A December Book

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know it is the end of January….but this is a stand out book from December and it has been waiting patiently to be written about. (The Library has not been as patient — I had a few dollars to pay in fines!)

The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell.

Winter’s Bone, another of Woodrell’s, is one of my favourite books. The Maid’s Version doesn’t  quite reach that height, but it comes close. The story centres around an explosion in a dance hall in a small Missouri town in 1929. 42 people were killed. No one was ever brought to account for the crime, but Alma Dunahew, who lost her sister in the explosion, does know the secrets that lead to it. Many years later she tells her grandson.

Like any good story, the plot outline is only the beginning, and can never tell all that needs to be told. The story moves back and forth, between  past and present. I enjoy the challenge of books that move without notice into different times and different characters. This book had an extra challenge — chapters about the lives of some who died in the blast. They would appear and then not be heard of again.

Woodrell’s writing is superb, forcing me to read much slower than I usually do, to enjoy the way he can capture so much in one sentence.

Ruby DeGeer didn’t mind breaking hearts, but she liked them to shatter coolly, with no ugly scenes of departure, where an arm got twisted behind her back by a crying man, or her many failings and damp habits were made specific in words shouted out an open window.

Or

[Buster] ……..struggled with a dual matrimony, having become betrothed to the bottle also, a love he encountered early and fell for straightaway.

Or his wonderful descriptions that meld perfectly with the rest of the story.

Alma was of a height that earned no description save “regular”, sturdy in her legs and chest, and her hair was an ordinary who-gives-a-hoot brown, with finger waves above the ears that always collapsed into messy curls as the day went along.

This quote, like much of his writing, reminds me of Cormack McCarthy:

The trains beating past toward the fabled beyond, the sound of each wheel-thump singing, You’re going nowhere, you’re going nowhere, and these wheels are, they are, they are going far from where you lie listening in your smallness and will still lie small at dawn after they are gone from hearing, rolling on singing long twin rails over the next hill and down and up over the next onward to those milk -and-honey environs where motion pictures happen for real and history is made and large dashing lives you won’t lead or even witness are lived.

Move Daniel Woodrell up to the top of your reading list — and let me know what you think.

November Books

It’s a while since I have published about the books I am reading. I have been reading, just not letting you know. 🙂

So, this month I found a new author, reread an old book and read others from two of my favourite authors.

The new author:

Kate Griffin — “The Minority Council” 

Matthew Swift has become the Midnight Mayor, the person who keeps Londoners safe ~ “the protector of the city, the guardian of the night, the keeper of the gates, the watcher on the walls.”  He does that by using magic, the magic of the city, electricity.

London, a city I love, is a major character in the story. It made me wonder about the other cities that could have so many layers, physical and metaphorical. Melbourne doesn’t have them yet, but places like London and New York certainly do. I think it is about history and diversity and literature and class, that all mix together to allow writers use these cities as such powerful, believable characters

But it is the night streets that is Swift’s world and magic is woven into the fabric of that world.

As we moved, our shadow turned and turned again, a sundial’s darkness moved by street glow, and our shadow was not our own. Sometimes we thought it had wings of black dragon-leather. Sometimes we thought its hands dripped, staining the cracks in the paving stones as it passed. I could feel the places where the bikers moved, those thin points in the architecture of the city where here became like there and it was possible to jump the gap without mucking around with the spaces in between. Ley lines crackled underfoot, following the passage of the underground tunnels, the old water pipes, the silent whirling gas, the dance of electricity. We put our head to one side and could hear the voices in the the telephones lines overhead…

It is a cruel world. Young vandals have their souls sucked out by vigilante monsters. Fairy dust is the newest drug.

“Are we talking …. like cocaine?”

“Yeah, if getting screwed out of your fucking brain by a sex goddess is like going five minutes with your grandma in the rain.”

And the fairy godmother is no fairy godmother

“You really have no idea, have you? Fairy godmother is going to take you down, chop you up and serve you as sushi.”

But then Swift is not really himself either.

