Tuesday, 31 March 2020

The Weekend

Holiday reading is always fun to think about. So much expectation, of the holiday itself of course, and what you'll read while on holiday - always massively over calculated. I'm coming to the growing realisation that I rarely get more than one book read while I'm away, no matter the length of the holiday. I tend to do more holidaying than reading. Even so I always pack at least four books, knowing that I will buy many more while away. For quite some time I was planning that I would read Trent Dalton's Boy Swallows Universe while I was in Tasmania in January (ah, interstate travel in a group, so last year). He's got a new book coming out in a few months, and I haven't read his first one yet. I hate that.

Somewhat out of the blue Trent got pipped at the post by a more recent book Charlotte Wood's The Weekend. No particular reason. I did consider some Tasmanian books - Heather Rose's Bruny, Robbie Arnott's Flames, and also some themed books, notably Alice Bishop's A Constant Hum as Australia continued to burn, and I knew I would see bushfires from my plane seat.

But I'd been intrigued by The Weekend since I'd first heard about it. A tale of three close friends, now in their 70s, coming together to clear out the holiday house of their fourth friend who had died earlier in the year. Increasingly I love stories about older adults. 

I really enjoyed getting to know Jude, Wendy, Adele and their absent friend Sylvie. I've recently taken to travelling with three friends, there was the shock of recognition at times, and prophecy. Hopefully decades away for us though. 
Adele and Wendy and Jude did not fit properly anymore, without Sylvie. They had been four, it was symmetrical. When they went on holidays they shared two hotel rooms, two beds in each. There were four places at the table, two on each side. Now there was an awful, unnatural gap. 
I enjoyed the stories of how the four of them met, their friendship over time, and the various hurdles that life throws our way. 
This was something nobody talked about: how death could make you petty. And how you had to find a new arrangement among your friends, shuffling around the gap of the lost one, all of you suddenly mystified by how to be with one another. 
I've read two  Charlotte Wood novels now. I read The Natural Way of Things (see my review) back in 2016. The Weekend was certainly a less discomforting read, more suburban. But Charlotte Wood still has her eyes keenly focused on our culture and societal changes.
Everybody hated old people now; it was acceptable, encouraged even, because of your paid-off mortgage and your free education and your ruination of the plant. And Wendy agreed. She loathed nostalgia, the past bored her. More than anything, she despised self-pity. And they had been lucky, and wasteful. They had failed to protect the future. But, on the other hand, she and Lance had had nothing when they were young. Nothing! The Claires of the world seemed to forget that, with all their trips to Europe, their coffee machines and air conditioners and three bathrooms in every house. And anyway, lots of people, lots of women - Wendy felt a satisfying feminist righteousness rising - didn't have paid-off mortgages, had no super. 

Young people, Australians, now spoke with American accents, pronouncing their r's at the end of words and saying afterr, the a like in apple. Why was this? The Western world had blurred itself into one jellied cultural mass. Her students last time she had lectured - years ago, when they still wanted her - knew the names of suburbs in San Francisco or Seattle better than the names of towns of Western Victoria. It was strange. For almost all of Wendy's life the only things Australians knew about America were the words 'New York' or 'LA' or 'Niagara Falls', but now her friends' grandchildren were buying brownstones and running businesses in Brooklyn as if this was the most normal thing in the world. Neighbourhood, they said. Bed-Study. Prospect Heights. 
I really loved the first two thirds or so, but didn't enjoy it as much after two new, and not particularly likeable, characters were introduced later on in the book. I do wonder about the title of The Weekend, as it isn't set over a weekend. It's set at Christmas. 
Christmas was supposed to mean renewal. It meant the beginning of things not the end. 
Which I found a nice accident for my January holiday read. It was also set somewhere north of Sydney, which is where I grew up, it's all a bit vague in the book, a fictional location, but I was perpetually looking for clues as to where it was "really" set. As always reading this book has only increased my TBR, as I'm keen to read more Charlotte Wood. I've read two of her six novels now, four to go!

Charlotte Wood interviewed on RN The Book Show, where she refers to The Weekend as a "cautionary self portrait", and that the creative impulse of curiosity about the ageing process.


Friday, 10 January 2020

The Household Guide to Dying

It wasn't my intention to start this book a few months ago. I didn't think it would be a good idea given that my week was going to include the funeral of an old friend. But then I hopped in my car for a road trip to discover that I had forgotten to download the other audiobook that I was actually planning to listen to. What to do? What to do? I had to listen to something... so I started this one, albeit somewhat cautiously. Planning to bail and just listen to music if I had to. 

Only to have the first chapter be all about dying in spring. Oh dear. This was flying rather close to reality. 

It didn't get more cruel than this: the season of expectation, of hope, of growth; the season of the future, when there was none at all. 
But there were enough difference to let me continue. Our first person narrator of The Household Guide to Dying is Delia Bennet. A woman in her late thirties, with a husband and two young children, Delia is dying of metastatic breast cancer. Depressing enough when you're feeling a bit fragile. 

