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Looking back: 2018 in review

This seems to be the time of year when people review their reading and viewing progress over the last year, so I’ll add my two-bits.

During 2018 I read 57 books that I reviewed on this blog (I actually read more but I’m ‘saving’ them for when I have no posts). Of these 36/57 were by women, which doesn’t surprise me. I’m involved in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, and that tends to steer me towards women writers.

I mainly read Australian works, with 35/57 being written by Australians, although not necessarily set in Australia. Of these 35, 24 were written by Australian Women, again probably reflecting the AWW challenge.

I lean towards non-fiction, with 37/57 falling into the non-fiction category. Of these 37, twenty were ‘academic’ non-fiction, both history and biography, which I distinguish from other non-fiction by the presence of footnotes and/or a bibliography.

As far as most memorable reads go, I started the year well with Phillipe Sands’ East-West Street and finished it with David Sornig’s Blue Lake.  Along the way and with hindsight, I really enjoyed Janet McCalman’s Journeyings, Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner, and Judith Brett’s The Enigmatic Mr Deakin.

I saw 27 movies over the year, eight of which were subtitled. If I were to nominate a New Year’s resolution (which I won’t) then it would be to see more international films.

And that was the year that was.

‘Mothers Grimm’ by Danielle Wood


wood_mothersgrimm

2014, 212 p.

When I was little, my mother gave me her copy of  ‘Children’s Treasure House”, printed in 1935. It was a huge book- some 700 odd pages, with stories from a range of mainly British authors, and a sprinkling of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm. It had beautiful art deco illustrations, including colour plates. Few of the stories were rewritten for younger readers, and the fairy stories were left with their darkness and thinly veiled menace. There were plenty of  absent mothers, bad mothers and step mothers, but the good mother was always absent. It seems that the story can only begin once the Good Mother gets out of the way.

In her prologue to her collection of long short stories Mothers Grimm, Danielle Wood reminds us that the archetype of the Good Mother still surrounds us, in advertising, in magazines and in impossibly well-groomed women in your playgroup. Written in the second person, she invites the reader into an identification with a less glowing model, the not-very-good, ambivalent, rather resentful mother instead. She does this through four lengthy short stories, each titled with a single word, that have at their base the sort of archetypes that emerge in the tales of the Brothers Grimm. I can sense the presence of those archetypes (e.g. Hansel and Gretel in ‘Cottage’), but I must confess that I’m struggling to put my finger on the exact story or character for some of the others.

The four stories are all set in the present day, with women as the main characters and men playing only bit parts. The women here are sisters and mothers, and they are flawed. Some are exhausted, others guilt-riven, some manipulative, others cruel. The stories are long enough to really develop the characters and draw you into identification – not necessarily sympathy- with them. At about 40-50 pages in length, they are just the right length for me as a reader: able to be read in one sitting, and meaty enough that you don’t’ want to turn to the next one, but just let it sit instead.  They are Australian stories without going all ‘Henry Lawson’ on the reader; they are urban and current and thoroughly relatable.

But looking at the publisher’s blurb on the front cover (which to be fair, the author has limited control over), I found myself wondering if I had read the same stories. “Wickedly dark, astonishingly funny, happy endings not guaranteed” it reads.  Dark, certainly but I found too much truth in them to be funny, and there are certainly no happy endings here, just realistic, stuck-with-it ones. As life is.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

Other reviews:

Sue at Whispering Gums enjoyed it, and did a much better job than I in identifying the source stories!

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I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2018 database.

‘Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand’ by Helen Simonson

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2010, 359 p.

This was a bookgroup selection and I’d left it late to start reading it. So, in the one night I was catapulted from Vichy France and Nazi interrogators in Lovers at the Chameleon Club  into  English village life, retired Army Majors and golf-club gossip in Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. A very abrupt change of pace!

I was surprised to learn that Helen Simonson is an American writer, albeit British-born, who has lived in America for the past twenty years. She captures village life remarkably well. Midsomer Murders is a cliché, but when I visited my brother who lives near a village outside Maidenhead, I was stunned to find myself in a village that looked very much like that murderous locale, right down to the village green with the white posts and looped chain fence. This is the sort of place in which  68 year old Major Pettigrew (retired) makes his last stand.

