • "and the women of New Bedford, they bloom like their own red roses".

Chapter 7: The Chapel
  • foreshadowing - "by the murky light of that darkened, doleful day read the fate of the whalemen who had gone before me. Yes, Ishmael, the same fate may be thine."
Seaman's Bethel, New Bedford, 1968
On Podcasts:
  • I have now listened to the first six chapters of the Moby-Dick Big Read. I really wanted to like this format. I liked the idea of having famous people and regular people read a chapter each, but as Fanda has already mentioned, the quality of the reading and the production is uneven. It feels redundant to read and listen to exactly the same thing. So I am abandoning the Big Read for now, but will keep it in reserve for some of those detailed whaling chapters I keep hearing about, where I may like to read and listen at the same time.
  • However, it is worthwhile to visit the webpage for each chapter just to see the 136 amazing artworks collected there. Below is the example from Chapter 1.
  • They also remind us that "The slaughter of whales continues. Every year, over 2,000 whales are killed for profit." They provide a place to donate to help stop whaling if you wish.
Albus, 2009 by Marcus Harvey
Courtesy of White Cube
  • The podcast I will continue with though is Whale, Whale, Whale. It is an annotated reading of each chapter. Kevin invites friends in to discuss each chapter with him, so that the reading is interspersed with questions, answers, observations and modern takes on the old language. On a car trip on Wednesday, I had the chance to catch up on the first seven chapters. So far they have gone into all the notes covered in the Power Moby Dick site plus with humorous asides. They have managed to compare Ishmael to the TV character Frasier and the Spouter-Inn to the bar in Cheers. They have also discussed that loving or hating Moby-Dick is a choice, 'the slog is real, but it is the thing that makes it.' Right now, I couldn't agree more. The only downside is that Kevin has only got to chapter 32 and seems to have run aground back in February. I will be getting on twitter to encourage him to set sail once again.

Adaptations: I'm starting a list of book adaptations of Moby-Dick. Please let me know if you come across anymore.
  • And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness, 
  • Railsea by China Mieville, 
  • Ray Bradbury' Leviathan '99
  • The Whites by Richard Price 
  • Geronimo Stilton Classic Tales graphic younger reader version 
  • Kit de Waal's Becoming Dinah

Articles: Thanks to the 200th anniversary of Melville's birth on the 1st, a number of articles blossomed online. A selection is included below.

How is your Moby-Dick journey going so far?
I'm thrilled to have so many of you reading along with me and joining in on twitter and instagram. My challenge this week is to take a photo of your edition of the book in the wild - preferably near a body of water, since "meditation and water are wedded for ever"! Share on your favourite social media site.
Remember to pop your blog links for #MobyDickReadalong posts here.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

City of Trees by Sophie Cunningham

City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest by Sophie Cunningham was one of the books I took on holidays a couple of months ago (along with Richard Powers, The Overstory) to Far North Queensland on the edge of the Daintree Rainforest. Both books seemed very appropriate for the occasion. And except for the last two chapters, I had all but finished City of Trees whilst surrounded by all those beautiful tall stands of trees.

I finished those last two chapters during the week.

The two books complemented each other perfectly. As I finished each of the nine origin stories in The Overstory, I needed a break to absorb their content. It was constantly amazed how often the next chapter or two of City of Trees reflected or enhanced the individual experiences that I had just read about in the novel. It came as no surprise to me that Cunningham had read (and loved) The Overstory as well and referenced it in some of her essays.

Cunningham has included line drawings of trees and some of their inhabitants throughout the chapters. Each essay is also littered with family stories and personal memories. Her reflections on grief and loss were particularly moving. However, it's her love of trees and the knowledge she has gained about them over the years that is the centre piece of this work.

As you would expect, the environmental messages in this book are active and strong. They colour Cunningham's view of the world. Since I share similar sensibilities with her, I found her essays to be beautiful, heartfelt and undeniable.

