Category Archives: Book reviews

‘Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self’ by Claire Tomalin

Tomalin_Pepys

2002, 380 P plus notes

There are some biographies where you think that there’s no point in anyone else even picking up their pen to write another one. Claire Tomalin’s biography of Samuel Pepys falls into that category.  This isn’t the first time I have read this book, because I read it in 2005- certainly long enough to have forgotten much of the details. That was before I had been to London myself, and before I had started my own academic work in biography. I very much enjoyed it in 2005 and enjoyed it even more fourteen years later.

I think that I first became aware of Samuel Pepys in a school reader, where his eyewitness report of the Great Fire of London was reproduced. I’d always associated him more with the events that he wrote about (the fire, the plague etc) rather than as a person in his own right. But as Claire Tomalin points out, perhaps his most striking and original achievement was to see himself, his actions and his motivations, as a topic in themselves. One of the most opaque things over time and culture is to sense how people saw themselves, especially when such a question was so often overlaid with religious language. In Pepys we have a man holding himself up to his own scrutiny, laughing at himself, and at times writing what he knew could be used against him politically.

Pepys’ diaries covered only nine of his seventy years. It’s not really clear why he started writing them, but it was a very deliberate act when he purchased a notebook and carefully ruled up each page – all 280 of them- and drew 20-30 evenly spaced lines on which to write. He wrote in shorthand, with some proper nouns written in English, and breaking into pidgin Spanish when he wanted to describe some of his (all too frequent) amatory adventures.

Although Pepys’ diaries of course provide the richest source for Tomalin’s work (and indeed, the work of any Pepys scholar), this biography devotes about 1/3 of its length to the 1660-1669 period of the diaries. The other 2/3 deals with his life before beginning the diaries, and then after the diaries. This seems a judicious weighting, and one which placed the journals, important though they are, into the context of his whole life.

The book starts with a lengthy list of ‘who’s who’ which I found myself turning to frequently. As Tomalin highlights, when Pepys was starting out on his career, contacts were everything in making it possible for this son of a tailor to end up as a high-level civil servant and Member of Parliament. Even though I’m not in the habit of taking my history from Academy Award winning films, the recent film The Favourite exemplified the trails of patronage that could bring distant cousins into orbits far beyond their expectations.

What struck me particularly on this second reading, and particularly in days when watching the so-far unsuccessful attempts at political change in Venezuela, is just how dangerous it is when a country undertakes a huge political change. I’m not talking about elections, which in our case are just variations on the same, but the big political about-faces. Pepys experienced a number of such changes, at an uncomfortably close quarter to royal power, but without the means or patronage to have any influence at all on events. He saw the execution of Charles I; he supported Oliver Cromwell when he was a young man; he managed to switch to Charles II in time; he escaped suspicion (just) after the Popish plots; and he acquiesced when William took the throne. The people he aligned himself with survived, and so he did too.

Although the book is largely chronologically arranged into 3 parts (Part I pre-diaries; Part II 1660-1669 diary entries; Part III 1670-1703), its chapters are thematic as well e.g. work, marriage, science. She does not cite at length from the journals themselves, choosing to comment on them instead of reproducing them.

At times Pepys seems like us: at other times, not. His infidelities and what now reads like rank sexual harassment are uncomfortable reading; his domestic violence to his wife and servants is not endearing. But I found myself laughing when his enraged wife threatened his manhood with red-hot fire tools when she found out about his affair with the maid, and his own awareness of his hypocrisy, failings and weakness keeps him human.  Tomalin has given us a fully rounded man, and I just can’t imagine anyone else doing it better.

By the way, the first time I read this book, I was fascinated by the Pepys Diary page, which is still going. Each day an entry from the diaries is posted in full and people, who have a wealth of information about Pepys and London, annotate the entries.  Another site which I’ve enjoyed, although it’s aimed at children is an interactive site  fireoflondon.org.uk

My rating: 9.5/10  This is biography at its best

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups.

