Thursday, 13 August 2020

Humankind: A Hopeful History | Rutger Bregman #NonFiction

Humankind: A Hopeful History is more than just a popular science book that hits the right note during this unsettling time in our human history. For starters, Bregman uses a LOT more footnotes than one usually finds in a popular science book. He has obviously spent a lot of time researching, questioning and thinking about his topic - that we are in fact, when push comes to shove, mostly a species of decent and kind beings.

Humankind is a book designed to explore the best and most hopeful aspects of human nature. According to Bregman this is one of the things that we all share in common, regardless of race, culture, and religion. Yes, there are some sociopaths out there, but they are a very specific and aberrant group. They are not the norm. 

I understand there have been some concerns about cultural appropriation of stories surrounding this book and I understand where those concerns come from. But that's not what this book is about. It's about the kindness we all share as human beings, and our ability to pull together in tough times. It's the things that unite us, not divide us. Although, Bregman does spend some time, later in the book, discussing why it is that some of the divides have come into being. It turns out the Age of Enlightenment was not so enlightening after all!

He discusses war, slavery, the Holocaust, sexism, racism, xenophobia and catastrophes within the context of his premise. He dissects the role that media, news and the internet have on exposing the exceptional, the unusual and the shocking as opposed to the usual, the everyday and the normal. The aim of the news and information as we now know it, is to grab your attention and shock, not to enlighten.

He exposes the fallacy and myths surrounding The Lord of the Flies theory, the selfish gene, the reality of battles and warfare "interviewing veterans of WWII, they found that more than half had never killed anybody", the mystery of Easter Island, the 1971 Stanford University Prison study, the Robbers Cave experiment, the 1961 Stanley Milgram shock experiment, the bystander effect and terrorism.

Reading Humankind, as I did, during the early stages of the Covid-19 lockdown, I was struck by this particular thought:
Infectious diseases like measles, small pox, tuberculosis, syphilis, malaria, cholera & plague were all unheard of until we traded our nomadic lifestyle for farming. So where did they come from? From our new domesticated pets - or more specifically, their microbes.


I was saddened when he noted later on that "education has become something to endure." The truth of this has been brought home to me constantly over the past decade as the boys finished their school years. They have no inspirational stories to tell about their school days, like Mr Books and I both do. They have plenty of tales about what they got up to with their friends during the breaks, but nothing about what they learnt. All they ever wanted to know was what they would need to pass their exams to get them out of there. How did education become such a dull, routine thing?

Bregman finished with his very own 10 rules to live by (everyone seems to be doing it lately!)

  • when in doubt assume the best
  • think in win-win scenarios
  • ask more questions
  • temper your empathy, train your compassion
  • try to understand the other, even if you don't understand where they're coming from
  • love you own as others love their own
  • avoid the news
  • don't punch Nazis
  • come out of the closet: don't be ashamed to do good
  • be realistic

I found Humankind to be an interesting read, especially the debunking of the deeply flawed human psychology studies from the 60's and 70's, the very same ones I learnt about at uni thirty years ago, which were held up to be self-evident truths at the time. However I did grow rather weary of Bregman's tone by the end. His determination to be hopeful began to seem like one of the self-fulling, Pygmalion Effects that he wrote about! 

Bregman offers a hopeful antidote to our current pandemic and political situations. It's always nice to be reminded that most people are decent folk doing the best they can. In fact, there are way more kind people on the planet, than not. And that's a good thing.

  • Translated by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore.
  • Bregman was born the year I finished my Diploma of Education (1988).
  • Author of Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World (2016).

Book 7 of 20 Books of Summer Winter

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Stories & Shout Outs #31


Everything feels like a bit of a chore at the moment.

I have a backlog of un-reviewed books that I should could be preparing a post for instead of fluffling around with this. Yet here I am, fluffing around with another post that does nothing to advance the reviewing situation!

The positive? I will, very soon, run out of my usual fluffing around posts and be forced to finish those review posts instead. Although, I'm probably due to write another Covid Chronicles, or an update on my progress for 20 Books of Summer Winter, or lament the passing of Austen in August, or start thinking about AusReadingMonth in November, or, or, or....!

What I'm Reading:
  • Fracture | Andre Neuman (loving this a LOT so far)
  • The Vanishing Half | Brit Bennett (just started - too soon to tell)
  • Maisie Dobbs #13 The American Agent | Jacqueline Winspear (not as instantly cosy & comforting as I had hoped, but okay)
  • The Fire This Time | edited Jesmyn Ward (my walking backpack read that comes with me to my favourite coffee shop on my days off work)
  • War and Peace | Leo Tolstoy (finding the war scenes around the half way mark to be a bit dull to be honest)

Read, but not Reviewed:
  • The Plague | Albert Camus
  • The Gravity of Us | Phil Stamper
  • Heartstopper Vol 2 | Alice Oseman
  • The White Girl | Tony Birch
  • Humankind | Rutger Bregman
  • Homeland Elegies | Ayad Akhtar

New to the Pile:
  • American Wife | Curtis Sittenfeld
  • Loner | Georgina Young
  • Pale Horse, Pale Rider | Katherine Anne Porter (Spanish flu short stories)
  • The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas | Gertrude Stein
  • The Last Migration | Charlotte McConaghy
  • The Pull of the Stars | Emma Donoghue (Spanish flu in Ireland)
  • An Odyssey | Daniel Mendelsohn
  • Adam Bede | George Eliot
  • The Narrow Land | Christine Dwyer Hickey

What I'm Struggling with:
  • Writing review posts.
  • Constantly feeling tired.
  • Winter blues.
  • Cold, dark mornings and walking home in the cold & dark from work.
  • Having to wear so many layers of clothing to feel warm.
  • The extra washing each week thanks to said layers & coronavirus concerns.
  • Scary electricity bills!
  • Clutter.
  • Dry hands from using so much sanitiser.
  • Mask etiquette.
  • People who don't/won't social distance.
  • Missing my friends.

