Thursday, 28 May 2020

20 Books of Winter


There are almost as many individual ways of participating in Cathy's annual 20 Books of Summer Winter as there are participants!
Obviously, one of my points of difference is seasonal.

I usually have no difficulty reading 20 books in 3 months, but I am very fast and loose with the whole idea of a static list that I must stick to for the entire season.

Yes, I will give you 20 fabulous book options below, that I would love to read this winter, but chances are, by next month, another 20 books will have come into my possession, clamouring just as hard for my attention. So I will swap books in and out as the mood takes me.

20 books will be read.
The chances of them being the 20 book listed below is, however, rather slim.

For my own amusement, I will list each book with it's opening sentence.

1.
The Dutch House | Ann Patchett

Shortlisted for this year's Women's Prize and my next book club read.


The first time our father brought Andrea to the Dutch House, Sandy, our housekeeper, came to my sister's room and told us to come downstairs. "Your father has a friend he wants you to meet," she said.

2.
The White Girl | Tony Birch

Longlisted for this year's Miles Franklin Award & the book I plan to nominate to be our following month's book club read.


Odette Brown rose with the sun, as she did each morning.

3.
Humankind | Rutger Bregman

Will it live up to the hype?


This is a book about a radical idea.

4.
Maisie Dobbs #13 The American Agent | Jacqueline Winspear

Comfort read the first.
I'm pretty sure that Maisie will not be bumped from this list.
One cold, miserable weekend in June or July, she will be the answer to all my woes.


Tonight I joined the women of the London Auxiliary Ambulance Service as they rushed to the aid of civilians caught in the relentless bombing of this brave city.

5.
The Animals in that Country | Laura Jean McKay

Sadly this cover gets lost on the shelf on work. 
Up close it looks intriguing, but on a crowded shelf it simply doesn't pop. 
I will have to read this to help hand-sell it.


Everyone wants to see the wild ones.

6.
The Dickens Boy | Tom Keneally

At some point in recent history, Thomas Keneally became Tom Keneally.
I usually find his novels a bit hit or miss.
I'm hopeful, however, since this one highlights the last book of his that I enjoyed on the cover.  That has to be a good sign right?


A long ocean voyage seems plentiful in small incidents when you are on it, but is remembered as a blur when it ends.

7.
The Dictionary of Lost Words | Pip Williams

Good word-of-mouth bestseller at the moment at work.


Before the lost word, there was another. 

8.
Friends and Rivals | Brenda Niall

Squeal!
I cannot tell you how excited I am about this one. Two of my favourite Australian women writers together with two more I'd like to get to know better.


'All over the country, brooding on squatters' verandahs, or mooning in selectors' huts', so A. G. Stephens wrote in the Bulletin in 1901, 'there are scattered here and there hundreds of lively, dreamy Australian girls whose queer uncomprehended ambitions are the despair of the household. they yearn, they aspire for they know not what...'

9.
Fire Country | Victor Steffensen

After our horrendous fire season this past summer, I've been wanting to read more about the Indigenous approach to caring for country. The timing for publishing this book was perfect in March...until Covid-19 arrived, and pushed the urgent environmental story off the top shelf.


Through my childhood I was always interested in learning whatever I could about culture and the bush.

10.
Latitudes of Longing | Shubhangi Swarup

Industry buzz around this one. Sounds promising...but I've been there before!


Silence on a tropical island is the relentless sound of water.

11.
Sisters | Daisy Johnson 

I've been meaning to read one of Johnson's books for a while now...this could be it.


A house. Slices of it through the hedge, across the fields.

12.
Perveen Mistry #2 The Satapur Moonstone | Sujata Massey

Comfort read the second.


Perveen Mistry sighed, adjusting her hat on her sweating brow.

13.
The Porpoise | Mark Haddon

Wasn't going to read this...but then I heard it had an Ancient Greek myths and legends angle.


Maja is thirty-seven weeks pregnant.

14.
Rodham | Curtis Sittenfeld

Great opening line!


The first time I saw him, I thought he looked like a lion.

15.
Rowland Sinclair Mysteries #10 A Testament of Character | Sulari Gentill

Comfort read the third.


The doors which led out to the suite's balcony were open to the brewing storm outside.

16.
Love | Roddy Doyle

Haven't read any Doyle for years. This looks lovely.


He knew it was her, he told me.

17.
Hag-Seed | Margaret Atwood

I read Shakespeare's The Tempest earlier in the year, so that I could fully appreciate this book.
It's time I got to it.


The house lights dim. The audience quiets.

18.
A Thousand Ships | Natalie Haynes

Shortlisted for this year's Women's Prize.


Sing, Muse, he says, and the edge in his voice makes it clear that this is not a request.

19.
The Closed Circle | Jonathan Coe

I read book three of this trilogy at the beginning of the year, quickly followed by number one.
I felt like I was done with Benjamin Trotter and his family and friends, until Mr Books read them all recently, in correct chronological order, and insisted that I finish the series because book two was the best of the lot. In his opinion!


Sister Dearest, The view from up here is amazing, but it's too cold to write very much.

20.
Maigret and the Killer | Georges Simenon

Comfort read the fourth.
And one of my Paris in July options.


For the first time since they had been going for dinner with the Pardons once a month, Maigret had a memory of the evening at Boulevard Voltaire that was almost painful.

*******************************

I guess part of the thrill now, is to see which of these twenty titles will make it all the way to September?
Which books will be bumped for something newer and shinier?
Let the games begin!

#20BooksofSummerWinter

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

The Cardboard Crown | Martin Boyd #CCspin

This remarkable novel, first published to a chorus of acclaim in 1952, is one of the lost classics of Australian literature. Martin Boyd is a deeply humane novelist, a writer of family sagas without peer.

Set in Australia and England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, The Cardboard Crown presents an unforgettable portrait of an upper middle-class family who love both countries but are not quite at home in either.

