Ok, I admit it, I’m hooked on this meme, not only because it’s a fun intellectual challenge to find links between books, but also because it gives me an opportunity to revisit books I’ve read, which helps keep them fresh in my mind. For those who haven’t caught up with this meme, it’s the Six Degrees of Separation monthly “meme” and it’s currently hosted by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest). Each month, she nominates a book, and then we who play create a chain of seven books, linking one from the other as the spirit moves. Unfortunately, like last month, I haven’t read the starting book, Stieg Larsson’s The girl with the dragon tattoo but I promise I’ve read all the books in my chain!
Now, you might expect me to link Larsson’s The girl with the dragon tattoo to another crime/mystery novel or, perhaps, to another novel by a Swedish author or one set in Sweden, but I’m not going down these paths. This novel, as you may know, was published posthumously – and this is the tack I’m going to take. It has led me straight to Australian poet Dorothy Porter’s collection, The bee hut (my review), which was published after she died from breast cancer. This is one of those books that I don’t need to be reminded of, because its ending is so powerfully generous. She wrote, just two and a half weeks before her death, the following lines: Something in me/despite everything/can’t believe my luck. Now that’s inspiring!
Generosity of spirit – a willingness to view the world positively – is something I prize. If we were all only a little more generous to each other, surely the world would be a better place, or am I naive? Anyhow, one of the most generous books I’ve read since starting this blog was Izzeldin Abuelaish’s memoir I shall not hate (my review). If anyone had a reason to hate, it’s he – he lost three daughters and a niece in an attack on Gaza by the Israeli Defence Forces – and yet he chose the “path of light” over that of “darkness” because he believes in “co-existence, not endless cycles of revenge and retribution”. If he can do it, surely the rest of us can?
Now Izzeldin Abulaish also happens to be a medical doctor, which reminds me of a fictional doctor, Rieux in Albert Camus’ The plague (my review), who, albeit in a different circumstances, evinces generosity of spirit or selflessness. This is a book I’ve read a few times, and will very likely read again, because it’s about people being prepared to take a stand, people who put themselves at risk. Rieux himself talks of people who, by “refusing to bow down to pestilences [whether these be natural or man-made, like, say, Nazism], strive their utmost to be healers.”
And now, to get off this generosity/selflessness bandwagon, albeit it’s a worthy topic to discuss, I’m going to do the more obvious thing and link via the author’s nationality. I haven’t read a lot of French authors on this blog, but one I did read one fairly recently, Pierre Lemaitre’s The great swindle (my review). Its story of France in the aftermath of the First World War is a powerful one, but one of the issues that my reading group discussed when doing this book was its translation. Some felt it was a bit uneven. I didn’t feel that – I felt the author intended an unevenness or jerkiness – but I am always a little bothered about reading translations because there’s a mediator between me and the text.
However, this doesn’t stop me reading translations because they are the only way, given I’m not fluent in multiple languages, that I can read works from non-English writers. Hence, my next link is to another translated work, Sawako Ariyoshi’s The doctor’s wife (my review), which is historical fiction about the Japanese doctor, Hanaoka Seishū (1760-1835) who is purported to be the first to use general anaesthesia to perform surgery. However, as the book’s title suggests, the Ariyoshi’s main concern is not him, but the women in his life, his wife and controlling mother. She explores the competition that occurs between these two women who play a secondary role in the life of the important man.
A recent book which explores the secondary role of women to men is Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things (my review). It’s a very different book, which takes as its starting point the way women’s sexuality is used against them in the support if not furtherance of male power. But it does have a subtext, that we also see in Ariyoshi, to do with ways in which women can be their own worst enemy.
And so, quite unintentionally as I just followed my nose, I see that I have come almost full circle from a novel set in Sweden which reflects misogynistic behaviour to an Australian novel which confronts such behaviour head on! In between we’ve travelled to Australia, the Middle East, France and Japan, and explored, in some at least, the best in human behaviour! Such is the reader’s lot.
Where would The girl with the dragon tattoo take you – your first step at least?
I’ve had Louise Mack’s debut novel, The world is round, on my TBR for about 20 years. Published in 1896, when she was 26 years old, it’s a fairly straightforward tragicomedy about a young well-to-do 21-year-old girl, Jean, who aspires to be a writer, and the two men who love her, the 30-plus-year-old self-confident, successful lawyer-and-writer Musgrave, and the around-25-year-old, shy and financially struggling Harrison. It’s a short work, a novella really, being just 93 pages in my edition.
