• Books and reading,  Life: bits and pieces

    An exploration of art: Book review ‘The Museum of Modern Love’ by Heather Rose

    Australian author Heather Rose’s 2016 novel The Museum of Modern Love’ is her eight novel and the winner of the 2017 Stella Prize.

    Published by Allen & Unwin 2016

    It is unlike any book I have read before. Literary in its style, it is an accessible read and populated by a varied cast of characters, most of whom could be described as ‘creative types’ – musicians, artists, writers, poets, broadcasters, journalists. The novel takes the viewpoint of several characters, though it circles back to two main protagonists: Arky Levin, a film score composer, and Marina Abramovic, a well known performance artist.

    Now, part way through the book I had to stop and ‘Google’ Marina Abramovic. I needed to check if the performances described by Rose in the novel were based on real events. They struck me as especially far-fetched. To my astonishment, there they all were, listed on various websites describing Abramovic’s artistic career. For example, Let’s See what happens, 1972, in which the artist sat in a room equipped with seventy two items (including wine, scissors, a knife, a whip, a gun – with a single bullet – paper, flowers…) and invited people to use the objects on her as they wished; Balkan Baroque, 2000, in which the artist sat scrubbing an enormous pile of cow bones; and the performance at the centre of this novel, The Artist is Present, which took New York by storm in 2010.

    In this piece, Abramovic spent seventy five days in a bare room, at a table with two chairs facing each other. She sat in one, and audience members took turns to sit in the other. During each sitting, the artist and participant did nothing except gaze on each other’s face. A sitting could last between several minutes to several hours. When one participant vacated the seat, another took their place and the gazing resumed. Abramovic kept up this still, silent sitting every day until the Museum of Modern Art closed each evening. She did not move, drink, speak, visit a toilet – she did nothing but sit and gaze at the revolving cast of people in the chair opposite.

    Before reading this book, I knew very little about performance art, and thought even less of it, to be honest. If asked, I probably would have dismissed it as ‘indulgent nonsense.’ While I’m not sure that this novel has convinced me to rush to the next performance art piece I hear of, but it has made me stop and reflect on the place and value of art – in all its forms – in our human world.

    In The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose describes the impact of sitting across from the artist, on those who chose to do so and those who watched but did not participate. A surprising number were visibly moved or shaken by the experience. In the novel, we get an inside view of this impact, from the point of view of several of the characters.

    Reading this book has made me realise that art can take many more shapes than I had previously thought, that it is not always static – as in looking at a painting or sculpture, or listening to a piece of music, for example. It can also be an exchange between two or more people. Each participant will take from the experience their own meaning.

    The other pleasure in this novel is Rose’s beautiful language. Here is just one example:

    He saw how her students must see her. This bird of a mind leaping from branch to branch.

    And here’s another little snippet, which I think sums up one of the main themes of the novel:

    Art is really a sort of sport. To master the leap is essential. It is the game of the leap. Practice, practice, practice,then leap. The starting point may be different for each, but the goal is the same. Do something worthwhile before you die.

    As an aside – a shout out to Blue Mountains Library Services, who have introduced a range of books printed in a font style that is easier for readers with dyslexia. The copy of The Museum of Modern Love that I borrowed from there just happened to be in that format. What a great innovation!

  • Books and reading,  History

    Book Review: The French Photographer by Natasha Lester

    The French Photographer by Natasha Lester. Hachette, published 2019.

    The French Photographer is this Perth-based author’s fourth work of historical fiction. Her books have been published in fairly quick succession from 2016-2019. I do marvel at such an output, as Lester’s novels are meaty with historical detail which would involve much research (although, as she pointed out at an author talk at Newtown’s ‘Better Read than Dead’ bookstore recently, research involving travel to Paris and a French chateau isn’t all hard slog.)

    Her historical fiction works are also lush with settings like New York, Paris, and the French countryside, handsome heroes and beautiful protagonists. Now, if that sounds like a recipe for your classic ‘romance’, perhaps think again. Yes, her novels have a strong romance element with love and heartbreak often sharing the stage. The covers are lusciously beautiful, something I greatly enjoy. What I most enjoy about books like The French Photographer, though, is that they pay homage to those women from the past, who chose a path not normally available to women in their time.

    In the case of The French Photographer, the heroine is Jessica May, fashion model turned war photographer and correspondent for Vogue magazine during the Second World War. Inspired by and based on the life of real-life model turned war correspondent Lee Miller, Jessica’s path takes her from posing for photographs to taking them, and from New York’s high life at the beginning of World War Two, to the blood, filth, butchery and despair of the war fronts in Italy, Belgium, France and Germany. On the way she meets and eventually falls in love with Dan Hallworth, the requisite handsome hero who becomes her loyal and honourable friend, then lover.

