Some time in the early 1990’s, in an Op Shop or a second-hand bookshop, I picked up a book called Turn: The Journal of an Artist by Anne Truitt. I had no idea at the time who Anne Truitt was. It was before the Internet – imagine that! – and perhaps I wasn’t curious. I don’t remember much about the book itself. At some point, in one of my regular purges, I gave it away. But I must have thought it valuable enough to copy out this passage:

In the Cluny Museum yesterday, I stood astounded among the sculptured faces of people who had left behind them evidence that their vital efforts in the 13th century had not been in vain because they spoke to me of comfort.
The faces of people who had struggled as hard as they could to be good, and who had, at last, to accept their own humanity, not as a fatal limitation, but as an available form of nobility. They gave me to understand that the effort of a human life can only be this acceptance, a submission to limitations that admit, include, the human virtues as worthy of proportionate divine recognition.
I have made a mistake in not paying proper attention to the story of human history. The Cluny faces report to us that be be human can be what, after all, God expects from us.

I think this must have struck a chord with me because for a long time, and probably since I was a child, I have been aware that set beside the pinnacle achievements, the heroic big stuff – battlefields and podiums, medals and glittering prizes – is ordinary, small-scale, day-to-day heroism. Or to use Truitt’s word, ‘nobility’.

A couple of weeks ago my brother offered me a pile of books to borrow. Novels, mainly crime, and the recently published journal Yield by Anne Truitt.
I’ve been enjoying journals and memoirs this year – my May Sarton binge comes to mind – so I took Yield and found an artist, in her final years (Truitt died in 2004; this is a previously unpublished part of her archive), reflecting on her life and work. Life as a woman, and a woman artist, a sculptor; the constant of her creative work, which becomes more difficult with age.
How to describe it? Spare, searching, wise, honest, human.


And I remembered the paragraphs about the Cluny faces I’d copied in a book all those years ago, and I Googled Anne Truitt’s work, and the Cluny museum, and I borrowed all the Truitt journals. I’m nearly at the end of Daybook (1982), the first. It’s galvanised me (that’s a classier way of saying it’s provided a necessary kick up the arse) to think more deeply about my current writing projects, about what I hope to accomplish, and why.
And about the temptation – because writing takes such a long, long time –  to take the easier or easiest path.
She wrote that artists:
…catapult themselves wholly, without holding back one bit, into a course of action without having any idea where they will end up. When they find that they have ridden and ridden – maybe for years, full tilt – in what is for them a mistaken direction, they must unearth within themselves some readiness to turn direction and to gallop off again.

With a sinking heart I recognise that mistaken direction. Actually, I’d already recognised it, I simply hadn’t admitted it to myself. So here we go again. Here it is. To quote Anne Truitt, it’s this:

…the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadfastly along the nerve of one’s own intimate sensitivity.


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The Light in the Dark: A Winter Journal
Horatio Clare: Elliot and Thompson, London 2018

Sticky goose feathers, tiny hard powder and blurting blown snow, it is a connoisseurs’s winter day. The flash and change of the sky is quite extraordinary; in bursts it is spring for ten minutes, with birdsong and buds, then the light yellows, seems to age and harden, and the sliver snow comes again, driving sideways, upwards, in helixes and vortices, dissident tribes of flakes pursuing their own migrations. A buzzard tumbles and rags through twisting winds. There are whitened clouds flying across whitened blue. In the tops of the beech trees jackdaws are actually shivering, their tails trembling in the wind. Sliver light, pewter light now, with trees purpling behind the blizzard.

Horatio Clare’s The Light in the Dark is subtitled A Winter Journal because it’s winter in more ways than one; as the days become shorter, the author begins to suffer from feelings of heaviness, sadness, hopelessness, despair. He keeps his anxiety and depression to the margins. Very often you wouldn’t really know this book of beautifully written observation was also about a mental health crisis, and if I was expecting something like Sarah Wilson’s raw and exposing First We Make the Beast Beautiful, I was on the wrong track entirely.  He says that he hasn’t written down ‘all the rows, the despairs, the heaviness of spirit:  no reader could have enjoyed them.’ Instead, through writing, he has found a way to lead himself through a dark time.

This diary has been a lifeline, a place to put the days so none was wasted, a way to see and celebrate winter in all its shadows and lights. At the heart of this winter I have found a double spirit, a flame and a shadow. The shadow is fear; the flame, love.


