This blog has established a number of things over the last two years. Some are semi-intellectual bookish things, some are mere entertaining observations of a reading life, and some are just random tidbits about your blogger, which perhaps you’d rather not know. Here are three reasonably well-established facts about me:
1) I like books;
2) I’m moving from Australia to England very, very soon;
3) I like cricket.
How do we manage to shoehorn these three established facts into a book review? Well, stay with me…
The great thing about working in a place full of book-people for as long as I have, is that every now and then a colleague will pop around to your cubicle with some fantabulous book and say ‘Here. You’d like this.’ It’s always a book you’d have missed if it hadn’t been placed in your hands; something new and quirky, or old and hidden; something you would have passed over if you were making a decision in a bookshop but which you’re more than happy to try because someone made the effort to tell you how much they think you and said book are perfect for each other (why is it that book selection always ends up sounding like dating?). And this very thing happened to me recently when our company chairman walked into a colleague’s office to show off a newly-repaired book.
The chairman of my company has decided to semi-retire. Officially we’re all still working out what that means, but in practice it seems to involve playing golf more often and almost exclusively publishing books about cricket. See, you might think book-folk and sport-folk are different kinds of people but the fact is there are quite a few cricket tragics among our number. (I think both realms might attract those who like tradition and detail—and a drink or two in the outfield). So in walks Chairman with this little book, printed in the 1950s, about the size of a square post-it note and having recently received some tender loving care in the form of new binding. On the cover of this darling item is the title, author and a foil illustration of a cricketer. Chairman had wandered over to thank the original cricket tragic who had found the book in a clean up at home and decided to give it to Chairman, knowing how much he’d like it. He then looked at me, stuck out his hand and said, ‘Here. You’d love this.’ And that’s how I came to read a post-it-note-sized book called The Village Cricket Match by AG Macdonell.
‘The Village Cricket Match’ is one of the most-famous sections of AG Macdonell’s most-famous novel England, Their England. ETE is a satiric novel published in the 1930s that examines the changes occurring in England in the period between the two world wars. ETE is particularly loved for its descriptions of cricket, and thus, I’m supposing, some genius decided to publish the cricket match episode in mini-book form. Good on them. I’d bet my grandmother on the certainty of a person going on to buy a copy of ETE after having read The Village Cricket Match. I know I did.
Here’s a quick plot summary: A motley bunch of Englishmen, a Scotsman and an American, travel from London to the English countryside to play a village team on their local field. They play cricket and drink a lot of beer and everyone has a jolly time.
The story is not as simple as that. Okay, it is as simple as that but around and within that simplicity are memorable characters, cutting observations, amusing descriptions, vivid detail, social satire, oh, and cricket commentary. All these things are bundled together in what is one of the most engaging stories I’ve read. Truly. I didn’t want to give it back to the chairman. If he hadn’t just agreed to me taking 14 months off work, I probably wouldn’t have.
I am moving to England in a week’s time. But it is a big bustling city I’m moving to—a land of royal weddings and Olympic preparations. It is not a land of cricket fields covered in wildflowers and with such a rise in the middle that one can’t see the boundary; of bearded farmers leaning on their scythes while taking in the game before them; of gentleman city cricketers disappearing to the pub in the middle of an innings; of blacksmith fast bowlers hurtling towards a pitch with steam coming out of their ears. At least, I don’t think it is. Perhaps there are some places like this out in the countryside, perhaps I will try to find some.
I don’t think you need like cricket to read this story, but if you do have one then it will make you love The Village Cricket Match. But you should also like it if you have a liking for particular English things; for an England of jolly good sports, Oxford graduates, knitted jumpers and warm ales. Macdonell’s writing seems to swim with affection for his subjects, or at least an affection for telling their story. It is funny, delightful prose, and he (or his narrator, really) imparts his observations on the England around him—an England that was experiencing much change at the time—with a succinct flair, which somehow manages to be sharp without being mean.
If you don’t love cricket, you may not love The Village Cricket Match. After all, I’m not sure I could read a book almost solely based around a golfing tournament, no matter how engaging the writing (I’m happy to be proved wrong, though). But as we established earlier that magnificent game is something that I do love, and I did love this book.
Sometimes I give the impression that I worry about my age. And sometimes I do. I reckon I’m about four years off well-meaning relatives and domestically-blissed friends wondering out loud what I’m going to DO about ‘finding a MAN so I can have CHILDREN’ before it’s ‘TOO LATE’. I think it’s more the anticipation of this annoyance that stresses me, rather than the (not that many) years I’m carrying. Maybe it’s a single woman thing… I reserve the right to be contrary over matters of age, in any case.
