Thursday, 16 August 2018

The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch

My intention this year was to read through my handful of Iris Murdoch books with Liz @Adventures in Reading for her #IMreadalong. She's reading all of them, one a month, in chronological order. I only have to slot in five books, but so far I've been woeful at sticking to her schedule. Fortunately Liz has been very gracious about allowing me to join in whenever I get around to reading the book and reviewing it.

The Unicorn was the book to read for May. In my defence, it only came into my possession in June, after seeing The Unicorn and the Lady tapestry exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW. At the time I didn't believe that there was any direct correlation between the tapestries and the book, except for the word unicorn, but upon reflection I can see some shared symbolism.

The six tapestries are thought to represent the five senses plus a sixth one representing the soul or morality. It is undecided whether the woman in this final tapestry is putting away her jewels into a casket, or taking them out. Is she putting away the symbol of earthly pleasure, desire, free will and sexual pleasure or is she a virgin about to embrace earthly, carnal pleasures for the first time, knowingly and deliberately?

The unicorn 'is also the image of Christ' according to Max, but in courtly tradition a unicorn symbolises purity, chastity and knowledge. Hannah as unicorn makes quite a bit on symbolic sense, although once I read that Hannah had a 'plentiful mass of red-golden hair' I began to imagine she looked more like the unknown, mysterious lady in the tapestries. A woman who didn't know whether to embrace or push away her desires.

Certainly one of my desires was satisfied by the very appealing Vintage Classics cover by Liam Relph. The various shades of green soothed and agitated me at the same time. The darkened castle, the tempestuous waves, the fading light all added up to a heightened sense of mystery and menace.

The incredible landscape of County Clare was the very first thing that struck me as I started reading. The land is described by Murdoch as appalling, God-forsaken, dreadful, grotesque and sublime. Her protagonist, Marion finds the 'vast dark coastline repellent and frightening. She had never seen a land so out of sympathy with man.'

The Burren, County Clare

Marian had read about the great cliffs of black sandstone. In the hazy light they seemed brownish now, receding in a series of huge buttresses as far as the eye could see, striated, perpendicular, immensely lofty, descending sheer into a boiling white surge. It was the sea here which seemed black, mingling with the foam like ink with cream.

The Cliffs of Moher, County Clare

The sea was a luminous emerald green streaked with lines of dark purple. Small humpy islands of a duller paler green, bisected by shadows, rose out of it through rings of white foam. As the car kept turning and mounting, the scenes appeared and reappeared, framed between fissures towers of grey rock which, now that she was close to it, Marian saw to be covered with yellow stonecrop and saxifrage and pink tufted moss.

Poulnabrone Dolmen, County Clare

The landscape had become a trifle gentler and a little dried-up grass, or it might have been a tufted lichen, made saffron pools among the rocks. Some black-faced sheep with brilliant amber eyes made a sudden appearance on a low crag, and behind them rose the dolmen against a greenish sky. Two immense upright stones supported a vast capstone which protruded a long way on either side. It was a weird lop-sided structure, seemingly pointless yet dreadful significant.

Looking, views and scenes are the predominant theme of The Unicorn. Everyone spends the novel looking in mirrors or out windows, and of course, the main house is call Gaze Castle. But other than the gorgeous, dramatic scenery, I'm not quite sure what we're meant to actually 'see'.

Maybe what I'm beginning to see is that Iris Murdoch had some issues of her own. I'm not sure that she liked people very much and she certainly didn't have a very high opinion of relationships. At least loving, healthy, adult relationships don't seem to feature in her books very often, but then, where's the story in that!

Perhaps the 'seeing' and 'gazing' going on here is all internal - navel gazing and psychological musings. The book that Marion reads with Hannah early on is called La Princesse de Cleves. I had to look this one up to find that it was a French novel published anonymously in 1678 and according to wikipedia, 'is regarded by many as the beginning of the modern tradition of the psychological novel'. It's a story of seclusion, spurned lovers, fidelity (or the lack thereof) and suffering. Another connection!

Seclusion, strange love and suffering certainly abounded in The Unicorn, as well as existential angst, confinement and a vague hint of domestic violence. Our characters also played a tug of war with the power of choice and non-choice and imprisonment versus freedom. Yet it's the potential of story (especially the stories we tell ourselves) to transform, inspire and escape that drives our characters to their various fates.

Another reference that had me reaching for google was that of Ate. 'Ate is the name of the almost automatic transfer of suffering from one being to another.' Max goes on to explain his thoughts more until he suggests that Hannah might be 'a pure being who only suffers and does not attempt to pass the suffering on' thereby ending the cycle or the power of the Ate.

Ate is the Greek goddess of mischief, delusion, ruin and folly. It can also refer to the action of the hero that leads to their downfall or death - the very first case of pride cometh befall the fall! And of course, The Unicorn has it's very own and very literal fall.

I'm sure there's also lots of stuff to be explored around Murdoch's continued use of the sea, the bog, the giving of dresses and jewellery, the situation of the two houses, all the donkeys and fish references and the seal. Hopefully when I go to visit Liz's review page after posting this, I'll find some more answers, or at least ask some better questions!

I should also read the Introduction again. I tend to skim it before starting to pull out a few of the main themes to help me on my way. Occasionally this backfires, when I accidentally read a spoiler, but mostly I can see them coming and skip over that section, until I can come back to it when I finish the book. One of the things I did get from the Intro by Stephen Medcalf, was Murdoch's fascination with Plato and Simone Weil (French philosopher, mystic and political activist 1909 - 1943). Two more things for delve into before reading my next Murdoch.