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Italians know about human nature – they understand human nature perhaps better than anyone else does. They know that people are weak and greedy and lazy and dishonest and they just try to make the best of it; to work around it. Donna Leon

Binge reading, like binge eating, often comes to a sad and sorry end; you overdose on your favourite treat, and now you almost can’t stand the sight of it.
So it is with me.
I’ve spent a over a month now with Commissario Guido Brunetti in Venice. We’ve chased criminals and corruption, naturally – these are crime novels, after all – but we’ve also spent time drinking coffee or wine in little bars, riding the vaporetto through canals and out into the lagoon. We’ve dined with the patrician in-laws in their palazzo, we’ve gazed at priceless art treasures in hushed churches and we’ve sat down almost every lunchtime to a proper meal. It’s been wonderful.
Did I say these are crime novels? The last book I read, A Venetian Reckoning, had a particularly nasty sexual crime, which gave me nightmares. So enough is enough. If only I’d had the discipline to space them out! But no, I got greedy…

I did the same thing many years ago. A surfeit of Patricia Cornwell led to a very unpleasant incident in the park. A grey wintry day with few walkers in the gardens – I circle the lake with my son in his pusher – a man approaches – paranoia sets in – is he going to kill me? kidnap my child? yes, yes, he is! – my heart thumps with panic, I can’t breathe – we draw level – “Hello,” he says with a smile and I almost collapse…

I read the Brunetti books out of order, depending on what I could borrow from friends, relatives and the library. I only managed to get hold of the first – Death at La Fenice – ten volumes into my streak of fifteen, and it was clear that Donna Leon hit the ground running with the series. By the last  – #31, Give Unto Others – you could expect the series to be a little tired, but her characters hadn’t staled. In particular, the adorable Signorina Ellettra continued to delight with her guile and criminality. The themes remained thought-provoking, and the writing, somehow, was still fresh.

It seems like Leon enjoys hanging out with Brunetti in Venice. I know I do. A great deal of the pleasure is simply accompanying the Commissario as he moves around his beloved city, enjoying with him the sights, sounds, smells and tastes. Walking from campo to campo on business, or riding in a vaporetti or motor launch, he’s often dazzled by the outrageous beauty before him – the ancient palazzos, the churches, the bridges and laneways, the water, the sky. It’s his birthright as a Venetian, yet with a mixture of anger and resignation, he sees it passing away. Mass tourism is hollowing out the soul of his city as Venetians leave to live elsewhere; lax laws and official corruption allows pollution to attack the ancient buildings and foul the water.

But the Commissario can always to retreat to his apartment, with his literature professor wife Paola, his children Raffi and Chiara and a table set with wonderful food and a bottle or two of wine to drink. And perhaps this is what draws me to this series. Brunetti is no dysfunctional, boozing, fast-food addict detective. He reads Greek and Roman philosophers and historians with a coffee and a grappa  after his evening meal – and sleeps, usually, very well.

Which brings me back to my nightmares. I’m sure I will return (there are fifteen books I haven’t read!) but for now, it’s farewell to  the Commissario and Venice, and on to some more wholesome reading matter, with no rapes, murders, elder abuse or violent beatings, stabbings, poisonings, drownings and defenestrations.

Pollyanna, maybe?

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Our son came up on the weekend, a Father’s Day visit, and he brought with him a couple of issues of the Quarterly Essay for me to read. I have to confess that these days, my news media/current affairs reading is pretty slight. Each day I  skim the Melbourne Age and the Guardian, which gives me British as well as Australian articles and commentary. I gave up my New York Times habit over a year ago, after overdosing on American politics during the Trump presidency –  but an astonishingly cheap deal for the New Yorker got me a very smart tote bag and a digital subscription.  Though I don’t always make the best use of it, I do appreciate the daily newsletter that pops into my inbox. It often prompts me to read something I didn’t even know I was interested in. Or to read an American take on something I care about, like literacy.

The Rise and Fall of Vibes-Based Literacy by Jessica Winter, in the September 1st issue, got me thinking (again) about my own struggles with teaching children to read.
By ‘vibes-based literacy’, Winter means the method called in the US ‘balanced literacy’. It’s also often known as ‘Units of Study’, ‘Lucy Calkin’ (after the influential educator who wrote the aforementioned) or simply as ‘Teacher’s College’ because it was so widely taught to student teachers. In a (very little) nutshell, children are helped to develop a range of cueing strategies and memorise high-frequency words. It’s much the same as what we called the ‘whole language’ or ‘whole word’ approach, back in the day  when I was at Melbourne Teacher’s College. Phonics and other explicit instruction in decoding strategies were very much frowned upon.

