Category Archives: Book reviews

‘Looking Through You: Rare and Unseen Photographs from the Beatles Book Archive’ by Leslie Bryce

lookingthroughyou

192 p. 2016

As part of my nostalgic after-glow from seeing Eight Days a Week, I snapped up this book at my library when I saw it on the New Non Fiction shelves.  It features beautifully clear photographs that were taken by photographer Leslie Bryce who, along with published Sean O’Mahony, issued a small monthly booklet called ‘The Beatles Monthly Magazine’ during the Beatles phenomenon of the 1960s.

beatlesmonthlybook

Now fetching about $30 each on E-Bay, they originally cost 1/6d (15 cents for those readers who are P.D. [pre-decimal]) and there were 77 editions issued between 1963 and 1969. It was resuscitated in 1976 and finally ceased publication in 2003.

They were a bit of a hack-job, replicating the format of other similar fan magazines, and filled with pictures and articles that purported to be interviews.  It contained a letters page with the occasional ghost-written Beatles reply,  a Beatles  News page and the lyrics of the month’s Beatles Song. However, they were given unprecedented access to the Beatles backstage and in the recording studio, and were part of the team.  Pages 4 and 5 of the magazine were devoted to the National Fan Club newsletter, with its fictitious secretary Anne Collingham, a made-up name to cover the rotating team of staff who answered the fan mail that arrived at the Offical Beatles Fan Club  organized through the Beatles’ press officer.  The Beatles Book was distributed to over a million people world wide, and Official Beatles Fan Club membership reached a peak of 80,000 world wide.

At first,The Beatles Book contained biographical articles to introduce ‘the boys’ to their fans, but increasingly it became a way of keeping the world at bay.  The Beatles of 1963 and 1964 welcomed the photographic publicity, but by late 1966/early 1967 the torrent of photographs had slowed to a trickle.  The final photographs in the book are mainly taken at recording sessions – Sgt Peppers, Revolver etc- where the tension between them  is palpable.

Ah, but those younger photos are so clear and exuberant!  Did they brush their hair specially each time the camera came out, I wonder?- it’s certainly shiny clean hair, and suit and tie were their ‘brand’.  The earliest photographs in the book were taken in 1963 when the Beatles played at summer seaside locations (Margate and Bournemouth) before heading to London in December 1963- then Paris, New York, Washington, Florida, Europe- no Australia here.

The photographs have interesting little captions and snippets of fascinating facts. Did you know, for instance, that the last note in the gobbledegook at the end of Sgt Peppers can only be heard by dogs? [I don’t have a dog to try it out on anymore].

Anyway- beautiful photos that I certainly hadn’t seen before and an interesting flip-through if you’re in the mood for some innocent nostalgia.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 7/10 (difficult to rate, really)

‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen Macdonald

hisforhawk

283 p & notes, 2014

I’m not quite sure how Helen Macdonald managed to interweave a detailed and rather technical book about training a goshawk with a clear-eyed description of a profound grief that almost tipped into madness. But manage it she does, educating millions of readers about the minutiae of falconry along the way, and I found myself missing the narrator and her storytelling when I finally finished the book.

Helen Macdonald is a historian who was in the third year of a fellowship at Cambridge University and nudging 40 years of age when her father, a noted photojournalist, died. She was plunged into a deep, and (I think) unhealthy and somewhat warped grief, not unlike that of Caroline Jones whose book I reviewed rather harshly here.  She had a mother and brother of whose own grief she is completely oblivious, but through the death of her father she was brought completely undone by her own loss of a mentor and fellow-bird enthusiast.

One of her favourite books as a child was T. H. White’s The Goshawk, which tells of White’s unsuccessful attempts as an ‘austringer’ with his own goshawk, Gos.  Trying to reconnect with her father and the security of the father-young daughter relationship, Macdonald re-reads White’s book. However, by now she is conscious as she never was as a child, of White’s biography written by Sylvia Ashton Warner which reveals White (the author of The Once and Future King which was later adapted into the movie Camelot) to be a deeply unhappy homosexual teacher who struggled with his attraction to sadomasochism and flagellation.  White’s harsh and driven training of his goshawk, using medieval training methods, seems to be another manifestation of cruelty and fetishism.  For Macdonald, who has procured her own goshawk, re-reading White provides a salient less in how not to train.

