Julie Koh, Portable curiosities: Stories (#BookReview)

I’ve decided to try reading more audiobooks this year, despite not being a big fan of this mode of consuming books. I’m a textual person. I like to see the print on the page, how it is set out. I like to see the words. I like to see how the names are spelt. Given my reservations and the fact that I expect to “read” in short stints, I thought short stories might be the way to go. I think they are, though my overall reservations still stand.

My first book was one that was well-reviewed when it appeared in 2016, Julie Koh’s Portable curiosities. It won the SMH Best Young Novelists Awards in 2017, and was shortlisted for several other awards, including the Steele Rudd Award for Short Story Collections (Queensland Literary Awards) and the Glenda Adams Award for New Writing (NSW Premier’s Literary Awards). I checked to see who won the Steele Rudd Award that year, because Koh’s collection is great. It was clearly a strong year. There were co-winners, Elizabeth Harrower’s wonderful A few days in the country, and other stories (my review) and Fiona McFarlane’s High places, which I’ve also been wanting to read.

So, Portable curiosities. I had no idea what this collection was about, and was delighted to find a lively, engaged and engaging interrogation of contemporary Australia, particularly as it intersects with Chinese-Australian experienceIt is highly satirical, penetrating the myths and assumptions that underpin our shaky existence.

The order of stories in a collection is always worth thinking about, and it is notable that this twelve-story collection opens with a story called “Sight” which satirises immigrant Chinese mothers who are so ambitious for their children to fit in and achieve success that they discourage any sort of individuality or creativity. Many of the stories have a surreal or absurdist element. They start realistically but suddenly we find ourselves in another realm or dimension. “Sight”, starting off the collection, is an example. Here, we suddenly find our young narrator having a “third eye” painted on her navel. This eye represents her imaginative self, so her mother organises for it to be removed in an operation.

From here, having satirised Chinese immigrant culture, Koh moves on to critique, with biting clarity, aspects of Australian culture, from misogyny (in “Fantastic breasts” where our male narrator looks for “the perfect set of breasts to have and to hold” at a conference on “The difficulties of an objective existence in a patriarchal world”) to crushing, soulless workplaces that pay lipservice to their employees’ mental health (in “Civility Place”). “Satirist rising” mourns the end of the civilised world, with a bizarre travelling exhibition that aims to ensure the continuation of the “landscapes of our mind”, while the cleverly titled “Cream reaper” (you have to read it to see what I mean) tackles foodie culture, turning foodie-ism into an extreme sport. Along the way, it also skewers multiple aspects of our capitalist culture, like the housing bubble, the commercialism of art, institutional banking, and the plight of the tortured writer.

As a retired film archivist, I loved “The three-dimensional yellow man” which takes to task the stereotyping of Asians on film. There’s “no need for a back story”, our one-dimensional (yellow man) Asian actor is told, “you’re evil”. He belongs, after all, to the “cruel, meek blank-faced race”. Again, the satirical targets are broad-ranging from film festival panels to Pauline Hanson – and embarrassingly close to the bone.

Many of the stories, like “Two” and “Slow death of Cat Cafe”, explore success, materialism and power, while the 2030-set “The Sister Company” exposes a cynically commercial “mental health industry” through the application of androids to the problem. All these stories, despite, or because of, their laugh-out-loud moments and forays into absurdity, hit their mark. A couple, such as “Two” and “Cream reaper”, felt a bit long, even though I thoroughly enjoyed their imagination, but this might have been a product of listening rather than reading, so I’m reserving judgement on this.

My favourite, however, was probably the last, “The fat girl in history”, which opens on a reference to the popular (in Australia) CSIRO Total Well-being Diet. The narrator is Julie, and, although this story also moves into surreal realms, there is a strong sense of autofiction here. Remember, though, that autofiction is still fiction so … Our narrator is a fiction-writer experiencing a crisis of confidence. She has written about a depressed girl, androids and the future – all of which appear in this collection. She’s been told that she writes like Peter Carey, though she admits she’s never read him. She reads an article telling her that contemporary literature is “in the throes of autofiction”, that the “days of pastiche are over”, and then informs us that she’s going to write autofiction titled “The fat girl in history.” Australians will know that Peter Carey has written a short story, “The fat man in history”, and that his debut collection named for this story started his stellar career. I will leave you to think about the portents and threads of meaning Koh is playing with here, but her outright cheekiness in daring us to go with her made me laugh – particularly when I saw where she went.

Portable curiosities deals with serious, on-song subjects, and I so enjoyed seeing her address them through satire, absurdity and surrealism with a healthy dose of black humour. At times the lateral thinking in these stories, not to mention Koh’s interest in satire, reminded me of Carmel Bird. A most enjoyable collection, that was expressively read by Lauren Hamilton Neill.

Julie Koh
Portable curiosities: Stories
(Read by Lauren Hamilton Neill)
Bolinda Audio, 2018 (Orig. pub. 2016)
5hrs 48mins (Unabridged)
ISBN: 9781489440808

Leah Swann, Sheerwater (#BookReview)

Book cover

I’ve been wanting to read Leah Swann’s Sheerwater, having read and enjoyed, a few years ago, her short story collection, Bearings (my review). However, I didn’t get around to buying a copy, so was pleased to see it available as an audio book when I was looking for listening matter for our recent Melbourne trip. I thought we’d finish it on the trip but, in the end, the sightseeing was so interesting that we listened less than we thought we would. We’ve finished it now!

But, how to write about a crime book in which the main mystery – the disappearance of two boys – is resolved for us early on. At least, resolved in the sense that we discover what has happened to them and who was involved. As it turns out, though – and we learn this quickly – there’s another story to tell, and it’s a powerful, terrifying and unfortunately only too relevant one, a story of domestic violence, of power and control that isolates those who are vulnerable.

