Category Archives: The ladies who say ooooh

‘The Dictionary of Lost Words’ by Pip Williams

2020, 406 p.

“Have you read The Dictionary of Lost Words?” I asked my daughter-in-law. She hadn’t, she said, although she started it and then abandoned it because she didn’t find it very interesting. I could sympathize: I wasn’t too enamoured of the first eighty or so pages of the book either. But I’m really glad that I persevered, because by the end, I absolutely loved this book.

I am a historian, and I love history, but I am very conscious of when the research behind a book swamps the narrative. I find myself wishing that the author had done their research, and then just put it away out of reach and written into the spaces left in the history. This is exactly what Pip Williams has done here, and her book is all the stronger for it.

The book is based on the real-life compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary, which formed the basis of Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne, a book which describes the relationship between James Murray, the Editor of the OED and volunteer Dr. William Chester Minor, incarcerated at Broadmoor Asylum. Pip Williams read that book too, and in her author’s note, she says:

I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I was left with the impression that the Dictionary was a particularly male endeavour. From what I could glean, all the editors were men, most of the assistants were men, most of the volunteers were men and most of the literature, manuals and newspaper articles used as evidence for how words were used, were written by men. Even the delegates of the Oxford University Press- those who held the purse strings- were men

p. 410

Yet there were women involved in the Dictionary, and Pip Williams found them. There were James Murray’s wife Ada and three daughters Hilda, Elsie and Rosfrith who were engaged in the endeavour. Edith Thompson and her sister Elizabeth provided 15,000 quotations – perhaps not as many as Dr Minor, but prolific nonetheless. There was Eleanor Bradley who worked as part of her father’s team of assistants. Then there were the women who sent in quotations for words, or who wrote the texts that counted as ‘evidence’ of a word.

It is among these real-life women that Williams has created her story, finding the gaps and merging fact and fiction. Her fictional character, Esme, is the daughter of one of the lexicographers working in the Scriptorium, a rather-grandly named shed in the grounds of James Murray’s house. Her mother had died, and her father is raising her with the aid of Lizzie, an Irish maid not much older than Esme herself. Esme accompanies her father to the ‘Scrippy’, where she hides under the table as the lexicographers work, and it is from under the table that she notices one of the slips on which the words are written floating down to the floor. It’s the word ‘bondmaid’, and she takes it and hides it in the trunk under Lizzie’s bed onto which she scratches the label ‘The Dictionary of Lost Words’. As she becomes increasingly aware of the class gap between herself and Lizzie, and the gender gap between the men compiling the Dictionary and the women whose work provides the fabric of their middle-class existence, she is drawn to more ‘lost’ and ‘unknowledged’ words. She collects them from Lizzie, from old, toothless Mabel in the market, from actress-turned-suffragette Tilda, and as her experience grows, from her own knowledge of women’s bodies.

At the same time, this fictional Lizzie is living within a real-life historical world including the suffrage movement and World War I. Just as we are shaped by events and trends (for myself: baby-boomer prosperity, a politics in which the Labor Party became a viable political contender, the internet, 9/11, COVID), so too Lizzie’s life is touched by historical events, but Williams deftly keeps these as external, but inexorable influences without letting them overwhelm the narrative. She has her research well under control.

The book is steeped in questions of language and power, and there are some nice little plot tweaks that highlight the importance of language and words. One of the lexicographers speaks to Esme in Esperanto – that quixotic attempt to construct an international language and the Suffragettes adopt the motto of “Deeds, Not Words”. The epilogue, which takes us to a Lexicography conference in Adelaide in 1989 might seem superfluous or tangential but it’s not: the collection of the Kaurna language by ethnographers and missionaries and its restoration, like language reclamation projects in many Indigenous communities, is another form of “lost words”. In this way, Williams takes the process of transcription and compiling out of the little Scriptorium in an Oxford garden over a period seventy-one years to our own present as Australians as we face our own truth about languages that were proscribed and extinguished, only to be found again.

I really enjoyed this book, and didn’t want it to finish.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups, and my own copy as well.

´Between a Wolf and a Dog´ by Georgia Blain

2016, 320 p.


I have often thought that one´s response to a particular book is often shaped by the books you have read immediately prior. Sometimes a brilliant book casts everything else into the shadows and dulls your appreciation for whatever comes after, but sometimes it works the other way too. Immediately before reading this book, I read a dialogue-heavy political novel and I’m still reading a very long survey history non-fiction book. There’s no ‘singing’ prose in either of them. But right from the first page of Georgia Blain’s book I just relaxed into her precise and confident prose, knowing that I was reading a writer who can really write.

