THE TRIP TO ECHO SPRING

I chose this one at random from the library shelves because I liked the main title, not stopping to read the sub-title.
Writers and drinking?
Not really interested; and if I had clocked the fact that they are all American, and male, I probably wouldn’t have borrowed it.
After all that, I couldn’t put it down and read it in a day. Which just goes to show.

Olivia Laing’s book is a beautiful hybrid. It’s got elements of memoir, travelogue, biography and literary criticism, as well as a serious investigation of alcoholism. Laing, an English writer, criss-crosses America, often on trains, in search of F.Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Tennessee Williams and John Berryman. She visits cities and towns, houses, neighbourhoods, landscapes. She does the Tennessee Williams tour of New Orleans and travels all the way up to the wild country near Port Angeles in Washington State, just over the water from Vancouver Island, to Cheever’s grave. These famous men, all with blazing talent, led harrowing lives; two committed suicide and the rest of them died sooner than they should have. Not to mention the collateral damage to lovers, wives, children and friends. Which sounds gloomy, but in her hands it’s fascinating. With curiosity and compassion she shows the vulnerable, fragile, complex human being beneath the genius. The link between dysfunctional families, disturbed, unhappy childhoods and addiction is tragically clear. When eventually Laing reveals her own experience of living with her mother’s alcoholic partner, the end – where she travels with her mother in Washington State – gains depth and creates a kind of resolution.

One mystery. Where, exactly, is Echo Spring?
In Tennessee William’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, ‘a trip to Echo Spring’ is Brick’s visit to the liquor cabinet. It’s his favoured brand of bourbon.

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THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE

Two beautiful books by James Rebanks.

Rebanks is a farmer in the Lake District of England, grazing sheep and cattle and working the land in an area where his family have done much the same for over six hundred years. Yes, six centuries. The Shepherd’s Life came out in 2015. It was a memoir, a diary of Rebanks’s farming year, a meditation on farming and landscape and community and belonging. English Pastoral is also beautiful to read, but angrier and more political. Having read the first book, and now this, I think rightly so. He says:

The last forty years on the land were revolutionary and disrupted all that had gone before for thousands of years –  a radical and ill thought-through experiment that was conducted in our fields.
I lived thought those years. I was a witness.

Both books are serious and lyrical, descriptive and closely observed, a delight to read if you enjoy what’s called ‘nature writing’; at the same time, they are unsentimental about the brutal realities of farm families and farm life. Rebanks is incandescent with rage about the ongoing and seemingly unstoppable degradation of soil and land and living creatures great and small when all these are simply inputs in the ledgers of some giant agribusiness. He’s all about connection to his land and community and way of life

(Grandad)… stopped the tractor, climbed off slowly, cursing his stiff old legs as they planted themselves in the freshly tilled soil. He strode across the ground, eyes fixed on the spot. I wondered what he had seen. He bent down and picked something up from a scratch in the ground and put it in his flat cap. Then he climbed back in and set the cap on my knee. I looked down at the eggs and held one in my hand. It was warm, and the mottled colour of the boiled imitation-pebble sweets you could buy at the seaside. They are curlew eggs, he told me. They nest in these fields. We bounced on. When we had come full circle, he took the cap full of eggs, climbed out and placed them back on the ground where they were, recreating something like a nest with the back of his knuckles. I asked him if the parent birds would come back to them, and he said, ‘Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t…but this is the best you can do.’
When we came around the field ten minutes later, the mother curlew was nestled in the dusty seedbed like nothing had happened, and my grandfather grinned. That night I told Dad proudly about Grandad and the curlew eggs. He said Grandad was a ‘soppy old bugger’ and no wonder we had taken so long to get the work done.

All right. Maybe that does come across as sentimental. But later, Rebanks talks about the disappearance of bird species from British farmland. With the improvements in farm machinery and methods have come catastrophic loss of habitat. No hedges or turning circles or rough patches left for nesting birds; no Grandad in a tractor to see the nest in the furrow and ‘do the best he can do’.