Now, when I was searching Trove for information about Mack for this week’s Monday Musings, I found a couple of articles about her writing, amongst a myriad about her lecture tours. One was written in 1895, before this novel was published but after some of her verse and short prose pieces started appearing in journals like the Bulletin. The article quotes Mrs Bright, editor of Cosmos:
In these early days it is not possible to predict the place that Miss Mack is destined to fill in Australian literature. At present she shines chiefly in dialogue and a quaint, satirical style; peculiarly noticeable in sketches like “A study in Invitations.” In time she may develope [sic] a faculty for descriptive writing, which will supply the only quality now lacking to ensure her high rank among the popular novelists of the day.
The other was written in 1896, soon after the publication of her novel. The writer says:
Miss Mack has a particularly taking satirical style, but her descriptive writing is hardly up to her ability in the other department. Were she to but slightly improve in that qualification it would enhance the already strong position she has attained in the ranks of popular writers.
So, the praise is qualified. Her niece, the writer Nancy Phelan who wrote the introduction to my edition, discusses her not living up to this early potential. She notes that a common view is that she was “praised too soon, told she was good and encouraged to rush into print” when she needed time to sit back and think, and “be disappointed”. Phelan writes:
She wrote instinctively … but without proper guidance and criticism her work too often became facile. Facility, with a fertile imagination and love of inventing stories, made her a successful romantic novelist but it eroded her talent, and years of formula writing elbowed aside the poet. She never lost her poetic awareness but had little occasion to use it. Haste, lack of reflection, putting words on paper before they were ready robbed them of their true value; it was quicker and easier to write of trivial events than to try to address deep, difficult thoughts and emotions.
Yet in all Louise’s books there are glimpses of the writer she might have been. Even in her most idiotic novels there are occasional patches of true feeling or sensitive descriptions …
Why have I written all this? Well, partly because it might explain why this particular writer from the past has sunk from view. However, I’d argue that The world is round is worth reading – for a couple of reasons. One is that it is a good read, in which you can see why she received early praise. As our 1895 and 1896 writers above say, her dialogue is good and she has a lovely, light, satirical eye. (I’m going to share an excerpt which shows both of these in a Delicious Descriptions next week.) The other is that it is a good example of why “classics” (or older works) are worth reading. I’m going to focus my post on these two points.
a “brilliant little study”
The 1896 writer notes that “the reader’s report” for this novel described it as a “brilliant little study of two men and two women, sparkling and witty, and told in a graphic style”. It is a fun read, still today. It has a light touch, never wallowing in the issues it raises, and not weighed down with long explication or too many adjectives that you sometimes find in debut novelists. There are moments of sadness or pathos – obviously at least one of the would-be lovers is going to be disappointed, for a start – but Mack never becomes sentimental. (You can see this skill in those columns I referred to in my Monday Musings.)
The story is told third person, chronologically, in named chapters – “Musgrave”, “Jean”, “In which a friend is brutal” – and takes place in various interiors, such as James Musgrave’s chambers, Harrison’s classroom, and Jean’s home. Mack draws on the life she knows, presenting a picture of a small group of characters moving around each other in a small environment. This is very reminiscent of Jane Austen, to whom there is a tongue-in-cheek allusion in this conversation between Jean and Musgrave:
“I don’t suppose I will ever be a George Eliot, or a Thackeray, but perhaps I may be a–”
“Miss Austen! oh, surely I’ll be something b–I mean surely I won’t be like her.”
“She did some good work.”
I mean to say! Anyhow, Mack’s descriptions of her small group of people and their interactions ring true, while also drawing on standard literary tropes, like the well-to-do heroine and her poor friend, the experienced confident suitor and the awkward poor one. The plot plays out, perhaps more through little vignettes than a flowing narrative, but it is enjoyable to read, largely because these vignettes are well-drawn, and confidently mix a light tone with the occasional darker one. I’ll leave the story there.
on reading “classics”
As I was reading this old book or forgotten “classic” (let’s not get into the definitions of “classic” here now), I started thinking about why we read such books. It’s easy to explain those classics that belong to the canon: they address the big universal themes or ideas, their writing is skilled and timeless, and, often, they have innovated or contributed something to literary culture. But, what about what we might call the second rung, books like Mack’s The world is round? Are they really worth reading over contemporary writers? I’d say yes, and one of the justifications is in the first line of Mack’s novel. It starts:
Sydney was revelling in the clear, cold weather of June, the most delicious month of the Australian seasons.
Now, that is not an attitude most Australians would have today, but is clearly how the colonials, those transplants from mild temperate Britain, felt about Australia’s climate. In other words, books written in a different time can provide a fascinating insight into the attitudes and values of that time. They might be fiction, but they can’t help also betraying their era. For students of colonial Australia, Mack’s novella offers some delightful insights into “the life and times”.