At the centre of this scintillating and immensely readable novel is Alice Verso, whose unexpected marriage to Austin Langton not only brings financial stability to the Langtons but founds an Anglo-Australian dynasty. But when her grandson finds her diaries and begins to uncover her story he chances on an intricate web of deception and reveals the complex fate of his family over three generations.

I don't often start with a blurb about the book I've just read, but I figured that many of my readers may never have heard of The Cardboard Crown or Martin Boyd

The Langton Quartet (there are three more books in the series) have been compared to the Forsyte Saga, and Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time as an Australian example of a family epic across time and place.

Boyd (10th June 1893 – 3rd June 1972 - how frustrating to get so close to one's 80th birthday and just miss out!) was part of the well-known à Beckett-Boyd family of Melbourne. Various members of the family made their names in the judiciary, art, literary and publishing worlds. To name a few of this creative extended family we have Merric Boyd, Helen à Beckett Read, Arthur Boyd, Guy Boyd, David Boyd, Mary Nolan, Robin Boyd and Joan Lindsay.

Martin actually spent most of his adult life in Europe, but The Cardboard Crown and it's follow up books A Difficult Young Man (1955), Outbreak of Love (1957) and When Blackbirds Sing (1962) were written thanks to a brief period of his life when he returned to Australia with a dream to restore the old family home. 

During this time (1948-1951), he rediscovered his grandmother's diaries where he read about her previously unknown convict heritage. Her father, John Mills, the founder of Melbourne Brewery, was an ex-convict. It was his money that had funded the extended family for several generations. In 1950's Australia though, a convict past was decidedly frowned upon. So Boyd changed the family scandal in his books to that of an adulterous affair, or as Brenda Niall says in her Introduction, he 'reinterpreted a century of family history'.

Boyd had a brief stint in a seminary (followed by a lifelong search for the place of religion in his life) before enlisting in the Royal East Kent Regiment during WWI. After the war, he returned to Melbourne, but no longer felt like he fitted in there. He returned to Europe, wandering around from place to place. After his final stay in Australia, he moved to Rome to write. He converted to Catholicism in his dying days and is buried in the Rome Protestant English Cemetery near Keats and Shelley.

Like the characters in his semi-biographical quartet, Boyd never felt at home in Australia or England. Throughout The Cardboard Crown the tension between being English and being Australian is a constant pull. As is the sad and slow decline of a once well-off, well-connected family moving down the social ladder. 
It did not occur to anyone until after the 1914 war that there was any obligation to work unless it was necessary.

I can see why this book may have fallen out of favour for a while. Aristocrats, inherited money and gentlemen of leisure don't really hold much truck with the average Australian. Ignoring our convict heritage may have been de rigueur in the early part of the nineteenth century, but by the 1970's, with its sudden surge in family history research, having a convict or two in your past, became not only acceptable but something to be proud of, especially if you could claim a First Fleeter on your tree. It's a shame that Boyd didn't feel that he could tell that story.
They had brought out with them their English style of living, but it was tempered by a pleasant colonial informality. They had to satisfy no one but themselves. They did not follow the social pattern, they set it.

The story of Alice Langton, is told by her grandson Guy de Teba Langton. We see her as he remembers her, but we also get a more first hand, personal account of her life through her own diaries. Boyd/Langton enjoys the disparity between the two and spends many musing moments comparing these two women, these two images of the same woman. 
It did not seem only to contain the ghosts of the dead from whom we spring, but also the ghosts of the living, of the child I was.

She was quite an extraordinary woman - self-made, strong and capable. She spent her life searching for home and for love, constantly juggling and handing over money to prevent the entire family from going under. 
Alice only wanted to fill properly the position in which circumstances had placed her, and to see that her children had and used all the opportunities available to people of their kind.

But Guy/Martin also explored class consciousness and the workings of democracy. He compares the two countries, he compares East St Kilda and Toorak, he compares town and country and he compares Europe and England. There's a snobbish attitude towards the middle class, but a curious link is made between the landed gentry and the rural working classes,
The aristocracy lives from the land, the peasant lives from the land - they are akin. Their blood is nourished red from nature, and the flesh and the spirit are one.

The colonial emigrant experience is a big part of this story. The disconnect and confusion about belonging and home reflected the reality of many nineteenth century Australians who still called England 'home'. It was an odd situation to be in. In England, where their hearts lay, they were small fish in a very old pond. In Australia they had the opportunity to be big fish with a lot of political and social clout, but it was only in Australia, on the other side of the world from where all the important stuff was actually happening. It almost felt like play-acting at being important. Living in the now, and being happy where you are, was not something that these Australians found easy to do. Their eyes were always on the horizon and they were constantly trying to superimpose an English way of life onto this alien Australian environment.

Needless to say, the story was filled with a curious mix of nostalgia, pride and divided loyalties.

My one difficulty with this book was the large paragraphs written in French. I spent one Sunday afternoon typing them all into my google translate app, to only discover that most of the sentiment within these paragraphs was conveyed, by Boyd, in the sections around them. But I needed to know for sure. Once upon a time, Boyd's readers would have been schooled in basic French, but no longer. All I could do was pick out random words I knew.

I was thoroughly engaged with this multi-generational story, seeing an older Melbourne through nostalgic eyes and a Europe still innocent of two world wars. When I finished I wasn't sure if I would continue the journey with the other three books. But as time has gone by, between reading and reviewing, I now also feel a sense of nostalgia for this time and this place and this family and I'm very curious to see what happens next.

I guess I'll be adding A Difficult Young Man to my next CC Spin!

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Fictionalised Biography or Biographical Fiction?

Photo by Giammarco Boscaro on Unsplash

As most of you know by now, I love and adore historical fiction. It's my preferred genre, although I will have a go at most things if it's well-written, has an interesting premise or I'm in the mood. However my go-to, when I need a guaranteed read, a read I can simply fall into with comfort and ease, it will always be historical fiction.

