The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead comes more highly recommended than most books I’ve comes across: it joins some other books that US PresidThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead comes more highly recommended than most books I’ve comes across: it joins some other books that US President Barack Obama praised in an interview with the New York Times. So that’s what I chose when I was lucky enough to win a book voucher in the Twelve Days of Christmas competition at Booker Talk (thanks Karen!) And The Underground Railroad didn’t disappoint. It’s one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a while.
Because it won the National Book Award as well as President Obama’s praise, and Oprah’s, and who knows what else, the book has been thoroughly reviewed everywhere. On the day I looked there are over 35,000 ratings at Goodreads and nearly 5000 reviews. I don’t need to Google reviews of it to know that there are pages of reviews from every major review site in the English speaking world. Perhaps it’s a bit pointless for me to add to the fray, but here goes anyway…
First of all, here is the blurb from the dust-jacket (which BTW is not quite the same as the one at GR, which spells out the metaphor which so troubles some readers).
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. All the slaves lead a hellish existence, but Cora has it worse than most; an outcast among her fellow Africans, she is approaching womanhood, where it is clear even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take the perilous decision to escape to the North.
In Whitehead’s razor-sharp imagining of the antebellum South, the Underground Railroad has assumed a physical form: a dilapidated box car pulled along subterranean tracks by a steam locomotive, picking up fugitives wherever it can. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But its placid surface masks an infernal scheme designed for its unknowing black inhabitants. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher sent to find Cora, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing journey, state by state, seeking true freedom.
At each stop, Cora encounters a different world. As Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans, to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once the story of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shatteringly powerful meditation on history.
So. In telling the story of this escape from slavery, Whitehead has chosen to meld fact and fiction in a way that is difficult for some readers to unpick. I am among them, because although my previous reading of The Mapmaker’s Children meant that I knew that the Underground Railroad was a network of safe houses and not a literal railway, there were other aspects of the story that might or might not have been factually based. On the Goodreads page for this book the blurb adds to the last paragraph by stating that the book is a meditation on the history we all share. But we, the readers in The Rest of the World, do not share that history. We do not learn about it as part of our nation’s history. We here in Australia, for example, have our own Black History to learn about; and most of us are not going to know whether there really was a eugenics program in South Carolina, or a staged program of weekly lynchings in North Carolina to exterminate any trace of black blood. Unless Whitehead is an author of tremendous hubris who expects his entire readership to ‘know the facts’, I suspect that metaphor is a guiding principle for reading this book.
In prosperous, comfortable, complacent 21st century Australia, it’s somewhat chastening to read this first novel from Olga Masters (1919-1986). Set inIn prosperous, comfortable, complacent 21st century Australia, it’s somewhat chastening to read this first novel from Olga Masters (1919-1986). Set in a small farming community south of Sydney after The Great War, it’s a window on a different kind of life, one where there would be no bread on the table if a woman did not bake it every second day or so, and no hot water for tea if she did not light and tend the fire for the stove. A life where women made all their clothes themselves and the household linen too. A life so pinched with poverty that the Reverend Colin Edwards struggles to mask his anxiety about the cost of a phone call, and feels wasteful over the cost of a stamp when a letter home to his mother in England is merely one page long.
It’s also a life that is strictly gendered. If the shortage of men during the war created new opportunities for women, those opportunities had mostly contracted afterwards although Rachel still runs the post office. For Jack Herbert’s daughters Enid and Una, the future is either marriage and motherhood, or spinsterhood. (The word ‘spinster’ itself has gone out of contemporary usage!) Jack (see a Sensational Snippet featuring Jack here) feels no compunction in wishing a life of spinsterhood for Enid because she is the better housekeeper and since the death of his wife Nellie, he wants Enid to keep making the pickles and jams and have dinner on the table when he wants it, as if by instinct. Olga Masters does not shy from suggesting that, ominously, he is also attracted to Enid in other ways.
I have made a startling discovery today: The Spouse has been bandicooting! The photograph on my blog is the evidence.
The bandicoot, as Australians knoI have made a startling discovery today: The Spouse has been bandicooting! The photograph on my blog is the evidence.
The bandicoot, as Australians know, is a cute and furry marsupial unique to our shores. (Well, nearly unique. Apparently there are some in New Guinea, but I think we own the brand.) Cute it may be, but its habit of digging means that it has few friends among gardeners and farmers, and in less enlightened times it was hunted for sport and to augment the family table. (Bandicoot stew, anyone?)
Its reputation as a pest led to some Australianisms such as miserable as a bandicoot and barmy as a bandicoot. In the 1900s when Australian writers romanticised other elements of bush life, the poor old bandicoot – as exemplified in Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding – was stuck with its personification as slightly stupid and of low status with a blend of timidity and cunning.
And what does all this have to do with potatoes?