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MAISIE DOBBS

Book? Cover? You’re not supposed to judge, but of course I do. The Maisie Dobbs novels by Jacqueline Winspear have cover art that’s so evocative of 1920s and 30s graphic design that they could have been lifted from posters or postcards or – yes – books.  I did a bit of Googling and found that the designers used artist, illustrator and printmaker Andrew Davidson to create the distinctive look over the whole series of – so far – 16 books.
16 Maisie Dobbs mysteries! This is good news for me – a whole new series to enjoy.

Maisie Dobbs introduces a new kind of  detective for her era – a woman and unusually, an “investigator and psychologist” – based in London in 1929. The mystery in this  novel is intriguing but slight, because there’s a lot of backstory covered in this first of the series. Dobbs’ rise from teenage housemaid to gifted university student to battlefield nurse shows the dislocation wrought by WWI and the profound changes in society in its aftermath. This initial case draws on the experiences of bereaved and grieving families and the damaged men and women who returned.

The second book, Birds of a Feather, is not as weighed down by chunks of Maisie’s biography and her life experiences and relationships emerge more organically in the telling of the tale. It’s a cracking mystery and an insight into  the concept of patriotism during those terrible years.

Book 3, Pardonable Lies takes Maisie back to the battlefields of France, now apparently quiet and overgrown but still hiding their deadly secrets. We’re introduced to more of the important people in her life as she faces some moral dilemmas of the aftermath of war.

You can probably tell I’m trying not to give too much away…

A detective series, where you get to know the protagonist and their world, is my go-to reading for dark times, bad weather, fatigue and bad temper and restlessness (murder seems to make me sleep especially well).  I’m so pleased to have Maisie join Kinsey Milhone and the other intrepid female investigators on my shelf.

And I simply liked the cover.

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WINTERING

I always think that here in Central Victoria, the weather turns after Easter. With daylight savings ended, the daylight dwindles and we begin the slide from autumn into winter. Today, Easter Sunday, it’s seriously hot and the local swimming spot – the Golden Point reservoir – will probably be crowded. But the weather forecast tells of a ten degree dip in the temperature on Monday, and a cooler week. No more swimming, except for the hardy few who swim all year round. I’ve seen them, even in winter, bobbing around in the grey water under grey skies.

I always thought they were a bit crazy, but I’ve just read Wintering by English writer Katherine May, and one of her many insights is the joy (and possible therapeutic benefits to people with inflammatory and mental health disorders) of swimming in the cold. By coincidence, a friend – a long term regular swimmer –  has switched from heated pool and laps and lanes to swimming at the reservoir. Every day. It’s deep and very cold, she says, but she sees dragonflies and aquatic insects among the reeds, and swallows darting and swooping overhead. Birds call from the surrounding bush. She thought she saw a kingfisher. It’s beautiful. I am wondering about giving it a try, just once.

But back to Wintering. It’s an exploration of the dark times, the fallow times, the times when we need to stop and… Well,  just stop. Wintering, through May’s eyes, is a process of retreating, repairing, and renewing. She begins her descent into the dark with her husband’s sudden collapse and hospitalisation – a burst appendix – and then her own mystery illness. She takes sick leave, she quits her job as a university lecturer, she begins to home school her child, she bakes and preserves, she begins the practice of swimming in the cold English sea. She reflects on her travels to the parts of the world where winter lasts half the year; on ice and snow; on saunas and thermal pools and layer upon layer upon layer of clothing; on the children’s books like The Box of Delights where the action takes place in the depths of winter.  She slows down. She meditates and reads and writes. And she heals.

Wintering is beautifully written and warming and consoling. But also an aspirational fantasy. There are many people who aren’t writers and university lecturers who desperately need a season of wintering. Need to stop (paid work, unpaid caring) and rest and repair. And for whom the very idea is ridiculous. I think most readers would agree that this book is written from a position of great privilege. But I don’t know that necessarily negates her message. Wintering is part of the natural cycle of life; don’t fight it. Even if you can’t enjoy it, embrace it. Renewal will follow.

