23.5.17

Planet Narnia

I have rarely felt such genuine excitement reading a book (let alone a book of literary criticism!) as I did while reading Michael Ward's Planet Narnia.

Ward, a Lewis scholar of many years, has developed a theory so persuasive and elegant, it's utterly irresistible. Simply put, he argues that C.S. Lewis wrote the seven volumes of the Chronicles of Narnia according to a secret scheme which adheres to the seven planets of the medieval Ptolemaic universe (namely, Jupiter, Sun, Moon, Mars, Venus, Mercury and Saturn).

Thus, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe bears the influence of kingly, generous Jupiter, who 'banishes winter' and forgives all. Peter swears by Jove and the colour red recurs; there is feasting and jollity. Seen in this light, the appearance of Father Christmas, sometimes seen as incongruous, makes perfect sense.

Prince Caspian is influenced by war-like, disciplined, knightly Mars; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by golden, joyous Sol; The Silver Chair by watery, submissive Luna; The Horse and his Boy by quicksilver, eloquent Mercury, forever dividing and uniting; The Magician's Nephew is ruled by fertile, life-giving Venus; and Saturn, old, cold, ugly and deathly, rules over The Last Battle.

There is too much textual evidence to repeat here, and I must admit I skimmed some of Ward's more abstruse philosophical discussions. There is also a lot of material on Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet trilogy, which anticipates and reinforces Lewis's thoughts on the planets. I'm convinced that Ward has indeed found an important key to understanding the Narniad. The glorious jumble of imagery and atmosphere, the apparent unevenness of plot and some inconsistencies are at last explained. For example, the figure of Aslan is no longer a simple allegory for Christ, but appears in different planetary guises and roles in each volume.

This book has made me see these beloved books in an entirely new light. I can''t wait to read them again!

22.5.17

My Father's Books

photo.JPG
Half a shelf's worth; approximately one twenty-fouth of the library
 My father was a hoarder. A meticulous, neat, super-organised, OCD-type hoarder, but a hoarder nonetheless. (I say was, though he is very much still with us, because since he moved into aged care after a stroke a couple of years ago, his opportunities for hoarding have been drastically curtailed. Thank God, says my mother.)

The extent of Dad's hoarding was suspected, but never confirmed, until it came time to clear out my parents' house for rental. To give you some idea: Michael has been sorting through the two rooms that made up Dad's study; I have done the whole of the rest of the house. My job was far easier, I'm all finished! Michael is still going.

A hoarder Dad may have been, but he was never really much of a reader. As well as all the other things he collected (stamps, coins, business cards, matchbooks, train tickets, computer software, cameras, model aeroplanes...), he amassed a library, which contained many books he'd used in teaching -- texts on principles of flight, meteorology, aircraft magazines, cloud atlases -- as well as various other books that reflected his other interests -- travel guides, dictionaries, photography manuals, bird guides, street directories, histories of classical music.

It was fairly easy to decide about the other books, whether to keep them ourselves or pass them on, but the aircraft collection was more difficult. They were so specialised, so niche -- yet there were so many of them! Wasn't it better to try to keep them as a collection, for someone who might appreciate them?

And we found someone. A young woman associated with the flying school where Dad had taught for several years, someone who loves books (and also, coincidentally, is fascinated by PNG) and flying. She was dumbstruck when she first saw Dad's collection -- awesome and insane was what she finally stammered. She ended up loading her car with textbooks, maps, flight manuals, course materials, NOTAMs, notebooks and other treasures -- this was the back seat. The boot was full as well. Her poor little car was groaning, and dipping at the rear.
She spent a couple of hours exclaiming and exploring: we still use these sheets! Oh wow, this is from 1975! I've never seen anything like it...  Some things she'll keep and some she'll give away, but I feel reassured that this part of Dad's collection, at least, is in good hands.

Thank you!



On Looking

I bought On Looking from Brotherhood Books (yeah, yeah, I know...) but it wasn't until I began to read it that I realised I'd read a review or an extract from it a few years ago and tucked it away in the back of my mind.