According to Winter, since the 1980s Lucy Calkin’s approach has dominated American schools and in fact, was the officially mandated teaching method in many districts. This, despite the “long-standing consensus among researchers that intensive phonics and vocabulary-building instruction—an approach often referred to, nowadays, as the “science of reading”—are essential.”
She continues: “There has never been much peer-reviewed research to support Units of Study or other balanced-literacy curricula. In 2020, the education nonprofit Student Achievement Partners published a meticulous vivisection of Calkins’s program: “there are constantly missed opportunities to build new vocabulary and knowledge about the world or learn about how written English works,” the authors noted. “The impact is most severe for children who do not come to school already possessing what they need to know to make sense of written and academic English.”

Which had me thinking about my prep grade at a small rural primary school way back in 1985. I’d had a grade 2-3-4 f0r two years, and the principal decided it was time to move the staff around. I have the greatest respect for good early childhood teachers, mainly because I wasn’t one and I know how hard it is. Worse, I was drastically under-prepared to teach reading because I had no idea where to proceed with the children who weren’t naturals.
Fortunately most of them seemed to just ‘catch’ reading. Some of them had difficulties but eventually managed to master their readers or the little books we made in the classroom. And a very few made very little progress at all under my watch. Like the little girl I’ll call Annie-May.
My principal gave me ten minutes a day to do intensive reading practice with Annie-May. I had no idea what I was supposed to do, really. So I sat her on my knee, and we ‘read’ books together. She was supposed to predict the text, using the pictures as clues. She was supposed to easily recognise words like ‘the’, ‘and’ , ‘she’ and ‘him’ and build up a wider vocabulary bank of memorised words like ‘cat’ and ‘dog’ and so on. She was supposed to learn to associate reading and books with enjoyment. Which she did, in a way. After one session, when I thought we were beginning to get somewhere, Annie-May turned to me and said (and yes, she did speak like this), “Dat was a nice little tuddle, Miss Dween.”
In later years, thinking about Annie-May, the youngest of a family of six children from a farming family – busy, financially stretched, with little time for reading and books – I wonder if she ever learned to read fluently. Was there a window of opportunity there, in preps, that was missed because I had no idea? I have to set against my pangs of guilt, the image of the happy little girl who’d had some precious moments of quiet time with her teacher. A nice little cuddle.
Good vibes…but as far as literacy is concerned, a fail.


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This tour of Britain’s ‘shadowlands’ is both haunting and horrifying. The writer explores eight lost places. They are the neolithic Skara Brae in Orkney; a once-thriving medieval town of Trellech in Wales; the port of Winchelsea, a 13th century naval base and important trading port; the rural village of Wharram Percy; the city of Dunwich, which slowly fell into the sea; the isolated Scottish island of St Kilda, whose inhabitants were evacuated after the population crashed to under 50; a whole group of villages in rural Norfolk taken over by the military during WWII and never returned to the inhabitants; a Welsh valley town called Capel Celyn, drowned under a dam to provide water to Liverpool.

There are poetic, elegiac, lyrical descriptions of ruins, relics and remnants in beautiful and often isolated places. There are towns that simply died, fell into ruin and were lost. There’s an enjoyable melancholy in wandering with the author around the remaining stones and walls, imagining long-ago lives.
But this is also a record of violence, cruelty and disease. Who knew that medieval French pirates raided the English coast, killing, raping and stealing? I thought that ended with the Vikings!
I’d heard of the deserted medieval ‘plague villages’ – and loved Penelope Lively’s Astercote –  but Matthew Green reveals that there’s more to the story. After so many people died of the Black Death, there was a labour shortage. The peasants started getting uppity. Enclosing the commons and turning to sheep grazing became a much more attractive proposition for landowners. The villagers were turned out of their homes.
Among the loss and sadness, it was good to read that though in 1964 the Liverpool Corporation simply bulldozed its way to what it wanted, the vanished village galvanised the Welsh into protecting their unique language and culture. English plans to drown other Welsh valleys were unsuccessful, and the Liverpool Corporation apologised in 2005, saying ‘What happened to the people of the valley was wrong.’