The verb, to bandicoot, derives from potato farming in Victoria in the 1890s. It captures the action of digging around the roots of the potato plant to steal the tubers without disturbing the plant.
The Aitch FactorI am indebted to one of my dearest friends for this delightful augmentation of my Aussie idiom
Hard on the heels of my reading of an Occupation novel and a collection of refugee stories, comes this compelling history of the Australian nurses whoHard on the heels of my reading of an Occupation novel and a collection of refugee stories, comes this compelling history of the Australian nurses whose evacuation during the Fall of Singapore is now the stuff of legend amongst people of my generation. On Radji Beach is their story, and although the book doesn’t wallow in their tragedy, it’s often harrowing to read. I had to wander around in the peace of my garden for a while after I had finished reading it, and it’s taken me a day or two to compose this post because I felt so overwhelmed by the evil that Shaw so faithfully records.
I had known the story of Vivian Bullwinkel since I was a teenager because my mother had somehow met this heroic woman, and as a teacher I had brought the Bullwinkel story to the attention of my students who were visiting the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. But I did not know much about the nurses who were with her on the ill-fated voyage of the steamship Vyner Brooke. On Radji Beach tells their stories too, and honours their memory by naming each one, celebrating their individuality, and bringing them to vibrant life.
It seems it’s not possible to read The Lie without comparing it to Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy, which I think is one of the finest attempts to rIt seems it’s not possible to read The Lie without comparing it to Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy, which I think is one of the finest attempts to render the horror of World War I in fiction. Malcolm Forbes, who reviewed it for The Australian, thought that:
Pat Barker matches her for historical accuracy and the ability to delve deep into the human psyche, but Dunmore’s haunting, lyrical and mesmeric prose to describe carnage and loss elevates her into a different league. (The Weekend Australian, March 1-2, 2014)
But while I thought The Lie was well written and quite interesting, I didn’t find it as compelling as Barker’s Regeneration (the first of the trilogy) which I read more than a decade ago. With its avoid-the-issue ending, the plot of The Lie is a bit simplistic, and the novel wears its architecture too noticeably, flickering back and forth between the returned soldier’s flashbacks to the trenches and his musings in the present. It’s been done before, and despite the prolific quotations from other people’s poetry, it needs to be done better than this to ‘elevate her into a different league’. ...more
A Stairway to Paradise (1999) was the fourth and final novel of Madeleine St John (1941-2006), the first Australian woman to be shortlisted for the BoA Stairway to Paradise (1999) was the fourth and final novel of Madeleine St John (1941-2006), the first Australian woman to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize (with The Essence of the Thing, see my review). At 192 pages, it’s only a short novel and I romped through it in an evening, enjoying St John’s wit and perception as she depicts the interior lives of characters caught in the ‘eternal triangle’.
But in the cold hard light of morning, it seems a slight piece of work, of interest more for the poignancy of its autobiographical elements than for anything important it might have to say about the human condition. Two very nice blokes, one beautiful woman adopting a lofty moral position rather than break up a marriage – having read Helen Trinca’s biography of St John I found it hard to avoid the conclusion that this is the fantasy version of St John’s failed relationships.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll read this book in a mixture of fascination and dismay.
Christiane Ritter was 34 years old when she spent a year in SIf you’re anything like me, you’ll read this book in a mixture of fascination and dismay.
Christiane Ritter was 34 years old when she spent a year in Svalbard (Spitsbergen) in the Arctic with her husband, described on the blurb as an explorer and researcher. But he’s not, according to her testimony in this memoir. He’s a hunter, one of those inextricably linked to what the Scottish naturalist Seton Gordon describes as the silence that broods ceaselessly about the lands that approach the Pole. Lawrence Millman, who quotes Gordon in the introduction, tells us that this silence is because
Spitsbergen, or to use its Norwegian name, Svalbard… was still close enough to Europe that it could be pillaged by Europeans far more easily than, for instance,, Arctic Canada. By 1934, when Christiane arrived, wildlife had become relatively scarce, and the taking of animals was strictly regulated by Norwegian law. (p. 2)
So as you read Christiane’s awestruck delight in the beauty of the Arctic, and you marvel at her courage when she is left alone in a blizzard, and you admire her fortitude in coping with so many privations, and you take a sharp breath when you realise that she and her husband have taken these risks while leaving a child (!) back in Germany – it also slowly dawns on you that whatever scientific explorations her Hermann may have done in the past, on this trip and on many others he and his mate Karl are there to hunt. Mainly Arctic foxes, for furs. Fur coats and those grotesque little tippets that women used to wear slung around their necks in the 1930s.
