CITY OF GIRLS

I hadn’t really read anything by Elizabeth Gilbert before this novel. Not quite true – I’d flicked through Big Magic, her book on creativity, and not liked it very much. And I was snobbish about Eat, Pray, Love because of the movie, which I didn’t like at all.

But I loved reading City of Girls. At first, it seemed like an enjoyable romp – despite its size, a ‘light read’ – a big, fat, luscious, high-spirited and sensuous coming-of-age novel.
We follow the adventures of 19-year-old Vivian Morris through glamorous, exciting pre-WWII New York.  She’s been exiled by her straight-laced family for misbehaviour at her straight-laced women’s college. But exile in New York is no exile at all, because she goes to live with her Aunt Peg who owns a run-down theatre, the Lily Playhouse.

With her sewing machine and her genius for dressmaking, Vivian soon becomes an essential part of the ensemble of actors, showgirls, singers and dancers, writers and assorted hangers-on. As a textile-aholic myself, I loved the descriptions of costumes, clothes, fabrics, haberdashery, trimmings. But back to Vivian’s education of the body, heart and mind. If she’d been misbehaving before – well, wow. She enters into the louche bohemian life with abandon, stepping out with her showgirl buddy to parties and clubs and shows, entering into a string of sexual liaisons and encounters with no shame and much pleasure. So far so good – a celebration of young womanhood and youth and sexuality and fun. Vivian’s scandalous fall, when it comes, is shocking. Shame, judgement – and as other reviewers have pointed out, such very gendered shame and judgement – threaten to overwhelm her life.
But that’s not the end. The latter part of the novel, showing Vivian in middle and old age, is sobering and even sad – but to my mind, beautiful.  Vivian’s developed from a beautiful  and passionate young girl into this older woman who’s suffered and survived and made her life meaningful. She is so very surely her own self. This rounds this story into something more than just a romp. Please note that in the more sombre middle section of the book, Gilbert isn’t showing us the “just punishment” for Vivian’s sexual experimentation. She’s highlighting the difficulties women faced (and still face) in simply being who they are, in particular in expressing sexual desire (and perhaps also ambition) in a society that seems to hate and fear female agency.
I ended the book pondering on the vital importance of work, of friendship and love, of endurance, persistence and courage. And haberdashery.

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DREAMING IN COLOUR

The knitting obsession was intense this winter.

Not only has it been cold, but the world seems to be getting madder and badder with Trump, Brexit, the climate emergency, the Religious Freedom bill, the men still stuck on Manus…I could go on but I won’t. The soothing rhythm of the needles has been therapy.

This year, too, I’ve embraced colour like never before. And enjoyed Kaffe Fasset’s autobiography Dreaming in Colour.
What a happy man. How lovely, just occasionally, to read about an untormented childhood.
He was born in 1937 to bohemian parents who ran a famous restaurant, Nepenthe, on an undeveloped part of the Californian coastline near Big Sur. (They bought the land from Orson Welles!)
Their children got to play and explore in the natural world of sea and forest and beach, express themselves with dance, music, art and crafts, and mingle with Nepenthe’s clientele of artists, film makers, actors, writers and other creative people. After going to the local public school, he attended a boarding school run by disciples of Indian guru Krishnamurti. He was never going to be ordinary, was he?
Kaffe was always going to be gay, too – but (in this autobiography, at least) he writes as if this was unquestioningly accepted. He seems to have lived a kind of charmed life, full of serendipitous meetings and connections and much generosity and kindness. His early paintings – mainly still life –  are beautiful but often restrained in palette. It is when he discovers wool that he goes wild with artful and often explosive combinations in knitting and tapestry. The encouraging thing is that so much beauty can be produced using only stocking stitch, and pretty simple shapes. Inspiring and cheering and utterly lovely for the darker days.

I have new little great-niece, so I made her a little hat.

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WINTER

Winter goeth on and on!

