Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

The Father: an experience of dementia

In a review in The Guardian, Benjamin Lee describes this movie as showing ‘the bone-chilling horror of living with dementia’: .

Up to the time of seeing this movie I had imagined that the experience of dementia might be worse for the loved-ones, family close to the dementia sufferer. I now feel differently.

Florian Zeller, the writer-director of this movie first wrote a play, drawing on the experience of being very close to his grandmother who started to experience dementia when he was fifteen. Zeller said, ‘we go through that labyrinth… without being absolutely aware of where we are going’ — life is a puzzle and a piece is always missing.

The brilliance of this movie (and presumably the play, which I haven’t seen) is that we, the audience, get some insight by experiencing that labyrinth. For the first few minutes the movie seems to convey a dutiful daughter (Anne, played by Olivia Colman) visiting her father (Anthony, played by Anthony Hopkins) in a well-to-do flat in London — we assume it is his flat. He is listening to a counter tenor solo from Purcell’s King Arthur — an educated gentlemanly person. But then, we the audience, start to become confused. Is it his flat?

Both Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman are superb — sustaining this horror of confusion. Anthony in his early eighties, is still quite agile — he does crossword puzzles, can make a cup of tea, when the CD sticks he takes it out and cleans it — quite self sufficient in many ways. But who are these people coming into his flat? Intruders? Does Anne have a husband? Why doesn’t his younger daughter ever visit? (The audience finds out that she died in an accident some years ago — for a short time Anthony thinks that one of the carers reminds him of her — why does her painting sometimes vanish from its place over the mantlepiece?) And although the movie mainly shows life from Anthony’s perspective, there are glimpses of the tension caused by the distruption to Anne’s life. Sometimes Anthony says things that are hurtful — she is not the favourite daughter — Anne gives a momentary wince and then her attention returns to his needs.

Anthony constantly mislays his watch — is sometimes obsessive about the time (although it doesn’t really matter) — he has a ‘safe’ place, where his watch can usually be found by Anne. One time there is a fork there too. Is Anne going to live in France — abandoning him? He repeats the phrase that his daughter wouldn’t go to Paris because the French don’t speak English. But for much of the time he seems to be a fairly agile, well-dressed elderly man.

By the end of the movie the audience knows that Anne did go and live in France, but she visits her father frequently. He did have to go into a nursing home — something that, earlier in the movie, he said he would refuse to do. And his dementia has progressed — he seems to be completely lost, crying, and wanting his mother. The nurse looking after him tries to comfort him — a treat would be a walk in the park. What a hauntingly terrible life.

An Opera with No Singing!

This is my kind of opera. I have to confess that I don’t like ‘Grand Opera’. It’s mainly because of the style of singing — so thick, so much vibrato that it’s sometimes hard to know exactly where the note is. Thinking of all of the effort and skill that the likes of Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland, Kiri Te Kanawa and Plácido Domingo have put into their work, I know that this is a sacreligious thing to say — I just can’t appreciate it. I like a pure singing voice; a soaring counter tenor or the bell-like quality of a boy soprano.

On Tuesday 30th March, a wind ensemble of the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) under the direction of Nick Deutsch (former artistic director) put on a one hour performance of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. This mode of production of the music would have been familiar to Mozart — in his day, with no means of recording for radio or disc, people were familiarised with the latest music of his operas by wind ensembles (harmoniemusik), who presumably performed in public places.

In this case the ensemble was two oboes (including the leader, Nick Deutsch), two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns and one non wind instrument, a double bass, which provided, I thought, a necessary string texture that helped to blend the melodic lines.

Nick Deutsch

The program notes (written by Phil Lambert, ANAM Librarian) gave us a synopsis of the story, which even an opera philistine like me is familiar with.

The action unforlds at the palace of Count Almaviva in Seville. It is the wedding day of Figaro, valet to the Count, and Susanna, maid to the Countess. The Count has had his eye on Susanna for some time, and hopes furtively to invoke the ancient privilege of ‘droit de seigneur’ on her wedding night. Further obstacles in the young couple’s path include middle-aged Marcellina, who claims a legal hold over Figaro, and Cherubino, the horny page-boy whose sudden explosion into puberty has thrown the household into mayhem. The last piece in the puzzle is the young Countess Rosina, sadly aware of her husband’s infidelities but powerless to stop loving him. She and Susanna realise they must join forces to bring the Count to account.

When I looked at the program I assumed that a narrator would recount the story while excerpts of music were played. Little did I realise that actor/ writer Bethany Simons was waiting in the wings. Bethany acted out and narrated her version of the story — covering all of those characters with gentle reference to the present day — particularly the practice of misogyny. It worked really well. Marcellina was distinguished by a slight American accent and (miming of) smoking and Cherubino was very much the cool (or maybe ‘sick’) adolescent. And there were just enough amusing asides, such as asking the wind ensemble when the Susanna character prepares for her wedding — hey, are you guys available for weddings?