Horowitz, a neuroscientist, has come up with a fantastic idea for a book, which appealed to me instantly: instead of repeating her familiar dull walk around the block with the dog (in New York City), she takes various 'experts' and others with her, to find out what they observe and she has missed. She walks with a blind person, a painter, a geologist, a specialist in fonts and graphics, her own toddler son and her dog, and records the different ways they experience and make new this familiar territory. She is shown bugs and signs of wildlife she's never noticed, hears sounds and smells odours that had escaped her attention.

I did enjoy this book, but ultimately it promised more than it delivered. Perhaps because On Looking was necessarily so rooted in a particular place, a place unfamiliar to me, it held less resonance than the same concept set in, oh, I don't know, the suburbs of Melbourne? The plants and architecture were unknown to me, the wildlife is different, the streets and traffic don't operate in quite the same way. Some chapters were more successful than others -- the geology one was frankly dull, despite Horowitz's best attempts to spice it up. On the other hand, the walk with the blind woman was absolutely fascinating, as was the chapter with the sound effects guy.

Overall, a mixed success, but more enjoyable than not.

17.5.17

The Story of English in 100 Words

Evie took one look at this book and said, 'But this is longer than a hundred words... Ohhhh, right, okay.'

In a neat conceit, linguist David Crystal makes a survey of one hundred English words, starting with the rune for 'roe' scratched on a deer bone, possibly the earliest written word in English ever found, and moving through the centuries to take in 'lea' (a clearing, a word element which survives in countless place- and surnames, like Bromley or Dunkley), 'potato', 'jazz' and up to 'twittersphere' in the twenty-first century. He manages to cover much of the same ground as Mother Tongue -- borrowings from other languages, truncations and elaborations, swear words and technical terms. But with only a couple of pages available for each word, this ends up being more of a skim than a delve.

A quick, fun and informative read that will probably leave the reader wanting more.

9.5.17

Mother Tongue

Evie has been on a bit of a language kick lately -- which means reading Wikipedia articles about slang and the origins of English. So I dug out Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue for her, thinking it might be of interest, and of course ended up reading it myself.

Published in 1992, I dare say the scholarship has advanced since it was written, as has technology: no internet or smartphones mentioned in this text! And the cover could do with reworking, in fact I think in later editions it has been. A Bill Bryson book is never less than supremely entertaining, though the facts are sometimes a little loose (Australians don't habitually drop the u in words like 'labor' - only when we're talking about political parties; and is an ice-crean tub in Victoria really known as a 'pixie'? Not in my lifetime!)

As a rapid, amusing sweep through the history of English and its rise as a global language, it's a fun ride and packed with fascinating snippets and anecdotes. But I would hesitate to rely on it as an authoritative academic source, despite the massive bibliography in the back.

3.5.17

The Exiles at Home

 
I picked up The Exiles at Home at the last library book sale, even though I'd read it before. It's taken me a surprisingly long time to re-read; the story seemed to start very slowly, though it did come together satisfyingly enough by the end. The structure was episodic by necessity, as the story was about the four Conroy sisters needing to raise money monthly to sponsor an African child, and their various misadventures and schemes for doing so.

Hilary McKay is very good at capturing the amiable chaos of middle class family life, but I still had trouble telling the four girls apart (except for implacable Phoebe, the youngest, who is very vivid). I am curious to read the final volume in the trilogy, The Exiles in Love, but I don't know that I'm keen enough to actually pay full price for it... It might be one that I keep an eye out for second-hand.

26.4.17

The Greatest Gresham

Well, well, well! Barely a month after my last successful visit to Savers, where I found Gillian Avery's The Elephant War, Alice and I paid another visit, and behold! Another Gillian Avery! Do the Savers' staff have a box of them out the back? Are they doling them out when they see me slink through the door?

The Greatest Gresham was first published in 1962, but it's set in Avery's favourite period of the 1890s (though in the suburbs of London this time, rather than Oxford). One one level, it's a charming friendship story, bringing together the timid, respectable Gresham children with their rackety new next-door neighbours, supercilious Richard and imaginative Kate. A secret society is formed, dares are exchanged, and parents are horrified, but everyone learns something in the end.