It’s new year’s eve and notions of time passing are on my mind. And in August Heat they are also on the mind of my dear friend Inspector Salvo Montalbano, adrift in a sweltering summer in Sicily and pondering if his advancing years are affecting his reason, his actions, his decisions, his heart, his very being. The body of a young woman, throat slit, is found stuffed in a trunk in a hidden room of a holiday house and the police are determined to find her killer and violator, concentrating on a dodgy property developer and a simple young man with uncontrollable urges. Helping the police is the victim’s beautiful, twenty-something twin sister—but is she more of a hindrance than a help to our Salvo?
Like a glistening plate of antipasto; stuffed, fresh and colourful, and glistening with olive oil, an Andrea Camilleri Inspector Montalbano novel is always a delight. A feast of tight and pointed narrative, lashings of humour and social commentary, a sprinkling of literary and historical references, a breathing, sparkling sense of place, an intriguing mystery to solve and a cast of characters that gladden the heart. Reading this series always makes me so goddamn happy. Camilleri is a wonderful writer and I am highly sentimental about many of the characters, especially loyal Fazio and our Montalba.
But in August Heat Salvo is a troubled man, and though often a reflective creature, in this novel he has a darker edge. He does things, thinks things, makes errors in judgement which are out of character and a shade or two outside his usual moral code. Could it just be the interminable heat? Or is he losing his touch? Are the tendrils of senility starting to caress his mind? (Our protagonist is deeply worried about being 55 years of age ‘and more’.) These changes of character concern him as much as they concern his readers. Mind you, they concern his readers because of their affection for the detective, not because they don’t make for good storytelling. A darker Montalba in a state of slight despair only whets the appetite for the novels to come.
I find myself occasionally dreaming of visiting Montalbano’s Sicily. Strolling the beaches, swimming in the sea, dining in the trattorias, lying on a sun-drenched terrace, letting the Mediterranean breeze waft over me. Though in my crazy imagination I’d quite like the inspector to be there as well, and if we could just do something about the rampant crime and mafioso I’d be most appreciative. Of course there’s nothing stopping me visiting southern Italy the next time I’m in that part of the world. It’s definitely on ‘the list’. Perhaps I can visit it with that person who will help keep the well-intentioned questioners at bay for a few more years. You never know your luck.
Happy new year, everyone.
I live on a large island that is mostly desert and thus the vast majority of humanity cling to the coast. Cling, not only because we desire to live on somewhat arable land, but because many of us have a deep-felt emotional and cultural connection to the sea and those golden strips of beach. I am one of those limpets. Stick me in the path of an ocean breeze and I immediately feel recharged; put me in view of crashing waves or sparkling water and I feel happy to a Sound-of-Music degree. Oh yes, I love the sea. Summer or winter, calm waves or homicidal, rocky or sandy beaches; there is a pull there which comes from more than simply being Australian or having fond memories of family holidays.
O is for the Ocean, and it is represented by Tim Winton and his novel Breath. It’s a rare Winton story that doesn’t feature water, and in Breath it’s virtually on every page. Lapping at your imagination, crashing out behind your subconscious, seeping into your being. Pikelet and Loonie are young teenagers in the 1970s in a small Western Australian, who befriend a legendary surfer while testing their own wave skills in shark-riddled, rip-insane waters. It is a coming-of-age story, an exploration of risk, a love letter to the art of slicing through the deep blue on a small shard of fibreglass.
Breath is a novel which is about a lot more than surfing; but really, it’s still mostly about surfing. At least, that’s what I liked most about it and what drew me back to the pages. Which, I have to say, kind of surprises me; but the fact that it did became part of my enjoyment of the reading experience.
When I started high school it was very cool to have a surf-brand wallet and a crush on Kelly Slater. Keanu Reeves was starring in Point Break, Pearl Jam made video clips that were just of dudes catching waves, and a friend and I bought fluoro t-shirts with ‘O’Neill’ blazoned across the front for $15 and thought we’d scored the bargain of the year. But apart from this minor pop-culture fascination, I didn’t really know much about surfing; and when I worked out that my brown hair and intensely fair skin made me the virtual opposite of what a surfie chick was supposed to look like, I moved on to other interests like Jeff Buckley and vampire slayers and never looked back. To me, surfing has always seemed like something you had to be involved in to be able to properly understand, and as a result, it remains a mystery to many of us, a mere background to a beach-side jaunt; impressive, sure, but something you are happy to leave to others. And so, as a green-room ignoramus, how interesting could I find a novel about surfing? Well, in the hands of Tim Winton, immensely interesting and attention-grabbing. I could taste the salty water, feel the sand in the creases of my skin, hear the mighty waves booming as they hit the reef.
Winton is a most excellent writer and storyteller, and his ability to describe the world around his characters in such detail, and with such feeling and such a sense of what is real (to the character and their experiences) has always made me hold him in high esteem and brought me back to his books again and again. His writing can appear deceptively simple, but like those signs on a creaking jetty: the water is much deeper than it appears. I didn’t get lost in the pages of Breath, I somehow became a part of them. The story flows so smoothly, and the voice of Bruce Pike, the narrator, seems so natural and, well, internal. Winton has an ear for language that is precise and honest, and an amazing ability to express the feelings, insecurities and wayward thoughts of his characters that can touch you in a place you weren’t even aware was hiding deep inside you.