Bethany’s acting and writing was brilliant, as was the playing of the wind ensemble who took the overture at a rattling good pace with lots of clean double-tonguing and then played the tunes of well-known arias with silky smoothness.

Blackbird: a movie about euthanasia

From my limited experience I’ve found that people are often critical of fictional accounts of euthanasia — it is such a delicate topic. It delves into religious beliefs, our own fears of death and particularly the question: is a life ever not worth living?

The movie Blackbird, directed by Roger Michell, is based on an earlier Danish film (2014), Silent Death. I haven’t seen that movie. In this film we are in an environment of privilege where an upper middle class family comes together in The Hamptons, New York State. Lily (played by Susan Sarandon) has a degenerative terminal disease. Her husband (played by Sam Neill) is a doctor. He has been able to procure appropriate drugs for Lily to take to end her life — euthanasia is illegal. Lily has decided that her time has come and she wants to die before she becomes further disabled.

The family comes together: two daughters, one is extremely uptight, the other seems very unstable and has been the ‘black sheep’ of the family — their partners, a son, and Lily’s old friend who has been a part of the family for many years. They know that the purpose of the gathering is to farewell Lily.

the daughters

But of course family members react in different ways. This must be the case in so many such highly-fraught situations. For a while it seems that one of the children will report her father. I was so worried that the loving Sam Neill character would end up before the courts. One of the daughters sees the father kissing Lily’s old friend in a more than friendly manner. She thinks this is unforgivable. But Lily knows about this. The two have had an affair and Lily seems contented to know that they will have each other for support after she has gone. Lily’s final wish is to celebrate with a Christmas dinner, even though it isn’t Christmas time. Ultimately everything is resolved and we know that Lily will go peacefully to sleep in the arms of her daughters.

Benjamin Lee, reviewing the movie at the time of the 2019 Toronoto Film Festival, finds the movie uninspiring and ‘boringly reheated’ — by this he suggests that there are excellent actors, somewhat miscast, working on a plot that we’ve all seen before. I disagree. I think that the question of euthanasia is of immense importance and possibly the most heart-wrenching decision some of us will ever have to make. To look at it from various perspectives and to revisit it seems worthwhile. I am in favour absolutely, in theory — but when confronted by a particular case — is this person’s life worth living? — the question is by no means straighforward, no matter how firmly one may hold one’s theoretical views. It is therefore interesting to have set this story in the heart of a privileged family — their wealth does not provide extra resources to bring to bear on an agonising situation.

The Sleeping Beauty: a refreshing interpretation of Respighi

Lockdown caused postponement of the opening night of the Victorian Opera’s presentation of Respighi’s The Sleeping Beauty — fortunately the delay was just a few days. A review in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper was rather uncomplimentary: ‘it felt more weary than wondrous’. I totoally disagree. I went away thinking that here was a stage production so imaginative that no amount of fancy 3D filming or other complex technology could have improved it.

The story is the well-known fairy tale. A king and queen have been unable to conceive a child. At last they do and a little princess is born, but the jealous Green Fairy (who has been excluded from celebratory festivities) pronounces that on her 20th birthday the princess will prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a deep sleep. This happens, and the whole castle is put under a spell of deep sleep. But this is ameliorated a little when the Blue Fairy pronounces that one day the princess will be awoken by the kiss of a prince. In the story I remember from childhood, a bramble hedge grows thickly around the castle. In this opera, humming spiders wrap the castle in their silvery web.

Respighi wrote this opera in 1921, straight after the devastation of World War I and the Spanish Flu. It was written for a puppet theatre in Naples, where the puppets were marionettes and the singers were in the orchestra pit. In this 2021 production, the singers are onstage with the puppets, working in a parallel universe. There are clear comparisons with the state of Italy in 1921 and the state of our world in 2021 — these are made subtly, even when a puppet, ‘Mr Dollar Cheque’ looks remarkably like Donald Trump. I found this new kind of interaction refreshing, where a character is both a puppet and, standing just a metre or so away, a singer — or, in the case of the Princess and the Prince, a singer and a ballet dancer. The use of lighting was, literally, fantastic — particularly when we, the audience, were enmeshed in the spiders’ web spun around the sleeping palace.

The Age review suggests that there is some uncertainty as to whether this production is for adults or children: ‘The huge puppets, slapstick humour, dancing and running around feels entirely for children. There are also moments of darkness, grief and references intended for adults – some work, some do not. (Please spare us the Donald Trump cameo. It’s just not funny anymore). It was difficult to grasp the greater moral lesson amidst the madness.’ I found none of this confusion. It didn’t occur to me once that this production was aimed particularly for children. Although the whole idea of a palace going into ‘lockdown’ in a deep sleep is very close to the bone, through fantasy, I was taken there willingly and I left the theatre feeling uplifted and refreshed.