  • My new woollen moccasins for blogging in.
  • My new beanie for wearing in the mountains.
  • My new fleecy jacket for winter walks.
  • Finally seeing snow fall around our house in the mountains.
  • The new grand-puppy, Tony. A gorgeous King Charles Cavalier adopted by B23 and his GF.

Watching Out For:
  • Season 2 of The Great. Huzzah!
  • Season 4 of The Crown
  • The winner of the 2020 Booker International Prize - fingers & toes crossed for The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar.
  • My new silk masks that have been on order for a month.
  • Readalongs that I could be tempted to join.

  • By the 2020 Longlist announcement for the Booker Prize.

  • A week off work on the coast with Mr Books in September.
  • A small glass of muscat & a piece of dark chocolate when I finish this post.
  • The electric blanket warming up my sheets before bedtime.
  • A roadtrip.

Shout Outs:
Sunday afternoon snow at our holiday home in the mountains!

Friday, 7 August 2020

Classics Club Spin #24

It's time for another Classics Club Spin.
The rules are easy: compile your list of 20 books by Sunday 9th August.

On that day a number will be randomly selected.
That's the book you read.

You have until the 30th September 2020 to finish your book and review it.

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!

I do like to read my CC Spin with another if I can, although it's getting harder to find common titles as many of us move onto our second or even third Spin Lists.
If you spot a book match or author match with your list, please let me know before the magic number is selected on Sunday, I can then tweek my list to suit.

CC Spin #24
  1. The Annotated Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen & David M Shapard    shared read with AustinFey
  2. Laura: A Journey into the Crystal by George Sand   shared author with Sue @Book Obsessed
  3. Hiroshima by John Hersey                          
  4. Alexander's Bridge by Willa Cather                          shared author with Reese @Typings         
  5. The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura                                  
  6. The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin       shared read with Cirtnecce @Mockingbirds, Looking Glasses & Prejudices
  7. The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins                            shared author with Helen @She Reads Novels and Katie's Cottage Books 
  8. The Mabinogion translated by Sioned Davies
  9. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens                                shared read with Margaret @BooksPlease
  10. The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima                                       
  11. Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee                               shared author with Reese @Typings
  12. Red Sky at Sunrise (trilogy) by Laurie Lee                       
  13. The Key by Junichiro Tanizaki                   
  14. Night and Day by Virginia Woolf                              shared author with Margaret @BooksPlease
  15. A Dance to the Music of Time: Spring by Anthony Powell
  16. A Mere Chance by Ada Cambridge
  17. Lives of the Caesars by Suetonius                              
  18. A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle
  19. Coonaroo by Katharine Susannah Prichard   
  20. 1788 by Watkin Tench                                      

My Previous 23 Spin Results:

Happy Spinning!

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

A Little Paris in July in the Kitchen

To finish off another wonderful year of Paris in July with Tamara @Thyme For Tea, I'm going to tempt you with a few of the Parisian style means I enjoyed through July.

My favourite local cafe is called Cafe d'Yvoire. They specialise in French cakes, desserts and meals. Mostly I just enjoy my morning coffee with my latest read on my days off work. But this year has been different. Covid-19 has changed many things and one of the big things has been the pressure on small businesses to stay viable during lockdowns and social distancing restrictions. 

During the height of lockdown, I continued to get my morning coffee as a takeaway, purchased through the window. For family lockdown Saturday night dinners, I would also take home various desserts for us to try. I fell in love with the salted caramel cheesecake (below), while Mr Books is a traditional lemon meringue tart man, and B19 was happy with anything chocolate-y.

Once we were allowed to dine in again, I found myself still eating the desserts, this time with my morning coffee and book! I had to increase the distance of my morning walk to justify the change!

I may have also treated myself to their magnificent Croque Madame once or twice during July as well!

It wasn't all just eating out and takeaway though.

For Mother's Day the boys gave me a book set called Art of French Cuisine. I will need more time and patience to tackle the sweet book, but the savoury book gave me lots to work with. 

With some roast beef one night, I made the Gratin Dauphinois with Haricots verts aux tomates cerises. The Gratin in particular was a HUGE hit.

A couple of weeks later I tried Julia Child's Suprêmes de Volaille aux Champignons from her Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume One

The rich, creamy sauce was a little too much for B19, but I fell in love big time. So much so, I'm going to include a version of the recipe below. I highly recommend it.

Trying to follow one of Julia child's recipes can be a trying experience. She liked to skip back and forth between the master recipe and the one you're trying to actually cook! Finding an online version that has been collated and tidied up is much easier to use. This is one of those, with my little tweeks.

  • suprêmes - chicken breasts (I cut the chicken into quarters & adjusted cooking time slightly to allow for the smaller pieces, I didn't want to have to eat a whole chicken breast on my own.)
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • pinch of white pepper
  • 5 Tablespoons butter
  • 120 grams white mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 Tablespoons shallots, diced
  • ⅛ teaspoon salt
  • Sauce:
  • ¼ cup chicken of beef stock
  • ¼ cup dry vermouth
  • 1 cup of whipping cream
  • salt/pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
  • Rub the chicken breasts with drops of lemon juice and season with salt & white pepper.
  • Heat the butter in a heavy, oven-proof casserole until it is foaming.
  • Stir in the minced shallots and saute for a minute - do not wait to brown.
  • Stir in the mushrooms and saute lightly for 1-2 minutes - do not wait to brown.
  • Sprinkle with salt.
  • Quickly flip the chicken breasts in the butter mixture. 
  • Cover and cook over medium high heat for 8-10 minutes.
  • After that time, flip chicken breasts and cook on opposite side for another 8-10 minutes until chicken temperature reaches at least 165 degrees.
  • Remove the chicken to a warm plate (leave mushrooms/onions in the pot) and cover while making the sauce.
  • To make sauce, pour the chicken/beef stock and vermouth in with the cooking butter and mushrooms/onions.
  • Over medium high heat, boil down quickly until liquid is syrupy.
  • Stir in cream and boil down again over medium high heat until cream has thickened slightly. 
  • Off heat, taste for seasoning, and add drops of lemon juice to taste.
  • Pour the sauce over the chicken, sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately.