I loved Griffin’s London. I loved how the magic was an integral part of it. I loved her writing. Listen to another passage, where again she describes a London just below the surface.

We walked through the subways beneath Waterloo, where the beggars huddled beneath changing light and white stalagmites that hung from the ceiling cracks, and south again, past the silent black guns of the Imperial War Museum and towards that strange place where distances started to warp and the centre of the city met inner city and had a fight that left both bleeding by the one-way signs.

This is the fourth in a series. I dislike starting a series in the middle, but it happens when you randomly pick a book from the Library shelves. So I will find the others, and begin at the beginning. I recommend that you do too.

The book from my shelf:

Diane Ackerman: The moon by whale light

It is subtitled: ‘and other adventures among bats, penguins, crocodilians and whales’. You may remember that I enjoy reading natural history books, and I enjoyed reading this for a second time. Ackerman is a journalist with a fascination for the natural world. She travelled to many places to gather the information for the book. At one point she was lying on top of alligators, holding them down while scientists took samples, measured length and teeth, and determined their sex. She describes all the creatures in her book with love, and makes you love them too — if only for the time of reading! I am not sure that her writings would foster a love of saltwater crocodiles.

As you can tell from the title, Ackerman has a beautiful, poetic way of writing. She is in Patagonia to be with the whales:

At sunset, an orange fur lay along the horizon and the sea grew blue-grey. Areas of wet sand, exposed by the withdrawing tide, shone like an array of hand mirrors. Venus appeared overhead, bright as a whistle blow, with the small pinprick light of Mercury at its side. As night fell, the shallows shimmered like ice and the frantic winds began to sound like freight trains.

And then to Antarctica to be with the penguins:

The mountains, glaciers and fjords bulged and rolled through endless displays of inter-flowing shapes. The continent kept turning its shimmery hips, and jutting up hard pinnacles of ice, in a sensuality of rolling shifting, cascading landscapes…..And yet it could be blindingly abstract, harrowing and remote, the closest thing to being on another planet, so far from human life that its desolation and iciness made you want to do impetuous, life affirming things: commit acts of love…..touch voices with a loved one by way of a satellite…..be passionate and daring, renew the outlines of your humanity.

I am not sure if it is in print. If you come across it, snap it up and enjoy.

Two more books from two of my favourite authors:

Terry Pratchett: Snuff

It is not as funny nor weird as many of his other Discworld stories. But it is funny and it does have weird bits. And it has many of his familiar and wonderful characters. Sam Vines goes on holiday and soon finds that the countryside is a hot bed of mayhem and murder — as well as a lot of poo.

However, as in many of his books, Pratchett makes comment on our world. This time he addresses racism. As reviewers on Goodreads have said, there is a darkness in this novel. The Goblins are the lowest of the low, vilified, on the margins of Discworld society and blamed for the ills of the world. Sam Vines investigates the murder of a young goblin girl and helps to uncover many prejudices, and worse. As well he learns much about the unexpected complexities of the Goblin culture.

Louise Penny: A rule against murder

The fourth in her series of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. I find her books very difficult to put down. At the same time I want to, because I want them to last. I was transported to her world of the French Canadian countryside, and caught up in the terrible family that Gamache has to investigate. But he investigates with such patience, he listens to what is said, and what isn’t said. If I was a policeman I would want Chief Inspector Armand Gamache to be my boss!

But once I left the world I wondered about the family. It was so unlike mine that I found myself doubting, and thinking about the inconsistencies. Would they always behave with such cruelty to each other? Why do they return to each others’ company? The mother is so awful why did the step-father love her for so long, much less marry her? Would Marianna really be able to keep that secret about her child? (Notice how this is a Spoiler Free Zone? 🙂 ) If you have read it I would love to know what you think. Am I being naive?

However, it is not enough to make me stop reading her books. Again, I really enjoy her writing. Her characters are interesting and the settings well evoked. And the food they eat ~ delicious!

What have you been reading? Any recommendations? 