Delia is a copyeditor, proofreader and writer and  has had an "accidental" career as an author to various Household Guides. The Household Guide to Home Maintenance. The Household Guide to the Kitchen. The Household Guide to the Laundry. A veritable modern day Mrs Beeton (who is reference multiple times in the book). Now Delia wants to write The Household Guide to Dying.

Always a devoted reader, I found myself surprisingly ahead when I commenced the arts degree. I finished under time to discover I was brilliantly unqualified for anything. 
The Household Guide to Dying is filled with literary references, whether discussing dying mothers
How cruel, how unfair, how totally unsporting, how unlike the stout mothers of public life, the mothers of fiction. You could never imagine Mrs Gandhi or Mrs Micawber or Mrs Thatcher or Mrs Weasley dying before their time and leaving their children unmothered. The prime minister's wife - any prime ministers wife - Nicole Kidman's mother, Mrs Jellyby, Angelina Jolie, the Queen, Lady Jane Franklin, Mrs George Bush Senior and Junior .... they would never have died young and left motherless children. They might have been doubtful, dominating or dysfunctional - all Dickens's mothers were- but they stayed around. Even Lady Dedlock hung in there. Jane Austen's Mrs Bennet would never have left five young daughters weeping over a coffin. 
or dying readers. There is a whole chapter on what to read when you're actually, actively dying. 

Even before I realised I'd be leaving this world prematurely, I had fantasised over what I would be reading at the point of death. 
How practicalities interfered.
Middlemarch was far too heavy. Witty, yes. Ardent, doubtless. But just too damn heavy.... Lolita was too clever. Pride and Prejudice was suddenly all so brittle... Madame Bovary far too sly... Then I realised, when I started rejecting books that I knew were perfect works of literature, that it was not them, and not the authors. It was me, the reader. The reader in me was unwinding, spooling backwards. The reader who was me was now no longer. 
But it's more than a book about illness and dying, it's also mediation on the lives of modern women and mothers.

Thirty years later, it was different. We women of the early twenty-first century knew we were poised somewhere between domestic freedom and servitude. The home was ripe for reinvention. Event he theorists were claiming it. Angels were out, they'd been expelled years back. Now you could be a goddess, a beautiful producer of lavish meals in magnificent kitchen temples. Or a domestic whore, audaciously serving store-bought risottos and oversized oysters and leaving the cleaning to others. Goddess or whore, both were acceptable. 
The burden of choice, one of the late twentieth century's most insidious was lifted. 
One of the literary references really spoke to me. The Metaphysical Poets was not a book I knew. Despite the fact that this was published in 1965 and I could well have been tortured with it in high school.  I've never recovered from my lifelong loathing of poetry caused by misadventures in high school English.  Of course a few days later on a spontaneous visit to the Newcastle Lifeline Book Fair the universe threw up a copy of this classic into my path. I couldn't help but buy it... among a few other things. 
It was if one person in the world had decided that school-kids should eternally read Hamlet, To Kill a Mockingbird, Herodotus's Histories, The Catcher in the Rye, and something called The Metaphysical Poets.
Of those I only had to suffer through Histories

There was a lot of beautiful writing about the mundane, the every day.  About back yards, lawns and chook sheds. 

I entered the shed. Despite the dust, the earthy pungency of the chicken manure, the remains of bones and shell and everything else they unearthed in their endless, resales scratching for vermicular treats, the shed and the run was a pleasant place. It offered tender moments that couldn't be found anywhere else. The angled poles of light capturing swirls of golden dust. The feathers rising and settling on the ground. The clucking that sounded equally contented and distressed. The air of expectancy that emanated from every hen, no matter how silly. The pure optimism that kept her laying an egg day after day, when day after day that egg was taken away. 
My day job often interferes with my enjoyment of medical scenes or procedures. There is a rather preposterous medical situation later in the book, and it was so egregious that for me it was like the rest of the book was suddenly a bit out of focus ( even though I was listening to it). Although when Delia goes to observe an autopsy it was clear that Debra Adelaide had been in Glebe Coroner's Court, and I had more than a tingle of recognition. 

Overall my sad week in September was actually a good week to listen to The Household Guide to Dying. Some of it resonated very strongly, and much of it has stayed with me months later. I have more Debra Adelaide on my TBR, I'm looking forward to getting to it. 

I loved Heather Bolton's narration of the audiobook. She had me in from the start. 

Read in 2019, blogged in 2020.


Thursday, 2 January 2020

The Yellow House

I haven't had a big reading year it must be said. And I haven't been blogging about those few books that I have read. Although most of what I've actually read has been audiobooks I do believe. I will have to tally up the proportion when I do my end of the year post. 

The Yellow House was another audiobook for me. Despite it winning The Vogel Award last year I first heard of The Yellow House when I saw Emily O'Grady speak at a panel at Newcastle Writers Festival earlier this year. I was intrigued by this book so came home with an autographed copy, which I then didn't actually read. Opening up my copy now I see that my lovely friend ANZLitlovers is blurbed! How fabulous. 

Newcastle Writers Festival was way back in April, so when I approached The Yellow House in December I had pretty much forgotten what it was about. The Yellow House has a child narrator, not something that every one likes. I usually do, but I was a bit frustrated by our 10 year old narrator here at times. 