And endlessly quotable:
  • A tree is never just a tree. It speaks of the history of the place where it has grown or been planted.
  • There are individual giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) still living that are older than Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism.  
  • Walking provides an excellent opportunity to argue with people in your head.
  • For reasons that include increases in both temperatures and fuel loads, fires are burning hotter and becoming more dangerous....When forests do burn, old-growth forests don;t do so as intensely as younger forests.
  •  James Bradley - Grief teaches us that time is plastic. A lifetime is an ocean and an instant. It does not matter whether something happened a week ago, a year ago, a decade ago: all loss is now. Grief does not stop, or disappear. It suffuses, inhabits us. The dead are both gone and never gone, living absences we bear with us.  
  • Logging advocates exaggerate both the market for old-growth timber and the quality of the timber....In what universe would a reasonable person think it is okay to cut down an 800-year-old tree and reduce it a few hundred dollars' worth of woodchips

You can follow Sophie on Instagram with her #treeoftheday hashtag.

Book 18 of 20 Books of Summer Winter
Sydney 15℃
Dublin 20℃

Saturday, 3 August 2019

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey is exactly the type of cosy crime I enjoy reading on a cold, rainy wintery weekend.

Much like the UK series about Maisie Dobbs and the Australian series by Kerry Greenwood about Phryne Fisher, Massey has created the Indian version of these smart, pioneering 1920's women who have the ability to be in the right place at the right time to solve crimes.

Sujata was born in England to parents from India and Germany. She now lives in the US, which may explain why I often felt that the Indian nature of the story was technically correct and well researched, but didn't always feel authentic. I spent most of the book feeling like a tourist, on the outside looking in. I will be curious to hear how one of my fellow book clubbers felt about this though, as she actually grew up living on Malabar Hill in the 1960's.

At times, I had a few quibbles with the 'show don't tell' aspect of Massey's writing and I didn't always feel like I was in 1920's India. Sometimes the dialogue felt awkward and stilted as well. It may have been an accurate reflection of the self-conscious, uneasy tensions that exist when two different classes try to communicate but I'm not sure that's where the problem lay.

However, I cannot deny, that as an easy to read, cosy crime story, The Widows of Malabar Hill was a winner. It has a likeable protagonist in Perveen Mistry and an exotic setting. Being based on versions of a true story gives the book another tick in its favour.

Mistry's backstory was interesting, but at times felt contrived. Perhaps it was all the 'telling' going on rather than showing, revealing and letting the reader get there themselves. Certainly the reader doesn't have to do anything other than just read, Massey does all the work. Despite all the descriptions, I have no residual visual image of the characters or the place. The historical element also felt rather loose. I had to keep reminding myself it was meant to be the 1920's.

I obviously had some technical issues with the writing, but ultimately I enjoyed the story and will probably read the sequel The Satapur Moonstone at some point. You may be surprised to hear that, after all the issues I had with this book, but sometimes a book is just for reading. And sometimes a book leaves you with enough of a warm glow, to make a dreary wintery weekend a little brighter.

Favourite or Forget: I suspect this will fade from my memory fairly quickly.


My edition comes with a few recipes (of meals eaten throughout the book) at the back. I'm keen to try the Malabar Spinach and Eggs one day.

Preparation Time: 20 minutes
Cooking Time: 10 minutes
Serves: 2 as breakfast or 4 as part of a dinner
Difficulty: Easy

Here’s a moderately spicy recipe that is a Parsi classic. Malabar spinach, also known as water spinach or poisaag, can be found at Asian grocers and farmer’s markets. Large leaf spinach or swiss chard is a good substitute. You’ll need a wide frying pan with a lid to prepare this dish.

  • 2 tablespoons canola, safflower or sunflower oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 4 curry leaves (optional)
  • 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
  • 1 minced garlic clove
  • 5 diced Roma tomatoes, or one large tomato
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/4 teaspoon chilli powder
  • 1 bunch of Malabar spinach, or substitute greens
  • salt to taste
  • 4 eggs

