I love books with recipes tucked into the text. Remember Nora Ephron’s droll novel Heartburn? That was the story of a magazine food writer whose marri...moreI love books with recipes tucked into the text. Remember Nora Ephron’s droll novel Heartburn? That was the story of a magazine food writer whose marriage fell apart but she consoled herself by cooking. Sally Van Gent’s memoir Clay Gully is not quite like that, but it has its own charm.
It’s the true story of the battle to establish an apple orchard near Bendigo in north-eastern Victoria. Beautiful country, which The Spouse and I visit from time to time when the Woodend Arts Festival is on. There are splendid eateries, and it’s a good place to visit wineries because there is something about the terroir which results in stunning red wines with a characteristic ‘flinty’ flavour. But as Sally Van Gent and her husband soon find out, it can be heartbreaking country too, its caprice best expressed by Dorothea Mackellar’s iconic poem, My Country:
I love a sunburnt country, A land of sweeping plains, Of ragged mountain ranges, Of droughts and flooding rains. I love her far horizons, I love her jewel-sea, Her beauty and her terror - The wide brown land for me!
With no experience either of farming or the climate the couple were deceived by the verdant landscape of a ‘good’ year:
**spoiler alert** I finished this today, but I think I need to listen to it again to make sense of it properly. (I've already listened to the first CD...more**spoiler alert** I finished this today, but I think I need to listen to it again to make sense of it properly. (I've already listened to the first CD twice.)
The first part of the book sets the tone: it's more like a work of existentialist philosophy than a novel. The narrator rambles on in a long monologue, and (perhaps because it was an audio book) I was never sure to whom he was addressing this monologue, if indeed it's meant to be addressed to anybody. He contradicts himself at every turn and denies statements that he's just made, and he's often very angry. He's deeply cynical, and he's got a very low opinion of everyone else, but also of himself. He gets bogged down in a long argument about logic, reducing it to simplistic mathematical equations such as 2 + 2 = 4, to which his rejoinder is that people don't act from logic but from a desire to act as individuals whether that's a good thing or not. His ramblings are rebuttals of various philosophical schools of thought, but since he ridicules everything in a caustic tone, and goes out of his way to be confusing, it's not like the reasoned and reasonable works of philosophy that you might have read elsewhere.
Stuff actually happens in the second part of the novel. He's living 'underground' in response to the corruption of the world above, using the word 'underground' with two meanings, i.e. he's literally living underground in a basement apartment, but also in a quasi-subversive way in the sense that he's rejected working in the world as a normal person of his class would. This part of the story relates his failures as a human being, but again, it's not told as a mature reflection but rather as a series of self-inflicted humiliations told in rather incoherent anecdotes in which he alternately blames others and then himself.
It begins with his irrational reaction to an encounter with an officer, who moves him aside when he's in the way as if he has a right to unimpeded movement. He is profoundly offended by this condescension. He plots revenge, weasels around to recreate the encounter so that he can stand his ground this time, and is even more offended when the officer doesn't even notice when they bump into each other.
Next, he gets into an argument at a dinner party. It's being held to farewell someone that he hated when he was at school, he rants and raves and tells them how much he hates them, and they get fed up with him and go off to a brothel without him.
Then he meets a prostitute called Lisa. He picks a fight with her too, telling her that her future is meaningless, but she is impressed by his intellectual gymnastics and falls for him. He gives her his address, but is then embarrassed by the poverty of his apartment, so when she turns up he is very cruel to her, mocking and sneering at her and denying everything that he said before. He gets himself into an hysterical rage, and weeps on the sofa so she takes pity on him.
No sooner has Liza embraced him tenderly than he starts up all over again, insulting her by shoving a five rouble note at her which she throws away and then leaves.
He dashes out after her but can't find her, and then he ruminates about how insulting her was like a purification, finally recognising that he has just acted in the same despicable way as the rest of society.