Much of the action in the book takes place over one day – a dank, wet Sydney day with the rain pouring down almost without stopping. We learn in the early pages that 70-year old Hilary is very ill, but she is keeping this knowledge from her two adult daughters, April and Ester. The two sisters have been estranged for three years, after April and Ester’s husband Lawrence had a brief fling. There had always been an underlying tension between the two siblings. Ever since childhood, April has had a scant regard for possessions, and freely takes what she desires. However, ‘taking’ Ester’s husband is a far cry from the ‘borrowed’ clothes and pilfered jewellery from their childhood. Ester and Lawrence’s marriage breaks down, and the two parents are negotiating the shared care of their children.

The phrase ‘Between a Wolf and a Dog’ refers to that twilight time when the shape of things is blurred, and it is no longer clear whether an animal is a wolf – a threat- or a dog -potentially friendly. Likewise, all the characters in the novel are at a pivot of change. Ester, a counselor, has met a man who might be a possibility; Lawrence’s career reputation is about to come crashing down; April and Ester are both wearying under this long estrangement, and Hilary is facing big, life-and-death decisions.

The narrative focus swaps from one character to the other, while the book itself is divided into sections ‘Now’ and ‘Three Years Ago’. I didn’t find all parts equally compelling. Following Ester through her counselling consultations as she negotiates around other people’s pain seemed superfluous, and could easily have been omitted. April and Lawrence’s separate irresponsibility and obliviousness to consequences was repellent, but Blain captured their own self-absorption and recklessness well. One character who remained shadowy was Hilary’s husband and the girls’ father Maurie, a successful artist whose reputation continues to grow after his death from heart attack. His widow Hilary is curling into her own ball of pain, and the closing scenes were poignant as she meets separately with her daughters who are blithely unaware of what is about to come.

The most beautiful writing in this book is in her descriptions of that drumming, streaming rain which lowers like an oppressive cloud over the family. Particularly the two opening scenes, where Lawrence and Ester wake up in their separate houses to the sound of the rain on the roof brought me right into the room with them.

Georgie Blain’s own experience of the same cancer that Hilary faced is a tragedy of irony, but it would be wrong to read this book solely in terms of the author’s own illness. The characters were so real to me that I found myself wondering what happened next, even while reminding myself that it is fiction. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hold its own truth.. It is a beautifully written, domestic novel, carefully constructed and balanced.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from: CAE as our February 2023 bookgroup read.

‘The Diaries of Jane Somers’ by Doris Lessing

501 p. 1984

I was going to say that I hadn’t read any of Lessing’s work because I saw her as an outdated writer from the 1960s in a tweed skirt and pudding-basin haircut. I now realize that I had her mixed up with Iris Murdoch, and that she actually lived until 2013, writing until the early 21st century. And consulting my reading journals from before starting this blog, I found that I had read a Lessing before – The Good Terrorist, a book I loathed. So it’s just as well that I was pushed into reading this book by my CAE bookgroup, because I would never have read it by myself (if I could even find it because it’s not widely available any more).

It has an interesting publishing history. It was published as two separate novels ‘The Diary of a Good Neighbour’ (1983) and ‘If the Old Could…’ (1984) under the pseudonym of ‘Jane Somers’. Lessing explains in the preface to this 1984 volume that she sought to publish the books under another name to test out the publishing industry’s willingness to take on an unknown author, and the effect of a known ‘name’ in achieving publication. She was right to be sceptical about the industry: her main publishers of her many previous works both rejected it. When it was picked up by Michael Joseph (later Penguin), they said that The Diary of a Good Neighbour reminded them of Doris Lessing. Her French publisher made a similar observation. Unlike her other books, it was mainly reviewed by women journalists in women’s magazines, highlighting for her the difficulty in bringing books to the attention of readers (I’m not sure that this is such a problem now, is it? Although you only have to look at the piles of remaindered books to realize just how much writing becomes literally junked because it has missed its wave).

Spoiler alert

Set contemporaneously in the early 1980s (which is when they were published) the books are written in the form of undated diary entries, a format which becomes increasingly implausible with the increasing use of direct speech and which leads to one continuous screed of writing. Jane, or as she calls herself, ‘Janna’ is an editor at Lilith, an upmarket glossy women’s magazine that includes several ‘serious’ sociological pieces on birth control, sex, health, social problems generally, often gleaned and barely disguised from New Scientist and other publications, as well as a heavy photographic emphasis on clothes, food, wine and decor. Janna was smart, fastidious about her own grooming and presentation, with a stylish home but a circumscribed social life beyond work. She had started working at Lilith in 1947, straight from school, and she was still there some 35 years later, although the magazine itself had changed its focus and structure over time. She had married in 1963, but her husband Freddie died with cancer. Several years later her mother died, after living with her briefly when her married sister Georgie said that she could no longer cope with her, as she had four children of her own. By her own admission, and increasingly, Janna realizes that she had been repulsed by, and emotionally absent for, both these deaths.

