Well, I’ve decided to resume writing these little asides after a hiatus involving a long trip away and settling back in to drudgy life/work/study etc. Books are seriously a ray of sunshine through life. When I think about what makes me happy these days all I generally come up with is my husband (legend) and reading.

Anyway. I’ve just finished reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet and it was beautiful. I think having lived in Japan for so many years had a massive impact on the way David Mitchell told this story. While these stories of cultural contact are sometimes told from a foreign, outsider perspective where everything is foreign, strange and sometimes barbaric, this story was told from multiple perspectives, including Japanese and female. Also, the opening chapter was arresting and I thought about it for days afterwards, what a great way to start a book. It was visceral, engrossing, adrenalin inducing. ImageI won’t write too much about it now, but I found the ending very moving, even though it was sped through in a matter of pages. I’m relieved there was a resolution, I was prepared for none, and as with Cloud Atlas it seems kinda of inevitable that time progresses and people die and are born and keep dying.

In between Game of Thrones and now, I have read a stack of books while travelling through Japan and Bali. It began with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and it really was a great book. It annoyed me at first and took me quite some time to get used to the style, but once I did I found it funny and unexpected and a great yarn. Very clever ending also.

After that was a spate of Agatha Christie novels or stories which all kind of blur together now. They are unexpectedly funny, not nearly as prudish as I would have thought, but they are tragically romantic. It fills in the time though, and I was becoming adept at predicting the plot arc of stories by the end. The Harlequin Man had to be one of the more unusual, with Mr Harley Quin the elusive figure throughout.

I also read (am I allowed to say voraciously? That isn’t too wanky?) Cloud Atlas by David Mitchel and thought it was fantastic. Completely original, exciting, intriguing etc. I think I enjoyed Sonmi’s story the best and the story on Ha’wai told by Zachry is the one I think about the most. It took me a good while to adjust to the vernacular but I managed just fine. The story of Tim Cavendish was hilarious and also kinda terrifying. That idea of ending up in a nursing home against your will and having to convince people you aren’t crazy is not a pleasant one to dwell on. But I think I had a bit of trouble over the first story, of Adam Ewing. The story of the Moriori, which I initially thought was fabricated but now know if based on historical sources, was confronting and challenging. I had a hard time seeing the justice in portraying the Maori as colonising murderous folk in the context of the colonisation happening to them also. But then when I think about it in the context of the rest of the stories, I can see perhaps he was making a point about civilisations eating themselves regardless of race and cultural context. I liked that he didn’t make too much of the mystical links of humanity which the film seems to have done, I’m interested to know how they manage that. Overall a really great story. Sentiment tempered, loves realistic, fates uncertain and sometimes futile. Sounds kinda grim but it really wasn’t.

I’m now reading something completely different, for a bit of levity. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I catch myself smiling like a maniac, despite the preachy tone of Marmie. When I was a kid I loved the movie and thought my sister was Meg, while fancying myself as Jo. I certainly have Jo’s temper!

Look who hasn’t written a post on their blog in a long time. And you wanna know why? BECAUSE I’VE BEEN READING GODDAMN GAME OF THRONES.

I’m now on to book five and I just don’t have it in me to go back and remember the different qualities of each book and review them separately. They have all been amazingly well written, which is a pretty substantial feat for fantasy novels to sustain such quality over a long time. The characters are complicated and tortured and I like it.

At this point I’m worried for Arya, as the last time I was with her in book four something pretty big happened and now I don’t know what to think. Also the same re. Brienne, I need for these things to be resolved somewhat before the end of book five!

So that is what I have been reading. The last non-fantasy book I read was Bring up the Bodies, and even that was historical fiction. What a strange year it has been for reading.

Oh boy. This book took me a LONG time to read! I think I finally understand why people with full time jobs struggle to read any books. This one seriously should not have taken so long, it was much shorter than Wolf Hall.

This was really a fantastic book. I kept reading through and being struck by how wonderful her writing is. She is so clever, so witty and it comes through clearly. As with Wolf Hall, Mantel gives Cromwell such life, personality and colour to make him relateable, sympathetic and likeable. He loves his family and cares for them so tenderly. He is in awe of Rafe and the man he is becoming, and is so touchingly protective of his son Gregory. I think perhaps a reason it took me so long to read this book was because I had this sense of impending doom. I don’t want Cromwell to die and yet I know he does, and horribly so.

