A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work

As a long-time deep admirer of Helen Garner's work, I was very excited to see Bernadette Brennan's A Writing Life pop up on Brotherhood Books. Why do people get rid of these amazing books? Lucky for me that they do.

A Writing Life is not a conventional author biography. Rather, it examines Garner's body of work, volume by volume, and relates each publication to events in Helen's life at the time. Though Brennan had access to journals and letters, much remains private -- though Garner has always admitted that the substance of her own life has provided the material for her writing, the line between fact and fiction often blurred. From the seminal Monkey Grip (the famous Monkey Grip house is just opposite my daughter's school, where Garner herself was a teacher for a time), through largely autobiographical short stories and novellas, to her later non-fiction examining questions of justice and responsibility (Joe Cinque's Consolation, This House of Grief), Helen Garner has mapped her own relationship to a wider world and wrestled with the same questions through a long and productive life.

This survey of Garner's work has revealed the gaps in my reading -- incredibly, I think I've managed to miss a handful of early stories and essays. And it's also fired me to reread some books that I might understand better for having read Brennan's insightful observations and analysis. The controversial The First Stone will, I think, make more sense to me now. As soon as I get a chance, I'll be returning to it.


The Lie of the Land

Look at this gorgeous cover -- how could I resist snapping up this book? I've also been drawn lately toward books about landscape and relationships to country; I guess Ian Vince's The Lie of the Land takes the concept a step further by examining the geology of the British Isles, the rocks beneath the surface and how they effect what lies above.

Now, except for specialists, geology is not commonly regarded as a particularly interesting topic (my thirteen year old has just finished a Geology unit at school and declares it to be the most boring subject EVER), but Ian Vince has done a commendable job injecting humour and human interest into his survey to create a surprisingly entertaining journey which travels both back into deep geological time and around the corners of Britain. He also throws in more modern history -- tin mining in Cornwall, slate in Wales -- and anecdotes about his own research process, tramping up mountains and exploring wilderness, to bring the landscape to life.

I'd love to read a book like this about Victoria. The geological chapters I've come across in local history books are dry as old toast. The Lie of the Land manages to be a thoroughly engaging read.


The Story of the Lost Child

Wow. And so I reach the end of the saga -- the final volume of the Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, The Story of the Lost Child.

As I foresaw, the canvas of the story broadens out in this last book to take in a wider world. Now a celebrated author, Elena travels to France, Germany and the United States; meanwhile, Lila, her reflection and double, remains within the tight-knit community of the old neighborhood. Perhaps inevitably, Elena too is drawn back to the familiar streets (not a spoiler: I always knew Nino was a rat!) and ends up living in the same building as her old friend. Never have their lives been so closely entwined, as they both bear daughters, one fair, one dark, a new version of Lila and Lenu's coupling. But there are still shocking events to come.

I crammed down this novel hungrily, too fast perhaps, and when it was finished I still wanted more. The power of female friendship, stronger sometimes than family, stronger than the ebb and flow of love, is a topic under-explored in literature. Hopefully the success of Ferrante's novels will change that. Meanwhile, I need to find a quiet corner and digest what I've read.


Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

I needed a couple of breaks to make my way through this, the third volume of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels. As usual, I found the first fifty pages hard going, but then it was a race to the finish.

The two friends, Lena and Lina, are now adults, negotiating relationships, children and careers. At the beginning of the novel, life is looking rosy for the narrator, Lena, whose book is a success and who is about to marry into a distinguished academic family. It seems she has escaped the old neighborhood with its deep-rooted, sordid power struggles. In contrast, her friend Lina seems to have made all the wrong choices -- she's run away from her husband after a failed affair, working in terrible conditions in a sausage factory, supported by a childhood friend, Enzo, whom she does not love.

But soon enough the scales begin to tilt the other way. Lena finds herself suffocating in domesticity, her brief moment of fame snuffed out, while Lina and Enzo are successful early experts in computers. The neighborhood reaches out its tentacles around both of them as Lina decides to work for the shady Solara brothers and Lena's first unrequited love, Nino reappears to throw her life into chaos...