Although we don't know much about the underground man except that he's a middle-aged retired public servant, he seems to act more like an alienated adolescent than an adult to me, but his distress is in response to the society in which he finds himself. Dostoyevsky wrote this story in 1864, two years before Crime and Punishment so perhaps he was trying out themes of irrational behaviour. (I've only read his later works, not any of his earlier ones.) It's a long time since I read Crime and Punishment but I remember the style...
BTW I visited the Dostoyevsky Museum in St Petersburg last year on my trip to Russia. Somehow I had always imagined him in a miserable garret, but his apartment was actually quite big. See http://wp.me/px0jJ-tJ(less)
This is the first one of this series that I've used to support research units for the primary library. When I've updated it to suit the new Australian...moreThis is the first one of this series that I've used to support research units for the primary library. When I've updated it to suit the new Australian curriculum, I'll upload the unit to my LisaHillSchoolStuff site for teachers to download. (less)
This series is excellent for teaching habitat to little kids. I've just developed a unit of work for them to research what 'their' animal is doing at...moreThis series is excellent for teaching habitat to little kids. I've just developed a unit of work for them to research what 'their' animal is doing at different times of the day in 'expert groups'. I'll be uploading it soon to my LisaHillSchoolStuff website for teachers to download. (less)
It's been a great pleasure to re-read Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks which is the Benn's Bookstore's book-group choice for this month. I read th...moreIt's been a great pleasure to re-read Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks which is the Benn's Bookstore's book-group choice for this month. I read this novel for the first time just before Christmas 2001, and my reading journal notes that I finished it in the middle of the night because I couldn't put it down. I rated it 10 then too, though these days I'd reserve a perfect score for something like Ulysses or The Tree of Man. Still, it's a very fine book, and one that certainly merits re-reading.
It's based on the true story of an English village called Eyem, Derbyshire, whose inhabitants elected to isolate themselves to prevent the further spread of the plague in 1665-6. Brooks tells us in the Afterword that she stumbled upon their story by chance in a lull between her assignments as a foreign correspondent, and surely this snippet derives from that moment:
The Boundary Stone, Eyam, Derbyshire, with holes believed to be where coins were place for trade during the quarantine of the Bubonic Plague outbreak of 1665-6 (Source: Wikipedia Commons)The Boundary Stone, Eyam, Derbyshire, with holes believed to be where coins were place for trade during the quarantine of the Bubonic Plague outbreak of 1665-6 (Source: Wikipedia Commons) I rode for the sake of the movement, not caring where. After a while I found myself in a wide meadow and realised that it was the field of the Boundary Stone. The path that had been so well-trodden throughout our Plague year was already all overgrown. The stone itself was invisible among the high grasses. ... I brought Anteros to a canter, then a walk, and paced him along the edge of the spur until I found the stone, marked with its gouged holes. I slid from his back and while he stood, patiently cropping the pasture, I knelt and pulled the grass away from around the stone. I lay my hands on it and then my cheek. In a score of years from now, I thought, someone like me will sit down to rest right here on this stone and her fingers will play idly in those holes, and no one will remember why they were hewn so or the great sacrifice that we made here. (p.272)
Brooks was interested in the social effects of such a decision, and in the effects on individuals, and so - with scrupulous research - created a wonderful cast of characters to tell the story. (less)
This is a bizarre little novella (only 60 pages long). It's a portrait of a quixotic thug: not very bright but with a love of art; utterly callous yet...moreThis is a bizarre little novella (only 60 pages long). It's a portrait of a quixotic thug: not very bright but with a love of art; utterly callous yet he loves his family. His 'missions' (or 'actions' as they are called) fall apart in an absurdist way mildly reminiscent of Gogol but as a character, Bruno reminded me of the accused in a murder trial for which I was a juror. Stupid, evil, banal, wholly lacking in the sort of humanity that I take for granted in the people that I meet. I think that my reaction means that I didn't quite get the joke the way that I was meant to. The plot is clever, and the ending is startling if you haven't read any prior blurb. But ultimately, not my kind of reading fare.(less)
