I’m feeling well again, at last. I haven’t had a cold/virus/bug this bad for many years, and it’s come as a bit of a shock. It wasn’t Covid or flu…just stay-in-bed horrible.
So lots of reading.
When I’m unwell, I get really picky – like Goldilocks – and any book has to be just right. Nothing too heavy, or too long, or too deep and meaningful. I made it through half of Meg Mason’s excellent Sorrow and Bliss (from the library) and then returned it with a note to self to try again. Likewise Maggie O’Farrell’s  The Marriage Portrait and Julian Barnes’ Elizabeth Finch. I was feeling way too languid for literature.
Crime seemed to work well. I re-read a few of the Sue Grafton ‘Alphabet’ mysteries. I have never read much by Dashiell Hammet, and Red Tide was quite a revelation; tough, violent, political.
I then moved on to a series my brother recommended. Charlie Parker novels are by Irish writer John Connolly and, like a pusher, my brother loaned me my first hit. Now I’m scouring the library shelves and searching Op Shops. Addictive is truly the right word. And perhaps they’re not terribly good for me, so I’ve had to self-impose a temporary halt. Nightmares!

Charlie Parker is a retired cop turned PI and part-time bar-tender, based in the US state of Maine. I seem to be reading the series in reverse, but the backstory is that he lost his wife and child to a serial killer. This tragedy changed his life; he’s now on a mission to hunt down and destroy evildoers. And there are so very many in the state of Maine.
The genre-bending twist to these private eye mysteries is that his job of investigating the exploits of Maine’s many evil-doers has led Parker to investigate the nature of evil itself. There’s a strong and intriguing element of the supernatural (cue dread and terror and nightmares) that co-exists with Parker’s mundane PI chores of surveillance and strong-arming.
Some of the stories have been a bit too violent for me – violence against women and children, sexual violence, explicit torture – and they’ve made me a bit queasy but Wrath of Angels was, as Goldilocks would say, just right.

Two men contact Parker with the strange tale of a wrecked plane found deep in the forest. Found in the wreckage was a bag, which contained money – and a mysterious list of names. This list is being sought by a shadowy group of powerful men and women who – Parker come to believe – are fallen angels. These beings, known in this novel as The Backers, nurse an eternal grudge. Their goal is to sow discord, hatred and cruelty; to do this, they recruit greedy, corrupt, decadent mortals from all walks of life. These people are controlled by not-quite human handlers – or are they demons? Helped by his adorable psychopath buddies, the gay couple Angel and Louis, Parker battles his way through to an equivocal triumph. I loved his suggestion that far-right shock jocks, politicians, media moguls, internet fanatics and fantasists (looking at you, Donald, Rupert, Vladimir, Proud Boys and the rest) are really just the tools of the Backers. Sounds entirely plausible.


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One day last July, feeling delighted and compelled to both wonder about and share that delight, I decided that it might feel nice, even useful, to write a daily essay on something delightful. I remember laughing to myself for how obvious it was. I could call it something like The Book of Delights.

I’m writing this, hacking and coughing, with a sore throat and headache, while I wait to see if my RAT develops the extra telltale line which will mean I’ve got covid. And I’m thinking that if I was Ross Gay, I’d be using the time to write an ‘essayette’ about delight. But having a cold, or possibly covid,  I’m a bit underpowered in the finding delight department, in spite of having RATs, two whole boxes of them, and Panadol and Strepsils and a husband who just brought me a cup of tea…

This is indeed a delightful book. Ross Gay is a poet, a Professor of English at Indiana University, an activist advoca

ting for community gardens and public spaces, an ex-college football player. Given that Gay is a passionate gardener, there are the expected pieces on the natural world, on insects and plants and seasons. There’s this kind of gorgeous close observation:

Just beyond the pear tree already wealthy with sun-blushed fruitlets is an alcove of trees, a dense black screen made of walnuts and maples that is, for these lucky weeks, pierced by the lumen-tummied bugs, one of which landed on my neck earlier today, crawling down my arm to my hand, balancing itself when I brought it closer by throwing open the bifurcated cape its wings make.