    Amidst the political nonsense and misogynistic attitudes of the US Army, and concerted efforts to prevent women correspondents from getting anywhere near the war action in order to write about it, Jess has to fight her own battles, just to be allowed to do her job. The author has researched this aspect of the story particularly well and readers can trust that the more outlandish sounding reasons why women were not allowed the freedom to do this work properly, were actually trotted out at the time. Some of it is jaw dropping stuff.

    Like her previous novel The Paris Seamstress (2018), this one has a dual timeline and involves complicated relationships between a modern day granddaughter, D’Arcy, her mother Victorine, and her grandmother. I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who has not yet read the novel by saying more about that. But I will mention that the character Victorine is based on a little girl that the author saw, in a newsreel about the exodus from Paris as the German army approached.

    Natasha Lester’s admiration for Miller, the woman who inspired this story, shines from every page. Miller did not have an easy life and after the war, her ground-breaking work, photographing and writing about what she saw and experienced in Europe, was virtually forgotten. Jessica May, similarly, faces heartbreak and loss. There is no ‘happy ever after’ ending in this story – perhaps another feature which distinguishes it from the conventional romance story arc.

    As with all good historical fiction, while reading this book I was inspired to look up Miller, to learn more about her and to see examples of her astounding photographic work, as well as her pre-war work as a model.

    So thank you, Natasha Lester, for opening another door in the hidden history of women.


  • Books and reading,  History

    Book Review: ‘Fled’ by Meg Keneally

    Published by Echo Publishing 2019

    What a rip-roaring tale this is! Based on the adventurous and tragic life of Mary Bryant, a convict in the First Fleet, this historical novel tells the story of Jenny Trelawney, a Cornish woman transported for ‘highway robbery’ on the First Fleet ship Charlotte.

    Author Meg Keneally says in her author’s note that she chose to fictionalise her protagonist because it felt better to have a fictional character who could fully own her ‘thoughts, emotions and beliefs’. This speaks to how rare it is to find first person accounts by convict women. We have written records (journals, letters and so on) by privileged women, such as Governor Macquarie’s wife Elizabeth amongst others, but very few accounts by the less fortunate women who made the trip from England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland in the hold of a convict ship, rather than as free emigrants. I assume this is, in part, because many convict women could not read or write. Perhaps the expense of paper and ink was another barrier to recording their experiences. And I can also guess that the crowded, often damp convict quarters below decks would not have been kind to paper, had they been able to afford it.

    Meg Keneally has done a sterling job of working with the historical records as they stand, and imagining the rest. She has changed some historical events and timelines to better fit her narrative.

    We meet Jenny in her home town in Cornwall, coping with the death of her father and then of her baby brother, and her mother’s subsequent descent into depression, poverty and self neglect. Jenny begins thieving to support herself and provide food for her mother. And then she is caught, arrested, tried and sentenced. Off to the new colony of New South Wales, the great social and judicial experiment embarked on by England to rid itself of its ‘criminal class.’

    Jenny is a not entirely sympathetic character, but we quickly begin to empathise with her and her situation. She falls pregnant to a man on the hulk she is imprisoned on before her transportation and so bears a daughter on the voyage to Australia, a girl named for the ship on which she is born. Jenny survives the horrors of the voyage and on arrival at Sydney Cove, almost immediately marries a convict. This was a choice made by many convict women – marriage offered some protection in an environment in which there was almost no duty of care shown by guards and officials towards the convicts.

    Jenny and her husband Dan have a son, but little Emanuel is born into a colony facing starvation. Watching her children become thinner and weaker by the day, Jenny makes a decision – she and her husband must take the two little ones and escape. As they are both from Cornwall, skilled at fishing and boats, the logical escape route seems to be by the sea itself.

    And that’s what they do – steal the government cutter and some supplies, and in the dark of night they sail out of Sydney Heads and set their course north. And here their adventures begin…as if they had not already had enough adventures for one lifetime!

    I won’t give away any more of the plot, although if you know the original Mary Bryant’s story you can guess at much of the rest, with a few differences. It’s a tale of heroism, determination, tragedy and love, with some stupidity and cruelty thrown in. Another reminder of the dramas of our history – crammed full as it is with ordinary people facing the sorts of dangers and hardships that most of today’s Australians could only try to imagine.

    Meg Keneally has done a wonderful service to this incredible, larger- than- life story. Her Jenny Trelawney is an Australian literary heroine to be proud of.