It is these two narratives of bird-training, then, that run through the book: her own training of Mabel the goshawk, and White’s unsuccessful training of Gos in the 1930s.  There’s lots of arcane vocabulary that by the end of the book you identify immediately, like ‘yarak’ (being in heightened hunting mode), ‘bating’ (rising up with wings flapping) and ‘mute’ (a more genteel word for bird-shit).

Closed in on herself and her own grief, there are only fleeting mentions of the outside world: she likens the goshawk’s hood to those worn at Abu Ghraib, or listlessly notices the crowds outside the Northern Rock bank during the 2007 financial meltdown.

Her identification with Mabel runs at a deeply existential level

I’d flown scores of hawks, and every step of their training was familiar to me. But while the steps were familiar, the person taking them was not. I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist.  The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.  I was turning into a hawk. (p 84)

The narrative pull of this book is watching Macdonald gradually find her way out of grief.  It’s a beautifully written book, sharply descriptive of Mabel the goshawk, clinical in the author’s own observation of herself and her grief, and poetic in its descriptions of landscape.  No wonder it won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2014.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: A friend who lent it to me months ago and probably thinks I’ve lost it.

‘La Mala Hora’ (In Evil Hour) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

lamalahora

(1962, 183 P)

I read this as part of the Coursera course that I’ve been following on Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I read the book in English (of course!) but the online course that analyses the books is in Spanish. There’s nothing quite like trying to follow something fairly abstract in a language that you’ve only beginning to learn to slow your progress!

This short story was originally published in 1962 as ‘This Town of Shit’ but Garcia Marquez disavowed the original version and rewrote it.  I read it as part of a collection of short stories, but running at over 150 pages it is more strictly speaking a novella.  It foreshadows many of the themes of One Hundred Years of Solitude and he has used other sections in other stories as well.

It is set in an unnamed town, where someone is posting lampoons (ie.satirical posters) about local personalities and their hypocrisies and secrets.  It’s not made clear who the lampoon-poster is, but after a man is murdered on account of the rumours, eventually the Mayor cracks down. He declares martial law and uses the opportunity to rid the village of his political enemies.  The threat of violence hums throughout the story.   At the same time, the humidity congeals and the rain pours down without stopping. As a result, it’s a rather suffocating short story, where you almost will the violence to come down, to break the anticipation.

‘The Light Between Oceans’ by M. L. Stedman

the-light-between-oceans-ml-stedman-small

2012, 345 p.

As it happened, I read this book with my bookgroup (AKA The Ladies Who Say Oooh) just as the movie was released.  No doubt I’ll see the movie about two minutes before it closes, when it’s down to one session a day at Cinema Nova in a cinema with six seats. I’ll be late to review the film, just as I am late to review the book. By reading it  in November 2016, everything that could be said about this book has already been said before.

And so you probably already know that it’s set in the 1920s on a lighthouse off the Western Australian coast.  The time and setting is important. The 1920s in Australia, so geographically distant from the European battlefields, were hollowed out demographically and emotionally by the loss of men who didn’t come back or returned as wraiths of the men they were.  Tom Sherbourne has returned apparently physically and emotionally intact, but when faced with questions of life, death, parenthood and morality, we realize that he has been moulded by his war experience. He craves the order and solitude of lighthouse life, and feels the moral burden of having survived when others didn’t.   His wife Isabel, like 1920s women throughout Australia, rejoiced in Tom’s physicality and masculinity at a time when men were scarce, but could not grasp the enormity of the war experience and its existential ravages on her husband.

The setting in a lighthouse on an island is important too.  Not only does the mechanics of the plot hang on the logistics of infrequent contact between the lighthouse and the mainland, but the emotional and ethical question at the heart of the book relies on isolation as well.

The isolation spins its mysterious cocoon, focusing the mind on one place, one time, one rhythm – the turning of the light. The island knows no other human voices, no other footprints. On the Offshore Lights you can live any story you want to tell yourself, and no one will say you’re wrong: not the seagulls, not the prisms, not the wind.  p. 120

The book is a Jodi-Picoultesque dilemma set in 1920s Australia, but it could in many ways be located in the country of any of the  Commonwealth Allies – Canada, Newfoundland, New Zealand. The dialogue, to me, had some infelicities (were the terms ‘kids’ and ‘cubbies’ in use in  1920s Australia?)  but she captured the historical theme of return from the war well  without labouring it, and the descriptions of landscape were carefully crafted.  In the face of such happiness, you know from the start that things are not going to end well. It is this feeling of impending doom that keeps you turning the pages. I felt a little cheated by the ending, not so much in terms of plot, but from a feeling that it was rushed and the nuances unexplored.

