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??

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

This is an old young adults book by the woman who later wrote 101 Dalmations. I remember reading it as youngster but re-reading it as a (very) mature woman brings a bitter sweetness to this coming of age story that was almost unexpected. I say almost because I picked it up again following a review or some mention of it in my wider reading as somebody or other’s favourite. Vague, I know, but enough to pique my interest. There are times when I want sweet and old fashioned, something dating from before that cynical hard edged chick-lit sort of novel, full of pseudo feminists, was invented. It is beautifully written. It is poetic. It is charming. And the characters are marvellous, especially Cassandra who is a semi-autobiographical creation. It’s the kind of can’t put down book you read under the covers by torchlight as a kid. And you really don’t know what’s going to happen. Cassandra lives with her ridiculously eccentric father and step mother and her beautiful sister Rose, who unaccountably reminded me of Ophelia for no other reason than for her looks, in a derelict castle that they’ve rented for forty years. The father is a genius one-book wonder of a writer, who has plunged the family into penury through his inactivity. Along comes a rather brash American family who have inherited the local ‘hall’, a Mrs Cotton and her two eligible sons Neil and Simon. They interfere completely in the lives of the English family. You know from the outset it’s going to be a romance and of course you’re not disappointed. However it’s not the sort of romance story a teenager would expect and raises all sorts of ethical questions about people’s relationships that are quite unexpected. It’s a lovely old fashioned but eminently readable book and much, much better than a lot of the trashy fraught stuff that has superseded it.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

Yum. Another book by Helen Garner. I have been a fan of hers since she first published Monkey Grip. There are times when I think it’s me talking, not her. She and I view the world through the same eyes. I love her to pieces. This is a fabulous collection of bits: articles, observations, snippets, journal entries. I doled them out, one, perhaps two, definitely no more than three at a time, so I wouldn’t swallow them all up in one gulp without properly appreciating them. I loved the piece about the ballet rehearsals, something she wrote as a magazine article I think because she’s accompanied by a publicist. It’s observant and poetic. And I loved her observations on getting old and invisible and the sudden, irresistible need to sort people out. I’ve been trying to think what it is about her that is so wonderful and I think it comes down to one word: honesty. She says it like it is. And that applies both to the story concept and to her words. I love the colloquialisms that pepper her writing too, her use of words that remind me of my childhood like ‘chewy’ – how long since I asked my brother for a piece of chewy? Do people today even know what that means? Mmmm, she’s my hero.