It occurred to me, as I typed in the password to boot the laptop I’m using to write this, that one day when I’m old, I won’t be able to remember it. IIt occurred to me, as I typed in the password to boot the laptop I’m using to write this, that one day when I’m old, I won’t be able to remember it. I will disappear out of this online world and this blog will freeze in cyberspace – and there will be people who will never know why. It’s a scary thought that the multiple passwords I use every day to manage my life are vulnerable to the vagaries of old age and a failing memory.
Thea Astley, when she wrote Coda in 1994, may not have had too many passwords to worry about but she knew about the vulnerabilities of old age. Born in 1925, she was only 69 at the time of publication, and she would go on to write two more novels before her death in 2004 (The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow in 1996, and Drylands in 1999). But she knew: she was anticipating. Coda celebrates a spiky old lady called Kathleen and her refusal to cooperate with the plots and plans of her indifferent offspring. It’s a satire to break your heart.
The four ages of women: bimbo, breeder, baby-sitter, burden. Kathleen doesn’t remember much about the first two now, but she has bitter memories of being used as the third by her daughter, ironically named Shamrock, viciously diminished to ‘Sham’. Sham wants Kathleen to baby-sit her 13-year-old for the weekend. On the phone, Kathleen watches cars terrorising an old man trying to cross the pedestrian walkway and refuses.
The Hand of Fatima is a sprawling historical novel, set in 17th century Spain when the Christians had defeated the Moors. Nearly 900 pages long, it’sThe Hand of Fatima is a sprawling historical novel, set in 17th century Spain when the Christians had defeated the Moors. Nearly 900 pages long, it’s a blockbuster, successor to Falcones’ European bestseller Cathedral of the Sea.
Judging by The Hand of Fatima and the blurb about Cathedral of the Sea Falcones is interested in historical religious conflict as well as the usual staples of blockbusters (love, betrayal, war, injustice, see–sawing fortune and human frailty). What elevates The Hand of Fatima above the ordinary is its subject matter: the expulsion of the Moors by the triumphant Christians; Cathedral of the Sea apparently involves the Inquisition in 14th century Spain and its treatment of the Jews. The imposition of one religion over another seems especially pertinent at the moment as ISIS advances on Baghdad, bringing its triumphant medieval caliphate to one Iraqi city after another. Women especially seem to bear the brunt of these religious wars. Certainly the women in The Hand of Fatima do.
The title refers both to a forbidden religious symbol and Fatima’s hand in marriage. For all that the novel bears her name, in this plot-driven novel, Fatima isn’t a fully-fledged character: she’s a beautiful woman doomed to be alluring to men who seek to possess her. Without giving away the plot, suffice to say that she has a rough time of it. But all the women do: even the rich Isabel has no right to self-determination. She is a possession too, and her punishment for cuckolding her husband is severe. (To say nothing of what happens in good time to her lover). The flawed hero of the novel, Hernando a.k.a. Ibn Hamid is the blue-eyed son of a priest who raped his Muslim mother in the town of Juviles in the Sierra Nevada. Aisha is married to a brute called Brahim, and the fate of her children is shocking. The Christian authorities suppress insurgencies with summary executions and enslavement; they tolerate the Moriscos (Muslims forced to convert) as an underclass doomed to poverty and oppression.
This book came to me in a most remarkable way, it has own little history as a passenger!
First of all, I read about it at Kim’s blog, Reading Matters,This book came to me in a most remarkable way, it has own little history as a passenger!
First of all, I read about it at Kim’s blog, Reading Matters, and when I commented about it, Kim, who was about to pack her bags for Australia to see her parents, offered to bring it with her. The book duly made the journey in Kim’s suitcase, but then for various reasons, we couldn’t manage to meet up while she was here. Imagine my astonishment when, after chairing a panel at the Stonnington Literary Festival, ‘Sharkell’ who often comments here on this blog, came up to introduce herself – and handed over The Passenger, passed on to her by Kim somewhere in Gippsland!
Then the book made another 2500km journey because I took it in my suitcase on my recent trip chez maman et papa – and I finally read it on the plane coming back. What a well-travelled little book it is, eh?
It is little: only 112 pages, but it has a bigger impact. It is the story of an immigrant now well-established in Paris, who takes a taxi home after a work trip to Greece, and finds her long-suppressed life unravelling as she makes her way through the traffic to her family. Nothing much happens, but the reader senses the enormity of her new awareness that the past travels with her, wherever she goes in life.
The book is cunningly constructed. Having been foolish enough to return a hire car to Charles de Gaulle airport via the Boulevard Périphérique in peak hour, trust me, I can vouch for any journey along that ring road taking a lifetime. Sach’s passenger starts her journey at 6.34 and gets home at 8.30, and the book is divided into little slabs of time, punctuated by references to her progress along the road and finally into the suburbs of Paris. At 7.12, for example, they cross Place du Général Catroux also called Place des Trois Dumas because it boasts statues of the family of Alexandre Dumas; at 7.39, she passes Boulevard Malesherbes where Marcel Proust lived with his family from 1873-1900; at 7.56 she sees Japanese couples doing their bridal photo shoots in Place de la Concorde. All along this route her memories are triggered by the things she sees and the conversation she has with the driver, a migrant, like herself… ...more
Nigeria has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, so it seemed like a good time to read a Nigerian novel that speaks of hope.
