Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 1, 2014

Mr Mac and Me, by Esther Freud


Mr Mac and Me Esther Freud’s Mr Mac and Me is an unexpectedly seductive read: if you start it late at night you may find yourself reading on till long past your bedtime.  Fortunately for me I started it on a Friday night, so it didn’t matter that it was well after four o’clock in the morning when I finally drifted into sleep, and I was able to finish the book first thing when I woke up on Saturday.  It’s that kind of book: it’s delicious.

The voice of Freud’s young narrator is pitch-perfect. Thomas Maggs reminded me of Stephen in Michael Frayn’s Spies, and Leo in The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley.  A boy on the cusp of adolescence, observant, good-hearted and thoughtful – but limited in his understanding by his youth and inexperience.  The novel is set in 1914 on the Suffolk coast when the Defence of the Realm Act – nicknamed ‘Dora’ by the village – begins to impact on Tom’s parents’ business and on the suspicions of the locals on the Home Front.

While the Blue Anchor is a billet to an endless succession of young men bound for the front, the hours of opening are cut and the beer must be sold half-strength.  The one person still able to get full-strength beer is the publican – Tom’s father, a morose and violent drunk nostalgic for his days butchering pigs.  Tom, at 12 and with a crippled foot into the bargain, is too young to take him on, but he knows one day he will.

Into the stasis of the village also comes Mr Mac, an artist-architect modelled on Charles Rennie Mackintosh.  (To see some of his work so luminously evoked by Freud’s words, click on the link and then on the photo of Mackintosh, then use the arrows to scroll through photos of his designs, including the Glasgow School of Art recently damaged by fire).  Mackintosh is a troubled man, resentful about being unacknowledged for his work and anxious about the money from his wife’s inheritance running out.  ‘Dora’ prohibits the building of anything new so he is in the village to produce small saleable paintings of wildflowers, one of which you can see on the book-cover.  His wife Margaret is an artist too: she worries about her masterpiece, The Seven Princesses – a massive gesso panel in Austria that’s been hidden behind a wall to protect it from destructive anti-British feeling, and she feels guilty about worrying about a piece of art while so many lives are being lost in the war:

‘So,’ Mrs Mac shrugs.  And then with no warning tears are streaming down her face.  ‘What if no one remembers? What if everyone who knows must leave Vienna, and the seven princesses remains forever sealed in their tomb?’ Her shoulders shake. ‘But at least,’ and to my surprise I find that she is laughing, ‘the colours will not fade.  Not like the panels I made for my husband’s houses, which sit above the fireplaces and are already mottled by candle flame, gas lamp and smoke.’

She rises then, and folding the letter back into its envelope she presses it into place in its drawer.  She gives herself a little shake.  ‘Tell me, how are preparations going for the wedding?’ And without waiting for an answer, she moves through to the kitchen where she pours us both a glass of water from a narrow jug.  ‘The thing to remember,’ she takes a gulp, is that it is nothing more than a great lump of plaster of Paris.  There are thousands, millions of people who are suffering. It is they who need our prayers.’ And as if to convince herself further, she turns to me and smiles.  (p. 257-8)

(Although only a minor point in the novel, the true story of this panel is worth watching on this You Tube video).

Mr Mac is self-absorbed but he notices Tom’s drawings.  The boy is obsessed by ships and yearns to go to sea.  He has outgrown the village and its small ambitions.  He draws sailing ships from memory in the margins of his school books until – poor as they are – the Macs give him a sketch book where he begins to draw other things, including a portrait of Betty, one of the ‘herring girls’ who come down from the highlands each season to gut the fish.  (This immediately reminded me of Amanda Curtin’s Elemental which so brilliantly evoked the hardships of this life).  They give him paints too, and there is always cake or a sandwich for a hungry boy when he visits.  He fits unobtrusively into the quiet of their home, a child that comes and goes, making no demands that would interfere with their art though they are happy to be kind to him when he is there.  Tom does not always repay that kindness: there are small acts of betrayal along with other moral lapses.  Like other subjects of a coming-of-age novel, Tom has flaws that invite a reader’s complicity.

His loyalty is tested when Mr Mac’s odd behaviour invites suspicion.  He spends long hours outdoors, peering into the sea with binoculars forbidden by ‘Dora’.  He has an incomprehensible accent, his wife speaks German, and they have correspondence in German.  Tom considers it his duty to patrol his patch of the coast in case of invasion, and he is both excited and appalled when the inchoate enemy suddenly materialises in the form of Zeppelins overhead.  He has seen bereavement at close hand when almost the entire Suffolk regiment was lost in the early days of the war that was meant to be ‘all over by Christmas’.  He knows, as much as any adolescent boy could know, what spies might do…

Author: Esther Freud
Title: Mr Mac and Me
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2014
ISBN: 9781408857182
Source: Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia

Availability

Fishpond: Mr Mac and Me


The Almond PickerI wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about this book.  I was intrigued at first, then became confused by the huge cast of characters and was tempted to abandon it – but found my interest reignited when the plot began to resolve into a more coherent whole.

It’s the story of Maria Rosalia Inzerillo, also known as La Mennulara, a nickname she retained from her days as an impoverished almond-picker.  In the small town of Roccacolomba there were few options during her childhood: Sicily was still a highly stratified, almost feudal society and education wasn’t available to the children of poor families.  She went into service where she was expected to contribute her earnings towards her sister’s dowry.  But at the time of the novel’s opening in 1963 she has just died aged 55 amid rumours that she is a wealthy woman and the source of her money is a matter of great interest to everybody.

As events unfold, it seems that Mennulara‘s life and death is highly unusual.  She leaves detailed, rather bossy instructions for her obituary and funeral, and her employers are quick to take umbrage because she was, to them, only a servant.  However they soon change tack when they realise that she has managed her affairs from beyond the grave, the Mafia are loitering and there is either an inheritance or the restitution of stolen money to be had.  It is impossible to keep anything private in Roccacolomba, especially not the raging rows that erupt in the wake of Mennulara’s machinations.   Everybody knows about what’s going on, and everyone has a different opinion about it.

On reflection, I think that the style of the book was meant to represent the gossipy, incestuous nature of small town Sicilian life.  It’s written in fifty short chapters, covering events on nine separate days between September 23rd and October 23rd in 1963.  Each chapter is named in a style with which readers of British classics are familiar: for example 1: Dr Mendico attends a dying patient or 10: Signor Bommarito, the surveyor, does not receive his morning coffee, and each chapter drip feeds a little more information from a different perspective.   Indeed, so many different perspectives, that I was tempted to start recording all the different characters, just to keep track of them all.