Green Fairy

The music was superb. I was particularly entranced by Kathryn Radcliffe’s Blue Fairy and Juel Rigall’s Green Fairy. Orchestra Victoria was led by Jenny Khafagi conducted by Phoebe Briggs. The director of this brilliant production was Nancy Black.

Ammonite: another overlooked Victorian woman

Recently I reviewed a concert of women composers from the late nineteenth/ early twentieth century most of whom, at the time of their work, were overlooked. The movie Ammonite, directed and written by Francis Lee looks at the life of Mary Anning, a female paleontologist of the mid nineteenth century who lived with her mother in Lyme Regis, Dorset, England and eeked out an existence mainly selling fossil trinkets to tourists. Mary’s substantial discoveries were overlooked or, more often than not, credited to someone else — inevitably a man.

Mary must have been largely self educated, with some help from her father, who had died long before the time conveyed in this movie. A girl from a poor family, it is unlikely she even completed the equivalent of primary school education, but she trained herself to be a knowledgeable and keenly observant scientist. The Mary we meet at the beginning of the movie (superbly played by Kate Winslet) is gruff and terse, crunching over the pebbly beach in her simple check dress — her eye ever alert for an interesting specimen.

Presumably to help the box office, Francis Lee has added a lesbian love story to his depiction of Mary’s life. This may or may not have taken place. Certainly it is known that she did establish a close friendship with Charlotte Murchison (played by Saoirse Ronan) left with Mary by her imperious paleontologist husband to recover from the psychological trauma of a miscarriage. At first both women resent this arrangement. Charlotte becomes ill — the effects of a chill after swimming from a bathing machine (supplied by the hotel where she is staying). If Mary wants to swim, or explore the seabed, she plunges in in her undergarments. (A Guardian review of this movie accurately describes women of this time as ‘bodiced and bonneted’.)

Charoltte collapses on Mary’s doorstep and there seems to be no other option but for Mary to care for her. And gradually a tenderness develops.

Tension develops between the two women when the local doctor invites them to a musical soirée. We can see how much more relaxed the upper middle class Charlotte is in this kind of company — also, she gets on rather well with a woman who may have been Mary’s former lover — one can only speculate. But the relationship between Mary and Charlotte becomes passionate. Even Mary’s mother (for whom the couple has had to quieten nocturnal love-making) seems to understand Mary’s sadness when a carriage is sent for Charlotte to return to her husband in London.

Some time later Charlotte invites Mary to visit her in London. At what to her is great expense, Mary takes a boat and arrives at Charlotte’s London residence. In a bit of cliché, the maid directs her to the servants’ door and Mary has to explain that she is a friend of the mistress of the house. Charlotte has secretly set up a room for Mary, assuming that she would want to come and live with her and her husband — the room is right next to Charlotte’s room, perfectly situated for dalliance. I did think that an intelligent and sensitive woman such as Charlotte would realise that Mary would be unable to abandon her life’s work and particularly that she would be quite out of place and uncomfortable in the palatial surroundings. Such a gesture would have suited Charlotte well but shows no empathy for Mary. Mary cannot bring herself to stay and instead goes to the British Museum where she sees one of her discoveries on display (it wasn’t clear to me whether this was labelled as a discovery of Mary Anning or attributed to someone else).

I had not known of Mary Anning before seeing this movie. It is good to be reminded of the gruelling hard work and abysmal lack of recognition of women such as her. Mary died in her forties of breast cancer.

Margaret Ann Spence: Joyous Lies

On the front cover of Joyous Lies by Margaret Ann Spence we are told, ‘If plants can protect their young, why can’t humans do the same?’ Then, in an extract before the prologue, Maelle remembers the time she was told of her mother’s ‘accident’, which, as she guessed, turned out to be her mother’s death: ‘Maelle saw the lie in her aunt’s eyes’. Intriguing – children can sense the truth. That kind of saccharine coating is not a protection. And so the scene is set, plunging the reader into a drama with twists and turns of family relationships that provide the essence of this beautifully written book.

The Prologue is written from Maelle’s mother’s point of view and we are with her just before the fatal ‘accident’ at night in a laboratory – questions about her motive for going there and the detail of what happened will lurk, distracting Maelle from her PhD research on plants’ communication.

Most of the book is set in a commune established by Maelle’s grandparents when Neil, her grandfather, was a Vietnam War draft resister. Maelle was about ten years’ old when her mother died. She went to live on the commune with her grandparents and the various others, mainly of their generation, who had kept it together since the 1970s. There we can smell the nourishing meals of freshly-picked vegetables, the bread from the oven, and we can feel the softness of the angora, spun and knitted by Maelle’s grandmother. But there are also knowing looks exchanged, secrets, half-truths.

Most of the story is from the point of view of Maelle as a young adult with a scientific career before her – sometimes we see through the eyes of her grandmother, Johanna, who finds her partner of fifty years, Neil, a ‘grizzled man’ who ‘kept tangling in her mind with his golden youth’. In spite of the communards’ values, much of the time Neil seems to treat Johanna with disdain.