Ten year old Cub (Coralie) is a twin. She lives with her twin brother Wally, who sounds as obnoxious as a ten year old boy can be, her older brother Cassie (Cassius) and her parents on a property some way out of town.

Our house sat at the edge of the paddock, down a dirt road off the side of the highway. There were no other houses close by, except for the yellow house over the fence. A weatherboard, almost identical to ours except for the colour: the same rickety verandah that looked out over the hilly paddock and the inky mountains on the other side of the highway, the dirt crawl space that rustled like tinsel if you gave the nesting cockies a fright.

Cub's family are on the outskirts of town in more ways than one. Her maternal grandfather Les committed a series of terrible crimes before she was born, and her family is still paying the price for his actions more than a decade after he died. They are shunned socially, her father and brother find it hard to get work. The twins have never really been able to make any friends at school. 

Then Cub's aunt Helena and cousin Tilly come to live in the yellow house next door, her brother Cassie makes a new friend Ian, and things begin to change. Cub's parents have taken great pains to keep her and Wally in the dark about their grandfather's crimes. That bit took quite a bit of suspension of belief for me. I really don't think that you could survive five or six years at school and have not one kid (or teacher) say something about the nationally famous crimes of your grandfather. Or that some kid would find that really the twins were just kids despite the warnings of their parents and befriend them, at least in the school yard. 

Cub was not the overly precocious child narrator, indeed she was quite in the dark about most things, she was a pestery questioning kid though. But she couldn't know some things I really wanted to know. Why did her aunt Helena move to the yellow house? It's suggested along the way, actually I think Helena's perspective would have been really interesting. 

Most of the action of the story takes place on the family property or at the local public school were the twins attend school. Cub's world is quite small so the story is quite small really. The twins spend most of their time at home, especially over the long summer holiday when a lot of the book is set. Like all country kids they roam about the paddock and the dam, but they have always steered clear of the knackery that was involved in their grandfathers crimes. 

While reading I didn't get a good feeling for when the book was set. Perhaps I missed obvious statements, but sometimes it felt like it could have been set anytime from the 1950s onwards. No-one had laptops or internet, but there were cars, microwaves and it became more obviously recent past. 

I didn't particularly like the very end of the book. I wanted something else, more perhaps. 

I know I'll be gravely disappointed (pun almost intended) but whenever I come across a ghost drop (Cub's favourite lolly) I'm going to have to have one. I'd never heard of them before. Perhaps they're a Queensland thing?

Read in 2019, blogged in 2020. Yes I'm trying to catch up a bit, clear the backlog.


Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs

Who can possibly resist such a title? Certainly not me. I'd been meaning to read Caitlin Doughty for some time. I have her first book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes lurking in the TBR somewhere, but it was this one, her most recent title that really hooked me in.

Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs is a collection of short essays, most a couple of pages, all answers to questions that Caitlin has been asked by children. Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs kicks off the collection, and the answer is not all that reassuring.

No, your cat won't eat your eyeballs. Not right away, at least. 
But the news is even worse for we dog owners.
Your dog will totally eat you. 
Hmmm, my dog doesn't like going hungry. It's true. She will eat me. 

Naturally, in a book like this there are many fascinating random factoids.

Cannibalism is not illegal.
Humans are red meat.
Blowflies can smell death from up to 10 miles away. (Small wonder they know when I've just opened the screen door- not that my kitchen smells like death, well I hope it doesn't, maybe it does to a fly?)
There are chapter exploring so many topics. What would happen if you die in space? Transporting bodies killed in war, both in the past and of course sadly the modern world still has a significant need for this. Entrepreneurial embalmers would follow battles around during the American Civil War, and used so much arsenic to preserve the bodies that arsenic can still be found flowing from certain Civil War cemeteries. 

As the book is written for children, it is entertaining, often funny, and the tone is generally kept light even when discussing these rather distressing subjects. I found myself actually laughing out loud at times, helped along by such phrases as a "freaky Violet Beauregard situation". Caitlin Doughty treads a fine path through some tricky topics.

Every chapter is intriguing in its own right. And often eye opening. I've worked in health care for 20 years and learnt a great many things from this book, and I've reconsidered my wishes regarding my own death. I'm not all that sure I want to be cremated any more. I've long assumed I would be, but had never thought about the process. Yes, I will be dead, but I'm not sure I want to put myself through it.

While cadaveric kidney transplants are common place and not at all disturbing, I was very disconcerted by the notion of a cadaveric blood transfusion! Not sure why, but I find it profoundly disturbing. 

We're very lucky to live in the modern era where while dying and death is still recognised as a process, it is easy enough to pronounce someone dead and  there are strict protocols for determining brain death. 

In Germany, in the late 1700s, there were physicians who believed that the only way to tell if someone was truly dead was to wait for the person to start rotting - bloating, smelling, the whole works. 
The whole concept of a Leichenhaus is extraordinary, and I'm so relieved that we no longer need these "waiting mortuaries".

I read Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? all the way back in Nonfiction November. As I was thinking recently about what book to take for the Secret Santa for my book group ladies, it seemed an obvious, if not particularly festive choice.

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.