What I found most interesting was the gulf between the lives of women as depicted in this novel.  It is 1963.  The daughters of the Alfallipe family have moved on and have independent lives (although one remains in an abusive marriage that no smart woman would tolerate today).  Unlike Mennu, who retained a stoic sense of duty to the family throughout her life, they feel no compunction about abandoning their elderly mother, and Mennu actually pays one of them to visit her.  She takes over the management of the estate because these selfish offspring are totally incompetent, and is obviously a highly capable woman – indicative perhaps of the wasted talent in countries that don’t support equal opportunity.  She has other talents too, but these must be kept secret because Mennu herself is hidebound by the idea of ‘knowing one’s place’.

The Almond Picker is rather like an Agatha Christie mystery though there’s no murder to solve.  If you enjoy unravelling a complex web of clues, you’ll probably enjoy this.  It was a best seller in Italy.

Author: Simonetta Agnello Hornby
Title: The Almond Picker
Translated by Alastair McEwen
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2005, first published as La Mennulara by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore, 2002
ISBN: 9781920885632
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Angus and Robertson.  (That shows you how long I’ve had this book… A&R bookstores collapsed in 2009 when the RedGroup died, dragging with it a venerable name in Australian bookselling since 1884).

Availability

Fishpond: The Almond Picker (There were two second-hand copies on the day I looked), and Text still has copies available on their website.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 30, 2014

The Golden Age, by Joan London


The Golden AgeThere is an elegiac, melancholy tone to this novel.  It was one of those books that I looked forward to reading each night, and yet I hesitated too.  Joan London’s story-telling is both vivid and unsentimental and I feared that a character I had come to care about might not survive the pages left to read.

I think that I felt this uncharacteristic anxiety because the book is set in a polio hospital and it brought back childhood memories of other – slightly older – children that I knew who had fallen victim to polio.  As a very small child, I didn’t understand that the miracle of vaccination protected my luckier generation against the disease, and I was frightened of it.  I now know that I was not alone – Philip Roth has recently written vividly about the widespread fear of the disease in his novella Nemesis (see my review), and this excerpt from the Atlantic explains why:

It started out as a head cold. Then, the day before Halloween, 6-year-old Frankie Flood began gasping for breath. His parents rushed him to City Hospital in Syracuse, New York, where a spinal tap confirmed the diagnosis every parent feared most in 1953: poliomyelitis. He died on his way to the operating room. “Frankie could not swallow—he was literally drowning in his own secretions,” wrote his twin sister, Janice, decades later. “Dad cradled his only son as best he could while hampered by the fact that the only part of Frankie’s body that remained outside the iron lung was his head and neck.”

At a time when a single case of Ebola or enterovirus can start a national panic, it’s hard to remember the sheer scale of the polio epidemic. In the peak year of 1952, there were nearly 60,000 cases throughout America; 3,000 were fatal, and 21,000 left their victims paralyzed. In Frankie Flood’s first-grade classroom in Syracuse, New York, eight children out of 24 were hospitalized for polio over the course of a few days. Three of them died, and others, including Janice, spent years learning to walk again.  The Atlantic Oct 28th 2014

Incongruously named, The Golden Age (1949-1959) in Perth was an actual children’s polio convalescent home for what came to be the last generation of children who fell victim to this crippling and often fatal disease.   What puzzled me from the outset was why Joan London had chosen this strange name as the title for her book, and how an era fraught with the fear of this disease, could be a ‘golden age’ .

But as I read on, I began to identify the author’s nostalgia for some of the values of that era.  The characters in this novel are focussed on life and death; they deal with a dreadful situation with hope; they cherish progress towards rehabilitation. They are not materialistic: they know what really matters.  They value peace, love and as much health – including mental health – as can be salvaged.

The children deal with loss better than the adults.  Frank’s father, as you can see in the Sensational Snippet I posted earlier this week, has been able to find some pleasure in life despite the loss of everything he held dear, but his wife, a concert pianist in Hungary, remains desolate.   She reminded me of refugees I’ve read about in the media: people who have escaped horrors in their homeland only to have further disasters afflict their family here in Australia.  Fate can be unspeakably cruel.

The children are more resilient though they have no illusions:  Frank Gold and Elsa Briggs are 12-year-old patients who witness death and know that their luck is in their survival.  But they also know that their lives are irrevocably altered.

One day when her mother had taken Jane with her to the shop, Elsa went into her parents’ dark bedroom and opened the wardrobe.  On the back of the door was a long mirror.  She put the light on and saw a thin, flat-chested girl with a clunky brace on her left calf, one shoulder higher than the other, the once fluid lines of her body now distorted.  She was surprised by her eyes, their intensity.

She used to hear people say, ‘What a pretty girl.’ Now they’d say, ‘the crippled girl’ or ‘what a shame’.  (p. 220)

Frank, craving books in a book shop tells the proprietor that he intends to get a job but that right now he doesn’t have even a shilling for a layby deposit.

If he had not caught polio he would have had a job, he knew.  Selling newspapers after school, running errands, sweeping out a shop.  By now he would have been able to help his parents.  (p. 200)

Little Albert values home, and is desperate to get there. All he wanted to do was to open the front door and hear them say. ‘Allo! ‘Ere’s our Albert!’ So in the middle of the night he hauls himself into his wheelchair and rolls out through the unlocked door of the hospital …

The air was still warm.  He could hear the chirp of crickets.  He left the lights of the netting factory behind and rolled past the dark houses towards the railway line.  The wheels squeaked a little, they needed to be oiled.  When he got home he knew exactly where his brother Reggie’s oil can was.

At the railway line he turned left.  At this point, unlike the railway line, which was down in a gully, the road climbed.  Again and again Albert started off, but each time, halfway up, he was unable to reach the top.  He knew he mustn’t cry.  Suddenly his arms couldn’t do it any more.  He was so tired that he rolled off the road into the long grasses of the verge beside it.  He put on his brake, climbed out and lay down in the dry, rustling grass.  As the moon rose high in the sky he fell asleep. (p. 173)

It’s a bit hard to read what happens next without a lump in the throat.  As I said, Joan London isn’t sentimental.