She also does a beautiful job of giving humanity to Henry, a figure that is so often depicted in film and tv. She covers such well trodden ground in this planned trilogy, yet by looking at the events from Cromwell’s perspective it is fresh, vibrant and unexpected. Henry is vulnerable, confused and verging on addled in his mind. You get a real sense reading this book that power during this period was so very tenuous, brought most clearly into perspective when Henry is knocked off his horse and the attendants think him dead. This passage was so fast paced and exciting and the reality of life without Henry is quickly and starkly depicted. And it is a terrifying vision for many of the characters that we grow to be fond of.

I really enjoy her writing, and I find it really frustrating trying to convince people to read these books. They are truly so much more than just books about Tudor England or Thomas Cromwell,. “England in winter: the pall of sliding snow, blanketing the fields and palace roofs, smothering tile and gable, slipping silent over window glass; feathering the rutted tracks, weighting the boughs of oak and yew, sealing the fishes under ice and freezing the bird to the branch.” I love how she describes the scene so beautfully, yet she never resorts to cliches. It is almost as though the words glide across the page.

The events in the novel shift in the smallest movements. There are rarely sudden jumps when she shocks you with some revelation or another, but subtle movements that build to a massive whole. At the beginning of the book Anne is firmly the Queen, safe in her position although slightly weakened by the King’s attentions towards Jane. By the end she is dead. Bereft of her head, the men entangled in her circumstances also decpitated. The following passage is a good example of these shifts. Before this passage Anne was firmly the queen, and following this passage the movements shift further towards her death.

“It seems he will not name her, Anna Bolena, La Ana, the concubine. So, if she harms the king, would it be the act of a good Englishman to remove her? The possibility lies between them, approached but still unexplored. It is treason, of course, to speak against the present queen and her heirs; a treason from which the king alone is exempt, for he could not violate his own interest.”

So often I was just amazed at how wonderful a writer she is. She doesn’t really go for the shock and awe kind of writing, but is very much about the subtle workings of Cromwell’s mind. The following is from the trial of George Boleyn, where Cromwell dislays his tactical intelligence and his sense of place in a courtroom.

“Certain words are written here, which the queen is said to have spoken to you, and you in your turn passed them on. You need not read them aloud. Just tell the court, do you recognise these words?’
George smiles in disdain. Relishing the moment, he smirks: he takes a breath; he reads the words aloud. ‘The kind cannot copulate with a woman, he has neither the skill nor vigour.’
He has read it because he thinks the crowd will like it. And so they do, though the laughter is shocked, incredulous. But from his judges – and it is they who matter – there is an audible hiss of deprecation.
George looks up. He throws out his hands. ‘These are not my words. I do not own them.’ But he owns them now. In one moment of bravado, to get the applause of the crowd, he has impugned the succession, derogated the king’s heirs: even thought he was cautioned not to do it.”

I can’t say that I am really looking forward to the next book, as it brings us closer to Cromwell’s death. But I am really fascinated to see how she deals with the final stages of his life. Hilary Mantel is funny (I love how she has Cromwell name Wriothesley ‘Call-Me’), so in tune with Cromwell as a real person and as a writer, she just keeps getting better.

Now reading: Game of Thrones (predictable but true)

So I was just chatting with my Mum on Facebook and she was complaining about going to Sydney on the weekend to go to the Sydney Writers Festival. She commented that her friend had only organised “some lame thing for an hr on sunday”.

Since when do grandmothers in their fifties say ‘lame’? And are all Primary School teachers this lax with their grammar?


E: “Who is the author?”

Mother-dearest: “Hilary Mantel”.

E: “WHAAAAAAAT!!!!!?????”

My blood pressure has only just returned to normal.

I’m that excited right now. I just read Geraldine Brooks’ review of Hilary Mantel’s new novel, Bring Up the Bodies. Isn’t it funny how literary loves intersect?

The Guardian also have an extract of the new novel and there is the full first chapter from the Readings website.