August Books

I have been an avid reader of murder mysteries for many years. It is a genre that has expanded to fill every nook and cranny of life [or even death!]. Every occupation, every city, every era has their own detective — like these two!

Barbara Nadel: Sure and certain death

Nadel’s detective character, Francis Hancock, is one of the most unusual that I have come across. He is an undertaker, which is a clever device, as and death go hand in hand. He has an Indian mother and an English father. Not an oddity these days, but not such a common sight in the east End of London during World War 2, when the series is set.

I liked the issues Nadel raised — racism, trauma because of war, the invisibility of older widowed or unmarried women — and I really enjoyed the way positive she dealt with them. Hancock is an interesting character, and I will read more of him.

[Update: Now I have read another of her books, Ashes to ashes. Not such an easy read as the first one. It was set in St Paul’s Cathedral during one of the most intensive bombings of London, and the firestorm that followed. It was dark, hectic and dangerous in the cathedral. I got confused about who was where and, indeed, who was who. It didn’t flow as easily as the other, and the premise seemed a little far fetched.]

Louise Penny: The cruelest month

The niche that Penny’s detective occupies is Montreal and the province of Quebec. Armand Gamache of the Surete du Quebec solves murders that mostly happen in the charming village of Three Pines.

Penny’s writing is lovely and quite poetic. Her characters are well created. And if you find them a little twee at times, you know that there are nasty undercurrents, especially in the Surete!

I have read four of the books in this series, and like the world Penny describes to me. That’s the sign of a good series — does the world hold together over a number of books; do I care enough about the characters to invest more time with them. However, I would recommend starting this series with the first book. Often it doesn’t matter which you pick up first. This does. Not only is there a continuity of character development, which I like, but also there are plot developments in one book that may spoil an earlier one.

And for something completely different….

…..Neil Gaiman

He is an author I have heard of for a while. Someone mentioned him on a blog recently and I decided to read more of him. This month I read two.

Stardust was written quite few years ago. It is almost a fairy story for adults, and has resonances of Douglas Adam and Terry Pratchett, both of whom I really enjoy.

The other book was a graphic novel, Black Orchid , with stunning illustrations by Dave McKean. Gaiman takes the Super Hero concept, and distorts it. To quote Mikal Gilmore’s introduction

…Black Orchid works against these conventions of violence: It begins in the horror of reality and it works its way towards a lovely, dreamlike end that is no less powerful or hard-hitting for all its fable-style grace.

An author to explore further.

July book, and another thing

It is a little while since I have posted about books I have been reading. (Isn’t it funny how you start this blogging caper with firm ideas about what you plan to do, and then, after a while those ideas seem to wander off somewhere else!) But I have been reading.

The tale of Beatrix Potter: A biography  by Margaret Lane

Beatrix Potter’s Art selected by Anne Stevenson Hobbs

Beatrix Potter is famous for her illustrated stories, especially The tale of Peter Rabbit. I think my favourite is The tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. 

Her ability to draw the natural world in exquisite detail began at an early age. She was almost an only child — her younger brother was sent away to boarding school at an early age — in an upper middle class Victorian household. An academic education for Beatrix was not an option and so she was tutored at home. It was a very lonely life that she filled with animals and drawing.

The high point of each year was when the family, including her brother Bertram, went on holiday to Scotland and later the Lake District. The children had freedom they never had in London. They were fascinated by the natural world, and brought back many treasures, including animal bones they boiled the flesh off. In the nursery in London Beatrix kept rabbits and other small animals. She drew it all — birds’ eggs and caterpillars, foxgloves and fox skeletons.

The book of Potter’s art shows what a beautiful artist she was. We know her as the creator of Peter Rabbit. She could not have achieved the simplicity of her illustrations without having many years of practice behind her. There are studies of rabbit ears and drawings of her rabbit in his box. Even when she dresses her animals, the true form and nature is there.