This is a beautiful, inspiring book.  A tale of human courage, and love in unexpected places.  Joan London is not a prolific writer, but it’s been well worth the wait.

Shall I comment about the cover?  Yes, I shall.  It is awful.  That image is apparently Dieter on the train, Sweden, 1984.   Wrong nationality.  Wrong place.  Wrong era.  A young man of that age has no relevance whatsoever to what’s in the book.  Joan London deserves better.

There’s an illuminating interview at the SMH and Geordie Williamson reviewed it for The Australian.

Author: Joan London
Title: The Golden Age
Random House, 2014
ISBN:9781741666441
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Readings.

Availability

Fishpond: The Golden Age and good bookshops everywhere.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 26, 2014

History of the Rain, by Niall Williams


History of the RainHistory of the Rain was long-listed for the 2014 Booker, but it’s drawn the occasional caustic response from doubters at Good Reads.  I quite enjoyed it, but I think its appeal will depend on whether or not you have a soft spot for the Irish.  If you ‘hear’ it in a soft Irish lilt; if you can picture a small farm with a quaint cottage; if you ‘know’ the intimacy of an Irish village; and above all if you are familiar with the style and steely sentimentality of Irish storytelling – then this book will be a pleasure.

But if not, it may not be for you.  Even if you’re the sort of reader, as I am, who enjoys allusions to the books of a lifetime’s reading.

The storyline is simple; the artifice is not.  Plain Ruth Swain (yes, that is how she refers to herself, because that’s how the village does) is gravely ill with an unspecified disease in an attic bedroom.  Surrounded by and constantly referring to the books which formed his library, she is writing the story of her family and the father she hardly knew.  The family’s story is one of hardship and tragedy: the small holding consists of fourteen acres of the worst farming land in Ireland and the nearby River Shannon combines with the incessant rain and her father’s incompetence to make things worse.  Given the title, it is hardly a surprise that History of the Rain is a very wet book.  (Yes, wetter than Angela’s Ashes.)

You don’t need to be a feminist to notice that this is a male author writing in a female voice, but maybe you do to notice that for Plain Ruth Swain this story of her family is an homage to the males.  Well, they are dead, tragically so, of course, and perhaps it’s more compelling to construct a story around the romance of tragic death.  It is not so interesting to take much notice of  Ruth’s stoic mother who plods through the book making bread and providing raincoats when they are needed.   Having fallen in love with a romantic who turns out to be a poet incapable of earning a living, she clearly has no time to read a book at all.

Ruth, like her mother, has a tolerance for male frailty that will either charm you or irritate you.  In Virgil (the father, the poet) the incompetence is because he is a poet.  This can involve long hours standing by the river with rain streaming down his back or it may involve long hours humming in the attic, oblivious to his family including, of course, his wife.  She doesn’t seem to mind, she is a saint.  She understands that poets need this sort of self-absorption in order to do their thing.  And the village is very proud of his (unseen, unpublished) poems too, so they are tolerant as well.

I hasten to add that I understand this self-absorption myself.  Ours is a creative household, and both of us know that an interruption at the wrong moment can thrust the elusive word or perfect cadence into eternal oblivion.  But few relationships survive one-sidedness – and decades of grinding poverty in the service of art usually depend on manifestations of love of some sort.  Apart from Virgil’s early and risible attempts at farming (which take place before he realises he is a poet) there’s not much evidence that he loves his wife.  Perhaps she intuits it.

Novels, of course, don’t have to be realistic, and the narrator is an adolescent confined to a sick bed so a testy reader has to keep reminding herself that the artifice here in this book necessarily limits her perspective.  I found the first part of the book interesting, lost interest in the middle and found myself bemused by the Booker fuss, but ended up completely absorbed by the last third of it, possibly because this is where the tragic deaths are revealed and Ruth’s own demise seems imminent.  If you like weeping over your novels and you like caring about the characters, you’ll probably love this.  Kim at Reading Matters certainly did, see her review here – and obviously the Booker judges did too.

It is witty, it is clever, and Williams does write beautifully.  Here he is writing about Virgil’s romanticised version of his sailing days for the children at bedtime:

‘And why were you there?  What were you sailing there for?’ Aeney wants to understand how you can get into a map that’s on page 28 of an Atlas.

‘Why was I there?’ Dad says.

‘Yes.’

My father’s eyes are looking straight up at the slope of the ceiling and the cutaway angle where the skylight is a box of navy blue with no stars.  The question is too big for him.  I will see this often in the years to come, the way he could suddenly pause on a phrase or even just a word, as if in it were a doorway and his mind would enter and leave us momentarily.  Back then we thought it was what all fathers did.  We thought that fatherhood was this immense weight like a great overcoat and there were all manner of things your father had to be thinking of all the time just to keep the overcoat from crushing him. ‘Well,’ he says at last, ‘that’s a long story.

‘All right.’ Aeney props himself up on his elbow.  One look at his face and you know you can’t disappoint him.  You just can’t.  Before they are broken small boys are perfect creations. (p. 172)

Williams goes on to write about the colour blue – and remember, this is a novel of interminable grey skies…

‘The Caribbean, you know, is not a place.  It is many places.  Islands.  Some of them are so small they’re not even on that map.  But all of them are beautiful.  The water is this marvellous blue.  It’s so blue that once you see it you realise that you’ve never seen blue before.  That other thing you were calling blue is some other colour, it’s not blue. This, this is blue.  It’s a blue that comes down from the sky into the water so that when you look into the sea you think sky and when you look into the sky you think sea.’

Aeney and I lie there and realise we’ve never seen blue, and how amazing it must be, and for a while I try the difficult trick of seeing what I’ve never seen except through my father’s telling. I set him sailing in the very best blue I can imagine, but know that is not blue enough. (p.174)

(Astute readers will recognise that Virgil is telling his kids about R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and that he hasn’t been anywhere a Caribbean blue either).

Here Williams is writing about the disappointed men of the village – not IMO successfully as an adolescent female narrator (despite the twee capital letters) – but very successfully as an older-and-wiser man):

It was a noted wedding in the parish memory.  I think it was because Dad was still that DC Comics figure, The Stranger, and because none of the men in the parish could believe that Mam hadn’t chosen one of them.  Long before the Consecration, before the head-bowing part where the Bride and Groom are up there kneeling together and there’s this sense of Something Big happening, men’s hearts were already breaking.  Bits of longing and dream were cracking off and sliding away the way Feeney’s field did into the sea.  Father Mooney must have felt it, this giant ache that filled his church.  In the Men’s Aisle there were some with prayerbooks clasped knuckle-white, cheeks streaked with high-colouring, thin nets of violet, and their Atlantic blue eyes boring down into the red-and-black tiles hoping for an Intercession.  When it didn’t come they did what men here do and by midnight had emptied the bar at the Inis Cathaigh and the emergency crates and barrels that were brought up from Crotty’s.  (p.201)

History of the Rain is full of treasures like this.  It’s just … it’s just that it’s not enough, not for me.

