The Story of Art

Art is another of those areas, like music, that I don't know much about. And naturally my favoured method of learning is to go off and read a book...

(As a side note, it's taken me a long time to realise that this method is not necessarily the most effective for everyone. My elder daughter learns best by watching documentaries; my husband through listening to podcasts; my younger daughter by researching on-line. I can push fascinating books at all of them but the chances of them actually flipping through them are minimal. Weirdos!)

So I decided to Learn About Art and this massive tome (first published in 1950, last updated in 1989) seemed like the perfect starting point. It was originally intended for younger readers -- teenagers at a guess -- and though it has many, many, MANY pages, there are loads of illustrations and the text is not too dense. I think I remember art students at my school lugging this around back in the 1980s. It has taken me many weeks to wade through this history, a chapter at a time, and I'm not sure how much of it I will retain long-term. There is a heavy emphasis on Western art and particularly painting, but hey, you can't cover everything and since my ignorance is pretty much total, it was just as well to chip away at one area.

E. H. Gombrich succeeds in laying out a fairly coherent narrative trail by framing each era of art as an attempt to solve the problems thrown up by the one before, which was an interesting, and to me, novel way to look at it. And best of all, now that I've finally finished it, I feel incredibly virtuous!


Grant and I

Despite (because of?) working for international music companies for more than a decade, I am not really a music person. I very rarely listen to music these days, and when I do, it's always an old favourite album and not anything new.

The exception to this rule is the wonderful mix discs made for us by our friend David (through whom both Michael and I got our music jobs...). And it was David who gave me Robert Forster's Grant and I for my birthday, knowing that one of the albums I return to time and again, the soundtrack of my twenties, is the Go-Betweens' 16 Lovers Lane.

This is the story of a band, a musical journey, and most of all, a friendship. Grant McLennan and Robert Forster found each other as sensitive outsiders at university in Brisbane, back when Queensland was a black hole ruled by Joh Bjelke-Peterson. Robert taught Grant how to play guitar; Grant introduced Robert to arthouse cinema. The union of two singer-songwriters gave their band an unconventional structure; it became both a strength and a weakness, as the Go-Betweens fought for creative and commercial success in the UK, Europe, the US and at home in Australia -- two steps up the ladder, then another slide down. The Go-Betweens never became 'big,' but they certainly gathered a devoted following, despite Grant and Robert splitting the band and going their separate ways for a decade before coming together again.

'There's bad blood between us' is a line from 16 Lovers Lane, before it all fell apart, but it sums up a period when the long hard slog of being in a not-quite-successful enough band and the tensions of personalities and relationships took their toll. At different times, Robert was going out with the drummer, Lindy, and Grant was going out with Amanda, the violinist, and though at times love fuelled the music, there were times when this history proved destructive.

I loved how Forster describes the memory of writing a strong song as setting off a 'flare' in his mind, illuminating a particular room at a particular moment in time: the carpet, the way the light fell, a half-open door, Lindy applying makeup in the bathroom.

Grant and I is a wonderful, moving story of a creative partnership, and it's sent me searching for all the music, both from the Go-Betweens and from McLennan and Forster's solo work, that I missed along the way.


The Hate Race

I bought The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke on impulse, on the Kindle, prompted by a review in The Monthly that reminded me, oh, yeah, I totally meant to read that book...

I'm so glad that I did. This is an important, heart-breaking memoir, sometimes zingingly funny, sometimes painfully sad, the kind of book that leaves feeling winded, like someone snuck up while you weren't looking and punched you in the guts, but because you needed it.

Maxine Beneba Clarke grew up in the Sydney suburbs in the 1990s, daughter of British immigrants who were born in the West Indies, her mother an actress, her father a university mathematician. This is the story of Clarke's Australian childhood, the slow dawning of the realisation that in the eyes of many of her fellow citizens, her skin colour sets her apart -- sometimes perceived as exotic ('where are you from?' 'can you show us some tribal dances?'), but most often as inferior. Clarke's account of the daily, bruising, numbing, casual and deliberate racism she encountered as a child and adolescent (and still encounters) is illuminating (to me) and horrible. It made me feel deeply ashamed, and angry, and sad, because I know things are no better now.