In and around this are books that might be classified as alternate histories (think 1984 or Stephen King's 11/22/63) where the author plays with what might have happened if just one event changed. We can also have books that are historical now by default. I guess you might call them period piece fiction as they are now historical to us, but they were once contemporary (think Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott). The historical time and setting of these novels now plays an important part in understanding what's happening to our beloved characters.

Historical fiction, for me then, pretty much covers everything else. That is, an author sets their book in a period of time before their own and populates it with fictional characters (think Thomas Keneally, Geraldine Brooks, James A. Michener). To refine this even further, you could include authors who write about the immediate past. A time they may have lived through themselves or perhaps their grandparents lived through, providing a personal perspective to the historical context (think Tolstoy, Zola, Harper Lee).

Included within this group, is the fictionalised biography.

Or is that, biographical fiction?

Whichever way you look it, it's where an author takes real events and real people and makes up stuff about what they said and did to make a story. I love this sub-genre. When done well, it can provide insights into a time and place or a much-loved person that would be impossible to know otherwise, due to the sparsity of primary sources (think Hilary Mantel, Robert Graves, Philippa Gregory).

One of the things I love about this particular genre is it's ability to view history through a different lens. A lot of authors are exploring history through a feminist lens or an Indigenous lens (think The Secret River or Alias Grace). Given that the historical record favours the winners who also usually happen to be men, being reminded that other people were involved and impacted is a good thing.

Historical facts are not static; they have always been open to manipulation. Revisionism and re-interpretation is a natural human process. We all adjust our personal stories as new evidence comes to light and as experience and maturity enhance our ability to see beyond our own biases and prejudices.

The history of the world is no different. The stories around the facts, change with time. New information, fresh perspectives and the advantage of hindsight can all have an impact. It opens the doors to exciting possibilities and original ideas.

Which brings me to the massive disappointment I feel, when this story telling process fails to work it's magic over me.

It may be that the weird times under which we now live, are adversely affecting my reading habits. I do seem to be leaning more towards narrative non-fiction lately. But let me tell you about two of the disappointments.

Firstly, Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell.

Shortlisted for this years Women's Prize and claiming to tell the story of Shakespeare young son who died at age 11 in 1596, this is a lifelong fascination for O'Farrell come to fruition. It sounded so promising.

I loved the first chapter that shows us a young Hamnet playing with his twin sister Judith who suddenly falls ill. She puts herself to bed and Hamnet goes searching for a family member to help, but everyone is out. This is unusual. Hamnet's search becomes more desperate and tense when he suspects that Judith may have caught the Plague.

But then we switch to back story. The wild, untamed daughter attracts the attention of the dissatisfied tutor to her brothers. Yuck! Her witchy habits means she is an outsider and considered dangerous to know. He knows he shouldn't, but he does, anyway. Blah, blah, blah.

I picked it up and put it down three times, hoping it was just my bad mood or tiredness. But no. This is just trite and awful. Not even the stuff about the Plague was enough to keep me interested (if only a few more world leaders had been like Queen Elizabeth I though "The playhouses are all shut, by order of the Queen, and no one is allowed to gather in public.")

My next fictionalised biography disappointment was a bit closer to home.

I've been looking forward to the new Kate Grenville for some time now. It's an embargoed title until the 2nd July, but some pre-publicity stuff tells me that the premise of this story about Elizabeth Macarthur hinges on the sudden discovery of some "shockingly frank secret memoirs." 

Uh-oh!

I many give A Room made of Leaves closer attention in July, just to make sure, but the blurbs unnecessary use of the words 'notorious', 'miraculously' and 'playful' have turned me off, as has this particular paragraph.
Marriage to a ruthless bully, the impulses of her heart, the search for power in a society that gave women none- this Elizabeth Macarthur manages her complicated life with spirit and passion, cunning and sly wit. Her memoir lets us hear-at last!-what one of those seemingly demure women from history might really have thought.
Yuck!

That has to be one of the worst written blurbs ever. It's made the story sound like some kind of bodice-ripping, pot-boiler.

I am now feeling rather nervous about starting the final book in Hilary Mantel's (so far) magnificent trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, The Mirror and the Light. The reports coming in from customers and other bloggers are encouraging, so all I have to do I is make the time to reread the first two!

A copy of Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld is also lurking on my TBR pile. I love the idea of an alternate history story line with a feminist lens, but what if the writing is dull and awful? I've never read any Sittenfeld before, so I don't know what to expect.

Despite the above, I do in fact, love this genre. Remember how much I enjoyed In Love With George Eliot by Kathy O'Shaughnessy earlier this year. And my most recent Zola (surely the master of fictionalised history), and my current chapter-a-day read of War and Peace plus a whole stack of other classic and period piece books devoured this year alone (ranging from Katherine Mansfield to Angela Thirkell to Mena Calthorpe and just this week Martin Boyd).

I'm certainly not done with fictionalised biographies, but I am a little more wary of late. As always, I'm happy to consider your favourites, in this genre, for future reference.

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Shelf Life #4

Photo by LAUREN GRAY on Unsplash

Shelf Life is a new personal meme to help me in my ongoing attempt to declutter my bookshelves.
It's more than a Marie Condo of my books though.
It's aim is to reflect, honour and let go as many books as possible.

Most likely, in the next 12 months or so, Mr Books and I will be on the move. The thought of packing up everything we own again, gives me the horrors.

Therefore as time permits, I will reassess the many, many READ books stacked on my bookshelves. (The unread TBR pile is another story all together!)

The aim of Shelf Life is to let go those books that I know I will never read again and to give them a proper send off.

My assessment criteria includes:
  • Does this book spark joy?
  • Honestly, will I ever reread this book?
  • How and why did this book come to be on my bookshelf anyway?
  • When and where did I read this book?
  • What are my memories of this book?
  • Is this book part of a series, a signed copy or a special edition?
  • Do I want to pack and unpack this book one more time? Or several more times, during what's left of my lifetime?
  • If I were to let this book go, would I feel regret, remorse or relief?