Bon appetit!

Monday, 3 August 2020

Maigret and the Killer | Georges Simenon #ParisinJuly

A big part of the reason I love reading Maigret's so much is the glimpse into life in Paris in the middle of the 20th century. Maigret and the Killer opens with Mrs Maigret and her man, dining out with friends discussing the merits of the Madame Pardon's 'unparalleled boeuf bourguignon...filling, yet refined', provincial cookery that was 'born of necessity', whilst finishing off the meal with the obligatory 'coffee and calvados'.

This is the 70th book in the series and the year is 1969. The setting is Quai d'Anjou - the home of the young man killed in the first chapter. His parents are the wealthy owners of a cosmetic company. A stroll around the Quai d'Anjou is definitely on the cards if I ever return to Paris in real life!

As always, time with Maigret is easy. He may be getting stressed out by the details of the crime, but all the reader has to do is simply sit back and enjoy the ride. It's a pleasure watching how Maigret works to solve the case. It's a joy to walk the streets of Paris with him and I never get tired of watching him eat. Whether its a golden tench baked in the oven, or 'rilletes made locally, coq au vin blanc and, after goat's cheese, rum babas' washed down with a little after dinner cognac, Maigret looks forward to each and every meal.

And I look forward to each and every Maigret.

  • This Penguin edition was published 2019.
  • Originally titled Maigret et le tueur. 
  • Translated by Shaun Whiteside.

Book 6 of 20 Books of Summer Winter

Friday, 31 July 2020

An Indiscreet Journey | Katherine Mansfield #ShortStory

An Indiscreet Journey was a short story written in 1915 by Katherine Mansfield but published posthumously in the 1924 collection, Something Childish and other stories by her husband John Middleton Murry. Initially it reads like a fairly straight forward story about a woman on a train journey to visit her aunt and uncle in the middle of the French war zone during WWI. Except she's not really visiting her aunt and uncle, she's meeting up her with her lover, a soldier. A very brief internet research also reveals this short story is based on the actual visit of Mansfield to her lover Carco in February 1915.

John Middleton Murry introduced Mansfield and Carco back in 1913. Murry and Mansfield were not married at until 1918, but their on again/off again bohemian relationship had begun in 1911. The affair between Carco and Mansfield seems to have run over the winter of 1914/1915.

With this story, we can see Mansfield exploring the idea of documenting the war as a social historian, as someone who is living through the thing she is describing. She shows us wounded soldiers, checkpoints and a mother reading a letter from her soldier son. She talks about gassing, firing lines, travel documents and curfews.

Mansfield leaves a lot unsaid here. The clandestine nature of the visit is alluded to but not directly approached. Most of the story is about the journey, not the actual purpose of the visit. The danger and tension of the war acts as a cover for the danger and tension of a secret assignation with a lover.

It turns out that the letter in the story, from the aunt, Julie Boiffard, inviting her to visit, is based on the real letter from Carco to Mansfield, that is now held in the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, New Zealand. The fake nature of this letter explains, why the niece in the story keeps forgetting the surname of her aunt and uncle. 'Again I read the unfamiliar letter in the familiar handwriting.'

One of the curiosities that caught my eye was the 'ordinary little woman' sitting in the same carriage as as our narrator. 'She wore a black velvet toque, with an incredibly surprised looking seagull camped on the very top of it. Its round eyes, fixed on me so enquiringly, were almost too much to bear. I had a dreadful impulse to shoo it away.

I imagined something like this in my mind's eye:

However, it more likely resembled the image below. 

Birds and feathers were a feature on hats at this time, with many cartoons sending up this particular fashion by suggesting the addition of kittens and puppies. Mansfield seems to be tapping into this humorous vein to make fun of her own distress or guilt at her secret rendezvous, imagining that all eyes were on her and that everyone knew what she was up to.

Francis Carco depicted Mansfield as a magpie, a purloiner of gems from the lives and characters of those around her, who was incapable of putting a word on paper without having personally witnessed or experienced the sentiments it expressed. For all the distortion of his caricature, there is an element of truth in his notion that she was a writer who fed off her surroundings to an exceptional extent.1 If she didn't 'prey' off life, as Carco put it, she was certainly deeply 'rooted' in it.
Parkin-Gounelas Ruth. (1991) Katherine Mansfield: Far, Far Nearer. In: Fictions of the Female Self

I'm not particular surprised that Carco was dismissive of Mansfield's writing style. The two stories that feature him in some way are not very flattering. In fact Je ne parle pas Francois (1918) shows us a very unattractive, unlikable man indeed.

In An Indiscreet Journey we see a man who seems to get off on the secretive details of the tryst - the dash in a cab, through the streets where 'policemen are as thick as violets' to the door of the aunt and uncle, before being quickly bundled inside and shut up in the white room. He drops the suitcase and paper, she tosses her passport in the air and he catches it. End scene. 

Their time spent in the unnamed town is filled with visits to the local cafe for lunch and dinner every day, where they have a special table, that she has decorated with a little vase of violets. The final scene is the woman sitting at the table on her, imagining the passing years, watching the passing parade on the other tables...until her lover and his friend arrive. At the end we see the two men, quite drunk, discussing the merits and differences between the English whiskey and the French mirabelle as they eat their way through a little charcuterie platter.

Mansfield wrote to Virginia Woolf in 1919, "What the writer does is not so much to solve the question but to put the question. There must be the question put. That seems to me a very nice dividing line between the true & the false writer".

