Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Time's Best 10 Fiction Books of the 2010s

We're hurtling towards the end of a decade, and the end of a decade lists are coming.

Time has released a Best 10 Fiction Books of the past 10 years. It's an interesting list. I've considered reading all but one of these books, and have most of them in the house somewhere. I should try to read through this list.

A Visit from the Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan (2010) (see my review)

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante (2011)

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn (2012)

Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (2013)

Life After Life - Kate Atkinson (see my review)

Tenth of December - George Saunders (2013)

The Sellout - Paul Beatty (2015)

Sing, Unburied Sing - Jesmyn Ward (2017) (see my review)

Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng (2017)

The Nickel Boy - Colson Whitehead (2019)

30% read. Not a terrible result for me. I listened to two of them, and read one.

It's a very American-centric list. 70%
60% female authors.

The Time article claims that Gone Girl is responsible for the whole Girl genre thing. I think that actually dates back at least to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which was released in English in 2008.  I saw the movie and really didn't like the last third. I'd passed on the idea of reading the book, but maybe I'll have to look at it now?

I'd also decided to pass on My Brilliant Friend. I didn't read it at the peak of the hype, and then I read a picture book by Elena Ferrante (The Beach at Night), which I really, really hated...

Time has released both Fiction and Nonfiction lists. I think I need to try and look at my best books of the decade.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

The White Girl


Tony Birch is a writer I've been meaning to read for ages. I remember his debut novel Blood coming out in 2011 and wanting to read that then. I've bought a couple of his books in the years since, for which I'm sure he is grateful, but I hadn't got to reading any. Back in July I used ANZLitlovers Indigenous Literature Week to spur me on to listen to Tony Birch's newest novel The White Girl. And of course I'm very glad that I did.

The White Girl is a quiet, small story about Odette Brown and her granddaughter Sissy living a rather marginal existence on the outskirts of Deane, a small town in Menzies-era rural Australia. 

Odette Brown rose with the sun, as she did each morning. She eased out of the single bed she shared with her twelve-year-old granddaughter, Cecily Anne, who went by the name of Sissy. Wrapping herself in a heavy dressing gown to guard against the cold, Odette closed the bedroom door behind her and went into the kitchen. 
The location is never really specified, which I often find annoying, but I do see that it's used to make a more universal story. The mention of mountains and beaches made me think most of New South Wales, but Tony Birch is a Victorian. In the Author's Note at the end of the book, Tony Birch says The White Girl is a "fictional work set in a fictional town somewhere in Australia".

Odette has raised Sissy, the white girl of the title, ever since Sissy's mother left town about 10 years earlier. The arrival of a new police officer, Sergeant Lowe, changes things for Odette and Sissy. 

In his new role he was simultaneously appointed as a Guardian to the Aboriginal population of the district. He found the title both enticing and apt. 
I really like Tony Birch's storytelling, it is often deceptively simple, yet political, truthful and yet humorous.
Odette had been raised to excuse the ignorance of white people, but it was a difficult task. 
Odette is a calm, wise, and generous woman. Particularly generous. 
'Because they're the ones we deal with every day of our lives. Police. Not the Welfare or the ones who write the rules for the government. Think if you were police, Jack, knowing that one day you'd be told to go into a house and take kiddies away from their family. If you were to treat people with any decency, you couldn't do that job. This fella is giving us a hard time, he needs to be angry at us. Maybe even hate us. The only way they get by.'
I'd like to meet her. I'd like to be her friend. 

The 1950s and 60s was of course still the time of the Stolen Generations. The White Girl humanises these events, 

'Because any older Aboriginal woman I set my eyes on, I really believe she could be my mother. Never is, of course.'
The White Girl is a rather domestic novel, that I thought surprising for a male author, it packs political heft as it explores major life issues for Aboriginal people of the time. The casual and institutional racism. Lives lived in poverty and governed by paternalistic governments, laws and local police. I wasn't aware that under the Aborigines Protection Act Aboriginal people used to need travel permits to leave the district where they lived, and that these travel permits would be granted, or not, by the local police. Aboriginal people needed police permission to travel to visit family, or just go to another town for shopping or an appointment. That a small number applied for Exemption Certificates from the Act by which they could travel freely, and enjoy some of the freedoms of white people. It's extraordinary. It's extraordinary that I didn't know this. The ongoing ignorance of white people I guess ... 
The local police had total control over the lives of Aboriginal people, and very few of them walked through the station door of their own accord. 
The White Girl possibly has the best cover image ever. It's striking to look at, and absolutely perfect for the story.