My latest Shelf Life choices look a little like this:


1. The End of the Affair | Graham Greene
  • Entered my life on the 23rd March 2002 after watching the 1999 movie of The End of the Affair starring Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore.
  • Epitaph: Leon Bloy | Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering that they may have existence.
  • I was fascinated by Greene for a short period of time for his Catholicism. 
  • I grew up in a non-practising Protestant family. 
  • Catholicism was somehow frowned upon by the older members of my family. It was viewed as mysterious, foreign and somehow over the top and showy in practice.
  • A number of the friends I made during my twenties grew up in the Catholic faith. They had abandoned it as adults, yet it was obvious to me that there were certain hangovers (guilt) that they found hard to shake.
  • I was curious.
  • Greene did not become a Catholic until he was 22 yrs of age, so he could marry Vivien Dayrell-Browning.
  • He attempted suicide a number of times and had bi-polar disorder.
  • I finished the book still bemused by the ritual and ceremony of Catholicism. 
  • It seemed that Catholicism was an intellectual pursuit for Greene rather than a belief.
2. The Quiet American | Graham Greene
  • Entered my library on the 22 March 2003 after seeing the movie with Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser.
  • I studied the Vietnam war in high school.
  • Reread it in 2015 when Mr Books and I spent two weeks travelling around Vietnam, where, of course, they call that period of history the American war.
  • The Quiet American was not as Catholic as his earlier book, but still full of moral ambiguity, idealism and intrigue.
  • I do not need to reread this again. Twice was more than enough for me and a book about a war.
  • A 2018 Christmas read at the beach which I found hard to engage with completely as the cold, snowy French setting was too far removed from the sunny, 30 plus degrees outside.
  • A rather melancholy read; filled in some Maigret gaps but not worth repeating.
  • Discovered in Gertrude and Alice, a second hand bookshop & cafe in Bondi on the 24th May 2014, back when I used to host a Wharton Reading Month on my blog.
  • If you're wondering why I stopped (besides running out of steam), it was these short stories.
  • When I finished this book, I had basically read everything that Wharton had written.
  • I particularly enjoyed Xingu.
  • But I also realised that I preferred Wharton's novels to her short stories (and her non-fiction).
5. Convenience Store Woman | Sayaka Murata
  • A book group read from last year.
  • Thoroughly entertaining, especially after visiting Japan in 2018, but I will not be rereading this.
  • I will, however return to Japan one day to spend more time in their convenience stores!
6. A Tale of Two Cities | Charles Dickens
  • I'm not sure how I ended up with two copies of this book, but I'm going to keep the Random Vintage paperback copy I also have as it matches my other Dickens' novels.
  • This edition is a plastic covered hardcover, which makes me think I picked it up second hand in a library sale or bookshop.
  • First read during my uni years, 30 yrs ago. 
  • It sparked off the first of my French Revolution reading jags and my love of Dickens.
  • I'd LOVE to reread this one day. 
  • I just hope I live long enough to fit in all the books I want to read, plus the rereads!
I don't feel compelled to keep any of these books for future references, unless you can convince me otherwise. The shelf space is more important than the meagre reading memories tied up with these six books.

Shelf Life #1
Shelf Life #2

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Cherry Beach | Laura McPhee-Browne #AUSfiction


I've been dragging my feet about writing (or finishing) off several reviews for books read a month ago. Part of the problem has been a recent return to work which has left me wondering how on earth I used to fit everything in before Covid-19 came along and slowed things down for a while. But the other part is having little desire to say anything right now.

I enjoyed Cherry Beach. It was angsty and full of the drama of young adult friendships and relationships. From my vantage point (many years away from this often torturous period of life) I could appreciate the difficulty one has in moving on from childhood friendships that fail to crossover into an adult relationships. It's not easy to let go people you no longer share anything in common with, except some childhood memories. Despite the love, the shared experiences and all the best intentions, some friendships do not go forward. And that's okay. But it's not always easy to know this when you're young, or to know how to do so gracefully. The graceful part is especially hard to negotiate.

The common ground can disappear, different experiences move you away from each other and a friendship that once enriched and supported you, becomes a drag on your energies and brings you down. How do you move on? How do you protect yourself from any fallout? How do you honour what you once had?

Hetty and Ness are two such friends, trying to navigate their way through the twenty-something phase. They leave behind Melbourne (and their shared childhood) to have a year living overseas in Canada. Their lives veer off into vastly different directions. 

What happens next is exquisitely bittersweet, yet captures the intense emotions of young adulthood perfectly. The insecurity, the anxiety, and the hugeness of what life might become. Which road to take, who to be with, who to trust and love and who not to. Sadly, some young people set off down a road of self-destruction and those on the sidelines can do very little to stop it. Adult responsibilities and choices can be a burden or you can embrace them. This is that story.

This a debut novel by Laura McPhee-Browne. She is a social worker in Melbourne and her writing has appeared in a variety of journals and magazines.

The gorgeous cover art is by Emma Currie.

Saturday, 16 May 2020

The Illustrated Golden Bough | Sir James George Fraser #Readalong


Given the ridiculous amount of books I have on the go at the moment, the idea of starting yet another, seems rather ridiculous. But I struggle to pass up any opportunity to join a readalong at the best of times, but when it also means reading along with Jean and Cleo, then how could I possibly resist!

Jean @Howling Frog is hosting the spontaneous readalong in question. Part of the appeal is the lack of firm reading dates. Jean and Cleo plan to read 2-3 chapters a week, however my edition is The Illustrated Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. It's not only full of pretty colour pictures, but it's also the abridged version with only 221 pages (plus indexes).