But on another level, there is a much darker narrative lurking in the background. The Greshams (except for the favourite, little Amy) are timid because they are almost paralysed with fear of their over-bearing, ex-military father, who 'roars' at them and is frequently made angry by his disappointing offspring. In contrast, the Holt children are benignly neglected by their loving but distracted father and aunt. Clever Richard is cramming so hard for a scholarship exam that he makes himself almost physically ill, while dishevelled Kate, who dreams of being a duchess, longs for the order and predictability of the Gresham household. All four of the older children suffer from anxiety to some degree, whether it's caused by terror of their father, fear of what 'other people think', or fear of academic failure. In the end, it's spirited Amy and bold Aunt B, who refuse to be bound by others' judgements, who come out winners.

A delightful book, but also a very good one.

24.4.17

Long Ago When I Was Young

I stumbled across this short memoir, Long Ago When I Was Young, by one of my favourite childhood authors, E. Nesbit, while browsing on Brotherhood Books. I'd never heard of this book's existence, so I had to act quickly to grab it while it was still there -- didn't I?

E. Nesbit's magical (and non-magical) novels were a staple of my youthful reading. The Phoenix and the Carpet, Five Children and It, The Wouldbegoods and The Treasure Seekers, and of course The Railway Children, were borrowed and re-borrowed. I tried reading them to my children but the stories were too slow, too Victorian, and they didn't 'take', which made me so sad, as Edith Nesbit is the godmother of modern urban fantasy. Edward Eager acknowledged his debt to her in every one of his own delightful books, and I believe she invented the genre of 'magic in the real world', or at the very least popularised it.

This slim volume, beautifully illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, collects some of Nesbit's most vivid childhood memories of growing up in the 1860s. She had an unsettled youth, moved from one boarding school to another as her mother shifted around the country with young Edith's (Daisy) ill elder sister. The family also spent time travelling around France and Germany, before finding a more permanent home in the Kentish countryside. The most poignant chapters tell of the things that frightened Daisy -- ghosts, the dark space behind the bed, the gas turned low to make creepy shadows, and especially the terrifying mummies in a crypt that she was taken to see, and which gave her nightmares for many years. What a great idea, to take a sensitive child to see some half-preserved corpses in a cave!

This book has reminded me how much I loved Nesbit's books. Time for a revisit, perhaps.

20.4.17

My Side of the Mountain

Next month's theme for the Convent book group is Wilderness, and I re-read Jean George's 1959 American classic, My Side of the Mountain as our junior fiction selection. (Our YA choice is Gary Paulsen's Hatchet, which actually seems to me to be pitched at about the same level -- not sure why one is in one category and the other is in the other? Something to discuss at the meeting, perhaps!)

George's book, largely based on her own childhood memories of camping in the wild, tells the story of Sam, aged about 13, who runs away from the city to test his own survival skills. (His parents are remarkably relaxed about this decision!) He makes himself a home in a hollow tree, tames a falcon (much more easily than in H is for Hawk, by the way), fishes and gathers wild plants, and even makes himself clothes from deer and rabbit skin. He lives well and healthily, makes it through winter, and only toward the end of the book does he find himself craving human company.

Killing two birds with one stone as I often do, I talked about My Side of the Mountain at my other book group, and we collectively wondered why there is so little of this kind of positive wilderness writing in Australian children's literature. For authors like Ivan Southall, landscape is a hostile enemy in a life or death struggle for survival (eg Ash Road, To the Wild Sky). Only Nan Chauncy seems to celebrate and delight in wilderness (eg They Found a Cave). Is it because white authors don't feel entitled to belong in Australia's 'wild' country? Australian literature has a long tradition of 'lost child' narratives, but very few stories of harmonious living in nature. Hopefully Australia's growing body of Indigenous writing for children and adults will soon fill this gap -- it would be a healthy development, I think.

17.4.17

Melbourne Then and Now

I found this book on my Dad's shelves -- one of many hidden gems tucked away. The silver lining to the arduous and emotional business of clearing out the parental home is that we are constantly making wonderful discoveries, and even Dad admits that without this process, some of his treasures would have remained unlooked-at in cupboards and filed away on bookshelves. At least this way he has actually been able to enjoy leafing through some precious volumes (I'm thinking of the cloud atlas* he bought as an eighteen-year old, carefully stored in its original shipping box).