So what is the question being asked here?
Is it, once again, the difference between the English and the French.
Who do you trust?
Escape and freedom versus fear and guilt?

The joy of these stories is that we will never really know.
The delight is in the interpretation for each and every reader.

Part of the joy for me, is the researching, as I dig deeper into Mansfield's short life. Getting to know this fascinating woman has certainly been a highlight of my 2020 reading life so far.

  • From 20 – 22 February 2015, the town of Gray, near Dijon in France, hosted a weekend of celebrations, to commemorate the centenary of the visit by Katherine Mansfield to Gray in order to see Francis Carco.

My other Katherine Mansfield posts:

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

The Secret Library of Hummingbird House | Julianne Negri #AWW

When I was ten, I would have devoured this gem of a book, several times over! 

The Secret Library of Hummingbird House features a mysterious old house, a secret book and time travel (amusingly, back in time to the 1970's when I was ten)! What's not to love?

Especially when it's all wrapped up with a very likeable protagonist, Hattie, going through some stuff with her recently separated parents, a younger sister with an imaginary eagle as a friend, a best friend who will no doubt realise he is gay when he is a little bit older and a mean girl at school to avoid at all costs.

Hattie already feels that life is careening out of her control, when she discovers that the crumbling mansion next door to her dad's house is slated for demolition to make way guessed it, another apartment block. The house and the ancient mulberry tree growing in its grounds, hold many happy family memories for Hattie, pre-separation.

Her plans to save the house lead to a full-moon midnight escapade to the house and a chance to slip back in time to meet another young girl also feeling lost in time. A young girl who also collects lost words and has a story of her own to tell.

Set in a pre-covid Melbourne with a secret yarn-bomber covering the trees, fences and signs with crochet wraps, Julianne Negri has written a story about standing up for yourself and letting go of the past. Adapting to the inevitable changes that occur in all our lives at every stage is the thread that joins all the characters together. Everyone has their own way of avoiding or denying change before coming around to accepting that change doesn't have to be all bad, it's just different.

A delightful read for 10+ readers. Lots of fun and full of positive messages woven naturally into the story.

Monday, 27 July 2020

The Future Library Project

I learnt something new this weekend.

Whilst listening to a podcast with David Mitchell about his latest book, Utopia Avenue, he was asked about a not-yet-published book, called From Me Flows What You Call Time. It turns out this is a book he was invited to write by artist Katie Paterson for her Future Library Project (Framtidsbiblioteket).

Paterson, is a Scottish born artist well-known for her monumental projects that 'consider our place on earth in the context of geological time and change.' Her work includes broadcasting the sound of a glacier melting (2007-2008), mapping all the dead stars (2009), sending a recast meteorite back into space (2012-2014), and creating a cosmic colour wheel that captures all the colours of the universe throughout its existence (2019).

The Future Library is an artwork 100 years in the making, in Oslo, Norway. It's a 'living, breathing, organic artwork, unfolding over one hundred years.'

In May 2014, Paterson planted 1000 Norwegian spruce trees in Nordmarka, a forested area north of Oslo. It's a protected green space cared for by foresters within the Agency of Urban Environment. Hikers are encouraged to walk through the forest.

The city of Oslo has guaranteed it's support for this project during the entire 100 years via the Future Library Trust as part of their Slow Space Curatorial Vision for Oslo Harbour.

However, the artwork is not simply about growing and nurturing an urban forest. Between 2014 and 2114, 100 popular writers will be invited to submit an original manuscript to the archive. The manuscript will not be printed and published until 2114.

In 2114, the manuscripts will printed in limited edition anthologies using paper made from the 1000 Norwegian spruce planted by Paterson.

The manuscripts will be stored in a specially designed Silent Room in the New Deichman Library. The room will be panelled with wood from the forest and will display the names and the titles of each artist's work.
Year by year, the writers' words forming invisible chapters in the trees whose narratives will be reconstituted a century later.

During spring of every year, a special ceremony will take place where the author hands over their work to the project. It is a ritual designed to be repeated for the next 100 years. It begins with a walk into the forest with the author, who then gives a reading. The handover ceremony ends at the library, where the author participates in an 'in-conversation' event.

Due to Covid-19, this year's handover ceremony with Karl Ove Knausgård, the first Norwegian to be invited to write for the project, has been delayed until the 5th of September.

So far the project has works by the following authors.

2014 – Margaret Atwood, Scribbler Moon, submitted 27 May 2015.
2015 – David Mitchell, From Me Flows What You Call Time, submitted 28 May 2016
2016 – Sjón, As My Brow Brushes On The Tunics Of Angels or The Drop Tower, the Roller Coaster, the Whirling Cups and other Instruments of Worship from the Post-Industrial Age, submitted 2 June 2017
2017 – Elif Shafak, The Last Taboo, submitted 2 June 2018
2018 – Han Kang, Dear Son, My Beloved, submitted 25 May 2019
2019 – Karl Ove Knausgård

I'm disappointed that I will never get to read these stories. 

However, I do embrace the hope that this project embodies. That human beings will still be around in 100 years time, in a world still populated with forests of trees. And that these future human beings will still value reading and art.
The mandate is to compassionately sustain the artwork for its 100-year duration. The foresters have a big part to play, they tend to the trees. It’s my dream project because it’s got every aspect of what I like – the collaboration with authors, foresters and librarians. And it operates on slower time. It’s not this rush to make something for a deadline. It’s really nice to let something organically evolve. I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Saturday, 25 July 2020

The Covid Chronicles #8

Nearly two months ago, I wrote my last Covid Chronicles. 

In Australia, our curve had flattened, lockdown conditions had been lifted and our only new cases of coronavirus came from international travellers. All these travellers went into a mandatory 2-week government-controlled quarantine in various hotels around Sydney and Melbourne, before being allowed back out into the world at large.