Author: Niall Williams
Title: History of the Rain
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2014
ISBN: 9781408852026
Source: Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

Availability
Fishpond: History of the Rain

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 26, 2014

2014 Most Underrated Book Award shortlist


I am indebted to Books and Publishing for the following information, and to Jane Rawson for alerting me to it.

The Small Press Network’s shortlist for the 2014 Most Underrated Book Award is

*drum roll*

* This is a first for this blog: a link to a review by one of the other shortlisted authors!

The winner will be announced on 13 November.

As it says on the Small Press Network (SPN) website:

The shortlisted writers represent three of the original and worthy voices to be published by independent Australian publishers in the 2013 calendar year. These books show excellence in their genre and demonstrate quality of writing, editorial integrity and production. They have been overlooked for other prizes and have not generated the sales they deserve for any number of reasons other than the great quality of the products.

I’ve only read one of these, but if that’s any indication of the standard, these are excellent books.

Congratulations to all the authors, editors, publishers and cover designers – these small publishers put the cover designers of the big houses to shame!

Gardens of Fire: An Investigative Memoir A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists Holy Bible

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 25, 2014

Grant’s Bookshop has moved nearby!


IMG_1498Grant’s Bookshop - specialising in old and rare books – has been a Melbourne institution for years.  They used to be in Armadale, a lovely place to shop but absolute hell in terms of traffic and parking, so I am ecstatic that they have now moved to nearby Sandringham.

I was on my way back from a bit of shopping in Hampton when I spied their sandwich board on the nature strip in Tulip Street.  Well, how could I resist?

You can see my new treasures in the photo at right:

  • Three first editions by Rodney Hall, twice winner of the Miles Franklin Award for Just Relations (1982) and the Grisly Wife (1994) and one of my favourite authors (but hard to find in any edition)
    • Captivity Captive, shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 1989
    • The Second Bridegroom, shortlisted for the MF in 1992, and
    • The Island in the Mind,  shortlisted for the Age Book of the Year Fiction Prize in 1996
  • The UQP first edition of Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang which won him his second Booker in 2001.  I had a first American edition, but this is the proper Australian edition with a deckled edge, nicely protected in a Mylar cover.
  • A gorgeous first edition of Randolph Stow’s debut novel A Haunted Land (1956) with a cover photo on the back that shows him looking like a schoolboy with Robert Menzies eyebrows.  (Well, at 21 he wasn’t long out of school.  He was only 23 when he won the Miles Franklin for To the Islands in 1958 but the work showed a maturity that you don’t often see in young authors today.)
  • Another one for my David Malouf collection: the UK first edition of Child’s Play, with Eustace and The Prowler.  (When I reviewed Child’s Play, I only had a copy from the library so I was rapt to find this one).
  • Best of all, two Patrick White titles that I didn’t know existed.  A first edition of his Four Plays published by Eyre and Spottiswoode (1965).  The Plays are The Ham Funeral (1947); The Season at Sarsaparilla (1961); A Cheery Soul (1962); and Night on Bald Mountain (1962) which I had the pleasure of seeing performed at the Merlyn Theatre earlier this year.  The other one is a collection of his essays and articles published as Patrick White Speaks (1989) by Primavera Press.  It includes his autobiographical essay published in Sweden when he won the Nobel Prize, and some splendid photos of him as well.

When my credit card recovers, I’m going back to check out their collection of Zolas!

Grant’s Bookshop, 4/91 Tulip Street, Sandringham
Open Wednesday to Sunday 1-5.30pm
Ph 613 9585 4181
rarebooks@grantsbookshop.com.au
www.grantsbookshop.com.au

 

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 24, 2014

Sensational Snippets: The Golden Age, by Joan London


The Golden AgeSome of our most cherished Aussie authors make us wait a while between books.  Joan London – author of Gilgamesh (2000) and The Good Parents (2008) is one of these.

But it is worth the wait when we find ourselves reading Sensational Snippets like this, from The Golden Age. 

Meyer Gold is delivering his gift of soft drinks to the children at the polio hospital where his son is a patient.

He put the crate down by Nella’s fridge and, crouching at the open door, started to poke bottles of Bickford’s Ginger Beer, neck first, into spare corners of the intricately packed interior.

‘Take care, Mr Gold!’ For some reason his actions made Sister Penny want to laugh.  ‘For Nella this fridge is a person!’

Meyer kept out one bottle.  He found iceblocks in the narrow freezer tray, and two glasses.  As he poured, the glasses erupted into a fizz of pale brown bubbles.  ‘This is really quite refreshing in the heat,’ he said.  ‘Cheers!’

She laughed, liking to hear the local words in his accent.  ‘Cheers!’ she said.  They clinked glasses, suddenly light-hearted.

They sat at the table.  He told her how he had changed jobs.  The brother of a fellow worker at the bike factory was starting up a cool drink business and needed a driver.  ‘I told him I was a driver.  Then in my lunchbreak I rushed to take my test.  Thank God I pass!  In Hungary I used to drive all the time.  I love to drive.  But, to be honest, I never have worked as a driver in my life.’

‘What did you do in Hungary?’

‘Ran the family business.  Imports and exports.’

‘Do you like this job?’

‘It’s my ideal, I think.  I’m alone, outside, free to move and look around. I’m beginning to understand this city.’

‘Understand what?’

‘That it’s its own place.  It is not like anywhere else.’

An incongruously beautiful woman, he was thinking, looking at her wide, smooth, burnished cheeks, her full, composed mouth.  Why incongruous? Why be surprised by beauty in this country?  There was beauty everywhere, strange beauty, even – especially? – in a children’s polio hospital.  Was this what was making him happy?  It had always been here but he hadn’t seen it.  As if the old world had finally taken its hands from his eyes.

Joan London, The Golden Age, Vintage (Random House, 2014) ISBN 9781741666441, p. 140-141

So much, so economically expressed…

Availability

Fishpond: The Golden Age and good bookstores everywhere. (I bought my copy from Readings).