Interestingly, the novel’s opening reminded me strongly of the unforgettable opening to Ian McEwan’s Enduring love, which, as it happens, is also about dysfunctional love, albeit a different sort. There is also an ironic allusion to Australian literature’s “lost child” motif, when Ava thinks “this was a Continent where you could still get lost”, because these children aren’t “lost” – per se!

Anyhow, the story takes place over three days, and is told in alternating 3rd person voices, primarily those of the mother Ava, father Laurence, and 9-year-old Max who is the older of the two sons. Swann does an impressive job of getting into the heads of these disparate characters. Each one feels psychologically real, and their stories are compelling – well, most of their stories. Laurence is way too chilling to be compelling, but he is scarily real.

Now, I’m not going to write my usual sort of review, because listening to a novel (particularly while driving) doesn’t provide the same opportunity for reflection (and note-taking) that reading does, and certainly not for recording quotes, though I did jot down a few when I wasn’t the driver. The novel falls into the literary crime category, I’d say, for several reasons: it’s not a traditional crime novel; it’s told from multiple points of view; and the language is highly descriptive, if not poetic.

The title Sheerwater, for example, has multiple meanings. There’s the literal one, it being the name of the town that Ava is escaping to, and a literal and metaphorical one in that shearwaters (or, mutton birds), at the time the book is set, are doing their big migration south. They start the novel and each of the three days (if I remember correctly). There’s a sense that their impressive endurance mirrors that of women like Ava, and their arduous journey that of the boys. If we push it, there could also be a play on the words “sheer water” given the multiple meanings of “sheer” (pure, perfect, precipitous) and the role of water and the sea in the novel.

“We become evil when we hide the truth from ourselves” (Mother)

Swann creates a melancholic tone early on with phrases like “no pity under its wings”, and “sea of shipwrecks and stolen lives”. The no-nonsense but ultimately supportive policewoman Ballard is described by Ava as having a face like the “impermeable slap of seawashed stone”. It’s not all completely grim though. There is a lot of love, and Ava’s comment on one person’s kindness being enough to sustain a whole childhood is beautiful albeit, in a sense, prophetic.

So, was this book good to listen to? Yes, and no. Katherine Tonkin reads it well, including bursting into little verses of song when required. I didn’t find her voice intrusive, which can be a problem with audiobooks. However, for me, such highly descriptive books are better read than listened to. Somehow, when listening, there’s a greater sense of wanting to get on with the story. The descriptions and internal ruminations got in the way of that, whereas reading it would have allowed me to better absorb the language and descriptions, to feel and consider them, so I’m sorry about that.

Still, the narrative is strong, and it grabbed our attention, forcing us to think hard about each character, their truthfulness, their motivations, and the soundness of their actions. Who would you believe, and what would you do (if you were any of the characters involved), are the questions you confront as you read. The ending is also strong, emotional – and, dare I say it, appropriate.

In Sheerwater, Swann uses fiction to put flesh on the media stories we hear about domestic violence, encouraging us to see behind the stories to feel the confusion, roller-coaster emotions, helplessness and terror that those involved experience. Sheerwater is a book that says something.

Read for Reading Matters Southern Cross Crime Month

Challenge logo

Leah Swann
Sheerwater
(Read by Katherine Tonkin)
Bolinda/HarperCollins Audio, 2020
8hrs 44min (Unabridged)
ISBN: 9781460782354

Anna Goldsworthy, Piano lessons (#BookReview)

Book coverEver since Anna Goldsworthy’s memoir, Piano lessons, was published, I’ve hankered to read it, but somehow never got around to acquiring a copy. So, when I was casting around for our next road trip audiobook and this one popped up serendipitously in Borrowbox, I grabbed the opportunity.

Now, I have to admit that although I did play drums and fife, briefly, in a primary school band, I have never had formal music lessons. Ballet was my thing as a child. However, Mr Gums learnt piano to Grade 7, and I sat in on our kids’ music lessons, especially their piano ones, for years. I loved it, because I learnt so much about music (and music teachers) as a result. I was consequently primed for this book about the author’s piano lessons and her relationship with her Russian-born piano teacher, Mrs Sivan. Being on the Liszt List, that is, someone whose student-teacher lineage reaches back to Liszt, Mrs Sivan initially comes across as formidable, but very soon her warmth and generosity come to the fore.

Essentially, this memoir is a coming-of-age story. It covers Goldsworthy’s life – specifically her piano-playing life – from the age of nine until her mid-late twenties. It is not, however, the traditional coming-of-age story, but her coming-of-age as a musician and, along the way, as a wiser more rounded person. We see Anna coping with the humiliation of failure, when she gets a C in an important piano exam having been used to always getting As. We see the point at which she realises that, if she is to achieve her concert pianist dream, practising for barely two hours a day is not going to cut it. We see the naiveté of a young woman who, not prepared for a journalist’s questions, manages to hurt the people closest to her, learning, in the process, the importance of “humility and gratitude”. And, we see the brilliant pianist and school dux learning that a “perfect score” is “not proof against disaster”.

But, we also hear the wisdom of her piano teacher who doesn’t just teach her the techniques of playing piano, but also the meaning of music, the value and role of the arts and, more, a deeply humane philosophy of life, one that recognises, for example, the value of competition for learning but not for measuring one’s achievement or worth. Indeed, she tells Anna that she is “not teaching piano playing”, she is “teaching philosophy”. It is some years, of course, before Anna stops seeing piano playing as “obstacle courses for fingers” but as something you feel and express.