Wolf Hall is in my top 5 favourite books of all time, and Hilary Mantel one of my very favourite authors. Wolf Hall is a stunning book and everyone should read it, especially if you think you hate Tudor history.
Now to find myself a copy…

I certainly hadn’t intended on reading a novel about the American Civil War. But then again, I’m not really sure why I was all that suprised since it is stated plainly on the back of the book. I think what captured me initially about this book was the idea of following the father of the March family from Little Women (one of my favourite movies when I was young).

What Brooks did beautifully in this book was to portray the complexity of history, the good guys aren’t all good, the bad guys aren’t all bad. I often wonder what the Civil War was really about, as poor, uneducated men could surely not have been mobilised to fight a war on behalf of an oppressed and enslaved people. If not, then what were they really fighting for? This book highlights the same idea, that while many individuals were mobilised by ideals of emancipation, the majority were just fighting someone elses war. This is how the overt and barbaric racism could exist within the Union army, and also how African Americans could fight for the Confederates.History is always a complicated thing, and stark depictions of the ‘truth’ never appeal to me.

I was interested in tracking the power relations throughout the book, particularly between Grace and March. In the beginning he is awed by her, then comes to rely on the ideal of her as faultless perfection, in this representing all African Americans needing to be saved from their enslavement. Finally, Grace takes back her power, telling March forecfully “We have had enough of white people ordering our existence! There are men of my own race more versed in how to fetch and carry than you ever will be. And there are Negro preachers aplenty who know the true language of our souls. A free people must learn to manage its own destiny.”

The language is, as in Year of Wonders, matched to the time in its spirit. My boss was looking at the book and noted how Brooks uses language, where she melds in the use of technical language seamlessly to give you a sense of the time without being a flashy know-all. “Less skillful pickers had to grasp the boll with one hand and pluck the staple with the other.” I have no idea what a boll and staple are, but you get a feel for what it means in the context of the paragraph which I really admire.

This book is marketed as a love story, yet I really don’t know who the love is between. Surely, most obviously, it is between Marmee and March. Yet there is also March and his ideals, there is Grace, and the children and the adults of Oak Landing. Yet, where do his beautiful girls fit in? The ones that I loved when I was young; Jo, who I felt I wanted to be when I grew up, Beth with her goodness, Amy, who I actually never really felt any effection for and Meg who always seemed to me like my own older sister.Perhaps the true love was that which Marmee points out; his fabrication of the truth in his letters home to his little women “How he must have toiled over those pages, denying himself the satisfactions that come with unburdening the heart, censoring his every sentiment so that I could continue to think only the best of him and cast his situation in a tolerable light. And I had been ready to condemn him, for what had been, perhaps, a daily act of love.”

I really appreciate what she did to the characters of Marmee and March, as she points out in the afterword “Nobody in real life is such a goody-goody as that Marmee.” and so she wasn’t. She had an admirable temper, was passionate in her early love for her husband and yet, was also secretly and subtly racist. This racism isn’t anything to be admired, it was just a feature of her I didn’t really expect and certainly one that isn’t present in other depictions of her.

This was, once again, a beautifully written story about something actually very tragic. Yet, as with Year of Wonders, it didn’t wallow in depression, it merely sifts through the complicated realities of life.

Now reading: In between books! Quick! Find me a book!

So much of this book reminded me of my childhood, and not in a pleasant way. It reminded me so much of the messed up relationships I had with ‘friends’ at school, girls who were so nasty and spiteful and who made my school days a torture. Atwood inhabited the life of an unhappy and bullied child perfectly “Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized.” which described that horrid loneliness I felt as a child, knowing that adults either felt that my problems didn’t exist or truly understanding that there was really nothing they could do about it. Maybe this is when we lose innocence, when we realise we have to solve our own problems.

Yet despite all of that, this book took the sting out of so much of what those girls did in my life.  Unexpectedly, Elaine’s ‘best friend’ Cordelia was reduced to a small, frightened and unloved little girl, incredibly troubled by life. And then a funny thing happened. The girls from my childhood suddenly became small, and frightened, and troubled by the neglect of their fathers. It took away the hurt and distress of my memories and replaced them with empathy and compassion. I feel like the boogie man has been chased out of my cupboard.

In other respects, this book was a depressing one. And by that I don’t mean that anything terribly bad happened, as not terribly much happened at all. By that I mean there was a general depressive mood to the whole thing. Elaine, the main character, mused on her old age and the discomfort she felt at feeling washed up and out-of-place in the fashionable art scene she didn’t feel a part of. Yet, from what I could gather she was only in her late forties. Either times have changed radically in the last twenty years and forty is no longer old, or she was reflecting on how invisible and irrelevant women often feel at that age.