Of the three Murdoch's I've read so far, this has been my favourite. It had a vague Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier feel to it (that would be that Gothic thing I guess!)
I loved the melodrama and sense of menace and suspense that built up throughout the novel. It was eerie and creepy and disturbing as the characters became more and more insular and introspective. Love became twisted and bent out of shape. But there was always hope. As Effie said,
Love holds the world together, and if we forget ourselves everything in the world would fly into a perfect harmony, and when we see beautiful things that is what they remind us of.

Too bad he was delusional and delirious at the time!

Under the Net
This was my latest #CCspin and book 18 of my #20booksofsummer (winter) challenge.

Monday, 13 August 2018

Austen on Screen

There are so many versions of Jane Austen's books available to watch on the big and little screen, that it would take more viewing time than I currently have to do justice to all of them. But over the years, I've given it my best shot!

Today's post is all about Pride and Prejudice and some of it's screen adaptations.

My love affair with Jane on the screen began during my HSC year when our local ABC TV replayed the 1980 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice starring Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul. The screen play was written by Fay Weldon and consisted of five 55 minute episodes.

No Austen production can ever hope to include every single scene or nuance as written by Jane. Some choose to stay as faithful as they can to the original, while others pride themselves on their modern reinterpretation of the story.

The 1980 version of P&P is a faithful retelling with some fabulous characterisations. Perhaps because it was my first P&P, it has remained my favourite despite all attempts by newcomers to convert me to their way of thinking. Elizabeth Garvie will always be my ideal for Lizzy Bennet and Malcolm Rennie, in particular, will always be the odious, smarmy Mr Collins (although now that I've spotted that Matt Smith took a turn in Mr Collin's shoes in the 2016 P&P&Zombies parody, I may have to search out that production next)!

Tom Hollander in 2005 played the role too sly and knowing for my liking, although he did make me laugh. David Bamber (1995) and Rennie captured Collins' obsequiousness far better.

The 1980 version did have one glaring problem though. It obviously lacked the big budgets that other productions enjoyed. There were not many extras or sumptuous costumes and some of the scenes felt like an echoey stage. 
But I loved how my feelings for Mr Darcy grew and changed right along with Elizabeth's. When David Rintoul first walked on screen, I thought, oh no, they've got that VERY WRONG! But by the end, I thought he was the most handsome, dashing young man EVER!

I was prepared to love Colin Firth as Darcy. What's not to love, right? And Matthew Macfadyen - mmmmm! But both failed to replace David Rintoul as my preferred Darcy. 

Firth had the misfortune to be in my most hated version of P&P (controversial I know). I could barely sit through episode one without screaming at the screen! By halfway through the second, I gave up in disgust. I was so disappointed. I had hoped that the extra episode (it had 6) would mean they would include more of the scenes cut from previous versions due to lack of time. 

But no! 

Instead they added scenes that never ever existed in the first place (I'm looking at you Fitzwilliam in your wet t-shirt!). Andrew Davies is a highly regarded screenwriter and I'm sure he thought he was doing the right thing by sexing up Pride and Prejudice, but this particular Jane Austen purist was horrified. 

And don't get me started on how annoying Jennifer Ehle was! She rubbed me the wrong way from the opening sequence. She overdid the playful, lively wit thing. She came across as being self-conscious, rather smug and self-satisfied. Which is better (just) than the giggly girly Elizabeth that Keira Knightley went with in the 2005 movie version.

Oh dear!
What were they thinking?
Deborah Moggach (screenwriter) and Joe Wright (director) turned P&P into a YA rom-com.

Apparently (according to wikipedia) Moggach started off being faithful to the original dialogue, but Wright encouraged her to deviate from the text (because he didn't think that people spoke like that back then!) as well as changing the family dynamics and the time period to an earlier one. I can live with that, but I cannot bare a Lizzy who titters!

Elizabeth Garvie is still the only one who has got the balance right between Lizzy's wit, intelligence and maturity.

I viewed the 1940 movie version starring Greer Garson and Lawrence Olivier after a friend told me that it was her preferred version. (I had lent her my copy of the 1980 P&P and she hated it - Greer Garson was her epitome of Lizzy and she found Garvie too dull). 
However I found the 1940 movie more like a Victorian melodrama than JA's Regency social satire. Greer played a sophisticated, aloof, drawing room Lizzy rather than Garvie's more nature-loving, down to earth, free-spirit.  

A two hour movie can never do full justice to the book. Too many things have to be left out or assumed. I'm hoping that one day, someone will get it all right, because so far, no-one has got Bingley right.

Bingley is meant to be Darcy's foil, not his fool, which is how he often gets played (Simon Woods 2005 was the worst culprit). Certainly none of them have been handsome enough (except for the dashing zombie slayer Douglas Booth, although I'm not really sure that this particular version counts).

It's also hard to get Mrs Bennet's silliness and nerves just right. She has to be silly and nervous, but also pretty and charming enough for us to see how Mr Bennet could have fallen for her in the first place.

I liked the more moderate version of Mrs Bennet that Brenda Blethyn showed us in the 2005 movie, but she was so moderate in the end that it was hard to see the Bennet's as an incompatible couple - which is the whole idea behind their relationship.

Wickham and Lydia are also difficult to capture on the screen.

Wickham has to be dashing and charming enough to attract Lizzy, but there also has to be something insincere and obvious about him that alerts the more suspicious viewer. Our 1980 Wickham was too innocuous and Orlando was too smarmy in 2005. No-one has got Wickham's ability to deceive and manipulate just right. And no production has got the pairing of Wickham and Lydia right either.