Not that you’d know it from the opening pages of the book where, numb after the death of his brother, he has put on his deceased-wife’s floral housecoat. The doorbell rings, and he answer it to find Mrs Ali, the widow of the local general-store owner. With self-assured pomposity and casual racism, he had barely been aware of her except to buy his blended tea from her, but they strike up a friendship.  They are drawn into the disastrous plans by the local golf club to have as their party theme ‘The Last Days of the Maharajah’, an ignorant and insensitive event which conflates India and Pakistan, the Mughals and the Empire. Both the Major and Mrs Ali are quietly resisting the suffocating oversight of their son/nephew, both of whom are insufferable in different ways. The book does become rather hyperactive at the end.

Is it the persistence of Baby Boomers as a reliable reading market that has led to a rash of older-person ‘twilight’ relationships? I’m thinking of Our Souls at Night, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, or Australian author Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions, all of which have older protagonists who are being pressured by their offspring.

This book is a comfortable read that reveals a wry sense of humour. I was reminded of Barbara Pym, and perhaps even shades of Jane Austen. I hadn’t ever heard of it, but it was a very enjoyable escape that made you squirm at time with embarrassment, roll your eyes at pretension and prejudice, and rejoice in a happy ending that didn’t necessarily tie up all the ends too neatly.

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups (a reading selection for my bookgroup)

Rating: 7.5/10

I hear with my little ear: podcasts 7 – 14 December 2018

Background Briefing. The Bird and the Businessman. I am angry!! This is appalling. I have written to the Minister and Shadow Minister. And while I’m thinking about it, I’m angry about the proposed freeway in the Edithvale wetlands too.

Revolutionspodcast Episode 9.14 The Ten Tragic Days. OK, so President Madero was democratically elected, finally breaking the hold of Porfirio Diaz over Mexico. He only ruled for 15 months before he was deposed by counter-revolutionary forces emboldened by US Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson. A pretty depressing episode really, especially the care with which it was made to look ‘constitutional’.  I need to find a podcast that makes me laugh, I think

Rough Translation  Intruders. Argentian daytime television program ‘Intruders’ was tacky, daytime television (that everyone watched but no-one would admit watching) with a long-standing, smirking, somewhat sleazy male host and a procession of women in high heels. Then, things changed, as the show began voicing feminist ideas. A fascinating podcast.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 30 Nov- 6 December 2018

Rear Vision It’s the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement in North Ireland, but I was more attracted to these podcasts, broadcast earlier this year, in relation to Brexit and the fears of a ‘hard border’ in Ireland again. It’s a two-part series, with Part I looking at The Troubles and Part II looking at the agreement. It’s really good to revisit the history of the Troubles brought right up to date. I didn’t realize how fragile the ‘peace’ is.

Another Rear Vision episode that I’ve had saved for a while is Red Marauder: A History of Drought in Australia. An interesting idea: that drought only really entered settler consciousness after the Selection Acts of the 1860s and 1870s that made it possible for small-scale farming, rather than earlier when squatters could just move their flocks and herds if one area became dry. An interesting review of drought policy over the last 30 years, too, and the way that really good policy was unstitched to return us to ad-hoc drought relief again.

Russia, if you’re listening. This episode is called “Why are news networks calling Paul Manafort an idiot?” but it also goes on to talk about Russia and the naval standoff with Ukraine. And interesting to go back to the Felix Sater episode, now that he’s popping up in the news again.

Revolutionspodcast. Episode 9.13 The Plan of Ayala. Francisco Madero decides to rile up his old friends, including Emiliano Zapata who issues the Plan of Ayala, a blue-print for third-world agrarian revolutions everywhere.

Duolingo Podcasts. These really are good. La voz de la calle is about a man in Buenos Aries who had fallen from a job, his own home and family into homelessness in the Argentinian economic crisis of 1999. My Spanish teachers had mentioned the Argentinian pronunciation of words with double-L, and it’s certainly apparent here.

 

 

 

‘Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris 1932’ by Francine Prose

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2014, 436p.