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VALE SHEILA

Last month marked the first anniversary of agent Sheila Drummond’s passing. And I realised that since then I’d had a quiet, lingering sense of absence whenever I thought about my writing life. For over a decade, Sheila had been an abiding presence just down the tracks in Woodend; for good counsel and advice, she was a wise owl – I hope she’d not be offended to be likened to a bird – it would be a very elegant, articulate, silvery owl…

I first met Sheila more than thirteen years ago. My Castlemaine writer friend Lee Fox had often spoken to me about her agent, and suggested I contact her. So I sent Sheila some picture story book manuscripts and a massive doorstop of a fantasy novel. Sheila told me that though she didn’t “get” fantasy (fair enough!) she could be happy to read anything further I cared to send her.

In 2009, I sent her “The Truth About Verity Sparks’ and she saw commercial potential. “But it’s going to be hard to sell,” she told me. And it was, but she didn’t give up on it. She didn’t tell me until later how many rejections there’d been. It was published in 2011 and was awarded a CBCA Honour Book prize. Sheila negotiated the contracts for two more Verity books and the series proved a success. I remember her small, upright, elegant figure and her satisfied smile at the book launches.

So right there in that little story you have ‘my’ Sheila in a nutshell. Tenacious, shrewd, expressing her opinions with clarity and honesty, getting the business done. None of this is code for uncaring. Indeed, I always found Sheila very kind. When I chose to end my relationship with a publisher, she was supportive even though it wasn’t a great business decision for either of us. She checked in to make sure I was OK. We met up in Castlemaine and in Woodend for coffee and she gave me sympathetic and at times bracing counsel. Which is precisely what this particular writer – given to the typical bouts of doubt and lack of confidence – needed.

Though children’s books were where I’d made my name, Sheila encouraged me with my adult novel. More than encouraged… She loved it, she really believed in it, she kept on rallying me after the numerous rejections, she suggested a freelance editor… and she gained a wonderful contract with a major publisher. In 2017, shortly before publication, Sheila and I shared a railway journey home from a ‘meet and greet’ at Pan Macmillan’s new offices in Melbourne. For the first time I had a very long personal conversation with her. She talked about her family, her childhood and her early life. Rocking along in the cold and dark on bumpy V-Line tracks, I felt warmed to be shown this different side of Sheila.

Sheila passed away on 19th February 2020 aged 80. At her funeral, I learned more about her love of family, her political and community engagement, her eventful and adventurous professional and personal life. Too short! But with her vitality, her charm, her intelligence and generosity, it seemed she’d lived it to the full. As my agent, and as an admired friend, I will continue to miss her.

 

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BRITISH AND WEIRD

Weird British contrasts.

Screens rather than pages last weekend. Because I’ve been so tired. Do I really have to make excuses? I’m a reader, but sometimes it’s so relaxing to just watch. Last Saturday, I worked 6 hours in a 14 hour day, so in the time between shifts it was The Crown on Netflix. Claire Foy impersonating the Queen; the cut-glass accents, mystifying protocol and stifled emotions; the storms in gilded teacups and the political kerfuffles.
When I finished at 9.30, I wound down with No Offence on ABC iView. Actually ‘wound down’ isn’t quite the phrase.  The series is a gritty, often hilarious and usually violent UK cop show set in Manchester, so fast paced and suspenseful that my stomach began to hurt from tension. My brain certainly ached from trying to understand the accents. Two Britains, separated not just by time but by…well, almost everything else. Worlds apart, and if you lived in a palace surrounded by flunkies and protected by minders, you’d have no idea.
During the week I found The Diamond Queen in the Op Shop. I’d been wondering just how fictional Peter Morgan’s The Crown scripts are. ‘Based on true events’ would probably cover it. Nothing sensational or gossipy here; just a solid account of what she actually does, with an emphasis on politics and service and duty. How that woman works!

Earlier in March I read   Hollow Places by Christopher Hadley. Yet another Britain, this one strange, surprising and unknowably archaic. With his starting point the felling of an old yew tree in a Hertfordshire field, Hadley follows the legend of local hero Piers Shonks through 800 years of history. Geology, paleontology, Church architecture, tombs and monuments and masonry, Norman law and land rights, ancient manuscripts, heraldry, bestiaries, dragons, giants and devils in a landscape of lonely fields and hedges and tracks…a wonderful detective story, packed with memorable stories and images. I carried away particularly the crippled medieval squire who refused to give the required tithe to the church and lived in squalor in his manor house with an assertive pack of dogs and serving maids.