It is strange, then, that in The Diary of a Good Neighbour this chic and self-contained woman should befriend Maudie Fowler, whom she met in the chemist’s shop and accompanied back to her home. More than ‘befriend’ in a bureaucratic sense: she became a mainstay, a ‘carer’ (before than was a thing) and intimately involved with Maudie’s increasingly frail body in a way that she never could would have done with her husband and mother. This is part of Janna’s own growth as she reaches middle-age and looks back on her earlier life with an appalled guilt and regret that she had not really engaged with mortality, even when it affected those closest to her. Lessing captures well the despair felt at the betrayal by the body in old age, the mutual love/hate relationship between the aging person and their carers, and the bureaucratization of ‘care’ contracted out as part of a financial arrangement. Although set in the 1980s, the old women that Lessing describes live in squalor, with no internal bathrooms and inadequate heating. It’s pretty bleak.

If the Old Could’ picks up after Maudie’s death as Janna falls unexpectedly in love with Richard, a married man. It seemed light and airy after the oppressive sadness of the first book, although as time goes on the one-sidedness of the relationship becomes increasingly apparent. It is clear that Richard is not going to leave his wife; neither Richard nor Janna can bring themselves to actually make love with each other; Richard has Janna’s phone number but she has no way of contacting him; they spend a lot of time moving from pub to coffee shop and walking the suburbs of London. Janna’s caring responsibilities have, if anything increased, as her moody and indolent niece Kate moves in with her and Janna becomes a frequent visitor to Annie, an old, complaining woman who stays immured in her stuffy rooms. Kate is clearly mentally ill – her other niece Jill and Janna’s co-workers at Lilith can see it- but Janna is largely passive in the face of Kate’s slovenliness and her half-hearted involvement with a group of squatters who trash Janna’s immaculate apartment and take advantage of her generosity (shades of The Good Terrorist here). Janna herself is likewise passive in the face of the theft and cheating of the carers employed to look after Annie, perhaps through a misplaced sense of solidarity at the poor treatment of women working for the elderly. If Janna didn’t give enough to her mother or her first husband Freddie, she is surely compensating here, from a sense of guilt and lost opportunities. But the last part of her relationship with Richard and his family, particularly his son, is puzzling and strains credulity.

Moreover, I was never really convinced by Lessing’s selection of career for Janna. We are told repeatedly that she is very busy, but I couldn’t really work out what Janna did at Lilith. She seems to spend a lot of time worrying about her former co-worker and friend Joyce, who leaves for America to save her marriage, and she can drop everything for lunches and walks with Richard when he deigns to call. Janna’s focus on clothes and presentation (both for herself and in judging others) is an important part of her personality, but these could be woven into any professional job. I suspect that Lessing knew little about the high-end magazine industry.

Taken together, this is a lengthy two-part book. Particularly at the start, I seemed to read and read without making progress, and I despaired at ever reaching beyond the first quarter of the book. The writing is dense and wordy. The lack of chapters gives the book a feeling of relentlessness, especially in the dark sections with the increasing oppressiveness of Maudie’s frailty.

However, Lessing is very good at depicting the contradictions and compromises of women’s lives. Although written in Janna’s voice, she leaves space for the reader to make their own judgments of Janna’s actions and priorities. Despite my qualms about Lessing’s choice of high-end journalism for Janna’s work, the book itself has an emotional authenticity that is best appreciated, I suspect, by older readers. Readers who have watched their elderly parents die, have made mistakes and feel regrets, and have lived more than one life. In fact, I can’t imagine younger readers persisting with this book at all but, as an older reader myself, I appreciated watching a woman re-evaluating her life, finding her younger self a puzzling creature, and facing her own mortality head on.

My rating: Hard to judge. 8??

Sourced from: CAE Booksgroups (The Ladies Who Say Oooh)

‘The Woman in White’ by Wilkie Collins

1985, 646p.

I can remember this book being on the shelves at my high school library, but I was never tempted to read it. Perhaps its length was off-putting then, and that’s probably just as true today at 640 small-print pages. (My Kobo estimates a reading time of 22-24 hours). Who has time to read such a lengthy book? But – oh, what we would miss out on!

The Woman in White was serialized in 1859-60 and first published in book form in 1860. It is pure Victoriana, with its grand houses, fortune hunters, madness, swapped identities, secrets, dastardly deeds, swirling fog and graveyards. It uses a favourite Victorian technique of doubles: two sisters; two houses; two villains. But it also comes over as quite modern with its multiple narrators, evoking the structure of a court case, with its steady accumulation of evidence and witnesses. It starts with a young drawing-master, Walter Hartright (is that a pun?) who helps a distressed young woman, dressed all in white, on a dark country road. When he is later appointed as a vacation art tutor to two sisters, he notices the similarity between the youngest sister, Laura, and the unknown Woman in White. He falls in love with her, despite the differences in their social standing, but Laura is already promised to Sir Percival Glyde, a man many years her senior. Sir Percival is not all that he seems, and Laura is the unwitting victim of a conspiracy to defraud her of her inheritance. And I’ll stop here….

