Category Archives: The ladies who say ooooh

‘Basil Street Blues’ by Michael Holroyd

holroyd

1999, 306 p

I generally like reading  historians’ and biographers’ autobiographies.  Not that they are generally more intrinsically interesting than other peoples’ (in fact they’re usually not) but I like watching how, as writers, they turn their skills onto their own lives. I must confess that I’d never heard of Michael Holroyd, and haven’t read any of his biographies.  And I’ll also confess that had this not been a book group selection, I probably would have given up on it after the first fifty pages.

In fact, I was surprised that a professional and published biographer would allow the first chapters of his book to wallow around in genealogy, like an amateur family historian.  He made much of a short story written by Virginia Woolf that mentioned his ancestral family, but unless you had read the short story (which, only with the benefits of Google, I had) it really didn’t add much to his narrative.  For me, it was only once he himself walked into the story, rather than recounting earlier generations’ stories, that it became interesting. He is a good observer, but gives little of himself away.  I got to the end of the book and felt as if he had been deliberately deflecting attention away from himself.

What he did capture brilliantly, however, was the decline of a formerly upper-middle (if not upper class) family, complete with all the eccentricity and  emotional aridity of that type of upper-middle British reserve.

However I have since somewhat revised my lukewarm opinion of the book as biography once I realized that it is actually part of a trilogy (somehow the idea of a three-book autobiography seems rather pretentious). I had been rather bemused by his frequent quotations from his own novel, but now I learn that the novel had been unpublished, on account of his father’s opposition to publication ( so his quotation was a form of publication by stealth, perhaps?) It would seem that the other volumes are more forthcoming on an emotional level, but I don’t feel particularly inclined to follow up on them, or his other published biographies.

Source: CAE

Read because:  CAE bookgroup selections

My rating: 7

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‘The Unusual Life of Edna Walling’ by Sara Hardy

hardy_walling

2005, 320 P.

Have I ever seen an Edna Walling garden? I don’t know if I have, having never visited Cruden Farm.  I know what they look like, though: lots of stone walls, curved paths, and a mixture of deciduous and native plants. This book, however, is only tangentially about gardens.  Instead, it is about landscape architect Edna Walling herself, through the houses and places she made for herself.

The author, Sara Hardy, is a playwright whose work has focussed on strong, educated women and the complexities of their relationships.  Is there a pun perhaps, in the word ‘unusual’ which she uses to describe Walling’s life?  Because with her masculine dress, short hair and succession of close friendships with women, the supposition today would be that she was gay -or to pick up on the title, ‘queer’ – and certainly Hardy circles around this question.  She does not, however, definitively answer it because she cannot find the evidence to assert it with confidence.  For a book that flows so easily, Hardy is actually a disciplined biographer. There are no footnotes, but there are long endnotes that cite the sources for assertions including interviews, books, letters and Walling’s own writings. There are hints about her sexuality. The single surviving overwrought letter written by the 40 year old Walling to her close friend Esme.  The night in a single bed, when another friend, Olwyn arrived late at night.  An observation that ‘we’ enjoyed watching the birds in the garden outside from bed. But there’s no hard evidence.  Hardy notes that

Edna named her otherness as ‘misfit’ or ‘odd’ – her half joking way of saying she didn’t fit the standard female mould.  She may have recognized her otherness as an aspect of her sexuality, or she may not.  There are subtleties rather than clear-cut certainties.  Even Edna’s understanding of the term ‘sexuality’ would have been a world away from the informed and liberated use of the word today. (p.83)

It was a different time – in the first half of the twentieth century – and silence cloaked what we would now see differently

…many women who would now be called lesbians didn’t recognize their intensity as sexual desire; they simply loved their very best friend- who loved them in return. They would have been horrified by the suggestion that their love was anything but pure, and if they did have an inkling, if they did share their bodies,as well as their hearts, why then – they kept quiet about it, and who could blame them? (p.83)

Walling told her niece Barbara in a letter

Often I wish I were in double harness & pulling with someone & then the inner voice says ‘you be grateful you’re not living with the wrong person – that’d drive you mad’  (p. 237).

She was friends with other women who lived openly in  a partnership, like bookshop owner Margareta Webber and Dr Jean Littlejohn, and landscape architect Mervyn Davis (she had a Welsh name) and Daphne Pearson. There seems to have been a succession of close female friends who threaded through her life, but they tended to marry and move on. Some acted as helpers in a domestic sense, others as professional colleagues who laboured with her in paid and unpaid jobs.  As she grew older, some were carers. When she designed the English-style communal village Bickleigh Vale, now in suburban Mooroolbark, it was known locally as ‘spinster’s row’.