Apart from fireflies, what else? So much. He fell 50 short of a daily essay, but here are the joys of having family and friends, listening to music, plane travel, cafes, loitering, public toilets. Seeing two people carrying a shopping bag together. Kind familiarity from strangers. Public sleeping. What could have been just sweet and soothing is actually inspiring and illuminating, sometimes very funny (reading about his adventures in public-toilet challenged North America and resorting to peeing in a bottle, I laughed out loud). Occasionally these short pieces are also surprisingly tough and challenging. In essay #83, written after listening to a podcast about Whitney Houston, he writes:

…one of the objectives of popular culture, popular media, is to make blackness appear to be inextricable from suffering, and suffering from blackness.  Is to conflate blackness and suffering. Suffering and blackness. Blackness and suffering…
Which is clever as hell if your goal is obscuring the efforts, the systems, historical and ongoing, to ruin black people. Clever as hell if your goal is to make appear natural what is, in fact, by design.
And the delight? You have been reading a book of delights written by a black person. A book of black delight.
Daily as air.

I listened to an interview Ross Gay did with Christa Tippet for an American public radio series call ‘On Being’, and he seemed to be saying that joy and delight are not easy, nor are they a luxury or a privilege. For him, joy is deeply connected to mortality. Joy, he said, is his life’s question. Finding joy, celebrating joy, is part of the labour of making the life he wants to live.

My day’s delight? It’s not covid, just a cold.


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The difference between my life and a story is I don’t actually need drama and problems for it to have meaning. One of the well-kept secrets of writing is that when we’re really in The Flow, when we’re following that story and not trying to create it all by ourselves, writing isn’t hard at all. It’s the opposite of hard. And there’s also no problem. When I’m in that flow, I’m exactly where I want to be, doing exactly what I want to do, and life is just as I want it to be.


Short and sweet today. I have what seems to be a repetitive strain injury from – guess what? – too much writing. It’s that damned mouse! After a week of very little computer time or handwriting, it’s a bit better, but my mood is not great. And I have realised just how much I rely on my writing.
It’s a way I talk to myself – I vent or exult or enthuse or whinge – and that keeps me on an even keel. I explore ideas. I feel valid and professional, as if I actually know what I’m doing (I’m working, see? 1500 words this morning!). It keeps me occupied and off the streets. My writerly routines stop me from ruminating. When it goes well, I disappear to another place entirely, and I spin my own safely net from words.

So, balked of writing, I have been reading. Lots of fiction. But also this lovely book –  Everyone Has What It Takes by William Kenower. He tackles the subjects that haunt most writers; success and its Janus-face, failure. Getting published, getting rejected. Writing a best-seller, seeing your book remaindered. Being immersed in the creative flow, or sitting at your desk and feeling like you’re trying to get blood from a stone. At its core, Kenower’s message is quite radical. The key to writing success is not outlining or banning adverbs or finding the right agent. It’s love. Write the story you love, he says.

If you love it, you have what you takes to write it.



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Last night we watched a DVD. Remember them? It was a 1944 movie called Murder My Sweet, based on Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely. It was the first film outing for Chandler’s famous PI Phillip Marlowe; he was played not by the more familiar Humphrey Bogart but by a leading man from the 1930’s called Dick Powell. Powell made his name in musicals and light comedies, and apparently he had to fight to get the role. And he was good – though different to Bogart – more human, a bit less cynical, a lot less charismatic. It’s considered by movie buffs one of the original American films noir.

The story? A cash-strapped middle-aged LA private eye (Marlowe) is hired by a gigantic ex-con called Moose Molloy to find his girlfriend, Velma. He hasn’t seen Velma for eight years, since he went down. That’s the set-up. There’s a stolen jade necklace, a blow to the head, a murder, a rich old man married to a sexy young wife, a fake therapist who’s blackmailing his clients, a hostile chief of police, a lot of shadowy camera work, another blow to the head, a drug trip, the rich old man’s lovely daughter, some great clothes, another blow to the head and quite a few murders.