It is easy to dismiss as “Victoriana” the concern with inheritance, and women’s financial powerlessness until the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1870 in the UK. But the heiress kidnappings, and the ‘gas-lighting’ of women to the point of insanity were not just literary plot devices: they were real. In fact, Collins dedicated the book to Bryan Proctor, the Commissioner for Lunacy, who had championed Louisa Nottidge, whose real-life story encompasses many of these themes. Although an utterly evil, decisive bout of murder might have solved all the plot machinations, Collins maintains enough ambiguity about his characters – even the baddies- that as a reader you’re glad that the author hasn’t taken such a bloodied step (besides, that could finish the book in 200 pages, instead of 600!) He is a very visual writer, and although his language is convoluted, the accretion of small details helps the reader to ‘see’ the characters and setting. Although it was serialized, its careful plotting right from the start means that you don’t have whole chapters of ‘filler’ and implausible false-leads as you sometimes get in Dickens.

He sustains the tension so well over these 600 pages, so much so that I could hardly put it down at the end and kept sneaking away to snatch covert 15-page reads whenever I could. It has been described as a melodrama, but I prefer to think of it as a thriller, with mounting suspense and a sense of dread, ratcheted-up as the story proceeds. There’s nothing hard-boiled about it at all: instead, it is intricate, verbose, lush, formal – and a damned good read. Even at over 600 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Source: CAE bookgroup (aka The Ladies Who Say Oooh)

‘Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country’ by Gillian Slovo

1997,282 p.

Gillian Slovo, the daughter of white anti-Apartheid activists Joe Slovo and Ruth First, was standing with her siblings at just one of the many public events surrounding her father’s funeral. Nelson Mandela came in.

[Mandela] told us how one day when he had gone to hug his grown-up daughter she had flinched away from him, and burst out “You are the father to all our people, but you have never had the time to be a father to me.”

He let that last sentence hover before speaking again. This, he said, was his greatest, perhaps his only regret: that his children, and the children of his comrades, had been the ones to pay the price of their parents’ commitment…

They knew it somewhere, all their generation: as the state poured out its wrath, they had watched their children suffer. And yet, and yet- what else could they have done?


What else could they have done? This is the question that lies at the heart of Gillian Slovo’s memoir Every Secret Thing. The answer she would give, I think, is “more”. More time, more contact, more honesty, more love. As the child of two committed, White anti-Apartheid activists, Slovo and her sisters shared their parents with a broader political project, as suggested by the title. Their family and their country were indivisible, even though they spent many years living elsewhere. They had grown up with secrets, with whispered conversations between heads almost touching, with a succession of fleeting and shadowy contacts and the knowledge that, as far as their parents were concerned, they always took second place to the larger struggle. Their father Joe Slovo and mother Ruth First were the glamour couple of the anti-Apartheid movement, born themselves to Communist parents, and active members of the South African Communist Party. They resisted apartheid right from the late 1940s, with Joe an advocate at the Johannesburg Bar, acting as a defence lawyer in political trials. Both were under surveillance, and both spent years in exile in UK, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zambia. Ruth was detained under consecutive 90-day detention periods while the government played cat-and-mouse with activists, while Joe spent decades out of South Africa. She was assassinated in 1982 in Zambia through a letter-bomb. Her father lived until 1995, by which time the ANC had been elected through democratic elections and he had become the Minister for Housing in Nelson Mandela’s government- an almost unimaginable change of events from the perspective of the 1950s and 1960s.

Throughout all this, their daughters were observers: told little, kept safe but also kept at arms-length emotionally. In the weeks before his death from cancer, Gillian asked her father about his life, but he furiously exploded “You can write what you want to, but I won’t tell you.” After he died, Gillian returned to South Africa, to try to uncover the secrets that her parents had held from her and the last third of the book revolves around this search. She wants to know the circumstances and the perpetrators of her mother’s murder, and this brings her face-to-face with more secrets – the power apparatus that lent force to the apartheid regime but which has also managed to shapeshift and insinuate itself into the present security structures. She uncovers secrets about her parents as well, secrets which make her question her parents’ marriage and their fidelity and which serve further to underscore the children’s marginality to their parents’ lives.