I think this book is being marketed as an adult memoir, but it should be required reading for every teenager too.


How To Be Happy

I borrowed David Burton's memoir How To Be Happy from the library for the Convent book group, as next month's theme is Non-Fiction.

How To Be Happy, winner of the Text Prize, is funny, wry, engaging and honest. Reading it also made me feel very anxious. It took me straight back to my own adolescent and young adult struggles with anxiety and depression, and forced me to face the fact that my daughters are also in the thick of those difficult years and may well have a similar experience. Not comfortable reading.

But I think this is a valuable book. It reassures us that there is help available, that hard times and grief can be survived, that friends are important and families can endure. David Burton is now a playwright in Brisbane and in a loving relationship (at least he was when the book was written). He is still young; he may not be out of the woods yet.

I hated being young. It wasn't the best time of my life, it was the most miserable, the most uncertain, stressful and painful time. I wouldn't go back there for quids. Maybe that's why I write for kids and young people, because when I was young, books were my lifeline, my escape, and the promise that there was more to life than confusion, fear and sadness. Wow, that got dark quickly -- I didn't mean it to! And How To Be Happy is not a dark book, though it touches on some dark material; it ends on a promise of hope. Read it.


Mrs Robinson's Disgrace

I relished Kate Summerscale's previous non-fiction exploration of a Victorian-era crime, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, an absorbing and sometimes shocking account of one of the first modern-style murder investigations.

Mrs Robinson's Disgrace is also an examination of a Victorian scandal, but this time based in the newly-minted divorce courts rather than the Old Bailey. Isabella Robinson is unhappily married, bored and depressed. She consoles herself by writing in her private diary, recounting her attraction to various men and ultimately, her intimacy with one of them. Alas, while Isabella is ill and feverish, her husband discovers her diary, reads it with mounting rage, and demands a divorce for adultery. The only evidence is her diary, but can it be trusted? Or did Isabella, as her alleged paramour insists, invent the whole story?

Based on court records and other research, Mrs Robinson's Disgrace gives Summerscale the opportunity to explore all kinds of threads concerned with female sexuality, Victorian morality, truth and fiction, the romantic imagination, marital cruelty, and the emergence of scientific, rational approach to sexual desire.

All this is very interesting, but unfortunately I found Isabella Robinson, though intelligent and dealt a rotten hand in husbands, rather wearing company. She was rightly outraged that her husband had violated the privacy of her journal. Some words are not meant to be shared with others. Alas, Isabella's diary, like so many unedited diaries, is repetitive, self-serving, over-written, exaggerated and rather dull. That doesn't mean it wasn't valuable for her to write it; my own diaries, more than a hundred years later, were pretty similar! But I would shudder if they were shared with the general public, and I fear Isabella Robinson would probably feel the same way.



Bought Boy: Tales of Childhood on the Kindle as my library had deleted their two copies since I last checked! Why? There seems to be this drive by libraries to clear out their back catalogue and only stock new books. When someone says, this place looks like a bookshop, they take it as a compliment. It's not. Libraries should not be faux-bookshops, they should be repositories of history, oddities, overlooked classics ripe for discovery. I know they can't stock everything, but still, it's disappointing when well-loved books like Roald Dahl's autobiography are unceremoniously binned.

Rant over.

Perhaps calling Boy an autobiography is a bit of a stretch; it's more like a highlights reel, with, as they say in footy circles, some mayo on the top. Roald Dahl selects the most memorable events of his childhood and shares them in his trademark highly-coloured style. There are dead mice, operations without anaesthetic, and lots and lots of flogging. Dahl attended British public schools in the 1920s and 30s and never got over his outrage that masters and senior pupils were licensed to assault younger boys in the name of discipline - not just a tap on the bum, but real, bruising, blood-drawing injuries.

Regulars readers may know that I'm not a massive fan of Roald Dahl's writing; the celebrated streak of darkness and fondness for the gross side of life does not appeal to me and never has. But I found Boy a galloping, engaging read. I took it on the train to amuse me on the way to and from a school visit in Caulfield, and I was started and disappointed when it finished before my train reached Richmond!