  1. Heat oil in a wide, deep skillet over medium-low heat. Add onion and optional curry leaves and sauté until onion is translucent.
  2. Add the ginger, garlic, tomatoes, coriander, turmeric, and chilli powder. After the tomatoes are broken down, about two minutes, add the spinach and a few tablespoons of water. Cover with lid and cook for 5 to 7 minutes over low heat, until the spinach is soft. Add salt to taste.
  3. Use a large spoon to make 4 depressions in the soft cooked greens. Break an egg over each of these depressions.
  4. Cover the pan again. If the lid has a curve on its underside, invert the lid and pour a couple of teaspoons of water into the curve. This addition of water heightens the steaming effect as the eggs poach under the lid. Remember to keep the temperature very low.
  5. Peek at the eggs after 3 minutes, and if they are almost set, serve.
Two nights later:
I made an Aussie version of Malabar Spinach and Eggs using bok choy and broccolini. It was perfect for one of our 800 Fast day meals. It was also delicious and the spice mix was great for warming us up on a cold winter's evening.


17/20 Books of Summer Winter
Sydney 21℃

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Welcome to the Moby-Dick Readalong

Happy 200th Birthday Herman Melville!

From Herman Melville, Mariner and Mystic
by Raymond M. Weaver, 1921

On this day in 1819, Melville was born in New York City to Allan Melville (a merchant whose father was a Revolutionary War hero) and Maria Gansevoort (whose father was a commander at Fort Stanwix during the Revolutionary War).

Which is why I have picked this day of all days to start my long-awaited, much-anticipated Moby-Dick Readalong.

The plan is to read a chapter of the book, 

then listen to the matching podcast episode from the Moby-Dick Big Read.

That's 137 chapters (including the Extracts and Epilogue).

Trying to read Moby-Dick in just one month felt way too ambitious for me right now.
A chapter-a-day is also too big a commitment.
So I have simply set a start date and an end date with the idea of reading and listening to 3-4 chapters a week.
This allows for a slow week or two when life gets busy, with catch up sessions during the quieter weeks.
I will use a Google Doc spreadsheet to keep me on track, but I won't be following it religiously.

With such an auspicious start date - Melville's 200th birthday - I needed an equally relevant end date.

I chose the month he started writing Moby-Dick in 1850 - February.
Therefore, on the 29th Feb 2020, 170 years after Melville sat down to write this American classic, we will finish our Moby-Dick Readalong.

1st August 2019 - 29th February 2020

That's 30 weeks of Moby-Dick with 4 and half chapters a week to read and listen to. 
I should be able to do that (& still read other stuff as well). 

I will put up regular posts to see how everyone is going and provide encouragement. I will attempt to tweet quotes from each chapter and share images of my copy of Moby-Dick in the wild on twitter and instagram.

I will be reading the lovely Coralie Bickford-Smith designed 2012 Penguin English Library edition of Moby-Dick (with an Afterword by Alfred Kazin).

I'm expecting to hit some choppy waters along the way. Many respected blogger friends have not found Moby-Dick an easy read. Their current well-wishes are couched with knowing eye winks and the occasional guffaws.

Adam @Roof Beam Reader had this to say,
Stunning. One of the most – no, the most elaborately detailed book I have ever read. Not the most exciting plot, not the easiest language, not too many exciting sub-layers to the story. But definitely, positively one of the best books ever written. It took me 7 months to get through (and I’m an insanely fast reader) but it was well worth it.

Nancy warns us that 'there’s a lot of scrimshaw and blubber!' to wade through.

Fiction Fan was fairly scathing, 
My verdict – shows potential in places but requires a severe edit to rid it of all the extraneous nonsense and to improve the narrative flow.

I’ve come to realise that I have a complication relationship with this novel. Some parts of it I loved and thought were superbly conceived and written. Other sections made me despair and wish for an end to what seemed an eternity of boredom.

Katherine is considering rereading Moby-Dick with us (which is a good thing, right?) after reviewing it in 2017,
What I didn’t expect was just how odd of a tapestry this book is. There are adventure bits. There are poetical, metaphysical digressions. There is bawdy humor and Shakespearean soliloquies. And yes, a lot about whales and whaling.

Marianne @Let's Read had this to say earlier this year, 
I was reminded of lessons at school where all I wanted was that this class would be over and the next, more interesting one, would begin.