Her parents were public figures, excoriated by the apartheid regime, but embraced as part of the struggle by the ANC – indeed, Joe Slovo is buried in a formerly-black only Avalon cemetery in Soweto. Their daughters did not know where they fitted in. They were white, had black servants, spent much of their life in England, and yet they stood, almost as ornaments, at the huge funeral celebrations held when their father died. But Gillian also knew that she and her family were not part of that white silence that pervaded the fifty years of apartheid – as she wryly remarked, it has been impossible now to find anyone who owns up to supporting it- and she bridled at the comment of a White driver that he “didn’t hold grudges”, as if he were the victim. Yet, Gillian feels that she has been a victim in that the larger struggle made her inconsequential to the people to whom she most wanted to matter.

As it turns out, I have read two memoirs written by daughters about their parents, one after the other. This memoir, and Swimming Home are similar in that daughters are holding their parents (especially their mothers) to account, and both share a broadly chronological narrative with multiple digressions and time shifts. What I really admire in this memoir is Slovo’s honesty in her motives and her expressions of disappointment in both parents and her frankness in stating that her parents’ commitment came at her expense. But how to measure the contribution of people passionate about huge events and conditions that affect millions, against the demands of three daughters? I don’t know, and at the end, I don’t think that Slovo does either. She will never find out ‘every secret thing’ – an impossible goal- but she concludes that

I, a child of secrets, had done something that I had needed to do. I had laid to rest some of the ghosts that had stalked my life, and in doing so, I’d found a kind of peace.

p. 281

Perhaps, a “kind of peace” is the best that any of us can hope for.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups

‘The Birth House’ by Ami McKay

2007, 352 p.

One of the ongoing debates in literary and historical circles revolves around the question of the dividing line between fiction and history. Just this morning, I read another contribution: Between Fact and Fable: Historical Fiction or Non Fiction Novel? I must confess to my own wariness when historians include speculation in their histories, and am critical of historical fiction that does not display fidelity to the time that it is depicting. In reading this book, however, which was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, I find myself disconcerted by yet another variation on the conundrum. Is this a novel, or mainly a device upon which to hang the author’s research?

The subject matter interests me: I have always been interested in midwifery practices in the past, and the nature of women’s knowledge about their bodies. Set in Scots Bay in Nova Scotia (a real place) during and immediately after WWI, its main character is Dora Rare, the first female Rare in six generations. She is treated with suspicion by the people in the small town, and is drawn to Miss B. the town midwife, who is similarly ostracized (and feared?) by the locals. Out of love for Miss B. and drawn by her own interest, Dora becomes a trainee midwife. However, both Miss B. and Dora find their knowledge and skill questioned when Dr Thomas, an obstetrician in the employ of Farmers Assurance Company of King’s County, arrives in town. He talks up the advantages of health insurance, and deprecates the old folk ways of midwives, which are under threat not only from him but from legislation and regulations encouraging ‘safe’ hospital births.

Despite ‘catching’ many babies, Dora herself struggles to fall pregnant. Faced with no other real alternative and eager to have her own child she has married Archer Bigelow, a feckless man who enjoys the unfettered access to his wife in order to impregnate her. This marriage and her own maternity does not turn out the way she envisaged it would. Forced to leave Scots Bay, she travels to Boston where she meets liberated and unconventional women involved in the suffragette movement. There she develops an independence which helps her to return to fight, along with her friends from the ‘Occasional Knitting Society’, for the rights of Scots Bay women to give birth as they wish.

By its very nature, the author of historical fiction chooses a particular time and place in which to set the novel. By establishing her book in 1916-1920s, a range of fascinating historical situations opens up for Mackay. There’s the Canadian contribution to WWI; the Canadian homefront and attitudes towards men who did not enlist; the Spanish flu epidemic; women’s suffrage; the rise of the ‘girl’ and changing attitudes towards women and their sexuality and maternity. She has clearly researched all these things, but I found myself wondering if the plot was being driven too much by the search for scenarios in order to utilize all this research. While reading it, I don’t think that I ever lost the consciousness that I was reading a book and that there was an author pulling the strings – and for me, that’s not a good thing.

My rating: 6/10

Sourced from: CAE book groups

‘The Imperfectionists’ by Tom Rachman

2014, 288 p.

As it happened, I read two books in a row that were debut novels written by authors writing about their own profession. One of them was As Swallows Fly, based partially in a hospital, and written by a Professor of Nephrology (see my review here), and the other is The Imperfectionists, set in an English-language newspaper published in Rome, written by a former International Herald Tribune staffer. As you might expect, the language and narrative was handled much more confidently in this book which uses the chronological rise and decline of the un-named newspaper founded in 1954 by an American industrialist named by Cyrus Ott as the narrative structure for a series of chapters about different characters involved with the newspaper.