While My Brilliant Friend was confined to the handful of streets that comprised 'the neighborhood,'
The Story of a New Name broadened the canvas to include the whole of Naples. Those Who Stay and Those Who Leave widens the focus still further as Lena moves to Florence, and the characters are engulfed in the conflicts of 1970s Italian politics, battles between fascists and communists, the elite, the criminal classes and the workers. Fittingly, the book ends with Lena aboard an aeroplane for the first time, heading for France -- will the final volume moe out of Italy to encompass other countries?

I'm going to the library today to pick up The Story of the Lost Child, so I'll soon find out.


A Wink From The Universe

I've been waiting for this book for AGES -- Martin Flanagan's account of the Western Bulldogs magical, unexpected 2016 premiership. So when my preordered copy hit the doorstep, I took a brief, indulgent break from Elena Ferrante so I could gobble it down.

Martin Flanagan, more than any other football writer, captures the mystery and the drama and the poignancy at the heart of the game of AFL rules, and he gets the Bulldogs. He helps explain to me how I, a football hater, became drawn in to the community of this particular club, and how I too gradually got it.

His writing is superb. Every page sparkles with a perfect metaphor, a brilliantly drawn description. He writes about the history of the Bulldogs, an egalitarian club, a working man's club from the wrong side of the river. He writes about Bob Murphy, a footballer with rare wit and soul, the premiership captain cruelly denied his place in the playing team. He writes about Luke Beveridge, an ordinary player who became an extraordinary coach, a passionate story-teller who wove the power of his belief into a team without superstars, and transformed them into winners, a team surfing a wave he created right up to the ultimate prize.

Flanagan's account of the Grand Final match itself makes me want to go back and watch it again with the book in my hand, to pick out the same moments he narrates with such perfect, lively description. Any excuse!

But this is not just a book for those with 'Bulldog dreaming.' It's a fairy tale, a story about the power of belief, about the magic of belonging, and a joy long-denied.


College Life

Residential colleges have been in the news. Horror stories of bastardisation, bullying, cruel and demeaning 'initiation ceremonies,' a culture of alcohol abuse and sexual misconduct.

I spent my first two years at university living in a residential college. It was a long time ago, more than thirty years -- generations of students have passed through 'my' rooms since then. I too heard horror stories, mostly from the larger colleges (the ones that used to be males only). I had the impression that the smaller colleges, like mine, which had previously been women's colleges, had a more healthy atmosphere.

Sure, we did some stupid things, things that might be frowned upon these days. During Orientation Week, after a chicken and champagne breakfast, we 'freshers' were asked if we'd like to swim across the Yarra, and a handful of us were dumb enough to volunteer. But we were asked, not coerced, and we were picked up on the other side. (I only just made it.) We stood on the roof and dropped water balloons on fellow students returning from the pub. We partook in a mid-year scavenger hunt which involved, frankly, the theft of private and public property. There was a lot of free alcohol sloshing around, and not everyone handled it well. Actually, no one handled it well.

It wasn't until the novelty had worn off and I made friends with some older, more cynical residents, that I recognised the unhealthy aspects of college life: the reckless encouragement of binge drinking, the sexist attitudes of some of the male students, the superficial categorisation of residents as 'good blokes' or 'sluts' or 'dags' or 'up themselves.' But I made some lifelong friends, and I learned a lot, about life and love and myself -- not much about law, though, which I was supposed to be studying. Mostly  my experiences were positive, but two years was enough for me.

It was like no other time of my life. I took risks I never would have taken otherwise, befriended people I never would have met on campus, had my first sexual encounters (some great, some terrible), lived with strangers for the first time, fell in love with unsuitable people, made enemies, lost control sometimes, learned to say no. And while I certainly wouldn't wish on anyone the kind of abuse that I've read about, for me, some of the negative college experiences were the most important ones.