On a more hopeful note, Louise @A Strong Belief in Wicker alerted me to this wonderful article,
Subversive, queer and terrifyingly relevant: six reasons why Moby-Dick is the novel for our times by Philip Hoare in The Guardian this week. Hoare says that,
Not only is it very funny and very subversive, but it maps out the modern world as if Melville had lived his life in the future and was only waiting for us to catch up.

I attempted to start Moby-Dick a number of years ago myself, but I couldn't make it through the first chapter! Trying to go with the flow of Melville's writing didn't work - it just washed right over me and left me numb and bewildered.

To get through this behemoth of a book, I will need all the help I can get - help from my friends and online help. I will not let this book defeat me! Therefore I will be researching the shit out of this (to misquote Matt Damon in The Martian).

According to Nathaniel Philbrick in Why Read Moby-Dick? there a few key points to keep in mind as we read this too long and maddeningly digressive American classic.
  • skim the tedious bits
  • prepare for digressions and detailed descriptions of whaling
  • read some of the sentences out loud
  • watch for insights into the American archetypes
  • & homo-erotic passages
  • note influences from Shakespeare, Hawthorne and the Bible
  • read a few of Melville's letters to Hawthorne 
  • engage with Melville's intellectual challenge & wit

I will add:

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Mirka & Georges: A Culinary Affair by Lesley Harding & Kendrah Morgan

Mirka & Georges: A Culinary Affair is a beautiful book and hard to define. Is it an art book? Is it a biography? Or is it a recipe book? I guess the subtitle that Harding & Morgan chose gives us a clue to their intentions - that food is the central idea around which the book hinges.

Food, not just because of it's ability to sustain and fill an empty stomach, but the social aspect of food, preparing, sharing, bringing family and friends around a table to eat together, to talk, laugh and philosophise!

Upon arrival in Melbourne in 1951, the Mora's couldn't find a proper cup of coffee or a restaurant that stayed open past 8.30pm. However, it didn't take them long to search out pockets of like-minded people and small European wholesalers as they gathered them into their new home and studio on Collins St.

Mirka's iconic artwork also features throughout the book. Lovely full page spreads of her work as well as collages wrapped around each of the recipes included in the book. I had planned on cooking a couple of the recipes for Paris in July - Blanquette de Veau or Truite Aux Amandes appealed in particular as being good winter dishes, but a hectic work schedule and a nasty head cold has got in the way of my good intentions this year.

However, Mirka and Georges is not just about the art and the food. Harding and Morgan have written an engaging, personal account of both Mirka and Georges' childhoods in France, their subsequent meeting and marriage after WWII and eventual emigration to Australia.

The early pages of the book are littered with childhood photos as the threat of WWII loomed. Mirka's family were arrested and detained in the 1942 Velodrome d'Hiver round up, but managed to escape transportation thanks to a letter claiming they were 'indispensable to the war effort.' Friends then procured false papers and a safe house for them.

Georges was a German of Polish descent born in Leipzig. His parents were wealthy modern art collectors, however after witnessing the book burning in Berlin in 1933, his parents encouraged him to leave for Paris. During the war he was interned briefly as an 'enemy alien' before joining a Jewish unit in the French Foreign Legion posted to North Africa. Later he joined the Jewish humanitarian group Euvre de Secours aux Enfants that helped Jewish orphans whose parents had disappeared throughout the war.

They were a passionate, creative and gregarious couple. Their wartime experiences made them embrace the opportunities of peacetime with open arms. Living life deeply, passionately, artistically. Seeking freedom and fun and doing it all with a great deal of European flair and finesse.

They soon found their niche in Melbourne as friendships with Sunday and John Reed, Charles Blackman, Joy Hester and Arthur Boyd blossomed.

We follow the Mora's various ventures into cafes, restaurants and exhibitions as their young family grows up. The book follows them all the way to the break up of Mirka and Georges around 1970.

I knew very little about the Mora's lives before this book but what I found between the pages of this lovely book, has only intrigued me more. I only wish I'd ever had the chance to eat in one of their restaurants!