Each ‘character’ chapter has a catchy title, sometimes (but not always) referencing an article being written by the particular journalist, or more often referencing the article which bumped the character’s own work from the columns of the newspaper. In ‘Bush Slumps to New Low in Polls’ we meet Lloyd Burko, who is at the end of his career, while in ‘World’s Oldest Liar Dies at 126’ we see the career rise of Arthur Gopal, originally employed as the obituary writer who becomes fascinated by Gerda Erzberger, a dying Austrian intellectual. ‘Europeans are Lazy, Study Says’ introduces Hardy Benjamin, an insecure woman who settles for a boorish boyfriend for fear of being left alone and disappointing her father. ‘Global Warming Good for Ice Creams’ features Herman Cohen, the Corrections Editor and his relationship with his old friend Jimmy, a scammer and blow-hard. Kathleen Solson, the Editor-in Chief, is the main focus of ‘US General Optimistic on War’ and the foreign correspondent Winston Cheung, based in Cairo, meets the egotistical Rich Snyder while on assignment in ‘The Sex Lives of Islamic Extremists’. Ruby Zaga, the Copy Editor is unhappy and fears that she will be fired in ‘Kooks with Nukes’, while Craig Menzies the News Editor is besotted with Annika but they destroy their relation through their demands of each other in ’76 Die in Baghdad Bombings’. The story that I liked most was ‘Markets Crash Over Fears of China Slowdown’, where Abbey Pinnola, the Chief Financial Officer, finds herself seated on a flight next to a man who she had organized to be fired from the newspaper as part of cutbacks. ‘Cold War Over, Hot War Begins’ moves away from the writers to the reader- in this case, Ornella de Monterecchi, who read each page of the newspaper, column by column, refusing to move to the next issue until she had read the last. (This reminds me of myself, and the two last editions of the Saturday Paper still in their plastic because I haven’t finished the preceding one). Oliver Ott, the grandson of the paper’s founder, features in ‘Gunman Kills 32 in Campus Rampage’ where he is charged by the rest of the family with closing the failing newspaper down after more than sixty years.

Although each character has their own focus chapter, they are threaded through the other chapters as well, sometimes as walk-on parts, at other times as background. Meanwhile, the shaky start of the newspaper, its success and decline, are traced in the connecting chapters, and we learn from the final story that the newspaper has only ever been an act of love, and not intended to make money. But it is an act of love within an industry that is spurred by technology and communication change, but eventually sidelined by the digital media.

I enjoyed this book. Although not particularly fond of short stories, I like it when they are tied together by a theme, and when characters appear and disappear in other stories. The story-telling was very assured, capturing in short brush-strokes the personalities and career trajectories of its characters, while making an ultimately futile plea for the humble, paper-based newspaper.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups

‘City of Friends’ by Joanna Trollope

2017, 327 p.

One of the delights of being in a bookgroup is when you find yourself loving a book that you would never have chosen otherwise. One of the burdens of being in a bookgroup is when you find yourself gritting your teeth to get through a book that you would never have chosen otherwise. City of Friends falls into the latter category.

The narrative revolves between four middle-aged, successful, middle-class London-based women, who met years earlier in an economics course at university, where they were vastly outnumbered by the other male students. Gaby is an investment banker, married with three children. Melissa is a management consultant and single mother of a teenaged son. Beth is an author and academic, expert in business psychology and in a relationship with a younger woman, while Stacey is a senior partner at a private equity firm, married but without children, and suddenly called upon to care for her mother with dementia. Does that entice you to follow them over 327 pages? I didn’t think so.

I’m not a reader who has to like the characters, but I do need to have a frisson of interest in them. I’m aware that Trollope is trying to illustrate modern life and dilemmas – the role of daughters in caring for aging parents, step-children, flexible working, ‘having it all’- but really, I found that I just didn’t care.

If I dislike a book, I don’t usually review it, especially if it is a new writer. But Joanna Trollope OBE has sold more than 7 million copies of her books, so I think that she can do without this reader.

My rating: 4/10

Sourced from: CAE Bookgroups.

‘The Rúin’ by Dervla McTiernan

2019, 400 p.

As the author explains in a preface, the word ‘rúin’ can be read in English, or it can be given its Irish meaning. In Irish, it means secret, but it is also a term of endearment. All three elements of the word come in to this debut novel by Irish lawyer Dervla McTiernan, now resident in Australia.

The first one section of the book is set in Galway in1993. Cormac Reilly, a young and inexperienced Garda (policeman) responds to a call to a derelict house, where he finds a mother dead in bed, and two silent, neglected children. The oldest child, 15 year old Maude, is protective of her five-year old brother, insisting that they both be taken to the police station.