Goldsworthy describes this piano teacher, Mrs Sivan, as “less a character than a force”, and she conveys this sense largely through reproducing her teacher’s rapid-fire broken English. This might have been worked well in text, but in the audiobook – which was read by Goldsworthy herself – it was frequently difficult to listen to and was sometimes so fast that we missed words. Unfortunately, I don’t have the text to give you an example, but I found one tiny quote on GoodReads. Here is Mrs Sivan telling student Anna about Chopin:

I tell you a secret about Chopin, piano is his best friend. More. He tells piano all his secrets.

Mrs Sivan preceded this by saying that George Sand was not Chopin’s great love, the piano was! One of the real pleasures of this book is the insight provided into several musicians, particularly Bach, Mozart and Chopin, but also Beethoven, Shostakovich and others. Mrs Sivan knows them and their music so well, and impresses upon Anna that musicians must understand the composer and their lives to understand their music. Mozart, for example, “was born with happy of everything”.  I found her adamance about this interesting, because, in the literary arts, there are those who argue that the author’s life is irrelevant and should not be considered at all. I think there’s a place for it.

Piano lessons is not a long book – just 240 pages or so – but the writing and the structuring of the story are so tight that Goldsworthy conveys this coming-of-age to some depth despite the book’s brevity. She does this by never labouring her points, by knowing which stories to tell and how much to tell of them, and by imbuing it all with a light touch. Sometimes you think you are left hanging – “did she win that audition?” – but the answer always comes directly or indirectly a little later.

There is more to this book about music and musicians, about fostering talent, about forging a meaningful life as a musician, and about teaching being “the highest calling”, but not having it on hand, I’ll close here by sharing Mrs Sivan’s words about the arts. She told Goldsworthy that the arts must be “aesthetically and ethically grounded” and that they embody “unlimited flying of imagination”. I like both of these ideas – particularly that about the arts needing to be both aesthetic and ethical. In one sense, I don’t like to think that the arts “should” be anything, but I also believe that being ethical about what we do – whatever that is – is important. I think I would have liked Mrs Sivan.

Lisa also (ANZLitLovers) loved this book.

Challenge logoAnna Goldsworthy
Piano lessons (Audio)
(Read by Anna Goldsworthy)
Bolinda Audio, 2015 (Orig. pub. 2009)
2:23 e-audiobook (Unabridged)
ISBN: 9781489020260

Steven Carroll, The lost life (#BookReview)

Audiobook coverLast year, Mr Gums and I bought a new car to replace our loved but aging 15-year-old Subaru Forester. We’ve been keen to move into the hybrid world but wanted to stay with the SUV-style for various practical reasons, so, as soon as a reasonably-priced hybrid SUV appeared on the market here – the Toyota RAV4 – we were in, and so far so good. However, the real reason I’m sharing this is because another impetus for buying a new car was all the new technology, including the audio systems that enable you to play music – and books – via your phones. And so it was that I borrowed my first ever e-audiobook from our local library, Steven Carroll’s The lost life. The technology worked a treat.

Long-term readers here know that I’m not a huge fan of audiobooks, for reasons I’ve explained before. Fortunately, the reader here, Deirdre Rubenstein, did an excellent job. She was expressive, appropriately English-sounding, but read more than played the characters. That helps a lot.

So now, the book. I chose it for two reasons – it was short, making it a good test case, and it was by Aussie author Steven Carroll, whom I haven’t read yet, and whose Eliot Quartet series I’ve been wanting to read. The lost life, the first book in this series, is inspired by the poem “Burnt Norton”, the first of Eliot’s Four Quartets. Makes sense, huh! “Burnt Norton” was published in 1935, and most of Carroll’s novel is set in September 1934. The novel is framed by the story of Eliot and Emily Hale*, who did, in fact, visit Burnt Norton manor in 1934, but their love is paralleled by that of a young couple, 18-year-old Catherine and 22-year-old Daniel. Eliot, himself, is a fairly shadowy figure in the story, with the focus here being on Miss Hale and Catherine.

The story starts at Burnt Norton, a country estate to which Catherine and Daniel have gone for a romantic picnic and maybe a swim. It’s summer, and Carroll beautifully evokes the passion beating in the “ardent” young Catherine’s breast as she looks forward to further development of their physical relationship, which has not yet been consummated. But, they are interrupted by the appearance of two older people, who turn out to be, of course, Eliot and Miss Hale, and they scurry away because they are trespassing. However, they do observe, from behind the shrubs, a little lovers’ ceremony between the older couple, one that Daniel later violates, fortunately unbeknownst to Eliot and Miss Hale, but distressing to Catherine.

Here, I might pause and refer to the poem which inspired this novel. It starts:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

A little later come the lines that I remember so well from my university days:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.

I don’t know what it is about Eliot’s lines that move me so, but I think it’s their almost confounding spareness and mesmerising rhythm. Putting that aside though, it’s this sense of timelessness, of past, present and future being tied to the here and now, of both stillness and movement, of almost suspended animation too, that pervades Carroll’s novel as the protagonists work through their ideas about love and life.

“a felt experience”

Now, Catherine and Miss Hale know each other, as Catherine’s summer job is cleaning the house in which Miss Hale is staying. The plot is, to a degree, predictable. However, it is not the point. The point is how the characters react and feel about what happens. This is an introspective novel in which the two women reflect on love, their own attitudes to it, and what they see, or think they see, in each other. Miss Hale sees her young self in Catherine, her eighteen-year-old self whose disappointment she does not what to see repeated, while Catherine sees wisdom but also sadness in Miss Hale. She comes to realise, in fact, that Miss Hale, who describes her love with Eliot as “a different kind of love”, is a virgin. It is this experience of love, this mystery that endows a special knowledge, that drives the plot.

