Category Archives: The ladies who say ooooh

‘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.

‘White Dog’ by Peter Temple

whitedog

2003, 337 p.

I think I’m just going to have to admit that I don’t really like Peter Temple’s books very much.  I’m already ambivalent about the fictional crime genre and Temple’s books, with their abbreviated dialogue and huge range of incidental characters, just confuse me.  I looked back at my review of Truth, another of his novels, and I could just as easily cut-and-paste the comments that I made about that book into this review too.

Just to add to the confusion, the ABC has recently screened another Jack Irish series that uses some parts of White Dog, but not the whole book. So not only did I have Guy Pearce firmly embedded in my head (no hardship, I must say) but I found myself half remembering some aspects of the plot and misremembering others that appeared in the television show only.

Like the other Jack Irish novels, White Dog is steeped in local Melbourne colour, very familiar to north-of-the-Yarra inner suburban Melburnians (as I am). However, it’s a rather curmudgeonly approach, dismissive of hipsters and all-day breakfasts and harking back to a 1980-1990s cool, and even further back to the glory days of Fitzroy Football Club.  It’s all thoroughly recognizable to a Melburnian but I don’t know that it would add much for readers elsewhere.

So all in all, not a particularly successful read.

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups

My rating: 6.5

‘Kittyhawk Down’ by Garry Disher

disher

2003, 288 P.

Is a steady diet of Wallander, Scott and Bailey, The Bridge and -sheesh- even Midsomer Murders softening me up for detective murder mysteries?  Stranger things may have happened.  Whatever: I found myself quite engrossed in this  Australian crime story chosen by someone in my face-to-face book group.

As with the above-mentioned television crime series, this book is just as much about the interactions and messy personal lives of the police investigators as it is about the crime. Although the book is subtitled ” A Detective Inspector Challis murder mystery”, Detective Inspector Hal Challis is only one of an ensemble of police characters.  There’s Detective Sergeant Ellen Destry, whose 17 year old daughter  is recovering after almost falling victim to a rapist and serial killer in an earlier book. There’s the sleazy Constable John Tankard who hits on his female colleagues and who doesn’t seem far removed from the criminals he is chasing. Detective Constable Scobie Sutton bores everyone rigid yabbering on about his daughter, while Constable Pam Murphy has waded in over her head financially.

In many ways this book is a snapshot of the paradoxes of the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria.  There’s the affluent and often absent population up in the forested mountainside (think Red Hill) and the financially straitened underclass in ‘Waterloo’ (Hastings, perhaps? It overlooks Phillip Island, but it felt more like Rosebud to me). An immigration detention centre has opened up nearby, and the reactions of inhabitants remind me that we haven’t moved far in the 13 years since this book was published.  There’s drugs, crime and unsavoury connections among the underclass where boyfriends and broken families criss-cross each other. As the police note in one of their briefings, criminals often announce themselves through their defiance of small things like parking in the disabled bay. Rings true to me.

Disher’s chapters are only short and they rotate in their attention from one police officer to another.  Too much, perhaps, and there does not seem to be one main character in the book which feels as if it’s leaving itself open as the springboard for another book in the series.

But- and this is important- I actually knew who’d done it in the end, even though not all the ends were tied up.  And, as someone who’s not normally a fan of crime fiction, that’s a good thing!

Sourced from CAE bookgroups

My rating: 8/10

 

‘Cat’s Eye’ by Margaret Atwood

Cat's_Eye_book_cover

1988,  498 p.

You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water.Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.

Nothing has gone away for Elaine Risby, the main character and narrator of Atwood’s 1988 novel, Cat’s Eye. Returning as a fifty-year old artist to her childhood home of Toronto as the star  of a retrospective of her work, memories return of her unhappiness amongst a small group of neighbourhood childhood ‘friends’. The experience has stayed with her, even though she shrugged free of their power and went on to establish herself as a notable painter. As she walks through the gallery retrospective of her painting – a legacy that she is well aware could be turned to cinders in seconds with a splash of  fire accelerant and a match –  we see from her descriptions of her paintings that she has been painting out the pain from this childhood experience for the rest of her life.