As well Potter was a superb natural artist. Before she published her books she had completed an artistic survey of fungi, including dissections and microscopic details. She also painted butterflies, with microscopic detail of the scales on the wings. She did studies of a dead thrush, the skull of the family cat and fossil studies. All are beautifully done. There are many works in the book, some of them can be seen here.

Against the wishes of her family Potter was engaged to Norman Warne, her publisher. However he died before they could marry. Later in her life she married William Heelis and settled down to life on her farm. She didn’t continue with her books. It’s interesting to see the photos in the biography. As a child and young adult she is very serious, no smiles. On her wedding day there is a very shy smile, and later photos show her beaming! How wonderful that she was finally able to find the life that she wanted to live.

And another thing….

I found the biography on the shelves at my Mum’s house, untouched since the 70s. It has been nibbled by silverfish; it has thick, slightly yellowed pages; it has that old book smell; it has a dust jacket; and best of all it has a wonderful inscription to Mum on the frontispiece. Can an ebook have any of that?

Happy reading!

April Books

It’s a book sort of day today. I went to Readings and bought 4 books from their cheap book table. Then I went to the library and borrowed 3 more books. So it seems appropriate to tell you about some of the books I read in April.

Dennis Lehane: Mystic River

I loved the movie (Sean Penn acted in it, Clint Eastwood directed it); I loved the book too. It is worth reading for Lehane’s writing. He has an ability to take a metaphor that has become a cliche and give it a new twist, a new life.

Dave’s hand tightened around Michael’s, and his chest felt as if someone had dunked a knife in ice water and then placed the flat of the blade against his lungs.

Or images such as

….as if the twenty-five years in between had passed as fast as a TV commercial, feel that beaten, pissed off, begging aloneness that had lain in Jimmy Marcus like pulp hollowed from the core of a dying tree.

Or

…Sean thinking if he were dead that’s one of the things he’d probably miss most, the colors, the way they could come out of nowhere and surprise you, even though they could make you feel slightly sad, too, small, like you didn’t belong here.

And the plot and characters are worth the read too!

David Hill: The Great Race

The subtitle of this book — The race between the English and the French to complete the map of Australia — sums up its premise. Most Australians are familiar with the explorer Matthew Flinders, especially his journey with George Bass through the strait between Tasmania and the mainland. However it is his later journey, his circumnavigation of Australia that is the focus of Hill’s book, because, while Flinders was on that journey a French expedition was also on the same task.

The French expedition was lead by Nicolas Baudin in Le Geographe and Le Naturaliste, and his brief was similar to Flinders’ — to survey the unknown part of the southern coast and to explore whether a river or a strait separated New Holland (the western half of the continent) from New South Wales. Baudin and Flinders had a chance meeting in the Southern Ocean, near what is now the Victorian/South Australian coast.

I have also been re-reading Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper (more of that later). One character, Adam, gives his ‘What is History?’ lecture and he makes this comment, a comment that made me realise what was missing from The Great Race:

“The chronological narrative might be the spine of the body of knowledge we call history but psychological insight and a vigorous imagination will help us get not merely the “what” of history but also the intensely satisfying “why”.”

There is a wealth of information in The Great Race, including early voyages that reached the shores of what would be Australia, and Flinders’ imprisonment on Mauritius. That information makes it a good read. However, the psychological insight is missing, and therefore the ‘intensely satisfying why‘. That’s what stops it from being a really good read.

Elliot Perlman: The Street Sweeper

As you know, I loved this book. If you didn’t know, you can read my thoughts of it here. I regarded it so highly that I selected it for my book in Book Club. We had a wonderful discussion about it and I came away with other aspects to ponder, especially all the different parent/child relationships there are, and what those relationships add to the sweep of the story.

Tony Hillerman: The Listening Woman

It is a while since I have read any of Hillerman’s books — I tend to go through phases of reading particular authors. So I was glad to become immersed in his world of the Navajo people again, to follow his characters through the deserts and up canyons, and to learn more about Navajo spiritualism, which I can only presume is accurate. The plot does have a Die Hard/Bruce Willis I-am-the-only-one-who-can-save-these-people ending, but it was a nice way to while away a few hours.

And my books next month may include some of the ones I picked up today….

March Books

Some books I read this month were disappointing, and one I didn’t even bother to finish. But others are definitely worth talking about, and reading. Copies of the first three books came from my local library. Hooray for libraries!!

So what have you been reading this month? Any that I can add to my list? Let me know in the comments.

Karin Altenberg: Island of wings

What I really enjoyed about this book was the new world that Altenberg took me to — the islands of St Kilda, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. It was a place and culture that I knew nothing about, and her novel is based on historical facts. (Although I wish I had googled images for the island before I read the book. Seeing the photos would have helped my understanding of the geography.)

In 1830 and Neil and Lizzie MacKenzie arrive on the island of Hirta. Reverend MacKenzie’s evangelical mission was to bring salvation to the islanders. He was committed to bringing them away from their pagan and uncivilised ways. “He had been chosen to relieve the islanders of their backward ways and show them the rightful path as drawn out by God and paved by the Church of Scotland.”

They were a community that needed help. It was a hard life, where food and fuel supplies often didn’t last the winter. Infant tetanus was rife and many infants died before they were 8 days old. But the land was worked communally, with daily meetings to determine what needed to be done. They had a rich oral culture and crime was virtually non-existent. By the time Reverend MacKenzie left in 1843, the islanders had moved into stone houses and were beginning to divide up the land into individual plots. (Life for the islanders continued to be a struggle, until the last of them left St Kilda in 1930.)

The story is the contrast between Neil, who is driven by his religious fervor to atone for past events, and Lizzie. She doesn’t speak Gaelic, and is isolated — from friendship, from occupation beyond looking after the children, and even from Neil.  She is very aware of the beauty of the island. Altenberg’s delicate descriptions of the island and bird life are often told through her eyes.

Rebecca Stott: Darwin and the barnacle

We all know of Darwin’s fame because of  “On the Origin of the Species by Natural Selection”, published in 1859. We also know that his voyage aboard the Beagle was crucial for his theory. However, I didn’t know how important his barnacle work was — or indeed that he had worked for eight years, from 1846 to 1854, on barnacles. Stott’s book, based on many primary sources, is a fascinating insight into Darwin’s world.

The first chapters recount Darwin’s study of marine invertebrates found on the sands of Leith, as well as his journey on the Beagle. However most of Stott’s book tells of those years Darwin spent dissecting and investigating barnacles. He thought he would only be taking a couple of years away from his theory on species. However, his notes on species lay in a drawer for those eight years, while he came to grips with barnacles. There were two main things he was trying to do. He was trying to classify the species of barnacles as well as attempting to understand how these species had evolved and diversified through time. Barnacles came to him from collectors around the world. Thank heavens for the new postal system!

Darwin’s health had always been poor. While he was doing his barnacle work he was undertaking the Water Cure, which as far as I can tell seemed to be daily immersions in cold water, as well as being wrapped in wet sheets. He was not allowed to work for more than a couple of hours each day. In 1851 his beloved daughter, Annie died. She was only ten, and naturally Charles and Emma were devastated.

Stott argues that these years were very important for Darwin’s future work on The Origins, and for his reputation in the scientific world.

“The barnacle years had been no cul-de-sac in the development of Darwin’s ideas. [Barnacles] helped him fine-tune the way he used homology and embryology to think about species’ origins and relations, they provided the foundation on which he continued to build his credibility, reputation and authority as a systematist, and they had been the means by which he had established a network of correspondents that would hold together and bolster that authority.”

Patricia Ferguson: The midwife’s daughter

In the early 1900’s midwife, Violet Dimond, adopts Grace. Grace resembles Violet’s own dead daughter — except that Grace is black. She grows up in a town in Cornwall, where she faces the whole range of experiences, from overt and subtle racism through blunt curiosity to automatic acceptance. Violet has a fierce determination to protect her and give her strength. Grace certainly has strength, which she needs to get her through an especially ugly patch. The story of her childhood and adolescence unfolds as we watch her develop into an intelligent and beautiful young woman. It is told against the backdrop of a small town coping with the trauma of WW1 and all the changes that it brings.