I might even read the sequel, Going Solo. But I'm not promising anything.


Catching Up

Image: AFL
So... we went on a little holiday to new Zealand. I know, I know, what self-respecting football fan books an overseas holiday in September? But the decision to take the family on a brief break across the Tasman was a form of tempting fate -- come on, surely the Bulldogs wouldn't still be playing in the last couple of weeks of the finals? At best we might scrape into the semis...

Well, unless you've been living under a rock, you know how this story ends. Our Bulldogs DID win a preliminary final, gaining entry to the Grand Final for the first time since 1961. We watched the astounding victory (underdogs for the third game in a row...) on cable TV in our hotel room in Wellington. A couple of days earlier, a random stranger had bounced up to Michael in the Auckland Museum and wished us luck (Michael happened to be wearing a jacket with a very discreet Bulldog logo attached).

We made it home in time to secure tickets. We were there, high up in the Southern Stand, to witness the game. We chewed out nails, plaited the tassels on our scarves, cheered and howled and roared. And before the siren sounded, I was already in tears.

Anyway, while we were away, I read a couple of books: The Spire, by William Golding, about a medieval priest who is driven to add a spire to his church, against the warnings of his master builder, and the effects of his misguided vision on the community around him; and also Landmarks, by Robert Macfarlane, an absolutely beautiful book which examines some of Macfarlane's favourite nature writers, and also gathers a glossary of local terms for landscape and weather, words that describe with precision and poetry the interplay of water and air, earth and sky. Macfarlane laments that with the loss of this language, we lose our ability to really see what lies around us. This immediately led me to think of the tragic loss of Aboriginal languages and place-names, which perform the same function of knitting together people, spirit and place. And it felt as if New Zealand, with its proliferation of Maori place-names, and its bi-lingual signage, is miles ahead of Australia in recognition and preservation of local language.

But since I finished Landmarks, nearly all my reading has been about football, and that glorious, thrilling victory: match reports, interviews, newspaper articles, blog posts... and I still haven't even unwrapped the Footy Record!!

This post has already gone on long enough, so I will conclude with a simple, joyous shout of GO DOGS!


The Singing Bones

The Singing Bones by Shaun Tan is the last book on my graphic novel list - this one counts as the 'picture book', though I have to say the designations for each category this time around have been more then a little arbitrary!

The Singing Bones is not really a book for children. It is exquisite and uncanny, using short extracts from about 60 of Grimms' fairy tales as inspiration for a series of clay sculptures by Tan, best known for his drawings. An afterword states that Shaun Tan was influenced by Inuit and Mexican sculpture, and these weird, wonderful little works cry out to be held in the hand. But I think if I was a young child, I'd find them slightly terrifying. The extracts from the stories, too, many of which were unfamiliar to me, were dark and creepy. Not saying that's a bad thing, but I think I got more pleasure from this book as an adult than I would have as a child.



Art Spielgelman's classic graphic account of his family's survival under the Nazis, Maus, was first published in 1973. To my shame, I had never read it, until now.

In Maus, and the sequel Maus II, Spiegelman retells his father's account of life in Poland under Nazi occupation during the Second World War. The Jews are drawn as mice, the Nazis are cats, the non-Jewish Poles are pigs. Each panel crackles with energy, as if Spiegelman were scribbling it at top speed, and the story is filled with both tragedy and unexpected humour. Vladek is resourceful, courageous, quick-thinking, determined to survive against horrendous odds. But as he recounts his history to his son, in current-day America, he is also infuriating, comically miserly, irascible, impossible to live with. He is a hero, but not a straightforwardly admirable man.

I raced through this book, gobbling it so fast that I barely took in the artwork, focused on the dialogue and the words that propel the story forward. We know (because this is a true story) that Vladek and Anja will live. But plenty of others we encounter along the way will not survive. It's easier to digest the horrors of the Holocaust when it's presented in the form of cats and mice playing out the drama, and it's a story that is so brutal, so hard to comprehend, that perhaps we need a little help to face it.