The Furthest Station

I reserved this novella at the library so long ago that the notice that it was available came as a complete surprise. I managed to sneak in The Furthest Station while I was deep in the middle of the third Elena Ferrante Neapolitan novel, as light relief (the Ferrante is quite grim). It was sheer pleasure to find myself back in Peter Grant's London, where ghosts appear on the Underground, talking foxes stalk the tunnels, and baby river gods appear in the suburbs. Much too short, though; it just whetted my appetite for the next full-length Peter Grant adventure, where hopefully some questions about those pesky foxes might be answered. The ghost/kidnapping story, while apparently resolved, also raised some troubling questions about the nature of physical reality. Unless I've missed something, which is quite possible. Aaronovitch's universe becomes more complex with each outing, so I might have lost track.

Just bloody hurry up with the next one. Please!


Hillbilly Elegy

I borrowed JD Vance's best-selling Hillbilly Elegy from a friend (thanks, Juzzy!) after seeing numerous recommendations online, and indeed the cover of the edition I read is thick with gushing praise, including the claim that it 'explains Brexit and the rise of Trump.'

That's a big call for a fairly little book, and one I don't think is entirely justified. It's also, as far as I can tell, not the intention of the writer.

JD Vance is a young writer, only about thirty, but he tells his story with clarity, insight and keen  awareness of the connections between the personal and the political. He grew up in Ohio, but from 'hillbilly' stock: fiercely loyal, resentful, a law unto themselves. JD's childhood was marred by domestic violence, parental substance abuse and instability. He was saved by the unstinting love and hard work demanded by his grandparents, which saw him eventually graduate in Law from Yale. This is a postcard from the heart of Trump's America, though as Vance is a conservative at heart, he ultimately lays blame for America's malaise on a lack of personal discipline and responsibility rather than systemic political failures.

Some parts of Vance's story were utterly foreign to my own life -- screaming parental fights, wild spending on showy consumer goods, using a pay-day lender to survive till the next pay cheque. But other parts resonated with my own experience. Vance ends up at Yale and realises he has entered another world, one where he doesn't understand the rules of the game.

He was one step ahead of me when I landed at Melbourne University Law School -- I didn't even realise there was a game. Networking, making contacts, befriending lecturers who might give you a recommendation -- I just didn't know that this was part of what university was supposed to give you. But to play the game, you have to understand that the game exists. I was totally clueless. But like Vance, I was the first member of my family to attend university; there was no one to tell me how things worked. It's not enough just to gain access to the institutions of power (interestingly, I'm also now reading about Elena's experience of the same situation in Elena Ferrante's Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay). You also need to navigate the unseen rituals, dress properly, speak properly to the right people, ingratiate yourself, submit articles to the journals that count. And nobody explains that stuff: you're supposed to just know. These are the unseen barriers that shut off opportunities to the poor, even if they scrape into the bastions of the elite.


One Would Think The Deep

Claire Zorn's third YA novel, One Would Think The Deep, won the CBCA Older Readers Book of the Year last year, and I can see why. Wow. Zorn's writing is amazing -- clear and powerful, unpretentious but resonant, a perfect voice for young adult writing.

But jeez, it's bleak stuff. As the book opens, Sam's mum has just died suddenly. The only relative he can contact is his estranged aunt Lorraine, who grudgingly accepts him into her chaotic household with his two older cousins, hostile Shane and bouncy Minty, who is an extraordinary surfer. The surfing scenes in this book are the best I've read. Sam is smart and sensitive (he adores Jeff Buckley's music), but he's also self-destructive. When the black hole inside threatens to overwhelm him, he looks for someone to fight. Will Sam destroy his tentative relationship with Gretchen, possibly the best thing that's ever happened to him? And will he find out what blew his once close family apart?

Set in 1997, the music of the nineties is threaded through the book. Tumbleweed, Shihad, Jeff Buckley, Chili Peppers, Tori Amos -- these were all the artists who were around when I was working in the music industry and the book brought back some powerful memories. I can also well remember the wave of shock and grief that rippled through us all when Jeff Buckley died -- followed by the unseemly scramble to package up and market every scrap of music he had ever recorded. Lucky Sam didn't really just how tawdry the music business could be, or he'd be even more cynical.



Next month in the Convent book club we are looking at the winners of the 2017 CBCA Awards. Trace Balla's Rockhopping was the winner of the Younger Readers' Book of the Year category (an award I was also honoured to win with Crow Country a few years ago).

