Category Archives: 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.

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‘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.

‘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