Dark emuI first became aware of this remarkable book when two of my favourite bloggers posted reviews of it on the same day: they are both historians, and they were both  impressed.

Yvonne at Stumbling Through the Past piqued my interest with her comment that Pascoe used the journals of Australia’s explorers to make his case:

Pascoe draws on the work of Bill Gammage, R Gerritsen and others as well as his own research make a strong argument for the reconsideration of our understanding of the way Aboriginal people lived in colonial times. He draws extensively from the journals of explorers to present a remarkable array of evidence about the agricultural and technological sophistication of Aborigines before contact.

And Janine at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip linked the book to some recent unfortunate remarks made by our blundering Prime Minister.

Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu argues directly against the idea that Australia was ‘scarcely settled’. It was, he argues, very much settled in a way that forces us to reconsider the ‘hunter-gatherer’ label that is often used to describe pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians.

Like many teachers, I’ve used the term hunter-gatherer in exactly that way, and so I felt impelled to read the book.  I’ve had Bill Gammadge’s award-winning The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia on the TBR for ages, and I will get round to reading it one day, but it was an indigenous voice I wanted to hear.  Now that I’ve read it for myself, I think that this is an indigenous voice Australians should hear…

In 156 pages, Pascoe has inverted almost everything I thought I knew about pre-colonial Australia.  Importantly, he’s not relying on oral history, which runs the risk of being too easily debunked, his sources are the journals of notable explorers and surveyors, of pastoralists and protectors.  He quotes them verbatim, describing all the signs of a complex civilisation but viewed through the blinkered lens of appropriation and White superiority.  These diaries describe systematic agriculture and aquaculture; permanent dwellings; storage and preservation methods and the use of fire to manage the difficult Australian environment.  The reader can sense Pascoe’s pride in asserting that all these complex systems were managed through stable government that was fundamentally democratic in nature.  (Elders, after all, earned their role through initiation and learning the law: they did not inherit their power or grasp it through conquest.)

There is much more to this exciting book than I have outlined here so I urge you to follow the links above to Yvonne’s and Janine’s reviews.  They interrogate the book as historians do, with the expertise of their profession.  Also check out Adventures in Biography and the book’s own blog.  Thanks to MST for the link:)

As a teacher, however, I recommend it as essential reading for any educator.

Dark Emu has been shortlisted for Victorian Premier’s Award for Indigenous Writing.

Author: Bruce Pascoe
Title:  Dark Emu Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident
Publisher: Magabala Books. 2014
ISBN: 9781922142436
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library

Availability
Fishpond: Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?
Or direct from Magabala Books

Cross-posted at LisaHillSchoolStuff


YarraThis intriguing book is one that’s been sitting on the TBR for so long that I’d forgotten I had it until I went fossicking for Robyn Annear‘s Bearbrass as a reference for some school stuff I was doing.  I bought it long ago when I was a volunteer for the New International Bookshop  – the nearest I ever came to having a job in the book trade.

I can’t remember how I came to hear about the NIB, but because its mission was ‘progressive’ i.e. flogging tomes on socialism, sad little pamphlets on anarchism and a lot of unsaleable secondhand university Pinko politics and economics text books, it was a bookshop so unprofitable that it could only run to one paid employee and everything else was done by volunteers.  I was in one of my have-to-get-out-of-teaching phases and I thought it was a good weekend opportunity to learn a new career in retail.  The bookshop operated out of the Heritage-listed Trades Hall Building, was congenially across the road from some very nice Carlton eateries, and rewarded its volunteers with a 10% discount on purchases.  In addition to these charms, I agreed with one aspect of their philosophy.  I thought then, and I still do, that even if I think anarchists et al are barmy,  a sophisticated city like Melbourne ought to have a bookshop offering alternative political points-of-view.   I’ve often wondered since if my stint at the NIB has generated an ASIO file…

Since they also sold a selection of new release mainstream titles in an effort to subsidise the less profitable stuff, I spent a small fortune on books, keeping the NIB afloat some weekends when my purchases were the only sale of the day.  But I failed miserably at retail: I never mastered credit card transactions, tangled up the price sticker machine, and tried to steer people to the kind of books I like.  (Fatal mistake!)  However the committee collective which had oversight of operations was tolerant of these mistakes (or else desperate for staff)  – until they introduced the coffee machine.  (This was the era when bookshops thought they could lure customers with coffee and sofas for book browsing à la Borders).  Making dreadfully bad cappucino was very dispiriting so I decided it was time to bid the NIB farewell… and I think they were relieved.  Melbourne’s reputation for great coffee was at risk!

One of the treasures I bought from the NIB was Yarra, A Diverting History of Melbourne’s Murky River.  (It’s still got its little yellow $32.95 sticker on the back!) It really is remiss of me not to have read it sooner because it’s such a delightful quirky book – and it (briefly) made me want to pack up a rucksack and go exploring along my city’s fascinating river banks. (I have actually done a bit of hiking around Dight’s Falls; have boated along the river as far as an 18-foot runabout will go; and The Spouse and I used to stroll along the river when we were courting because the backyard of his Hawthorn flat was the banks of the Yarra.  But *sigh* all that was before I wrecked my ankle).

Kristin Otto has pieced together a fascinating armchair ramble along this much-maligned river of ours.  First of all, she explains why it’s brown in a nicely patriotic way:  it’s because Australian rivers are notable for their muddiness turbidity i.e. they are silt-filled. The colours of the Yarra are the colours of our country, literally, being suspended earth from the upstream and middle-stream banks.   She tells the geological story, and the story of Batman’s infamous so-called treaty with the local Aborigines, and the shameful story of how when the river suffered one of its numerous diversions, the unmarked grave of Barak was lost forever.

And then she goes on to tell the extraordinary story of how it has been re-routed so many times and in so many places to meet the needs of the city that it bears almost no resemblance to its original meander at all.   As Robyn Annear also explains in Bearbrass, (a funny, clever, totally absorbing book about early Melbourne that should be in every walker’s backpack), diversion of the river’s natural flow and the annihilation of its billabongs began very soon after early settlement because flooding was so severe.   (And still is sometimes.  See here for an iconic photo of the 1972 flood).  The irony is that after a century or more of moving it and mucking about with it, Melbourne has finally realised that it’s better to live with it and is now busy restoring the old waterways and wetlands so that we will have a more natural and better-behaved river after all.

