Random honourable mention: Euphoria by Lily King

I read Euphoria two years ago among the flurry and haze of caring for baby twins. It is one of the few things I haven’t already forgotten about that period and I still find myself recommending it to anyone silly enough to ask me if I have read anything good lately (well of course I have). It is quite simply one of the most excellent novels I have had the pleasure of reading. Skilfully told and written, it is a fictional account of the relationship between three anthropologists in isolated Sepik River communities in New Guinea in the 1930s, though inspired by the life and works of Margaret Mead.

One can hardly imagine the research entailed in a creation that reads so authentically, and yet at no time is the research conspicuous. It is an enthralling story involving fascinating characters in an almost unimaginable situation, and though for most of the book we are among people who say so little to each other (whether due to secrets, emotional reserve, mistrust, language barriers or complete cultural incomprehension), you feel as if you learn quite a lot about these people, and you quickly become invested in Andrew and Nell and their futures, not to mention standing beside them in this rare world that was alien then and, to the vast majority of us, still is now.

Euphoria is a novel with a beating pulse that will capture your mind and spirit. Wonderfully written, enthralling, emotional, tense, heartfelt, intelligent. It is a book with its own soul and completely unforgettable. And that is why, when you ask me for a book recommendation this is still one of the titles that immediately comes to mind. Simply brilliant.

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Weekend coffee share – April 23

If we were having coffee I would tell you how excited I was to be out of the house on my own having coffee with you. Somehow I am assuming my children aren’t with us. Not that I don’t love my children nor enjoy their company, but coffee without them is nice too. After the general excitement of adult coffee and cake selection (there is always cake) I would tell you how nice it was to have posted my first blog post in years. Years! How when I first moved to the UK, somewhat friendless and jobless, I expected to have loads of time (though back then I would have said ‘heaps’ of time) to tend to my blog, to nourish my writings. I’d be one of those hip but unassuming types sitting in a cafe banging out posts, paragraphs, chapters and tweets, paying too much for a flat white, wangling free cake out of the waiters I knew by name and birth order. But it didn’t work out that way. And that’s okay. Other things happened. Good things happened.

But now I have written one post. And I’m very much looking forward to writing more. On books and reading, editing and writing, readers and stories and all the balloon-shaped swell of reading joy that surrounds me. That surrounds us. And maybe some writings on other things too. Maybe in a different place. And certainly in some time to come. But the scratching and bubbling of thoughts and ideas to communicate are suddenly alive in my brain, and this and the previous post have flowed  from my fingertips like an ooze of letters that have been building up behind a dam. And all these things feel very good indeed.

#weekendcoffeeshare

Three shelves up

I moved house recently. Again. For someone with a steady career history and mostly sensible decision-making twinkling in my past I seem to have relocated with a pace akin to someone in the witness protection system. I am not in the witness protection system. But I am a renter, and I live in an expensive city, oh and I have 17-month-old twins and until a month ago the husband, kids and I were still living in a (lovely) one bedroom flat. Ever wondered how long you could share a bedroom with your two offspring before seeing the hall cupboard as a legitimate alternative boudoir? The answer is 16 months.

So we have moved. Again. And with us have come all the books. Between us, the husband and I have many, many books. And it’s not really all the books as 90 per cent of my  books are back in Australia, and a good percentage of his books are on the other side of England in his mum’s basement. And yet there are still many books. And as a four-person family in a (lovely) small flat trying to squeeze in all the things a young family has… Well. Book-space is at a premium. And yet we have hung on to the books. We have relocated a sofa, sacrificed a dresser, shoved DVDs under the bed, sold off unnecessary baby-related items, and perform contortions to sit around the dining table. But the books and their wooden houses are in place and the shelves they do groan.

Except for the bottom two shelves of any bookcase that are accessible to two small, over-curious children.