And after it finished, we were both left wondering…who did what? Why? When I went to bed, I lay awake, trying to work it out. I couldn’t. I probably needed to be fully awake, with a piece of paper and a pen. I read somewhere that Chandler said when he didn’t know what to do, he just had someone enter the room with a gun. It was a bit like that. But I did enjoy the ride.

Which is sort of how I felt with Benjamin Stevenson’s Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone. A fast and furious murder mystery, with the complicated and criminal (some of them, anyway) Cunningham family all gathered together at a snowed-in ski resort. Skeletons just tumble out of cupboards – bodies pile up – the characters peel back more layers than a mille-feuille pastry – and towards the end I totally lost the plot but such was the forward momentum that I just kept reading, fast, until I reached the end. Phew. I decided not to go back (with pen and paper)…because what would be the point?

This book has got one of the best openings ever:

Everyone in my family has killed someone. Some of us, the high achievers, have killed more than once.

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What I really want to talk about is the short story form itself, and these are good stories for that purpose: simple, clear, elemental… For the young writer, reading the Russian stories of this period is akin to a young composer studying Bach. All of the bedrock principles are on display. The stories are simple but moving. We care about what happens in them. They were written to challenge and antagonize and outrage. And in a complicated way, to console.

Can a book be light and deep at the same time? This one is. It’s also beautiful, generous, practical, philosophical, enlightening, funny and serious. I could use a lot more adjectives (and perhaps I will, later on).
Saunders has been teaching for over twenty years in Syracuse University’s graduate MFA creative writing program, and A Swim in a Pond in the Rain comes out of his workshops there. You can imagine you are in his class as he takes you by the metaphorical hand and walks you through seven Russian short stories. Three are by Chekhov, two by Tolstoy and one each by Turgenev and Gogol, and in the normal run of my reading life, I would never have read any of them. Scary, gloomy, deathly serious Russians! But guided by Saunders – and for the first story, In the Cart by Chekhov, he actually takes it one page at a time – I’ve waded in.  No, jumped in – because with a guide like Saunders, I feel safe. He’s not going to let me feel overwhelmed by my own ignorance, or fail because because it’s all too technical and demanding. Saunders is such a kind and companionable a teacher that I found myself relishing the technical explanations and challenges. I found that going deeper into the stories was not like dissection (academic, and you end up with a corpse not a living thing) but more like discovery. Exciting.
I’ve borrowed this from the library, but I think it’s one I’m going to have to own.




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Recently I swore off crime novels (nightmares, basically) but here I am, back again. We started watching Mindhunter on Netflix. It’s about how the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit gathered information from convicted serial killers, so they could begin to understand how to profile them (yeah, yeah, I know; nightmares), and it’s riveting. By coincidence, our newspaper had an item about best-selling local YA writer Ellie Marney’s new book, The Killing Code. American WWII code-breakers in Washington DC…sounds right up my alley and it’s on my to-read list. But I usually keep up with local authors, and somehow (Covid, perhaps?) I had missed her previous title, the 2020 None Shall Sleep. It’s about how the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit recruit two teenagers to gather information from convicted juvenile killers…

The two teenagers, Emma Lewis and Travis Bell, have both been touched by terrifying crimes so the project is triggering, to say the least.  At first, they’re just conducting interviews. But then they get drawn into an active case, a series of gruesome murders targeting young adults. It turns out that one of their interview subjects, a genius psychopath called Simon Gutmunsson, has insights into the murderer. But is he just manipulating them all? Twists and turns ratchet up the suspense until we’re dragged to an explosive and violent finale. None Shall Sleep is marketed as YA but it easily crosses over into adult fiction. An un-put-downable thriller, and I’m looking forward to the next book, Some Shall Break, due out in June 2023.