Book 16 of 20 Books of Summer Winter
Sydney 15℃
Dublin 18℃

Sunday, 28 July 2019

The Best Short Stories by Guy de Maupassant

Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893) wrote nearly 300 short stories during his life. They were uneven at times yet distinct in style. Full of irony, deception, narrative drama, arguments & quarrels. De Maupassant was also a naturalist with a tendency to lean towards the bleaker side of real life. The Guardian says that he considered life to be "brutal, incoherent, disjointed, full of inexplicable, illogical and contradictory disasters".

The Best Short Stories (first published in 1997 by Wordsworth Editions) contains 17 such examples. My 2011 reprint is rounded out with a rather dry Introduction by Cedric Watts, who informs us that Maupassant's tales 'dealt predominantly with the provincial bourgeoisie, urban employees and civil servants.'

For the past three years, I've been reading a handful of these stories at a time to coincide with Paris in July. This year, I decided it was time to be finished with them. Not because I haven't been enjoying them, but three years is long enough for a book to by taking up space on my bedside table.

I wanted to take my time with each story and not rush from one to the next. I've made that mistake in the past with short story anthologies, and as a result I have no recollection of many of them. I decided to make brief notes on each story. I also gathered together some points about the short story format to help me with my notes. I've now learnt about anecdotal stories, fables, frame stories, sketches and vignettes. Plus the various permutations of the,

  1. epical short story - realistic, withholding part of the narrative for a revelation with a decisive ending and universal insight.
  2. lyrical - open ended stories with a central recurring image or symbol.
  3. artifice - a literary conceit using metaphoric devices and incongruity.

Furthermore, I discovered the scathing Works of Guy de Maupassant by Leo Tolstoy* published in 1894. Tolstoy, the master of the backhanded compliment, declared
I could not help but see, in spite of the indecent and insignificant subject of the story, that the author possessed what is called talent.


  • Madame Husson's 'Rosier' (1888) is a classic frame story whereby our weary train traveller, Aubertin finds himself stranded in Gisors, until he suddenly remembers an old school chum, now Dr Marambot, who is practising in Gisors. Over dinner, Marambot relates another 'amusing story' to Aubertin about why the 'proud people of Gisors' call all drunkards Madame Husson's 'Rosier'.
Both men feel superior to the other, one with city vs country airs and the other with his comfortable life, wealth and status. I also loved the little nod to Jane Austen when the good doctor says, 'A little town, in fact, is like a large one. The incidents and amusements are less varied, but one makes more of them; one has fewer acquaintances, but one meets them more frequently.' I could hear Mrs Bennet's strident tone complaining/boasting to Mr Darcy throughout this piece!
The morality tale that follows suggests that these country acquaintances are ridiculous and even dangerous, in their self-importance and that virtue is a fallacy.

  • That Pig of a Morin (1882) is another frame story about morality and virtue. In, what could only be described as a #metoo moment these days, a beautiful young woman is accosted by a strange man (Morin) on a train. He sees her smiling beauty as an invitation to try it on. Fortunately the guards believe her and Morin is arrested.
Two local men, taking pity on Morin, visit the young woman's guardian to try and sort the matter before it goes to court. They are invited to stay the night. The young woman is reasonable but unflinching and replies to the suggestion that Morin's act was excusable given how beautiful she was, with a resounding, 'between the desire and the act...there is room for respect.'
However, she then allows herself to be seduced by the handsome young man under her guardian's roof later that night. They both enjoy a night of tender passion, that has no dastardly consequence or repercussions, as the end note shows us. From this we can learn that educated, handsome, charming men can have their way with beautiful women if only they approach matters in the right way!

  • Useless Beauty (1890) is my kind of short story. Punchy, with great psychological twists and turns and two characters that feel real. It's also an incredible modern story, with hints of domestic abuse, emotional blackmail and 'secret, unknowable troubles.' 
She said, "You loved your children as victories....They were victories over me, over my youth, over my beauty, over my charms, over the compliments which were paid me and over those that were whispered around me without being paid to me personally."
He said, "But you belong to me; I am your master - your master - I can exact from you what I like and when I like - and I have the law on my side."
My favourite in this collection so far.