There is, though, so much to this novel. The tone is gorgeously melancholic, mirroring the poem that inspired it. Carroll also uses images from the poem – sunlight, roses, light – to suffuse his book with a sense of lost time. Repetitions like “young man of whom great things were expected”, “ardent ways”, and “the woman who won’t let go long after she has any right” add to the melancholic tone, while also anchoring our understanding of the characters.

There is also a link drawn between performance and reality. Catherine sometimes feels she is in a play or story, and this contributes to the theme of “the lost life”. Literally, it is the life Miss Hale lost by waiting all those years for Eliot rather grabbing life herself, but more broadly it can encompass all those lives we never have. Even if we, as Miss Hale realises we should, “grasp our moments as they arrive”, there will always be other lives not taken or lived. As Eliot writes in “Burnt Norton”:

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened.

Ironically, Catherine, who delivers “a felt experience” for Miss Hale, becomes an actor who can “deliver a felt experience on cue”, offering up other lives to her audiences, while living her own moments as they arrive. It’s an inspired conclusion to a book about love, living, and the biggest of them all, time.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) loved this book.

Steven Smith
The lost life (Audio)
(Read by Deirdre Rubenstein)
Bolinda Audio, 2010 (Orig. pub. 2009)
5:57 e-audiobook (Unabridged)
ISBN: 9781742333830

* Check Wikipedia for more on the relationship between Eliot and Hale.

Annabel Smith, Whiskey and Charlie (#BookReview)

Annabel Smith, Whiskey and CharlieSome explanations first. Western Australian author Annabel Smith’s novel Whiskey & Charlie was first published in Australia back in 2012 as Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, which immediately brings to mind the two-way alphabet (or, as I knew it, the alphabet used by the police on The Bill for communication. The things you learn via TV!) However, as happens, the book was, excitingly and successfully, published in America in 2014, and its title was changed to the less evocative Whiskey & Charlie. What I read – heard, actually – was the audiobook that I won in a Readers’ Pack draw last year. Mr Gums and I listened to it on our recent road trip to Melbourne. It passed the time beautifully.

But, another thing, before I talk about that. I’m not a huge fan of audiobooks as I explained earlier in this blog. I really like to see the text; I don’t like to miss visual clues; and I rarely like readers acting out the voices. All these were challenges with Whiskey & Charlie, particularly the last one. The reader, Gildart Jackson, is English. He did the English accents well, but, oh dear, his Australian accent sounded disconcertingly American. I assume this audio, with its American title, was made for an American audience, but, regardless … I prefer reading!

So now the book itself which, really, is what this is all about isn’t it? It tells the story of two identical twins, Whiskey (born William) and Charlie. It is all told, however, through Charlie’s eyes, as the novel starts after Whiskey has had a freak accident and is lying in hospital in a coma. They are 32 years old, and the trouble is that they have been estranged for some time. Charlie has no idea what music, for example, Whiskey would want played at his funeral should he not awaken. He’s distressed. A procastinator who avoids confrontations, he’d always believed there’d be time to sort it all out. The novel progresses from this point, with the family taking turns waiting by Whiskey’s bedside, while Charlie remembers the past and how they’d got to the point they’re at. As he does so, he gradually comes to some realisations about himself and their relationship that enable him to – finally – mature, to see that it hadn’t all been as one-sided as he’d rather smugly assumed. This could be seen in fact as a coming-of-age novel. Perhaps all novels are, in a way; perhaps none of us stop coming of age until we, well, stop?

Anyhow, what makes this book particularly intriguing, besides the thoroughly engrossing story of an ordinary family with all its ups and downs – emigration from England to Australia, parental divorce, and so on – is its structure. And this is where the two-way alphabet comes in. We learn early on that when they were 9 years old, the then close twins been given a walkie-talkie set, and, to help with communication, they learnt this alphabet. William was disappointed that Charlie’s name was in the alphabet, while his was not. Charlie dubs him Whiskey, which becomes his name from then on. Smith structures the narrative around the alphabet, with each chapter titled according to the words – Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta and so on right through to Zulu – and with each of these words linking to some part of its chapter’s content.

This – and the fact that the flashbacks aren’t completely chronological – gives the novel a somewhat episodic structure, but it doesn’t feel forced. Instead, the story is revealed in the backwards-forwards sort of way, for example, that we gradually get to know new friends while the friendship itself is moving forward. (A not uncommon structure. What makes this one a bit different is being organised by the alphabet.)

I’m not going to write my usual sort of review, mainly because having listened to it, I don’t have the same sort of notes, or the same easy access to check details or find quotes. So, I’ll just make a few comments. It’s quite a page-turner, with the main plot, as you’d expect, turning on whether Whiskey will come out of his coma, and if he does what state will he be in. The secondary plot relates to Charlie’s mental state, and his understanding of himself and his relationship with his brother (not to mention with his long-suffering, angelically patient partner, Juliet). He has always felt inferior – the one who came second, the one who didn’t get the girls or the fancy jobs – but he also felt in the right when it came to their estrangement. However, were things really how he saw them? This is something he has to work out for himself. For this reason, the third person limited voice is a good choice for the novel. It enables us to feel with Charlie, while also providing that little bit of distance which enables us to see that Charlie’s perspective may be just a little skewed.

One of the lovely things about Smith’s plotting is that there’s no melodrama, or over-blown emotionalism here. Sure, drama occurs, and there are some surprises, but it’s all within the realm of possibility. There’s some lovely humour too, particularly in the stories of the boys growing up. One particularly funny section has Charlie describing the “bases” in petting with a girl. There were times, though, when I felt Charlie was too angry, too irrational, particularly towards the end when it seemed he was on the road to growth, but that’s minor and didn’t affect his overall trajectory.