Twenty years later, Detective Cormac Reilly is back in Galway, after climbing the promotional ladder in Dublin. He has moved to be with his partner, Emma, who is undertaking a research project based there. His deployment to the Mill Street station is treated with suspicion, and despite his long and successful experience, he is relegated to reviewing cold cases. He is largely side-lined from a new case where the discovery of Jack Blake’s body in the river is treated as a suicide. Jack’s partner, Aisling is devastated – and McTiernan captures this so well – and his sister refuses to believe that it is suicide. And Detective Reilly finds that the two cases are connected: Jack was that five-year old silent boy in the derelict house twenty years ago; his sister Maude is still fighting for her brother – this time rejecting the easy solution of ‘suicide’ that the police are pushing.

Like many detective/crime novels, this book combines the plot line, the personal home life of the detective protagonist, and the office politics of the police station. The book is told in chronological sections, stepping forward a few days at a time. The focus of the action switches between Aisling and Maude in their fight to get Jack’s case investigated more fully. Cormac reviews that early case from his older, more experienced perspective, following up on the cold cases that he has been assigned, and negotiating the resentment and duplicity of his fellow police officers.

There are a lot of characters here, and often found myself stopping to think “Hold on, who’s that again?”. I’m not particularly good with television crime programs either, which have many small characters who may or may not be associated with the plot line, and I found it even harder to keep track of when I didn’t have a clear visual picture of the characters in my head.

Crime is not one of my favourite genres, and I have mainly read it because it has been a book group selection (which is the case here too). Despite my frequent confusion, I was certainly drawn into the story and I liked the way that you were not left reading and re-reading, not quite sure what the ending was and who ‘dun’ it. I found myself thinking of Peter Temple and Garry Disher, two Australian crime authors whom I have read, and I think that I preferred the more layered treatment of characters that McTiernan provides. She’s not writing against a toxic masculinity, the violence is less bloody but more intimate (and disturbing) and there is a depth to the ‘victims’ – indeed, she doesn’t see them as such, but more as individuals in their own right who have been dragged into a mess not of their making. If I’m going to read another crime novel, I think I’d like it to be one of hers.

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database

My rating: 7.5 maybe 8

Read because: CAE bookgroup.

‘Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China’ by Simon Winchester

2009, 336 p.

I must confess that I had never heard of ‘Science and Civilisation in China’, a 24-volume (and counting) series described by its publisher, Cambridge University Press, as “one of the most remarkable works of scholarship in the twentieth century”. Nor had I heard of Joseph Needham, its original author. When I saw the title of this book Bomb, Book and Compass, I immediately thought of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel and expected that I would be reading a history of Chinese invention and technology. Joseph Needham, I assumed, would be a missionary/explorer type, perhaps from the 1840s after the Opium Wars, when China was opened up to British trade. But I was wrong on many counts. This is a biography of Joseph Needham, the Cambridge biochemist, who arrived in China in 1943 (100 years after I expected!) and began the research that led to this huge multi-volume work on China which is still continuing, even after his death.

Born in 1900, Joseph Needham was already established as a biochemist and academic at Gonville and Caius College Cambridge when three Chinese postgraduate students arrived at the university in 1936. One of them, Lu Gwei-djen, became his lover and through his fascination with the Chinese language and writing, he was chosen to be a director of the Sino-British Scientific Cooperation Office in Chongquing. This organisation, with its aim to provide practical academic support to Chinese universities during the Sino-Japanese War, gave him the opportunity to travel around central China to remote areas, collecting books and materials and exposing him to the history of invention and technological development in China which had been largely ignored by the Western World. On returning to Cambridge, he embarked on writing a book which expanded into a ten-year seven volume project, that ended up occupying him for the next six decades.

Tall, handsome, driven and charismatic, Needham also enjoyed nudism, morris-dancing and a radical form of Anglicanism at Thaxted parish church. That was not all that was radical about him. His wife, Dorothy, a fellow bio-chemist and his mistress Lu Gwei-Djen lived just a few doors from each other in a congenial relationship. Winchester seems rather sceptical that this relationship was warmly embraced by all three protagonists, but I suspect that this is his own morality at work here, and not necessarily that of Joseph, Dorothy and Lu Gwei-Djen. The arrangement seemed to be open knowledge.

Not only was Needham imbued with a very healthy ego (flattered no doubt by the women with whom he flirted throughout his life) but he also was observant and curious. He plunged headlong into learning Chinese, devising his own rigorous and methodical way of learning a difficult language. On watching a Chinese gardener grafting a plum tree on his first day in China, he recalled that an American missionary had confidently claimed that botany was wholly unknown to the Chinese. This, he realized was one of hundreds of techniques that the Western world discounted:

Needham felt he needed to write his new book largely to overcome ignorance like this and to purge the western world of prejudices against the Chinese that were based on such a wholesale lack of knowledge and understanding. Should a book ever be published, then observations like this, and the scores of others he now knew he would make…would be sure to be included….Everything he was about to see- how a Chinese farmer plowed, how a Chinese bridge was built, how iron was smelted in China, what pills a Chinese doctor handed out, which kinds of kites were to be found in a Chinese playground, what a Chinese siege cannon looked like, how a dam, a haystack, or a harness was built in China- was useful to him….The Chinese, he kept discovering again and again, had the longest imaginable history of invention, creation and the generation of new ideas.