Covid was still out there, but it seemed like it was a long. long way away.

Around this time Mr Books alerted me to the fringe nutters who were talking about conspiracy theories. Somehow the coronavirus was fake news, man-made, a hoax and deliberately released into the world by a certain nation-state or individuals with ulterior motives, all at the same time. It brought together unlikely bed-fellows with anti-vaxxer's suddenly in bed with right-wing, gun-toting, pro-lifers. A few groups were even trying to find a way to link the virus to anti-5-G issues.

Despite these (amusing) distractions my life has continued on, adjusting to our new normal, laying low and staying pretty quiet. 

Mr Books and I had lunch in a pub with one couple in June, then dinner in a restaurant with another couple in July. We enjoyed a family birthday out one night as well. We've both had a couple of coffee dates with other friends, one at a time. But that's about it.

I try to social distance as much as possible at work and when I go grocery shopping. Most people seem to be cognisant of this too, but a few people are crap. Some people are wasting a lot of time and energy on the blame-game and wishing that life would get back to normal, instead of accepting where we are and trying to get by as best as possible in our new and changing circumstances. 

I've certainly had various ups and downs as I learn to adapt to our new normal. Change is never easy, but it is inevitable. I try to accept rather than rail against the impossible. I avoid large crowds or busy spaces and I haven't been on public transport since March. But I try to not to obsess about it. 

I go for long walks when I can and I'm reading more than ever. A part of me doesn't mind the slower pace of life. I have my family, my work and our house in the mountains to clean every week, after the guests have left. On guest-free weekends, we even get to enjoy a weekend away in our holiday home ourselves.

That seemed to be the state of our new normal.

But then things changed. 

About a month ago, (still to be determined) breaches occurred at two of the quarantine hotels in Melbourne. Private security companies had been given the job to guard the hotels. It turns out their training may have been less than adequate for the job at hand. The seriousness of the situation did not seem apparent to a number of them as they allowed family groups to move between rooms and failed to maintain appropriate social distancing standards. The story is that some of the guards were having sex with some of those in quarantine. It can be hard to separate the urban myth from the reality, so I only repeat this story here as an example of something that has become 'common knowledge' without anyone really knowing for sure.

Very quickly, Victoria, and the Melbourne area in particular, became a covid disaster zone. Within two weeks, Melburnians alone, were exceeding the numbers of positive cases experienced by the entire country back in April. Intensive care wards started filling up and the death rates have crept up again.

The two coronavirus spikes in Australia (so far)

Sadly, we have proven the old adage that the second wave, or the second spike, is usually worse than the first when it comes to epidemics. And most of our second spike has come from just one state at this point.

Wearing masks out of the home is now compulsory for Melburnians and all Victorians have been urged to stay at home. The adjoining states quickly closed their borders to Victorian travellers as, those living in the greater Melbourne area went back into stage 3 lockdown. 

But not before a Victorian traveller managed to infect the staff and patrons of a club in south Sydney. One of the patrons then had dinner at a neighbouring Thai restaurant, and one of those diners went to the Hunter Valley and another went to five funerals in five separate venues in one week. And so it goes.

Suddenly NSW has three hotspots or clusters. A few churches and schools have been closed down this week for deep-cleans and record numbers of people are turning up to be tested again.

Mr Books had to take a trip to southern NSW a fortnight ago. Within days of returning, he came down with a nasty cold. On Sunday afternoon, we both lined up to get tested. Our negative results came back on Tuesday evening. That was two whole days where we had to stay at home and self-isolate. Two whole days where I could not go to work.

I'm lucky, my work is understanding and thanks to government schemes like JobKeeper, I still get enough pay for those days off. But this current outbreak of covid in Australia has once again highlighted the disparity in work conditions for many Australians. It would appear that around half of the Victorians being tested for covid were not self-isolating while they waited for their results to come back. They felt they could not afford to miss those two days of work and the pay that went with it. 

There is also a sense that most Australians will not be happy about having to go back into lockdown and that compliance could be an issue going forward. The economic downturn is starting to bite as we look to a twenty year future of paying off the deficit incurred during covid. No-one seems to be denying the necessity of this debt (except for ultra-right-wing conspiracy theorists) as most people have benefited from the support and most people understand how much worse things could have been if none of the support packages had been on offer. 

Everyone we know has had reduced hours at work or has lost a job. Almost every small business I know is struggling to keep it all going. JobKeeper and small business packages are the only thing keeping retail alive at the moment. We are all aware that a number of businesses will not survive. That means more job losses and less money flowing through the local economy.

NSW has had 82 locally acquired covid cases this week. After so many weeks with none, it is a rude shock to realise that our covid roller-coaster ride is about to go up again.

We have bought a couple of packs of medical disposable face masks and I've placed an order for some pretty silk ones. I suspect mandatory (or at least strongly recommended) face mask wearing in public is not very far away for those of us in Sydney.

Adapt and be prepared is my new motto!

Take care; take heart.

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Je ne Parle pas Français | Katherine Mansfield #ShortStory

Je ne Parle pas Français, or I Do Not Speak French was written in early 1918 and published in Bliss and other stories (1920).

There is a rather long and complicated story about the publication of this particular short story. It started life as a pamphlet published by Heron Press, which was run by John Middleton Murry (Katherine's husband at the time) and his brother, Richard Arthur Murry. They produced only 100 copies of the story in this format. The press was situated in the home of Murry and Mansfield in Hampstead Heath. Of the 100 copies, 20 were damaged. From the 80 left over, about 60 were sent out to reviewers in early 1920.

Anthony Alpers (The Life of Katherine Mansfield |1980) writes that "this little private-press edition in which it first appeared is very rare... Few know the story in its intended form.

The December 1920 Constable publication of Bliss and other stories, contains an edited version of Je ne Parle pas Français. Apparently the end of the story in the original is rather different. 