I listened to the audiobook of The White Girl narrated by Shareena Clanton. She is an Australian actor, and did a great job of the audio narration. I particularly liked her voicing of  Odette. It's lovely, and warm, and brings her to life perfectly. 

ABC RN Conversations Tony Birch (2013)

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Paris and Other Disappointments

This book was totally a cover buy. Of course I've never been disappointed in Paris. Well, when I say never- sometimes a particular patisserie will be fermé on the day you go. That's disappointment right there. But that's a rookie error and you soon learn to check if where you're planning to go is randomly shut that day. 

Paris and Other Disappointments is a travel memoir. Adam's father, Tommy, was born in Germany, and came to Australia at age 2. Tommy had never been back. He would often comment "I'd bloody love to go to Europe". So one day Adam took his father at his word, and suggested a trip. Soon they were making preparations, and settling on an itinerary - Germany, France and London. Although you do have to wonder why his father wanted to go...
Though I struggled to find what he liked, I definitely knew what he didn't like. The arts were not for him, having never shown an interest in theatre, architecture, gardens, live music, painting, dance, literature, sculpture, poetry or history. I've never known him to go to a museum, probably because when you think about it it's just a 3D book that you have to walk around, and I knew where he stood on both books and walking. 
Well, I'm glad I won't ever have to travel with Adam's father. We wouldn't make good travel companions. I have travelled to Europe with elderly relatives, and it was great. But they were interested in all the things that Adam's father wasn't. Thankfully. It just took a bit more research, and asking the whereabouts of the l'ascenseur (lift), it's usually there somewhere, just well hidden. 
Even as we were first preparing for the trip, I knew finding things to do was going to become an issue. Not liking anything at all tends to eliminate possibilities at a fairly rapid rate, and a continent with such a rich history gave Dad an almost limitless supply of things to turn down. 
Adam was quite well travelled, and often travelled alone, but his family aren't big travellers. "To me it's a choice not to go overseas, because nowadays, with such cheap flights and accommodation packages available, it's so easy."
I'm not from a family of travellers. Mum and Dad both immigrated to Australia as babies - Dad from post-war Germany and Mum from India, where her father was stationed while serving in the British Army. It staggered me that, apart from my sister going to Japan on exchange in high school, 80 per cent of my family hadn't been overseas as adults. 
And Paris? They got off to a bad start. An overcrowded train from the airport into the city. Adam had booked a really bad AirBNB. No lift, and an absolute cesspit of an apartment. 
The bedrooms contained sheetlets mattresses, which in a past life must have been used to soak up spilled colostomy bags. 
Wow. You're never going to have a good stay anywhere you're staying in an apartment like that. 

Naturally, Adam explores the lure of European churches to the Antipodean traveller. 
I'm not a huge fan of either - of churches or paedophiles - and there's no way I'd ever visit a church in Australia expect for a wedding or christening.... In Europe churches have a magnificence that draws people into them, regardless of their denomination. I'm also more inclined ato have a look knowing I can leave whenever I want, without having to sit through my friends' self-written vows. I guess the ornate detail is also a drawcard, the churches decked out to show riches and wealth - effectively the casinos of their time. 
And so how did father and son get on? Pretty much like everyone who travels with someone. 
Life wasn't built for people to get along every second of every day. Overseas trips are worse, small annoyances heightened by the stress and expectation of travel, plus the close quarters, tension building like the single drops of water on the forehead of a torture victim. 
Adam Rosenbachs is an Australian comedian. His wasn't a name I knew particularly. Although he was a writer for Spicks and Specks so I'm sure I've seen his work. 

Friday, 1 November 2019

The Gap

I came across The Gap recently while browsing the new releases on one of my library e-audibook apps. I hadn't heard of it, or the author (or so I thought) but borrowed it immediately and was soon listening to it in the car and out on walks with the dog. 