p. 66-67

Certainly China gave Needham the experiences and practical examples to develop his project, but this was not a one-way street. He perused markets and purchased books and documents, and sent home a steady stream of documentation -some rare, some freely available- in diplomatic bags. Once he had returned home, he was the recipient of other material, sent to him from a supporter in China. He was aware that some of this material was sold out of desperation, and there is an element of safe-keeping, particularly during the Cultural Revolution. But part of me wonders whether this is not another form of Western culture-stripping, and whether any of it has been the subject of repatriation demands.

So what was his plan for all this material? The original proposal, reprinted in Bomb, Book and Compass, was for a book addressed to

all educated people whether themselves scientists or not, who are interested in the history of science, scientific thought and technology, in relation to the general history of civilisation, and especially the comparative development of Asia and Europe

p. 171

He identified his question early:

STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM. What exactly did the Chinese contribute in the various historical periods to the development of Science, Scientific Thought and Technology? Why did their science always remain empirical and restricted to theories of primitive or mediaeval type? What were the inhibiting factors in their civilisation which prevented the rise of modern science in Asia? It is suggested that, apart from numerous theoretical and psychological factors which demand attention, the concrete factors which moulded asiatic civilisation differently from that of Europe are: a) geographical b) hydrological c) social d) economic

p. 171

I think that it’s important to remember that Needham was a biochemist, not a historian. The way that he went about answering his question, I believe, reflects this. He decided initially to make a historical list of every mechanical invention and abstract idea that had been first conceived and made in China. It took him five years. They were, as Winchester notes, “all about detail. They were assembled with a painstaking concern for even the smallest facts of Chinese life.”

The larger question, since dubbed “The Needham Question” was not answered in his own work. As Winchester notes:

Joseph Needham never fully worked out the answers. Perhaps it was because he was too close to the topic, seeing many trees but not enough forest. And though he makes an attempt at offering some answers in his final volume, he never seems fully convinced of his own arguments and never fully explains his reasons. It has been left to others to take up the challenge in his place.

p. 260

The initial volumes received acclaim even though there were many who, resentful of his discipline-hopping, willed them to fail. His work was seen by many as an eccentric folly, but this view was tempered once they became the jewel in the Cambridge University Press catalogue.

In many ways, the initial volumes salvaged his reputation, which had plummetted in the early 1950s. His interest and language skills may have snagged him the position with the Sino-British Scientific Cooperation Office in the first place, but he was now widely acknowledged as a China Expert. In 1952 he led an International Commission delegated by the World Peace Council to investigate the alleged use of chemical warfare by the US during the Korean War. A committed Socialist throughout his life, and a supporter of the Communist Party, he confirmed the Chinese claim that they had been the targets of American bacteriological weapons. The response of the Establishment was swift. He was declared persona non grata in the United States, his academic position became more tenuous, and the senior members of his college at Cambridge froze him out. He was excoriated in the press, denounced in Parliament and shunned by many.

His reputation was rehabilitated largely on the strength of Science and Civilisation in China, and he continued to champion left-wing causes. Even though he was dismayed by the drabness and conformity in Mao’s China when he visited in 1952, he does not seem to have gone through the same crisis of the soul that many left-wing supporters of the Russian Communist Party suffered when news of Stalin’s activities reached the West.

Simon Winchester is a master story-teller, and it comes through in this book. It is as if Winchester has walked around Joseph Needham, describing him from different perspectives: as an academic, as a sexual being, as a political activist, as a researcher. The maps are right where you need them, and they show you just want you want to know. The text is interspersed with photographs of Joseph Needham, which help you to fix him in your mind’s eye. However, I was a little alarmed at Winchester’s blithe acceptance that the Chinese ‘discovered’ Australia, mentioned in passing and without reference to Gavin Menzies, whom I am assuming Winchester is citing. Without footnotes – beyond his quirky asides at the bottom of some pages – the reader needs to put her trust in Winchester alone, something which never sits well with me.

However, both Needham and Winchester were prescient in asking about China’s historical role, and Winchester’s contribution to a better knowledge of it- especially since China is now so prominent in Australians’ sense of security. I found this book fascinating, exposing me to a person and his research that were completely unknown to me. A prolific popular historian/journalist Winchester, is obviously drawn to men who devote their lives to a passion – e.g. James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary in The Surgeon of Crowthorne and William Smith in The Map that Changed the World. Joseph Needham was one such man, and I’m glad that Winchester introduced him to me.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: CAE Bookgroups. I read this with my face-to-face bookgroup.