During Maus II, Spiegelman himself reflects on the difficulty of his task. How can he draw Auschwitz? Can he find a way to depict a tin workshop without drawing machinery? Can he do justice to his father's story, and overcome his own feelings of guilt and anger toward Vladek? Does the world even need another Holocaust story?

If that story is Maus, then the answer is, yes, it does.


The Sacrifice

We are doing Graphic Novels next month in the Convent book group, and I had Bruce Mutard's The Sacrifice on my list as our junior fiction title. I'm not entirely sure how it got there, because this is definitely an adult novel. I had some trouble sourcing this book, and eventually borrowed it on Michael's card from the Moonee Ponds library (Kelvin was very helpful, thanks Kelvin!)

I really enjoyed the fact that this book was set in Melbourne. The graphics gave a vivid sense of the city in the late 30s and early 1940s, and the characters were of a demographic I haven't seen much of -- communists, pacifists, slightly bohemian types -- people who would probably have been my tribe if I'd been alive back then. The Sacrifice is part one of an ambitious project, the Robert Wells trilogy, with volumes two and three still to come, which will presumably chart Robert's experiences at war and afterwards; this book deals with his struggle to decide whether or not to enlist.

I have to admit that I took quite a while to get into The Sacrifice. If I hadn't had to read it for book group, I might have given up. The start was very dialogue heavy, as the characters discuss politics, religion, duty and ideology for page after page, before I'd managed to distinguish who they were! The story did pick up down the track, though, and by the end I was hooked into the story and the history. I still didn't feel particularly connected to the characters though. Maybe I need more practice with graphic novels as I do find them difficult! But I do admire the ambition of this project.


Linnet and Valerians

Birthday present! I haven't read Linnets and Valerians for a very long time, and as I read it, it came back to me, like a magic painting's colours when you brush it with water, and I remembered why I adored it so much.

Partly it was the character of Nan, who is 'plain,' but still becomes much loved. This was a great comfort to me, and I remembered how much I relished reading about Nan and her private parlour, because she needed time alone, and fierce Uncle Ambrose who nonetheless cares deeply for the children. I loved his owl, Hector, and the bees, and Ezra with his pointed ears who is the repository of old magic, while Uncle Ambrose stands for logic and civilization. It takes a balance of these powers, and the courage and energy and compassion of the children, to defeat the forces of badness in the village and right an old wrong.  There were echoes of The Little White Horse in this theme, but I could relate more to quiet, plain Nan than to the confident, self-possessed Maria Merryweather!

But... geez, it was slow in patches. Lots of detailed description of the moor and the hill and the woods, which is the kind of thing I normally love, but it was in great undigestible slabs that bogged the story down. The characters were all wonderful, and it was the characters who stayed with me down the years, but this time, unlike LWH, the setting didn't quite catch fire for me. And the solution to the 'mystery' was perfectly plain from practically the first chapter.

Still, I'm very glad to have re-acquainted myself with this old favourite (though I wish it still had the original cover), and very content to have it on my shelf.


It's My Birthday and I'll Read If I Want To

I didn't buy ALL of these for myself -- some were mere suggestions, and some were genuine unasked-for (but very welcome!) gifts. But is there any better way to celebrate a birthday than with a big pile of books?? (Don't answer that!)

Iris and the Tiger was a gift from my dear, clever Sandra, who provided the cover art.

I've been waiting to read Lila since it came out; Marilynne Robinson is one of my favourite authors, and I'm looking forward to a thoughtful, meditative read of the story already partially told in Gilead and Home, this time from Lila's point of view.

Robert Macfarlane is a relatively recent discovery, and it was a review of Landmarks that first alerted me to his books. How remiss of me, then, not to have actually read Landmarks yet! Language and landscape -- my kind of book. (Technically, this one is a gift from Alice.)

I spotted The Spire at Savers at the weekend, and also not one but three copies of a Rumer Godden I don't possess: An Episode of Sparrows (why three? all the same edition, by the look of it -- weird... I left two copies at Savers in Brunswick if you're interested...)