The Gap of the title refers to a beautiful clifftop on the South Head of Sydney Harbour. It offers a wonderful view, and a lovely sea breeze. But it has long been a busy spot for those wishing to end their lives. And so it was in the Sydney Summer of 2007-8 when Benjamin Gilmour was an ambulance paramedic stationed at Bondi, Sydney's most famous beach, a short drive south from The Gap. 

At the highest point of the The Gap where the clifftop rises like a tower it is 90 metres to the sea. Tourists and day-trippers come in groups to stand at the wood and wire fence inhaling the sunrise. They chatter about nothing of consequence but are quickly made speechless by nature's might. I've seen them stand like people at a crossroads, suddenly conscious of their smallness. The Gap is a place of great change, new journeys, different paths but for others who come their hope is long lost. To them The Gap is a backdrop for the final act of life. It's the edge of the world from which they leave. Fifity or more go over each year from the top or further around where the fence is easier to scale. They do it at dawn, in the heaviest rain and on the quietest of nights. For us local paramedics the beauty up here is hard to admire.
The Gap was written at the time, but Benjamin Gilmour thought it was too sensitive to publish at the time, and it is only with the passage of time that he feels these stories can be told. I did wonder at the rather strong trigger warnings in the Introduction, about mental health, black humour and the need for it for emergency services workers at all levels. Having read the book I can fully understand it. 
What will never change is the trauma and death that paramedics are exposed to and the impact this can have on us and the way we manage our mental health. 
The manuscript was even assessed by psychologists, and changes made to soften imagery and remove explicit detail. At the beginning I was dismissive about this, but then I listened to the book. It's by no means soft or warm and fuzzy. There is a lot of death, a lot of it by suicide, but also trauma, heart attacks and other medical conditions. Benjamin Gilmour and his partner have a bad run of calls, and come to refer to their ambulance as the Suicide Truck, and feel that he is a Suicide Magnet. All while Gilmour and his (ambulance) partner John are going through the breakdown of their own personal relationships.

Gilmour is an author and filmmaker and he doesn't just write about a series of jobs he has attended as an ambo in Sydney, he takes a longer lens to look at his patients and their lives. 

As we leave the building I contemplate the lives that have ended here. The building is a repository of worn-out men and women with deeply tragic stories. Lives spoiled by drugs and alcohol, marriage breakups and mental illness.
It is not a cheery, postcard touristy version of Sydney that emerges from these pages. The Gap takes a long hard look at the very detrimental effects of shift work and sleep deprivation on ambos, who have a challenging job to begin with. Traumatic shared experiences at work creates close bonds among paramedics and other emergency services personnel. These experiences also take a great toll on the health and well being of those who respond to these calls. But they have great resilience, showing up for shifts when they can be hurting more than the people who have called them for help.
The cases are banal, but as soon as I'm chatting to my patients I'm in their lives and not in mine, and that's what I'm here for. 
At the time of writing most of the book Gilmour had not had a patient suffering an out of hospital cardiac arrest survive to hospital discharge. Not uncommon. In the introduction he says that has changed in the decade since, with better bystander CPR, and public access to defibrillators, that he has had some saves. Still survival of out of hospital cardiac arrest is around 10% in Australia.
"We tried our best, but he didn't pull through". It's a worn phrase that makes it sound like it's the old man's fault, as if he refused to come back. "We tried our best" sounds inadequate too. It may be true that we tried our best, but I wonder if trying is good enough. In our line of work where the opposite of success is death there's no prize for trying. 
Hmm, yes, but these people are already dead. There were several sections where Gilmour talked about the words we use at times like this. I have to speak to people frequently at these times in my own job, and I enjoyed his thoughts and perspective on the words we use. These are difficult times, for everyone. The ambos, the families and loved ones. Gilmour's partner John used to tell suicidal people that you don't have to kill yourself to get people to listen. I like that phrase.

I listened to the last third of the book in one afternoon. I hadn't intended to. I planned to listen for an hour or so while I was doing some weeding, but was unable to stop. I had tears streaming down my face for much of that last section. I finished off the remains of a bottle of red that night, and then had an extra glass for good measure. I had been planning to start watching Unbelievable that evening, but I chose a couple of episodes of Black Books instead as some much needed relief. 