First published in 1890 in two volumes (then three volumes in 1900 and finally a whooping twelve volumes in 1906-15), my one volume edition was published in 1996 with eleven chapters. Which means that my edition does not have the chapter on the crucifixion (that Fraser removed from subsequent editions after being criticised for including a Christian story in his comparative study of myths and pagan rituals and religions). A disappointing fact, that may lead me to search out the missing chapter online somewhere, to round out my reading journey. 
(I have found the Project Gutenberg ebook here).

I've now had The Golden Bough lurking on my bookshelves since the year 2000. I started reading it back then, but my interest fizzled out part way through. I'm hoping that Jean and Cleo can help me finally finish this book.

Frazer was born in 1854 in Scotland. He was a social anthropologist. His work describes the three stages of human belief from primitive magic to religion to reason & science. He said,
Books like mine, merely speculation, will be superseded sooner or later (the sooner the better for the sake of truth) by better induction based on fuller knowledge."
His critics were not only upset by the inclusion of the Christian story, but one Edmund Leach, "one of the most impatient critics of Frazer's overblown prose and literary embellishment of his sources for dramatic effect" said that,
Frazer used his ethnographic evidence, which he culled from here, there and everywhere, to illustrate propositions which he had arrived at in advance by a priori reasoning, but, to a degree which is often quite startling, whenever the evidence did not fit he simply altered the evidence!
Frazer was a social anthropologist interested in speculative human psychology; Leach (1910-1989) was a social anthropologist interested in functionalism and kinship structures. As Frazer predicted, his ideas were superseded by newer, modern methods of reasoning and science. Many of Frazer's ideas may now be outdated, but the conversation had to start somewhere.

I'm curious to see what he has to say. 

As a frustrated amateur anthropologist from way back, I feel that I should warn Jean and Cleo that I'm about to enter into a topic and subject matter that I have been known to obsess over ad nauseam. Blogger beware!

My first caveat is that I'm not always convinced by the idea of continual progress dressed up as a positive forward march for all humankind. Evolution, change and adaptation - yes, by all means - but it's not necessarily superior or better; it's just different - a sign of modification and acclimatisation - not ascendancy. 

My other bias is that I view all religion as part of our human urge to create a life narrative - a story that seeks to satisfy our need to ascribe our lives with a higher meaning and purpose. We're all looking for something bigger than us, something to belong to that gives our lives significance. 

Thousands of years ago, the gods inhabited the heavens. They were powerful, unpredictable and not of this earth. Then, curiously, within about 500 yrs of each other, the main civilisations on this planet at that time, all grew tired of these distant, uncaring, demanding gods and turned to something, or someone closer to home. Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad changed the spiritual narrative into a more personal one. It became a story about people, here on earth, with human frailty and flaws as well as the potential for goodness and kindness and altruism. 

Some wonderful stories have grown out of these traditions, but so too, have many poor ones. Ones that no longer serve us well. In the end, though, it's whatever works for you. You have to find the story that gives your life significance. Just don't try to convince me that your story is somehow better than any other story. Like all stories, some people are into it and some aren't. Some win awards and some don't. Some are hidden gems and some would probably be better if they got pulped. Trying to convince anyone that your story is more right than any other, will only lead to discontent, vexation and hostility.

That's the personal predisposition I bring with me whenever I delve into the topic of myth, magic and religion.

I'm extremely curious. I don't feel it necessary to believe any of it. My lens is impersonal and pragmatic. I'm like an interested outsider, looking in, trying to understand how something works and what it looks like in practice. I'm looking for the patterns, the rituals & rites, and the timelines. But mostly, I'm looking for the reason why. 

I'm endlessly fascinated by the stories we tell ourselves. What do they reveal about the times in which we live, what need do they fulfil, how are these stories used (for good and for evil) and how do these stories get converted into our daily routines and practice? 


Post-Introduction update:
  • I should have read the Intro by Robert Temple before publishing this post.
  • He posits a kinder way of viewing Frazer's work than did Leach.
  • Temple clarifies Frazer's anthropological position as an interest in taboos and totemism.
  • He believes that Frazer took 'the grand view' surveying 'world history as a whole'.
  • Temple saw Frazer's ability to 'change his hypothesis if he saw it to be inadequate' as one of two 'exemplary characteristics.' The other being his 'disregard for excessive specialisation'. 
  • He concluded with, 'Frazer was essentially a nineteenth-century thinker, and approaches to social anthropology have changed....some of his views are no longer compatible with current thinking. However (his work) remains a vital part of cultural history. It is a unique archive and work of literature, and Frazer's splendid prose style is a pleasure to read.'
  • A far more generous appraisal of The Golden Bough and Frazer, I'm sure you will agree.

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Redhead By the Side of the Road | Anne Tyler #USfiction


I don't know why I've been dragging my feet about writing this post. I loved this return-to-form story by Anne Tyler, one of my favourite character-driven authors. Perhaps, it's simply because I don't have a lot to say about it. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I loved how Tyler teased out the unique behaviours of her main character and embedded him firmly within a large, messy, chaotic family that was full of love, even if somewhat suffocating at times. I loved the resolution to this slim tale and can highly recommend it to those of you who love a gentle exploration of a sympathetically drawn character. What more can I say?

The Redhead By the Side of the Road, without giving anything away, is actually a fire hydrant that our slightly myopic protagonist, Micah mistakes for a child in a hoodie, every single morning when he runs by without his glasses. Its a gentle nod to the main theme of the story. Perception, and how we see ourselves and how others see us in return. One of my all-time favourite book themes! And one that Tyler has mastered. 

Like many of her stories, absence or loss is the driving force behind helping our protagonist to change. When Micah's girlfriend calls things off, he cannot understand why and it takes him a while to understand that the weird feelings going on for him are grief and heartache. Or, as Micah, so eloquently says late in the novel, "I'm a roomful of broken hearts." How could you not take him back?

My one and only beef is that Redhead By the Side of the Road is not as meaty or as angsty as her earlier books. I guess it's a good sign that she has worked through her childhood issues and found a more peaceful writing place, but I do still love a rich, engrossing read full of childhood angst!