Early in the book Maelle meets Zachary, a young psychiatrist, and there is an instant attraction. When, after a short time, Maelle takes him to the commune to meet her family, Zachary acts strangely and some extraordinary links emerge that shed new light on the mystery of Maelle’s mother’s death and further divert Maelle from her studies, threatening to undo a great deal more than her relationship with Zachary.

In tandem with the mystery prompted by Zachary’s reactions when he visits the commune is another equally compelling plot line. Neil agrees to chic thirty-something Pamela Highbury making a documentary about the commune. This poses a huge threat to Johanna, who wrongly assumes that Pamela is having an affair with Neil. And given that Pamela claims to be interested in ‘documenting human failings’, the project threatens to unravel the essential fabric of the commune. The stiletto-heeled film-maker will disapprove of the ‘feudal power’ under which the women have been engaged in traditional roles such as pottery and dairy, and the men in more strenuous activities.

But the question underpinning Pamela’s investigation is fascinating to the reader (as well as to Pamela’s potential audience): what became of the Hippies? Feeding into this question are matters of coping in old age; working on a commune doesn’t provide retirement benefits. Johanna and Neil aren’t legally married. Does Johanna have rights as his partner? To what extent has the commune genuinely adhered to a non-capitalist way of life?

When, near the end of the book, everyone comes together to view Pamela’s documentary, I was fleetingly reminded of the end of an Agatha Christie novel, when everything comes together in resolution. To the communards’ (and the reader’s) relief, some ‘lies’ are mercifully concealed.

Joyous Lies is superbly crafted: deftly paced and captivating. What is more engaging than a child wanting to find out how and why her mother died? And now that those people of 1970s ‘Flower Power’ are facing old age, it is intriguing to ask, what is life like for them now? Do they still live by those ‘hippy’ ideals? There are strong characters too – I was particularly drawn to Johanna and to Maelle as she pieces together what actually happened to her mother.

Margaret Ann Spence grew up in Melbourne, Australia, but has spent most of her life in the United States where she worked as an award-winning journalist. After some years she moved to Arizona, joined a writers’ group and decided to take up writing fiction. On her website Margaret says, ‘I write about women and their families, and the secrets that lie beneath’. Margaret’s first novel, Lipstick on the Strawberry, was published by The Wild Rose Press Inc in 2017. It won the Romantic Elements Category in the First Coast Romance Writers 2015 Beacon Contest, it was a finalist for the 2019 Eric Hoffer Book Award and in the 2019 Next Generation Indie Awards. Joyous Lies is Margaret’s second novel. Do get hold of a copy of this suspenseful book. Details of how to obtain it are below.

Margaret Ann Spence, Joyous Lies, The Wild Rose Press, Inc.
First Edition, 2021
Trade Paperback ISBN 978-1-5092-3472-1 Digital ISBN 978-1-5092-3473-8 Published in the United States of America.

The book is now available on Amazon and will soon be available from Barnes & Noble and other good book stores.

A Second ‘Live’ Concert for 2021

This chamber music concert was held in Melbourne at 45 Downstairs — an old warehouse turned into an arts venue that is an excellent space for concerts, readings and plays and has an art gallery where one can browse, sipping a pre-concert drink.

The concert was performed by the Rathdowne Quartet — a group of brilliant young players who studied at the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM), they are led by Kyla Matsuura-Miller.

Rathdowne Quartet

The first item was a string quartet by Schumann that I wasn’t familiar with, Opus 41, number 3. Tender playing in the slow movements – particularly between cellist James Morley and Kyla – contrasted with the youthful exuberance brought to the Assai Agitato and Allegro Molto Vivace. Schumann would have been only in his early thirties when he composed his first string quartets in the summer of 1842, after a close study of the great quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The three resulting quartets were first performed on 13 September 1842, as a present for his wife on her 23rd birthday.

Tamara Smolyar

Move ahead one hundred years. The quartet was joined by pianist Tamara Smolyar to perform Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G Minor, Opus 57. For me, this was the highlight of the evening. There is much pairing of instruments and the first time all five play together for any length is in the memorable scherzo – the third movement – an ironic movement, where joyful dance is underpinned with lurking menace. Some of the ironic sweetness of the Scherzo returns in the Finale, although it seems gentler and ends almost like a fairy story (‘they lived happily ever after’) but from Shostakovich’s pen we can be sure this was not to be taken literally.

Shostakovich Piano Quintet in G minor op. 57 (Fitzwilliam Quartet & V.  Ashkenazy) - YouTube

A ‘Live’ Concert at Last! Music, She Wrote

The venue for this concert was a fairly new space in suburban Melbourne, The Button Factory. A pleasant place to be on a hot day with a bar at the back, plenty of indoor plants and an interesting gallery.