Along with the depressive mood I felt like there was something malevolent about the book. As though someone was about to die dramatically (I worried constantly about her brother) or there would be some horrid twist in the plot. Nothing of consequence really happened like that, but it still felt like there was a soundtrack of babies crying and high-pitched violins playing the whole time I was reading. It made it pretty disturbing.

Despite all that it was still a good book. She portrayed post-war Canada in a really beautiful way and the impression I have in my mind now is still from the beginning of the book when she lived in a time of innocence, before girl friends, wandering the country with her parents and brother collecting bug samples and living in the forest.

Now reading: March – Geraldine Brooks

For Easter, Stu and I decided to go camping on our way up the coast to our families. Obviously, I needed a holiday read as the book I was making my way through at the time would not have satisfied the criteria of light reading. Having just started a new job and totally overwhelmed my brain in the process, I sent out word to some reading friends for help with a book suggestion. The first response was from Stevie who suggested I read the follow-up of the Magician novels by Raymond Feist which I read last year, or ‘some awesome history fiction about old britain and kings and queens and time travel?’ Kel sent some great suggestions, Agatha Christie being one that I toyed with and would have won if Stevie’s amazing proposition hadn’t come in first. Yet the response that made me laugh so hard was from Jessi who wrote the following: “Have you read Coetzee yet? Disgrace is amazing.”
I think we have very different ideas of what makes a good holiday read.

Armed with this arsenal of book suggestions I made a frantic search around the cities bookshops to get the Ancient Future trilogy, knowing deep in my waters that this is what would make me happy.  The search ended up being nearly as difficult as a quest most often found in a fantasy novel and on the way I found some great stores in the city, culminating last night in a mad dash to Minotaur on Elizabeth st to get the last book of the series before it shut at 6pm.  Nothing gets me obsessed like a fantasy novel!

I think that the best way to think about these books is as an ode to the 1990s. There is so much about them that now seems cringe-worthy but if one keeps the decade of our youth in mind while reading, these intensely daggy moments are forgiven. Our heroine Tory is the Black Belt Tae Kwon Do, saxophone playing (saxophone were very sexy in the 90s!), history student, Sydney born daughter of a British archeologist father and internationally renowned harpist mother. Bear with me now. Her brother Brian died in a tragic Tae Kwon Do accident (don’t laugh, this is serious stuff) and thus she has travelled to England to take a break from her life and find herself. On Midsummer night her rental car breaks down near an abandoned field so Tory, being a Black Belt and afraid of nothing, walks in to the field with her bags (and saxophone) and finds an ancient ring of stones. Cue being transported through time by an ancient time travelling Mage and she arrives in 6th Century Britain and the story begins.

And it is so much fun! I kept reading out passages early on to Stu and later on keeping him abreast of plot developments (“Oh Tory’s the Queen now” or “Nah, she is still the Queen, but now she’s a Goddess too” and “No, they aren’t in Britain anymore, she is in Atlantis”) and he laughed and mocked so heartily. But I didn’t care. I kept reading my books and loving it. I’m now a third of the way through the last book and I’m writing this now because I don’t really believe that the ending will change my perception of the book. It served its purpose and keep me occupied, it sparked off a rivalry between Stu and I as to who could read faster (I can, obviously. Bless him and his genius brain but he doesn’t do novels.) and now I will think a whole lot more about Atlantis, time travel and ancient Britain than I thought I ever would.

I heartily recommend these books if you want to lose yourself in some fantastical frivolity. May the Goddess keep you.

I have been thinking about Jeanette Winterson and her portrayal of madness. I think what I found so refreshing was her lack of apology and the presence to take a positivity from the difficulty. In the same vein, then, I read this and thought it rang true. I’ll ignore the last sentence for now.

“Anxiety is like the spouse you’re stuck with for better and worse, who makes you nuts but has permeated your cells and without whom you cannot imagine your own heart beating. Anxiety lives with you day and night, holding your hand and nudging you to act, urging you to get up, do more, fix something, make something. Never satisfied, always pressing, it wants you to win, to outlast the others, to impress, excite, excel, astonish. And, as in a marriage, you comply, mostly agreeably, for your anxiety traces the rhythm of your life. Then one morning, it has you by the throat and you find yourself weepy and overwrought, unable to respond to its call.”
-Lisa Miller, ‘Listening to Xanax’, New York Magazine, March18, 2012.