Matty Morris did a sterling job of the audio narration, coping well with all the medical terms that necessarily lace a paramedic memoir. But I wish someone had given this poor Melbourne lad some help with the pronunciation of Sydney place names - Clovelly, Cahill Expressway, Vaucluse and more. In a book where the Eastern Suburbs Sydney location was such a major part of the story it would have been nice.

Benjamin Gilmour RN Lifematters interview 

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

The Godmother

I heard about The Godmother on Episode 120 of Chat 10 Looks 3. Possibly my favourite ever podcast. I've listened to all of it, bar one episode. Annabel Crabb had just read The Godmother as her friend Stephanie Smee translated it. I was immediately intrigued. I do love a French book in translation, so it wasn't a particularly hard sell. Annabel gushed over it and described it as "spiky, original and laugh out loud funny", and said that it was like "a very original hat". 

The Godmother is a French Noir crime book. And yes it really is "spiky, original and laugh out loud funny".  The Godmother is Patience Portefeux, a 53 year old widow, who has lived a tough life. Patience had a very unorthodox childhood. 

My parents were crooks, with a visceral love of money. 

The family home was "in the no man's land between a motorway and a forest". Her father was a French Tunisian pied-noir (not a term I'd heard before) and her mother an Austrian Jew. Both of them were displaced, they had "lost everything ..... including their country". Her father uses his trucking company to ship drugs then later weapons and ammunition. 
To get a job with Mondiale you had to have first done time, because according to my father, only somebody who'd been locked up for at least 15 years could cope with being stuck in a truckie's cab for thousands of miles, and would defend his cargo with his life. 
Patience grows up to marry young, and is then widowed young, at 27, and left with two young girls to bring up. She begins working as a French/Arabic court interpreter to support her family. She offers many fascinating insights into the modern multicultural country that is France. Patience like all of us is initially enthusiastic and empathetic to those she interprets for. 
I felt infinitely sorry for many of the Arabs whose words I reproduced in those trials. Men who were extraordinarily poor, with little education; impoverished migrants looking for an El Dorado that didn't exist, forced into a life of small-time skullduggery and petty crime so as not to die of hunger. 
But she becomes disenfranchised with the French court system. 
The interpreter was simply a tool to accelerate the act of repression. 
Patience is now interpreting police wiretaps from drug surveillance operations, and becomes personally involved in one of her cases. This is all set amongst the common baby boomer scenario of being trapped between elderly parents in care, and young adult children. Patience's mother is dementing and in a nursing home, which appears to be very expensive in the French system. 
There we all were, part of that great middle-class mass being strangled by its elderly. 
I loved so many things about The Godmother. The writing. The plot (although yes it does go a bit OTT at some stages, but I'll allow it, given the rest of the book). The humour. The Chamonix Orange Cake references (yes, I need to try one now, although I really suspect they won't be my thing). The view of French society that I haven't seen before. 
Fourteen million cannabis users in France and eight hundred thousand growers living off the crop in Morrocco. The two countries are friendly, and yet those kids whose haggling I listened to all day long were serving heavy prison sentences for having sold their hash to the kids of the cops who were prosecuting them and of the judges who were sentencing them, not to mention to all the lawyers who were defending them. It didn't take long for them to become bitter and poisoned with hate. I can only think, though ..... that this excess of resources, this furious determination to drain the sea of hash inundating France, teaspoon by teaspoon, is above all else a tool for monitoring the population insofar as it allows identity checks to be carried out on Arabs and blacks ten times a day. 
Hannelore Cayre is a practising French criminal lawyer and author. The Godmother is her fifth novel, but I think this is the first of her works to be translated into English. I certainly hope the others will follow. 

Stephanie Smee did a cracking job with the translation, Stephanie is also a lawyer, and has translated work from French and Swedish, she also speaks German and Italian! Wow. 

I really don't like the Australian cover, it looks more Mother Superior to me than Godmother. I tried to buy the original French version, La Daronne, on kindle but haven't managed to get around Amazon's geoblocking as yet. I must try harder. 

The Godmother Book Club Notes

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

No One is Too Small to Make a Difference

The book of the year? Maybe. Certainly one of the most important ones. Climate change is the issue of our time. Right here, right now. 

It really is extraordinary that it has taken a diminutive schoolgirl from Sweden to mobilise the world. Not into taking action mind you, we haven't managed that as yet, but we have seen global passion and protest that I think is unprecendented. As well it should be. 