Anne Tyler has published 24 novels, of which I have now read four (plus seen the movie for An Accidental Tourist). Tyler, like myself, is the eldest of four children, But unlike myself, she grew up in a Quaker family in a commune in North Carolina. She didn't attend formal schooling until age 12, where she found herself in the outsider role. She feels this has helped her to be the writer she is today.
 
I believe that any kind of setting-apart situation will do (to become a writer). In my case, it was emerging from the commune...and trying to fit into the outside world.

She graduated high school at age 16 and moved to Duke University on a full scholarship. In 1963 she married Taghi Modarressi, an Iranian psychiatrist, at age 22. They moved to Baltimore and had two daughters, both of whom she eventually enrolled in the local Quaker school, even though she no longer felt it was something for her.
Although her parents were believers, she gave up on religion when she was seven, the age she feels was in some ways "the climax of my life, when you finally know who you are. I started thinking very seriously about God and I thought I just can't do it, so that was sort of that."   The Guardian | Lisa Allardice | 14 April 2012
Tyler's writing is classified as literary realism. She has won and been nominated for numerous awards, including the Pulitzer (1989), the Women's Prize for fiction and the Booker.
Tyler doesn't see herself building up to "the great book." "I think of my work as a whole. And really what it seems to me I'm doing is populating a town. Pretty soon it's going to be just full of lots of people I've made up. None of the people I write about are people I know. That would be no fun. And it would be very boring to write about me. Even if I led an exciting life, why live it again on paper? I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances. It's lucky I do it on paper. Probably I would be schizophrenic--and six times divorced--if I weren't writing. I would decide that I want to run off and join the circus and I would go. I hate to travel, but writing a novel is like taking a long trip. This way I can stay peacefully at home." Anne Tyler, Writer 8:05 to 3:30 by Marguerite Michaels | 8th May 1977 | NY Times

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

The Covid Chronicles #6


It's day 44 of the NSW lockdown and the end is in sight. Restrictions have been gradually easing these past couple of weeks, and by Friday we will once again, be able to enjoy a coffee or a meal in a restaurant, 10 people at a time. 

People who have been working from home for nearly 2 months are slowly trickling back into the office. Schools have just reopened part-time. And our local high street is buzzing with pent-up energy and the desire to spend money. It may just be the first flush of excitement as a few shops reopen (including the bookshop I manage, which is why I've been a bit quiet lately), but there is a real sense of release and exhilaration in the air. 

People can start seeing other couples or families at a safe social distance, weddings will be able to include 10 guests and funerals 20. Places of worship can reopen and have 10 worshippers. Outdoor pools and gyms can, once again, be used with a few restrictions. Regional and interstate holidays are still a no-go, but for the past two weekends we've been able to visit our own holiday home in the mountains. Since last week it is possible to get a remedial massage and to get your hair done (yippee!! guess what I'm doing tomorrow on my day off :-)

We're all still aware that the virus is out there and will be until a cure or vaccination is discovered. We still have to exercise caution and care, especially as we are about to enter the colder winter months. However, there's also a real sense of self-congratulation. 

We hunkered down early, closed our borders, and effected strict quarantine measures for anyone who did fly in from overseas. As a result our first round with Covid-19 has been fairly mild. We've only had 97 deaths nationwide. Today was our first day in NSW with no new cases of Covid recorded from over 6000 tests.

People have been out of work for up to two months and some businesses have gone under. Some have kept going but will struggle to survive. It has not been an easy time for many. Lots of people will be nervous about going back out into the world again. The elderly and unwell are still being encouraged to stay at home. Anyone with a scratchy throat or aches and pains is being urged to get tested straight away. 

Our government also issued a Covid app that uses bluetooth to track who you come into contact with. The idea is that if you test positive at any point, they can use the data from the app to contact anyone else that you came into close contact with during your infectious period. 

Needless to say, there has been a fair bit of debate around this re privacy issues and who gets the data. I'm in the, facebook-knows-more-about-me-than-this-app school of thought. Although I was sceptical to start with. But then I read up on it, discussed it with a few people and finally downloaded the app a couple of days after it was launched. It does not use GPS, only bluetooth and if it means we can ease restrictions sooner rather than later, it's worth a shot. I'd certainly like to know if that customer I served on Thursday, tested positive on Friday. Without the app, it would be too hard to track this kind of incidental contact. 

I really only had about 10 days in proper lockdown, before starting back at work, so I don't know what it's like to have been out of work for nearly 2 months with no guarantee about if or when I might start up again. Mr Books has been working from home and B19 is still an essential working plugging away at his pharmacy retail job. B22 is working from home part-time and slowly going stir crazy. Our extended family have all been fine, with only one cousin, who is a nurse, having to be tested and self-isolate for two weeks after an outbreak at work. She was negative, but the whole ward was shut down, thoroughly cleaned, with new procedures and protocols prepared for the eventual reopening.

A friend in the UK was sick, most likely with Covid, but since testing has been so limited there, they don't know for sure. Despite presenting with all the symptoms and being quite unwell for a couple of weeks, she simply stayed at home with some supervision/advice from a GP and care from her lovely hubby. 

I feel fortunate to have had so few personal brushes with the virus. I feel grateful that we're of an age and stage in life, where we are financially secure and able to weather any economic downturn. I'm glad the boys are old enough to look after themselves; we haven't had to home school or keep young children amused during this time. We are so lucky that all our jobs have been able to continue during this time one way or another. I'm thankful for our robust mental health and resilience. We've all had down days, days of doubt and insecurity, but we bounce back. We are, in fact, annoyingly positive and hopeful most of the time, confident of our ability to cope.

I love some of the changes this time has brought in. 

We now have regular stay-at-home family games nights. We're enjoying the slower pace of life; whole weekends of having nowhere to go. Staying at home instead, reading, puzzling, gardening and just hanging out together. We may be drinking a little more than usual though. 