I feel very lucky to have read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and this newest book by Winterson back to back. I feel that at this moment my thoughts on the book are incredibly disjointed, and if I was having a conversation about it I would bounce all over the place while I remembered different aspects that I enjoyed.

(Something about this photo makes me very, very sad. I think part of it might be the ill fitting swimmers that symbolises the other neglect in the author’s childhood)

This memoir was so beautifully written, and at times so crushingly sad. My heart ached when she wrote at the beginning of the book on some of the ‘truths’ of Oranges, saying that when she wrote it at age 25 she had to give her childhood self a friend, as it was too painful to acknowledge that she had been entirely alone in the world. Also, the silences are revealing of this pain. I don’t remember reading in Oranges anything about the coal pit or the doorstep and being banished there. They are truly chilling details of neglect that a young woman just was not able to acknowledge without causing significant metal distress. This sort of comment and reflection on self narrative is fascinating, and as a novice oral historian I am terribly interested in the ways that individuals construct and reshape their memories and pasts throughout different stages in their lives.

I have begun folding back the pages of books when I read them, marking the pages I enjoyed and the passages that strike me with beautiful writing or honest observations. This book is almost inflated to twice its size so many pages are folded back.

There is a point in this book where things turn very dramatically. The story shifts from being a conversation and reflection on the past to a portrait of madness and descent into the deepest depression. When it reached this point, with about a quarter of the book to go, I continued reading through the night with Stu laying next to me in bed, my body exhausted from the days work yet my brain intent on staying with her on this dark journey. It was while reading this part of the book that I was the most impacted by the story and by her writing. One section in particular, when she recounted the conversations she was having in the midst of her illness with the voice in her mind, the destructive all-consuming dark part that wanted her to die, was so stunning it made me cry. “A few months later we were having our afternoon walk when I said something about how nobody had cuddled us when we were little. I said ‘us’, not ‘you’. She held my hand. She had never done that before; mainly she walked behind shooting her sentences. We both sat down and cried. I said, ‘We will learn how to love.’ ”

I felt that in this book Winterson was so honest, sparing herself no humiliation in explaining the truth of her mind, perhaps in an effort to understand it herself.

She also dealt beautifully with madness (I use the word mad with a full appreciation of its weight) and many of the things made me cry for their honesty and for the fact that I have felt very much like that at several points in life. I think her observation “Probably we are less tolerant of madness now than at any period in history. There is no place for it. Crucially, there is no time for it. Going mad takes time. Getting sane takes time.”  cuts to the heart of one of my enduring frustrations with my own mental illness, that it is often compounded by the inflexibility of modern society to accommodate it and that there is very little recognition of the purpose or transformative power of madness. By saying that I don’t wish to minimise how scary it can be to be in the middle of madness, but coming through the other side of it has taught me every worthwhile lesson I have learnt in life.

Another thing I greatly admired was Winterson’s use of poetry and myth to furnish her story. Nobody had ever made me want to read Jung, but I can now see the worth in doing so. Psychoanalysis has always seemed so alienatingly abstract, but I feel as though it added so greatly to her understanding of her own mind and adds a richness to the stories and myths of our common culture.

Something that I loved was her working class appreciation of artistic endeavour and of literature. Her ability to link the old vanished traditions of working class people in the north with high English literature assuaged my near constant guilt for wishing to pursue the understanding of history for its own sake. Not for the sake of vocation, or productivity. Not to be able to answer the question ‘But what are you going to do with it when you finish?’. For the sheer joy of learning and of using my mind to query and analyse and deconstruct meaning in the structures of society in the present and the past.

And yet it was truly an adoption narrative. Of finding home and figuring out where we belong and the core place that identity takes in our life. What is to be admired about Winterson, an observation that my friend Jessi made, was how honest she was about the ending. While adoption narratives are traditionally framed with their happy endings, this one was just honest. She ends with the line “I have no idea what happens next.” and that is just the way that life is. It doesn’t really end until it really ends.

Now reading: Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood