On my Instagram posts, I love highlighting particular quotes from books which resonate with me, or provide me with ‘aha’ moments. Phosphorescence made this task near impossible. I lingered over every page, soaking in the exquisite imagery, profound perceptions, and personal insights which were articulated in lyrical, yet extensively researched, prose. Quite simply, I did not want this book to end. I read it slowly, deliberately. And I insisted my 3 daughters read the chapter I wish I’d written for them.
While reading, I kept thinking ‘same, same, but different.’ Julia Baird and I are of a similar age and attended similar schools and churches. We have similar-sounding mothers (she could have been describing mine – “whenever Mum enters a room … everything seems easier, calmer, cheerier”) and we both belong to loving, prominent families. We delight in our children, and have friends of unspeakable loyalty and goodness. We love the written word, particularly poetry, and have even unexpectedly become the owner of a puppy in the past year (although mine is a teensy tiny black ball of fluff).
But that’s where the similarity ends. I am the antithesis of a thrill-seeker, and cannot think of anything worse than swimming in the ocean past where I can stand, or trekking in Nepal. I do not rub shoulders with the likes of Helen Garner (if only!) or Magda Szubanski, and living overseas consisted of 18 months in Wellington NZ while teaching. And although I have ongoing struggles with chronic illness, I have never grappled mentally or physically with a life-threatening cancer.
And yet, and yet...
I feel complete when I sit on my deck and gaze at the trees, or see mist in the valley like a thick white (not rainbow) serpent, or when I’m visited by impossibly bright king parrots, screeching white cockatoos or cackling kookaburras. When the sky turns pink, purple or orange, I am in awe. It centres me. It puts my pride, my anxiety, my dreams in perspective. It isn’t exactly phosphorescence, a light from within, but it provides a calmness within me. Peace. A sense of God’s presence.
Julia Baird’s book has been a timely reminder to open our eyes and see everyday beauty which inspires awe and wonder, and to cherish the grace and love that surrounds us. Particularly in these times of uncertainty and change, both globally and personally, this book is a balm for the soul.
I would love to hear your thoughts of this book, or your encounters with awe, wonder or grace. Please comment below.
One silver lining of the Covid-era (for me, at least) has been the abundance of online book events. I first encountered Pip Williams on a Facebook Live event hosted by Dymocks, and was fascinated by the history underpinning The Dictionary of Lost Words.
I have always been a word nerd, with a preference for puns and a sucker for Scrabble. Surprisingly, I was not familiar with the origins of the first Oxford Dictionary. (I’ve added The Surgeon of Crowthorne, aka The Professor and The Madman by Simon Winchester to my gargantuan ‘to-be-read’ pile…) Williams’ fictional account considers the role of gender and class in deciding what comprised the English language in the late 1800s. The creation of the Dictionary was an early form of crowd sourcing, with the public invited to provide examples of words in a variety of contexts to be considered for inclusion. However, the team of editors was predominately well-educated, white men. Consequently, many expressions and nuances of meaning were not included, begging the question ‘was it possible to truly capture the English language in the Oxford Dictionary’? In today’s society, there appears to be a greater understanding and/or appreciation that language is dynamic and culture-specific, with attempts to capture idiosyncrasies and slang in editions such as the Macquarie Dictionary and even the Urban Dictionary.
The politically-charged backdrop of the story resonates today, with organised campaigns and rallies to protest against the status quo. However, rather than protesting for racial equality, this story provides an insight to the efforts of women in their struggle for the right to vote.
At its core, however, this is a story about love. If ever there was a word in the English language that seemed inadequate, this would be it. This is a story about the love between a father and daughter, the love of friendship, the love of words, the love of independence, the contrast between love and desire, the love of the sisterhood, romantic love, and the love of soulmates.
Yes, I loved this book. Highly recommended for word nerds and historical fiction fanatics.
I’m relatively new to memoirs. Many years ago, I used to devour autobiographies or biographies, eager to learn more about public figures who may have piqued my interest. I enjoyed the ‘inside scoop’, poring over others’ lives in the context of the particular social and political period. Memoirs, however, are very different. They’re not about setting the record straight or documenting a history. Memoirs are reflective pieces, striving to make sense of memories, events, feelings and experiences.
I first heard Susan Francis speak on the ‘So You Want To Be A Writer’ podcast, having no idea who she was. She was not, at that stage at least, a renowned public figure or celebrity. She sounded very much like a “normal” woman. It was astonishing, then, when she alluded to a number of family secrets and mysteries that would take her not only across the country, but across the world. She faced her fears head-on, aware that she could uncover events that might rattle her to the core and question everything she held dear.
Mark Twain once wrote, “The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction needs to be credible.” Susan Francis’ memoir is, indeed, incredible. After grappling for many years with notions of identity and belonging, her peace and joy was shortlived, and abruptly followed by a complicated grief. This is so much more than a retelling and unravelling of family secrets, or a recount of shocking events. This is an intimate, honest and at times confronting piece of writing. There is a sense that this memoir was a cathartic experience, and consequently as a reader, I travelled the highs and lows of delight and pain right by her side. Susan Francis might sound like a “normal” woman, but her determination, sense of purpose and courage are extraordinary.
The Deceptions, by Suzanne Leal, is a really clever book. It delves deeply into human nature and examines the choices we make both in everyday life and in dire circumstances. Told in alternating voices and across different time periods, the truth about the past unravels with unforeseen twists and turns along the way. The horrors of war are dealt with honestly, but not gratuitously, and I was once again struck by the resilience of those who lived through such chilling atrocities. When I finished reading the book, I reflected on the cast of characters and their own personal hardships. It dawned on me that the title itself was reflected in big and little deceptions throughout – suffering because of the deception of others, causing suffering through intentional deceit, well-intentioned deception, and the ultimate deception resulting in a significant ripple effect over generations. Deceptions are, regrettably, part of the human experience, and this cleverly crafted novel dives into the murkiness and invites the reader to examine their own motivations and responses. I know this book will stay with me for a long time.
How I wish I could write like Charlotte Wood! Not surprisingly, this writer has received many accolades for her work, and it’s not hard to see why. The Weekend was shortlisted for the 2020 Stella Prize, and gently weaves together themes of friendship, grief, longing, disappointment, resilience and hope. I knew these characters. I really knew them. I knew what they looked like, how they carried themselves, what made them happy, sad, resentful, and what made them tick. My knees hurt when they walked up the stairs, I could smell the dog and I sensed the frustration of being misunderstood. I was all of these characters, and I was none of these characters. I was in the car, I was in the treehouse, I was by the water. I truly lost myself in this book.
I had read a few reviews of this book that questioned why these characters were friends in the first place. I didn’t question that for a minute. Shared histories and shared memories often drive friendships over time, even as situations and circumstances change. Wood’s characters were flawed and self-obsessed, and very real. The scenario was a perfect device for confronting personal histories, successes and disappointments, while questioning the future. This book is a tribute to those friendships that weren’t discarded when things got tough or when feelings got hurt, but endured and are enduring.
This book had been a constant in social media feeds for a while, but it only jumped on my ‘must read’ list after I heard Christian White on the ‘So you want to be a writer’ podcast. I now have ‘The wife of and the widow’ on my must-reads list as well. Winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, ‘The nowhere child’ lived up to the hype of being a fast-moving thriller, with whiplash-inducing twists and turns throughout. I read it in a day, mostly because I have zero self-control when it comes to chapters that end with a cliff-hanger. Typically, I tend to gravitate towards more lyrically written, slower-paced books that delve deeply into each and every character. ‘Nowhere child’, in contrast, was a rocketing read and felt like a guilty pleasure. (Surely it will be seen on Netflix in due course…) From an aspiring author’s perspective, I was struck by the level of sophistication in the writing, the detail in diverse settings and the tight, intersecting storylines. I was also struck by the fact that this is White’s debut novel! Can’t wait to read more in the future, although my next read will probably be a more sedate one.
A couple of years ago, Tristan Bancks received well-deserved accolades for Two Wolves. For many years, I had been lamenting the absence of books for upper primary that were gripping, thought-provoking and accessible, yet not filled with inappropriate language or 'mature themes'. At the time, I thought Two Wolves was revolutionary.