Violet is a midwife and her story is woven around Grace’s. She has attended most of the births in the town, and has an authority because of her presence at this primeval time. However she is a causality of the professionalisation of mid-wifery, when the authorities demand papers and qualifications. Is it for the better? At the end of Grace’s story Ferguson makes us wonder whether it is.

Helen Scales: Poseidon’s steed: The story of seahorses, from myth to reality

I have mentioned this delightful, informative book before, in my posts about seahorses and seadragons.

Simon Winchester’s review, quoted on the front cover sums up this book:

“This seems to be about the perfect book: small, delicate, elegant, charming, unusual, fascinating, and uniquely memorable, a classic of its kind. Poseidon’s steed is itself a sort of seahorse of the book world.”

 

February books

Toni Jordan: Nine days

The nine days are crucial days for nine people in the Westaway family. The first is Kip in 1939, then it moves backward and forward through three generations. Toni Jordan does a wonderful job of making each character alive and special, while at the same time gradually revealing the mystery of what happened during the War.

Not only does she create strong, engaging characters, she is able to recreate the Melbourne suburb of Richmond during the 30s and 40s. It has a physical presence. Here Kit speaks of it as he walks the bluestone lane to work:

Between the end of the footy finals and Easter the hot sweet of the jam [from the IXL jam factory] hits you first, then the tomato sauce, next burning malts and hops. Now in the middle of winter there’s nothing but the tannery and the Yarra, and it’s like the dunny cart had a permanent spot in the lane so I’m not standing around to breathe it in.

Jordan also paints Richmond’s strong social and moral presence, as expressed by the Westaway’s neighbours. It’s a time when respectable girls ‘saved’ themselves for marriage and being pregnant out of marriage was a crime punished by social ostracisation. It’s a time when everyone knew what was happening in the lives of others, but keeping up appearances was vital.

Jordan has a very light touch with her writing. (I also really enjoyed Addition.) I imagine her as a painter, adding little touches that bring a highlight or warmth to a scene. Such as when Alex, after a traumatic day, realises that he is taller than his mother. With those few words, Jordan conveys his growing maturity and a shift in their relationship.

Another moment was Jack watching Connie dance in the backyard of her little Richmond house. And he falls in love. (Got to love a line like “Bugger me dead. She is dancing.”!)

Maureen McCarthy: The Convent

Abbotsford Convent is an inner Melbourne icon, and not far from Richmond, where Jordan’s book was set. Not only was the Convent a house of prayer for nuns, it was an orphanage and  a ‘home’ for wayward girls. Instead of receiving help and advice these girls  worked long hours in the laundry. After the nunnery is closed local protests stopped the site from demolition and developers. The area has become a cafe and arts precinct.

Indeed Nine Days and The Convent have many aspects in common.  The Convent follows the stories of four generations of women who have strong connections to the Convent. Their stories are interwoven, building to the present, where the fractured relationships are mended. In both stories it is the characters who draw you on. I loved McCarthy’s strong, intelligent women. I enjoyed how the stories of these women allowed McCarthy to explore women’s roles and expectations. Thanks to Denise for placing this book in my hands!

Linwood Barclay: The accident

Nicholas Evans: The divide

I love finding new authors, and these are two authors that I will read more of — if I don’t get a mental blank as soon as I walk into the library! Technically I didn’t serendipitously come across Barclay. He was a recommendation (thanks Janis). But I did pull Evans off the library shelf. He is the author of The horse whisperer. Both books had good plots and everything had to wait while I read them.

January books (yes I know that it is February!)

Some of the books I read in January…..

Lesley Harding and Kendrah Morgan: Sunday’s Garden

Reading Autumn Laing rekindled my interested in John and Sunday Reed, and their life at Heide. My public library’s catalogue has turned up a few books, including this one.