The 1980 Lydia was the perfect blend of silly, bitchy and head-strong, but she would have walked all over her innocuous counterpart. Julia Sawalha was annoying enough as Lydia and Jena Malone had lots of exuberance and flirtatious ways, but no-one has mastered Lydia's conniving side. 

The 1980 Mrs Bennet had the best relationship with her Lydia. It was obvious to see why this particular Lydia had grown up the way she did, indulged and petted by her very sympathetic mother.

Lady Catherine de Bourgh's haughty, condescending snobbery was well captured by Judy Parfitt in 1980. Normally I like Judy Dench in anything, but she felt miscast in the 2005 movie. I would have loved to see her tackle Mrs Bennet instead. However, an eye patch wearing ice queen Catherine as played by Lena Headey (of Game of Thrones fame) could easily become my pick of the bunch! Without having actually seen this movie yet, I feel like I can say that it was a truly inspired casting choice! I'm intrigued.

Nobody likes Miss Bingley. I don't believe you're not meant to. She not's very nice. Too brittle, too prickly and too superior. Yet curiously Marsha Fitzalan's version of Caroline created some sympathetic touches. She played her desperation so openly and so vulnerably, that you couldn't but help feel sorry for her. Anna Chancellor was already famous for her 'duckface' turn in Four Weddings and a Funeral by the time she got to Miss Bingley. A perfect, though less compassionate match. The 2005 movie Caroline was completely unmemorable.

As the eldest daughter in a large family of girls, I've always felt an affinity for Jane Bennet. Her ability to hide her feelings (unless you know her well, then you can read her like a book), act the patient peace-maker and trust in the goodness of others can make her seem like a sap. But she has courage, strength of purpose and a sense of responsibility that the Lydia's of this world will never appreciate.

Our 1980 and 2005 Jane's captured her gentleness and determination well. However, the 2005 Jane should never have fallen for that fool of a Took, Bingley and I would have preferred to see the 1995 Jane tackle Lydia instead. There was something about the way her smile suggested something different to her eyes, that made me think she could play Lydia's manipulative ways to a tee.

(I went round and round in circles on pinterest trying to find who I could credit for putting together the P&P character collages, to no avail. If it's you, please let me know so that I can rectify this oversight.)

There was also a 1958 BBC TV series of 6 episodes airing for half an hour each. It starred Jane Downs and Alan Badel. Sadly, it is believed that the entire series has been lost. Another production in 1967 honoured 150 years since the death of JA.

To show that I'm not a complete killjoy about adaptations and modern reinterpretations, let me rave for a minute about my love of Bridget Jones' Diary.

It was hilarious yet poignant and oh so big-hearted from start to finish. Casting Firth as the Darcy character was one of those sublime moments of right person, right time, right everything. Taking our much loved characters into the modern world clearly meant that Mrs Bennet was always going to have an affair with some gross TV presenter, and instead of a tribe of siblings, our modern Lizzy has to have a band of best friends to be her confidants.

I'm not so much a fan of the two sequels though. I watched The Edge of Reason out of curiosity, but failed to get excited about Bridget Jones' Baby at all.

JA has given the modern script writer the bones of such a clever, classic story, that they really have to work hard to stuff it up.

Even a fun musical version out of India in 2004 worked. The themes and characters of P&P are so universal that No Life Without Wife is the only obvious response to a 'truth universally acknowledged'.

I enjoyed the movie version of The Jane Austen Book Club more then the book itself, from memory. Jimmy Smits may have had something to do with that! Emily Blunt was not on my radar back then, so I'd like to re-watch this one day just to see her do her thing. This is not strictly a P&P adaptation either, as Joy Fowler's characters are influenced by all of JA's books over the course of the story.

The IMBd list for Pride and Prejudice adaptations suggests that I am woefully behind with my screen love of P&P - they have 32 possibilities and I've only viewed (or part viewed) ten.

And when I say love, I probably mean hope. No movie, TV series or adaptation has come close to doing Austen's story justice. Some actors have done a magnificent job, some of the sets have been gorgeous but I'm always left a little flat in the end. My hope of seeing Pride and Prejudice alive on the big screen as I've imagined it and felt it all these years has still not been achieved. But like Jane Bennet, I'm always optimistic.


Saturday, 11 August 2018

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

I loved the full-on angst of Anne Tyler's earlier works, they matched my view of the world, family and relationships at the time. They were complex works of realism that took the reader on an emotional journey not easily forgotten.

Roll forward to 2018 and Tyler still has an eye for family drama and odd relationships but she has mellowed with age and now offers her readers a more forgiving, gentle attitude. Her characters still have issues, they are still the fully developed, quirky individuals of old, but everyone just seems to be a little kinder and a little more aware of their own possible impact on others. 

The character of Willa dominates Clock Dance (Tyler's 22nd novel).

We get a brief glimpse into her childhood, and as you would expect from Tyler, there is a complex, difficult, selfish mother at the heart of the drama - the kind of personality the rest of the family spends the entire time treading carefully around. The damage ripples through the husband/wife relationship, effects the two children in different ways as they grow up and away from their parents and each other.

Willa's young adult relationships see her drifting into a marriage with a complex, difficult, selfish man (so completely the opposite of her own father, but oh so the male version of her mother) which then ripples down through onto her relationship with her own children. It's painful, frustrating and almost inevitable in Anne Tyler's world.

So when Willa finally does something out of the ordinary, we hope that she is finally going to shake off the compliant habits of her past and embrace a new life.