Anyway, Melbourne Then and Now is a wonderful little book, a simple concept thoughtfully executed. On each double page spread, a photograph of some old Melbourne landmark is married with a modern shot from more or less the same place. Sometimes the buildings are still there, looking exactly the same, with only the surroundings changed; sometimes the original has altered beyond recognition or disappeared altogether. For the first time I realise how Market St acquired its name, and why the Customs House sits where it does (the wharves used to lie directly in front of it).

And if I could resurrect one lost Melbourne building, I would choose the magnificent Federal Coffee Palace. Situated on the corner of Collins and King Streets, its dining rooms could seat 600 patrons, and when it was first built, its dome could be seen by ships at sea. Demolished in 1973, it was replaced by yet another anonymous, boring skyscraper. What a shame!


* Turns out a cloud atlas is an actual thing, not just a novel! Who knew?

14.4.17

The Exiles

I went to the latest library book sale to donate, not purchase (as per the No New Books rule -- which is in shambles, by the way, if you hadn't guessed). But when I saw The Exiles and The Exiles at Home on the table, I couldn't resist grabbing them. I've become a huge fan of Hilary McKay's Casson family series, and I wanted more of the same.

The Exiles (there are three books altogether), like the Casson books, features a family of mostly girls -- the four Conroy sisters. In this first book, they are dispatched to Big Grandma's house for the holidays while their home is being renovated. Various misadventures ensue, culminating in... [spoilers which may or may not involve a fire where books are destroyed -- this part was hard to read!]

This was a sweet book. I had a bit of trouble telling the four girls apart; their personalities are not as clearly delineated as in the Casson books, in fact this feels like a rehearsal for McKay's later, more accomplished work. It also lacks the emotional heft of the Casson series. But it's a light, funny read.

One thing that dated the book was the fuss made about the sisters' allegedly 'weird' names: Ruth, Naomi, Rachel and especially Phoebe. Well, Phoebe might have been slightly unusual in 1991 (not to me, as I have an English cousin called Phoebe), but it certainly isn't peculiar these days -- perhaps helped by the arrival of Phoebe from Friends. Naming trends come and go, and by all means use your favourite unusual names on your characters, but best not to comment on it at much length. Who knows, the popularity of your character may propel that 'bizarre' name into the Top 10! (Unlikely but it has happened -- babies are actually being named Renesmee now, believe it or not.) I still live in hope of a wave of little Calwyns one day...

13.4.17

The Marlows and the Traitor (again)

Over on Memoranda, Michelle Cooper has been conducting a fabulous read-through of The Marlows and the Traitor, which has given me the opportunity to read it again, too. And I think I've enjoyed it even more this time; it really is a cracking story, despite the holes in the plot, the poor behaviour of most of the adults involved and the stiff upper lips all round. Forest uses multiple viewpoints and clever pacing to masterfully control the tension of the narrative. In many ways this is a very adult book. We are told, 'The children are expendable' -- you wouldn't get that in Enid Blyton!

In other news, I had to do something absurdly upsetting this week -- get rid of my childhood books. I'm in the process of clearing out my childhood home -- I'm very fortunate that my parents have lived in the same house for nearly fifty years, and the books I read as a four and five year old have all been tucked away in a spare bedroom, to be read by my younger sister and then by my own children. I've saved my special favourites, but I couldn't keep them all, and most of them were so tatty (and had my name scribbled in them!) that they couldn't be passed on. So into the recycling bin they had to go. How ridiculous that this, more than anything other aspect of the business, reduced me to tears! I had to go home, too upset to do any more clearing out that day.

When I got up next morning, I discovered that my lovely husband had fished the books out of the bin and brought them home. 'They don't take up much room,' he said. 'We can keep them.' Bless him.