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's like a cross between a picture book and a junior graphic novel, with a deceptively simple cartoonish style which contains lots of marginal detail: birds and insects, wildflowers and trees. Clancy and his uncle Egg take a hike through Gariwerd (the Grampian mountains near Melbourne), with detours and adventures along the way. Indigenous placenames are foregrounded, with European names given in parentheses. While Clancy and his uncle are not Indigenous, Uncle Egg's best mate is Aboriginal, and gives snippets of local knowledge and mythology which are respectfully received by Clancy and Egg. There is humour and danger, and Clancy discovers he is more resourceful than he thought.

Of course I was always going to enjoy a book set in Victoria, and especially when Clancy and Egg set off from near Merri Creek, my own local waterway. Designed for younger readers, this book will be enjoyed by curious travellers of all ages.


The Midnight Folk

The copy of John Masefield's The Midnight Folk that I found secondhand was published in 1957 -- it cost 3/6! -- but the book was first published in 1927. I picked it up because Susan Green had mentioned it as a favourite childhood book, and during the Dark Is Rising twitter read-through, several participants talked about The Midnight Folk and its sequel, The Box of Delights, as formative fantasy texts.

The Midnight Folk is a strange little book -- not so little, actually, it's over 200 pages in fairly small font. Young Kay Harker embarks on a quest for the lost treasure entrusted to his ancestor, Captain Harker, which has been stolen and mislaid several times over, and in so doing he tangles with witches and talking animals, walks into portraits and meets many peculiar characters, human and non-human.

Several times I was reminded of other books, which shows how influential this novel has been. Kay tries on bat wings and otter skin which enables him to fly and to swim, which reminded me of the Wart's educational experiences in TH White's The Book of Merlyn. The witches, and especially Mrs Pouncer with her wax face, foreshadowed Roald Dahl's witches. The talking portraits took me straight to Hogwarts.

I'm not sure this book would appeal to a modern audience, though it would make a great read-aloud -- there are heaps of opportunities for funny voices, and it's actually pretty humorous, though I suspect children might need to be led through some of the jokes. I found the whole treasure plot quite confusing, though I must admit pirates and treasure aren't really my cup of tea. I'm glad I've read it though, and I will keep a look out for Kay's further adventures in The Box of Delights.


The Story of a New Name

The Story of a New Name is the second volume of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels series, which I borrowed from the library (there were many reservations ahead of me, so I had to wait a while). This copy was obviously well read, with a cracked spine and soft pages -- lovely to handle!

At first I had some trouble getting back into the story. Who were all these people again? The cast of the 'neighborhood' had faded from my memory and I found it hard to pick up the threads. It also takes me a while to adjust to Ferrante's style: the long, complex sentences, the detailed dissection of emotion and, in contrast, the almost complete lack of physical description.

But soon I was wrapped up in the story -- the complicated web of interpersonal relationships, love and hate, jealousy and obligation that criss-crosses the neighborhood; and the equally complex inner lives of the two young friends, Elena and Lina/Lila, at the centre of the narrative. When the story opens, Lila is newly married (at sixteen!) but the relationship soon founders. The most compelling section of the novel centres on a summer holiday at the beach on Ischia, where Elena, Lila and another friend meet up with a boy from the neighborhood who Elena has always loved. The painful account of Elena's repressed feelings, her growing conviction that Nino also cares for her, and the inevitable betrayal when Nino and Lila begin a clandestine relationship, is absolutely gripping and agonising. It brought back terrible memories of unrequited love from my own youth. From there I raced to the end of the book, and I've just reserved the next volume!

This is a novel of contrasts. For the first time the story creeps out from the narrow bounds of the neighborhood (apparently based on the Rione Luzzatti district of Naples, which is tiny) to explore other areas of the city and the island of Ischia. Lila, so tempestuous and unpredictable, seems more brilliant and gifted than conscientious Elena, and yet it's Lila who finds herself trapped in her marriage and the business of grocery store and shoe factory, while Elena escapes to study in Pisa, opening the door to a yet wider world.

At the start of the novel, Lila seems to have it all, wealth, love, glamour and power, while Elena is her timid shadow; by the end of the book, the scales have switched and Elena is the successful one, while Lila appears to have lost everything.