Over thirty years ago, when I was in freezing and still actually frozen (lakes, rivers, snow everywhere) Canada in early spring, I vowed not to whinge about our winters here. But…
With a just few bright days to remind us how lovely it really is up here, the dull, grey, miserable and chilly weather grinds on.

I am reading a lot, as you do when it’s cold outside.

Book group title was Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson; a sweet and funny and very English seniors-in-love story. I’m not sure that it will generate a lot of discussion, however…for me, it was a kind of woolly knee-rug and hot-cup-of-tea book, a welcome rest from the heavier stuff. Which we all need – or at least, I do. In winter, especially. Comfort reading. Though, oddly, it’s crime fiction I find the most comforting a present. Watching Shetland on DVD – addictive – and I’ve just read a couple of Ann Cleeves’ Shetland novels as well.

 

 

 

 

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb was a therapist’s tale of seeking therapy for herself. Entwined were the stories of her own clients – the self-absorbed LA film producer, the young newlywed with a terminal diagnosis, the guilt ridden older woman, the  self-destructive millennial. Moving, uplifting, honest and surprisingly humorous. We humans are a funny lot!

 

 

 

 

With After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age by Stephen Batchelor, I continued my decades-long habit of dipping my toe into Buddhist spirituality when life just seems to be too much. I am yet to submerge or even really step in, but everything I read about the dharma makes so much sense, and I suppose that little by little by very little I incorporate some of what I’ve learned into my days.

 

 

 

 

 

And Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language by Amanda Montell  was smart, funny, eye-opening and potty-mouthed (that’s a good thing!) while seriously exposing the ways in which language is gendered.

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HOW TO FAIL

I’ve been failing rather a lot lately. Or so I tell myself, in that nasty scolding tone that all-too-often characterises my internal dialogue. And that voice is especially loud when it comes to my writing. I’m not meeting goals, not applying myself, not disciplined enough, not planning properly, not proactive in trying to build or maintain a brand, a profile… You get the picture.
It doesn’t actually help when I remind myself of just how productive I can be. From 1987 to 1997, I had 8 children’s books published. And from 2004, another 5 published, with a further 2 novels unpublished. Between those two very active periods, however, there were 7 years of little creative writing and no publishing. (I must add that they were years during which I had a baby and completed a post-graduate diploma in children’s literature and moved our family to help my parents age in their own home. Busy? Very!)
For the past 15 years I haven’t had a break from major writing projects. When, at the end of 2017, the children’s book I’d been working on for a couple of years didn’t come off (I’ve tried to use another word for ‘failure’!) I thought that a break of six months…or even a year…would do me good. Then I could re-launch. But, disappointingly, none of the three projects I’ve been working on have taken off. Thus the hectoring tone of my self talk. Just get over yourself, and get on with it, woman!
Am I a failure? Have I failed? No, of course not – and yes, absolutely. My Verity Sparks books did unexpectedly well…but the final book is now out of print, so I guess that’s the end of Verity. My adult novel How Bright Are All Things Here didn’t sell well at all – but I love the story and the character of Bliss; I’m so glad that I wrote it. My two unpublished books were a colossal waste of time and energy, but I learned an enormous amount from writing them.
Perhaps I’m due for a break. Perhaps I should give myself a break, too, from my own self-imposed expectations? After reading How to Fail, I think – not perhaps – definitely.
How to Fail by Elizabeth Day is a lovely, funny, wise reminder that things go wrong all the time. She takes a range of ‘failures’ – from the heart-tearing loss of her dream to have a child, to the laugh-out-loud attempt to live like Gwyneth Paltrow for a week – and shows us that without failure, none of us would learn, grow or thrive.

 

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STAYING

“…just because you love something you cannot make it stay.”