If I try to think of some common thread, I really think I’m deeply interested in endurance. I don’t think living is easy, even for those of us who aren’t scrounging. It’s hard to get through every day and say there’s a good reason to get up tomorrow. It just amazes me that people do it, and so cheerfully. The clearest way that you can show endurance is by sticking with a family. It’s easy to dump a friend, but you can’t so easily dump a brother. How did they stick together, and what goes on when they do? — all those things just fascinate me.
New York Times, July 5, 2018

One of the young characters in the novel loves a TV show called Space Junk. She describes it as 'this bunch of total strangers' who are kidnapped by aliens who 'take them off to study them' as they want 'to learn how families work'. The perfect explanation of Tyler's own writing style!

Clock Dance felt more old-fashioned than her previous books, even as she explored her familiar tropes of family, marriage, estranged siblings, chance events and change over time. There was an equal number of family relationships and 'stranger' relationships. Tyler seemed to be exploring the idea of individuals, estranged from their families of origin, coming together in a neighbourhood setting, to form a different type of family support network.

Ultimately, though, I wished that Willa had more spunk. Like her father, who was too understanding, too compliant, too forgiving, Willa keeps to the background, not rocking the boat, constantly smoothing the ruffled feathers of others, often at her own expense.

Perhaps one day she will 'rent a room somewhere' and try something new, but perhaps she won't.

Dinner At the Homesick Restaurant
The Beginner's Goodbye 

Book 17 of #20BooksofSummer (winter) - drop-in title
21℃ in Sydney
16℃ in Northern Ireland
I read this book during the July #reversereadathon

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Smile & Sisters by Raina Telgemeier

Smile and Sisters have been two very popular books at work with 11-14 year old girls. Now I see why. Raina Telgemeier has created two very personal, engaging stories from two significant events in her pre-teen years. Smile details her rather horrific orthodontic work, while Sisters not only features her relationship with her younger sister, but explores a period of time in her early teen years when their parents marriage was on the rocks.

Most of us have a ghastly orthodontist story from our childhood, but not many readers would be able to take on Telgemeier's lengthy, painful and traumatic experiences in the dental chair. Via her and artwork, Telgemeier shows us the ordinariness of teen life as well as the individual self-consciousness that infects most teens anywhere in the world. She explores image, belonging (I was so glad when she finally moved on from that first group of friends - they were awful) and embracing who you are.

It was a surprisingly touching coming of age story with bucket loads of courage and perseverance.

Sisters wasn't quite as success to my mind. Here Telgemeier explores why her relationship with her sister may have been strained throughout their younger years. It felt believable and authentic, but also a little like she was stretching to find another book.

We've all had those challenging relationships with siblings at different times, when two very different personalities constantly rub up against each in daily family life. Sometimes things improve when you're no longer living together under the one roof; sometimes things don't.

But the thing that can bring you together is shared fear and shared adversity - when you think your parents may be about to split up.

In this case, Raina gave her sister a draft of this story several years prior to publication for approval. She also allowed Amara a chance to share insights into her side of the story.

I'm not normally a big fan of graphic novels, but these two books were easy to read and I really liked the colourful artwork. The simple designs were capable of conveying quite a lot of emotion.

Smile was the winner of the Eisner Award for Best Publication for a Teen Audience in 2011 and a finalist for the Children’s Choice Book Award.

Sisters won the Eisner Award for Best Writer/Artist in 2015.

Books 15 & 16 of my #20BooksofSummer (winter) challenge - drop-in titles
25℃ in Sydney
16℃ in Northern Ireland
I read these books during the July #reversereadathon

Monday, 6 August 2018

Taboo by Kim Scott

I'm not sure I will be able to adequately sum up my thoughts and impressions about Taboo by Kim Scott, but I'll give it a shot.

Scott has been shortlisted for this year's Miles Franklin Award; he has already won it twice. In 2000 for Benang: From the Heart and again in 2011 for That Deadman Dance.

Benang is on my TBR pile, but I have yet to read either. My understanding is that they are both historical fiction in nature, with an Indigenous perspective of our shared history. Taboo is contemporary fiction, with not only an Indigenous perspective of our shared history but also with an eye towards our possible shared future. I found it to be an extraordinary feat of compassion, revelation and hope. 

After stumbling through the first 50 pages or so, lost and unsure how to proceed, I found a kind of rhythm and sense to the disjointed passages. The jumps and starts started to feel symbolic and purposeful. I then began to see the poetry in the chaos. 
Scott described this style in the Afterword as, 
a trippy, stumbling sort of genre-hop that I think features a trace of Fairy Tale, a touch of Gothic, a sufficiency of the ubiquitous Social Realism and perhaps a tease of Creation Story.

The story at the heart of Taboo is the memory of an 18th century massacre and the work that a small country town in W.A. does to heal this wound. From this brutal past, with all its miscommunication, misinterpretation & denial as well as the stark realities of modern life for many Aboriginal Australians, Scott encourages us to find connection and shared meaning.

And country.

Like, Scott, I believe that the hope for our future lies in our shared sense of country. It is thanks to our Aboriginal heritage that many Anglo-Australians have changed the way they/we/me use the word 'country' to describe our sense of belonging and attachment to this place we call home. It's an important shift in thinking and feeling that gives all of us a common sense of belonging, well-being and pride. 

The power of words and the importance of language is another central idea explored by Scott in Taboo,

Story like this really about coming together, healing and making ourselves strong with language.

He reminds us that many place names as well as the names for native plants and animals have been derived from their Aboriginal names. Aboriginal history is all around us; in country and in words.

