Friday, September 16, 2016

Ghost Empire by Richard Fidler

Somebody told me this book has had average reviews. WHAT???? I could barely put it down. Having been to Istanbul many years ago now, it was easy to place the events in this lucid history, and perhaps that’s part of why I loved it so much. But there’s also Richard Fidler’s amazingly easy style. He brings his skills as a conversational type of interviewer directly into his story telling, so that it’s relevant, engaging and grounded. But let me begin at the beginning. This big book is a history of Constantinople, from its inception as the capital of Byzantine Rome to its fall to the Ottoman Turks in the middle of the 1400s. Richard Fidler and his son Joe, both history buffs, are wandering through the city tracking down monuments and relics and then Fidler tells the story behind each one. It’s a good structure, hanging a story off an object as it were, and one I’ve used myself writing a family history. The light peppering of anecdotes and observations from their trip provides some gentle relief from the historic content too. I must admit that though I was a keen reader throughout, there were times where my eyes glazed over a little at the endless battles that took place and some of the descriptions of war tactics. I did confuse some of the historical characters but then I don’t think it’s essential to remember every name. I came away with a sense of the richness of the city’s history, its pivotal political and geographical role through time, an understanding of how the Christian church developed and split into the orthodox and Latin factions if I may call them that, and a complete horror at the cruelty and disregard for human life and wellbeing that was all pervasive. I spent a lot of time investigating the things I was reading on the internet – flicking back and forth on the iPad provides a new dimension to reading – and underlined so many utterly fascinating bits of information in the text that I will probably never look at again. For example: the origin of the term ‘navel-gazing’, which I’m not going into here. I just loved the way Fidler brought together so many incredible stories, patching them into a really readable and so often un-put-downable whole. I loved it so much I sent his radio program website a message telling him – a groupie no less – and he wrote back saying to watch out for his book in Iceland coming up. I’ll be the first in the queue.

The Healing Party by Micheline Lee

A lot of people are making a lot of fuss about this book and on the strength of recommendations from Helen Garner, Annabel Crabbe and Leigh Sales, I bought it. I can see why they carried on about it: the story. It’s largely true I believe and quite an astonishing insight into what it’s like growing up in a Pentecostal Christian family, let alone a migrant one (if you’re a fan of Benjamin Law, and I am a mighty one, you’ll have read his story of growing up with his madly wonderfully crazy Chinese mother, which is both a comfort and a delight for people who have, shall I say, ethnically blended families). Anyhow, this story is good. It’s sad and shocking too, with the damage the crazy old father has inflicted on the writer-daughter something she’ll carry to her grave. I hope this book served as some sort of therapy for her. However, the writing is poor. I can’t say anything kinder about it. It’s the sort of unrestrained diary writing that a teenager plonks down on paper and then discovers twenty years later in the attic and cringes with embarrassment as she/he re-reads it. So my view: OK, interesting, funny, sad but definitely not great.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

What an elegant piece of writing. Graham Swift captures a moment in two people’s lives, a moment that becomes a turning point for them both. One is the housemaid, orphan Jane Fairchild, and the other the privileged upper class Paul Niven, who are having an affair. Swift’s writing is lovely, balanced, evocative; and he captures perfectly the instant when things change, the instant that we of course always miss when it’s happening. It’s a very short book, almost a novella, and requires measured careful reading to get the most out of it. Mmmm, lovely.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

A wonderful holiday read – a Sydney story about the upper middle class mothers at a kids’ primary school in a leafy beachside suburb, with all the bitchiness, gossip and hidden secrets that you just know are out there. The protagonist, whose name I’ve already forgotten such a lightweight little gem of a read this is, is a single mum who moves to the suburb to give her son a nicer lifestyle. When she enrols him in school the problems begin. These mothers are like so many of the mothers I’ve been avoiding at various pre, primary and secondary schools all my life, the reason why I could never bring myself to join committees or tuck shop rosters. I knew them all. It’s a vastly entertaining book, carefully observed, with an interesting structure and a few genuine surprises peppered throughout the story. Loved it and ploughed through it in a couple of greedy sittings.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Alan Clark Diaries by Alan Clark

I don’t know where to begin describing Alan Clark’s diaries except to say that the three volumes of them, spanning 1977 to 1999, kept me utterly absorbed for a couple of weeks. Alan Clark was the son of Kenneth Clark the historian who wrote Civilisation. He graduated from the bar and was a historian himself, with a dozen or more books to his credit, but he is best known as the flamboyant member of parliament for the Conservative party in England. He was ego-centric, selfish, colourful, charming, highly intelligent, a spendthrift, a pants man and extremely right wing. At the same time, he has a certain charm about him that I imagine made him irresistible to a certain kind of woman. The diaries are a fascinating and compelling account of both his lurid private life and his years as a parliamentarian. There were slabs of the politics that I simply didn’t understand, being both too young and an Australian, but there were many references and people I did recognize. Most of his service was under Thatcher, whom he adored, and later John Major. The Falklands and Gulf Wars are discussed, but most of the political talk is about the back room deals, old boys clubs, betrayals and secret agreements that are the staples of political life. Watching the Tories collapse through Clark’s eyes is absolutely fascinating. He adores his family and the diaries also give an insight into the life of the British upper classes, not titled, but loaded – he was worth something like twenty million but always broke because of his obsessive car collecting and the properties he had to maintain: Saltwood Castle in Kent, an estate in Scotland, a chalet in Switzerland and his digs in London. His uncensored commentary on the royal family had me in stitches – he loathed them! Despite the fact that he was an unabashed philanderer – he maintained relations with two daughters and a mother, seemingly all at the one time – he is devoted to his long suffering wife Jane, whom he wooed from the age of fourteen and married at the age of sixteen (he was thirty!!!) He is also devoted to his animals, who figure larger than human beings in the diaries and whom he makes no bones about preferring to people. I knew of course that he had died but wasn’t expecting to be so affected by his last diary entries, written on his death bed, which had me sobbing. I suppose that’s because it was real: this is no piece of fiction, it’s the innermost thoughts of a real person and when you read that he’s dying, he actually is. These diaries had me frantically fact checking and googling more and more information about the people and events and places that I came across as I read. Reading them has been an incredible experience and I’ve come away feeling that, love him or hate him or just watching him with a mixture of shock and admiration, I’ve been invited into this man’s life.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

Right up my alley, this one! It’s a nicely researched piece of historical fiction, or sort of, with modern overlays a bit like that secrets of the book or whatever novel from Geraldine Brooks where the timeframe jumps around from present to past. It moves between Australia and Holland and America. And it’s about an art historian on the track of an obscure Dutch woman painter. I like the research into Dutch painting, and Dutch painters being a particular interest of mine, the detail appealed. And there’s a sort of love story intertwined in it all. Probably it’s a book for the girls but still, a nice thing to read on a wintry day, light enough but intelligent.

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver

Another dystopian novel …. but I must say Shriver does it in a more accessible way than Margaret Atwood. She has at least some characters for whom you feel sympathy. This book is very timely and, like all her books, incredibly well researched. I’d like to know what somebody who actually understands economics would make of it. It follows the collapse of American society when their financial system collapses because of debt that can no longer be repaid. In particular it focuses on the Mandible family, really pretty awful people with a couple of interesting exceptions, who have vast inherited wealth and are suddenly on their uppers because of draconian decisions made by the government of the day. The ‘hero’ of the book is Willing, a prodigy really who through his clear sighted common sense is able to rescue his family from the worst of the fallout. While I like this book, I often find modern dystopian books a bit thin and a bit silly. And perhaps also a bit scary??