‘The Glad Shout’ by Alice Robinson

The-Glad-Shout-Alice-Robinson

2019, 310 p

This book opens right in the middle of the action, with Isobel clutching onto the arm of her husband Shaun, with her daughter Matilda clamped to her hip. They are in what reads like the MCG in Melbourne, which has been turned into an emergency evacuation centre after Melbourne has been lashed by a destructive storm. Set in a near future, encroaching sea levels have poisoned bayside gardens and lap the boulevards along the bay, and with storm damage making places uninsurable, the suburbs have become increasingly derelict and dangerous.  We have seen flashes of this in our news already: the Louisiana Superdome stadium after Hurricane Katrina, the huge waves crashing onto the Malecon in Havana Cuba, people sitting on their roofs in Queensland floods, awaiting rescue. In The Glad Shout, Robinson sets her story after the consequences of climate change have come crashing, literally, into Melbourne. Tasmania, which has heeded the perils of climate change, is still safe; Western Australia has finally seceded, and the other states are closing their borders against the climate refugees who want to join family members interstate and escape this climate nightmare.

The book has two narratives, told in alternating chapters. The present-day chapters, written in the present tense, have Isobel having to fend for herself in the stadium and finally making the decision to leave, putting her own life and that of her daughter into the hands of people-smugglers. We’ve seen this scenario too: people crammed onto dinghies with insufficient food and water, the lifejackets and the oil slick of dysfunctional engines.

The other narrative is flashback to Isobel’s tense relationship with her mother Luna, her sometimes ambivalent love for her husband Shaun, her guilt over her own mothering of Matilda. Her mother Luna, who had purchased the house that was swamped by floodwaters, was a real-estate agent and property investor. She placed great store on possessions and wealth, and she grieved intensely when Isobel’s brother, Josh, left home. Much of the flashback sections is involved with the nuances and Isobel’s sense of grievance over the people who surround her, and her conflicted relationship with motherhood, both as daughter and mother herself.

There’s always a risk in having double narratives running through a novel. Too often, as in this case, one is more compelling than the other, and so the reader feels a sense of impatience at having to wade through this section before reaching the next. I tired of the flashbacks, which bordered on the banal, and rather implausibly, they increasingly found their way into the present-day-disaster section as well. I suspect that the author herself has young children, and perhaps its my middle-agedness that makes me impatient of her obsession with her birth-experience with Matilda: something that is only a small part of the relationship between mother and child, in the long run. I wouldn’t presume to know what those exhausted, bedraggled mothers we see on television stumbling ashore from refugee boats had been thinking on the journey. But I suspect that they haven’t been mentally rehashing the slights and annoyances of their relationship with their mother, or castigating themselves for their ambivalence over their own motherhood.

On the other hand, I liked her celebration of  women’s strength in an emergency. I liked the politics of climate change and refugee policy being brought into the personal realm, and her exploration of the instincts of maternity, survival and communality in the midst of disaster.  I think that these will be the things that I take away from the novel, and that will keep it memorable. I just wish that there had been less of the emotional angst over relationships and human frailty.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

AWW2019I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database

 

‘ Lost Children Archive’ by Valeria Luiselli

Lost+Children+Archive

2019, 400 p.

Hailed as “a vital work for the Trump era”, Lost Children Archive is a thinly-veiled fictionalization of Valeria Luiselli’s non-fiction essay Tell Me How It Ends. In both her essay and this novel, there is a road-trip across the states of America: a genre familiar to Australian readers through American film and television and explored in our own films (think Mad Max, Priscilla Queen of the Desert) and literature (think perhaps Rabbit Proof Fence, and most recently Carrie Tiffany’s Exploded View). Both Luiselli’s essay and the novel are concerned with the fate of unaccompanied children crossing the Mexican border into America, an issue thrown into the author’s own personal spotlight after volunteering to act as an interpreter for young Central American migrants seeking entry to the U.S. and writ large by Trump’s mantra of Building the Wall.  The essay Tell Me How It Ends was named for her daughter’s pleading to know how the story of these unaccompanied children ends, and already the crossover between the fictional and nonfictional works is blurred. It combines the personal and the political, and among other things, is about story-telling and story tellers.