Elaine’s early years were unconventional as her peripatetic family followed her father, an   entymologist, on his research field trips. Once she and her brother reached school age the family settled in suburban Toronto which, in these post-WWII years, was staid and judgmental. Although her parents did not attend church, Elaine did so with Grace Smeath, a neighbourhood friend.  Her mother, whose unguarded comments revealed her hypocritical disdain for Elaine, appeared  over and over in Elaine’s paintings for decades afterwards. The small friendship group was joined by Cordelia , a supercilious, controlling bully, who manipulated Elaine by spurning, then sporadically embracing, her as part of the ‘in’ group, the ultimate intermittent reinforcement (and punishment). Atwood captures well the small degradations and the petty cruelties that girls, in particular, seem to be able inflict on each other, seemingly invisible to parental observation.  This isn’t completely true though, because Elaine’s mother was clearly aware of the bullying and Cordelia’s part in it, but obviously felt at a loss to know how to deal with it.

So, it came as somewhat of a shock when, suddenly emboldened, Elaine shrugged free of their influence and, paradoxically, began to bully Cordelia herself.  I began to suspect that Elaine was an unreliable narrator, and that perhaps she was a bigger monster than Cordelia.  But instead Atwood held this change in roles in an uneasy tension, although I don’t know that I’m completely convinced by the sudden switch in power in the relationship. Bullying is a complex phenomenon, though, with such paradoxical emotions and manoevres being played out, and our expectations of adult intervention have changed a lot in the last decade.

I suspect that much of this book is autobiographical, if not in its exploration of relationships, then in its depiction of post-war Toronto and the artistic life. Atwood handles switches in chronology deftly, as you’d expect a writer of her calibre to do. I read the book with an insistent sense of doom, expecting with each page-turn that Cordelia would re-emerge or that the bullying would suddenly reveal itself as a much darker, more insidious act.  Atwood does well to hold her reader in this anxious state for so long- not that it’s a particularly pleasant place to be.

‘A God in Ruins’ by Kate Atkinson

atkinson_godinruins

2015, 400p.

This book is a ‘companion’ to Atkinson’s earlier book Time After Time. It’s odd- my recollection is that I very much enjoyed that book and yet when I look back at my review, I obviously had reservations.  It’s strange how one’s lasting impression of a book can differ from the response immediately upon finishing it.

SPOILER

In the earlier Time After Time, Ursula Todd’s brother Teddy, RAF pilot, was missing after a bombing raid over Germany, presumed dead. The  Ursula character had several alternative lives presented within the pages of the one book, and in one of those Teddy reappears at the end of WWII after two years in a German POW camp.

It is this particular scenario that  is explored in this more recent book A God in Ruins. In this stand-alone iteration, Teddy survives over 70 flights and three tours of duty, an almost incredible feat given the attrition of pilots in bombing raids over Europe, and lives to a very old age.

This later book glances off Time after Time, but is not at all dependent upon it.  In fact, you could read this book without any awareness that there is another book until, perhaps the last few pages.  It’s a narrative told straight, albeit with chronological jumps between Teddy’s childhood, his old age, his marriage to his childhood sweetheart Nancy, the birth of his daughter Viola and her anger at him that blights his old age and the childhoods of his grandchildren.  There are rather long stretches of his flying experience which are obviously carefully researched and stop at just the point where the reader’s interest wanes- one of the hallmarks of a writer well in charge of her material but conscious of her readers.

The book seems as if it’s going to be a departure from Time After Time in that there’s only one plot, albeit chopped up and rearranged in its narrative structure.  It was a plot that engaged me completely as I found myself laughing at Teddy’s grand-daughter’s wry asides, feeling disturbed by Viola’s harshness with her father when he was such a good man, and sad to watch illness and old age gradually quash people I had come to care about.  And then, in the last pages, down come all the narrative walls as Atkinson again throws the whole conceit of the book back up into the air, just as she did in Time After Time. I felt disappointed, as if she’d revealed herself to be a bit of a one-trick pony.  The book closed with a fairly academic essay on the nature of fiction.

I suppose that my dissatisfaction with the ending proved the points she made her theorizing about fiction and narrative but dammit- I felt betrayed.  Mind you, as soon as another book comes out, I’ll forget about it just as I did when I opened this book with such anticipation thinking to myself “I love Kate Atkinson”. Perhaps it’s a love where absence makes the heart grow fonder.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups

Read because: a face-to-face bookgroup read