The Norton Critical Edition edited by Vincent O’Sullivan (2006) contains the unedited version. The highlighted text below reveals the original story.
One day when I was standing at the door, watching her go (the African laundress who worked for his family when he was 10 yrs old), she turned round and beckoned to me, nodding and smiling in a strange secret way. I never thought of not following. She took me into a little outhouse at the end of the passage, caught me up in her arms and began kissing me. Ah, those kisses! Especially those kisses inside my ears that nearly deafened me. 
"And then with a soft growl she tore open her bodice and put me to her. When she set me down she took from her pocket a little round fried cake cover with sugar and I reeled along the passage back to our door.
My reaction:
  • Wow! That's a HUGE reveal!
  • The edited version left me wondering why this memory was so significant to Raoul.
  • Did the lack of attention from his parents, make the affection from the laundress significant?
  • But instead, we have a situation of power and sexual abuse of an older woman over a young boy.

Raoul never yet made the first advances to any woman:
"Curious, isn’t it? Why should I be able to have any woman I want? I don’t look at all like a maiden’s dream . . . ."
My reaction:
  • By this point of the short story, I was convinced that Raoul was gay. 
  • The extra sentence would seem to suggestion that perhaps he was bisexual.

Towards the end of the story Raoul says goodnight to a prostitute:
Not until I was half-way down the boulevard did it come over me—the full force of it. Why, they were suffering . . . those two . . . really suffering. I have seen two people suffer as I don’t suppose I ever shall again. . . . And . . . . ‘Goodnight, my little cat,’ said I, impudently, to the fattish old prostitute picking her way home through the slush . . . . I didn’t give her time to reply.
My reaction:
  • One of the few times in this story where we see Raoul thinking about others.
  • The extra sentence reminds us that he inhabits a fairly squalid part of Paris, despite his higher aspirations.
And so on and so on until some dirty gallant comes up to my table and sits opposite and begins to grimace and yap. Until I hear myself saying: ‘But I’ve got the little girl for you, mon vieux. So little . . . so tiny. And a virgin.’ I kiss the tips of my fingers—‘A virgin’—and lay them upon my heart.
My reaction:
  • Without the 'virgin', this paragraph reads like a boast.
  • With the 'virgin' it makes Raoul sound like a pimp!

The story’s original ending continues on from the 1920 censored text:
I must go. I must go. I reach down my coat and hat. Madame knows me. ‘You haven’t dined yet?’ she smiles. ‘Not, not yet, Madame. I’d rather like to dine with her. Even to sleep with her afterwards. Would she be pale like that all over? But no. She’d have large moles. They go with that kind of skin. And I can’t bear them. They remind me somehow, disgustingly, of mushrooms.
My reaction:
  • The edited end, just ends.
  • A man in a cafe, thinking about his next meal.
  • The original reasserts the sexual nature that infuses the whole story.
  • As well as reinforcing Raoul's ambivalence about the female body.
Francis Carco 1923

Raoul is apparently based on Mansfield's lover Francis Carco, a man with whom she had a brief affair with in 1915. Alpers claims that Mansfield is referring to Carco's cynical attitude towards love and sex via Raoul. 

Her story An Indiscreet Journey (1915) is also based on her journey through the war zone to spend four nights with Carco in Eastern France. 

I wonder if Mansfield was writing a homage to Carco's style of writing or did she think that Carco was gay but didn't know it, bisexual or was this her dig at a failed lover? Either way, Raoul is about as camp as you get in 1918 literature. And a not very pleasant fellow. I suspect the affair did not end well (I hope to know more when the bio about Mansfield that I've ordered finally arrives).

Raoul's penchant for stylish clothes, his flamboyant mannerisms, delusions of grandeur, cutting remarks, and his love/lust infatuation with Dick, the Englishman are all textbook versions of Havelock Ellis' sexual inversion theory, that was prevalent at the time.
My name is Raoul Duquette. I am twenty-six years old and Parisian, a true Parisian. About my family - it really doesn’t matter. I have no family; I don’t want any. I never think about my childhood. I've forgotten it.

Raoul was a gigolo, a dandy, crass, conceited, superficial and sexually ambiguous. He was an unreliable narrator with huge gaps in his story. The whole time I was reading this story, I had a Carly Simon earworm of 'You're So Vain' playing in the background. Raoul loved being front and centre and seemed to be playing to an imaginary audience the whole time. At the same time he was a social outcast, with no family that he will speak of, hanging out in seedy bars and cafes, pretending to be something he isn't, or just hoping that acting the part will make him so.
If a person looks the part, he must be that part.

He pretends to take us into his confidence, but we can never really trust him. He ends up revealing more than he thinks, although we're still left in the dark about pretty much everything. Perhaps this is how Mansfield felt after her brief affair with Carco?

There were a number of themes explored from the use of public and private spaces, the English vs the French and life as a stage (a homage to Shakespeare perhaps?). Metaphors abound with dogs, cats and a mouse, suitcases (to be unpacked) and mirrors (that reflect the surface not the substance).
‘But after all it was you who whistled to me, you who asked me to come! What a spectacle I’ve cut wagging my tail and leaping round you, only to be left like this while the boat sails off in its slow, dreamy way . . . Curse these English! No, this is too insolent altogether. Who do you imagine I am? A little paid guide to the night pleasures of Paris? . . . No, monsieur. I am a young writer, very serious, and extremely interested in modern English literature. And I have been insulted – insulted.’

Ultimately, Raoul is not very likeable.

He's selfish and mean and judgemental. 
He's careless and thoughtless. 
One feels pity for him and fears that he will never find the love and happiness he is so desperately searching for. He may speak French fluently, but he does not know the language of love. And maybe never will.

My other Katherine Mansfield posts:

Monday, 20 July 2020

The Parisian | Isabella Hammad

My journey with The Parisian has been a labour of love. I started reading it the week before Australia went pear-shaped with Covid-19 back in March. I was really enjoying it, but it's a thoughtful read and I struggled to give this book the attention it deserved during those early, weird weeks of Covid confusion. 