We'll take the language back, the stories that belong here and tell us who to be, what we can do.

Mangart - Jam tree - Acacia acuminata

'Words hold everything together.'

One of the trees endemic to the Noongar region of W.A., that Scott's characters regularly referred to, was a jam tree. The stone curlew was important too. I didn't know either by sight, so I did a quick search to help me with imagining the environment accurately. 

Bush stone curlew

As you might expect from a story about a massacre, spirits, ghosts, presences and apparitions haunt as well as welcome our characters - the Aboriginal characters as well as the Anglo ones - to place and time. They are,

'something both new and old, something recreated and invigorated.

Scott doesn't shy away from the complexities inherent in modern Australian life. His characters were not stereotypes or caricatures. They were flawed, idealistic, weak, contrary human beings trying to be the best they could.
Or as Scott says in his Afterword, 'a little band of survivors following a retreating tide of history, and returning with language and story...provides the connection with a story of place deeper than colonisation, and for transformation and healing.'

Bill @The Australian Legend has written an informative post about the Cocanarup massacres that are central to this story.

If you'd like to learn more about Noongar language and culture visit their website here.
Scott has also been engaged in the Stories Project that produces illustrated picture books in Noongar language.

The Garma Festival is currently on in Gove, Northern Territory. An awareness and appreciation for our Indigenous past is slowing, oh so slowly, gaining momentum, although our politicians response to the Uluru Statement from last year is sadly lagging behind the thinking of many other Australians.

Book 14 of #20BooksofSummer (winter)
24℃ in Sydney
21℃ in Northern Ireland

Saturday, 4 August 2018

#6degrees August

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

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

This month the starting book is Atonement by Ian McEwan.
Are you game?

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

I've been a somewhat sporadic player of #6degrees lately for which I apologise.
I keep waiting for life to settle down and not be so busy, but I'm waiting in vain.
So I'm just going to go on squeezing as much as I can into each day; the quiet life can wait!

Every now and again, though, something falls off the radar.
Memes and visiting & commenting on other blogs is usually the first thing to go, followed quickly by mopping the floor!
However, the floor is now mopped, so I guess it must be time to play.

Back when I read Atonement, I thought Ian McEwan could do no wrong.
But my opinion of him has become more complicated since then.
So it was with some reluctance that I picked up his 70th birthday short story, My Purple Scented Novel

Fortunately, it turned out to be a right little treat, full of all the moral ambiguity and literary mocking that one has come to expect and enjoy from McEwan. 
If I was clever (which I feel very far from this morning!) I would link to another book full of moral ambiguity or literary mocking, but I'm going with purple instead.

The Color Purple was one of those books that I came to thanks to the movie. 
I was stunned by the emotional journey the movie took me on, and was curious to see if the book could do the same.

And of course it did, and then some.
I don't cry out loud very often in books, but The Color Purple is one that had me sobbing tears of joy and relief at the end.
In fact, I can only think of two other books that have me cry out loud (tearing up is another category altogether). 
One is the Aussie childhood classic, Seven Little Australians.

This is another book that I came to thanks to the ABC TV series from the 70's.
And again it's not the scenes of death and dying that make me cry, it's the end scenes of the family coping with their grief and loss that undo me completely.

Seven is a lot of kids, which reminds me of my recent foray into David Sedaris' world in Calypso.

He is one of six kids himself, so he had much to say about growing up in a large family.
I found the experience to be rather like reading a McEwan - hit and miss.
Except I will always give McEwan another chance because of Atonement; Sedaris, was more miss than hit, though, so he is off my schedule for good.

Also off my schedule is my next book club read.
Despite the lovely purple cover, Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao is a tough read according to all the reviews (on Goodreads) that I've read.

Everyone mentioned how horrific and unrelenting the domestic violence was and how little hope there was for either of the friends by the end of the book.

I choose not to watch violent movies and I don't read violent books.
The few that have snuck past my radar have haunted me ever since.
 I do not want to become habitualised to them either.

One that did sneak under the radar was A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.

I can't believe it's three years since I read this.
Jude's story still lives large in my memory and some of the things that happened to him will be seared into my brain forever.

A rather difficult journey this month through some tough emotional terrain!
How did you fair?

The September starter book is Where Am I Now? by Mara Wilson.
In case you were wondering who? what? like I was, Mara was the gorgeous young child actor from the movie Mrs Doubtfire.


Wednesday, 1 August 2018

August? Austen?

Over the past few years I've participated in Adam @RoofBeamReader's Austen in August with a great deal of pleasure, but he has decided not to run with it this year. I understand completely.

Every September/October I angst over whether or not I will go ahead with my very own AusReadingMonth in November...and AusReadingMonth is a much more low-key event than Adam's Austen in August ever was.

I've been reading an Austen a year since I was 17. It used to be my summer holiday pleasure when I was a teacher. Every January (I'm in the southern hemisphere remember) I would reread at least one Austen. I now look forward to reading Austen in August every year and plan my (very loose, free and easy) reading schedule around this idea.

I've also discovered some wonderful like-minded blogger friends via Austen in August and I enjoy catching up with them every year to chat about all things Austen. I know there are other Austen events doing the rounds and perhaps it would be good for me to spread my wings and meet new bloggers. But half the pleasure of Adam's Austen in August is the people I've got to know.
So I throw this open to all of you - would you still like to read an Austen in August with me this year? Very casual, very informal, but very Austen.

I could throw up a linky for posts and reviews. I could create a hashtag for twitter chats and Insta pics. Would you be interested?