I don’t want to bore you with details, but will just share one more example. It concerns the poor friend who tells Jean that she “can’t write about Australia, it doesn’t appeal” to her. She admits she’s a “Colonial” but she knows nothing of bush life. She says, “I’ve never taken my country into my soul, and never will until I get away from it”. However, she’s poor, and is offered a job governessing in the bush on a cattle station. She learns to love the Bushies and to prefer them over “the posturing, pseudo-intellectual Sydney set”. She writes several pages to Jean on the subject. Now, this friend plays a role in the plot in terms of providing a counter assessment of Jean’s literary skills and there’s a plot reason for sending her away, but I can’t see much reason for this little outburst, except for Mack to make some point about colonial society and its values.
So, there you have it. This is less review, more wandering reflections, but I hope I’ve convinced you that Louise Mack is a worthy addition to the list of past writers who should be kept alive.
It seems that I’ve established a bit of an end of year trifecta with my Australian Women Writers’ Challenge wrap-up post, followed by posts on Reading highlights and Blogging highlights. This post, obviously, is the Blogging one. I do it as much for my own record, because I enjoy tracking trends on my blog, so please don’t feel obliged if you’ve had enough!
Top posts for 2016
For the last three years, my most “hit” post has been Virginia Woolf’s short story “The mark on the wall“. This year, finally, an Aussie book topped the list, Hannah Kent’s Burial rites, which ranked 3rd last year. However, while last year, four Australian works appeared in my Top Ten posts, only three did in 2016:
- Hannah Kent, Burial rites (1st – posted April 2014)
- Red Dog (Movie and Book) (4th – 2nd last year – posted August 2011)
- Craig Silvey, Jasper Jones (7th – 4th last year – posted September 2009)
Tenth in the list was, interestingly, my page on Australian Literary Awards. I must make sure I keep it up to date! My Red Dog post has proved consistently popular since I posted it. With a follow-up movie, Red Dog: True Blue, about to be released into cinemas, I presume it will continue to receive hits this year.
In 2014, Barbara Baynton’s short story “The chosen vessel” (posted November 2012) ranked 5th, and last year it ranked 9th. It’s still ranking well, but dropped again this year to 12th. Some of my other posts on her short stories also feature in the top twenty or so. It’s wonderful seeing such a strong, original voice from the past being still read.
What I find particularly interesting, in fact, is that short works, including Baynton’s above, continue to rank well, several appearing in the Top Ten:
- Edith Wharton, “A journey” (2nd – posted November 2010)
- Virginia Woolf, “The mark on the wall” (3rd – posted March 2012)
- John Muir, “A windstorm in the forests” (6th – posted January 2010)
My most popular 2016-written post – ranking 66th – was, unlike last year, for an Australian work, Sarah Kanake’s debut novel Sing fox to me. And it’s closely followed by another Australian work, Stephen Orr’s The hands.
So, once again, my top-performing posts are older ones, which suggests that litblogs are contributing, hopefully usefully, to wider literary culture.
Finally, there is a surprising post in my Top Ten, but you’ll have to read on to see what it is.
Random blogging stats
I love sharing some of the searches that find my blog, so here are some of this year’s more interesting ones:
- freemasons secret magnify glass: what the?
- ginger gits: ditto.
- what pages are the best quotes on in red dog: haha, was this someone trying to short-cut writing an essay?
- whispering gums means: I’d love them to tell me if they found out!
- write a short note on the picturesque: presumably a homework question but I love that s/he seems to have typed in the whole question.
And then there were multiple searches relating to my 8th most popular post this year, What do you say when you order food at a restaurant (posted November 2014). The search terms included what else can i say in place of orderin restaurent, to place order in a restaurant what we say?, fine some expression ordery meal ins the restaurant, and when ordering food restaurant may i have. What a hoot, particularly when, quite coincidentally, the topic of what to say in restaurants became a bit of a family joke over Christmas!
Other stats tell the story of my year. This year was rather frenetic for me with some major family commitments but I managed to write more posts, 164 in fact, than last year’s paltry 133. My blog visitors came from 172 countries, and while Australia, the USA, Britain and Canada filled the top four slots, I love that India, the Philippines and Germany followed them. My most active commenters this year were: Lisa (ANZLitLovers), Stefanie (So Many Books, So Little Time), Ian Darling, Bill (The Australian Legend), and Meg. A big thanks to them, and to everyone who reads and/or comments on my blog. Whether or not you comment, it is a joy to share books and reading with you.
As I wrote in my AWW Challenge wrap up, I will participate in the Challenge again this year. I won’t set a formal goal but expect to read around 30. (See here for the Sign Up page). I will also probably do the AWW Bingo Card challenge again, though, as with this year, I expect to do it more by serendipity than by design. It was fun seeing whether my reading was varied enough to slot into the set categories.
Late last year, I started doing the #sixdegreesofseparation meme, currently run by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest). I enjoyed the way it made me look back at past reading, thereby refreshing my memory, so I plan to join in again when I can this year.
