Category Archives: The ladies who say ooooh

‘In the Country of Men’ by Hisham Matar

matar

2006, 245 p.

When reading this book I found myself thinking of Ian McEwan’s Atonement or L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between.  An odd connection to make, in many ways, with their golden summers and racketty affluence.  Late 1970s Libya does not at all have the benign somnolence of Edwardian England: instead, it is edgy, tense and brutal.  However, what Matar’s book does share with these other two is the child’s-eye view  that misconstrues events and wreaks an unwitting destruction.

The narrator is nine-year-old Suleiman, the only child of his ‘Baba’ (father) Faraj el Dewani and ‘Mama’ Najwa. His father is emotionally distant and caught up in political activities, and Suleiman prefers his father’s friend Moosa, who although a fellow-activist, has a more demonstrative and affectionate relationship with the young boy.  His mother Majwa is an alcoholic (no small thing in a country where alcohol is banned).

Suleiman is an observer, not understanding the political ramifications of what he is seeing. Sulieman exists in a world of  “quiet panic, as if at any moment the rug could be pulled from beneath my feet”. In the mess that Libya has become since Gaddafi’s overthrow, it’s easy to forget the menace of his regime.

It was good to read about a country and politics that is unfamiliar to me, even though the tropes of innocence, bravery and courage are universal.  The book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and I enjoyed it. It was my selection for my bookgroup, and I was a little apprehensive about how it would be received, but ‘the ladies’ liked it too.  (Unfortunately I left this blogpost half-written, and I’ve forgotten the detail about the book. Sorry!)

Rating: 8.5

Read because: It was a CAE bookgroup.

‘The Legacy’ by Kirsten Tranter

tranter

2010, 438 p.

Like all good titles,  the title ‘The Legacy’ is a double-barrelled one.  It could refer to the unexpected financial bequest that sets the chain of events in this novel into action, or it could refer to the aftermath of the news of a death.  Both interpretations work.

The novel opens with a prologue voiced by Ingrid, as her step-daughter  Fleur watches Ingrid emerging from a beating in what we assume is domestic violence.  Somehow – illogically – this violence seems incongruous with the New York affluence within which Ingrid is living.  This is the last we hear of Ingrid in her own voice.  From then on, the narrative is taken over by Julia, her friend from Australia, whose relationship with Ingrid oscillates between awe, jealousy, love and anger.

Told in retrospect, Julia’s life was financially straitened and emotionally unsatisfying. She worked at a video store while she was at university, and became friendly with Ralph, who called in at the video store and watched films behind the counter with her. Ralph was wealthy, and Julia was drawn into his wake, invited to lunches at his parents’ quietly opulent Kirribilli House, overlooking the Sydney Harbour. She was not the only young woman attracted to the Kirribilli enclave; so too was Ingrid, brought over from Perth by Ralph’s aunt Maeve when Ingrid’s parents diee.  Ingrid enchanted Ralph and his family, and when Ralph’s father died Ingrid was left a huge legacy- something encouraged by Ralph who was infatuated with Ingrid, despite his bisexual leanings. Ingrid used her legacy to travel to New York, and it was there that she met an older man, Gil Grey and his precocious young daughter Fleur, lauded as a prodigy for her artwork from early childhood.  She married him, despite the misgivings of her friends Ralph and Julia who were unnerved by his controlling nature.  The friends drifted apart.  But when news came of Julia’s death in the Twin Towers (and how telling that I just need to say ‘Twin Towers’ and you know exactly what I mean), the increasingly-ill Ralph dispatched Julia over to New York to find out what happened to her and to fill in the details.

This is a long book – 438 pages- but I didn’t find that it dragged.  The first 2/3 of the book reminded me of an Antipodean Brideshead Revisited or Great Gatsby, with the outsider narrator watching wealthy people living out their greed and insecurity. There is an artificiality and staginess to the lives of these wealthy and ruthless people, and the glamour of the New York art scene does not disguise the curdled ugliness of  these so-called ‘ beautiful people’.    The last 1/3 of the book took on the pace and tone of a mystery, although its ending was too open-ended to be really satisfactory on that score.  The descriptions of both Kirribilli and New York were well-drawn, and the dialogue flowed  so naturally that it was barely noticeable.  There were too many paranormal deadends – a neighbour who read tea-leaves and too many dream sequences- but she captured well the uneasy line between enterprise and exploitation, sexual adventureness and abuse.  The book was an amalgam of a coming-of-age love triangle, shot through with a mystery.  It worked for me.