  • Books and reading,  Life: bits and pieces

    Local treasures

    It’s not too often I get a thrill from reading my local newspaper, Blue Mountains Gazette. I did last week, though,when I came across an article about the awarding of an honorary doctorate degree by Western Sydney University, to Blue Mountains author Jennifer Rowe.

    Blue Mountains Gazette 1/5/19

    At first Ms Rowe’s name didn’t register, until I read on further and realised that she is also known as Emily Rodda.

    Now, if you have children who like to read, that is a name you’ll recognise. When in primary school, my son and his friends loved her Rowan of Rin books, first published in 1993. She is also the author of the very popular Deltora Quest series. Emily Rodda has written over 50 books for children and young adults and is a five times winner of the Children’s Book Council of Australia Younger Readers Award. And this year, 2019, her most recent book His Name was Walter, was shortlisted for the Children’s Book of the Year.

    So, quite a writing career. You can learn more about Emily Rodda here:http://www.emilyrodda.com/about

    And as Jennifer Rowe, she writes crime novels for adults.

    The WSU Honorary Degree was awarded in recognition of that significant career and her contribution to Australian literature. In January 2019, Jennifer Rowe was also made a Companion of the Order of Australia for her services to literature.

    And until last week, I had no idea that she lived in the Blue Mountains, just up the road! Of course it matters not where she lives. But I did get a little thrill. There is something about stumbling across someone you admire, in whatever field or pursuit, and finding out that you are almost neighbours.

  • Books and reading

    Book Review: ‘Nevermoor’ by Jessica Townsend

    ‘Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow’ by Jessica Townsend

    LothianBooks 2017

    This is the first in the Nevermoor series of YA/children’s author, Australian Jessica Townsend. It has won many awards and commendations, including: Winner, Dymocks Book of the Year 2018, QBD Children’s Book of the Year 2018, Book of the Year for Younger Children, ABIA 2018, Indie Books Awards 2018, Aurealis Awards 2017, Waterstones Children’s Book Prize (UK) 2018, a CBCA Notable Book.

    I don’t read a lot in the fantasy genre nowadays, but this book was recommended to me by a friend. It is a rollicking tale of magic, centred around the adventures of young Morrigan Crow, who lives an unloved life in a drab and predictable town. Marked at birth as a ‘cursed child’ along with others born on Eventide, held to be an unlucky day, Morrigan is blamed for all the misfortunes of others, and doomed to die on Eventide when she turns eleven.

    Enter Jupiter North, her mysterious rescuer, who whisks Morrigan away from the threat of the Hunt of Smoke and Shadow and brings her to the magical city of Nevermoor. Here Morrigan is ensconced in the Hotel Deucalion, which magically changes the shapes of its rooms and fittings, and she learns that she must pass a series of trials if she is to be allowed to remain…

    I liked several things about this book. One is the humour that imbues every chapter. Despite some scenes that are a bit scary, even younger readers will appreciate the insouciance of Jupiter, the mild cynicism of his nephew Jack, the daredevil nature of Morrigan’s new friend Hawthorn, and especially, the sarcasm and bossiness of Fenestra, the giant Magnificat in charge of hotel housekeeping.

    Another is of course, the magic. Occasionally reminiscent of the brilliant world building to be found in the Harry Potter novels by JK Rowling, Nevermoor’s magic is nonetheless unique, surprising and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.

    Morrigan is an endearing protagonist. Smart and brave but full of self- doubt and uncertainty, she yearns for friendship and belonging, both of which she finds in Nevermoor. There are plenty of heart-warming moments, along with the magic and quirky humour.

    And speaking of heart, a real theme of the novel is exactly that. There is a strong element of exploration of what it means to belong. Because Morrigan has not yet successfully completed the trials which will allow her to remain in Nevermoor, she is dogged by the City’s police force for being a ‘filthy illegal’. Inspector Flintlock berates Jupiter North for not handing Morrigan over for immediate deportation: reminders of the decidedly unmagical and unsympathetic scenes being played out in real life, all over our globe. So, while Nevermoor is a fantasy novel, it manages to hold within it messages to us all about caring, humanity and belonging.

  • Books and reading

    Book Review & Reflections: ‘Teacher’ by Gabbie Stroud

    A copy of this book should be handed to anyone who expresses the view that “Teachers get so many holidays”, or “Teaching must be an easy job – look at the hours they work – 9 to 3 Mon to Fri and no weekend work.”

    For much of my working life, I was a teacher. Mostly in adult education, but a couple of years as a casual primary teacher, working across ages from kindergarten to year six. So I read Gabbie Stroud’s memoir of teaching in primary schools with interest. It might surprise you to know that much of what she describes about her experiences in working in primary education in Australia and the UK, is increasingly relevant to the vocational education and training situation as it currently stands, here in Australia.