And to wrap up my wrap-ups …
I’ve already said it in my Reading Highlights post, but I’ll reiterate it: thanks to everyone who read, commented on and/or “liked” my blog last year – and thanks to all the other wonderful bloggers out there, even though I don’t always manage to visit everyone as much as I’d like. You prove that cyberspace can be a positive place. I wish you all happy reading in 2017.
And finally, a big thanks to the authors who wrote the books that we love to read and talk about, and to the publishers and booksellers who get the books out there. May 2017 be a great one for you all.
I promised in my Reading Highlights post that my first review of the year would be for a book from my TBR pile, and so it will be – hopefully in a couple of days. However, I suspect that the book, and maybe even the author, will be unknown to most of my readers here so I’ve decided to use my first Monday Musings of the year to introduce the author, Louise Mack.
I’ve had Mack’s first novel, The world is round, on my TBR since the mid 1990s when I found it on a remainder table. It had been published under Imprint Classics by Angus & Robertson in 1993, and although it’s only 93 pages, I somehow didn’t read it then, and kept not reading it – until now. But, more on it later this week.
Louise Mack was born in Tasmania in 1870, the seventh child and first daughter of a family which ended up numbering 13! Her father was a Wesleyan minister, and they moved around, ending up in Sydney by the time Mack was in high school. She went to Sydney Girls’ High where she met and became friendly with Ethel Turner (who was also born in 1870). I wrote in my post on Ethel Turner’s juvenilia that Ethel and her sister, Lilian, established a magazine Iris when the school’s newspaper, Gazette, which was edited by Louise Mack, rejected Ethel’s contributions! However, I understand that they were very good friends and, in fact, Turner apparently met her husband at the Mack family home.
Australian author Nancy Phelan, who was Mack’s niece, wrote the entry about her in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), and also the introduction to the novel I’ve read. I don’t want to reiterate what you can read in the ADB, but here’s a potted history. After school she worked as a governess before being becoming “a regular contributor to the Bulletin in the late 1880s”, with the encouragement of owner-editor J. F. Archibald and editor A. G. Stephens. Phelan suggests that Mack perhaps received too much attention and praise, implying that it impacted the development of her talent. She married, but it failed and she went to England, around 1900, where she wrote novels and serials, travelled, and worked as a journalist, including as a war correspondent. She returned to Australia in 1915 and became a touring speaker or lecturer, something she did right through to the 1930s. During this time back in Australis, she wrote more novels and married a second time (more happily), before dying in 1935, “possessionless”.
They’re the dry facts. She was quite a colourful character, with Phelan describing her as “fair, pretty, extroverted, audacious, unpredictable, a genuine Bohemian who chose a life of adventure and insecurity”. Phelan writes in my novel’s introduction that Mack “grew up in a series of large, shabby, untidy parsonages, with no luxuries but plenty of books … books, as necessary as bread, were constantly discussed”. I found an article in Trove which announces her as a rising literary star. It suggests that:
Miss Mack owes much of her development to her mother’s literary tastes, and the varied training that an intellectual father can bestow on his children. (The Methodist, 23 Nov 1895)
My Trove search retrieved pages and pages of hits on her name, many of them from newspapers all around Australia – from Dubbo to Perth – announcing her lecture tour on her war experience, which included experiencing German occupation and bombardment in Belgium and going behind German lines. In her mid to late 40s at the time of the tour, she is, patronisingly to our modern ears, described in these announcements/reports, as “this charming little lady” or “the pretty and charming little lady”. This is the woman who, one of these articles says, was asked by Scotland Yard to report on a meeting of spies with Germans in Antwerp to which she’d been an eye-witness. This article’s writer also calls her a “little lady” but a bit later describes her more appropriately as “this daring and travelled lady”. S/he reports on an interview with Mack:
“I just love lecturing,” Miss Mack said; “it is the most fascinating work I have ever taken up. Indeed, I may say that I just live for the moment when 8 o’clock strikes, and I and my pictures begin to tell the story of a Woman’s Experience in the Greatest War this world has ever known.” (Western Mail, 17 September 1915)
Mack, you see, went the whole hog and illustrated her talks with moving pictures. Reports suggest that she was an excellent and engaging speaker. Some of these talks were given under the auspices of, and raised money for, the Red Cross. Her book, A woman’s experiences in the Great War, was published in 1915.
I’m not going to discuss her writing in any detail here, because I’ll do that in my review post. Instead I’ll share a couple of columns that she wrote in the 1930s in the Australian Womens Weekly, for whom I’m guessing she must have been a columnist. These columns – Louise Mack’s Diary and Louise Mack Advises – provide some insight into her values and sense of humour.