[From https://www.bickleighvalevillage.com.au/%5D

Walling was born in England, and it was an idealized English landscape that influenced her early garden designs, with walls and deciduous trees and cottage plantings.  Over time, she became more enthusiastic about native plants, and was greatly exercised about the ugliness of road construction and the sterility of the roadside.  Interestingly enough, by the time she retired to Queensland, she had re-embraced exotic plantings again. So, too, her politics shifted, from conservative to left-wing.

She wrote gardening columns for many years, mainly in Home Beautiful, which greatly increased her profile.  She was obviously a forceful woman: some bridled against her control at Bickleigh Vale, and she had definite ideas about how her gardens should look. Her work brought her into contact with wealthy people (the Murdochs, Dame Nellie Melba) and her creativity brought her into intellectual circles as well.  She didn’t make her fortune from her gardens though: some wealthy clients refused to pay.  For a woman so attuned to place, she suffered three fires in her life: the first in England caused the family to emigrate; the second took her first home ‘Sonning’; and the third fire engulfed East Point at Eastern Beach near Lorne, just after she had given it to the Bird Observer’s Club.  Her first houses, at Bickleigh Vale, were a consciously constructed  landscaped scene, highly reminiscent of England, where she imposed a covenant over the design of houses and their gardens. By the time she built East Point, she built the house to respond to the landscape, re-aligning walls and incorporating rocky outcrops into the design of the house itself: a shift to the natural not unlike her shift from exotic to native plants.

Walling’s own columns were written in a jaunty, jolly-hockey-sticks sort of way, and Hardy’s text seems to have picked up a similar tone.  While she does not go beyond the evidence available to her, she does break into present-tense imaginings that embroider and bring to life some of the events she describes.  These imaginings are well sign-posted as conjecture, and as a reader I’m inclined to trust her renderings, given the rigour with which she supports her work otherwise.

An unusual life? For its time, certainly. A queer life? Most probably, but along with Hardy, I suspend judgment over that.  She may have died as an elderly woman living on the Queensland coast, but her life was richer than such a mundane death suggests.  New owners have taken over many of her gardens, imposing their own visions onto them, but they remain at heart Edna Walling gardens.

Read because: It was a CAE bookgroup choice

My rating: 8.5/10

AWW-2018-badge-rose-199x300

I have included this review in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2018

‘The Burgess Boys’ by Elizabeth Strout

strout_burgess

2013, 326 p.

The ‘Burgess Boys’ are both lawyers: Jim a hot-shot defence lawyer and Bob, an easy-going, rather aimless legal-aid lawyer, both living in New York.  They are called home by their sister Susan, who needs their legal help after her rather gormless son Zach throws a pigs-head into a mosque, triggering outrage over the hate crime. The family had grown up in the small town of Shirley Falls, Maine but the Burgess Boys had both escaped as soon as they could, leaving Susan a rather embittered, passive single mother after her marriage had broken up. As the title suggests, the family was about The Boys, not her. Shirley Falls had received a large number of Somali immigrants, which had caused tension in the town, which was whipped up further by Zach’s action.

Beside the pig’s head, this is a story of adult siblings who have drifted apart after their parents died. Their father had died while they were young, as a result of a car accident for which Bob felt responsible, and there is a lot of unspoken business between them.

I’ve read quite a bit of Elizabeth Strout in recent years, and I’m starting to wonder if I’ve read too much, because my satisfaction seems to decrease with every book after the brilliant Olive Kitteridge, which I loved. There was too much time spent inside the heads of these rather unattractive people, and the Unitarian minister was so saccharine that I felt ill (AND I’m a Unitarian myself!)  The significance of the  disparity between New York and Maine tended to pass me by, and it felt as if there were just too many issues bubbling away in the pot here.

So, along with writers like Ann Tyler and Sue Miller, whom I’ve enjoyed a great deal in their early books but then felt jaded towards,  I think I need a bit of a rest from Elizabeth Strout.  I’ll come back to her later.

Sourced from: CAE Book Groups

Read because: CAE book group selection (although I missed the meeting unfortunately)

My rating: 7/10

‘This Must Be the Place’ by Maggie O’Farrell

O'farrell_thismustbetheplace

2016, 483 p.