My plan is to read my brand new Annotated Persuasion this year. I have some short stories left in my volume of Austen's Juvenilia as well. What do you think? Would you like to add your name to my dance card?

My previous Austen posts:

Lyme Regis (2012)
Jane Austen (2013)
Emma (2015)
Lady Susan (2017)
The Watsons (2017)


Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Things A Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls

Things a Bright Girl Can Do is a YA story that grabs its title from a much older book called Three Hundred and One Things a Girl Can Do. Published in 1911, it included things like how to decorate a church, make coloured fires, the rules of croquet, how to pitch a tent, do magic tricks and how to make a parachute.

However, Nicholls has not written another how-to book for girls. Her bright girls are coming of age in pre-WWI London with the suffragette movement in full swing and the threat of a war on the horizon. As you would expect from Sally Nicholls, Things a Bright Can Do is well-written and well researched.

One little thing kept bugging me though. Nicholls went to a lot of trouble to describe the time and place and she gave the reader a fabulous feel for what life was like for a Victorian girl, but she kept ascribing her main character, Evelyn adolescent behaviours and thoughts that resembled a modern teen. Given that the 'surly, self-absorbed teen' is a modern construct, dating from around WWII, it felt out of place and unauthentic.

It may have been a device to engage the modern teen reader, but I feel that lovers of good historical fiction can cope with the idea that society viewed the teen years very differently at different times. And that it might even be constructive to have that conversation with modern teens.

Once we got passed this little hiccup though, the book settled into an exciting, absorbing story.

Three young women are our protagonists. Evelyn from a wealthy family, is well-educated, but only so far. Her brother gets to go to Oxford but not Evelyn. She's expected to marry the boy next door and give tea parties. Instead she gets caught up in the suffragette's cause and finds herself going from handing our leaflets, to marching, to stonewalling parliament house and getting arrested. A life-threatening hunger-strike causes her to rethink her beliefs and the best way to express them.

May is from a Quaker family. She and her mother are heavily involved in helping the women's cause via non-violent protests - petitions, meetings, letter writing campaigns. After her mother is declared bankrupt for non-payment of taxes (a choice she made in protest about not being able to vote), May questions if this is the best way to change people's minds. May is also gay.

Nell is from the poor streets and comes from a large family, living hand to mouth, day by day. Nell has grown up wearing her older brothers hand-me-down clothes, but it has never worried her. She prefers wearing pants and playing cricket with the boys. She is attracted to girls. Nell gets impatient with suffragettes (and politicians) who talk a lot about social justice but do little to actually improve the lot of women and children living in the slums of London.

World War One changes everything for all three girls. In good ways and in bad.

The relationship between May and Nell is explored thoughtfully, whereas Evelyn's relationship with Teddy feels less well-developed. Perhaps because Teddy is not as well drawn as the three girls are by Nicholls, until right at the end, when he has been injured in the war.

Having Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth still very much in my mind, I was impressed to read a section that was obviously referencing Brittain's thoughts and experiences in the lead up to the Battle of the Somme. In her afterword, Nicholls acknowledged her gratitude to Brittain as the character of Evelyn obviously has a lot in common with Brittain.

Nicholls certainly writes an engrossing historical fiction and like all writers of history she has to make choices about how best to tell the story she wants to tell which involves what to leave out, what to gloss over and whether or not to go for accurate use of language. Nicholls choices are not jarring or even deal breakers, but they are evident to the adult reader.

All Fall Down was an earlier YA book by Nicholls about the Black Plague that I also enjoyed.

Book 13 of #20BooksofSummer (winter) drop-in title
21℃ in Sydney
16℃ in Northern Ireland
I read this book during the July #reversereadathon

Sunday, 29 July 2018

CC Spin #18

Well, here we are again! 
However this one didn't catch me by surprise. 
In my new role as one of the four moderators for The Classics Club, I was on the inside!

I'm hoping I will have time before Wednesday to visit other #CCspins to do my usual match ups, but for now here is my #18 spin list. 
This is the first time I will be featuring books from my CC Master List #2 after finishing List #1 in April.

1.The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit
2. The Dyehouse by Mena Calthorpe
3. Lives of the Caesars by Suetonius      (shared with NancyElin)
4. Watership Down by Richard Adams     (shared with Joseph @The Once Lost Wanderer)
5. Letters on Life by Rainer Maria Rilke
6. The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin
7. Alexander's Bridge by Willa Cather
8. Indiana by George Sand
9. The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch
10. A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle
11. A Mere Chance by Ada Cambridge
12. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
13. Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon
14. The Secret People by John Wyndham
15. The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura
16. Marling Hall by Angela Thirkell       (shared author with the[blank]garden)
17. The Annotated Persuasion by Jane Austen & David M Shapard     (shared with Austinfey@Books, Books, Books)
18. Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson
19. Petersberg by Andrei Bely
20. Basil by Wilkie Collins

Join in the fun by visiting the other players and commenting on their lists.
It's a great way to meet like-minded bloggers and explode your TBR classics wishlist!

My previous spins have been mostly successful and/or enjoyable. 
They look a little something like this: 

CC Spin #1 (2013 #14) The Magnificent Ambersons with Cat @Tell Me A Story.

CC Spin #2 (2013 #6) Tess of the D'Urbervilles with JoAnn @Lakeside Musings & Several Four Many.

CC Spin #3 (2013 #4) My Cousin Rachel - hope to watch the movie soon.

CC Spin #4 (2014 #10) The Brothers Karamazov - I floundered about halfway through this chunkster, then I lost the book when we moved two years ago...serendipity, I say!