Sourced from: C.A.E. library

My rating: 8/10

aww2016

I’ve read this for the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge

 

 

‘Wicked but Virtuous: My Life’ by Mirka Mora

mora

302 pages & abundant illustrations and photographs, 2000.

The artist and matriarch of a clutch of artistic Mora sons, Mirka Mora is a Melbourne institution.  Earthy, twinkly and eccentric, she often pops up on documentaries to provide a bit of a shock when such naughtiness and carnality slips from the lips of a woman well into her eighties.  Her autobiography, narrated in the same tangled-syntax and lightly-accented giggle that bubbles out of her interviews, is roughly chronologically ordered under a number of themes: My Paris, My Melbourne, My Restaurants, My Work, My Men, My Children, My Workshops etc. As she tells us at various times in the book, she is not particularly comfortable with the idea of writing an autobiography. Much of it is drawn from the journals that she wrote at the time, most particularly in the catch-all chapters that intersperse the narrative ‘Pele-Mele: a Medley’ and ‘Inselbergs, Motets and Quodlibets’.

Mora’s childhood in Paris during WWII, as the Jewish daughter of a French resistance fighter, was marked by fear. Through her father’s contacts with the resistance, Mirka and her mother were released from a French concentration camp prior to their deportation to Auschwitz. Her parents separated and divorced shortly after the war.  But Mirka’s was already an unconventional upbringing when, even before the war,  she was in effect handed over to a young woman in the same apartment block who took a shine to her, and left her for extended periods of time with her own mother in the countryside. When the 17 year old Mirka  met Georges Mora, another resistance fighter, after the war she married him so that he would make love to her.  After emigrating to Australia, they owned a succession of restaurants and Georges became an art dealer.

While I knew that she was an artist, and an unconventional one at that, I hadn’t realized how deeply embedded she was in the contemporary art scene in Melbourne during the 1950s and 1960s- or at least she was, in her telling.  The book is a succession of ‘names’ and slyly-told anecdotes and I found the constant name-dropping rather tedious.  So too the exhaustive and rather obscure lists of books she had read and which, to be frank, I don’t really see reflected in her work.  There is an ambiguous whimsy/grotesque aspect to her paintings, and flipping through the pictures inserted into the middle of the book, there is a sameness about much of her work (or is it a working out of a strongly defined theme?)  I tend to think of her in the same category as, say, Michael Leunig.  I’m not sure whether I’ve just praised or damned her.

I’m bemused by the way that this book managed to be open – particularly about bodily functions of various kinds- and yet quite opaque as well.  And yes- I know that I’m being hypocritical here because I often bemoan the tell-all memoirs that drag a parent’s secrets into the harsh light of day (e.g. here and here). I don’t know whether it was from a sense of delicacy that she skated over any real discussion of her husband and sons, or whether it was because she wanted the spotlight for herself because, as she would admit herself, she does have a very healthy self-regard.

I think that the part of the book that affected me most was a hand-written letter from Mirka to her womb, which was removed by hysterectomy in 1993. A rather quirky, perhaps macabre undertaking, but one which captured for me a sense of comfort and wistfulness in her own femaleness. The letter just hangs there, in the closing pages of the book, unremarked.

The book is generously illustrated with photographs- ye gods, she was a beautiful young woman!- and reproductions of her paintings.  I was aware of a recent undiscovered mural in the former Cafe Balzac restaurant (owned by the Moras) that was under threat but I couldn’t really think of any others, especially after reading her chapter on public commissions.  She wrote that she had completed a mural at Flinders Street Station – and, after racking my brains over where it could possibly be- here it is!  I must say that it is more striking than I realized, and a real gift to the people of Melbourne.

On finishing the book, while rather fond of this small, puckish character, I felt  underwhelmed and almost cheated by her autobiography.

Other reviews: Lisa from ANZLitlovers reviewed this and seem to like it even less than I did.

My rating: 5/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroup.

aww2016

I’ve posted this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge website.

‘The Good People’ by Hannah Kent

kentgoodpeople

2016, 380 p.

Literary debuts don’t come much bigger than Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, the story of the last woman hanged in Iceland in 1829.  An international best-seller, recipient of multiple awards,  the first of a million dollar two-book contract and optioned for filming: hey, no pressure for the second book! But Hannah Kent has well and truly risen to the challenge with The Good People which I think I enjoyed even more than Burial Rites (my review here).