The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who was a gift from my fan-girl younger daughter, thank you darling xxx

And I was telling my mum how much I longed to buy Linnets and Valerians, but wasn't sure if I could justify it, and she said, I'll give it to you for your birthday. L&V was my second favourite Elizabeth Goudge book when I was a child (after The Little White Horse) but I haven't been able to read it for over thirty years and my memories are sketchy -- red-haired, stubborn little Betsy; there are bees; Uncle Ambrose teaches the children about Greece ('Greece' (grease) is 'a shining light,' says Betsy -- now why did that stick in my head when so much else has fallen away?)

Now my only problem is, which to read first?


Brat Farrar

Oh dear, I'm so easily distracted... I bought this on impulse on the Kindle -- too hurriedly as it turns out, because if I'd investigated further I could have found an even cheaper version -- oh, well, serves me right for being impatient I guess!

My interest was piqued because I'd seen Brat Farrar mentioned in Antonia Forest (Ginty picks it up as 'an easy re-read', and I have a feeling it turns up somewhere else as well, but for the moment I can't think where... have to look out for it next time I read the Marlows books...). Published in 1949, it's a classic thriller -- a stranger arrives at the old country estate of Latchetts, claiming to be Patrick Ashby, the long-lost, presumed-dead-from-suicide twin of eldest son Simon. Certainly the two young men look very much alike. But Simon is not convinced -- and he has a very good reason not to believe 'Patrick's story... Can you guess what it might be?

I absolutely raced through this and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a good old-fashioned thriller with a fabulous set-up. But what gave me the most fun was finding all the echoes of Forest's own books -- clearly this novel was on her mind when she wrote Falconer's Lure! The setting is very similar: there are two neighbouring estates, one solidly yeoman (ie Trennels), one more aristocratic (Mariot Chase). There are horses galore, and a set-piece local horse show toward the end of the book where villainy is exposed. One of the main characters is called Patrick. And there are animals called Regina and Buster (though in Falconer's Lure, Regina is a falcon, rather than a horse...)

I must admit I've been guilty of putting in little 'homages' of my own in the books I write, so it was rather lovely to see that Antonia Forest had done the same!

The Big Twitch

I found Sean Dooley's The Big Twitch in the library while I was vaguely browsing for bird books (for work). It had that well-thumbed look that oft-borrowed books acquire, which is usually a good sign, and indeed so it proved to be.

The story of one man's odyssey around Australia, in a quest to see as many bird species as possible in a single calendar year, sounds as if it might yawn-inducingly dull, and in lesser hands, it might have been. But Sean Dooley (who has a history of writing TV comedy) is such an entertaining companion, it becomes a fascinating and funny travelogue, broken into small chunks as he travels into every corner of the country, from Tasmania to Christmas Island and all points in between. He doesn't linger too long on the bird stuff, giving us just enough detail to feel involved in his 'birdy-nerdy' quest, and he weaves in plenty of amusing anecdotes and local history and geography along the way. Who knew that birding politics were so complex and passionate? Dooley's droll eye misses nothing, and he also shares some poignant family history along the way (his journey is made possible by an inheritance from his parents, both recently dead from cancer).

In short, I enjoyed this book a lot more than I anticipated. A sweet and drily humorous tale, perfect for reading on the tram.


The Magic and Mystery of Birds

Found in the library. Full title: The Magic and Mystery of Birds: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human. Written by American Noah Strycker who seems to be something of a prodigal child in the world of birding, and last year broke a record for the most number of birds ever spotted in a single year (about 6000, I think).

I was in the mood to learn something and this non-fiction book was easy to digest. It read like a collection of magazine articles (not a bad thing) on various topics, bouncing off weirdnesses in bird behaviour into discussions on human psychology, physics, love, game theory and a dozen other topics.

Highlights include: a link to an amazing Youtube video of a flock of starlings in flight at sunset (look up 'murmuration' and check it out for yourself); the information that vulture poo is completely sterile (because they live off rotting meat, their stomachs have to handle any bacteria -- they can even process anthrax); albatrosses live 95% of their lives on the wing, gliding effortlessly over the world's oceans; the only species in the world who dance to music are humans, elephants and parrots. And lots of other bizarre and unexpected facts.

It wasn't what I'd call a deep read, but Stryker succeeds in communicating his enthusiasm for his life's passion, and intriguing the reader too.