5.12.16

The Stone Book

I spent last weekend in Castlemaine with seven wonderful women, celebrating the twentieth anniversary of our book group. (I've only been a member for about five years, but I was allowed to come along anyway!) We had a fabulous time, eating, drinking, wandering, chatting about life and books -- and of course we visited book shops.

Most of our book shop experiences were positive and enjoyable. But there was one book shop, which shall remain nameless, where the proprietor was weirdly hostile. The books (of which there were admittedly plenty) were higgeldy piggeldy, in tottering columns, so you couldn't actually access the shelves behind. Our polite enquiry ('are you open this afternoon?') was met with a snappish reply ('the hours are on the door'). A simple yes or no would have done the job...

ANYWAY during our brief visit, and despite the best efforts of the book seller to prevent me, I still managed to find three books that I wanted, including this slender volume, Alan Garner's The Stone Book, the first part of The Stone Book Quartet (I'm still looking for the other three books.)

Alan Garner's ability to pack in such vivid poetry and elliptical wisdom into so few pages leaves me breathless with admiration. Every word packs a punch; nothing is wasted. In The Stone Book, Mary longs for a book to carry in church like the other girls. But her stonemason father (echoes of William Golding's The Spire which I read a couple of months ago!) instead takes her to a hidden place underground, where she discovers a secret that moves her more profoundly than words.

I feel as if I've only had part of the story. Now I need the other three quarters of the whole.

Fight Like A Girl

Clementine Ford is a welcome, in-your-face presence in mainstream media through her Daily Life articles and her lively Facebook and Twitter activity. Now Fight Like A Girl has collected her thoughts and observations on a variety of feminist issues in one volume. She's angry, and so she should be, and so should we all: at sexual violence, inequality, the silencing of women's stories, at the routine abuse of women, like Ford herself, who dare to speak up and speak out.

Ford quotes some of the obscene comments that her opinions have attracted. At first it's shocking, disgusting; you can't quite believe that there are men in the world who actually think this way and feel justified in saying it openly (albeit anonymously, behind the shield of a keyboard). But after a while, it becomes absurd and laughable. Come on, guys! Seriously? I agree with Ford that ridicule can be a powerful weapon, as effective as the Ridikulus charm against a Boggart.

Clementine Ford is unapologetically, entertainingly ranty, and the energy of her anger and her humour is bracing. At times I found myself wanting some slightly deeper analysis, and perhaps a clearer pathway for change. This is not academic feminism as I encountered it at university, and it's all the more accessible for that. I'll be lending this book to my fifteen year old daughter; it's a good place to start, but it's only the first step on the journey.

29.11.16

More Emily!


Emily Climbs sees our friends and relations from New Moon relegated to the background as Emily goes off to high school in Shrewsbury, boarding with her prim, judgmental Aunt Ruth, forming new friendships and setting out on her 'Alpine path' -- her writing career. The book ends with a potentially life-changing offer from a fairy godmother figure; but can Emily tear herself from her beloved New Moon?

Spoiler: she doesn't! Emily's Quest is in many ways the saddest of the trilogy. Where Emily of New Moon is fresh and sweet, and Emily Climbs is hopeful, Emily's Quest is a book of disillusionment, misunderstandings and disappointment. This final novel sees the tangle of relationships between Emily, Teddy, Ilse and Perry (and the creepy Dean!) which was set up in the first book, play out in full. There are moments of joy, where Emily has her first book published, and she has plenty of offers of marriage, but of course we know that no one will do for our Emily but Teddy... But Teddy is going to marry Ilse! How are they going to get out of this one?

I think I prefer the first two books, before Emily gets sad and lonely, even though it all works out in the end. In some ways the last book feels rather perfunctory, as if Montgomery had decided well in advance how the story was going to end but almost lost interest before she came to actually write it (dear readers: this can happen.) There is quite a bit of Tell-Not-Show and the quirky character studies and amusing anecdotes are less prominent, and as I get older I find that these are the parts of Montgomery's writing that I enjoy the most. It's still a lovely trilogy though!

21.11.16

Comfort Re-Read: Emily of New Moon

I grew up with Anne of Green Gables, but I didn't find Emily until quite recently (thanks to dear Suzanne from book group, who shares my tastes!). I've been in the mood for something non-threatening and sweet, and Emily fits the bill perfectly.

There are certainly parallels with Anne's story -- eccentric, gifted orphan girl lands in a household where she is not at first entirely welcome, wins over her guardians, makes friends and communes with nature as life's lessons help her to mature -- but Emily is quieter than Anne. Instead of a fiery temper and impulses that land her in scrapes, Emily has a steely determination and a gift for poetry (surely at least in part a self-portrait of the author?)