  • The Olive Orchard, Le Champ d'Oliviers (1890) is another strong contender for favourite due to its disturbing build up of tension. One could almost see a Hitchcock movie unfolding in front of one's eyes as our sturdy, active abbé is confronted by his past in the form of a desperate, dangerous young man claiming to be his son.
I find these longer form vignettes the most satisfying. Maupassant takes the time to build up the characters, divulge background information, then surprise us with a twist, a revelation or a shock ending. I'm never quite sure what his universal meaning is or which direction his moral compass was pointing to though. Tolstoy judged that he had no"knowledge of the difference between good and evil, he loved and represented what it was not right to love and represent, and did not love and did not represent what he ought to have loved and represented." Which may be a bit harsh. And probably reflects Tolstoy's discomfort with Maupassant's lack of religious feeling more than anything else.
Moral ambiguity is another modern story telling trait that Maupassant was showing off, which is fine, I don't need need to have all my stories tied up with a neat bow. But I do like my short stories to have a sense of the ending, or an emotional truth that the reader can connect to or empathise with. This is one of the stories where Maupassant gets the mix of nuance, complexity and "the contradictions of life"* just right.

  • A Deal aka A Sale, À vendre (1885)
This is where I do agree with Tolstoy wholehearted. Maupassant's depiction of peasant life is one dimensional and without sympathy.
The insufficient comprehension of the lives and interests of the working classes, and the representation of the men from those classes in the form of half-animals, which are moved only by sensuality, malice, and greed, forms one of the chief and most important defects of the majority of the modern French authors, among them Maupassant.
This mean spirited anecdote, about a man selling his wife to his neighbour, is meant to be amusing. It's not. Holding up those less fortunate and less educated than you to ridicule only demeans you.
  • Love: being pages from a sportsman's notebook This is Maupassant giving us the gift of his attention. Beautiful passages describing the marshes and the intense cold felt on a youthful hunting expedition, reveal his ability to write a nature story with heart.
"the water of marshes, in which their throbs all the unknown life of birds, beasts and fishes. A marsh is a world of its own upon this earth of ours, a different world, with its own habits, its fixed populations, and its people who come and go, its voices, its sounds, and, essentially, its mystery."
"It was freezing hard enough to split stones.
  • Two Little Soldiers (1885) is another brief tale of love. Two homesick soldiers find a rural retreat that reminds them of home. From the privacy of their retreat they have the pleasure every Sunday of watching a lovely young milkmaid walk by them to milk her cow. Eventually they strike up a shy friendship with her until one of the soldiers, slightly bolder than the other, meets up with her on separate occasions. When the other soldier find out he is "unmanned...motionless, bewildered and grieving...He wanted to weep, to run away, to hide somewhere, never to be seen again."
Repressed emotions, jealousy, unrequited love - three of Maupassant's signature themes.

  • Happiness (1884) is the final story in this collection and once again returns to the theme of love wrapped up as a frame story. I've decided I'm not a big fan of the frame story. I find them too contrived. The relevance or connection between the original, or the set up, and the framed story is often tenuous at best, but in this rather tender tale, it works better than most. The transition between a dinner party in a villa overlooking the Mediterranean where everyone is discussing love, to suddenly seeing Corsica looming up on the horizon "no longer hidden by the sea-mists" is smooth. Which then reminds one of the gentleman of "an admirable example of constant love, of love which was quite marvellously happy" set in Corsica.

I've enjoyed my slow, leisurely read of this short story collection. It has allowed me to read with purpose and to commit each one to my memory far more than any other short story collection I've ever read before. I find that just looking at the titles of the ones I read two years ago (below) is enough to bring much of the detail of the story to mind. Given how much has happened to me in that time, and how many other stories have crossed my path, that level of recall is quite miraculous.

I cannot say that I will always read short stories with such considered appreciation, but this has shown me that by doing so, I can gain a far deeper understanding of the author's style and technique. And that my reading experience can be richer and longer lasting than the few short pages of writing first suggests.



Monument to Guy de Maupassant in Parc Monceau.