I’VE always been wondering what would happen if Dr. Bradfield got his title, and dear Mrs. Bradfield became Lady Bradfield, and somehow, between myself and my diary, I must confess I’m glad that Mrs. Bradfield is still there. Dozens of times coming back from hospital, getting out of the train at Gordon, I would find my suitcase seized, or my parcels grabbed, and there’d be Mrs. Bradfield trotting along besides me, coming out of her way so that she could help carry someone’s burdens.
Could Lady Bradfield have done that? Ah, yes! Title or no title, this little simple, pale, absolutely natural woman, all kindness, with a quite remarkable craze for carrying other people’s parcels, would always have been Mrs. Bradfield. That’s her real title, her many friends think.
I like her focus on kindness, on the unimportance of “titles”, and her light humorous touch.
And, one of the advice columns. It’s called “The gentle art of giving” and asks “Do you give? Or Do you grab? The commonest way of giving is to give what you can spare. But that’s not giving at all, ethically speaking”. Fascinating. It made me think of Australian ethicist Peter Singer and his views on giving. However, let’s not get sidetracked by that now. Mack goes on to suggest that giving is good for your looks! She suggests getting on a tram and looking around:
Can’t you tell at a glance who hoards and who gives? It is written on their faces. It is graven around their lips. It is mirrored in their eyes, giving, or grabbing. The face that gives has a better complexion because the blood flows happily through capillaries kept open by the light-heartedness of generous doings. The face that gives has brighter eyes and sweeter lips. Oh, particularly about the lips does the will to give reveal itself in its full beauty.
She then gives examples of women who give and don’t give, ending with Myrtle who has almost no food left, when in comes her brother. Mack writes:
And there before my eyes took place a metamorphosis. Ovid wasn’t in it. One moment Myrtle was a grey woman with a quarter of a loaf of bread and a cold chop, and now she turned into a gracious creature, all wealth and possessions, that she was handing away to Tom. She whisked a bit of tea into one parcel, a quarter loaf into another, two potatoes and an onion into another, a cold chop out of her safe, two apples for the children, then pressed threepence into poor old Tom’s hand, with, “It’s pouring; take a tram.”
That was giving, indeed.
Giving is when you press your thumb down, down on the indicator of your heart—and, pressing still, and yet again pressing, send your will to give up, up, up, to the very highest storey of your soul.
Louise Mack sounds like a woman worth knowing … and yet is, I believe, unknown to most Australians. Such is life!
And so we finally say goodbye to a year many of us would like to forget, but before we do, I would like to share my 2016 reading highlights. As usual, I won’t be naming top picks, because I’m a wuss. It’s too hard. So, instead, I’ll be sharing highlights which combine best reads with those that were interesting for some reason or another.
First, though, this year’s …
By literary highlights I primarily mean literary events. I went to a smaller number this year but they were good ones:
- Tenth anniversary celebration for regional publisher, Finlay Lloyd. Held at the National Library of Australia, this was a most enjoyable occasion, with several authors, including Carmel Bird, Alan Gould and Paul McDermott, speaking about their FL books.
- Canberra Writers Festival on which I wrote four posts (Day 1, Day 2, Day 3 and Recap): What a thrill to have a writers festival here again after a very long hiatus. Although my messy year meant I didn’t plan well enough in advance for the event, it was great being part of the buzz. What I attended was excellent, and I understand funding is guaranteed for another couple of years. Woo hoo.
- The annual Seymour Biography Lecture, given this year by David Marr. Titled Here I stand, it was a fascinating talk which provided much for me, and commenters on my blog, to ponder on, particularly regarding Marr’s exhortation for the biographer to keep out of the biography.
As in previous years, I’m going to discuss this year’s reading under categories which reflect this year’s experience.
The reading …
- Debut novels: I enjoy including debut works in my reading diet. This year I read around six, of which my two favourites would probably be Josephine Rowe’s A loving faithful animal for tackling the Vietnam War and the devastating impact of PTSD on a family, and Julie Proudfoot’s tight, powerful novella, The neighbour, which still has me thinking months after reading it.
- Memoir/Autobiography: This was the surprise trend of the year (as Historical Fiction was last year). It certainly wasn’t planned but I ended up reading 8 memoirs/autobiographies, plus Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister, sister which, while mostly biography, had a touch of memoir about it too. I can’t possibly describe them all here but I do want to mention the three World War 2 mother-daughter stories, Blay’s book, Halina Rubin’s Journeys with my mother, and Susan Varga’s Heddy and me. I liked the way these daughters blended the forms of biography and memoir to produce something substantial yet engagingly personal. Then there were the two essay-collection-memoirs, Fiona Wright’s Small acts of disappearance and Georgia Blain’s Births deaths marriages, which played with the form in a different way. And oh dear, I loved them all, but I’ll name just one more, Gerald Murnane’s Something for the pain. My how I loved the sly way he told us about his wider life through describing his love of the turf.