Jessie Cole grew up in idyllic circumstances. A secure and happy childhood in a small town in northern New South Wales. Loving, relaxed, hippie-ish parents. A family home set in acres of rainforest garden she was free to explore. Carefree days spent with her younger brother, playing and exploring, swimming in the waterhole, observing animals and insects, attuned to the natural world. Cole writes compellingly of this childhood realm, in a way that tugged at my heart. I was reminded of my own growing-up days by the beach at Chelsea, and our house and garden that was a sanctuary and a kingdom.

But from the first pages of Staying, the reader is aware of tragedy that blights this perfect existence and slices her life apart. First her older step-sister commits suicide. Then her father, a psychologist, unravels. He becomes another person, abusive and unpredictable. When he also takes his life, the grief, shock and trauma take years for the remaining family to absorb and heal.

All of which sounds heavy – and it is – but this is also a tender story of loss and healing and home.

Staying by Jessie Cole, Text 2018, $32.99

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VARIETY

An old saying – “variety is the spice of life”. This week’s reading has been varied, all right.
First, Jay Griffith’s Tristimania, an amazing memoir of manic depression (her preferred term) which is prose that reads like poetry – and Gerard Manley Hopkins at that.
I read it at speed – which is probably  fitting for a book about mania – and now I want to read it again, but slowly, in order to savour the language. Griffith took notes at the height of her mania, and at one point wrote a suite of poems which she’s added at the back of the memoir. It’s the first time I’ve felt I could understand the seductive appeal of the manic side of bipolar – dancing on a precipice doesn’t start to describe it. A beautiful and disturbing and oddly uplifting book.

Then The Grit in the Pearl by Lyndsy Spence, a biography of the truly appalling Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. She was born Margaret Whigham, daughter of a Scottish millionaire and his society wife, and as a young woman in the early 1930s, achieved fame in the news papers and gossip columns as a beauty and sought-after debutante. Her coming out party cost an incredible 40,000 pounds. I thought the book might stray into Mitford territory, but this poor little rich girl was both clueless and dull. Speaking of her lavish 1933 wedding, she later wrote, “It was the darkest moment of the Depression…but I think they felt our wedding had brought a flash of colour into a grey world.” No, she wasn’t joking . Even in early childhood, she had absolutely no sense of humour, and perhaps that’s why I couldn’t warm to her, even with her her  tragedies and heartbreaks. And they were many, including miscarriages, stillbirths, failed marriages, personal betrayal and in 1963 a remarkable and scandalous court case involving erotic Polaroids. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for someone who seemed to think that money solves everything.

And now for something completely different, as Monty Python used to say.
This is delightful, moving, perceptive, funny and sweet middle-grade fiction. It really deserves to be in the running for the CBCA award – and it is. Carly Nugent, a regional Victorian debut author, must be rightfully very proud and excited.

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BEYOND THE STUDIO

The Castlemaine State Festival has been and gone for weeks now, but the open-air exhibition of portraits is still in place. The show, “Beyond the Studio”, was the work of MAPgroup – Many Australian Photographers. MAPgroup is an association of around 40 photographers who are committed to producing independent documentary photography.  The group says that, “Through our photographs, we tell stories that might not otherwise be told by the mainstream media.”

Late last year, the project organisers contacted lots of Castlemaine and district people involved in the arts – sittings were arranged in January – technical stuff happened – and then in the week before the festival in late March, large portrait posters were stuck up around town. Writers on our walls included some stellar locals, like Alex Miller, Cate Kennedy, Carmel Bird and Robyn Annear. There’s no false modesty when I say that I am definitely not as sparkly, so I feel rather special to have been included. I was photographed by the excellent and very patient Mike Reed. When he finally got me to relax, we ended up with this lovely happy photo. (Take a look at his site for his urban landscapes, too.)

Initially I found it rather challenging to walk down the lane past the chemist to the post office and see my very large face up there but I’m over it now. Perhaps I’ll even miss me when I’m finally torn down.