Binding all this together is the description of Whiskey’s medical condition. Smith obviously did quite a bit of research – or already knew – just how extended comas play out. While I knew some of it, there were details that I didn’t, and that I found fascinating. Smith also covers such issues as grief and end-of-life decisions.

Finally, I like the title. At first I wondered why Whiskey’s name was first when Charlie was telling the story, particularly given Charlie also comes first in the alphabet. But, of course, it’s polite to put the other person first, and it also reflects Charlie’s sense of who was first in their relationship.

Whiskey & Charlie (or Whisky Charlie Foxtrot) has been out for a few years now, but it’s still worth reading if you come across it in a library or bookshop. Or, have you read it already? If you have, let me know what you thought.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked and reviewed this – but way back when it came out!

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeAnnabel Smith
Whiskey & Charlie (Audio)
(Read by Gildart Jackson)
Blackstone Audio, 2015 (Orig. pub. 2012)
10H30M on 9CDs (Unabridged)
ISBN: 9781504608268

 

Olive Ann Burns, Cold Sassy Tree (Review)

Olive Ann Burns, Cold Sassy TreeAs I explained in my post last year on Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees, we are slowly listening to some of the audiobooks we gave Mr Gums’ mother in the last years of her life, and have just finished Olive Ann Burn’s epic-length, Cold Sassy Tree. From what I’ve read in Wikipedia, Olive Ann Burns was another late bloomer (albeit not an Australian one of course). Born in 1924, she didn’t publish Cold Sassy Tree, which was her only completed novel, until 1984. It was so successful that her readers pleaded for more, for a sequel, that is. She started it, but died of a heart attack in 1990 before finishing it. It, Leaving Cold Sassy, was apparently published unfinished, but with her notes, in 1992.

Now, when authors write historical fiction – particularly one that is not about a specific event, like, say, World War 2, or a person, like, say, the ever popular Ann Boleyn – my first question is why have they decided to write about a past time? Cold Sassy Tree is set in the American South in 1906, though if I remember back to the first CD correctly, the first person narrator, Will Tweedy, is telling the story some 8 years later (which would make it on the verge of the World War 1 – not that that is relevant given the USA’s delayed entry into the war.) According to Wikipedia, Burns was a journalist and columnist, and it wasn’t until 1971 that she “began writing down family stories as dictated by her parents. In 1975 she was diagnosed with lymphoma and began to change the family stories into a novel that would later become Cold Sassy Tree”. So, I guess, there’s my answer: she was capturing the stories from her family’s past. Will Tweedy, I believe, is based on her father. And it is, fundamentally, a simple, but charming, family story.

But, like all family stories, there is a little more to it than that. The American South is – or was, particularly, at the turn of the twentieth century – conservative, religious and prejudiced against other (coloured folks, poor folks, and so on). This is the society that Will Tweedy is born into. Luckily for him, he was also born into a family with an independent-thinker, live-by-his-own-rules, grandfather, E. Rucker Blakeslee. Early in the novel, Cold Sassy Tree (for that’s the name of the town), and particularly Will’s mother and aunt, are thrown into turmoil when 60-odd-year-old Rucker, just three weeks widowed to a wife he clearly loved, ups and marries the 33-year-old Yankee, Miss Love Simpson, who was working as a milliner in his general store.

Will, just entering adolescence, is the perfect narrator in what is, partly, a coming-of-age novel. He adores his grandfather, and becomes a sometime confidant, sometime unwitting but not unwilling eavesdropper, of the newly married couple. He has a mind of his own but is still obedient enough to mostly do what he is told. He soaks up what is going on around him, and is prepared to take risks and listen to new ways of doing things while also maintaining some of that level of shock about change that his parents have.

I’m not going to write a long post on this, partly because I listened to it over a long period of time and partly because, having listened to it, I don’t have good quotes to share. Burns has written the book in southern dialect, but it’s not hard to follow, and she uses some lovely fresh appropriate imagery – similes, in particular – which adds to the enjoyment. The coloured man, Loomis, for example says that religion is “like silver”, you “must keep polishing” it.

Besides the main story of this “shocking” marriage – which has its own trajectory to which Will becomes privy – we see the introduction of motor cars to the small town, the lack of opportunity for the children of the poor working class, the changing role of women, the economic challenges faced by small towns, and the stultifying effect of narrow religious beliefs. It’s not, in other words, all light. There’s drama – a near train accident, a returned would-be lover, a suicide, to name a few. There is also awareness of racism, but Burns glosses over this a little, preferring to show, overall, positive, more humane attitudes. She doesn’t necessarily gild the situation, but she doesn’t draw out the ugliness either.

This is not, probably, a book I would have picked up and read of my own accord, but as a book to listen to during hours on the road it did an excellent job with its engaging characters, its light touch, its warm but clear-eyed view of small-town life, and its sense that although times have changed people haven’t all that much.

Olive Ann Burns
Cold Sassy Tree (audio)
(read by Tom Parker)
BlackstoneAudio, 1993
12H 30M on 11 CDs (Unabridged)

Annie Dillard, The Maytrees (Review)

Annie Dillard, The MaytreesI am not, as I wrote in my recent post on Emma Ayres’ memoir Cadence, a big “reader” of audiobooks. In fact, until Cadence, I hadn’t listened to one for a few years. However, we do have a few here that we had given Mr Gums’ mother as her sight started to fail and which we retrieved after she died back in 2011. I bought them for her, so am rather keen to see what I think of my choices!