There were a couple of aspects of the story that made me cringe slightly. There is a frankly creepy friendship with a thirty-five year old man (Emily is twelve) who comes across like a grooming paedophile (he says, rather ominously, that he'll 'wait for her' -- yuk!) and the story of Emily's friend Ilse, completely neglected, even disliked, by her father, because he's under the impression that her mother betrayed him, just makes my blood boil! The morality of the day has not aged well. It was chastening, too, to read about children dying of measles. This is why we have vaccination, people!

But on the whole, this was a quick, delightful re-read.

18.11.16

The Brain That Changes Itself

I've been meaning to read The Brain That Changes Itself for ages, especially since Dad had his stroke -- it's very pertinent to the problems he has been facing (partial paralysis and aphasia). It's become a bit of a modern pop-science classic since it was first published in 2007; this was an updated edition from 2010 and I'm sure the science has advanced even further in the last few years.

I think I was expecting more of a focus on stroke treatment, but Norman Doidge covers a range of brain injuries and human issues -- there's one chapter on sexual attraction, and one on psychoanalysis, as well as stroke, OCD, phantom limbs and pain. Doidge's central thesis is that the brain's functioning is not fixed, but is capable of incredible feats of 'plasticity,' adapting and modifying itself to cope with injury, expanding neural networks as we learn and reinforce that learning (as when we learn an instrument or a new language, or as blind people use the parts of the brain normally used for visual processing to enhance their hearing instead.)

I have a weakness for pop-science books and this one was particularly relevant to my interests. Doidge is very encouraging about the human capacity for recovery from brain injury, and we have seen for ourselves the amazing advances that my father has made since his massive stroke 18 months ago. He can now stand steadily, walk for short distances with a quad cane, and has improved his mental processing with the help of brain exercises from our wonderful speech pathologists. (Though I was a bit disconcerted to read in a footnote this morning that there's evidence that people recovering from stroke can improve either their physical movement or their cognitive function -- but there just isn't enough capacity in the undamaged brain to cover both. I don't think I'll be sharing that particular speculation with Dad.)

14.11.16

Going Solo

As attentive readers will no doubt recall (!), I recently read the first volume of Roald Dahl's selective memoir/autobiography, Boy, for book group. Because I bought Boy on the Kindle, they threw in the first chapter of the next installment, Going Solo, as a bonus. It wasn't quite enough to entice me to buy the rest, but kind Diana at book group had brought along her copy and generously lent it to me. This is what book groups are great for, the sharing of books - sometimes figuratively and sometimes very literally! Thanks, Diana.

I read Going Solo in one day, more or less, as I was lying ill in bed. It was perfect sick-in-bed reading -- vivid, easy to read, large-ish print, lots of pictures. It covers a particularly eventful few years in Dahl's life -- sent out to East Africa in 1938 to work as a representative of Shell (lots of colourful colonial stories about snakes and lions), then with the declaration of war, training as a fighter pilot, crashing in North Africa and recovering in Egypt, then actually fighting in Greece. Finally the headaches caused by his first crash prevent him from flying any more and he is invalided home.

As in Boy, Dahl is brisk and matter-of-fact about some terrifying situations. He describes with precision and verve how it feels to scrunch up in the cockpit of a fighter (he was well over six feet tall and not well suited to the dimensions of a plane); the exhilaration and dread of air-to-air combat; and the horrific cost of war. As he notes at one point, here is this beautiful machine, his aircraft, which took thousands of hours to build, and in the hands of a barely-trained and inexperienced pilot, it probably won't last five minutes of actual combat... He also notes, along the way, the deaths of many of his fellow pilots and friends.

I can imagine this book going down a treat with young boys who hunger to know exactly what it was like to fly and fight, and nearly die in the desert, without sugar-coating the danger and the cost. Dahl manages to capture both the real excitement and the horror of war in an easily accessible book. I might even persuade my husband to read it. When he was a kid, he would have absolutely loved it.

9.11.16

Reading along on my push-bike


A few months ago, Alice found this cute retro exercise bike on hard rubbish, and brought it home (because what else is hard rubbish collection for, if not to rid your household of two unwanted items and pick up five things that other people don't want any more?)

Since then, it's been sitting on our front porch, screened by bushes and with a lovely view of the garden and the street. Alice rode it a few times then got bored (because that never happens with stuff you find on hard rubbish, right?)

Then I decided that if the dog wouldn't walk with me any more (long story), I had to find an alternate form of exercise. I used to ride a bike everywhere and for a few years, I was never fitter. So I timed myself pedalling away and was horrified when I could only last about three minutes before toppling off breathless, my heart thumping out of my rib cage. I used to ride for an hour and barely break a sweat! So I've set myself the goal of slowly increasing my pedal-time and making sure I have a daily ride.