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DOWN TIME

Nearly the end of February. Almost March. Is is just me, or is the year going by in a flash? I am so busy right now that I barely have time to scratch myself, but I can tell it’s Autumn. There’s that golden slanting early evening light; dew on the windscreen in the early morning; apples and quinces on the neighbourhood fruit trees; boxes of sauce tomatoes at the greengrocer’s; belladonna lilies in my garden. Soon, it will be ‘down time’, the season for putting the garden to bed, making soup, knitting and reading. My favourite things. But not just yet. There’s still work to be done.

Work is actually study, the practical part. After doing the study component of a Cert III in Aged Care (almost all online) last year, and then waiting three months for the lifting of restrictions on students in facilities, I have finally started my placement.
Mine is in the home and community care sector, so I’m going into to people’s houses with the care workers as they attend to personal care (that’s washing, showering, grooming, dressing) and assisting with everyday activities like helping the clients to eat, making a cup of tea or making the bed, bringing in and folding washing as well as some heavier housework.
There are mechanical hoists, electrically assisted beds, wheelchairs and other devices to master; personal routines and preferences to learn; and of course in the age of covid, stringent hygiene measures to maintain (I have a backpack full of PPE, including disposable blue booties, gowns and face shields like something from a forensic crime show). Each client and each home is different; I have met lots of lovely people, and some very nice dogs.
I’m exhausted.

Thus my reading has time dwindled. And not just time. My brain is so full of new information that I am strictly into entertainment at present. I found a new Rivers of London book at the library and it’s been fun to immerse myself in the weird world of the supernatural crime novel. As usual, Aaronovitch has great fun with his cast of characters, human, fae and divine in this, the 8th book in the series.

Peter Grant, police officer and trainee wizard, has finished the long-running investigation into the Faceless Man; he and his partner, Beverley – the river goddess of Beverley Brook – are expecting twins; and he’s on a faux suspension from the Met so that he can investigate odd doings at tech genius Terrence Skinner’s Serious Cybernetics Corporation from the inside while posing as a security expert. Wry humour, geek and pop culture references, a homage to Douglas Adams (totally lost on me, but it didn’t matter one bit), lots of explosions, those tricky genius loci and a bit of tech history about the achievements of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage… False Value is fast moving, funny and occasionally confusing, but who am I to complain about an insanely complicated plot? It’s fun. Which is just what I need right now. I’m looking forward to the next instalment.

 

 

 

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SOLASTALGIA

I bought Sarah Wilson’s new book in January, and I’ve been digesting it since.
I read her earlier title First, We Make the Beast Beautiful a few years ago and have re-read it and recommended it to others since then. That book was an intimate and often painful look at living with bipolar disorder, as well as an informed discussion of anxiety in general. This time, Wilson looks at anxiety again, but through a larger lens.  As in her earlier work, there’s some raw stuff around mental illness, relationships and fertility, but Wilson expands her horizons and her ambition. She calls on her readers to fully engage in This One Wild and Precious Life.

But first, she takes us through the sense of despair and disconnection, the ‘itchy’ feeling that we’re not living life right. The state of shock from the constant bludgeoning of global crises. Eco-anxiety. Covid anxiety. Inequality anxiety. Trump anxiety. It felt good to read how other people also struggle in these overwhelming times. How, like me, they ruminate (fruitlessly, endlessly). The runaway train of climate change makes us wonder why don’t we all rise up and do something but we worry that it’s too late, anyway.  We grieve over our world’s increasingly toxic politics, with such increasing polarization that large swathes of people are unable to share a common reality. Here in Australia, there’s the weeping sore of relations with Indigenous peoples; injustice and inequality and sexism and racism; our government’s shocking treatment of refugees. The scandals of the aged care sector. Covid. Bad news just keeps coming.