Green’s coda to the tales of these eight places is a little grim. He writes:
Many of our communities, it is unpalatable to say, are ghost-towns-in-waiting. In amongst the tales of human perseverance, obsession, resilience and reconciliation, and in the pleasure that can be found in  the ruins of lost places, this book has contained its fair share of horror. But it only goes up to 2021. A sequel, on the shadowlands of  twenty-first-century Britain, would be darker still. That…could be an apocalyptic volume indeed, with swathes of Britain more shadow than land.


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THE GARDENER AND THE CARPENTER: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us about the Relationship Between Parents and Children.

…if you are a parent, you do something called “parenting”. “To parent” is a goal-directed verb; it describes a job, a kind of work. The goal is to somehow turn our child into a better or happier or more successful adult – better than they would be otherwise or (though we whisper this) better than the children next door. The right kind of parenting will produce the right kind of child, who in turn will become the right kind of adult.
Of course, people sometimes use the word “parenting” just to describe that parents actually do. But more often, especially now, “parenting” means something parents should do…
I’ll argue that this prescriptive parenting picture is fundamentally misguided, from a scientific, philosophical and political point of view, as well as a personal one. It’s the wrong way to understand how parents and children actually think and act, and it’s equally wrong as a vision of how they should think and act. It’s actually made life worse for children and parents, not better.

The Gardener and the Carpenter by Alison Gopnik opened my eyes and reinforced my prejudices – at the same time!
A prejudice against the word ‘parenting’, for a start. As Gopnik argues, it’s a relationship, not a job. Now, it’s turned into a massive money-making opportunity. Over the years as a bookseller, I saw so many books by ‘experts’ published, pushing so many theories and making so many dollars as fashions and fads came and went.  The ever-expanding ‘parenting’ category! So much guilt and confusion! In my social circle, I saw people bonding over what they called ‘parenting styles’ (or philosophies or ideologies) and I saw the fallout when they differed.
I too agonised at times, with a horrible, searing mother-guilt. Was I just too lazy to do all that after-school stuff, the coaching, the lessons, the practice? Maybe. But basically I was convinced that it didn’t have to be that hard. Gopnik argues for less structure, not more. She gives convincing evidence that children (more or less, depending on their age) are meant to be messy, exploratory, unpredictable and wildly creative. I wish I’d known all this brain science when I was teaching, and when our son was young, and I would not have stressed so much about pack-up time.
Gopnik’s book entrenched my opposition to NAPLAN and all standardised testing for young children, too. Has it come to this, when large numbers of people seem to believe that ‘education’ is all about learning for tests, so that parents can rate and rank schools? There is a case for saying that standardised testing is politically, not educationally, driven. There is now so much new scientific research on how children learn, so why is it that we adults still want do things in the same old ways? The ABC is advertising “Reading Eggs” – an early learning program on a screen – for 2-to-6 year olds. 2-year-olds? Really? Shouldn’t 2-year-olds be playing? Gopnik would tell you, yes.
As an aside, somehow or other, our son was always absent from school on NAPLAN day.

The Gardener and the Carpenter is short and the sciency parts are easy to read but I found it a satisfying deep dive into this most basic of human relationships. Gopnik provides plenty of evidence for her views from the study of human evolution and all sorts of recent scientific research into learning and brain development. The take-away concept is stated in the title. She says that childcare is not best performed as if the parent is a carpenter making a chair. That’s because there is no correct way to do it; there is no blueprint to follow in order to obtain a predictable outcome. It’s much more like gardening, where you provide the best environment, you protect and you guide…but obsessive measuring and controlling won’t really help things along.
I thought this book was fascinating. Not just because I’m a parent. How children grow and mature within their families is the raw material of fiction.  Am I overstating the case if I say that the relationships between parents and children are at the heart of all the comedy, drama and tragedy in the world?



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I had planned – one of those New Year’s resolutions – that this year I would do a monthly roundup of everything I’d been reading. Obviously, I haven’t. I haven’t even done the bare minimum once-a-week book review that I also resolved upon. But at least I did write most of the titles down. There there were a few that got away, and I deliberately didn’t include the books (mostly novels) I put down after a few pages or a few chapters, nor the ones I only skimmed and skipped.
Maybe I should have noted them too.