    The tag line on the front cover of ‘Teacher’ reads: One woman’s struggle to keep the heart in teaching. The author’s heart shines out through her portrayal of her childhood years, her decision  to train to become a teacher, her first job in an East London school, teaching in Australian schools, including in socioeconomically disadvantaged regions and in a brand new school. Her approach to teaching was all about relationship – with her students of course, and also with parents, colleagues, and her schools’  communities.

    She describes her experience of burnout – an overwhelming workload, juggling time with too many things on the “to do” list, and the “stealthy encroachment of more and more demands for accountability, “evidence”, assessment grids and rubrics…A teacher could literally spend their working week creating the documentation required to teach.

    You might be thinking: Other occupations have these sorts of pressures. And you’d be right. Many people – nurses, social and community workers, doctors, aged care workers, people who work in childcare, would nod in recognition of the issues discussed in this book.

    For me, the fact that these workplace issues are so widespread, makes the arguments  put forward in this book more important, not less. Ms Stroud describes struggling with unsympathetic systems imposed from above, usually by people with no experience or understanding of education or teaching, and very little knowledge of what teachers, schools and students need to excel. The  introduction in Australian schools of  “NAPLAN” testing (standardised testing in literacy and numeracy), and a National Curriculum, are two examples examined here.

    One of my favourite lines in the book is a quote from one of the author’s colleagues: “All this collecting of evidence. Evidence for everything. I feel like I work for a crime squad.” (p.221)

    Sadly, this reliance on standardisation of teaching and assessment practices and “evidence” (a belated effort to stem the rise of less than reputable training organisations) has crept into the vocational education and training sector in Australia. It’s a lucrative market nowadays.

    What is often lost, is the importance of relationship and heart in the teaching and learning process. Teachers and students can get so focused on their grades and on completing assessment tasks that they have little time to think about actually teaching and learning. They lose sight of what they have achieved and what they can do. As the author states, it becomes a deficit approach to teaching and learning.

    I’ll leave the final word to Gabbie Stroud:
    We need to contemplate not only what we should teach our children, but also how we should teach them. And we must start valuing our teachers.” (p334)

    Postscript: Over the first weekend in March, my husband and I went to the Cobargo Folk Festival. It’s a lovely little festival in a beautiful part of the south coast of NSW. I was pleased and surprised to see in the program, a discussion panel called “What’s Happened to our Education System?” The three speakers were all enthusiastic, creative, professional teachers – who had all left teaching. (Though one of them, Nick Thornton, is about to return to the classroom, to focus on the educational needs of children who have experienced trauma.  And the second, Kate Liston-Mills, has completed a Librarian Studies course.) The third speaker was none other than Gabbie Stroud. It was a delight to meet her and hear her speak about her experiences and what prompted her to write the book.

    If you are interested in finding out more about her work, check out her website (I love the retro illustrations! Classic 1950’s twee) https://gabbiestroud.com/

  • Books and reading,  History

    Author Talk at Springwood Library: Sulari Gentill

    I spotted another terrific author talk organised by Blue Mountains Libraries and I confess, I booked myself in immediately.

    For those who haven’t come across her work yet, Sulari Gentill is the Australian author of the Rowland Sinclair series. Beginning with the first title, A Few Right Thinking Men, published in 2011, the (to date) nine books relate the adventures of Rowland Sinclair, “an artist and a gentleman…with a talent for scandal”.  (from the cover blurb)

    Along with his friends Edna (a talented sculptress and Rowland’s model for his many nude portraits as well as a possible love interest), Clyde (Communist Party of Australia member) and Milton (wannabe poet) Rowland  travels Australia and further afield, stumbling into crimes that need solving.

    The books are all set in the 1930’s, the time of the Great Depression, battles between the Far Right (The New Guard and  Antipodean Nazi sympathisers) and Communists; seances and spiritualism; stockmen, gangsters, and bitter politics. Gentill immerses the reader in the thinking, politics, places, fashions and fads of these turbulent times.

    The settings of the novels are wonderful: from the leafy Sydney suburb of Woollhara to the grimy streets of Sydney’s slums; from the new national capital of Canberra to the heart of the ‘squattocracy’ at Yass; from the opulence of the Hydro Majestic Hotel at Medlow Bath ( my fellow Blue Mountains readers will know this one) to sailing on the Aquitania; Shanghai; London; even to Munich as Hitler rises to power.