I had heard nearly all of the performers in pre-Covid days – often in concerts associated with the ASTRA Society or Melbourne Opera. I had assumed that all were fully professional and was surprised to read that some of them have ‘day jobs’ such as pharmacist and physiotherapist – a sign of the hard lot of the professional musician.

The theme of this concert: ‘Music, She Wrote’ was an admirable exploration of the work of women composers of the 19th and early 20th century. The only composer I’d heard of was the most recent, Margaret Sutherland (1897 – 1984).

As I sat listening to engrossing substantial pieces of music I realised that I couldn’t think of a musical equivalent of Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte. In other words, in literature, although it was very difficult for women to have their work accepted, some outstanding writers managed to be recognised during the 19th century, but I couldn’t think of a female composer with the standing of, say, Schubert or Tchaikovsky.  I cast my mind to the lot of Alma Mahler, discussed elsewhere on this blog: As a young woman her musical composition was close to her heart, but when she married Gustav Mahler he announced that she was to stop composing her own music – he used her as a copyist.

The concert opened with a Little Suite for Flute, Clarinet and Bassoon by Margaret Sutherland. The piece was composed for bassoonist George Dreyfus and first performed in 1960. We were reminded that Sutherland’s psychiatrist husband didn’t approve of her composing and she didn’t receive much acknowledgment of her substantial oeuvre until after the marriage ended.

Rebecca Clarke (1886 — 1979) was an internationally recognised violist –one of the first female professional orchestral players. Born in England, she studied at the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music in London, but she spent most of her adult life in the United States.  Those of her compositions that were published in her lifetime were largely forgotten after she stopped composing.

Rebecca Clarke’s Wikipedia entry suggests that the lack of encouragement—sometimes outright discouragement—for her work made her reluctant to compose. Interest in her work has been revived and there is a Rebecca Clarke Society that was established in 2000 to promote the study and performance of her music. Not surprisingly, much of her work features the viola. On this occasion we heard a Lullaby and Grotesque for Viola and Cello, composed in 1916. The Lullaby explored some interesting harmonies and the Grotesque was lively, but not as discordant as I’d expected.

The next item was Piano Quartet in F Minor, Op 28, by Luise Adolpha Le Beau (1850 – 1927). An only child, Le Beau received piano lessons beginning at the age of five, and composed her first piece at the age of eight. She was educated at a private institution for girls and when she left there at the age of sixteen, she devoted the rest of her life to music. The Le Beau family decided to relocate to Munich to facilitate Luise studying under composer Josef Gabriel Rheinberger.  Due to the regulations put in place by the Royal Music School, Le Beau was tutored separately from the male students.

In the 1880s, Luis had some success with compositions such as Op.27, Ruth – Biblical Scenes for Soloists, Chorus, and Orchestra, and she won the first prize for her Cello Sonata Op.17 in an international composition contest. Around this time, Georg Vierling, a member of Berlin’s Royal Academy of Arts nominated Le Beau for a chair position at the Royal School of Music. But Le Beau was not granted the position, as it was never assigned to women. As well as chamber music, Le Beau wrote symphonies, an opera and choral music. The Piano Quartet performed at this concert was held together by a recurring theme. The music reminded me at times of Schubert – certainly a substantial piece of nineteenth century romanticism.

After interval we heard a Sextet in C Minor, Op 40 by Louise Farrenc (1804 – 1875). Scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and piano, there were two lively movements on either side of an andante sostenuto – virtuoso piano playing was required and pianist Peter de Jager magnificently rose to the occasion.

Born in Paris, Louise Farrenc was a brilliant pianist and also studied composition with Anton Reicha, possibly away from the Paris Conservatoire where he taught because the composition class was open only to men. She married a flautist and for a while they toured together performing her works. He, however, soon grew tired of the concert life and, with her help, opened a publishing house in Paris, which, as Éditions Farrenc, became one of France’s leading music publishers for nearly 40 years. Farrenc’s piano playing was so accomplished that in 1842 she was appointed to the permanent position of Professor of Piano at the  Paris Conservatoire, a position she held for thirty years and one which was among the most prestigious in Europe. But initially she was paid less than her male counterparts. As well as piano music and a considerable number of chamber music pieces, Farrenc wrote two overtures and three symphonies. 

Sincere thanks to the performers: Bernadette Baker, violin, Lisa Clarke, clarinet, Peter de Jager, piano, Nicholas Jensen, cello, Sara Rafferton, bassoon, Ely Ruttico, viola, Phoebe Smithies, horn, Jasper Ly, oboe, and Kelly Williams, flute. It was so good to be made aware of these largely forgotten composers and to spend a pleasant couple of hours listening to their music.

Books read during 2020

I read the following 39 books during 2020. By ‘read’ I mean for recreational reading. Some of them have already been discussed on these pages, but I’ll outline ten further ‘favourites’ here.