I was enjoying lovely long walks around my suburb before going back to work and daylight savings ended. I miss being able to do that every day already. After three weeks back at work, I'm wondering how on earth I used to fit everything in. I don't want my life to be as rushed, scheduled and hectic as it used to be, but it seems to be slowly happening whether I like it or not.

History tells us that there will be a second, and most likely, a third wave of this pandemic. It's not over yet, even though, at the moment, everyone (in my suburb) is kind of acting like it is. 

It has been a weird time and the weird times are not over.

I've just started a book called Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman. In the first few pages he discusses how we (humans) have an (erroneous) belief that we will revert to some form of base behaviour in times of crisis. Yet nearly 700 field studies have proved the exact opposite,
there's never total mayhem. It's never every man for himself. Crime - murder, burglary, rape - usually drops. People don't go into shock, they stay calm and spring into action....Catastrophes bring out the best in people.


I have to believe this world-wide crisis will make us better human beings, despite some very specific individual examples that might say otherwise. They are, in fact, the minority. History and science are on our side. As a species we are wired to cope and carry-on. It's what we've been doing for millennia; and it's what we will keep on doing.

Stay safe and I hope this finds you well.
Take care; take heart.
The Covid Chronicles #6

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line | Deepa Anappara #WomensPrize


Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line attracted my attention initially thanks to the cover. That big eye seemed to follow me around everywhere I went and after a season of blue/green covers, the bright yellow stood out a mile on the bookshop bookshelf. However I made an early assumption that it was nasty crime fiction, and therefore, not for me...until it was longlisted for the Women's Prize and I looked a little closer. There was a mysterious crime - disappearing child in the Indian slums - but it also had a child narrator to take the sting out of the nastiness. And this is why, in the end, love them or hate them, I appreciate literary awards - they make me pick up a book I may have otherwise ignored or pre-judged as not of interest to me. 

Discovering hidden gems is the best thing about a literary longlist. 

I tend to have fairly firm opinions about which books should make certain lists or not, so I will either be delighted or devastated when the lists are announced. Recently, I was so disappointed that The Yield did not win this year's Stella Prize, that I'm not sure I will be able to make myself read the chosen winner - ever. Even when The Yield finally got the nod for the 2020 NSW Premier's Award plus the People's Choice Award, the sting from the Stella still stayed with me. 

But then, a few years ago, one of the Stella shortlisted book was The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by little known Iranian/Australian author, Shokoofeh Azar. I may never have come across this stunning story, if not for the Stella, except that now it has also been shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize. It deserves all the attention it gets and if award nominations are what it takes to get it out there, then so be it. 

It doesn't have to win, but the nomination brings it to our attention. 

It may not be a high-minded, literary, five-star read, (although in both these cases they were five stars for me) but an amazing four-star reading experience is not to be sneezed at. Considering I only rate a handful of books five stars every year, four is still a damned good book! 

I really only star rate books to satisfy the goodreads criteria for reviewing. I find it a completely flawed system. The number of times I want to/need to adjust my star rating months later is ridiculous. A few times I realise a book is staying with me for far longer than I had anticipated. It keeps talking to me, whispering in my ear to reread it one day. Those books will get bumped up to five stars. But more often than not, my initial four star love wanes into a warm memory that drops down to a comfortable, middle-of-the-road three stars.

Both The Yield and Greengage got bumped up to five stars. Djinn Patrol is currently sitting very happily in the four zone. I may not be feeling the itch to reread it, but I am very keen to read anything else that Deepa Anappara might write in the future. She brought the sounds, smells and tastes of India to life. Living in a basti might seem unbearably grim and difficult to outsiders, but from our young narrators point of view, this is the only world he knows. This is where his family lives and works. Jai is cared for by neighbours and goes to school nearby. There are all sorts of underlying caste/class issues that play out on the streets and in the classroom, but that's all Jai knows. He accepts his life and his lot, yet hopes that one day, rather then becoming one of the kids picking through the rubbish heaps, they might be able to afford to live in the rich apartments overlooking their slum.

That is, until some of the local kids start to go missing, one at a time.

Jai and his two friends decide to solve the mystery. They start to question the world they live in and wonder why these awful things have to happen.

The anger at corrupt police, racial stereotyping and the constant fear of violence and poverty are seen through a child's eyes. Jai's humour and innocence softens the blows for the reader, until it comes too close to home for anyone's comfort. 

Anappara has written an engaging, tense and vivid story that will stay with me for a long time. Please don't dismiss this book. It's a beauty and well worth your time. 

Facts:
  • Debut writer
  • Longlisted for Women's Prize for Fiction 2020
  • Winner of the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2018

Favourite or Forget:
  • Unforgettable.

Friday, 8 May 2020

Fathoms: The World in the Whale | Rebecca Giggs #NonFiction


Fathoms: The World in the Whale was a recent binge read. 

The weather had turned suddenly cold and it was bleak outside. Curling up on the lounge with a throw rug and a good book was the only logical response. Rebecca Giggs was the perfect companion for such a session - engaging, personable and extremely thorough. Her writing was a bright spark, a little bit of magic and poetry on a dull day. Full of the wonder and majesty of the natural world, and the world of the whale in particular. Sadly, it was also a tale of destruction, as her research led her down a rabbit hole of death, illness, pollution and environmental degradation. 

Told as narrative non-fiction, Giggs was on a personal mission to understand why whales beach themselves. She shares her journey - all the discoveries, the joys and the heartaches - to show us and to remind us how interconnected every living thing is on this planet we all inhabit. 

This is the kind of non-fiction I love. It's intimate, yet scientific; it's lyrical and philosophical; it's passionate and reasonable. I learnt a lot and have been left with a lot to ponder. Giggs is not able to answer all the questions she poses. This is not a flaw in the book, it's simply a sign that we lack sufficient evidence and knowledge to fully understand another organism. 