Now, I’ve never read Dillard, though of course I’ve heard of her. The Maytrees, published in 2007, is her second novel, her first being the Pulitzer prize-winning novel Pilgrim at Tinker Creek published over thirty years earlier in 1974. Fascinating … but I’m not surprised. The Maytrees is such a quiet, deeply thoughtful book, it could only have grown out of years of living and contemplation. It reads like a lifelong meditation on the meaning of life at its very foundation – on how and why we love, on how we should live our lives.

WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS

Provincetown, 1983

Provincetown, 1983

There is very little plot, though there is a storyline which tracks the relationship, through various ups and downs, of Toby Maytree (called Maytree in the book) and Lou, the woman he marries. This story is imbued with the place they live, Provincetown, Cape Cod, a place I visited in the 1980s. I loved reliving my experience through Dillard’s gorgeous evocation of it. Anyhow, the time spans from Maytree’s childhood in the late 1920s and 1930s through several decades to, I guess, the 1990s or so. Paradoxically, while the place is woven closely into the story – you get to know, intimately, the dunes, the tides, the beach shack, and even the bed that is moved, as needs change, up and down the floors of their home to bring the outdoors in – the story is absolutely universal. It’s the quintessential boy-meets-girl story but one that doesn’t end at “happily ever after”. It takes us through the long years of their marriage, the birth of their child, a devastating betrayal, a huge-hearted forgiveness, and their deaths. The book shifts around a bit in chronology, making you work a bit, but you usually know where you are.

While the main themes of the book relate to love and life’s meaning, many other ideas come through. There’s a lot of discussion of reading and literature. We are told early in the novel that “He read for facts, she for transport”. When she, Lou, finds love, here is her reaction:

Love so sprang at her, she honestly thought no one had ever looked into it. Where was it in literature? Someone would have written something. She must not have recognized it. Time to read everything again.

Later in the book when love is lost and recovered, she wonders again about love and life’s meaning. There might be a point to life, she wonders, and there might be an answer in books. She feels, however, that she had only moved a millimetre on these questions in her lifetime. She reflects on how life with Maytree had felt complete – until she’d had her baby, Petie, after which she couldn’t imagine life without him. But, inevitably, he too moved on, and in time had his own child presenting him to her as if she didn’t know the experience or feeling!

In other words, it’s a wise, knowing book, a book which sees how people think and behave. Here is Lou, newly alone:

She ignored whatever did not interest her. With those blows she opened her days like a piñata. A hundred freedoms fell on her. She hitched free years to her lifespan like a kite tail. Everyone envied her the time she had, not noticing that they had equal time.

I loved that little kick – “not noticing they had equal time”. How often do we see the other grass as greener, not seeing our own!

There’s also sly – or perhaps not so sly – commentary on American politics. Dillard describes Hoover, in 1947, warning Americans about artists, and asks “Did America have a culture besides making money?” There’s reference to a “Strictly for profit hospital”, and, at another point, when Maytree ponders the idea of shooting himself to save getting too old, we are reminded that “this was America”. These scattered political jibes provide interesting intrusions into what is mostly a philosophical novel.

The language is quietly beautiful. As I was listening to it, I could only really capture phrases to share, such as “he rummaged her spare comments”, or a description of one of Maytree’s earlier girlfriends as “a great handful of a girl out west”, or a description of the sea as a “monster with a lace hem”. Little motifs run through the book. Lou’s various red items of clothing like a scarf or a dress and Maytree’s red-speckled notebooks, for example, provide colour and continuity, and hint too at the passion of their love.

Maytree and Lou are drawn at depth. We move inside both their heads at different times. At the time of Maytree’s betrayal – which I must say is the point in the book that is hardest to grasp – gentle, but strong and resourceful Lou decides that “if this was not shaping up to be Maytree’s finest hour it might as well be hers”. The other main characters populating their Provincetown world include Deary, Reevadare Weaver, Cornelius Blue and Jane Cairo, all of whom add depth and diversity to the close community Dillard depicts.

I must say though that I found it quite a difficult book to listen to. In some ways it was too slow – we read faster than we can listen, I’ve been told. As the reader, David Rasche, read pages and pages of admittedly beautiful description and contemplation, I felt held back. I wanted to read it at my pace, faster. And yet, it was also too fast, because at times I wanted to stop and mull over the words and ideas.

I could go on, but without having the book itself to bring it all together the way I’d like, I’ll just close here and say that I found it a thoroughly satisfying book. It is warm, non-judgemental, generous and wise. And if that sounds like it’s also sentimental and corny, you’d be wrong. One day I’ll read more Dillard.

Annie Dillard
The Maytrees (audio)
(read by David Rasche)
Harper Audio, 2007
5.5 hours on 5 CDs

Emma Ayres, Cadence: Travels with music (Review)

Emma Ayres, CadenceAlthough Emma Ayres’ memoir Cadence had been passed around my reading group with much enthusiasm over the last year or so, I wasn’t intending to read it – not because I wasn’t interested, but because there were other books I wanted to read more. However, when I found the audiobook at my aunt’s house while we were clearing it out, Mr Gums and I decided to listen to it on our trips to and from Sydney. It proved to be a great car book. However, a warning: we listened to it intermittently over two months, so this will be more a post of reflections than a coherent review.

Emma Ayres is probably known to most Australian readers of my blog, but perhaps not to others so let’s start with a potted bio. Born in England in 1967, Ayres is a professional musician – a viola player in fact – who has also worked as a radio presenter. She lived in Hong Kong for eight years, playing with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, but in 2000 she rode a bicycle, fundraising for charity, from Shropshire, England, through the Middle East and central Asia, to Hong Kong. She moved to Australia in 2003, and worked as an ABC Classical Music radio presenter for eight years, from 2008 to 2014.