Books read during 2020

Adam Roberts: H.G. Wells A Literary Life
Pat Barker: Life Class
Michelle de Kretser: The Life to Come
Helen Garner: Yellow Notebook
Sophie Cunningham: City of Trees
Hilary du Pré and Piers du Pré: A Genius in the family: an intimate memoir of Jacqueline du Pré
Laura Thompson: The Six: the lives of the Mitford Sisters
Sulari Gentill: A Testament of Character
Bart van Es: The Cut Out Girl
Cate Haste: Passionate Spirit: The Life of Alma Mahler
John Boyne: A Ladder to the Sky
E.M. Forster: A Room with a View
Ed Gregory Benford and Martin H. Greenberg: Hitler Victorious
Woody Allen: Apropos of Nothing
Anne Tyler: The Accidental Tourist
Pip Williams: The Dictionary of Lost Words
Curtis Sittenfeld: Rodham
Anne Tyler: Vinegar Girl
Anne Tyler:  A Spool of Blue Thread
Nicholson Baker: Substitute
Kate Grenville: A Room Made of Leaves
Ernest Hemingway: A Moveable Feast
Mary L. Trump: Too Much and Never Enough
Julia Gillard & Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: Women and Leadership
Polly Samson: A Theatre for Dreamers
Tara June Winch: The Yield
Anne Tyler: Redhead by the Side of the Road
Avni Doshi: Burnt Sugar
Douglas Stuart: Shuggie Bain
Kiley Reid: Such a Fun Age
Tsitsi Dangarembga: This Mournable Body
Jane Harper: The Survivors
Stuart Kells: The Convent
Brandon Taylor: Real Life
Diane Cook: The New Wilderness
Maggie O’Farrell: Hamnet
Kerry Greenwood: Death in Daylesford
Ian McEwan: The Innocent
Craig Campbell & Debra Hayes: Jean Blackburn

Pat Barker: Life Class

Pat Barker writes so well about war. This is the first of the ‘Life Class’ trilogy, which also includes Toby’s Room and Noonday. A lot of books have been set in the First World War – but I haven’t tired of it yet. It was such an utterly brutal catastrophe that has shaped our modern world – and we are still learning of the reality – so much was hidden for so long in the ‘glory’ of war and celebration of victory. In Life Class we find ourselves in the world of English art students – the Slade school of Art. Artists who studied under Henry Tonks – who was also a surgeon. Many young people wanted to be in the war – to join up as soon as possible and go to the front. One young woman artist wanted to try to forget it was going on – she didn’t see the importance of painting it. Most of the novel is from the viewpoint of Paul who is unable to enlist because of his health, but works in Belgium as a nurse, then ambulance driver. Will his love for Elinor Brooke survive?  – they have such different feelings about the war.

Sophie Cunningham City of Trees

Sophie Cunningham’s book, City of Trees, is a collection of essays; memoir, fact –– trees are characters – they tell stories, they evoke emotions. With her we travel across the world, always with trees as a focus but she is always drawn back to Australia. Now, in the 21st century, we are into the ‘withering’. By 2050 we will have lost a large proportion of trees across the globe. Old trees will die, and often there won’t be enough moisture for new ones to survive. But Sophie’s focus is particularly on loving what is here now.

Bart van Es The Cut Out Girl

Bart van Es was interviewed at the Adelaide Writers’ Festival. Had I not heard the interview, I might have passed over this book as another Diary of Anne Frank – a Jewish child kept in hiding during WWII in the Netherlands. Quite apart from the difference that Lien, the ‘cut out girl’, is still alive – now 86, there is a connection with Bart van Es’ family. He knew that his grandparents had sheltered a girl during the war, but there was some kind of mystery and it wasn’t talked about. When, after an uncle died in 2014, van Es expressed an interest in tracking down Lien, he was warned that she might not want to talk to members of the family.

But this was not the case. They struck up a friendship which, van Es says, changed his life.

The book is well constructed, flowing from van Es’ present interviewing and researching – his meals with Lien, their walking around Amsterdam (van Es lives in England), to her accounts of her life from the time when, at the age of eight, her mother said ‘You are going to stay somewhere else for a while’ – and she never saw her mother or father again. A couple of months later, the parents were murdered at Auschwitz. 

Lien starts off staying with the van Es family – she seems to quite like it there. But inevitably she must be moved around and much of her time is with a strict protestant family who treat her as a servant and, when she is still only ten or eleven, one member regularly rapes her. Although it seems as though Lien is quite naïve about the war that is going on around her, there is a point where she seems to realise that she will never see her parents again. She lets the two rings they gave her slip through floorboards.