Yet again, I've turned to Google Maps and images to give me a visual sense of the setting. Thank God for the internet!


Tuck Everlasting

I had never read this 1975 American classic, though I know it's a popular set text for primary schools, and Evie is familiar with the musical version. It was a quick and easy read, divided into very short chapters, and with a simple and straightforward story that nonetheless raises some big ideas.

Young Winnie Foster encounters a friendly family and learns their tightly-kept secret -- they have accidentally drunk from a magical spring which has given them eternal life. They will never grow older, and never die. For me, the most interesting aspect of the tale lies in Winnie's attraction to the youngest son, Jesse, who offers to share the gift with her when she turns seventeen -- though she finds it pretty easy to refuse. The book is a reflection on the pattern of life -- the Power of Becoming, as the Tremaris books would have it -- birth, change, aging and death. The Tucks have been removed from this cycle, and so their lives have become meaningless.

I don't know if I'm entirely convinced by the book's argument, but certainly I wouldn't want to live forever either, and I'm pretty sure that Winnie made the right decision.


The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters

I came across The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters months ago in a second hand bookshop in Sydney - at over 800 pages, it was way too heavy to bring home!
'Haven't you got that one already?' asked Michael. 'Didn't you have that in St Kilda?'
'No, no,' I said. 'That was letters between Nancy and Evelyn Waugh [mysteriously went missing, long story, I was very cross]. I don't have this one.'

So when I found it again on Brotherhood Books, I bought it, and I've spent many happy hours in this hot week trawling through the correspondence between these fascinating, complicated, witty, sometimes cruel, sometimes deeply touching sisters, who led such varied and intriguing lives and spanned almost the whole of the twentieth century.

From Nancy, successful novelist but unlucky in love, to Pamela, food and dog-loving countrywoman, to Diana who scandalously left her husband to marry Oswald Mosley, leader of the British fascists (they were both imprisoned during the war); to poor Unity, who loved Hitler and tried unsuccessfully to kill herself when war was declared, to Jessica, a socialist who ran away to America and became a 'muckraking' writer, her life marked by personal tragedies, to Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire, who turned Chatsworth estate into a successful tourist enterprise. Between them, the Mitford sisters seem to have crossed paths with almost every noteworthy character of the twentieth century.

Sometimes I find them exasperating, racist, conservative, snobbish, judgmental, bitchy. Sometimes I can hear the voices of my English aunts. But whatever I think of their politics or their personal lives, I keep being drawn back to the Mitfords because they are simply wonderfully entertaining company. And I imagine that is why people adored them in real life, too.

Halfway through this very weighty volume, I was sorting through my bookshelves when I discovered an overlooked volume:
Yes, it's the same book, different cover. Dark spine rather than light spine. I had it all along. No wonder some of those letters seemed familiar. To misquote the title of one of Nancy's novels: Don't Tell Michael.


Northern Lights

... and the next book to reach the finish line was Northern Lights, which I picked up after reading La Belle Sauvage, which is a prequel to this first volume of His Dark Materials (confused?)

I read this years and years ago when it first came out but I had never reread it. The story came back to me in patches and occasional vivid images, though there were whole sections I had completely forgotten. As always, the business of Dust confused me (despite the primer of La Belle Sauvage, which did help a bit). Lyra is obviously intended to be a vivid, feisty, courageous character, but somehow she never quite came to life for me. The armoured bear Iorek Byrnison, on the other hand, is a fabulous, magnificent creation! I was pleasantly surprised to discover a couple of characters from the earlier/later book, ie Hannah Relf and Farder Coram (who seems like a completely different person). Hannah Relf must come into more later in the trilogy (I forget) because she does nothing in this book except be 'elderly' which I don't think she was in LBS.

When Alice and Evie saw me reading this, they both had comments to make.
Evie: Oh, I remember that book, it was boring and confusing and I never understood what was happening. I only wanted to read it because it had an animal on the cover. [Prob my fault, I think I gave it to her too early.]
Alice: It was terrible, it was SO SAD! I wanted an animal buddy, and then they CUT THEM APART.

So anyway, it made an impression.