Now to the memoir. Cadence is ostensibly a travel memoir, but it covers a lot of ground within its seemingly narrow construct of chronicling her year-long bicycle journey. The ground it covers, besides the story of her travel, which is exciting enough given the regions she rode though, includes her childhood, her reflections on her life as a musician, and her analyses of classical music. Some of her technical descriptions went over my head, but I found her discussions of composers to be not only accessible and eye-opening, but deeply interesting. And it’s all told with a thoughtful philosophical underpinning.

Cadence is an excellent title for a musician’s memoir, and she plays with its meanings throughout, referring, for example, to a “perfect cadence”, or a “slow cadence”, or more frequently to  “interrupted cadences … moments when the direction is changed”. Indeed, the memoir could be seen as comprising almost continuous interrupted cadences because, although the bicycle trip provides her memoir’s chronological backbone, she skips around frequently, going backwards to her childhood and early years as a musician and forwards to her life after the trip when she briefly toyed with being a cellist. It can take a little concentration to keep track of exactly which part of her life she is writing about at any one time, but it’s not too hard. After all …

Cadences are waypoints in the music, places where you can take a breather, readjust your instrument and hurtle on to the next bit of the adventure.

I greatly enjoyed Ayres’ reflections on life and travel. The book is full of her insights, many learnt on the road. For example, regarding the challenge of deciding whether to do the trip she says:

If you are not sure whether or not you should do something, ask your ninety-year-old self.

At another point she discusses how much she loved Pakistan despite all the nay-saying she had received when she was planning her trip. She was treated, she writes, almost without exception, with kindness and generosity everywhere she went. “Do we make our own welcome?” she wonders, and goes on to suggest that before we criticise another country, we should perhaps look at ourselves first.

Being a woman cycling alone is risky business, particularly in some of those male-dominated countries through which she travelled. She frequently took advantage of her androgynous look, helping it along by keeping her hair very short and wearing non-feminine clothes (where she could). Consequently, she was regularly taken for a man. She discusses gender often, commenting on how we are ruled by it and its associated expectations. She sees herself as “a border dweller in the world of gender”, writing:

I do admire people who are by birth penumbral but have the courage and desire to be firmly one or the other and go through a sex change, but I like the fluidity of being able to float around the middle. I really to think that the basic this or that of male and female is shallow and limiting. How simplistic to think, with all those opposing hormones flowing in each of our bodies, that we are one and therefore not the other. And how much better in countries like India and Thailand that they recognise more than two sexes. More variations in the octave, more variations in gender.

Another theme that runs through the book is the idea of being in the moment. She tells the story of being taken to task for reading Anna Karenina when on a bus in Pakistan. Her young seat-mate is mystified by her passionate rendering to him of the story, saying to her “but you are here!” She genuinely sees his point, and puts the book down. Later in the trip, she regrets not spending more time with a fellow-traveller who crosses her path because “I was too focused on destination and again forgot the importance of the here and now”.

Cadence is a generous, warm-hearted book which abounds with travel anecdotes to delight any lover of travel literature. There are scary moments, and funny ones, and others that are just plain interesting. It also contains intelligent, considered insights into music, some of which I plan to share in a follow-up post. For now, I’ll conclude with a comment she makes early in the book:  “Travel”, she says, “goes inwards as much as outwards”. That is exactly what she demonstrates with this book. I can see why all those in my reading group who read the book urged it onto the next person.

awwchallenge2016

Emma Ayres
Cadence: Travels with music – a memoir
Sydney: ABC Books (by HarperCollins), 2014
284pp.
ISBN: 9780733331893

Emma Ayres
Cadence: Travels with music – a memoir (audio)
(read by Emma Ayres)
ABC Commercial, 2014
8 hours (approx) running time (on 7 CDs)

Nancy Cato, All the rivers run, Book 1 (Review)

It’s been a long time since I reviewed an audiobook or, more accurately, reviewed a book via its audiobook version. As I’ve said before, I don’t listen often to audiobooks, but last month Mr Gums and I did a long drive and so decided to listen to Nancy Cato‘s All the rivers run. I referred to this novel a few Monday Musings ago, because it was one of Australia’s early, successful adaptations for television.

Enough introduction though, time to talk about the book. Our audiobook contained the first book* of Philadelphia (Delie) Gordon’s saga. It starts her story when, in 1890 at the age of 13 she is orphaned in a shipwreck off the coast of Victoria. She is taken in by her dour aunt and more welcoming uncle who lead a spartan prospecting life at Kiandra in the Australian Alps. When her uncle Charles strikes it rich – that is he finds a large nugget of gold – the family (with her cousin, Adam, who is three years older than she) move to a sheep farm on the Murray River not far from Echuca. This first book, which is pretty much a coming-of-age story, finishes when Deli (as she prefers to be called) leaves home at the age of 17, after a tragedy has struck the family.

This is not really the sort of book I would normally read, though it is the sort of book I’d listen to on audiobook. Why so? Well, at the risk of being called a literary snob, I tend not to read sagas (whether they be historical fiction, fantasy or whatever). This is because their focus tends to be plot rather than style, structure, theme and, even perhaps, character development, though I know aficionados will argue with me and they will probably be right (to a degree!). Anyhow, there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not what I prefer to read. However, such stories are perfect for listening to in the car. Literature requiring intense concentration is not a safe bet when you are driving (or even when you are navigating). Horses for courses, as they say.

Cato’s book, like good historical fiction, captures the social history of the era well, particularly the tail end of the gold rush, the 1890s depression, life along the Murray River for the pastoralists and paddle steamers, the challenges faced by women in a male dominated society. She also touches on the dispossession of the indigenous people, showing the women working as “house-girls” for the pastoralists and their all too often descent into prostitution, often as the result of being used by and bearing the children of their white male bosses. Cato was, apparently, an active campaigner for indigenous land rights as well as for conservation.