I’ve long had a rather ambivalent relationship with Maggie O’Farrell’s books.  I looked back in my reading journal to the first O’Farrell I read, After You’d Gone (2000).  I scored  a 10/10 (so I obviously liked it a great deal), but I also wrote:

I couldn’t work out if the author was sloppy and undisciplined or very very good…The book teetered on the edge of Mills and Boon but the strength of the writing anchored it.

Coming now to my fourth Maggie O’Farrell, I still feel much the same way, but I’m not as generous this time round.  I’ve since read My Lover’s Lover (2002) and Instructions for a Heatwave (2013) and I think that I’m starting to tire of O’Farrell’s repeated themes of disappearances and the fragility of relationships and her stylistic technique of multiple narrators and tenses.

They are all here in this book. The plot circles around the marriage of the two main characters: Daniel, an American linguist and Claudette, a famous film star who stages her own disappearance at the height of her fame.  After Daniel encounters Claudette and her stuttering son Ari on the side of the road with a broken-down car, they fall in love and he leaves his American wife and eczema-crazed son and doomed daughter to marry her. Both are flawed characters, being willfully absent at times and veering between oblivious and judgmental. They are surrounded by a wider constellation of other characters – mothers, siblings, children, a woman on a bus in South America -and complicated backstories. The book is set over 70 years, but most of the action takes place between 2010 and 2016 in Ireland, London and America. As well as a mixture of present and past tense narrative, it has a breakout section in the form of catalogue, and a chapter in the form of an interview.

The book seemed to take an inordinate time to get going, and this kaleidoscope of characters is too big to keep in mind. They swoop in and out of the narrative, and I found myself flicking back to see if I could find where they last appeared, cursing the absence of a contents page.  I used to think that jumping around in time and place required masterful plotting. It probably does, but I’ve come to value more highly writing that can take responsibility for time shifts through the narrative, instead of just plonking the reader into the middle of it and expecting them to make the connections. I don’t mind having to work hard as a reader, but I need to feel that it’s not because the author is being lazy.

I simply didn’t care enough for any of the characters to sustain me over such a lengthy book. It has received good reviews from readers who enjoyed its narrative skittishness, but with this particular writer, I’m finding it a bit stale.

My rating: 6.5/10

Read because: CAE bookgroup (The Ladies Who Say Ooooh)

‘The Philosopher’s Doll’ by Amanda Lohrey

Lohrey_Philosopher

2004, 306 p

It’s a strange thing, re-reading a book. You’re not the same reader that you were the first time and the context in which you’re reading the book is often very different. I read Amanda Lohrey’s The Philosopher’s Doll soon after it was released back in 2004, straight after reading two big, fat books: The Sotweed Factor and Tristam Shandy. At the time I leapt on it because it was local, domestic and female in comparison to the two hefty tomes that preceded it. Now, twelve years later I’m reading it again, this time for my face-to-face bookgroup. I didn’t view it quite as kindly the second time round.

The book is set in Northcote  with social worker Kirsten trying to summon up the courage to tell her husband Lindsay about her pregnancy. Lindsay does not want children, (or at least, not yet) and Kirsten is aware that she has fallen pregnant in benignly deceptive circumstances. Her philosophy lecturer husband Lindsay, on the other hand, thinks that all she needs is a dog to settle her maternal urges and so he embarks on a secret plan to buy a pure-bred Chow, a breed whose aloofness appeals to him. The dog is not Lindsay’s only secret: he is also receiving letters from an infatuated doctoral student, Sonia,  that he just puts away for now, not telling anyone about them.

The book is presented in four parts, and this part of the storyline plays out in the first two parts over a matter of several weeks. It is told in the third-person present tense (a tense that I don’t enjoy much) and the two perspectives are interwoven. Then, abruptly, in the third section, the infatuated student Sonia is speaking in the first person, past tense, some ten or more years after the events first part of the book.  Things have changed, and we see them in their new form, but not how they arrived at that point. Coincidences may be more planned than they appear, some mistakes are replicated and new ways of being are learned and embraced.

This is a very Melbourne book, and as a resident of the northern suburbs, I could pinpoint almost to the street – James Street, Northcote do you reckon?- where Kirsten and Lindsay lived. In this regard, the book has Garnesque features, but it is burdened with a didactism that you don’t find in Garner’s work. Lindsay’s occupation as philosophy lecturer gives scope for digressions into the emotional capacities of humans v. animals, and the question of the rhetorics of the heart. The final section of the book launches into a discussion of stunt -no – precision flying that almost sinks the book, if the lengthy retelling of dreams hasn’t already done so.