Then there’s the story of our bridges.  The beautiful ones, the ones that fell down, all the odd little ones that you forget about until there you are and they’re just irresistible – you have to walk over them even if you had no intention of going that way.  (My favourite of these is Kane’s Bridge at Studley Park).

And the social history is fascinating.  Commerce and industry dominated it at first, and then we got smart and started building gorgeous riverbank houses on it, and nice places like Southbank and the Fairfield Boat House.  (You haven’t lived if you haven’t idly rowed a skiff there on a balmy summer’s day and finished up with Devonshire tea in the tea rooms).

This is a terrific book.  Melburnians, of course, will love it but it’s an entertaining book no matter where you  belong.

(Well, maybe not Sydney).

Author: Kristin Otto
Title: Yarra, A Diverting History of Melbourne’s Murky River
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2005
ISBN: 9781920885786
Source: Personal library, purchased from the New International Bookshop (which is still going, still staffed by volunteers!)

Availability

Fishpond had a second-hand one the day I looked: Yarra and Text still have copies direct.
Or you could try Brotherhood Books or your library.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 19, 2014

Meet an Aussie Author: Malla Nunn


Malla-Nunn.jpgMalla Nunn is the author of A Beautiful Place to Die and when she made contact after I reviewed her novel, I wasted no time in asking her if she would be willing to be featured on Meet an Aussie Author.

Malla was born in Swaziland, a sovereign state almost completely encircled by South Africa, but now she’s an Aussie. Her family moved to Perth in the 1970s where she went to school and university.   After further study in the US, where she worked in film, she returned to Australian and now lives in Sydney with her American-born husband and children.  She’s made three award-winning films: Fade to White, Sweetbreeze, and Servant of the Ancestors, and her debut novel in the Emmanual Cooper series was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Novel and the Macavity Awards for Best First Mystery Novel while Blessed are the Dead (No 3 in the series) was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original.

If (like me) you want to read the Emmanuel Cooper series in order, here they are:

Malla is busy writing her next book but fortunately for us she found time to answer my questions for Meet an Aussie Author – thanks, Malla!

Mall-Nunn-writing-space.jpg

Malla’s writing space – I wish mine was as tidy as that!

1. I was born a poor brown child in colonial Swaziland.

2.When I was a child I wrote out bible verses and memorised them to earn prizes.

3. The person who encouraged me to write was my mother who loved to read and thought books were magic.

4. I write in the kitchen after the breakfast dishes are cleared.

5. I write when the kids have gone to school and the house is quiet.

6. Research is best done by someone else!

7. I keep my published works in the garage & some inside to inspire me to keep writing.

8. On the day my first book was published I sat on the back stairs and took a moment to thank the universe for my amazing luck.

9. At the moment I’m writing a Young Adult adventure with a kick-ass girl who saves the world.

10. When I’m stuck for an idea I go for a walk, eat or watch a movie.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you will know that I very rarely read crime fiction, but trust me, if A Beautiful Place to Die is anything to go by, these are not your usual run-of-the-mill crime novels!

A Beautiful Place to Die Let the Dead Lie Blessed Are the Dead Silent Valley Present Darkness

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 19, 2014

Shifting Colours, by Fiona Sussman


Shifting Colours

I haven’t read enough South African fiction to know for sure, but I suspect that Shifting Colours is a rare example of a book that tells the story of domestic service during the apartheid years. That may be because the Black women who ran white households need to be empowered to tell their stories, or it may be that White South Africans feel that these are not their stories to tell.  If you have read my post about Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, you will know that the question of authorship across a racial divide is a vexed one…

Fiona Sussman was brought up in apartheid South Africa, but migrated to New Zealand in the 1980s.  She raises the issue herself in a note at the beginning of the book:

As I embarked on the writing of Shifting colours, I was acutely aware of the challenge ahead – the challenge of writing in the voice of characters whose life experiences and culture were so different from my own.  I hope I have not unwittingly caused offence to anyone.  In the end I have drawn on my experience as a mother, a daughter, wife and sister, and I hope that the common denominator I share with my characters is our humanity.

Shifting Colours is the story of a mother and daughter separated by a most unusual adoption.  Celia is a live-in maid in an apartheid-era household in 1960s Johannesburg, and she considers herself ‘lucky’.  Her living quarters consist of a cramped, bleak and ill-furnished room built in the back garden.  She has only rare contact with her three sons who are brought up by their grandmother in Soweto, and she hasn’t seen her husband who works in the mines for a very long time. This was the norm for residential domestic servants in South Africa: their living conditions were sub-standard and they were separated from their families for very long periods of time with visits home entirely at the discretion of their employers.  The alternative, however, meant long and expensive daily journeys from the segregated townships, rising before dawn to travel into the privileged suburbs of South African cities – and still seeing very little of their families.  But what makes Celia value her position in the Steiner household more than anything is that her little girl Miriam is allowed to live with her, and is an occasional beneficiary of gifts and – importantly – the beginnings of an education.

Told from the perspectives of Miriam and her mother, Shifting Colours tells the story of Miriam’s adoption by the childless Steiners, and her removal to England.  Like many South Africans, these employers are unnerved by the Sharpeville Massacre and they decide to leave.  Celia accedes to their unusual request to adopt Miriam when the child witnesses a shocking instance of police brutality.

She does so in earnest hope that it will lead to a better life for her child, but it breaks Celia’s heart.  And the promises made by Rita Steiner and her husband Michael are not kept.  They do not bring the child back for visits, and they do not write to tell Celia about the child’s progress.  What’s worse is that they tell Miriam that her mother didn’t want her.

And in the meantime, things don’t work out with Celia’s new employers, and her life goes from bad to worse, each new address making it more and more impossible to trace her movements.

England turns out not to be a promised land, and Miriam grows up experiencing a different kind of racism to the institutionalised form of it in South Africa.  And eventually she feels impelled to make the journey back to South Africa to resolve her confused identity and to try to find her mother.

There is an authenticity about the tale that unfolds that makes the book hard to put down.  This is a debut novel of unexpected power.

Author: Fiona Sussman
Title: Shifting Colours
Publisher: Alison & Busby, UK, 2014
ISBN: 9780749016128
Source: Review copy courtesy of Raewyn Davies at 24/7 PR

Availability

Fishpond: Shifting Colours

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 19, 2014

2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlists


Dear me, it says something about the publicity machine at the PM’s office that I found out about the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlists from Michael (The Complete Review) Orthofer  who tweets @MAOrthofer and lives in New York, eh?