I enjoyed Cato’s vivid descriptions of the landscape. The plot is a little predictable and the characters are somewhat stereotypical – the welcoming, easy-going farmer, the tough wife, the handsome son champing at the parental bit – but not so much that they don’t engage. Delie in this first book, for example, is a believable young girl, orphaned and taken in essentially by strangers and then experiencing her first love. She’s bright but not brash, independent but not without uncertainties.

I enjoyed one little description in particular. At a moment when things are going wrong for Deli, Cato writes that “a pair of kookaburras laughed sardonically”. I liked this description because only recently I’d been thinking about the first white settlers in Australia and what they made of the birds here, many of whom can sound pretty raucous. I wondered, in particular, what they thought when they first heard a kookaburra’s “laugh” as we describe it. Sardonic, is a very good description of it!

Overall then, it’s an enjoyable read, if you enjoy historical sagas, are interested in life in country Australia in the 1890s – and particularly if you have a long drive ahead of you! You could do way worse …

Nancy Cato
All the rivers run: A river not yet tamed (Audio CD)
Read by Kate Hosking
Bolinda Classics
6 hrs 15 mins on 5 discs
ISBN: 9781742336732

* Note: As far as I understand it, the three books in the trilogy were originally separately published as: All the rivers run (1958); Time, flow softly (1959); and But still the stream (1962). Recent editions, however, combine the three novels into one volume titled All the rivers run. I am not sure where the title A river not yet tamed comes from, but it looks like it might be Bolinda’s title for the first part of their recording of the trilogy.

Helene Hanff, 84 Charing Cross Road

Before you all (well, those of you of a certain age at least) gasp and wonder how it could be that I haven’t read this delightful little tome before, I assure you that I have. However, on our drive home today from our week at the coast, we listened to an unabridged audiobook version, and I can’t resist sharing some thoughts from this most recent acquaintance with the book.

For those of you who haven’t read it, 84 Charing Cross Road could I suppose be described as a sort of epistolary memoir. It comprises the correspondence between an American writer and bibliophile, Helene Hanff, and Frank Doel of Marks & Co, a London bookshop specialising in secondhand and antiquarian books. The correspondence starts in 1949 and covers the next two decades. Over time, others in the Marks & Co family join in, but the essential relationship is always that between bookbuyer Helene and bookseller Frank. In a horrible bit of blurb writing, it is described on the back of my (almost antiquarian itself) paperback as “the very simple story of the love affair between …”. Well, that cheapens it because it’s not a love affair in the usual sense. It’s a business relationship that also becomes a friendship. He is married, she is not … and no romance ever ensues.

I am not going to write a full review of the “story”, about how Helene sent “care packages” to the staff of Marks & Co to brighten up their postwar rations-ridden lives, about its humour and humanity. Rather, I thought I’d just share a couple of the comments she, a true bibliophile, makes about books and reading.

One is to do with marginalia. Hanff, like me, likes marginalia. She does it herself, and she likes it in the secondhand books she buys. She says in response to a book received as a gift:

I wish you hadn’t been so over-courteous about putting the inscription on a card instead of on the flyleaf . It’s the bookseller coming out in you all, you were afraid you’d decrease its value. You would have increased it for the present owner. (And possibly for the future owner. I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning  pages someone else turned, and reading passages some one long gone has called my attention to.) (16 April 1951)

Another year, another book gift, and here is her response:

I do think it’s a very uneven exchange of Christmas presents. You’ll eat yours up in a week and have nothing left to show for it by New Year’s Day. I’ll have mine until the day I die – and die happy in the knowledge that I’m leaving it behind for someone else to love. I shall sprinkle pale pencil marks through it pointing out the best passages to some book-lover yet unborn. (12 December 1952).

Hanff was clearly a slow-reader and liked re-reading, but she was not sentimental about books per se. Here she is on managing her books:

I houseclean my books every spring and throw out those I’m never going to read again like I throw out clothes I’m never going to wear again. It shocks everybody. My friends are peculiar about books. They read all the bestsellers, they get through them as fast as possible, I think they skip a lot. And they NEVER read anything a second time so they don’t remember a word of it a year later. But they are profoundly shocked to see me drop a book in the wastebasket or give it away. The way they look at it, you buy a book, you read it, you put it on your shelf, you never open it again for the rest of your life BUT YOU DON’T THROW IT OUT! NOT IF IT HAS A HARD COVER ON IT! Why not? I personally can’t think of anything less sacrosanct that a bad book or even a mediocre book. (18 Sept 1952)

Ellen of Fat Books and Thin Women would agree I think. Check out her recent post in praise of re-reading, and see for yourselves. Those of you who’ve been reading my blog for a while will know that I too am not averse to a bit of re-reading. There is a special joy in revisiting loved books and learning from them anew, isn’t there?

Finally, (only) because I’m missing my Jane Austen meeting today due to the aforesaid travel, I will share with you her discovery of Jane Austen. Hanff, you see, was not one for “stories”. “It’s just stories. I don’t like stories” she wrote in an undated letter around 1963/64. She preferred history (“i-was-there-books”), essays, poetry and the like. However, in 1952, she discovered Jane Austen “and went out of my mind over Pride & Prejudice …”. I’m sure I would have liked Helene Hanff.

Helene Hanff
84 Charing Cross Road (Audio CD)
Read by Juliet Stevenson and John Nettles
Hachette Audio (orig. pub. 1970)
2 hrs (approx) on 2 compact discs
ISBN: 9781405502559