For a month or so, I needed books for comfort instead. Then when I started back at work, new releases got in the way as I struggled to manage my time efficiently. 

Last week I decided it was time to finish it. 

During the reading break, I'd forgotten just how lovely is the writing and how absorbing is Midhat's story. It's hard to believe this historically rich, self-assured novel is a debut.

I learnt so much about the end of the Ottoman Empire and the Levant area circa WWI - WWII. The reference to Paris is slight, in that the story begins with a young Midhat moving to France in October 1914, at the beginning of WWI, to train to be a doctor. His time in Paris is not very long in the scheme of his whole life, but it was an informative few years for him. On his return to his home town, Nablus, he affects a Parisian air, wearing the latest Parisian fashion and discussing the latest Parisian books, art and philosophy. 

Midhat is loosely based on Hammad's own great-grandfather, Midhat. A man whose family teased him and joked about his Parisian ways for the remainder of his life. These are the stories that Hammad grew up listening to. Her grandmother, Ghada (who features briefly as a young girl towards the end of the book) was the main source of these stories about this gentle, sensitive man who happened to live his life during extremely turbulent and 'interesting times'.

From the first page, Hammad shows us Midhat's fascination with all things French. Meeting another Arab (who has been to France before) on board the ship taking him to Marseille, he observes,
He wore a pale blue three-piece suit, and an indigo tie with a silver tiepin in the shape of a bird. A cane of some dark unpainted wood leaned against the table.

He then went on to warn/shock/entice Midhat about the women of France 'they are treated like queens', the alcohol and religion, 'you should know that missionaries are always different from the natives. The religion is less strong in France.'

Part One is about Midhat's time in Montpellier, training to be doctor from the home of Docteur Molineu. He has a daughter, Jeanette who fascinates and confounds Midhat from the start. He feels his outsider status and constantly struggles with how different life is in France, to his home. Confusion and faux pas' abound. From this distance he remembers the significant events from his childhood.

Midhat is a daydreamer, a romantic soul, so naturally he falls in love with Jeanette. A major misunderstanding leads him to run away to Paris. Regret sets in.

Part Two begins with Midhat living in Paris.
He took his first look at Paris - the cluttered pavements, the zinc roofs, the faceless rush....The people seemed less to walk down the street than hurtle; he heard the cry of a seagull and the earth muttered beneath his feet as though somewhere below water was churning.
Politics, philosophy and wartime gaiety take up his time, as he completes his training. 
Sometimes after dinner Midhat would go out with Faruq to bars and cabarets. As the city moved from her mood of wartime grief to one of revelry, Parisian nightlife began to thrive on the electric atmosphere of the home front. Ration-dimmed streetlights greyed the boulevards but cinemas and theatres still packed out nightly and even stayed open during the zeppelin attacks. Under the sustained pressure of war, the people of Paris behaved as though they had approached the end of the world.
Paris in half-mourning | Ralph Burton |1915

Hammad only gives us a few chapters about this significant, informative time in his life, before returning Midhat to Nablus.

The memories of regret and nostalgia around Jeannette, Montpellier and Paris inform every decision he makes there after. A hidden letter changes everything.

Political events and family expectations inform his career choice, his eventual marriage and friendships. 

Part Three shows the growing unrest in Palestine at this time, which seems to pass Midhat by as he lives on his Parisian memories. Yet his inner turmoil often reflects the outer madness taking hold of his homeland.

Back in Nablus, Midhat finds that he is once again an outsider, struggling to belong in his home town as he constantly longs for another place, another love.

Hammad has created an incredibly immersive story about a fascinating period in history, told from a Palestinian point of view. Hammad has chosen to use a fairly traditional, classic style of storytelling which suits this time period perfectly. She claims Virginia Woolf and Henry James as influences on her writing, especially James' ability with dialogue and how he reveals the things unsaid. 

The Parisian is a book worthy of your time. It rewards, delights and informs the reader, in much the same way that a careful read of Dickens or Zola does. I'm very curious to see what Hammad might do next.
  • Winner of the Creative Award at Palestine Book Awards 2019.
  • Shortlisted for the 2020 Sir Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.
Book 5 of 20 Books of Summer Winter

Saturday, 18 July 2020

11th Blogaversary

I've done it again!
I've let the 5th July come and go, forgetting yet another blogaversary. 

I may have turned missing my blogaversary into an art form.

Thirteen days ago was the 11th anniversary of my very first blog post. That's,
  • 11 years,
  • 132 months,
  • 573 weeks.
  • 4015 days, and
  • 96369 hours.
In that time I have written 1524 posts, viewed by over 752183 people (or bots!) leaving 8576 comments. 

My very first blog post was Gone by Michael Grant and reflected that Brona's Books started life as a blog designed with teachers and parents in mind. (This post also featured my very first comment...left by me!! Sad but true!)

The first two years saw me posting in fits and starts. I had no idea what I was doing. I felt like I was writing into a huge unknown void. The book blogging community was oblivious to me and I was oblivious to them. 

I had burnt out from teaching career and was now working in an independent children's bookshop. I was happy enough to read kids lit for work, by my heart was in adult fiction, classics in particular.

It was during my summer holidays in January 2012 that I had a revelation.
I had read several fantastic adult books over the break and I was brimming with things to say about them...and I suddenly realised... I could blog about adult books too!

I began to google and read stuff on how to be more interactive in the blogging world & how to get more comments and interested followers.

The brave new world of memes, blog hops and readalongs suddenly opened up before me!
I discovered The Classics Club and numerous Australian bloggers. I joined events, participated in memes & left hundreds of thoughtful comments in the blogosphere.

In fact, I found myself blogging about so many new and wonderful things, that I felt the need to start a second blog to cater for my photographic & travel writing urges!
In July 2012 Four Seasons was born.