The Lost Children Archive has resonances of W. E. Sebald’s work, with its integration of photographs and documents. The narrative is structured as an archive in itself. The book is divided into four parts. Its chapters reflect seven archive boxes that stowed in the boot of a car that is carrying an unnamed woman and her husband, and their two children, across the southern border of the US. The two children are not related by blood, each coming from their parent’s previous relationship, but they are considered “our” children and despite (and perhaps because of?) the difference of five years in their ages (10 and 5) they are very close. Sitting in the back seat of the car, day after day, the older boy in particular is aware of the tension between his father and his step-sister’s mother. They had met during a project to document the soundscapes of New York, he as a sound engineer and she as a journalist/producer, or as they distinguish it, one a documentarian, the other a documentarist.  The father wants to embark on a project capturing the lost sounds of the removal of Geronimo and the Apaches, while the mother has been drawn into looking for two little girls sent across the border with only a phone-number written onto the collar of their dresses. The son is aware, without being told, that this will be their last trip together as a family and he and his stepsister decide to run away and become like the lost children that Mama is so driven to find.

The first half of the book is narrated by the mother, and it comes as a surprise to have the narration taken over by her son half way through, and to revisit events and conversations from his perspective. Each section starts with an inventory of one of the boxes, listing  the books and articles, maps and CDs that have been gathered together, and the book itself ends with a series of Polaroid photographs that have – supposedly?- been taken on the trip.

This is a very clever, self-aware book that echoes influences as diverse as Virginia Woolf, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road,  Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and David Bowie’ Space Oddity. There is a long, twenty-page sentence near the end of the book that echoes Molly Bloom in Ulysses. A type of bibliography at the end references the resonances in the book, not direct quotations, many of which are translations of translations. Such reflexivity could be clunky and derivative in clumsier hands, but it’s not: it’s confident and deliberate, and a book of the heart and head.  All of my mental contortions that I’ve had  about a narrator inserting herself into the text dissolve here, with her very clear sense of what she is doing as a creator in a piece of autofiction , as distinct from memoir. As soon as I started reading it, I knew that I was in the hands of a very talented, intelligent writer. It’s been ages since I enjoyed a book as much.

My rating: 10/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘The Maddest Place on Earth’ by Jill Giese

Giese_The-Maddest-Place-on-Earth

2018, 220 p.

In the Epilogue of this book, clinical psychologist and author Jill Giese  writes that she jumped at the rare opportunity of an Open Day at Willsmere, the site of the old Kew Asylum. A little girl asked in that unfettered way that children do, ” If they were all crazy, why did they build them such a nice place to live?” As Giese notes, the most (and increasingly) visible sign of mental illness today is people lying on the streets of Melbourne, wrapped in blankets, begging for small change. Interestingly, it was the urge to give mentally ill people a shelter – an asylum- from the homelessness and penury of living in a blanket, that led to the construction of first the Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum, and within six years, the construction of Kew Asylum, the first purpose-built asylum in Victoria. Both institutions – though plagued with overcrowding – were not established as the ‘Bedlam’-type places of horror that we might assume them to be.

KEWdraw

English: Engraving of the Metropolitan Lunatic Asylum, Kew. Buildings of Yarra Bend Asylum are seen in the foreground. c 1880. Source: Wikipedia

Victoria had what was perceived to be the highest level of mental illness in the world, hence the title “The Maddest Place on Earth”. In fact, at one of the numerous Royal Commissions held into asylums in Victoria during the 19th century, it was predicted that by 2050 every inhabitant of Victoria would be mad. A number of reasons were put forward: our meat-rich diet, the climate, the effect of the Gold Rush, excessive masturbation (although why Victorians would be especially prone to this was not explained) and the success of the Salvation Army in turning people’s minds to God.  Perhaps a better explanation was the “imported insanity” that arose from families ‘back home’ shipping their mentally-ill family members off to the colonies to avoid the scandal of madness. The Gold Rush could have both attracted and elicited madness in men who threw in everything to travel to the other side of the world, with failure more likely than success.