I had been eager to read Detention since last year, and recently devoured it in one sitting. It did not disappoint. One of the things I love most about Bancks' writing is the respect he shows to his young audience. He presents complex ethical dilemmas without preaching or patronising. As with Two Wolves, the reader is goaded into asking, "what would I do?" throughout every chapter. The young protagonists are both attempting to escape from vastly different types of detention - one imposed by the government, and one imposed by poverty and a dysfunctional family. Bancks avoids the temptation to gloss over his minor characters or have them morph into stereotypes, and instead draws them with depth and nuance. Their small roles help paint a much bigger picture. Similarly, the sparse settings and barren landscape provide a perfect backdrop for the gritty and tense storyline.
I loved this book. Bancks is a master of intelligent writing that connects with the reader in a deep and profound way.
Let me be clear - peer pressure isn't exclusively for angsty teens. Now mature in years (but immature in spirit), I opened this book purely because of the peer pressure I felt from my friends and online book groups. ("You must!!") To be honest, I was a little nervous. Most of the comments had revolved around the epic setting, the detailed wildlife, the descriptions of the marsh. I was bracing myself for a lyrical version of a National Geographic documentary. I didn't know what a crawdad was, but figured they were central to the plot. I expected it to be beautifully written, but very slow.
What I didn't expect was an intriguing mystery, a beautiful love story and a slice of American social history. I didn't expect to be so absorbed in the lives of the characters, or drawn in by the slow burn of the unfolding story. I didn't expect to be completely converted and become one of those people who cry, "You must! You must!!!"
I'm now exerting peer pressure on all my friends who haven't lived through the world of the crawdads. However, I tell them - don't read it just for the exquisite writing; read it for the story!
I had a very happy childhood, and some of my most cherished early memories are those spent with my Dad in the local library while my Mum did the weekly grocery shop. I was the proudest of proud Library Monitors in Year 6, and when I found the senior years tricky, I would retreat into the haven of the school library. I am now a teacher librarian, ironically working in the same school library!
Clearly, I'm a library tragic.
The Library Book, by Susan Orlean, is my kind of book.
At one level, it is an exploration of the massively destructive 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Library. The reader is introduced to the prime suspect, and eye-witnesses to the event provide a personal insight of its magnitude and impact on the community at the time. Descriptions of the fire are poetic, providing an unnerving contrast to the unfolding disaster.
However, the book is so much more than a recount of a terrible event, or even a whodunnit. It delves deeply into the role libraries have played in the development of societies, political systems and ever-changing communities. Orlean demonstrates time and time again that truth is stranger than fiction, and that librarians are infinitely more complex and unique than the persistent stereotypes portray.
The more I read of this book, the more I realised that I had taken my love of libraries for granted. I owe such gratitude not only to Orlean for educating me, but for all of the library lovers and librarians who have enabled libraries to thrive regardless of circumstances. Libraries are far from dead. Librarians have always ensured that libraries are ahead of the game, embracing change and providing innovative leadership in navigating the future, while preserving and respecting the past.
This is, indeed, my kind of book.
This book had been sitting in my 'to-be-read' pile for over a year. Friends and colleagues had enjoyed it, although I'd read some mixed reviews on my social media haunts. As for me, I loved it, although I can understand why it isn't everyone's cup of tea.
It's a big novel, and although there are not too many characters to keep track of, some aspects of the novel seemed laboured and unnecessary. Although there is suspense throughout, it is not a rip-roaring yarn that speeds along. Some have noted that reading the book was a commitment rather than a joy. To some extent, I agree with them, although I did experience joy is reading an exquisitely crafted novel.
The characters are drawn beautifully. I felt I knew them all, and felt every bit of their anxiety, sorrow and disillusionment. Donna Tartt managed to evoke sympathy for several flawed characters, and contrasting settings added to the rising tension throughout the book.
It is a book that will stay with me, and I am glad to have read it. However, I won't be recommending it to the universe, although I do know of some kindred spirits who will love it.
Please find here an assorted mix of what I tend to read - new books, old books, birthday gifts, gifts to myself, books from my to-be-read pile, Book Group books, fiction, non-fiction, memoirs - basically a weird assortment of goodies!
Please follow the arrows at the bottom of the page for more reflections.