A friend and I were talking about puzzles. You know; at our age, keeping the brain active with puzzles is supposed to ward off impending dementia. We’re both into Wordle and he also does a sudoko, which really gives his little grey cells a daily workout. He suggested I should try the sudoko too. I said I can’t do anything with numbers; it makes my head hurt. “I was always crap at maths,” I added. I laughed.
And he pointed out something interesting. While people have no shame about saying they’re hopeless at maths (in fact, like me they will laugh merrily), reading is different. Nothing to joke about. Or rather, people might joke about the fact that they never read books (strangely, I met a few of those – quite loud and proud about it, too –  while working in a bookshop) they are less likely to broadcast the fact if they can’t read. Illiteracy carries a real stigma. Problems with self-esteem and confidence proliferate along with the practical difficulties.
My friend, like me, loves to read. It’s an unusual week when I only get through one book; more often it is two or even three. On holidays, it can be a book a day. But he is more likely to read a book a month. It’s because, he told me, he’s a slow reader. Not only because he likes to make sure he fully understands what he reads, but because he reads every word. He’s always been a bit shocked about the way I skip and skim. Once he asked me what my reaction would be if a person read one of my books in that way (I wouldn’t care, was the answer). The fact is, he finds reading a rewarding but not easy activity.
I asked if he’d had trouble learning to read.  Not at all, was the answer. He  just never got fast. On the other hand, initially I had a lot of trouble. Failed at John and Betty, remedial reading, kept back in preps. Yet once I got the hang of it, I became a voracious breakneck-speed bookworm, and still am. A puzzle.

One of the books that I skip-read and didn’t include in my list was Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf. She’s a cognitive neuroscientist and scholar of reading. A library book I chose for the title (Proust! Plus Squid! plus, the words ‘brain’ and ‘science’, which are catnip to me). It was fascinating but hard work and so, running out of puff, I skimmed and then gave up. However skimming gave me a few lasting insights which I was able to bring to the conversation with my friend. The major one is that reading is not easy. Understanding written symbols is a huge and complex task. Our brains were not set up for this particular activity at all; it’s way, way beyond the range of our original abilities. We taught our brains to read only a few thousand years ago – not a long time in the span of human evolution and literacy has changed the way our brains are configured. They are still evolving. (As to where digital culture is taking our brains – that’s another question…) Wolf’s discussion of dyslexia led me to another insight. The bare bones of reading is decoding. The other part is fluency. So you can be a competent or even excellent decoder, yet still read slowly – word by word – like my friend.

I gave it a crack. I made myself read each and every word. Each and, the, if, so, he, she, it... Reading like this would permanently destroy my pleasure in fiction, that’s for sure. It made me realise that my usual reading experience is sometimes too fast  – so that I don’t always take in all of what I’ve read. Not that it matters; there’s an addictive quality to  breakneck reading and I love being pulled along at speed by a real page-turner. I finished Richard Osman’s The Man Who Died Twice in a day! More often, though, it’s a mix of darting ahead and hovering, often skimming a paragraph or a sentence, sometimes going back. If the writing is beautiful – as it is, for instance, in Michael Ondatje’s Warlight or Emily St John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility – I have to force myself to slow down and pay attention. Or (better) read the book again.

It is not often that I reflect on the act of reading. After fifty six years of practice and with many hundreds (thousands?) of books and articles read, it seems…well, natural. My conversation and the not-really-read Proust and the Squid show that that’s not the case at all.

And here is the list:

Millions Like Us Virginia Nicholson
The Thursday Murder Club Richard Osman
Real Estate Deborah Levy
Mothers, Fathers and Others Siri Hustvedt
True Stories Helen Garner

Once Upon a River  Diane Setterfield
Burning Questions  Margaret Atwood
Orwell’s Roses Rebecca Solnit
Linnets and Valerians Elizabeth Goudge
Journal of a Solitude,  Plant Dreaming Deep,  House By The Sea  May Sarton

Writing a Woman’s Life Carolyn Heilbrun
May Sarton Margot Peters
Stranger Care Sarah Sentilles
With the End in Mind Kathryn Mannix
At Seventy May Sarton
Moondial Helen Cresswell