The book is not all bad news, however.  In a deliberately messy and personal way, Wilson shares the ways in which she attempts to reconnect with what’s good and joyful in life. Don’t worry! She’s not trying to be a lifestyle goddess, Instagram perfect, shiny and tidy and linked to athleisure wear and supplement sites. The clue in the title is the word ‘wild’.
Hiking is her thing. Mountains, preferably. Wilson likes to set off with a minimum of gear (and I noted – with mild alarm, being the safety frump that I am – usually without water), phone tucked into her bra and maybe a snack in her pocket. She walks. She pushes through discomfort. She often hires a car and drives to a national park or wild place where she camps, alone. Being in nature, she finds, is what best reconnects her with herself, and with her true purpose.

Wilson also encourages readers to buy less, use PT, walk or ride, get used to discomfort, embrace a “full fat” spiritual practice (not unicorns and rainbows), light up their minds with reflection, art, music, poetry and literature and engage in activism. She says that if only 3.5% of the population will engage in  sustained non-violent protest, things will change.
I am sure it’s meant to be a hopeful, positive and inspiring book. But I think for me it just highlighted my impossible balancing act, the trick of honestly believing that we’ve stuffed it up; that we will be not be able to turn the ship of capitalism and consumption around in time – or at all.
And at the same time, enjoying the belladonna lilies, the ripening quinces, cups of tea with friends, and slices of cake, and my beautiful husband and son…

I tell myself that people have lived with and through wars and disasters and plagues for as long as we’ve been upright and human. I try to imagine my young parents in 1939, my grandparents in 1914. Medieval landscapes emptied by the Black Death. And so on. You know.
But I have a background ache for the world I knew, or thought I knew. A world with orderly seasons and only occasional floods and heatwaves and fires, with koalas sitting in their old gum-trees, and fern gullies, and soaring forests of mountain ash..
You know.
I now know the ache has a name. In her book, Wilson references the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht, who has coined a word for the emotional distress or grief caused by environmental change. It’s solastalgia, and it can be explained as ‘the homesickness you have when you are still at home’.

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MY TWO BLANKETS

Australia Day…or Invasion Day, Survival Day, Day of Mourning? I’m in the ‘change the date’ camp with this one.
And then there’s the  block-headed and deliberate leftie-baiting with the day’s honours. Margaret Court! For all she’s one of the rare women awarded a big shiny gong, she is an even worse choice than last year’s low, Bettina Arndt.  Religious and political conservatives and their News Corp minions must be rubbing their hands with glee, for they can now have fun with all the politically correct outrage. It’s all so predictable, and I’m just as liable to indulge a bit of confected outrage myself. Whenever I see an Australian flag in someone’s yard, I think, “White supremacist”!

Anyway, the date. 26th January. After frowning and shaking my head over the morning’s newspaper, I’m ignoring or perhaps abstaining from Australia Day. I’ve just come back from a walk in the Botanical Gardens.  Last night’s heavy rain had freshened everything; as I walked under the huge old oak trees, the breeze shivered the leaves and little showers of raindrops spattered down. Snobby gardeners may sneer at colourful municipal mass bedding, but the display of multicoloured coleus looked spectacular.

People of all ages, were out walking, running, strolling, ambling or powering along. Some were obviously there for a leftie alternative to the official Australia Day celebration.  But streams of older folk with yoga mats were heading towards the flat area around the rotunda for some kind of class and kids were hopping like fleas around the playground. Dogs – all kinds, from greyhounds to those little white things that look like animated fluffy slippers – did their own canine versions of meet and greet while I constantly exchanged “good mornings” and smiles with my community.

And I came across the storywalk. It’s a Mount Alexander Shire project – a book, page by page, fixed to stakes to be read as you walk along. My Two Blankets is an award-winning picture story book by Irena Kobald and Freya Blackwood.
A little girl moves to a new country. Everything is so different and foreign; the very words people speak sound so hard and strange. Fearful, she clings to her old blanket, her old words, for comfort. But a little girl she meets in the park makes friends with her, and begins to teach her new words. Her world changes. Now she has a new blanket; she has two blankets.

All that communal greeting and smiling and tail wagging must softened me up, because – soppy old me –  I read the story, stake by stake, page by page, and was moved to tears.

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DUCK DUCK GOOSE

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