    Gentill has the knack of weaving  compelling crime stories with spot- on historical detail and wry humour, all told through the eyes of her very likeable character and his chums.

    I greatly enjoyed this series and can’t wait to hear the author talk about her newest title, All the Tea in China, published January 2019.

    I might see some other Blue Mountains readers  at the Author Talk on 9th March at 2pm. Let me know in the comments below if you are planning to come.

  • Books and reading

    Book Review: ‘Cedar Valley’ by Holly Throsby

    This is Holly Throsby’s second novel, following her debut Goodwood. Like it’s predecessor, Cedar Valley is set in a small Australian country town. In an interview I heard with Throsby, she admitted that she’d not lived in rural Australia, but is drawn to small towns in her writing. She does capture the feel of small town life very well in this novel.

    The book’s plot is an interesting mix of ‘coming of age’ (the story of Benny, a young woman seeking information and connection with her lost, dead mother by returning to the town where her mother once lived) and gentle mystery/police investigation story (local cops trying to figure out the identity and story behind a man who arrives, and dies, in the town on the same day.)

    I say ‘gentle’ because this is not a crime novel. There is no blood, no murder weapon, no tense climactic scene. The stories of Benny and the mystery man gently unfold throughout the book. Seemingly unconnected, there is a ribbon of plot that ties them together in the end. The conclusion is nicely done.

    Throsby’s style is almost ‘naive’, if that’s a term that can be used in literature. The book moves slowly, as Benny absorbs the sights, sounds, and people of the town she has come to live in for a while. The mystery plays itself out in a measured, thoughtful way, never taking over from the emotion of Benny and the other characters, but somehow, in odd ways, drawing the town’s population together as they variously try to puzzle out the story of the man who died in front of the Antiques shop.

    I enjoyed this book. I read it in between Kristina Olsson’s Shell (slow moving plot but exquisite language) and Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (an important but harrowing book). It contrasted nicely with both.

  • Books and reading

    Book Review: ‘Lenny’s Book of Everything’ by Karen Foxlee

    I was surprised to learn that the author of this 2018 published book is Australian. It is set in a town in the US state of Ohio and Foxlee captures the atmosphere of an American town in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s  so well.

    But,to the story…

    What a lovely read this is.

    The story centres around a young girl, Lenny Spink, who lives with her struggling single mother Cindy and her younger brother Davey. The family dynamics (siblings sharing secrets from the grown ups, occasional bickering, the kids’ more or less missing father, Cindy’s wannabe suitor, financial struggles and Cindy’s constant worrying) are portrayed from the viewpoint of Lenny, resulting in warm humour, the wisdom of  children, and real sadness.

    Davey suffers from a condition (unnamed at the book’s opening) which causes him to grow and grow and grow. Lenny reports on her brother’s growth and unusual physical appearance in a matter of fact way but the reader senses her fear and confusion.

    There are moments of humour, too, in the sometimes odd, sometimes endearing, sometimes unsympathetic neighbours and others who people Lenny and Davey’s world: their babysitter Mrs Gaspar from Hungary, the revolting Mr King, ‘Great Aunt Em’, Peter Spink the absentee father, Lenny’s friends CJ and Mathew from school, the kindergarten teacher, the children’s unseen grandmother Nanny Flora…and of course Martha, from Burrell’s Publishing Company, who sends weekly issues of the Burrell’s Build-it-at-home Encyclopedia. The two children explore the world through the pages of this publishing marvel as they receive issues covering the A’s right through to ‘WXYZ’. They weave fantasies about things they are learning into their everyday lives with humorous and at times, heartbreaking effect.

    The book describes a more innocent time, when home encyclopedias were to be treasured for the knowledge they held. At the same time we, the readers, wish that the setting was a modern day one because of advances in medical science that might, just might, save Davey.

    This is a sweet, funny, sad and hopeful book.

  • Books and reading,  Writing

    Australian Women Writers Challenge

    I discovered this initiative only this year, at a writing workshop I attended: thank you Julian Leatherdale (http://www.julianleatherdale.com/) for the information.

    The AWW aims to encourage, via Twitter and Facebook, email and websites, librarians, booksellers, publishers, book bloggers, English teachers and authors were invited to examine their reading habits, and commit to reading and reviewing more books by Australian women.
    Quoted from the AWW blog, which you can find at: http://australianwomenwriters.com/

    Readers can link their reviews via the AWW website, and sign up for regular emails in which AWW volunteers give ’round ups’ of the latest batch of reviews in particular genres.

    If you are a reader who’d like to discover more of the wonderful works created by women writing in Australia, this is a terrific way to keep informed and across the latest (and not so recent) from women authors.