Warlight Michael Ondatje
40,000 Weeks Oliver Burkeman
I Didn’t Do the Thing Today Madeleine Dore
Novelista Claire Askew
Writing with Quiet Hands Paula Munier
The Friend Sigrid Nunez
The Writer Laid Bare Lee Kofman
The Violet Hour Katie Roiphe
Sempre Susan Sigrid Nunez
Piranesi Susannah Clarke
What Are You Going Through Sigrid Nunez
Breath James Nestor

Second Place Rachel Cusk
Canticle Creek Adrian Hyland
Love Stories Trent Dalton
New and Selected Poems Vol 2 Mary Oliver
Telltale Carmel Bird
Bedtime Story Chloe Hooper
The Way It Is Now Gary Disher
Give Unto Others Donna Leon
A Gentleman in Moscow Amor Towle
The Other Side of the Bridge Mary Lawson
Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Family Patrick Radden Keefe

The Golden Egg, Falling in Love, The Waters of Eternal Youth, The Temptation of Forgiveness Donna Leon
Black Cock’s Feather Maurice Walsh
A Woman Named Smith Marie Conway Oemler
Sea of Tranquility Emily St John Mandel
The Man Who Died Twice Richard Osman


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We have streaming service BritBox now, so we’ve been bingeing on British crime and comedy. When I had a few days to myself, I also indulged in re-watching the literary adaptations the Brits are so famous for. I started with the 2007 version of my best-beloved Austen novel, Persuasion.


There was a lot I liked. Penry-Jones’s Captain Wentworth looked and sounded just right. The contrast between the Wentworth’s circle and Anne’s appalling father and older sister was delicious. But Hawkins’ Anne – for me – was all wrong. She is described somewhere in the book as ‘an elegant little woman’ and Hawkins – with her open, eager, expressive face –  is not.  And whoever thought it was good idea to have her running (and running…and running…) through the streets of Bath, disheveled and without her bonnet (shock, horror!), in search of  Captain Wentworth?

Out of curiosity,  I searched out the 1971 version on You Tube.
Ann Firbank played Anne; Bryan Marshall played Captain Wentworth. This Anne is composed and elegant but I found it hard to discern the yearning and loneliness that make this character’s late-blooming love story so poignant. The drama was muted, in part because the production pulled back on vapidity, vanity and snobbishness of Sir Walter and Elizabeth Elliot. These two were not the truly horrible human beings of Austen’s book. I felt like laughing gently at them rather than loathing them. Not nearly as satisfying.

The 1995 Persuasion with Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds on DVD completed my research.
Root’s Anne radiates intelligence and self-awareness. She meets her family’s neglect and stupidity with forbearance and kindness – though she is no pushover – and she faces loneliness with grace and dignity. She hides her loneliness and yearning; she is confident and competent in her care and kindness for family and friends; and her slow blossoming as she makes new friends who appreciate and love her is quite moving. It is a “dark” production. Unlike the other two which are light and sparkling, rooms are dimly lit, the costumes look like clothes that have been worn, and Hinds’ Captain Wentworth is serious, mature and craggy rather than handsome.

Also, unlike the 2007 version, this one was true to the understated passion of the book’s closing chapters. There’s a scene in which Captain Wentworth listens as Anne and Captain Harville talk about love, constancy and gender roles.
Captain Harville tells Anne that “all histories are against you, all stories, prose and verse.”  “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story,” Anne responds. And says, finally, to end the argument, “All the privilege I claim for my own sex…is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.”
This is when Captain Wentworth writes Anne a beautiful letter.
I can no longer listen in silence. I must speak to you by such means are within my reach. You pierce my soul…

And there’s now yet another version, just out, which stars Dakota Fanning as Anne. I’ve been reading reviews and they are almost universally bad; the UK Spectator’s reviewer reckons everyone involved should be sent to prison! Anne as a Bridget-Jones style desperate singleton, crying in the bath and drinking wine from the bottle? Please, no!
I know I will probably give in to curiosity and watch it eventually, but for now, I am re-reading the book.

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…as a species, we have a desire to believe that we’re living at the climax of the story. It’s a kind of narcissism. We want to believe that we’re uniquely important, that we’re living at the end of history, that now, after all those millennia of false alarms, now is finally the worst that it’s ever been, that finally we have reached the end of the world.