Because inquisitive 17-month-olds who love books, and love the sound and feel of paper, and love exploring, really, really, really love to pull books off shelves and “read” them. By which I mean  erratically flick through the pages, fling them about by their covers until said cover detaches from the rest of the book, stand on them to attempt to make one taller to reach yet more books, maybe have a little nibble on them for some daily roughage. And it drives the husband crazy.

Because to the husband, every book is precious. Every supermarket paperback, every airport buy, every 3 books for the price of 2 when you can never choose a third book but it seems like poor value to not take up the deal. Every. Single. One. He values an action novel written by three authors because the original author died a decade ago but there was a franchise to maintain, as much as a first edition. And he buys first editions. And signed editions. And he tucks them in next to grey-tinged paperbacks that cost £1 with a cup of motorway-services coffee. And when his (lovely) children start mangling them with affection he near hyperventilates. Because the husband values the physical copy of every book as much as he values the reading experience. To him, they are interlinked and both maintain the other.

I don’t tend to be quite so bound (ahem) to my actual books. I get rid of books I didn’t enjoy, I consider whether each is worth keeping. Sure, there are special copies of certain titles that I wouldn’t want the demolition duo to use to explore their aching hunger for literature and recycled tree products, but I am much more at ease with the idea that the value is in the story, rather than the pages. Much more at ease.

Well, perhaps not as completely as I thought I was. Because when  we tried to make a pile of lesser paperbacks that could go on a bottom shelf as a biblio-sacrifice to our voracious pint-sized overlords, the pile was very small and when the husband added to it with a couple of my bargain-basement, only-bought-it-because-everyone-was-talking-about-it paperback possessions I too wanted to protest and hide them away on the higher shelves that are currently out of the reach of tiny hands.

I am the person in our household who tidies and categorizes, who fills charity bags with unwanted clothes, who sorts through the filing cabinet for unnecessary papers that can be recycled, who almost passed out in pride when the husband started filling in the family planner. But it turns out I’m not entirely ruthless, and that even I am still an old softie when it comes to our books. All of our books – the high and the low, the good and the bad, the cheap and the overpriced. We don’t want to look at each book and decide if it sparks joy (sorry, Marie Kondo) – it is our collection of books that give us joy and make our bookish souls sparkle. Even if we can barely squeeze ourselves around the dining table for a family meal, and even if the collection of books starts on the third shelf up of every bookcase. It is joyful to know that our toddlers are so interested in books already, but it doesn’t mean we want them touching all of ours just yet.

There’s no place like book group

It’s a funny thing homesickness. It can creep up on you in such an unassuming, disinterested kind of way that you aren’t aware of its stealthy pursuit until all of sudden you find yourself struck down with some kind of antipodean homesick blues. One moment you are ordering a pint of lager in a voice reminiscent of an extra in a 5th grade production of Oliver Twist and explaining how of course you miss certain people but that London is fabulous; and the next you are grumbling about it being so bloody cold all the time and asking how come it’s so hard to find a proper decent cappuccino and some sourdough toast in this overcrowded sunless city?

And then you calm down and try to re-embrace your sense of adventure and acceptance of experiences new; you remind yourself that moving to the other side of the world away from your regular life, comfort zones and loved ones is difficult at the best of time. And, really, I’m basically having the best of times; I can’t complain at all. But the homesickness has caught up with me of late and it seems a long road back, despite all the good things and wonderful people around me, to those half cockney/half crocodile hunter union jack waving pip-pip jolly good times. But I know it’s a phase that will soon pass. I’ll stop drudging about, buy myself a decent coat, and be all warm and keen and able to blog like a decent proper book blogger.

One thing that I think will help a lot is that this week I went to a meeting about joining a newly formed (well currently forming) book group. It was very exciting and my potential book group members were lovely and enthusiastic, and the organisers of the wider company of book groups (my group will be no. 18 or so that they have helped put together) were friendly and organised and encouraging. I’m very much looking forward to it kicking off. Stay tuned for a discussion of the first book selection.