Since then, I have learnt basic html, joined twitter and instagram and started a Brona's Books facebook page.

I've hosted events, like my annual AusReadingMonth, the now defunct Wharton Review and numerous readalongs. I've become an editor for the Australian Women Writers Challenge and a moderator for The Classics Club.

This blogging life is not without it's own challenges though. 
There are the slumps, the writer's blocks and the loss of enthusiasm. There is a busy life, changing priorities and pandemics. There are times when you wonder what on earth you are doing here, what is the purpose of it all and why bother.

In 11 years I have learnt that everyone's blogging journey is personal and just right for them. 
You have to work out what it is you want to do and then it will be right for you too. 
Be prepared to change and evolve. 
Make mistakes, learn from them and try again.
  • If you love what you're doing, then you'll find a way to keep on doing it.
  • If you want to be a writer, then write.
  • Even when you don't want to or when it feels too hard.
  • Especially when you don't want to and it feels too hard.
  • Write something.
  • Write what you would like to read.
  • Edit.
  • Write some more.
But blogging is not just about writing; it is just as much about the reading.
We write a book blog because we are readers of books. Usually we are readers of lots and lots of books.
Being a book blogger means we are also committing ourselves to reading the blogs of other book bloggers and engaging in a community of fellow bloggers and readers. People just like us, with time constraints, personal issues and good intentions that don't always come to fruition. 

Many years ago I read Daniel Pennac's The Rights of the Reader.

Pennac lists 10 reader's rights that tonight I will subvert for my own purposes.

1. The right not to read (or blog).
2. The right to skip (or skim read another's review).
3. The right not to finish a book (or review).
4. The right to read it again (& not to blog about it at all).
5. The right to read anything (or nothing or eight books at once).
6. The right to mistake a book for real life (or real life for your blog)!
7. The right to read anywhere (or check your latest blog comments from any device).
8. The right to dip in (& browse without leaving comments).
9. The right to read out loud (& curse your device when it eats another comment)!
10. The right to be quiet (or not like a post).

And since this is my 11th anniversary, I need one more.

11. The right to make it all up as you go along and to change your mind whenever you like!

However, the very best part of 11 years of blogging has been all of you.

Yes, you - my dear readers, followers & regular commenters. Especially all of you who persist even when your first comment is eaten by your device!

A big thank you to all of you who have shared readalongs, readathons, photos, spins & other book events with me. 

I feel blessed to have met you all.
You have enriched my reading and blogging life no end.
You make this whole thing worthwhile.
Thank you all for sharing this 11 year journey with me. 

Thursday, 16 July 2020

Six in Six

When it's cold and grey outside, the only solution is books. And when you can't decide which one to read next, then the next-best thing is to blog about books!

Thankfully, FictionFan came to my rescue today with her recent post Six in Six.
The meme originates with Jo @The Book Jotter, who has been writing about Six in Six since 2012.

The idea is to reflect on the first 6 months of your reading experience for this calendar year. Then throughout July:
share 6 books in 6 categories, or if time is of the essence then simply share just 6 books. Whatever combination works for you as long as it involves 6 books. Of course the same book can obviously feature in more than one category.
Jo has an ever expanding list of six categories to choose from, or you create your own. I have done a mix of both.

Six best books of 2020 (so far):

My favourite and best books tend to be big on character, with a definite sense of place, and I do love fine writing.

Six shortlisted books:

  • Actress - shortlisted 2020 Women's Prize - not as good as I had hoped, but enjoyable enough.
  • Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line - shortlisted 2020 Women's Prize & one of the reasons why I love shortlists. I may never have found this gem if not for it's nomination.
  • Girl Woman Other - Winner Booker Prize 2019, shortlisted 2020 Women's Prize
  • Middle England - Winner of the 2019 Costa Book Award & all about Brexit.
  • Redhead by the Side of the Road - shortlisted 2020 Women's Prize & just missed out on being in the list above with it's lovely characters with issues.
  • The Parisian - Winner 2019 Palestine Book Awards

Six books in translation:

  • The Forest of Wool and Steel - a bit of a slog to be honest. 
  • The Conquest of Plassans - Zola never disappoints. The fiery ending in this one was a surprise.
  • The German House - thoughtful story about post-WWII Germany coming to terms with the Holocaust - who did what and who knew what.
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude - a reread of this South American classic that made more sense second time around.
  • The Plague - review to come.
  • War and Peace - reading one chapter-a-day for the entire year. I'm half way through.

Six From the Non-Fiction Shelf:

Six classics I've read this year:

  • Moby-Dick - if you have the time, and you're in the mood for a long meander at sea, pondering the meaning of life, then this is a classic you should not overlook. Worth the effort.
  • Under Milk Wood - read as you listen to the sultry tones of Richard Burton narrate this wonderful play with words.
  • The Dyehouse - a forgotten Australian story thankfully rediscovered by Text Classics.
  • The Tempest - not my most favourite Shakespeare. I've learnt that listening to and watching plays is much better than reading them!
  • The Cardboard Crown - another little known Australian classic, part memoir, part fiction and part of a quartet.
  • Katherine Mansfield short stories - so far I've read 5 this year - 2 still to be reviewed. I love her!

Six books set in Australia or written by an Australian:

  • Cherry Beach - starts in Melbourne, finishes in Canada, lots of YA angst in the middle.
  • The Rain Heron - just missed out on being in the top 6 as well. The ending wasn't as strong as the start, but, oh, the beginning was tremendous stuff indeed!
  • The End of the World is Bigger than Love - a YA eco-dystopian 
  • Truganini - an insightful bio into the life and times of a Tasmanian Aboriginal woman.
  • Sand Talk - fascinating look at Indigenous thinking.
  • The Secret Library of Hummingbird House - fabulous time-travelling primary school aged fiction. Review to come.