Although completely self-contained, the two books act as companion pieces to each other. The time frame is similar, but this book is set in rural south-west Ireland in 1825.  There might not be the rotting potatoes in the fields of books set in the Irish Famine of 1845, but the sodden, threadbare poverty that underpinned that later catastrophe permeates this book as well.  The stone cottages, smoky and candlelit, cling to the mossy sides of the valley, the families inside sharing their beds with kin and their shelter with their domestic animals. Women gather around the well, muttering.  The cows are not yielding milk and the butter will not churn. It’s been this way since Nóra Leahy took over the care of her four-year-old grandson Micheál after her own daughter died. Micheál, to our 21st century eyes clearly has a developmental delay that is worsening over time, but for these deeply suspicious villagers, he is ‘fairy’.  The real Micheál has been taken, his grandmother believes, with a changeling left in his place.  When Nóra’s husband suddenly dies, the burden of caring for this screaming, drooling, limp child becomes too much and so she engages fourteen-year-old Mary from a neighbouring fair.  Mary, who takes on the burden of the vomit, piss and saliva, comes to love the child as his widowed and grieving grandmother’s heart hardens against him as she becomes increasing convinced that ‘it’ is not her Micheál but instead, a fairy changeling.  Nóra enlists the assistance of Nance, the old, marginalized woman on the edge of the village who, as well as having the knowledge of  herbs, charms and cures, also knows The Good People- a euphemism for the fairies.These fairies are not Disney’s Tinkerbell. They are a continual parallel presence, congregating in secret places, fighting, dancing, with a power of their own.

Within three pages, this book had me hooked.  The tone is formal and slightly archaic, with the dialogue unusual enough to reinforce that we are in a different world, but without lapsing into caricature. It is clearly deeply researched and, as a result, Kent has built up a self-contained folk world, where there is no division between the supernatural and the natural. It rings absolutely true.  As a historian, this is historical fiction at its best: authentic to the mindset of the time, with no 21st century sensibility clumping in with heavy boots to make judgments about right and wrong.  Certainly, like Burial Rites, the book reflects the intersection of gender and class in shaping (and mis-shaping) women’s lives, but this is an analytic frame outside the story.  The history that underpins the book is true to its own internal logic.

I have one quibble only.  In the court scene, one of the accused was cross-examined in the witness box: under British law at the time, the accused could make a statement but generally did not do so. The accused was not expected to condemn him/herself- instead, the court needed to be convinced of ‘character’ rather than a chain of events.  Reading Kent’s own explanation for how she came across the story and her use of the scant primary sources about it, I wonder if perhaps the original newspaper reports were ambiguous.

I very much enjoyed this book, the tension of the scenario and the richness of the folk-world that she establishes so securely.  Excellent.

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library (and I must take it back right now for the 95 other people who are on the waiting list!)

My rating: A solid 10/10.

aww2016

I have added this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016 page.

‘Only Daughter’ by Anna Snoekstra

snoekstra

2016, 250 p

The hugely successful Gone Girl with its taut and if somewhat implausible double narrative has spawned quite a few imitators, and this is one of them.  In 2003 Rebecca Winter disappeared, prompting a huge but ultimately fruitless police investigation. Eleven years later, a young woman on the verge of being arrested, blurts out that she is the missing Bec. We (and she)  know that she is not.  Her family and friends welcome her back, but she is soon uneasy about them as she pieces together what might have happened to the real Rebecca Winter.

The book is ostensibly set in Canberra, with reference to Canberra landmarks, but is peppered with Americanisms, most particularly ‘Mom’ which jarred every time, and a house that sounds far more like a double-storey American weatherboard house than a Canberra one.   Beyond the double narrative, there’s a back-story to the Bec-imposter as well, which is probably one storyline too many.  The book has a rather adolescent voice, using alternating past and present tense and third and first person in the two time periods, and relies heavily on dialogue. It tended to get rather flabby in the middle, and I was finding the banality of description and dialogue rather wearing.  However, the ending came as a surprise, not only in the ‘whodunnitness’ but also in the rapid change of pace in the last twenty pages or so. It doesn’t surprise me at all that it has been optioned by American producers for a film release.

The book was published by Harlequin, not one of my usual publishers. The book itself finished 3/4 of the way through with the remainder of the pages is made up of teasers from some of their other publications. It felt a bit like commercial television and did a disservice to Only Daughter by firmly reinforcing its place within the romantic/ domestic thriller genre.

aww2016

I’ve posted this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge website