Catching Up Book Stuff

It's been a busy few days on the book front, as I finished three books in rapid succession. First up was Rebecca Stead's Goodbye Stranger, which I read for the Convent book group, which has its first meeting for the year next week. I adored this book -- Rebecca Stead writes beautifully for the tricky 'middle grade' age group, and she structures her books like a detective story, even when (as in this book) there is no real overt mystery. But clues and threads weave cleverly together so that the reader sighs with satisfaction at the end (at least, this reader does!) Her characters are sweet but complex enough to be interesting -- again, a tricky balance, which she handles perfectly.

Next was Saffy's Angel, the first of the Casson Family series by Hilary Mackay. I bought this on the Kindle because, though I am a Casson Family Fan, I'd never read the first couple of books! Both Stead and Mackay have a lovely flavour to their writing for junior readers, which I am determined to emulate (it's homage, not stealing... right?) I've actually been reading Saffy's Angel for ages, slowly, to savour that flavour, but I finally got impatient and just wanted to finish it! Gorgeous, and a wonderful introduction to the warm, muddled world of the Cassons. I particularly love the sly way that Mackay undercuts the pretentions of capital-A Artist father Bill, who can only Create away from the chaos of his family, and the gentle, vague but really much more productive mother Eve, who can't be really an Artist, because she works in a shed in the back garden and teaches Young Offenders painting... hm! Lots to ponder there, and I hope the subtleties aren't completely lost on the intended readership...

And yesterday I polished off Conundrum, transsexual Jan Morris's account of her transition, first published in 1974. I'd been reading the story behind the new film, The Danish Girl, which is based on the story of Einar Wegener, who became Lili Elbe in the 1930s and died after unsuccessful surgery to implant a womb and ovaries. I have to confess that I sometimes find transsexualism a difficult concept to get my head around, so I thought a first hand account from within would be a useful guide. It was certainly a fascinating read, particularly the direct comparisons between life in James' body to the experience of living as Jan. Morris has interesting observations about the way physically possessing a penis (and testosterone) made her relate to the world in a different way, and how she became interested in different things after transition: more drawn to small, personal stories than grand events; but paradoxically, less inclined to chat to strangers.

But the clearest impression I got was that ultimately, Morris's privileged social class shielded her from a lot of difficulty. Everyone in her world seems to accept her transition with absolute courtesy and equanimity and absolute English reserve. She simply resigns from one London club and joins another; the passport office issues a new, genderless passport, no questions asked; her publisher merely inquires politely what name she would prefer to be published under now? It all seems to have gone incredibly smoothly. The only hiccup occurs when a judge insists that Morris and his wife (the almost unbelievably understanding and sympathetic Elizabeth) must be formally divorced before the final change can take place... which means that Morris postpones her surgery for another few years, and goes on living ambiguously. And yes, Jan and Elizabeth are still together, and Jan is still with us, at 89, having lived a long and extremely interesting life.

ALSO I have done a grand purge and I'm getting rid of about 150 books! I'm going to donate them to the Brotherhood of St Lawrence. Weirdly, I've found that I was mostly likely to keep the freshly acquired, and the very old -- the books that have travelled with me for longest, the shabby books of my youth. It's the in-between books, the novels I bought in my 20s and 30s, that are biting the dust! If anyone wants to come and pick through the piles, you probably have a few days to do it... Feel free!



We gave this to my mother-in-law for Christmas and she obligingly finished it quickly and lent it back to us! And I read it quickly too -- took it to the beach and raced through it in a couple of days.

Everyone has raved about Magda Szubanski's autobiography, Reckoning, and no wonder. Even though Magda is best known and loved as a funny lady, she is also clearly very smart, and vulnerable, and it's the latter two traits that come to the fore in this personal history, though there are humorous moments too. It's a family history, too, a struggle to comprehend her father in particular. Szubanski is a wonderful mixture of Scottish and Polish, with a droll, dry Scottish mother and a passionate, yet flint-hard Polish father, who was clearly not the easiest parent.

Szubanski's father was a resistance fighter in Warsaw during World War II -- an assassin, no less. He had to find a way to deal with the terrible burden of the acts he committed during those years, and his family also bore the weight of his past. It took Magda many years to fully understand exactly what her father had done, and the awful toll those deeds had exacted.

But the book also tells Magda's own story, growing up in the Melbourne suburbs, on the fringes of 'sharpie' gangs, escaping to university, working in a women's refuge, struggling with the secret of her sexuality, and her entry into the world of comic performance, which led to her becoming literally Australia's best-loved personality. It must be because, under the brilliant, hilarious characters, we could all sense the insecure, loveable human beneath.

Szubanski is a few years older than me, and her time at Melbourne Uni and living in inner suburban share-houses overlapped with mine. As with Jane Clifton's autobiographical book which I read recently, I was also reading about my own past. But there is much, much more in Reckoning. And if possible, I love Magda even more than I did before.

First Dog on the Moon

I am a huge fan of First Dog on the Moon. I love his political-marsupial cartoons, which manage to be simultaneously whimsical and searing; I love his weekly Guide to Modern Living on ABC Radio; I love his work as Official Cartoonist of the Western Bulldogs football club. (One of my proudest and most exciting moments was when FD borrowed MY idea for one week's cartoon! True!)

So I was highly chuffed when Santa brought me A Treasury of Cartoons -- a gorgeously fat compendium of First Dog's best work of the past few years (minus the footy cartoons. They are in a separate book. Which I also own.) This is a seriously big book. And it's a strangely useful guide to the political journey our poor, mixed-up country has taken lately -- often shameful, occasionally hilarious. Sometimes only a bandicoot doing interpretive dance can convey the full gamut of weirdness that Australia can produce.

But there are also cartoons in here that are just sweet and sad, mostly the ones involving real dogs (fun fact: First Dog is not an actual dog. He is a human. Think about it: real dogs don't actually care about football teams. Not this much, anyway.) I had to read this book slowly -- there was a fresh emotion on every page: fury, disbelief, delight, shame, laughter. I'm just pleased that the rest of the world seems to be cottoning on to the wonders of First Dog. It's about time.



Well, it didn't take me 'forever' to read this book; I raced through it in about a day (ho ho, see what I did there?) My First Tuesday book group are reading Judy Blume's Forever as our first book of the year (the theme is Voice), and I was hopeful of finding it second hand -- no such luck. Maybe everyone is too attached to their copies to discard them? I ended up buying the e-book on my Kindle (first purchase for 2016, that didn't take long...)

I missed the Judy Blume wave as a teen -- realistic books didn't hold much appeal for me, realistic American books even less (sorry, USians), realistic books about boyfriends... yeah, well, nothing there for me. So I was surprised that even though Forever was written over forty years ago, it felt very fresh. Some minor aspects had dated badly -- one allegedly attractive character has long hair and a moustache... actually, maybe that's not dated, though today he'd probably have a hipster beard! The ostensible plot is extremely slight -- girl meets boy, they fall in love, they have sex, they think they'll be in love forever, but they break up. But I was instantly immersed in Kath's life and I barely put the book down. Kath is not a very distinctive character, she is very much an Everygirl, and her emotions, actions and reactions are all fairly predictable. I'm sure this was a deliberate choice on Blume's part, and I'm sure that generations of teenage girls have gained much practical information about sex and relationships from this slim novel. 

One thing in particular made me cringe -- both Kath and Michael refer to Michael's penis as 'Ralph.' I can see why Blume made that decision, technically, because they end up talking about Ralph quite a bit. But I hate it when men refer to their penises as a separate entity, as if they aren't responsible for their actions; that's just a bugbear of mine. Also I find it just icky and twee. Wasn't charmed by it in Lady Chatterley's Lover and I didn't like it here either. But anyway...

But apart from that I thought Forever was great: informative, plausible, engaging, and I'd be happy for my daughters to read it. If only there was a subtle way of leaving an e-book lying around the house.


Moon Tiger

I am a big fan of Penelope Lively's children's books -- I read The Ghost of Thomas Kempe about twenty times, and later discovered The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, Astercote, The House in Norham Gardens (which has a Papua New Guinea connection, by the way), and A Stitch in Time. All her kids' books share a preoccupation (very appealing to me) with time, history, and the ripples of events reverberating back and forth down the centuries.

I didn't discover until relatively recently that Lively was also an adult author, and Moon Tiger won the Booker Prize in 1987. I hunted it down on Brotherhood Books, which came up trumps as it usually does.

As soon as I started reading Moon Tiger, I was transported back to 1987. It felt familiar at once from that era of novels by and about women that were self-consciously trying to break free from traditional narrative structures and tell women's stories in a different way-- authors like Margaret Atwood and AS Byatt. In Moon Tiger, brilliant, prickly Claudia Hampton lies dying, and reflects on chapters of her life -- not chronologically -- the book dips back and forth between her time as a war reporter in Egypt, her childhood, her late-life gay protegee, her daughter, her brother. Some sections are moving and surprising, others are less interesting. (Moon Tiger refers to a brand of mosquito coil, a spiral that burns itself out -- a lovely, clever title.)

I was a little disappointed in Moon Tiger, to be honest. We are constantly told how glittering and wonderful Claudia is, but the disjointed structure denies us a chance to really get to know her intimately (perhaps that was the point?) The war sections are great; the sections about her unreliable lover Jasper are, frankly, a bit tedious. Perhaps the greatest indictment is that it's taken me nearly two weeks to read this fairly slim novel! I just never quite got hooked in. Not sorry I read it, but unlike her children's books, I don't think I'll read it again.



I have never lived in the famous Cairo flats described in this novel by Chris Womersley, but I have two friends who did, so I feel I know the setting pretty well. Tom, the protagonist, is eighteen in 1986, when the events of the book take place; in 1986, I was nineteen. Near the start of the book, Tom sees crowds of uni students flooding the streets around Carlton and Fitzroy, and muses that he should be among them (he neglects to enrol) -- I actually was among them. So this book is very much on my turf, and I have to admit that nostalgia was the main reason I wanted to read it.

Tom Button is a naive country boy who engineers an escape to the big city and falls in with a crew of bohemians clustered around his neighbours at Cairo, the alluring Max and Sally Cheever. Of course Tom falls in love with Sally, but he also gets mixed up with the theft (and forgery) of Picasso's Weeping Woman from the National Gallery, a real Melbourne crime that remains unsolved.

If not for the nostalgia value, I would have struggled with the first half of the book. It's very languidly paced, and at times the florid prose teeters on the verge of being over-written, as if Womersely is trying to channel F. Scott Fitzgerald or Lampedusa. While many landmarks and even characters were familiar, Tom's bohemian chums seem to have strolled in from a different decade, perhaps a different continent. But the story gathers pace in the second half, once the actual theft is committed, and from then on I was fully engaged. I ended up really enjoying the novel, once the prose settled down a bit. 

How much do I love Google, by the way? It's so easy to look up Cairo itself and remind myself of its unique atmosphere. What a gorgeous place. I bought a copy of this book for one of my friends who used to live there, so I've actually bought it twice. There's not many books I can say that about. A fitting book to end 2015 on.

Reading Roundup 2015

Is it disturbing that I bounded out of bed this morning, eager to commence this analysis of the past year's reading, when the past year is barely gone? I'm a Virgo, what can I say!

This year I read a total of 71 books, much lower than last year, which was lower than the year before. I had a long bare patch where there was family drama going on and I was too exhausted to read more than magazines, and I think I read more long adult fiction, which chews up more time. Anyway, let's see the breakdown:

Once again, the split was about 50/50, slightly favouring kids books, which are after all generally shorter and quicker to read (I read seven Rumer Godden books about dolls in about three days... cheating? I don't think so!)

Sorry chaps, no attempt at gender equality this year at all! Though on the plus side for the gentlemen, I will say that some of my favourite books this year were written by chaps -- but more of that later

Overwhelming preference for fiction this year, though the proportion of non-fic has increased. I tend to look at non-fic as work, and fic as pleasure, though perhaps I should re-evaluate this attitude in light of what I'm going to say below... One title was an anthology, a mix of fiction and memoir.

The proportion of secondhand purchases is up, the proportion of library borrowings is down. Maybe I just didn't have time to go to the library much this year. Nearly all those borrowings were for book group... The number of e-books I bought was exactly the same! The number of books bought new is waaay down, oh dear. And I only re-read one of the books I already owned. Makes you wonder why I hang onto so many of them, doesn't it! Actually I did a bit of a purge this year -- well I had to, there were so many 'new' secondhand books coming in, those 38 books have to live somewhere. My Brotherhood Books habit shows no sign of abatement, in fact I got a BB voucher for Christmas. It's a charity, you know...!

Multiple bloody Rumer Goddens bumped up my UK total. Quite a few New Zealand titles this year. But again, shamefully, not a very ethnically diverse list. Even my attempts to read some YA from other countries ended up being books written by Americans... Must try harder. Loads of Aussies though. Aussie Aussie Aussie, oi oi oi!

So it looks like about half my reading comprised new books, published since 2000, and more than a third are really new, in the last five years. Pretty happy with that. My love of books from the second half of the 20th century is evident, with again lots of Rumer Godden and Hesba Brinsmead titles pushing up the scores. Unapologetic. You should know my tastes by now!
* There was a hiccup this morning when all the graphs I spent so long creating disappeared. Hopefully they are back in position now. Thank you Evie for tech support...

My Favourite Books of 2015
That is, my faves of the books I read during last year, not published then. Nearly all non-fiction, as it turns out, which I did not expect. In no particular order:
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald: moving, unsparing, cathartic
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humanity by Yuval Noah Harari: engrossing, stimulating, brilliant
How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built by Stuart Brand: fascinating, detailed, nerdy
Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane: beautiful, inspiring, meditative
And of the fiction, I especially enjoyed Geraldine MacCaughren's The White Darkness, Ellie Marney's Every series and Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (apart from the Rumer Goddens, natch).

Happy New Year to you all. I'm hoping for a happier, less dramatic 2016. A steady-as-she-goes year would be nice, thanks!