Book 15 #20 Books of Summer Winter
Sydney 19℃
Dublin 23℃

Friday, 26 July 2019

Maigret and the Ghost #62 by Georges Simenon

Reading a Maigret or two during Paris in July has now become one of those things that I look forward to with a great deal of anticipation each year. Because of this though, I now associate Maigret with dreary, winter nights and rainy days (although not so much of the rain this year). My last two Maigret's, which were both set in Paris in high summer, had me all turned upside down and seasonally confused.

Fortunately Maigret and the Ghost takes us back to winter in Paris, and it feels like the seasons (if not the months) are back in sync for now.

This was mid-November and it had rained all day. Maigret hadn't left the stiflingly hot atmosphere of his office since eight o'clock the previous morning. Before crossing the courtyard, he turned up the collar of his overcoat.

I classify these crime stories as cosy, simply because even though people die we don't then have detailed forensic information or grisly crime scenes raked over by specialists using all sorts of forensic jargon. This type of gory story seems to dominate many of the modern crime stories, which is why I don't read (or watch) them. It's not my thing.

The Maigret's are pure detective story. The books are about the man, more than the crime. He is our hero that we come to admire, if not love, with each book. We get to know his techniques and his moods. The pleasure in reading comes from watching Maigret untangle the clues. His psychological methods and intuition become familiar and reliable.

In this case, we see Maigret, weary after coming off an all-nighter solving another unrelated crime, suddenly being informed of a shooting incident involving an inspector from a neighbouring precinct. Maigret quickly realises that his colleague was onto something big and that time is of the essence to stop another major criminal act from taking place. Art smuggling, forgeries, kidnapping and blackmail are the crimes with missing witnesses, nosy neighbours and deceptive suspects the spanners in the works.

It may be a little weird to say a crime novel was a lot of fun, but when Simenon gets it right, watching Maigret piece it all together is such a joy. This is one of the Maigret's where Simenon gets out of the way and lets Maigret do all the work instead.

Highly recommended.

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

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

All Happy Families: A Memoir by Herve Le Tellier

All Happy Families wasn't the memoir I was hoping it would be. Le Tellier is upfront from the beginning, letting us know that he doesn't feel love for his parents. I was therefore expecting a heartfelt exploration into all the whys and wherefores of his troubled childhood. Instead, we simply got a recital of the family tree with some anecdotes about things that were said and done.

Don't get me wrong, Herve's family was pretty ghastly. His mother would now be diagnosed with a pretty major personality disorder and his step father with codependency. His biological father obviously spent the rest of his just being grateful that he got out. Herve had lots of very good reasons to distance himself from the family of his birth as soon as he could, but the problem was, he also kept us, the reader, at a distance.

Memoirs, these days, are expected to provide various psychological insights as well as catharsis for the author. One of the very best that I've read in recent times is, Nadja Spiegleman's I'm Supposed to Protect You From All This. Le Tellier's book has obviously been cathartic for him, but I didn't feel like I got to know him at all. His lack of curiosity about why his mother and other family members acted the way they did was, well, curious. This complete detachment was no doubt his survival technique, but I wanted him to draw this bow too and show us how he had embraced his life away from the parental home. How does one go on to develop empathy, caring kindness and healthy relationships when one has a childhood lacking in all of the above?

Le Tellier does state at the end that he doesn't 'know what it might mean to anyone other than me. But by putting into words to my story, I've understood that sometimes a child's only choice is to escape.'

I guess what I was hoping for was some insights into the lingering after effects of such an upbringing (there are always lingering after effects). The decisive breaks away from his childhood experience as well as the personal realisations that he must have made throughout his adult life would have been fascinating to read. Perhaps this is just the first step for Le Tellier in this process or maybe he's simply not as introspective as I am!

I also chose to read this book now thanks to Paris in July. Casual mentions of some antique furniture and a country house with references to French history and pop culture were interesting, but the place of origin was ultimately less significant than the family of origin.

Favourite or Forget: Knowing a less extreme version of Le Tellier's mother, made this book interesting, with my own personal insights coming from Le Tellier's example.