- Indigenous Australian writers: Shamefully, I only read four works by indigenous Australians, but at least I continued my education into indigenous Australian life and culture. I’ll name just two: Ali Cobby Eckermann’s beautiful and generous historical fiction verse novel Ruby Moonlight, and Bruce Pascoe’s more overtly political Dark emu.
- Short stories galore: As always, I read a goodly number of short stories this year, though fewer complete collections than in 2015. The standout collection was Elizabeth Harrower’s A few days in the country and other stories. Such a great read, I’d recommend it to anyone. Debut author Cassie Flanagan Willanski’s Here where we live was also an excellent read particularly for telling about life in remoter parts of Australia. My favourite individual short stories included Ted Chiang’s “The story of your life” (adapted to the film Arrival) and the group of stories I read from Christina Stead’s Ocean of story for Lisa’s Christina Stead Reading Week.
- From elsewhere: I read only two overseas works this year that weren’t English or American, but both were truly excellent. One was the African classic, Chinua Achebe’s Things fall apart, which I’ve been wanting to read for years. The other was Pierre Lemaitre’s contemporary Prix Goncourt winning novel, The great swindle. Excellent as they were, I must try to do better next year. My other favourite book from elsewhere was American author Anthony Doerr’s All the light we cannot see. Amazing how many stories can still be told, differently, about the Second World War.
- Biggest surprise: I hadn’t read Stephen Orr before, but his pastoral novel The hands, which was one of my first reads of the year, is still vividly with me as the year closes. The way he captures the relationship, particularly through dialogue, between father and sons just bowled me over.
- Biggest disappointment: This was a surprise for one who loves classics, but I really wouldn’t have been sorry not to have read William Makepeace Thackeray’s The luck of Barry Lyndon.
- The ones that got away: As always there were books I wanted to read during the year but just didn’t get to. Prime among them are Jenny Ackland’s The secret son, Larissa Behrendt’s Finding Eliza, Carmel Bird’s Family skeleton, and Kim Mahood’s Position doubtful (another memoir!) Roll on 2017.
Some stats …
For my interest really:
- 65% of the authors I read were women (2% less than 2015)
- 32% of the works I read were not by Australian writers (5% more than 2015!)
- 63% of my reading was fiction (short, long or in-between!) (10% less than 2015)
- 35% of the works I read were published before 2000 (a whopping 15% more than 2015)
A couple of interesting trends here. There’s the significant reduction in fiction, which is partly due to the big jump in memoirs (about which see above!) And, while I like to read contemporary authors, I also love delving into the past, so I’m pleased to see the increased number of works before 2000. Surprisingly, I managed to read more works overall than last year – a big plus. However, once again, I made woeful inroads into my TBR so, to get me off to a good start, I hereby proclaim that my first 2017 review WILL be for a TBR book. I hope you like it. I’m sure enjoying reading it.
Overall, it was a good reading year, made especially so by you who joined me here. So, a big thankyou for reading my posts, engaging in discussion, recommending more books and, generally, being all-round great people to talk with. I hope 2017 is good to you, and look forward to seeing you here again whenever something takes your fancy.
What were your reading or literary highlights for the year?
This week I received the Library of America’s annual email in which they list their “Top 10 Story of the Week selections of 2016″. I’ve only read eleven of their selections this year, but two – Kate Chopin’s “A pair of silk stockings” (my review) and Willa Cather’s “Enchanted bluff” (my review) – are in their Top Ten. More interesting to me though is that it contains another writer I like, Eudora Welty. I read her book One writer’s beginnings and what is probably her most famous short story, “Why I live at the P.O.”, before I started blogging, so I decided to read this Top Ten story, “A curtain of green”.
Welty was a short story writer and novelist who wrote mostly about the South. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 with her novel The optimist’s daughter and, according to Wikipedia, was the first living writer to be published by the Library of America (LOA)! “A curtain of green” was one of her early stories. It provided the title for (and was included in of course) her first published collection of short stories (1941), which also includes “Why I live at the P.O.”
However, before I get to the story, I want to share a little from One writer’s beginnings. This book originated in a series of lectures, the inaugural ones apparently, she gave in 1983 at Harvard University, the William E Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilisation. The cover of my 1984 edition claims that it was on the New York Times Bestseller List for 46 weeks! Pretty impressive for a series of essays I think. She was born in 1909 in Jackson Mississippi, the eldest of three. From the opening pages of the book she tells us how her growing up contributed to her writing.
For example, in the first paragraph she mentions growing up “to the striking of clocks”. She’s not sure whether it’s because of her father’s Ohio family “having been Swiss back in the 1700s” but her family were all “time-minded” all of their lives:
This was good at least for a fiction writer, being able to learn so penetratingly and first of all, about chronology. It was one of a good many things I learned, almost without knowing it; it would be there when I needed it.