But while the bike is in a pleasant spot, stationary riding is... dull. Then I realised I didn't need to look where I was going, or steer, or even hold onto the handlebars. I brought a book outside with me, and dear reader, the minutes fly by while I'm lost in a book. Talk about two birds with one stone. It's perfect.

7.11.16

The Boundless Sublime

When I was about nineteen, I came pretty close to joining a Christian youth group. Not a cult? I hear you say. But as Ruby's friend reminds her in The Boundless Sublime, Christianity was once regarded as a dangerous cult, and arguably still is (albeit a cult with a huge numbers of adherents). I can well remember that sensation of seductive excitement as I teetered on the edge of joining my potential new friends/'family' -- telling myself that I was too smart to fall for this, but knowing full well that, paradoxically, it's intelligent people who are most vulnerable to joining cult-ish organisations.

In The Boundless Sublime, Ruby is aware of this too, but that doesn't stop her from getting caught up in the weird, disturbing world of the Institute. It helps that she is made vulnerable and isolated by grief over the recent death of her younger brother, which has ripped her family apart; and it also helps that her entry to the Institute is eased by the 'hot wild angel boy' Fox. Before too long, and despite her initial wariness, Ruby has been well and truly taken in -- literally and figuratively. And the way out may be even harder than she thinks...

This is Lili Wilkinson's best book yet, darker and deeper than her previous novels, but no less readable and engaging. Ruby's journey is highly plausible. (Lili has made an accompanying series of videos, Let's Talk About Sects, which my elder daughter highly recommends.) A terrific, disturbing, sinister read.

Oh, and I didn't end up joining the Christian youth group. That particular cult will have to manage without me.

3.11.16

Never Let Me Go

This is the second Kazuo Ishiguro novel I've read this year, and like The Buried Giant a few months ago, Never Let Me Go left me feeling weirdly uncomfortable, disturbed, irritated and intrigued. I bought Never Let Me Go from Brotherhood Books not long after reading The Buried Giant, because I wanted to explore further my ambivalence about Ishiguro's writing.

But I don't know that I've actually clarified anything! There is something about the way Ishiguro tells a story, something so oblique and elliptical, that gives me the screaming irrits. 'That incident reminded me of the time, about three years ago, when we talked by the duck pond. But to explain why that conversation upset me so much, I have to go back to the encounter between Lucy and me, that day when it rained and we were all in the pavilion...'* Aargh! Just tell the story, already!

 And yet... I was completely hooked, drawn back to the book at inconvenient moments, to devour just a few more pages while I stirred the bolognese. I suppose everyone but me has, if not read the book, seen the movie, so you probably know the premise of the story -- and it's a great premise, even though very little happens in the way of actual plot. The plot is the slow reveal: who are these kids? Why are they special? And then, when the horror of their situation becomes clear: will they escape their fate?

Come on, it's an Ishiguro novel. Of course they won't escape their fate. They won't even resist very hard. I wonder if the film replicates the characters' meek submission? I wouldn't be surprised if they re-wrote the ending. I'll have to run and find out now... But there is something so haunting, so eerie and sad about this novel, that despite the frustrations, I'm glad I read it.
 
*not an actual quote

31.10.16

Arthur at the Crossing-Places

Ah, the difficult middle book of the trilogy! It's always a tricky prospect, and while I would read with joy and delight any book by Kevin Crossley-Holland, Arthur at the Crossing-Places is for me the least satisfying of this series (I'm including Gatty's Story here).

Appropriately perhaps for a hinge-book, this volume finds Arthur treading water. He is now squire to Lord Stephen, who is preparing to leave on the crusades; but by the end of the book, they still haven't left. Most of the book is taken up with Arthur watching events unfold in his seeing stone, the adventures of King Arthur and his knights. Frankly, the array of ladies in distress, gallant knights and evil-doers to be overcomes, challenges and jousts and romances, becomes a little dizzying. In the real world, Arthur is troubled by his parentage; he has discovered that the unpleasant Sir William is his father, while his mother remains unknown. He wants to find her, but doesn't know how, and again, the book finishes with this issue unresolved.

But I don't read Kevin Crossley-Holland for the story, really, but for his glorious, brightly-coloured language, which glows like a stained glass window or an illuminated manuscript. And for the sake of that, I'm happy to be frustrated on the plot front.

Arthur at the Crossing-Places was the last book of this series I managed to buy, so I've read them (re-read them) all out of order. But now they are all happily lined up on my shelf, and I'm very pleased to see them there, complete. I think these are books I will go back to again and again in years to come.

26.10.16

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!

24.10.16

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.

19.10.16

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.

14.10.16

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.

13.10.16

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.