But of course this childhood deprived of real family – and real love – has a devastating effect, which becomes apparent in Lien the adult who can’t cope with a conventional orthodox Jewish marriage although she has children and is comfortably off. She seeks counselling, but years later the fact that she doesn’t have a past, or can’t talk about her past and that she doesn’t really belong in any family leaves her devastated. ‘I ought not to be here’, she says. ‘Ma’ van Es can’t fully comprehend this – she took in children, gave them a good, loving home – she naively can’t appreciate that there was something she could not give the ‘cut out’ Lien. And this inability to understand was the basis of the rift with the family.

Eighty-six year old Lien now seems to lead a full and fulfilling life and at the time of the book being written she had just become involved with a new relationship with a man she had known at primary school. But this book helps to show how the trauma experienced by children such as Lien can never be fully repaired.

E.M. Forster: A Room with a View

What great fortune to find a ‘classic’ book that I hadn’t yet read. I had seen the movie of this novel, made in the 1980s. It is a very good Merchant Ivory film, but it still doesn’t completely capture the essence that has made this one of the greatest novels in the English language. In some ways some of the characters are almost Dickensian – Mr Bebe, the clergyman, for example. The reader fears that Lucy Honeychurch is too tightly entrapped in the Edwardian society in which she lives. We first see her visiting Florence with her stuffy cousin, Charlotte as chaperone – having to behave according to the required code. And yet, the Arno gurgles freely outside Lucy’s window and a tram rushes past, Lucy wants to ride on that tram – both suggest a freedom that she has not yet acquired.

From the Merchant Ivory film

A few days later, when Charlotte has temporarily abandoned her, Lucy experiences something wonderful, yet disturbing. The carriage boy misunderstands her English and escorts her away from the picnic party, picking her a bunch of violets, ‘the world was beautiful and direct’. On a little open terrace, covered with violets – the image reminded me a bit of the birth of Venus – ‘violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue eddying round the tree stems… But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.’ And she is kissed by George – a man untrammelled by pretension – a man who genuinely loves her. Lucy doesn’t know how to cope with this and at first sees his ‘indiscretion’ as an insult. But many months later, after enduring an engagement to the ostentatious Cecil, who despises her own rural upbringing, who is stiff and judgmental, Lucy and George elope and we leave them back in Florence in a warm, golden world of love.

Woody Allen: Apropos of Nothing

What a pleasure to read this autobiography where the voice of Woody Allen comes over just as we know him – putting himself down, making fun of himself – except the accusations by Mia Farrow that he ‘interfered with’ his seven-year-old daughter Dylan, which he convincingly denies. Soon-Yi, Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, has been Allen’s wife for 25 years – she was not under age, but a college student, when they started to have an affair. He convinced me of his innocence – but of course, he would. There is more name-dropping and detailed description of making some movies than I needed – but I did realise that there are still a lot of his movies I haven’t seen.  It is an account of his life, as he sees it. It would have been tempting, I expect, to make this book a protestation of his innocence in the sex scandal – but it is far more than that.

Pip Williams: The Dictionary of Lost Words

This is a book of historical fiction written by a social researcher – it is her debut novel. Esme Nicholls absorbs words from a very young age, sitting under a table in the Scriptorium where her father works for Sir James Murray, compiling the OUP New English dictionary with a team of lexicographers. Esme’s mother died when she was a baby – her father is loving and tries to fulfil both parental roles.

As Esme grows up she is given work – errands, and ultimately allowed to make her own contributions. We see how the words selected are those of middle class 19th century gentlemen – she starts to collect words from the lower class women at the covered market. Esme is close to Lizzie – a maid who has looked after her since her earliest days – she sees Lizzie’s perspective on life, where suffragettes are ‘just a lot of rich ladies wanting even more than they already have’.

Esme has a daughter out of wedlock – this is all discreetly handled by her intelligent and perceptive godmother. The girl is adopted by a friend of the godmother and is taken to South Australia where she ultimately continues Esme’s fascination with language.

Kate Grenville: A Room Made of Leaves

I was sorry to finish this book – it is so beautifully written and brilliantly imagined. What if Kate Grenville had found a stash of old letters and notes hidden in the ceiling of Elizabeth Farm – the home of John and Elizabeth Macarthur? John Macarthur, as all good Australian primary school children have been taught, was the ‘father’ of the Australian wool industry. Grenville argues – very reasonably – that it was Elizabeth who built up the sheep farming – a skill she had learned from her grandfather.

Macarthur was away from Parramatta for a lot of the time and when he was around he was far more interested in getting promoted than in farming sheep. Kate Grenville did have access to letters written by Elizabeth Macarthur. But in those days, and particularly with a husband like John Macarthur, she would have written them knowing that they would be scrutinised by others, particularly her husband. Elizabeth Macarthur was undoubtedly intelligent, undoubtedly unhappy in her marriage to Macarthur, but like many women of that time she was resigned to it and made the most of it.

Knowing these things, Grenville imagines that she found a box of papers and that she transcribed and edited them. No – the book is fiction. But it is utterly convincing and although it is inevitably a view of that time through 21st century eyes, it may well come close to a truer picture of the life of the early 19th century sheep farmer than the social mores of that time would allow.