Tim Winton has changed the landscape of Australian literature and is able to speak to a broad cross-section of readers, perhaps more so than any other Australian literary author writing today. And though he has been criticised for his female characters lacking complexity, his skill of writing about boyhood, manhood and male sensibilities has such a ring of truth to it, and is such a pleasure, that perhaps we should just learn to cope with the idea that his female characters are not always so well-rounded. (Mind you, in Cloudstreet one of my favourite characters is Oriel Lamb, the mother who decides to live in a tent in the backyard and she has always ‘spoken’ to me as a strong female character.)
Breath is about a lot more than surfing, but it was Winton’s writing about the ocean, and the characters’ connections to it which made me like this novel, and appreciate the writing, so much. I’m not sure I agree with all the quotes plastered on the cover of my copy which have every golden reviewer in the land saying it’s the best thing Winton’s ever written (there were a few elements in the story I wasn’t so fussed on, the odd tie missing), but I certainly enjoyed reading it, I valued it, and just like I do with the ocean, I felt pulled to come back to it again and again.
I fell for this book a little like I do for some men. Cute cover, intelligent-sounding, interesting ideas, quirky humour and, if we’re being completely honest (at least recently), a foreign origin. And a little like some of those other episodes, without stretching the comparison too far, I perhaps expected this book to turn out a little bit differently to how it did. But such is both the reading (and romantic) life.
You see – and we’re back on the subject of books now – our ‘F’ book is a little non-fiction number called How Many Friends Does One Person Need? and I was expecting it to be an insightful contemporary commentary on social networking. And Robin Dunbar’s book does touch on this and much to do with personal connections but in a much wider context than I expected, moving through a series of interconnected subjects and intriguing facts and research about the many, many different reasons people are like they are. And if I had thought about it more when I had read the blurb I may have realised this, but I had latched on to a particular notion of ‘what it was all about’, judged the book by its title and wasn’t considering what the book’s true aim was (and now we refer back to the ‘man’ scenario). It’s not necessarily a bad thing, just not what I had imagined, so I had to adjust my reading brain.
Yes. We’re reading non-fiction. And a book on evolutionary biology of all things. Well, a change is as good as a holiday (a recent one on which I barely turned a page – the shame!). But I’m not very good at reading non-fiction for pleasure, unless it is presented in a narrative fashion, even if I find the subject matter interesting and the writing entertaining. Both of which, I am keen to point out, I do in HMFDOPN?
I’m just not skilled at reading information for information’s sake. I seem to require stories, some kind of narrative arc to guide me through the data, a character to follow. Give me glorious facts and theories, and though I truly do sit there and think, ‘Isn’t that bloody amazing/wondrous/smart/mind-boggling’, I struggle to keep my attention on the book and its structure and fail to retain a lot of what I’m ‘learning’. It’s a bit like the mental version of those vague notes and diagrams you used to sketch for yourself in university lectures thinking they would jog your memory later, only to discover at assessment time that they jogged nothing. And that’s the other thing when reading ‘books about stuff’, I worry the whole time that I’m not taking in anything and feel a little like I’m going to be tested afterwards.
I mention these things to illustrate my failings as a reader, not of Robin Dunbar as a writer (and presumably an evolutionary biologist). Because his book really does contain many intriguing and fascinating insights into human behaviour. He has a lovely, delightful tone and his writing is chatty but still intelligent. I would like to have lunch with this man. Several long lunches, in fact, where I hope a mere skerrick of his smarts would rub off on me and I could discover so much more about why human babies are actually born 12 months earlier than they should be, how women developed language, why skin colours vary, why we tell stories. I recall these things now because the book is fresh in my mind though I am already forgetting the reasons why these things are so. I’m starting to worry about that test.
Fascinating, entertaining and approachable, cute package. Not a bad thing in a book or a bloke. But alas, I am not a reader made to feel compelled to keep reading this kind of book out of a sheer will to learn more facts and theories. It’s not what I want to snuggle up in bed holding or loll about on a banana lounge with – for that I need stories. How Many Friends Does One Person Need? is more a Saturday morning, eating eggs kind of reader, where you can look up from your page and say to your pancake-eating partner (or dog, or whoever is there), ‘Did you know…?’ before getting back to those eggs.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, the answer is 150. That’s how many friends we need; in fact that’s in the upper limit of people we can accommodate in our social networks who we actually know, socialise with, enjoy their company and care about to some degree. The author describes them as someone you would be happy to approach and catch up with when you see them across an airport transit lounge at 3 am. Everyone else is an acquaintance, a colleague, a family member you’re not close to, someone you met once, or you know, only a Facebook friend.