Giese tells the story of the Yarra Bend Asylum and the Kew Asylum but this is not your usual institutional history. Instead of taking a top-down approach, she uses  two main characters as the lens through which to view the asylum system in Victoria. Her first character, George Foley, was the son of an eminent artistic family in England. He suffered his first episode of mental illness while in art school, and suddenly “found himself” on a ship headed for Melbourne. He moved in and out of Yarra Bend and Kew Asylums, continuing to draw while incarcerated, and trying to hold together a precarious artistic existence when he was “outside”. The second character was journalist  Julian Thomas who, working under-cover as a ward attendant, wrote a series of columns for the Argus under the pen-name of “The Vagabond”.  He writes vividly and with humour, every bit the equal of a Mark Twain, or a nineteenth-century Louis Theroux.  Julian Thomas is well-known to historians of Australian (and particularly Victorian) history, but I hadn’t read his work before, and obviously Giese herself – a psychologist herself, rather than a historian-  was delighted to discover him for the first time.

Through George Foley, we catch a glimpse of the sharp edges of the itinerant artist’s life, even for a man clutching the slender thread of family reputation. At a time when there was no treatment for mental illness, he would be housed, fed and given meaningful work while in the asylum, only to flounder once he was released to his own resources again. He drew portraits of personnel within the asylum, including ‘The Vagabond’, who used a touched-up version of the portrait when he finally revealed his identity.  Through ‘The Vagabond’ we learn of meal-times with poorly cooked food, the dissonant music of the asylum band at the fortnightly balls held for inmates and staff, and the brutalizing effects of institutional life on the Kew Asylum attendants in particular.

Right from the establishment of Port Phillip, the presence of mentally ill people on the unmade streets of Melbourne was noted. Until the changes in asylum practice encouraged by the Quakers in the early 19th century in England, asylums had been dire places. Based on the new philosophy that asylums for the mentally ill should be built out of town, on hills in the fresh air, Yarra Bend quickly outgrew its construction in 1848 and was soon surrounded by a mosaic of cottages and even tents. The nearby Kew Asylum was opened in 1872 in a much grander E-shaped Italianate building,  Within five years Kew was the subject of a Royal Commission, which found overcrowding, disease and mistreatment. This was largely caused by a change in the criteria by which patients could be admitted to a ‘lunatic asylum’, which swelled the numbers of mentally ill patients with chronic patients with intellectual disabilities or dementia.  Despite the grandness of Kew Asylum, Yarra Bend stayed largely unchanged with its small cottage structure and more domestic, less institutionalized approach.  As Giese points out, Yarra Bend (despite its age and comparative neglect) came to be seen as the better model for dealing with mental illness with features like shelter, home-cooked food and meaningful, routinized work, that our mental health system could well emulate today.

Giese’s decision to use Foley and the Vagabond as her focus – one a patient, the other a staff member- is inspired. It would have been easy to have taken a patchwork approach, with small stories and vignettes stitched together into a fairly conventional institutional history, but for most of the book she avoids this methodology.  While she also traces through the career of Edward Paley, Inspector of Asylums, and recounts the numerous commissions of enquiry that, as too often happens today, masqueraded as action in themselves, she maintains her gaze on two individuals.  As a reader, you become invested in these two men. You read with a sinking heart of Foley’s struggle for mental stability and you see through the eyes of The Vagabond, in lengthy italized extracts from his columns.  Moreover, The Vagabond, too, has his secrets as Giese discovers at the end of the book.