The Reeds’ property Heide was a meeting point for artists and intellectuals, who, as the foreword says “rejected the more conventional avenues of living and learning.” It goes on to say

The Reeds, along with Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, Arthur Boyd, John Perceval, Max Harris, Danila Vassilieff and others embraced radical art and politics, and pursued a freshness of vision that saw many of them become key figures in Australia’s cultural history.

A story about Sunday and Heide must include the artists and intellectuals who lived there or came to visit. However, this book looks at this fascinating era from a different angle. Sunday Reed was a passionate gardener, and her creative talents came to the fore in her garden. Sunday’s garden details how she designed it, worked in it and encouraged others to enjoy it too.

In 1980 the Reeds sold Heide to the State of Victoria. The art gallery shows world class exhibitions and Sunday’s gardens are still an integral part of the property.

I enjoyed the book. It is crammed with luscious photos, letters, works of art. I wonder though whether I would have enjoyed it as much if I was unfamiliar with Heide. If you are in Melbourne, make the time to go there, if only to wander through the beautiful gardens on the banks of the Yarra and think of Sunday and John.

J.K. Rowling: A casual vacancy

Barry Fairbrother dies, leaving a vacancy on the local council and Rowling follows the ripples that his death creates in the town of Pagford. Actually, there are more than ripples. For many characters tidal waves sweep over them, exposing their foibles, secrets and strained lives.

I wasn’t a Harry fan, so I had no feelings one way or the other about Rowling’s new direction. I didn’t really want to read it, so I grumbled a bit when Ruth suggested it as our Book Club read. However, I am glad that she did because I enjoyed it. (Thanks Ruth.)

Rowling creates a believable group of characters and their actions drive the book. As in Harry Potter, her teenagers are the most credible and well rounded. I really enjoyed the strength and integrity of Krystal.

Robert Engwerda: Mosquito Creek

Set in 1855 on a gold field in Victoria; it gave a good insight into what life would have been like. It was a good read, but the ending was most unsatisfactory. Why did it have to end abruptly and leave so many loose ends?

Favourite books of 2012

I am a list maker, and for many years I have recorded the books I read in a year. At the end of the year I tally up how many I read, and think about my favourites. This, of course leads to another list! So favourites for 2012, and in no particular order:

Anna FunderAll that I am

John FowlesThe French Lieutenant’s Woman. (One I had read many years ago, and enjoyed as much second time around. I liked the way he played around with the concept of a novel. I also watched the film again.) 

Jennifer EganA visit from the goon squad

Joanne HarrisThe lollipop shoes. (I read a few of hers this year, sparked off by a visit to France. All of them are good reads, but this was my favourite. The characters from Chocolat were there, living in Paris.)

Bernd HeinrichThe snoring bird (I thought I was an avid reader of books with a natural history theme, but it turns out this was one of only a few I read in 2012. Heinrich’s autobiography follows his idiosyncratic father’s life from pre-war Poland and Heinrich’s own development as a scientist.)

Alex MillarAutumn Laing

Paula McLainThe Paris wife 

Helen O’NeillFlorence Broadhurst (Another biography. Florence reinvented herself a number of times in her life and eventually became a wallpaper designer and manufacturer in Sydney in the 70’s. She was brutally murdered in 1977.)

Teresa WaughThe house

But my favourite for the year, and up there in my list of All Time Favourites is

Elliot PerlmannThe street sweeper

What were your favourites? What would you would recommend to an avid reader?

December Book

While I have read other books this month, this book deserves a place all by itself. It is the best I have read this year, and up there in my All Time Best.

The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman

The best way that I can describe this book is by likening it to a symphony, but probably more a Shostakovic than a Haydn. Like a symphony it sweeps and soars, not only following grand themes but also layering other refrains and melodies.