CC Spin #5 (2014 #20) The Odyssey with Plethora of Books - This one was a bit of a cheat as I had started it for another readalong, but struggled to finish. I added it to my cc list to motivate me to finish it. When no. 20 spun up it seemed like the gods had decreed it so!

CC Spin #6 (2014 #1) No Name by Wilkie Collins with Melbourne on My Mind.

CC Spin #7 (2014 #17) Silent Spring by Rachel Carson with Karen @Booker Talk - my first classic non-fiction spin.

CC Spin #8 (2015 #13) Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh - my one and only dud Spin read so far.

CC Spin #9 (2015 #2) The Great World by David Malouf - my first Australian classic spin.

CC Spin #10 (2015 #5) A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark.

CC Spin #11 (2016 #19) So Big by Edna Ferber with Christy - we both experienced the joy of rediscovering a forgotten award winning classic.

CC Spin #12 (2016 #8) Dubliners by James Joyce - too depressing and hopeless for my state of mind at the time.

CC Spin #13 (2016 #15) The Catherine Wheel by Catherine Harrower - my second Aussie #ccspin classic. Disturbing but riveting reading.

CC Spin #14 (2016 #1) The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnet - it's weird how books remind you not only of the time or place within the book but also the time and place where you read them. This spin book was read one weekend whilst visiting my father-in-law. Seeing this cover on my list today made me tear up straight away and took me back to the lovely weekend we all enjoyed together before he died last year.

CC Spin #15 (2017 #12) Out of Africa by Karen Blixen - a disappointment in the end. The movie was better.

CC Spin #16 (2017 #4) The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield - a book that grew better with time & reflection.

CC Spin #17 (2018 #3) Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy with Tasheena @Dear Reader - not my favourite Hardy in the end.

CC Spin #18 (2018 #9) The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch

Has any other Clubber (besides myself and Jean @Howling Frog) joined in ALL 18 spins?

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Reverse Readathon

The #reversereadathon is just what I needed this weekend. Hosted by our wonderful friends at the 24hour Readathon, the reverse readathon is a lowkey 24 hr reading event that 'reverses' the usual starting time. It's still a 24 hour thing, but, for me, instead of starting at 10pm on the Saturday evening, I get to start all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 10am on Saturday.

But of course, I'm not only on the other side of the world, I'm also in another hemisphere.

So I will reverse the seasons as well!

In Sydney, Australia, I will be celebrating the July Reverse Winter Readathon by rugging up in my coat, scarf and favourite throw blanket.
It may not feel very much like winter, though - the predicted temp for today in Sydney is a balmy 21℃, with a slight chance of an afternoon shower. July is already our warmest July on record (& sadly one of the driest, which is not a good sign for the summer ahead) and we still have four more days to go!

My plan?

To head off to my local cafe at 9:30am, position myself at a window table, order my coffee and settle down to read, read, read!

I hope to finish some of the half-read books by my bed -

  1. Last Stories by William Trevor
  2. Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls  Finished at 6:35pm - 155 pgs in total
  3. Taboo by Kim Scott  - 36 pgs read
  4. Clock Dance by Anne Tyler  Finished at 2:45pm - 155 pgs in total
  5. Inglorious Empire by Shashi Tharoor  
  6. Basho the Complete Haiku
And complete this week's pages for the LesMis chapter-a-day readalong.   78 pgs

I also have a stack of kids books that I should/could read for work 
  1. The Bad Guys Episode 7 by Aaron Blabey  FINISHED - 156 pgs in total
  2. Louisiana's Way Home by Kate DiCamillo
  3. Sisters &  FINISHED - 201 pgs in total
  4. Smile by Raina Telgemeier  FINISHED - 218 pgs in total
I will pop back here and on twitter every now and again to update how many pages read and any cafe updates! 
#TeamANZ is also up and running on twitter.

What about you?
Where are you reading? 
What season is it and what time are you starting?


5 hrs of #reversereadathon & I've just finished Clock Dance.
I've enjoyed a morning walk, coffee break, beauty appointment, mini-grocery shop, lunch with another cuppa & 155 pgs of reading. 

I finished Clock Dance sitting on the back porch in the afternoon sun.
The zygocactus is in its final days of bloom.
Feeling a little melancholy and nostalgic yet hopeful after being immersed in Anne Tyler's world all trying to work out what's next.

Thought I would go round and visit a few posts and check twitter before deciding...


All caught up (& now a little bit ahead cause it got very exciting) of my LesMis chapters.
233 pages read in total 

The sun is going down, streaky clouds cover the sky.
The coldness is creeping in; time to turn on the heating.

The renovating neighbours have finally stopped with the banging and scraping - on a Saturday!
New owners yet to move in & making themselves very unpopular before we've ever met them.
Two weeks of jack hammering, then two weeks of water-proofing and the most god-awful toxic smell, now weekend work as well!! Inner-city living sucks!

Just as well I can lose myself in a good book or two.
Time foe some YA

Midnight UPDATE

After a dinner break with the family, I hit the graphic novels, whilst curled up in bed.
I finished Things A Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls and read Aaron Blabey's The Bad Guys Episode 7 plus Smile and Sisters by Raina Telgemeier.

That's five books FINISHED
963 pages read in total

But now it's time to sleep.