On the day of that meeting I was ill, over my job, tired and lacking in any recognisable features of charm or sense. By the end of the get-together I no longer felt quite as ill, nor as world-weary, nor as overwhelmed by that wispy feeling of being a long, long way from home and I cheerfully trotted off to the tube and into a pub for the night’s next appointment.  It didn’t cure my antipodean homesick blues, but even the initial manoeuvrings of a book group get-together shone a lot more light on my little world. I felt like I might be finding some of my people – well some new ‘my people’ – and it reminded me how comforting, and also inspiring, the book world is for me, and how much I miss being a part of it; even if only as one of the many who like to meet up over a drink and talk about a novel for an hour. At the new pub, when I went to the bar to order a drink, there was definitely a little more of a Dick van Dyke chimney sweep in my voice than there had been for a while.

Two Salingers are Better than One

There are rare but beautiful moments when you know you are experiencing something close to perfection: attending a Wilco concert, eating the butter poached coturnix quail breast at Quay, watching Steve Waugh single-handedly drag Australia through the 1999 Cricket World Cup. And recently I experienced reading perfection: JD Salinger’s Seymour—An Introduction.

It’s a big call, isn’t it? And how on earth does one write about writing perfection when they are so far from that feat themselves? Imperfectly, I suppose. Ramblingly. Perhaps with an edge of pedestrianism. All of those things which are not present in Salinger’s work. It is trickier still because I read the collected novellas Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour—An Introduction over two months ago on a holiday, and so I now have that dreadful experience of being able to tell people that I LOVED a book and that they MUST read it but not being quite as able to explain why nor recall all that much about it. It’s a terrible affliction. It is harder still because I did my usual holiday reading ritual of leaving the book for another wanderer to discover, so I now can’t even refer to it to refresh my still-vacationing mind.

So, to be crass, my qucik precis: In Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters we hear the tale of Buddy Glass trying to attend his eldest brother Seymour’s wedding, only to find once he is there that Seymour is missing. Buddy is then subjected to an interminable car ride and then visit with some of the guests of the wedding, including the matron of honour. In Seymour—An Introduction Buddy attempts to in some way memorialise Seymour after his suicide (written about in the most excellent short story A Perfect Day for Bananafish) by telling the reader about his brother. I really liked Carpenters—really and truly—but I love, love, loved Seymour.

And though I am failing to tell you much, what I can tell you is that I was so struck with Seymour in particular that I copied sentences and paragraphs out of it into my journal, and that when I surrendered my book to a hotel room in Mykonos in the Greek Islands I wrote a little note to the finder of the book wishing them the same reading experience as myself. These are not things I usually do. I do not usually bother to dog-ear multiple pages, nor copy down quotes from a book I am reading (not unless I’m expected to write an essay on it) but Seymour threw me for a loop. It meanders marvellously as Buddy thinks things through, but is actually a deftly-constructed story that is both high brow and highly sensitive (and also humourous). It only intensified my already firm love for the Glass family.

This is one of those occasions where I’m asking for a little trust, dear readers. At some stage in the future we many try to ‘unpack’ (that awful sociological verb) the reasons why when I have had three months off work and plenty of time on my hands that I have barely kept up with my blogging. In the meantime, please forgive my lack of detail and discussion of these two novellas from JD Salinger and simply take my word for it that they will be a reading experience you will treasure.

There: The Village Cricket Match

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.

Books that made me: Playing Beatie Bow

I have an overactive imagination. I am inclined to spend a reasonable amount of time in my head, and if left to my own devices the head stuff can start to dominate. It is difficult to explain. My mind doesn’t easily brake once a story is let loose, whether it is someone else’s tale or just a notion toodling around in my head. If you’ve seen the film Miss Potter and recall how Beatrix would occasionally address her painted creations, it’s a little bit like that. Rest assured I have all my faculties. I’m just a vivid daydreamer, I guess. On the politically correct school reports I believe exist these days (my teacher-mother once told me she can’t say a student ‘doesn’t understand’ something as that may imply that they’re thick) this habit would be referred to as: Strong visualisation skills. If  only I believed in all that The Secret rubbish.