Largely we follow 2 threads. One is Lamont Williams. He is a cleaner in a New York hospital where he meets Henryk Mandelbrot, a patient and a survivor of Auschwitz. Their friendship develops as Henryk tells of his experiences as a Sonderkommando, a member of the group of Jewish prisoners who had to remove the bodies from the crematoria. The second thread is Adam Zignelik, an academic historian who desperately needs a new research topic. He finds it in the work of Henry Border. Border went to the Displaced Persons camps in Europe after WW2 and recorded the accounts of Jewish survivors.

But that bald outline does not tell of the complexity of this novel, and I can only begin to do it justice by talking about its themes.

The major theme is racism. Perlman dedicates the book to eight girls and young women “who all died from different manifestations of the same disease.” Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins were 14 year old girls who were burnt to death when their church in Birmingham Alabama was bombed by white segregationists. Rosa Robota, Estusia Wajcblum, Ala Gertner and Regina Safirztain slaved in the munitions factory annexed to Auschwitz and smuggled out the gunpowder used in the uprising.

Throughout the book Henryk tells Lamont about his life in the ghetto and Auschwitz. His job was to ready the Jews for extermination and then bury their murdered remains. His story is terrible, and there were parts that I couldn’t read. All the more terrible for knowing that it was true. Around Henryk’s story Perlman weaves other stories, including Rosa’s. She is one of the courageous individuals who was crucial to  the uprising in Auschwitz. And Rosa’s story is woven around Henry Border’s.

We follow Lamont’s life in present day New York. He is a black man, fresh from gaol, anxious about his job, looking for his child, living with his grandmother.

However, within these stories there is resistance to the evil of racism. There is the big resistance at Auschwitz, again described by Henryk. The gunpowder, smuggled out by Rosa, was made into grenades used to blow up a crematorium. That triggered a mass escape and the crematorium was useless. The courage of those involved is inspirational.

But Perlman writes about the less spectacular resistances. How, after the war, James Pearson and Tommy Parks join the Packinghouse Workers Union to fight for more security for black workers. How Lamont finds courage within himself to confront the hospital administration which wants to sack him. How Adam’s father, a Jewish lawyer, fights alongside others in the Civil Rights Movement. The courage of Elizabeth Eckford as she walks alone up to Central High School in Little Rock, between angry white crowds who were outraged at her attempt to become one of the first black students at the school. And so on.

Like the symphony the book has other refrains, such as the need for these stories to be told. Border records stories in the DP camps. Some of the Sonderkommandos write down their experiences and then bury them, so that the evil will not be forgotten. At her execution Rosa defiantly demands “Tell everyone what happened here! Tell everyone!” Henryk insists that Lamont listens and remembers, so that he is able to pass on the knowledge.

And indeed, by writing the novel, Perlman is also making sure we remember. But he makes sure we see the individuals as well as the broad sweep, even the ones that have no names.  As the Jews go into the gas chamber he individualises them.

“Then came another five, then another, a carpenter whose wife used to say he worked too much, a tailor came, then a man with a singing voice that all his neighbours had enjoyed since he was a child, a teacher was there who hoped to be a principal one day, a widow who sewed clothes, a nurse who had an affair with a patient….”

He writes about the woman who dies in in the camp, alone, unknown except for a first name, her death unmarked. Adam worries that the name of a child killed in race riots in early New York is unknown.

As the story sweeps and soars around these themes and characters, times and places, we see the connections. Not just a simple idea of “six degrees of separation”, but how our relationships intermesh in ways we cannot tell. Or, as the Random House blurb says about ‘The Street Sweeper’, “How breathtakingly close we are to lives that at first seem so far away.”

It is a confronting and harrowing read. Many images linger in my mind and surface when I am doing ordinary things like chopping vegetables and planting flowers. However, there is much hope in here too. Like symphonies, there is satisfactory resolution.

As Jake, Adam’s father, says,

“We have to fight (racism) wherever we find it. That’s what good people do.”

(Phillip Adams had an excellent conversation with Elliot Perlman on his radio show Late Night Live, where they discuss the novel, rascim, resistance, the Australian Labor Party and the state of the world.)

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/latenightlive/elliot-perlman/3957810