Emily Mandel St John’s Station Eleven was one of my favourite books of 2014. Given what happened to us all in 2020, it now seems eerily prescient; the premise of the novel is a pandemic, the “Georgia Flu” which sweeps over the planet with devastating speed and kills most of the population. With what seems to be St John’s trademark style, the novel loops around in time and place and between characters. The pandemic sections are harrowing; her vision of the future is not as terrifying as that of Cormac Mcarthy in The Road, but it’s scary enough. Her 2020 novel, The Glass Hotel, was more realistic, following a woman and her conman husband as his Ponzi-style scam slowly crashes and burns, eventually unleashing a whirlwind of damage and tragedy.

In St John’s latest book Sea of Tranquility, we are back to the future, by way of the past.

It’s 1912. Young English ‘Remittance man’ Edwin St Andrew is a bit of a lost soul, idly travelling around British Columbia, when he has a strange, other-worldly experience in the rainforest which makes him doubt his sanity.

Then the reader is in 2020, revisiting Mirella and Vincent, characters from The Glass Hotel. Next, we move to 2203, when there are colonies on the moon, a radically reconfigured geo-political landscape and a famous writer called Olive Llewellyn is on ‘The Last Book Tour on Earth’ as yet another new pandemic takes hold. When she returns to her home on the moon, it’s into lockdown. Then, 2401, the population lives in giant domes and a detective called Gaspery-Jaques Roberts is hired to investigate a ‘time anomaly’ – which involves Edwin, Mirella, Vincent and Olive.

Though it sounds like sci-fi or speculative fiction – and in a sense I suppose it is – it’s not weighed down with tech. It’s the people I cared about. I loved the way Mandel anchored their strange and futuristic situations in life as we know it, now and in the past.

It’s shocking to wake up in one world and find yourself in another by nightfall but the situation isn’t actually all that unusual. You wake up married, then your spouse dies over the course of the day; you wake up in peacetime and by noon your country is at war; you wake in ignorance and by evening it’s clear that a pandemic is already here. You wake on a book tour with several days left to go, and by evening you’re racing towards home, your suitcase abandoned in a hotel room.

I also loved her beautiful prose. Sentence by sentence, Mandel’s writing is lovely.

What it was like to leave the Earth:
A rapid ascent over the blue-green world, and then the world was blotted out all at once by clouds. The atmosphere turned thin and blue, the blue shaded into indigo, and then – it was like slipping through the skin of a bubble – there was black space.

I am not going to give away any spoilers about the plot – the ‘time anomaly’ – the weird event that so spooked the young Englishman in 1912 and reverberated through the centuries. The plot was puzzling, and fun and thought-provoking, but what I was left with was a kind of gentle wisdom. Life can be tranquil in the face of death.  No star burns forever. Somewhere, for someone, the world is always ending.

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Telltale is composed of two different kinds of narrative. One is warp and one is weft, and I am not sure which is really which. Will the threads hold? What patterns might I work across the surface? Will the metaphors crumble into useless dust? One thread speaks of books read and sometimes written. And also of things that happened in my life. The other speaks of a journey of the heart, a pilgrimage through the patchy history of the world, becoming a  poetic thread that runs through the whole narrative.

In 2020, the coronavirus suddenly and dramatically took over our lives. It was an unsettling and scary time (and it still is, but most of us seem to be living with the grim figures now instead of obsessing nightly). Carmel Bird used the enforced isolation as a gift. She writes that ‘confined to my library in what seems to be a strange and dreamlike way’, she set out to explore the world of books on her shelves, to revisit the pages she turned in childhood, to trace the patterns and recurrences in her art and life.

The house is my labyrinth, but I am not looking for the way out. I am looking for the way in, the way in to myself. One result of the constrictions is the firing of a special type of joy and energy. I am mining and I am weaving and I am brewing.

Books such as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Stories from Uncle Remus and Cole’s Funny Picture Book launch the writer on a journey of discovery that leads far and wide both in literature and her own life. But as she reminds the reader, memory is not usually chronological and so this memoir can skip from sun-drenched family picnics to WWII concentration camps to the dark history of genocide and erasure that shadowed her birthplace, Tasmania.
Like all of Carmel Bird’s work, Telltale is highly original. It’s stylish, playful and occasionally very moving. She herself uses the metaphor of a tapestry, and if at times I found it hard to follow her thread (“Yes, but where is this going?”), inevitably there was the aha! moment, when the pattern – subtle, intriguing and unique –  emerged satisfyingly from the background.  It’s a book to read slowly, and to re-read.

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