Tara June Winch: The Yield

This book won the Miles Franklin award – deservedly. You can’t get much more Australian. Tara June Winch is a First Australian woman and this novel is concerned with the reclaiming of Native Title for a property where Indigenous people have lived for centuries – it is being taken over by a tin mine. But this is far more than an account of a battle between European settlers and the First People.

The book is an intertwining of the story of August, an Indigenous woman in her late twenties who returns home for the burial of her grandfather and encounters the tin mine takeover, the story of an early 20th century missionary, involved with the grandfather’s education – who believed he was doing good. And, most importantly, a dictionary of significant words of the Wiradjuri language of the Gondiwindi people that was compiled by August’s late grandfather that shows the language to be a living language and hence a justification for the Native Title claim. The dictionary underlines the significance of language and the meaning of particular words – for example, ‘yield’ in English refers to taking things from the land, in Wiradjuri, ‘yield’ is things you give to the land.

Maggie O’Farrell: Hamnet

Shakespeare wrote Hamlet four years after the death of his eleven year-old son. This novel is a re-imagining of the son’s death. Stratford and Shakespeare are rarely mentioned, the focus being, particularly Shakespeare’s wife, Anne – here called Agnes. O’Farrell deftly takes us into the Shakespearean world without the disruption that might be caused by using contemporary language. Life in the sixteenth century village of Stratford (barely named) is  convincing – we can smell it and feel it. The twins play games as twins probably do today, swapping clothes and confusing people about which one is Hamnet and which one his sister. But the book is mainly about the grief of losing a child – its impact on the father, the sisters and particularly the mother.

Ian McEwan: The Innocent

This is an early Ian McEwan novel, first published in 1990, but although he’s a favourite author of mine, I hadn’t read it. Leonard Marnham, a British technician,  25 years old in 1955, is sent to Berlin to work on a C.I.A.-M.I.6 surveillance project against the Soviet Union. He is naïve. Hasn’t been overseas before and still lives with his parents. The effects of WWII are still very evident in Berlin – the wall has yet to be constructed but the different sectors dominate life. British and American agents are building a tunnel under the eastern sector of Berlin, in order to tap into Soviet communications systems, and Leonard is engaged in this top secret work. This helps him to grow up quickly – as does his experience with Maria, whom he meets on one of his first nights in Berlin when he is invited out drinking with fellow workers. This leads to his first sexual experience.

After a few weeks of happiness, Leonard discovers that he likes the idea of dominating Maria (he sees himself reliving England’s victory over Germany in the war) and the lovers have a brief separation. Maria has been married before and the drunken, jealous former husband, Otto, hovers at the edge of their relationship. On the night of Leonard and Maria’s engagement party, Otto lets himself into Maria’s flat with his key and hides in the wardrobe of her bedroom. He threatens Maria – almost strangles her. Leonard is not a fighter, but he tackles Otto. In the end, Otto is mortally injured. What to do with the body? The couple end up cutting up the body, wrapping up the pieces and putting them in two suitcases, which Leonard is supposed to take to a locker in a railway station (but the cases don’t quite fit). The detailed description of mutilating the body took up several paragraphs. It reminded me of McEwan’s writing in The Cement Garden. I must confess I had to skip over bits – rather like a gory movie when you look away from the screen. There is the drama of whether Leonard will be discovered – asked to open the suitcases, perhaps. They are cases attached to the surveillance project and, when Leonard is seen by his superior lugging them out to the street, he must accept a lift with them to the project site. They manage to get through security without being opened, although the reader is on tenterhooks that this will happen. Leonard is desperate. The body will start to smell soon. He will be discovered. He decides to divulge the existence of the tunnel project to the Russians. If they attack the project, a dead, mutilated body in suitcases will be of minor interest. In fact, unknown to Leonard, there is another traitor and the Russians invade, but not because of Leonard’s betrayal. Having taken part in the gruesome disposal of Otto, Leonard in particular feels cool towards Maria. He leaves promptly for London and although there is talk of Maria joining him, this never happens. There is hope, at the very end of the book, that in their fifties Leonard and Maria may get together, both now being widowed and having grown-up children.

This book was a gripping read. A well-crafted plot. And the pace, except for dwelling perhaps a little too long on the hacked up dead body, was good.             

And the 2020 Booker winner is….

Back in September I said of Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain: ‘This is a debut novel and it’s made it onto the Booker long list — and of the three books from that list that I’ve read so far, it is by far the best.’ Well — last night, London time, Douglas Stuart was announced as the winner of the prestigious Booker Prize.

Congratulations — what an achievement!

Maybe Douglas Stuart will now give up his work as a fashion designer? I am pleased to hear that he is working on a second novel, set in Glasgow in the 1990s.. I look forward to reading it.

Barry Lee Thompson

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