Does the book need all this philosophy trowelled onto it? I tend to think not. I felt a little betrayed as a reader by the abrupt change half way through, and as if I were sitting through a boring, one-sided conversation in the philosophical parts.

Reading back on the review that I wrote on this book back in 2004 (before I started this blog), I didn’t mention any of these criticisms. Did I just read it as a Melbourne-based story, and did I skip the philosophy? Or did I enjoy the philosophy perhaps?  Have I changed since then? Or am I more conscious of Lohrey’s earnest spiritual intentions in writing now after reading A Short History of Richard Klein, which I found even more didactic than this book?

Sourced from: C.A.E. Bookgroup

Rating: 6.5/10

aww2017-badge I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge site.

‘Death Sentence’ by Don Watson

deathsentence_watson

2003, 191 p.

I must confess that my heart sank when I saw that my CAE reading group book for this month was Don Watson’s Death Sentence. I had read it when it came out in 2003 and now  I struggled to re-read it for our meeting.  It seemed repetitive and unstructured, with just one argument repeated over again. So I was interested to dip back into my reading journal from 2003, prior to starting this blog, to see what I thought of it then. Here’s what I said in 2003:

An interesting reading experience, given that at the time I was reading RMIT’s Teaching and Learning Strategy as part of an assignment. This is part-diatribe, part-essay about the intrusion of managerialist language into places where it doesn’t belong. It certainly makes reading the ads in Saturday’s Age, policy documents and government advertising at all levels an exercise in cutting out ‘clag’. Knowledge Management as a discipline comes in for a particular serve. In many ways this is an extension of Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’ but longer, and at times less disciplined. Good critique of the use of public and political language, but just a bit self indulgent. 8/10

I’m surprised now that I rated it so highly, but perhaps it was a new perspective back in 2003. After all, in the midst of a Howard Government, we hadn’t at that stage been deluged with Rudd’s verbal sludge, which made Watson’s critique almost self-evident.

The book itself has several unnamed chapters, marked only by a blank page separating them from the previous chapter. It’s hard to work out quite how one chapter differs from the next, or if there is a theme to distinguish one chapter from the other, especially as the book goes on.  The pages have a wide margin, in which are quotes from other texts: some pithy and elegant; others the type of verbal glue that he declaims against.  I can’t help feeling that the book is too long: that it would have been better served in a Quarterly Essay format of a lesser length.

Some fourteen years on, I suspect that Watson’s howl of anger is more about the application of managerial thinking as a construct, rather than the language itself (although the two are, admittedly, inseparable). It’s something that I abhor too, and I’ll have more to say about it anon.  However, I think that programs like the ABC’s brilliant parody of the National Building Authority Utopia have done much to skewer it, far more than this book with its arch tone could ever do.

Read because: CAE bookgroup choice

My rating (now): 6.5

‘Human Croquet’ by Kate Atkinson

atkinson_humancroquet

1999, 352 P.

Kate Atkinson is one of our favourite authors amongst The Ladies Who Say Oooh, a.k.a. my CAE bookgroup. We have read five of her books over the last ten years or so. I first encountered Kate Atkinson with Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and that book stood out for me as a 10/10 read.  After that, I read Emotionally Weird and was disappointed, because it felt like a re-hash of her earlier book.  I was quite sure that I had read Human Croquet years ago and found it similarly derivative, but I can’t find any sign of it in my reading journals which predate this blog.

So, convinced that I was reading this for the second time, I found myself pleasantly surprised by Human Croquet. It is similar to Behind the Scenes in that in this case there is a missing mother, and the grief and questions that follow the disappearance of a person.  Atkinson picks up on the same multiple realities/time warp themes that she would use again in Life After Life and A God in Ruins. She writes of  a white-bread, Blytonesque 1960s England that is familiar to Australian readers of a certain age, but it’s a darker world with incest and abuse. There’s a lot going on here: Shakespeare, the lost forests of Olde England, the theatrical stage, destiny and timetravelling. It’s too convoluted to even try to explain what the plotline is, but there most definitely is one, even though it has been embroidered with other possible scenarios and counterfactuals.

I’ve looked through my other reviews of Atkinson’s books here in the blog, and I’m becoming Atkinsonesque myself in my sense of deja vu when reading her second book here. I do enjoy the experience of reading her books, but there’s a sameness about them that is becoming rather stale.

My rating: While reading it, 8.5.  Thinking about it afterwards: 7.

Source: CAE bookgroups.