My rating: 7.5/10

Read because: CAE bookgroup (the Ladies Who Say Oooh)

aww2017-badge I’ve posted this review to the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘Bush Studies’ by Barbara Baynton

baynton

1999, 140 P

A funny thing happened on the way to reading this book. I’ve been aware of it for some time, and always thought that I’d read it sometime but I never actually did anything about doing so. Then, last December, it turned up as our read for CAE bookgroup, even though no-one had selected it. When the secretary for the group rang to complain, she was told that another book that we had selected would be sent if it returned on time.  We’d have two books to read over Christmas, but that was no problem. When the second box of books arrived she opened it, only to find another book we hadn’t selected (Reading in Bed reviewed here). And so, here I was finally reading Bush Studies, even though I didn’t really mean to.

The version that I read started with an introduction by Elizabeth Webby. I often don’t read the introduction until I’ve finished a book, figuring that I need to read the book first before I want to engage with someone else’s opinion about it.  However, in this case I did read the intro, and I’m glad that I did so, as Webby’s introduction was followed by a memoir of Barbara Baynton written by her grandson in 1965.  In Webby’s introduction she follows Sally Krimmer and Alan Lawson in virtually debunking the whole of the family story that Baynton had put about and that her grandson had swallowed.The effect of this debunking was to put me on my guard as a reader, and alert me to the fact that this was one slippery woman.

Bush Studies is a compilation of short stories, and as I have said many times, I struggle to review a volume of short stories, aware as I am that what I am reading has been consciously curated from a selection of material that was written as stand-alone stories.  The first story, A Dreamer, was about a daughter returning home to her mother in a storm.  It was all very dramatic and Wuthering-Heights-y, and rather predictable.

The second story, Squeaker’s Mate is probably her best known story and one of the strongest in the collection.  The woman, unnamed until the end of the story, has been the mainstay of a timber-cutting partnership, hardworking and stoic and quite frankly taken advantage of by her feckless partner, Squeaker. When she is injured, it doesn’t take him long to find a substitute. There’s no freedom in this bush: it’s grey and harsh, just like Squeaker’s Mate’s prospects.

In Scrammy ‘And  an old shepherd is left to mind the selection. He talks to the dog to quell his fear that Scrammy ‘Hand- a bushman thief- would rob him. I found myself reading this book as a historian, mindful of John Hirst’s work on ex-convicts and their place amongst small selector society.  She’s writing from experience here, and it’s historically pitch-perfect.

The story I admired most was Billy Skywonkie, where a Chinese girl travels out to a selector. Racism is an unsettling undercurrent that runs through the story, and there’s no heroic bushman here. The story thrums with menace.

I have no idea how to read Bush Church at all. Is it a comic piece?

The final story The Chosen Vessel reminded me, as it does most readers, of Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife in the isolation and stoic vulnerability that being left behind in the bush engenders.  It’s not a snake she’s frightened by, but a man – not unlike the old convict in Scrammy Hand, but she has more to fear that mere robbery. I’m not sure about the Virgin Mary twist at the end though, and the story was chilling enough without it.

No wonder Barbara Baynton has been placed in the constellation of late nineteenth-century ‘bush’ writers but it’s a different bush that she’s writing about in her stories. There’s no ‘legend’ here. There’s isolation, racism and menace in this bush, and it brutalizes men who brutalize women in turn.

Sue at Whispering Gums has written several separate posts on Bush Studies, where she writes far more thoughtfully than I have done, as I’m writing some two months after I read the book. Both Squeaker’s Mate and Billy Skywonkie have stayed with me, which speaks to their strength I think, because short stories tend to wash over me a bit. and I must say that I’m glad that I’ve finally read Bush Studies (even though I didn’t mean to!)

Source: CAE bookgroup

aww2017-badge

I’ve posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

 

‘State of Wonder’ by Ann Patchett

patchett

2011, 353 p

I don’t often think of films while I’m reading a book, but I did this time.  A few months back I went to see ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ (my short review here). I was rather nonplussed by the lack of plot in the movie at the time, but it complements this book beautifully.

Marina Singh is a 42-year old research scientist, working on cholesterol drugs for a pharmaceutical company.  Like Barak Obama, she was the daughter of a white American mother and, in this case, an Indian graduate student who returned to India.  When a research colleague, Anders, dies suddenly on the Brazilian Rio Negro, Marina is encouraged by her boss (with whom she is having a clandestine affair) and Anders’ widow, to go to find out what happened and, indeed whether Anders is even dead- something that his widow cannot believe. Anders himself had been sent by the pharmaceutical company to find out what happened too, but in this case the object of his enquiry was the intimidating Dr Swenson, who had been ensconced in the Brazilian jungle for years, working on a bark-based fertility potion observed amongst the Lakashi tribe. Lakashi women gave birth right throughout their lives: a burden to them, but a honey-pot to any Western pharmaceutical company catering to infertile Western women.  Dr Swenson had been funded by the company to undertake her research in Brazil, but she was not forwarding her results or progress to them.   Now that Anders had died, Marina was sent to follow up.