Feisty Moraya growsNigeria has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, so it seemed like a good time to read a Nigerian novel that speaks of hope.
Feisty Moraya grows up in a modern middle-class family where she and her sister Enaiyo are expected to go to university and become independent young women. The story begins, as most coming-of-age stories do, with Moraya’s childhood: family, friends and school. There are petty jealousies, occasional trouble-making, and some bullying of her sister because she is an albino (and a superstitious grandparent typifies the ignorance about this condition). There are Nigerian customs which seem alien (such as prostrating oneself before parents) and there are intimations of corruption and thuggery especially when Moraya joins her aunt in a doomed political campaign - but in general things progress more-or-less as they might in any other society…
A chance glimpse of a group of people grimly celebrating ‘Christmas in July’ in a pub the other day reminded me that I have three Humbooks to read. IA chance glimpse of a group of people grimly celebrating ‘Christmas in July’ in a pub the other day reminded me that I have three Humbooks to read. I decided to start with The Murderess, chosen for me by Emma from Book Around the Corner and Guy from His Futile Preoccupations…
Emma, in her Christmas Humbook post explaining their choice of books for ‘copinautes’, said that the feminist side of The Murderess would suit me and the descriptions of the Greek countryside are gorgeous. She was right, it was an inspired choice. The Murderess is a more succinct version of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment set on the hard-scrabble island of Skiathos. Here the motivation for murder is entirely different: Old Hadoula sees herself liberating the women of her island from a destiny that can only be misery.
Peter Levi, the translator, makes the point in his introduction, that the author Alexandros Papadiamantis was writing as a ‘civilized observer of a retarded world’. Athens at that time was not like Paris or London, "but the island world that Papadiamantis described was provincial in a far deeper sense. Skiathos was fifty times further behind the Athens of that time than Athens was behind Paris or London." (p. x)
Far from being the exotic paradise portrayed by authors such as Charmian Clift, Skiathos is a place so poor that fruit guards patrol the cherry orchard lest the poverty-stricken people steal the fruit. There is no work but manual labour, and young men either disappear on fishing trips for months at a time or they vanish to places of greater opportunity like America, never to be heard of again.
Inevitably women bear the burden of poverty, but it is not just the endless daily grind of managing a household without running water or electricity. Old Hadoula has some agency: by means of theft and thrift she is able to cobble together enough to have her own home, but she must always work outside the house in order to bring in extra money. Money that is needed for her daughters’ dowries.
The Pride of Prahran, a History of the Prahran Library, 1860-2010 by Stella M Barber is a lovely book, and it’s not just of interest to booklovers inThe Pride of Prahran, a History of the Prahran Library, 1860-2010 by Stella M Barber is a lovely book, and it’s not just of interest to booklovers in Stonnington. As it tells us in the Preface, the Prahran Library service was one of the first libraries not only in Victoria, but also in Australia …
One of the first images in the book is this charming photo from the Children’s Library in 1944. To me, the sight of these children, noses deep in the books they’re about to borrow, embodies the spirit of any great library. The detail isn’t obvious from the scanned version, but in the book you can see that these little kids aren’t looking at the pictures, because there aren’t any: they’re reading.
However, they wouldn’t have been allowed in the building back in its early days. From its inauguration in 1860 the library had operated out of the Prahran Town Hall; it was in 1877 that plans were drawn up to build a new Post Office, Police Quarters and Public Library – though there was some dismay about the library’s proximity to the disreputables at the Watch House. The Library was quite particular about who was welcome as the 1877 facsimile of the Regulations makes clear. Children under the age of 12 were not admitted. Visitors had to sign the Visitors Book. Any visitor who wrote upon, or marked, or folded down a leaf, defaced, mutilated or otherwise injured a book was banished. Visitors were not allowed to talk, or keep their hats on, partake of any food or fruit (is fruit not food??) or of course, to spit. These and any other irregularities meant prompt (and presumably eternal) exclusion of the offender, and any person who mutilated or took a book from the library was liable to prosecution (and there was a £2 reward for any dobbers).
This is a history commissioned for 150th anniversary of the library and there are some wonderful snippets from the past.
There is nothing much worse than being given a really really thick book of many, many pages that takes a looooong time to read, when the book is reallThere is nothing much worse than being given a really really thick book of many, many pages that takes a looooong time to read, when the book is really, really woeful and you have to finish it because the giver is expecting you to and you don't want to hurt their feelings. ...more