I impart this weird personal information so that you know that when I say that every time I find myself in The Rocks in Sydney I think about what would happen if I turned a corner and found my modern self back in the ‘olden days’, you know that this is a fairly regular-type thought for me.  Let me explain. One of my very favourite books is Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park. Published three decades ago it is set in one of the oldest (and thus was one of the most notorious and wretched) parts of Sydney. A teenage girl, Abigail, is transported back to the late 1800s where she is taken in by the Bow family. It is a historical drama where Abigail learns some of the things she’s struggling to realise (or is lacking from others) in her contemporary life—ideas of family, of self-reliance, of love. In Abigail’s time Beatie Bow is an urban legend, a scary woman named in a children’s game. Abigail ends up in the past after following the child Beatie who she spies observing at the edge of one of these games,  through some kind of time slip.

The first time I read Playing Beatie Bow I finished the book, closed it, then promptly opened it and started all over again. I remember exactly the spot where I was sitting on my bedroom carpet.  The novel seemed to have everything a 10 or 11-year-old girl needed (sorry, I can’t quite recall how old I was). In my teenage years I read it several times, and that is rare. I am not a re-reader. Too many books, not enough time… Perhaps I did it more when I was a young thing, before all the necessities of life got in the way.

Why I wanted to re-read this particular novel is hard to explain (and, to be honest, clearly remember) apart from saying that I really liked it and that Ruth Park was a Very Good writer (which is hardly worth the trouble of posting, is it?). What I do remember is being swept up in a story that I never wanted to end, of caring very deeply for the characters (even though the protagonist could be a spoiled brat), of falling in love with the boy Judah just as Abigail did. I suspect that the boy thing had a lot to do with my quick re-reading. I have very strong recollections of some very strong reactions to the romantic elements in this novel. There is a kiss on a rowboat that filled me with giddiness the first (second, third, fourth) time I read it. Perhaps it was just the bloom of adolescence. Perhaps it was just exquisite storytelling.

On the blooming adolescence, there is also a mention of eyebrow licking that bamboozled me at the time and I must say that I am yet to come across it in my adult life  (well what I imagine was meant by it, anyway). It’s an odd thing to recall, I know, and it is merely the author describing some of Abigail’s previous innocent experiences with boys but it has always stayed with me. There are other, small (less odd) things I recall to this day: the lace of Abigail’s dress, a fire. It is not unusual for me to see or hear something even today which will make me think of  Beatie Bow. Especially when I am wandering The Rocks.

I have always been fascinated by The Rocks in Sydney. Harbourside with its wharves and chandleries, its sandstone buildings, narrow laneways and secret staircases, tales of murders and other awful crimes, houses of booze and ill-repute, the cellar rooms where unsuspecting schmucks were shanghaied onto ships, cobbled streets, the garrison church, the oldest pub (where I almost lost Middlemarch last week), and the observatory on the hill watching over it all. Perhaps it’s my convict ancestry which informs my interest. Perhaps it’s just the living, breathing history of the place that appeals. I don’t think Playing Beatie Bow started it (I think it was my mother, who has a great historical knowledge, is a keen family historian and used to take us off on fabulous excursions to places like The Rocks as children) but my affection for this book certainly helped lock this area and its stories into a part of my being.

Ruth Park won many awards for Playing Beatie Bow, both in Australia and internationally. I am not alone in my love or admiration for it. It is still in print (with the same cover I might add) and in the mid eighties a successful TV series was made of it. I suspect watching the series prompted me to want to read the novel, or inspired my mother to give it to me. It doesn’t really matter how I got my hands on the book, just that I did.

¨

Ruth Park died in December 2010.