This book won the Victorian Premier’s History Award for this book, and it fully deserves it. It is beautifully written, although perhaps a little fervent at times, and it is a deeply compassionate book. By foregrounding the long-term experience of George as patient, the Vagabond as attendant and journalist, and to a lesser extent Dr Paley as administrator, she gives a human face to mental illness as a lived experience. It’s a wonderful read.

My rating: 10/10.

Source: review copy from Australian Scholarly Publishing

AWW2019 I have included this book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘Imperfect’ by Lee Kofman

Imperfect1140-658x1024

2019, 306 p

In reading this book, I alternated between anger and a vague sense of voyeurism. When I review books, I tend to avoid tackling the author and try to engage more with the words on the page, the research, the planning decisions in mounting an argument. However, sometimes the author insinuates herself so much into the text, and makes herself so much part of the whole endeavour, that it’s impossible to separate the two. The other book that angered me in this way was Caroline Jones’ Through a Glass Darkly (my review here) and the two books are similar. Both books profess to be – and are – very honest but I find myself wondering just why these authors decided to put themselves on the page like this at such a personal level. They have made their book about themselves, quite deliberately. They force the reader to engage with the writer as a person. And in both cases, I think to myself “You know, I don’t think I like you much” and I want to move away. This is different from not ‘liking’ a character in a fiction book: instead, it is the whole premise and world view through which the book is filtered – and this world view is something that, as authors, these writers have decided to foreground.

Lee Kofman has undergone several bouts of surgery during her life. As a young child in the Soviet Union, she was operated on for heart problems, then a bus accident resulted in injuries to her leg that required skin grafts, leaving her with a large scar and misshapen leg. Her self-consciousness about her scars was heightened when she shifted with her family to Israel, where a high premium is placed on body image, before moving to Australia. She adopted clothes that hid what she saw as her ‘disfigurements’, always tentative about the act of revealing her body to friends and lovers. Not only is this a point of vulnerability, it is complicated further by a sense of inauthenticity and evasion – that she has pretended to be something perfect and whole when she is not.

This self-consciousness about her body and its disfigurement has bubbled through her professional life as well. Her PhD was written about concepts of the human body; she has undergone therapy with what she perceives as mediocre success; she has included in her fiction characters who are physically marred in some way. And now this book: an exploration of ‘body surface’ (her phrase) and the way that it shapes the people we become. It all starts with her.

I confess that my brittleness about her use of her own life-story as a rationale and lens springs from my own experience (ah! I’m aware of my own hypocrisy here). But in her exploration of obesity, horrific burns, facial deformities etc., and her assumption of a sense of shared experience, she personally has the luxury of the dilemma of when and if to reveal. That is a luxury denied to most of the people she interviews, whose difference is right there from the start, visible to all- not just to lovers and friends – but the curious, cruel and supercilious alike.

She admits at times that her own curiosity verges on voyeurism about other people’s experience. Her analysis is not just of imperfect bodies, but bodies that have been deliberately manipulated through extreme surgery and piercing, tattooing and shaping. She ranges far, interweaving her interviews with ‘imperfect’ people with academic research encountered as part of her PhD study. In many ways, even though I know that many readers enjoy it, I am uncomfortable with this mixture of the confessional and the academic.

She writes that her own sons have albinism. I do wonder how they will read this book when they are older. Will they see “Mummy’s scars”, which have figured so heavily in her writing and academic life, as a common bond between them, or will they resist? Will they resent being drawn into her analysis? I suspect that they may well.

Kofman gives us plenty of herself, but the voices of the people she interviews are reflected through her lens. I find myself thinking of the excellent ABC program “You Can’t Ask That” that gives time to look, and then listen. The interviewer there is silent because the questions are written on cards, and drawn from a range of questioners. Kofman is not silent.

I will probably let this post sit for a while as I ponder whether to post it. When I dislike a book, I generally don’t write a blog post about it at all. After all, I figure, if the book is a dud, then my piling-on is not going to make the book any better, or the author a better writer.