It’s just as well that one of the rules I set for myself when reading is to give a book at least 100 pages before I give up on it. I didn’t know anything about this book and for the first fifty or so pages I was just confused.

There are multiple narrators here, speaking through different genres. Gabor Tsenyi, a Hungarian photographer, writes long letters home to his parents that do not quite conceal his incessant asking for money. Lionel Maine is an American novelist of the big, baggy, gossipy type who has written a memoir of his time in Paris pre-WWII called ‘Make Yourself New’. Suzanne Dunois Tsenyi, who becomes Gabor’s wife, writes an unpublished memoir of the events, with the instruction that the memoir be burnt at her death. Wealthy art patron Baroness Lily de Rossignol, who has married into an auto company, writes her own jauntily named memoir ‘A Baroness By Night’. The sections titled ‘Yvonne’ are written in the third person by an unnamed omniscient narrator. The heft of the book appears in the fictional biography of athlete and motor racer ‘The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars’ by Natalie Dunois.

Told from these varying voices and agendas, these characters are drawn to the Chameleon club, a Parisian nightclub which attracts gays, lesbians, cross-dressers and artists. As Hitler’s politics begin to filter beyond Germany’s borders, the club increasingly falls under scrutiny, and adapts to fit the political milieu.  The main interest of the book is a regular cross-dressing customer of the club, Lou Villars.  A former athlete and motor racer, she is spurned by her girlfriend Arlette and becomes drawn into National Socialism, becoming a notorious Nazi informant and interrogator.

I only gradually realized that this book is  based in fact, albeit with fictional names and imaged events. The photograph around which much of the action revolves was taken by Brassai entitled ‘Fat Claude and her girlfriend at Le Monocle’ (see here) and Lou Villars is a barely disguised Violette Morris, (see also here) who gave the Germans information about the Maginot Line and members of the French Resistance.

I was conscious that my approach to the book changed dramatically once I realized that it was based on fact. I resisted the temptation to start googling the characters, and instead let the fictional book take me where it wanted me to go. There is a ‘Cabaret’-style artifice to the book, which became increasingly dark as the narrative went on. By having multiple narrators, the author is not bound to ‘explaining’ her Lou Villars character, or her seduction into National Socialism, although the multiple narrators give her scope to speculate.  I’m glad that I didn’t give up at 100 pages in, but I do wonder if my response to the book would have been different had I realized what the author was doing, earlier on.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I had heard of Francine Prose

My rating: 8

‘The True Colour of the Sea’ by Robert Drewe

Drewe

2018, 209 p.

It would come as no surprise that this collection of short stories should coalesce around the theme of the sea. Several of Robert Drewe’s earlier works reference water: The Bodysurfers collection of short stories, The Drowner (which, admittedly was more about the arid outback than water) and his own memoir The Shark Net.  But it’s not just the Australian sea that provides the background for many of these stories: instead we travel to a Pacific Island and to Cuba, as well as more recognizable beach-side settings.

I always find it hard to review a collection of short stories as a precis often gives the whole story away: by its very nature a ‘short’ story doesn’t have a lot of flesh to cut away. I tend to flip through, and if I can remember the scenario, then I feel that the story has worked for me.

On that basis, I enjoyed ‘ Another Word for Cannibals’ where an earnest, progressive, European couple returns to a Pacific island to complete the genealogical circle of their great-great-great grandfather’s missionary endeavour. ‘Varadero’, set in a down-at-heel Cuban hotel really appealed to me, as it captured Cuban tourism so well. ‘Lavender Bay Noir’ is slightly creepy in a domestic sunlit, sea-kissed setting. ‘Spotting Killer Whales’ involves an adult family gathering together in a restaurant overlooking the sea after their father has died. The eponymous ‘The True Colour of the Sea’ has a historical setting, where a colonial artist is left an a rock in the Arafura Sea.

These eleven stories were just the right length as far as I’m concerned. They were long enough to get your teeth into, but were easily read as a story-before-bedtime read. Drewe is such an accomplished writer, confident and clear-eyed.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I saw it there on the library shelf

My rating: 8.5/10