I want you to act as if our house is on fire.
Because it is. 
No One is Too Small to Make a Difference is a small book. Almost a pamphlet. Some have criticised the book to say that it is repetitive. Which is to miss the point entirely. It is a collection of 11 speeches written and delivered by Greta Thunberg from September 2018 to April 2019. Some of these speeches have been delivered to a variety of rather distinguished audiences, the British Houses of Parliament, the European Parliament and the World Economic Forum. Others have been delivered to rallies, and even a Facebook post. 

I really had no idea where Greta Thunberg had sprung from. Yes, I'd heard about her rise to prominence in the past few months, but it was fascinating to read it from her perspective in I'm Too Young to Do This, a Facebook post from 2 February 2019. Greta won a newspaper writing contest about climate change in early 2018, and after that she came into contact with activists and groups. She liked the idea of a school strike, but no-one else was interested. 
But since I am not that good at socializing I did this instead. I was so frustrated that nothing was being done about the climate crisis, and I felt like I had to do something, anything. And sometimes NOT doing things- like just sitting down outside parliament - speaks much louder than doing things. Just like a whisper is sometimes louder than shouting. 
She posted her initial School Strike on Instagram and Twitter, it went viral, and that, as they say, is history. Greta's sense of urgency is one of the most striking things.

We are about to sacrifice our civilisation for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue to make enormous amounts of money. We are about to sacrifice the biosphere so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. But it is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few. 
So is her determination to make a difference. 
The climate crisis is both the easiest and the hardest issue we have ever faced. The easiest because we know what we must do. We must stop the emissions of greenhouse gases. The hardest because our current economics are still totally dependent on burning fossil fuels, and thereby destroying ecosystems in order to create everlasting economic growth. 

It is sobering to read that "we are failing but have not yet failed".

It's fascinating to ponder why (mainly) men are so threatened by this small 16 year old Swedish schoolgirl. One who is after all trying to save the earth for all of us. It's incredible that all this started with Greta sitting down outside the Swedish parliament on Fridays. It's incredible that she can not only stand up to this torrent of abuse, but that she can even can push back. We ignore her at our peril. 

Monday, 14 October 2019

The Book of Idle Pleasures

I found this unexpected delight at the recent Newcastle Lifeline Book Fair. A few days later I was prostrated by illness and a rather consumptive cough and took an afternoon rest and decided that this would make a great accompaniment. How right I was.

I'd never heard of this book before, or either of the two editors or 13 contributors I suspect. But I'm mightily impressed with this little book from 2008. It is a "restorative gift book for the stressed out, tired and hassled" according to the back cover.

Very simply, it is a compendium of mini essays about Idle Pleasures. Some of these are rather obvious. Cloud Watching. Taking a Bath. Good Company. Others not so much- Slouching, Putting Out the Washing, Learning the Names of Trees and Walking Back Home Drunk. 

It turned out that even Being Ill was an Idle Pleasure. Which is lucky I guess because I'm still ill over a week later, although I've been at work and not particularly idle. The Book of Idle Pleasures was actually quite prescient for its time. While concepts such as mindfulness and hygge were yet to take the world by storm in 2008, they were spelt out here using slightly different words. 
Enforced idleness is a rare treat. Those brief moments in life where for one reason or another you are forced to just stop and think. In waiting rooms, queueing, for example, or even just sitting on a train. Waiting for the tea to brew is one of those moments. 
Which is all so delightfully English. In 2008 these moments didn't give us enough time to 'do' anything else. Now of course we have a screen handy at all times that we can stare at and scroll. 

I loved the deliciously English turn of phrase so often used, and how wonderful it is to find that chuntering is indeed a real word: from the start of a passage extolling the virtues of Sleeping in Your Clothes. 
After a busy day you find yourself lying on the sofa drifting off into a hypnogogic state in front of a chuntering TV screen. 
Or that merely owning a dressing gown could be a sign of hope, that a dressing gown can actually be the uniform of revolution. 

Each Idle Pleasure is accompanied by a fabulous illustration by Ged Wells. I think they are lino cuts, whatever they are, they're great.

The whole book is great. I was going to read it and pass it along. But I'll be keeping it on my shelves instead.