999 pages read
5 books finished
2 books part read

1hr break for an appointment
1 hr break for dinner with the family
8 hr break to sleep
another hour or so spent on social media throughout the day
which means I spent just over 12 hrs reading

I enjoyed the reverse nature of this readathon. Starting bright-eyed and bushy-tailed on Saturday morning got me off to a flying start. Normally I would finish the 'thon late on Sunday night, making me tired for Monday morning work. I won't have that problem this time at all and I'd be delighted to join in a #reversereadathon again.

The hard part for me is that afternoon slump, whichever way the world spins.
4pm is always my danger zone.
I got through it with chocolate.

Reading the graphic novels late at night was a GREAT thing to do (& I would highly recommend Telgemeier's books for this).

Friday, 27 July 2018

The Best Short Stories by Guy de Maupassant

In recent years, I've tried to take a more leisurely, thoughtful approach to reading short stories. The good thing about this is a more satisfying reading experience. The downside? It's taking me a LOT longer to get through a book of short stories!

I started Maupassant's short story collection last year for Paris in July when I read the first three. Between now and then, I've read another two. Another four stories have been read for this year's Paris in July.

Below are my six latest responses.

Clair de Lune - first published in 1882.

The hand of god sways a man of god to see the light (and love).
That is, a fanatical priest who thinks that women are nothing more than 'sinful bodies' put on earth to tempt and test men (oh please!) discovers his niece is stepping out at night to see a lover. He decides to follow her, but is 'surprised by the splendid moonlight, of such brilliance as is seldom seen' and finds his 'emotional nature' moved 'by all the grand and serene beauty of the pale sky.'

La bella luna caresses him, delights him, seduces him and causes the Abbe to 'admire God in His works.'
'Why did God make this?'
He remembers the story of Ruth and Boaz and the verses of the Song of Songs.
He realises that perhaps love begins with god and that 'perhaps God has made such nights as these to idealise the love of man' (and woman!)

Clair de lune is the perfect example of the short story form, with a clear character, setting, plot, conflict and theme.

Miss Harriet - first published in 1883. 

Beware the charms of a much younger man!
A story within a story - which is a fairly usual device employed by short story writers. In this case a carriage full of travellers and someone says, 'tell us a love story'.
What follows is the rather sad story of an older woman falling for a carefree artist and coming to a tragic end.

Once again, Maupassant uses nature as his setting, 'what one loves most amid all these varied adventures is the country, the woods, the rising of the twilight, the moonlight....You go to sleep in the fields, amid marguerites and poppies, and when you open your eyes in the full glare of sunlight you descry in the distance the little village with its clock tower which sounds the hour of noon.'

And once again a religious fanatic (this time Miss Harriet herself) is undone by nature, unrequited love and beauty.

La Parure (The Necklace) - first published in 1884.

Honesty is the best policy - or how we create unnecessary dramas in our lives by being secretive.

This time beauty is in the form of a lovely woman and stunning piece of jewellery,
She danced with rapture, with passion, intoxicated by pleasure, forgetting all in the triumph of her beauty, in the glory of her success, in a sort of cloud of happiness composed of all this homage and admiration, and of that sense of victory which is so sweet to a woman's heart.

But what is real and what is not? And 'how small a thing is needed to make or ruin us.'

Mademoiselle Perle (Mademoiselle Pearl) - first published in 1886.

Back in Paris, the Chantals live a secluded life, 'of Paris, the real Paris, they know nothing at all; they suspect nothing; they are so far, so far away.'

For the Chantals all that part of Paris situated on the other side of the Seine constitutes the new quarter, a section inhabited by a strange, noisy population, which cares little for honour, spends its days in dissipation, its nights in revelry, and throws money out of the windows.

This time the love is undeclared and unacknowledged and only finally revealed via the story within a story device used by Maupassant.

'Didn't your father ever tell you?'

But did our narrator do the right by exposing the love? Both he and Maupassant agree that he did for 'this hour will bring to those two dead souls more happiness in an instant than others can find during a whole lifetime!'

La Ficelle (The Piece of String) - first publish in 1883.

The boy who cried wolf! Or the difficulty of being believed after a lifetime of manipulation & craftiness.
In the marketplace at Goderville was a great crowd, a mingled multitude of men and beasts. The horns of cattle, the high long-napped hats of wealthy peasants, the head dresses of the women rose above the surface of the throng....Everywhere were the smells of the stable, of milk, of hay, of perspiration, and of that half-human, half-animal odour which is peculiar to country folk.

Market Day at Trouville Normandy 1878 - Eugene Boudin

Once again, Maupasant has written the perfect short story.

Character (Maitre Hauchecorne); setting (above); plot (loss of a wallet); conflict (Hauchecorne accused (falsely) of stealing it); theme (worrying about what others think of you will be the death of you - pettiness - hypocrisy - misunderstanding - preconceptions - bias).

This story is full of the senses - sounds, smells, looks and touch. But not everything is as it looks. Looks can be deceiving and liars sometimes tell the truth.

I now have eight more stories to go to complete this collection - by my reckoning that's two more Paris in July's!!


One of the joys of this month has been reading my Parisian books in my favourite little local cafe, called Cafe d'Yvoire. It has been one of the driest, warmest July's on record, although still not really warm enough to sit outside comfortably. Sadly. I'm not a big cake or pastry eater, so I simply enjoy looking at their delicious treats whilst sipping my cappuccino.

Stories 1 - 3: Boule de Suif (or Dumpling or Ball of Fat), Deux Amis (Two Friends) and La Maison Tellier (Madame Tellier's Establishment)

Stories 5 - 9: Clair de Lune, Miss Harriett, The Necklace, Mademoiselle Pearl and The Piece of String.

#ParisinJuly Week 4