Marina knew, and feared Dr Swenson.  She had encountered her during her hospital internship as a doctor, when Dr Swenson castigated her for a surgical error, prompting her to leave medicine for good.  Now Marina meets her again, unsure whether Dr Swenson even remembers her.  Dr Swenson has surrounded herself with protectors, intent on blocking the company’s inquiries.  The doctors who work in her research program alternate between love and fear of her, and all the tribespeople obey her. Almost against her will, Marina finds herself being drawn into Dr Swenson’s orbit as well.

There are echoes of Conrad’s Kurtz here (can any book about the jungle ever escape parallels with Kurtz?) and it raises questions about the pharmaceutical industry and the ethics of fertility treatment in the face of other more urgent public health demands.

This book reminded me very much of Patchett’s earlier book Bel Canto which I read in 2002 and then again in 2014 for my bookgroup (but oddly enough, did not review in a blog post). Bel Canto, set in Latin America, involved a group of opera-lovers at a house concert being taken hostage by terrorists.  There was an opera element in State of Wonder too, but the most striking similarity is that in both books the author placed a group of people in an isolated setting, feeling powerless but increasingly coming under the thrall of those exerting power over them.  However, where in Bel Canto she managed to move between characters and fill them out, in a rather cinematic fashion, in this book there was really only one really robust and memorable character- Dr Swenson.  The other doctors in the group never really emerged as individuals, and even Marina as the main character seemed rather ‘thin’. It’s not clear why Marina was satisfied enough with the affair with her significantly-older supervisor Mr Fox, and there were too many pages spent in the Brazilian metropolis of Manaus, where Marina was deflected from travelling to the jungle by a young married Australian couple, Mr and Mrs Bovender, who are house-sitting Dr Swenson’s city apartment. There is much attention paid to Marina’s vivid nightmares, induced by the anti-malarial medication Lariam, a plot detail which takes on more significance by the end of the book.  It’s a relatively long book, and it meanders almost as much as the river that dominates the setting.

That said, I did find it rather compelling and did want to keep reading it. It was a book that was more rewarding during the act of reading, rather than thinking and discussing it afterwards.  In this case, I arrived at bookgroup having quite enjoyed it, but by the time we’d finished pulling it apart, the ‘State of Wonder’ seemed a little less wondrous after all.

My rating: 7/10

Read because: CAE face-to-face bookgroup

 

 

 

‘Reading in Bed’ by Sue Gee

readinginbed

2007, 344 p.

Although I’m well aware that I probably fit a reading-market segment very neatly (retired, university-educated, politically progressive, book-grouper, ABC watcher) I don’t like reading books that feel as if they have been written precisely to fit a market niche. Unfortunately, this is just how Reading in Bed felt to me, and the ‘Daily Mail Book Club Summer Selection’ sticker on the front was the probably final kiss of death in my approach to the book.

The book opens with two sixty-year old, long-time friends returning home to London from the Hay Reading Festival. Georgia has been recently widowed, and is wondering how to fill in her life.  Her thirty-one year old daughter has embarked on a relationship with a married man – not that she has confided this news in her mother- and Georgia needs to find aged care accommodation for her husband’s batty old cousin Maud.  Her friend Dido (and even the name annoyed me) is returning home to her noisy family, with her married children, grandchildren and her academic husband Jeffrey.  The two couples had been friends, their now-adult children are known and loved by each other, and they are all missing Georgia’s husband Henry after he died with cancer.  As the book unfolds, Georgia’s daughter needs to sort out her relationship with the not-quite separated Jez; there is trouble in Dido’s son’s marriage to Paula, Dido falls ill and comes to distrust the solidity of her marriage.

It’s like living someone else’s life vicariously, sprinkled with literary allusions that the well-read 60 year old female reader will recognize and BBC4 name-dropping that is familiar even to an Australian ABC watcher and BBC overnight listener. There are descriptions of meals and outfits – oh, how tedious- and page after page of internal monologue as each very ordinary character muddles through her own private but unexceptional little life dramas.

It is written in the present tense with an omniscient narrator who stumbles onstage occasionally, blinks and then scuttles back to the curtains:

In London, Georgia and Chloe do their very best. They go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve as they’ve always done. Both of them cry as ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ sounds in that pure high note through the crowds of people, but then, who doesn’t? I’m crying now, just writing about it. (p.334)

The dialogue is written almost like a play, with no quotation marks or ‘he saids’ and ‘she saids’. The narrative skips from one character to the other, with just a slightly larger space between the paragraphs.  No detail is too small.

Enough! I’m already living this middlebrow life- a term I very much dislike but somehow it seems particularly appropriate- and I don’t need to read it in this middlebrow book. That’s about six hours of reading that I’ve wasted- most of it in bed, just as the title predicts.

My rating: 5/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroup and read for bookgroup.

‘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.