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THE LIBRARY OF ICE

Today – Good Friday –  was one of those perfect “Indian summer” days. Warm and sunny, calm, blue sky, golden light. Perfect? Perhaps too perfect. The season usually turns around Easter. Autumn stops being late late-summer, becomes early winter. Colder weather arrives with the colouring leaves, the shorter days and longer nights. Mornings bring heavy dew, mist, the odd frost. Nights need doonas and the flannelette sheets. Autumn rains stimulate mushrooms and all the various tribes of fungi to spring into life.
But not yet, and it’s the 19th April, a late Easter this year. It hasn’t rained properly for a couple of months, and it’s so dry that some of the normally drought-proof plants in my garden – wormwood, geraniums, succulents – have died. There are no weeds. Some of the garden beds are actually dusty and water from the hose pools on top because the soil has become water repellent. Climate change? Hell, no.

Anyway, a good time to read The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold Climate, the result of a seven-year quest by British artist, printmaker, writer and poet Nancy Campbell. She explores the frozen world in Greenland, Iceland, Antarctica, observing, talking and listening to the people, researching in libraries and museums and the landscape.
She looks for ice in science, history, literature, culture and art in places like the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and the Ilulissat Kunstmueum, Greenland. She talks to curlers in Scotland, archeologists in Switzerland and the Tyrol,  experts in 17th and 18th ice-house construction in the great country houses of England. She combines all this with memoir and reportage and nature writing in a dazzling and beautiful book.

 

 

 

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INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE

Instructions for a Heatwave was my second book group title for the year. And hooray for me! I’d actually finished  it. (Last year, I was a constant fail but I have started well with two out of two books read on time.)
At our meeting last night, along with the wine and cheese and delicious cake, this novel started a great discussion about families. The question, always, is ‘how well we know the ones closest to us?’
Not very well at all, in this novel. It’s set during the UK drought of 1976 (thus the title). The Riordan family are thrown into panicked disarray when Robert, recently retired from his job in a bank, walks out one morning to get a paper and doesn’t return.
Adult children Aoife, Monica and Michael Francis gather to support their mother, Gretta. Secrets are revealed, lies exposed, sibling relationships and marriages unravel and knit together again. This was a good book for discussion, with believable characters – not all likeable, but all understandable – and told with humour and a great eye for detail. I read it quickly, enjoyed the multiple viewpoints, appreciated the clever storytelling.
For me, though, it didn’t pack the devastating emotional punch of another O’Farrell novel, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, which I picked up in the Op Shop recently. I’m still somewhat haunted by the story, which must be based on real events, and shows how – even in the early part of the 20th century – a non-conforming young woman could be just popped into an “institution” – madhouse – and remain there for most of her life.  A friend, researching family history, has recently uncovered a similar sad story from Sydney in the 1920s. Her relative apparently spent a lot of time “in canvas” because of disruptive behaviour… Chilling, to realise that this means in a strait-jacket.
I’m going to have to keep my eye out for more Maggie O’Farrell.

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BRAIN BUGS

I’ve got a bit of a thing at present for popular science dealing with the brain. And there are lots of good titles around, too. Brain Bugs is an informative, fascinating but in the end, depressing book because it demonstrates how the brain that evolved for human animals thousands of years ago is hopelessly unsuited for the world we live in in. Sadly, the ‘flaws’ in our thinking that Buonomano exposes explain presidents like Trump and Erdogan, they explain our refugee policy, they explain climate change, they explain Brexit…

…our brain bugs range from the innocuous to those that have dramatic effects on our lives. The associative architecture of the brain contributes to false memories, and the ease with which politicians and companies manipulate our behavior and beliefs. Our feeble numerical skills and distorted sense of time contribute to our propensity to make ill-advised personal financial decisions, and to poor health and environmental policies. Our innate propensity to fear those different from us clouds our judgement and influences not only who we vote for but whether we go to war. Our seemingly inherent predisposition to engage in supernatural beliefs often overrides the more rationally inclined parts of the brain, sometimes with tragic results.

Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives by Dean Buonomano, Norton NY, 2011

 

 

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