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Isn’t this glorious? It’s called pandorea pandorana, or wonga wonga vine, but as I put out the washing this morning with this fecund froth of flower, bud and blossom bursting into full, overblown sweetness close by, what came into my head but…sukebind.
And the shamelessly over-written parody that is Stella’s Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm. It’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and one that’s had a lasting impact since I first read it in my teens.

19-year-old Flora Poste, orphaned and disinclined to find a job, comes to live with her relatives, the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm, Howling, Sussex. They are a complicated and decidedly unhappy lot. There’s her aunt, the tragic Judith, obsessed with her over-sexed son Seth; her husband Amos, a religious maniac who preaches to the Church of the Quivering Brethren; their children, smouldering Seth, fey Elfine, brooding (but basically smart) Reuben. Not to mention the fertile hired girl Miriam, who’s just given birth to her fourth child of shame, and the doddery servant Adam Lambsbreath. Brooding over all, alone in her room, is Aunt Ada Doom, who – when she was a little girl – saw something nasty in the woodshed.

Flora is brisk and sensible and bossy, and in the course of the book, she sorts them all out.  At the climactic celebration, she surveys her work and finds it good.
There they all were. Enjoying themselves. Having a nice time. And having it in an ordinary human manner. Not having it because they were raping somebody, or beating somebody, or having religious mania, or being doomed to silence by a gloomy, earthly pride, or loving the soil with the  fierce desire of a lecher, or anything of that sort. No, they were just enjoying an ordinary human event, like any of the millions of ordinary people in the world.

I don’t know if it’s essential to have read the authors Gibbons is parodying – DH Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, the (possibly long-forgotten) popular novelist Mary Webb – and on balance, I think not. But helpfully in her foreword, a mock tribute to an imaginary writer of ‘records of intense spiritual struggles, staged in the wild setting of mere, berg or fen’, ‘more like thunderstorms than books’ Gibbons owns that it’s not always easy to tell ‘whether a sentence is Literature or…just sheer flapdoodle.‘  So, just in case, she says, she is marking her passages of finest passages with asterisks – one, two or three. Like so:

***The man’s big body, etched menacingly against the bleak light that stabbed in from the low windows, did not move. His thoughts swirled like a beck in spate behind the sodden grey furrows of his face. A woman… Come to wrest away from him the land whose love fermented in his veins, like slow yeast. She-woman. Young, soft-coloured, insolent. His gaze was suddenly edged by a fleshy taint. Break her. break. Keep and hold and hold fast the land. the land, the iron furrows of frosted earth under the rain-lust… the swelling, low burst of seed-sheaths, the slow smell of cows and cry of cows, the trampling bride-path of the bull in his hour. All his, his…
“Will you have some bread and butter?” asked Flora, handing him a cup of tea.

And it seems to me that passages like this, where common sense deflates melodrama, probably formed – if not my writing style – at least my sense of humour. It’s the sublime juxtaposed with the banal, and it tends to cut all that wild elemental passion off at the knees.
And then there’s my love of invented words and ridiculous names. Dickens is the star, of course, but who can resist the Starkadder cousins Urk, Caraway, Harkaway and Rennet? There are rustics called Agony Beetle and Mark Dolour, while the the local gentry  are the Hawk-Monitors of Hautcouture Hall and a crew of rich young men have names ‘like harsh animal cries’ such as Bikki and Goofi and Swooth. Even the animals are a treat. The cows are called Aimless, Feckless, Graceless and Pointless; the bull is Big Business; the horse is Viper. I could go on. But you should probably read and enjoy it in all its absurd, witty and oddly wise entirety.

And sukebind? Heady, fragrant, sultry, erotic, this plant in flower is an emblem for all that’s over-sexed – and over-rated. When Miriam the hired girl asks Flora, “And who’s to know what will happen to me when the sukebind is out in the hedges again and I feel so strange on the long summer evenings-?” Flora sensibly instructs her on the practicalities of contraception.





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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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