Surely there’s a little bit of the tongue-in-cheek in her reference to the Swiss origins? Anyhow, two pages in, and she’s talking about her parents’ respective reactions to the weather, his father’s caution regarding storms for example and his mother’s rejection of that “as a character failing”:
So I developed a strong meteorological sensibility. In years ahead, when I wrote stories, atmosphere took its influential role from the start. Commotion in the weather and inner feelings aroused by such a hovering disturbance emerged in dramatic form.
And so the book continues in this delightful manner, sharing her childhood with affection, perception and a wonderful sly wit … but now to “A curtain of green” in which meteorological conditions do, in fact, feature!
“A curtain of green” is about grief, but it starts
Every day one summer in Larkin’s Hill, it rained a little. The rain was a regular thing, and would come about two o’clock in the afternoon.
One day, almost as late as five o’clock, the sun was still shining …
It tells the story of Mrs Larkin whose husband had died the previous summer in a terrible accident – a tree, “a fragrant chinaberry”, had come crashing down on his car as he was arriving home. She had seen it happening, had believed her love would keep him safe. And so now, while the other women of the town sit inside “fanning and sighing, waiting for the rain”, Mrs Larkin is out in her garden, where she is now all the time, because “since the accident in which her husband had been killed, she had never once been seen anywhere else”. It’s a fertile garden, needs “cutting, separating, thinning and tying back” to keep the plants from “overreaching their boundaries and multiplying out of all reason”. But, Mrs Larkin is deranged with grief. She does none of this, just works incessantly, obsessively, planting
thickly and hastily, without stopping to think, without any regard for the ideas that her neighbours might elect in their club as to what constituted an appropriate vista, or an effect of restfulness, or even harmony of colour. Just to what end Mrs Larkin worked so strenuously in her garden, her neighbours could not see …
She doesn’t offer flowers when they’re sick or die, for example. I love how the language in this story just piles on, driving us forward this way and that, just like Mrs Larkin’s grief does to her. The garden, to the neighbours who had initially tried to support her, “had the appearance of a sort of jungle, in which the slight, heedless form of the owner daily lost itself”. It’s oppressive to us, but Mrs Larkin has isolated herself behind her “curtain of green”. The only person she tolerates in this garden, and then only occasionally, is Jamey, “the coloured boy who worked in the neighbourhood”.
At this point in the story, which is told third person, the perspective shifts from omniscient to subjective, to Mrs Larkin’s point-of-view, that is. We are now in the garden with her as her memory returns her to the day of the accident. Suddenly all is still, “everything had stopped again, stillness had mesmerised the plants …” Jamey infuriates her, with his “look of docility”, of being “lost in some impossible dream of his own”. She watches him – her hunger for his innocence suddenly overtaken by a fury at his youthfulness, at his being able to be lost in this, to her, “impossible dream”. She’s overwhelmed by the unaccountability of accident, of life and death, by the meaningless of it all, and wants to smash his innocent absorption – but then comes the rain. There are two more pages in the story after this, but I’ll finish here.
This story was written in 1938 – quickly written and easily published, according to LOA. LOA also tells us that in 1931, Welty and her mother had been present when her father died of leukaemia, and they quote Welty’s biographer Suzanne Marrs as saying that her mother “discovered solace in gardening”. She spent hours in her garden, most days, often with Eudora by her side. Welty, says Marrs, wrote in an unpublished essay that “its [the garden’s] peace and fragrance are soothing to frayed nerves when we are weary from contact or perhaps conflict with the everyday world.” This memory clearly informed her story of the grieving Mrs Larkin.
“A curtain of green” is a great read, for its exploration of how grief can derail you, making you, temporarily at least, a little mad; for its evocative writing which captures that sense of derailment, taking you right into that garden with Mrs Larkin; and for its resolution which offers hope without being simplistic about it. After such a year as this has been, it seems just the right story to end on. Happy New Year everyone!
“A curtain of green”
First published in: Southern Review (Autumn 1938).
Available: Online at the Library of America
Poignant is a word I actively avoid in my review posts, as it’s such a review cliché, but sometimes a book really does call for it, and the late Georgia Blain’s essay-collection-cum-memoir, Births deaths marriages, is such a book. In the last essay, she talks of her mother, broadcaster, activist and non-fiction writer, Anne Deveson, trying her hand at fiction just as she, Blain, was trying non-fiction. She writes:
We had switched places, my mother and I. And we looked at each other. Both mothers. Both writers. Both trying on each other’s shoes, taking a few steps back, eyes on our feet, before we glanced across once again, curious as to how this had happened (“A room of one’s own (2)”)
The poignant thing, of course, is that these two who were so closely entwined in life, not just as mother-and-daughter but as writers, died within a few days of each other – with the sadly ironic twist that the daughter died first. It makes my heart break a little, something I wouldn’t have felt had I read it before these deaths. Such is the impact of context on our reading, eh?