Still, the good news is that the awards have survived the slash-and-burn budget cuts.  For the time being, that is.

The 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlists are:

Fiction

A World of Other People, Steven Carroll (Harper Collins) (On my TBR)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Vintage Australia) See my review
The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane (Penguin: Hamish Hamilton) See my review
Coal Creek, Alex Miller (Allen & Unwin) On my TBR.  See Kim’s review on her classy new blog.
Belomor, Nicolas Rothwell (Text Publishing) See my review

Poetry

Tempo, Sarah Day (Puncher & Wattmann Poetry)
Eldershaw, Stephen Edgar (Black Pepper)
1953, Geoff Page (University of Queensland Press)
Drag Down to Unlock or Place an Emergency Call, Melinda Smith (Pitt Street Poetry)
Chains of Snow, Jakob Ziguras (Pitt Street Poetry)

Non-Fiction

Moving Among Strangers, Gabrielle Carey (University of Queensland Press)
The Lucky Culture, Nick Cater (Harper Collins Publishers)
Citizen Emperor, Philip Dwyer (Bloomsbury Publishing)
Rendezvous with Destiny, Michael Fullilove (Penguin)
Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John, Helen Trinca (Text Publishing) See my review

Prize for Australian History

Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Joan Beaumont (Allen & Unwin)
First Victory 1914, Mike Carlton (Random House)
Australia’s Secret War: How unionists sabotaged our troops in World War II, Hal G.P. Colebatch (Quadrant Books)
Arthur Phillip: Sailor, Mercenary, Governor, Spy, Michael Pembroke (Hardie Grant Books)
The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, Clare Wright (Text Publishing) See my review

Young Adult Fiction

The Incredible Here and Now, Felicity Castagna (Giramondo)
Pureheart, Cassandra Golds (Penguin)
Girl Defective, Simmone Howell (Pan Macmillan)
Life in Outer Space, Melissa Keil (Hardie Grant Egmont)
The First Third, Will Kostakis (Penguin)

Children’s Fiction

(I’ve read all of these and my students love them all.)

Silver Buttons, Bob Graham (Walker Books )
Song for a Scarlet Runner, Julie Hunt (Allen & Unwin)
My Life as an Alphabet, Barry Jonsberg (Allen & Unwin)
Kissed by the Moon, Alison Lester (Puffin)
Rules of Summer, Shaun Tan (Hachette)

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!


The Sin of Father Mouret

The more I read of Zola, the more interesting he becomes.  The Sin of Father Mouret is utterly unlike the others I have read in the Rougon-Maquart cycle, and it tested my understanding of Zola’s place in the French Naturalism movement.  Because whatever else I might say about The Sin of Father Mouret, it isn’t the sort of realism that I have come to expect from my reading of Zola’s novels so far.   The chronology is impossible; time itself plays tricks; nature behaves more like a tropical hothouse than a French landscape, and the characters are surreal.

WARNING: SPOILERS

Since the dust-jacket of my 1969 Prentice-Hall edition gives away a good part of the plot, it’s not really a  spoiler to reproduce it here:

The Sin of Father Mouret presents the tragic confrontation of love, death and religion. A novel of overwhelming power, it revolves around the internal struggle of a priest determined to make himself worthy of the Virgin Mary by dissolving his basic human drives. Falling in love with the beautiful Albine, a pagan creature of nature, his conflict becomes so strong that he develops brain fever, and falls into a coma.
He awakens to find himself alone with Albine, in her secluded old mansion. In his weakened state, he remembers nothing of his past, and surrenders himself to the sensual delights of the girl and her garden paradise. Together, the two explore the primeval world of unspoiled nature, and finally discover the ecstasy of love and sexuality.
When the priest recovers his memory, he flees back in horror to civilisation. Appalled by his sin, he nevertheless is haunted by memories of his beautiful life with Albine. The girl, innocent of the world and of sin, implores him to return to her. The priest’s inner struggle becomes a paralysing force, precipitating the final tragedy of the novel.

Part 1 of the novel focuses on Father Mouret.  His parents are the cousins Marthe Rougon (from the legitimate side of the family) and François Mouret, (from the illegitimate side) so according to Zola’s belief in the scientific truth of eugenics, he is subject to the respectable and the disreputable in his personality, as they are expressed in the environment in which he finds himself.  This existential struggle between good and evil is heightened by Mouret’s vocation to the priesthood where he finds himself trapped in the geographically and spiritually arid environment of the godless village of Artauds.  His housekeeper, La Teuse struggles to maintain the standards of the church because they have no money to repair the crumbling building and the shabby vestments, and Brother Archangias urges him to give up altogether:

Meanwhile as Voriau led the way down the dusty road, Brother Archangias was speaking irritably to the priest.  ‘Give up the damned to hell, abandon these toads, Father.  There’s no way to make them pleasing to God short of hamstringing them. They’re wallowing in irreligion just like their parents before them.  I’ve been in this part of the country for fifteen years and I’ve yet to make anybody a Christian.  It’s all over the day they leave me.  They belong to the earth, to their vines and olive trees.  Not one so much as sticks a foot in church.  They’re animals in a war with their rocky fields. Lead them by hitting them with a stick, Father, with a stick.

Then catching his breath, he added with a horrible gesture, ‘Look Artauds is like the brambles that eat the rocks around here.  One was enough to poison the whole country.  They clamp themselves on, they multiply, they thrive no matter what.  The town’s just like Gomorrah; nothing but a rain of fire from heaven could cleanse it.’ (p.22)

In this spiritual vacuum, Father Mouret’s devotion to the Virgin Mary becomes an unhealthy passion.  Aged only 26, he spends long hours praying on his knees, inventing new ways to isolate himself from the world and suppressing all his natural instincts to the extent that he barely eats at all.  Since celibacy is a requirement of the priesthood, he is especially vigilant about avoiding the lusty young women of Artauds.  He is repelled by nature and is especially troubled by the fecundity of the animals tended by his simple-minded sister Désirée.  He finds it very hard to leave the sanctuary of the presbytery to deal with the needs of his parishioners, and his innocence is tested by the frank earthiness of premarital pregnancy and a father who would rather see his pregnant daughter unmarried than have her marry a penniless peasant. These pressures have their inevitable consequence and Mouret falls gravely ill.