  • Translated in 2019 by Adriana Hunter a British translator of over 60 French novels.
Book 13 of 20 Books of Summer Winter
Sydney 24℃
Dublin 20℃

Monday, 22 July 2019

The Yield by Tara June Winch

I've been trying to write a review for The Yield by Tara June Winch for the past week that would do it justice and adequately describe my reading experience. But I'm so tired and under the weather with a foggy brain and raspy throat that nothing is coming out right.

So, let me just simply say how much I enjoyed this story. From the beautiful cover to the endearing protagonist, August and her amazing Poppy Albert, the dictionary maker. It's not often that I tell you to read a book, but this is the one. The Yield is not just a highly recommended, but a must read.

The main themes centre around grief, loss, missing and belonging. We have a missing child, a missing book and all of our characters miss the recently deceased Poppy.

We have lost language, lost country and that sense of loss for those no longer with us as well as times gone by.

Three different perspectives are explored by Winch in this multi-generational story. We have August's contemporary story. A young Indigenous woman, living abroad, running away from her losses, trying to work out who she is and how she fits into this modern world. Poppy's death is the catalyst for bringing her home to Prosperous House.

Poppy Albert is the heart and soul of the story. His first person story is told via a dictionary of Wiradjuri words. Like the Oxford English Dictionary, we get a definition of the word with an example of the word in use. But it's not just any old example. Albert uses the dictionary to relate family stories, pass on culture, myths and legends to be 'proud of our culture again'. These sections of the book are inspired and revealing.

The third perspective turns up later in the story when we get a few letters written by the Rev Ferdinand Greenleaf, the minister who established and ran Prosperous Mission in the early part of the twentieth century. His letters cover the period around 1915. As a German national, he is now under suspicion thanks to the war. He is trying to get funding and government guarantees to protect everyone staying at Prosperous. He documents some of the violence and mistreatment of the local Aboriginal tribes.

Winch's moving story reminds me once again that Indigenous culture is not a unified whole. And that's okay. Like every other culture, different groups within that culture want different things. Poppy Albert's family, faced with the sadness of his death and the tragedy of dispossession as a tin mine tries to take over their property, all react differently - some want the money, some want to stay on the land, some want to remember the past, some want to forget, some want to fight, some want to give in.

I will leave you to discover for yourself the beauty of the brolga's, but for now I will leave you with a few key passages that spoke to me.

Her mouth ached for something more, wanted some unknown balm, not a kiss, or a meal, or a drink, but something long denied....The feeling that nothing was properly said, that she'd existed in a foreign land of herself. How she saw home through the eyes of everyone else but her.

How she was scared to leave, even more scared to stay

But in every mobile-library book, she could never find herself or her sister. Never a girl like August and Jedda Gondiwindi, not ever.

Poppy Albert:
'Just tell the truth and someone will hear it eventually'.

searching, looking around - ngaa-bun-gaa-nha When I turned fifteen and was too old for the Boys' Home I was a ward of the state still, working the local properties. At nineteen I was issued my dog tag. With it I could travel in a certain distance to work for meat and salt on the field or out mustering. I moved around far and wide looking for work, but I was looking mostly ngaa-bun-gaa-nha for home.

So much to unpack in just this one definition. Why was Albert a ward of the state in a Boys' Home?  Dog tags! Lack of freedom, working for food not wages, loss of family and home and belonging. Every one of Poppy's definitions has this same sense of the universal wrapped up in the personal.

ashamed, have shame - giyal-dhuray I'm done with this word. I'd leave it out completely but I can't. It's become part of the dictionary we think we carry. We mustn't anymore. See, pain travels through our family tree like a songline. We've been singing our pain into a solid thing. the old ones, the young ones, are ready to heal. We don't have to be giyal-dhuray anymore, we don't have to pass that down anymore.

I was also taken with this very simple, but clearly prescribed view of Indigenous religion:

Biyaami is the creator, but we don't worship him or his son. We worship the things He made, the earth.

Favourite Quote:
After I met my beautiful wife, although beauty was the least of her, strong and fearless was the most of her - well she taught me lots of things.

Favourite or Forget: Not only a firm favourite but possibly a reread as well. I will certainly be reading more by Winch in the future.

Book 12 of 20 Books of Summer Winter
Sydney 17℃
Dublin  23℃