But neither this book, nor Caroline Jones’ book are duds.  And in both cases, the author herself has made choices. She has chosen to place herself in the centre of her book, not just in terms of the action (as an autobiographer or memoirist might do), but to use herself as the starting point of the analysis, not just in an intellectual sense but asking you to join her in the exploration as well. In this case, I’m not comfortable with her fixation on what she sees as her own failings. Even more, I’m not comfortable with her assumption that it gives her a sense of fellow-feeling with people whose ‘body-surface’ is much more confronting and demanding than hers.

My rating: 7/10 (actually, I found this hard to judge)

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

AWW2019I have included this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.

‘Black Tide’ by Peter Temple

Temple_BlackTide

1999, 356 p.

That’s it. I’m not reading another Peter Temple ever.

In fact, I said that to myself after I had to re-read Truth for my CAE bookgroup earlier this year. I looked back at my original blog post and everything I said there, I say again. Too disjointed. Too much conversation. Too confusing. And definitely not worthy of a Miles Franklin prize.

I’m amazed to find that I’ve read as many Peter Temples as I have. I quite liked The Broken Shore, but by White Dog the appeal had worn off. In the Evil Day was set in Africa, but it had all the same problems (too disjointed, too much conversation, too confusing etc).  He does dialogue well, but why doesn’t (didn’t) he just write plays? At least the speaker is identified in a script and you don’t have to count back to see who’s talking. And who are all these people he keeps bringing in? Or capturing a setting, which he also does well: why doesn’t (didn’t) he just write travel books?

At least Black Tide is a Jack Irish story, and I can see Guy Pearce, the three old blokes at the pub, Cam, Harry Strang and Stan the bartender in my mind’s eye.  Thank God for television, I say. The dodgy betting is here, and the carpentry, and a bit of sex, along with a confusing story about dodgy companies.  But I really have no idea what it was about.

So that’s it. Ned Kelly Awards and Miles Franklin prize be damned. If someone chooses another Peter Temple for bookgroup ever again, I’m just going to say “Nup. I don’t like Peter Temple”.

My rating: 6/10

Read because: ONLY because it was chosen for my CAE bookgroup.

‘Short Walks from Bogota’ by Tom Feiling

feiling

2012, 288 p.

Before I went to Colombia recently, I tried to find books set there. Of course, there’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez but (dare I say it?) many of his books are rather similar and I wanted to read something different.  But everything I read seemed fixated on violence and drug-crime. Are there no other stories to be told about Colombia?

Tom Feiling found a similar phenomenon. He had been in Colombia in its violent decades, but in 2010 he went back, spurred by then-president Alvaro Uribe’s declaration that the country had moved from terrorism to tourism.  Tourists would need a book about the ‘new’ Colombia, he thought, and so he decided to write it.

However, he too has written a book that is steeped in drugs and violence, but he bookends this period by accounts of colonialism and twentieth-century history, and a view towards the future. It’s not a ‘walking’ book as such, although he does his fair share of hiking and talking and bumping around on the back of motorcycles and trucks. He visits Bogota (which I did not) and Medellin (which I did), and many other mainly rural places as well, many deep within the ‘orange’ Reconsider Your Need to Travel section of the map on the Australian Government Smart Traveller Website. Even in a book hoping to get beyond drug-violence, he found that it had shaped the Colombia that he found in 2010.

The book is written in a chatty, discursive, self-deprecating style and it paints vivid word-pictures of landscapes and people. It was published in 2012, and I think that Colombia appears to have been more successful than he anticipated in writing a new narrative for itself- although the persistence of so many Reconsider Your Need to Travel regions some seven years later is disturbing.

I finished reading this when I returned, and perhaps that was the ideal way to read this book. I may have been a bit turned off my plans for solo-60+female travel had I read it earlier.

Sourced from: purchased e-book

Read because: I was going to Colombia, but I didn’t finish it until I returned

My rating: 8/10