Anyhow, onto the book. Births deaths marriages (the title has no separating commas) is the second memoir-in-essay-form that I’ve read this year, the first being Fiona Wright’s Small acts of disappearance. Both books follow a general chronological arc but the essay form makes it easy for this not to be strict, allowing the writers to follow tangential yet relevant threads. From here, though, the two “memoirs” depart, because the respective writers’ lives are very different. Wright, the younger writer, was writing primarily about her twenties and focused particularly on her experience of an eating disorder, while Blain was in her mid forties when writing hers. She was a published novelist and, significantly, had experienced a much more public life, not only because both her parents were public figures but also because of her mother’s own memoir, Tell me I’m here, about life with her schizophrenic son.
This book – with its intensely personal subject matter and its unusual form – offers rich opportunity for discussion. To do it justice, I’m going to have to narrow it, so I’m going to focus on form and style, but some content will push through along the way. The way I see it, there are two broad types of memoir, those which tell about lives most of us know little or nothing about (such as Frank McCourt’s Angela’s ashes, or, more obviously, celebrity memoirs) and those which are about lives much like ours. Georgia Blain’s falls into this latter category. For these ones to engage readers, they need to offer something illuminating about the lives we lead.
“the truth was a little more complex” (from “Getting in the boat”)
The first essay in Blain’s memoir is titled “A room of one’s own”. In it she reflects on her childhood, on how her mother would write about their family for newspaper columns and how reading these columns later, with their bland pictures that “did not accurately reflect who we were”, brought back the child she was, the child who wanted her family to be like the one in the columns, who thought all other families were like that and not like the messy reality she was experiencing. These bland columns are the antithesis of what Blain shares in her essays (and indeed of what Deveson herself shared in her memoir). It’s all about purpose I suppose. Newspaper columns tend to be more about entertainment – with perhaps some subtle messages about life – whilst memoirs, good ones anyhow, are about “truth”. If we don’t feel the memoirist is sharing the “truth” of her (or his) experience we are going to lose interest pretty quickly.
Blain convinces me that she is sharing her truths when, for example, she describes, in “The story my mother tells me” and “The outside country”, her fears about childbirth and her struggle to cope with the demands of motherhood. She exposes herself with soul-baring honesty when she shares her sense of disconnect, of being alone, of being “shattered” when her baby is born. She writes that she wanted to give her daughter “the place in my life that she needed and deserved, one that was without my terror and anxiety about loss of self” but it took several months for this to happen. She writes with similar honesty about her relationship with her husband Andrew. It takes some guts to write what she does.
In “Close to the bone”, Blain addresses more directly her writing life, and the difference between writing fiction, which she’d done until this book, and writing about herself, which she was now doing. Reflecting on her brother’s death, she says:
The complexity and rawness of an immediate response to pain is not easy to understand and recognise, let alone pin down in writing, in a photograph or in a film. The very act of capturing distorts. Once neatly contained, all that we felt is no longer unruly, unreasoned, immediate and wild. Perhaps this is why we hold these moments as truth. They cannot be replicated. Each time we try, we dilute their intensity, we confuse, holding up false images of this so-called truth that leave us reeling as we try to reconcile what we see encapsulated with what we have experienced.
Even her “truth”, the one she is writing, she sees, is not easy to grasp. She goes on:
I believed, and still do, that if I wrote about my own life and the lives of those I love, I had to tell the truth. But foolishly, I believed the truth lay only in the immediate…
These two excerpts reminded me of that David Hockney comment about happiness being a retrospective thing I wrote about recently, because I read them as her recognition that there are different truths – those immediate reactions and feelings, and those that come later. It’s this sort of reflection on “how” we live and interpret our lives which makes Births deaths marriages such a meaningful read.
I said that this memoir exemplifies the second type of my two simple categories, but I meant it when I defined them as being about “lives much like ours” because no life is the same. And so, Blain, like all of us, had her own set of challenges, including her control-freak, sometimes-violent father, and the tragic loss of her schizophrenic brother. One of the joys of her book lies in watching her explore and expose her own development, her learning not only to come to terms with these experiences in her life, but to use them to come to a more open, flexible way of understanding. She writes of “chasing absolutes”, of believing that “there was one truthful answer to every question” which she had to pin down, when in fact, as she learns, the truth lies in the “layers”.
In the end, there are no resolutions, she realises, but there are momentary happy endings along the way. She also realises that “writing about oneself” can “amount to more than a purely personal exercise”. It sure can, as she has proven here. This memoir is special – and not just because of the context in which I am reading it – but because it’s honest, because it doesn’t pretend to have it all sorted, because, in fact, it’s true – to her life and experience, and also to ours.