Below are my notes for future reference. I urge you to read it for yourself though. You can thank me later.
  • Why do whales beach themselves?
    • Natural phenomena
      • sick?
      • the weakest in the pod? Natural selection?
    • Conspiracy theories
      • shooting stars, comets & meterorites?
      • Naval operations & military sonar that frightens the whales
      • "the assumption that deeper streams of logic undercut the frail authority of science."
  • Why have whales started eating the wrong things?
    • plastic, debris
    • heavy metals, pesticides, fertilisers, PCB's
    • "Estuarine beluga in Canada had been discovered to be so noxious that their carcasses were classed as toxic waste for disposal."
  • whalefall
    • when a whale expires mid-ocean and eventually sinks & decomposes on the descent, eaten & nibbled on by birds, fish, crabs & sharks (consuming the toxic chemicals in the whales blubber and body).
    • "it is as though the whale were a pinata cracked open, flinging bright treasures"
    • "over 200 different species can occupy the frame of one whale carcass."
    • "the death of a whale proves meaningful to a vibrant host of dependent creatures, even as it may look senseless from the shore
  • what happens when we "pollute not just places, but organisms"?
  • petroglyphs "capturing the likeness of another creature implies an imaginative or emotional relationship that exceeds the exigencies of survival"
Helen McGrath | Whale petroglyph Yerroulbine/Balls Head, Sydney
    • "a petroglyph denoted an intention to generate, or invite change. A petroglyph spoke to the future."
    • "Shallow, and growing ever shallower as a result of erosion, a time will come when the whale will lift out of the rock completely. Lichens stipple its head."
  • defaunation "the loss of a place's absolute animalness...a depletion of abundance"
    • what are the effects of "reducing animal populations - for those animals, their ecosystems, and the cultures that are nourished by them."
    • "One underrepresented truth of the world: things that have been removed from the past exert the pressure on the present moment, just as much as the things that persist."
  • whale ecotourism industry "we've come to see what we've saved."
    • "to contemplate our own species' capacity for temperance. Each cetacean is an evidentiary exhibit of both human care and the resilience of wilderness."
  • John Berger (1977) Why Look at Animals?
    • "People, confronted by other species, typically reactivate their self-awareness and superiority. They remember that they are, on a fundamental level, a different kind of animal from the animal they are looking at."
  • Augenblick "the feeling of a second as measured by a slow eye-blink"
  • Cute aggression "a violent impulse towards pictures of adorable animals."
  • Chapter: Kitsch Interior - interspersed with examples of specific whales and what was discovered in their stomachs after they died (tracksuit pants, golf balls, surgical gloves, a plastic bucket, a car engine cover, synthetic netting, shredded balloons, dvd case, disposable cigarette lighters, rice sacks).
  • "The existence of parasites makes evident the porousness, the uncontained qualities, of life; these things that move under the traction of their own will, into and out of, and across all animals."
    • "These creatures are not knowable...the parasite also inched me towards thinking of animals themselves as environments, and nature as a process....They are the shapeshifters of our Earth, blurring the edges, kicking the insides out." Something we've all been reminded of this year as a virus, another unknowable creature, shapeshifted from one animal to another and kicked us from the inside out.

What floats after falling is
flotsam, and what floats when thrown is jetsam.
Whatever sinks is lagan.
Whatever is cast up
is yours.
'Soundings' in Homing (2017) | Shevaun Cooley

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

488 Rules For Life | Kitty Flanagan #Humour

Rule 12: The bathroom is not a library, there are far more pleasant, not to mention less smelly, places to read your book. Don't linger in there, get in get out.
Sorry Kitty. I was with you right up to rule number 12!

I've read in the bathroom ever since I was little. In a large family, there were not many places to go where you were guaranteed privacy. The bathroom was almost the one and only retreat available to an avid reader seeking peace and quiet. Taking a long bath with a good book was my favourite escape. It still is.

I hate to admit it Kitty, 488 Rules for Life: The Thankless Art of Being Correct is actually the perfect book for reading in the bathroom. 

Brief chapters filled with pithy and witty sections best imbibed a few at a time to fully savour their aptness. It also meant that Mr Books and I could read the same book at the same time. Well, obviously, not at exactly the same time. But over a period of a few weeks, with two distinct bookmarks, we chuckled and chortled our way through Kitty's rules together.

Rule 26: Cushions are not spiritual advisors.  
Rule 260: Decide on your tattoo. Then wait a year.

The other 480-odd rules were fair and reasonable rules though. As you mentioned a few times, they're barely worth mentioning, except, that obviously you do need to mention them as some people clearly don't understand the importance of standing back from the baggage carousel at the airport or about not leaving only one square of toilet paper on the roll or posting pictures of themselves doing yoga. 
Rule 386: Don't call it a wedding invite. It's an invitation. You invite people to your wedding with an invitation.

I have had the pleasure of seeing Kitty perform live a couple of times. I also enjoy her various appearances on TV shows and televised comedy festivals. She's my kind of funny. I feel like I know her. I certainly know her voice, her inflections and tone. As a read her 488 rules, I could hear her in my head. That's a good thing, by the way. It added to the funny.

488 Rules id highly recommended during these strange times when a good laugh can make all the difference.

Facts:
  • Published by Allen & Unwin 2019
  • Cover design and illustrations | Tohby Riddle
  • Her dad is John Flanagan, the children's writer of The Ranger's Apprentice series.
  • The book started as a joke inspired by Jordan Peterson's book 12 Rules for Life. Obviously 12 were never going to be enough in Kitty's world!
  • Kitty has one of the most comprehensive wikipedia bio's I've ever read!
Favourite or Forget:
  • Obviously a favourite.
  • If you haven't seen her performances in Utopia yet, then make it your mission for the rest of this lockdown period, to binge watch this funny/not funny/too close to real life Working Dog series.
Image Source
Rule 404: Don't get a photo taken with Santa unless you're a child.