Part 2 takes place in a lush Garden of Eden.  Fearful for Mouret’s sanity, his uncle Doctor Pascal has removed him from any exposure to religion and sent him to an old ruined estate called Paradou, and placed him under the care of the young and beautiful Albine.  Crucially, Albine is a pagan, in the original sense of the word, that is, she has no knowledge of any god.  In this part of the novel called only by his Christian name Serge – Mouret recovers, but with no memory of his life as a priest or of anything outside his immediate environment.  Like Adam and Eve before the Fall, these innocents explore the glories of nature in this Paradise, and, yes, like Adam and Eve they eventually succumb to their natural desires.  (There is lots of serpent-like imagery in the garden).  (And a lot of flowers, of which more later).

But there is also a wall which surrounds the old estate, and a spot which affords a view of the town and Serge’s old life as Father Mouret.  Albine implores him not to venture there, but the inevitable happens.  And so begins Mouret’s struggle to reconcile his sin with his vocation.

Part 3 traces Mouret’s tortuous path through guilt and temptation.  Like the Knowledge of good and Evil which irrevocably cast Adam out of the tranquillity of innocence, Mouret’s knowledge of human love sabotages his devotion to the Virgin Mary.  He tries substituting devotion to the passion of Christ and he tries denying his love of Albine but he is a man now, no longer an innocent boy.  And Albine’s love is demanding: she does not understand the vows which torture her lover, and she will not be denied.

The misogynistic Friar Archangias is a caricature of the Archangel who expels the lovers from Paradise.  Sex, and the women who tempt men into it, are sinful, and Archangias wields a mighty stick to ward off the temptations to which he is subject too.  He bars the gateway to Paradou with his massive body, but he is no match for Albine.

The plot resolution with its malevolent flowers is even more surreal than the other mythic sequences, yet it has a strange kind of realism all the same.  The Catholic Church is as intransigent about celibacy today as it was in the 19th century, but there are provisions for men who fall in love to leave the priesthood, and while I am not sure if it’s the church that provides supports for those who leave, there are psychological and counselling services available to assist with the transition.  For Father Mouret, the spiritual dilemma could realistically only be resolved by death.  A death, (like many other odd circumstances in the novel) by magic realism, though the term hadn’t been invented then.

While some may read The Sin of Father Mouret as a critique of the Catholic Church, I find that Zola’s portrait of religious devotion is sympathetic.  It seems quite clear to me that Zola intended to show that it was the godless environment that tipped Mouret into  insanity.  If he had been in a contemplative order, the flaws in his personality would never have been tested.

According to my edition’s helpful Afterward by the translator Sandy Petrey, the surreal style of the novel suits Zola’s mythic purpose.  Like The Dream, (see my review), it shows Zola experimenting with different writing styles and genres (though that term – as far as I know – hadn’t been invented then either).   Written in 1875, it’s No 9 in the recommended reading order, between The Ladies Paradise (1883) (about Father Mouret’s brother Octave in a social history sort of novel) and my next title in this Zola Project,  A Lesson in Love (1878) which is apparently a star-crossed lovers sort of novel.  Zola as a romance novelist?  That will be interesting indeed!

The Petrey translation, I’m sorry to say. is pedestrian.  It is sad to see a great writer’s work spoiled like this: I cannot imagine what he might have thought of ‘Don’t say stupid things, kid’ (p 269, used to denote the French tu); or ‘Okay, when will that guy be through with covering himself with incense?’ (p. 226).  As for hamstringing in the passage quoted above, even the often risible Google Translate can do better with On devrait leur casser les reins as We should break their backs. But until something better comes along, there is limited choice for this title, as you can see at the Translations page at Reading Zola. I think I’m stuck with old Vizetelly for A  Lesson in Love!

Author: Émile Zola
Title:  The Sin of Father Mouret (La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret)
Translated by Sandy Petrey
Publisher: Prentice-Hall, 1969, first published 1875
Source: Personal Library, purchased from AbeBooks.

Cross-posted at The Works of Emile Zola.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 15, 2014

The Driver’s Seat, by Muriel Spark, read by Judi Dench


The Driver's SeatI was quite enthralled by this rather strange novella, but I’m glad it wasn’t the first Muriel Spark novel I read.

Because  it might well have been the last. I might have dismissed it hastily, and crossed Spark off my list of authors to explore. Fortunately for me, I had read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie back in the year 2000, and more recently I’d read the swish Folio edition of The Girls of Slender Means (see my review).  So I was more tolerant of the spiky prose and peculiar characterisation than I might have been, and of course I was also captivated by the splendid voice of Judi Dench as she  narrated it.

It’s the story of Lise, an office worker setting off for a holiday on the continent, terrorising shop girls with her outrageous attitude to frocks and startling the entire plane with her odd behaviour.  Well, not quite everyone, Lise manages to captivate Bill, who has the seat beside her.  Bill’s macrobiotic diet apparently requires him to achieve two orgasms a day and he has his eye on the main chance, but a holiday romance this is not. Authorial foreshadowing alerts the reader to Lise’s eventual fate, but it is certainly not the one that I was expecting.

The plot, frankly, is completely bizarre, but once you reach the conclusion, it does make a peculiar kind of sense.  Lise , for reasons not revealed until the end, has a death wish, because it’s the only thing she can control. This makes the novel rather confronting, and it made me wonder if Spark would have written it today, when things are so very different.

If you are quite sure that you are never going to read The Driver’s Seat, or if you’ve already read it, you will probably enjoy this amusing video review of the film version.

The Driver’s Seat is listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006 edition) and it was apparently Muriel Spark’s favourite novel.

It isn’t mine.

Update: Kim at Reading Matters loved it!

Author: Muriel Spark
Title: The Driver’s Seat
Publisher: Canongate Books, 2010, first published 1970
ISBN: 9781471220951
Source: Kingston Library

Availability

Try your library or Brotherhood Books.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 15, 2014

Richard Flanagan wins the Booker Prize 2014!


The Narrow Road to the Deep North
I was thrilled to hear this morning that Richard Flanagan has won the Booker Prize with his magnificent  novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North has been reviewed widely:

Author: Richard Flanagan
Title: The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Publisher:  Knopf, 2013
ISBN: 9780857981486
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh

Availability

Fishpond:  The Narrow Road to the Deep North (hbk); The Narrow Road to the Deep North(pbk); and also the audiobook The Narrow Road To The Deep North

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