3.4.17

The Mighty West

A massive exception to the No New Books rule: I pre-ordered The Mighty West long before it came out. I feel as if I know Kerrie Soraghan (aka The Bulldog Tragician) from her blog and her posts on the Whitten Oval Online Forum; a lifelong Western Bulldogs supporter, she has chronicled the fans' journey in poignant and funny prose.

This book draws on her blog posts from the last couple of years, so I was already quite familiar with a lot of the material. It was a quick and effortless and very pleasurable read, re-living the Bulldogs' journey to a flag which reached its glorious fairytale conclusion in October last year. Soraghan writes so beautifully of the fan experience -- of the emotional investment that supporters place in these young men, who we kid ourselves we know (from 'a few stilted interviews' and their exploits on the field) and love (often fiercely, often beyond all reason). Fans feel like insiders, and the actions of the team and the club matter to us so much -- and yet ultimately we are not insiders. We know hardly anything of what really goes on inside the club, and we are powerless to affect what happens, whether that's a club captain walking out, or a team winning an impossible game. All we can do is tell ourselves that our silly superstitions (sitting in the same place on the couch, wearing a lucky badge) and our barracking, our cheers and encouragement -- our love -- really do make a difference.

And once in a lifetime, that those dreams and hopes come true.

For Western Bulldog fans, this is a must-read; you will relate to every word. As soon as I finish this post, I'm buying it for my mother-in-law.

31.3.17

Mountains of the Mind

After finishing Michelle Paver's mountaineering book, Thin Air, last week, I found myself caught between two competing rules I'd set for myself this year: Read What I Feel Like Reading, and No New Books. I knew I had Mountains of the Mind hidden in the cupboard for when the No New Books rule expires, but the timing seemed too perfect to miss. So Read What I Feel Like won.

Mountains of the Mind was Robert Macfarlane's first book, a prize winner which kick-started his subsequent career as a wonderful writer on nature and wildness. (Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I am a huge Macfarlane fan.)

Mountains of the Mind is a little more earnest and academic than its successors, packed with quotes and scholarship, tracing the evolving history of attitudes toward mountains and mountain-climbing, from fear and horror through fascination and awe, to the hunger for conquest and domination, and sheer wonder at the otherworld of high altitude. But for me, the strongest sections of the book are drawn from Macfarlane's personal experiences and observations as a life-long climber, and this is the track he has followed in later books. He writes with exquisite precision:
Specks of ice drifted in and out of the beams [of our head-torches] like phytoplankton... When I turned my light off and turned around, there was total darkness and then, like a developing photograph - the image swimming into sharpness in the chemical bath - the forms of the peaks around us came into focus...
The penultimate chapter of the book, Everest, was utterly gripping. It describes the story of George Mallory, a man who became obsessed with Mt Everest. He tried three times to climb the world's highest peak, in 1921, 1922 and 1924, and vanished without trace on the last attempt. For years mountaineers have speculated on whether or not he had reached the summit before his death. Mallory's body was discovered, almost perfectly preserved, in 1999, seventy five years after he vanished into the mountain's mists: a tragedy, a myth, a mystery. Now I'm on fire to learn more about this charismatic, driven young man, who adored his wife and young children and yet couldn't resist the hunger to climb.

It looks as if the No New Books rule may be broken again.




20.3.17

Thin Air

Borrowed from a friend at book group, Michelle Paver's Thin Air is a ghost story set on a 1935 expedition to climb Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas. For many years thought to be the world's highest mountain, it was relegated to third place only in the 1850s. I was familiar with Kangchenjunga from references in the Swallows and Amazons books, where the hills of the Lake District that the children climb and camp among are promoted to Himalayan status.

This was a wonderfully creepy and atmospheric tale, blending the isolation and terror of the natural geography with the all too human horrors of jealousy, betrayal, rivalry, suspicion and paranoia. The expedition is following in the footsteps of a former, ill-fated trek, and it gradually becomes apparent that something sinister has been left behind on the mountain...

Apparently Paver has written a couple of other ghostly stories, Dark Matter and Without Charity, so I might just hunt those out too. This was enjoyably scary, but not so terrifying that I couldn't bear it!

And just as I was writing this post, a fellow who gives ghost tours of Melbourne happened to come on the radio... Spooky!