I borrowed this book because I've just received a new book by Fiona Kidman. It's called Infinite Air and it's about New Zealand's most significant avi...moreI borrowed this book because I've just received a new book by Fiona Kidman. It's called Infinite Air and it's about New Zealand's most significant aviatrix, Jean Batten. I thought it would be interesting to learn something about the history of Australian aviation prior to reading this new book. But truth be told, My God! It's a Woman is a bit of a disappointment. I did enjoy the first part, about Nancy Bird's childhood and early ambitions to fly. It was interesting to read about the barnstorming era and the opening up of the Aussie outback by courageous aviators of both sexes. It was also interesting to see how Nancy Bird overcame the disadvantages of her sex to achieve a whole stack of firsts, and how she went on to have a distinguished career in the service of aviation even when her barnstorming days were over. But the last part of the book degenerated into a terribly dull catalogue of female firsts. I understand her motivation: she was keen to redress the lack of recognition for women pilots in Australia and these chapters show that there were many remarkable women who did remarkable things. But there are only so many record-breaking feats that one can read about before the interest palls, and that's what happened. I just got sick of it: so-and-so was the first one to fly from such-and-such, over and over again, without the human interest to enliven it. So while I think this book, in its print form, would be a valuable resource for someone researching the history of aviation in Australia, I didn't find all of it very interesting to listen to...(less)
The prologue lures the reader in, straight away. A young man from Naples phones the narrator in Turin in search of his mother. At first she dismisses...moreThe prologue lures the reader in, straight away. A young man from Naples phones the narrator in Turin in search of his mother. At first she dismisses him in irritation, but then investigates. The mother has vanished. Every trace of this woman is gone, as if she has decided to expunge her existence from memory. The narrator is half-admiring, half-alarmed by this wilful act of self-negation - but she is just as wilful herself and she decides that she will not let her childhood friend disappear. And so she thwarts the erasure by writing Elena’s story, a loving memoir that is also an act of revenge…
Elena and Lila have been Best Friends forever. They grew up in the fifties together in Naples in the shadow of Vesuvius. The volcano is a metaphor for their friendship which slumbers for periods of harmony and then erupts into drama. It also symbolises the battle for dominance between these two: like humans labouring away for centuries to build their own world only to have nature destroy it all in a catastrophic moment, Elena struggles to be the ‘best’ only to have Lila undercut her efforts with a nonchalance that is even more deflating.
Their competitiveness extends to everything. Both are very clever girls, and they are determined to rise above the grim poverty of their Naples. Handicapped by their family’s expectations about girls and education, they are encouraged by a determined schoolteacher and stimulated to achieve by outperforming each other. In puberty, their unspoken rivalry for dominance includes achieving the most alluring sexuality even though there are unbreakable constraints about expressing it. In a society where the males of a family protected a girl’s virtue with violence both against her and any would-be suitor, Elena broods over the changes in her body and the pimples on her face while Lila affects carelessness because she has yet to develop.
Balzac has excelled himself in this story with this description of Emilio's garden: The shelving gardens were full of the marvels where money has been...moreBalzac has excelled himself in this story with this description of Emilio's garden: The shelving gardens were full of the marvels where money has been turned into rocky grottoes and patterns of shells,--the very madness of craftsmanship,--terraces laid out by the fairies, arbours of sterner aspect, where the cypress on its tall trunk, the triangular pines, and the melancholy olive mingled pleasingly with orange trees, bays, and myrtles, and clear pools in which blue or russet fishes swam. Whatever may be said in favour of the natural or English garden, these trees, pruned into parasols, and yews fantastically clipped; this luxury of art so skilfully combined with that of nature in Court dress; those cascades over marble steps where the water spreads so shyly, a filmy scarf swept aside by the wind and immediately renewed; those bronzed metal figures speechlessly inhabiting the silent grove; that lordly palace, an object in the landscape from every side, raising its light outline at the foot of the Alps,--all the living thoughts which animate the stone, the bronze, and the trees, or express themselves in garden plots,--this lavish prodigality was in perfect keeping with the loves of a duchess and a handsome youth, for they are a poem far removed from the coarse ends of brutal nature. It's an interesting story as much for the way contrasts Italian life with French: he sees it as much more relaxed and congenial, but it's risky to leave politics and business to others - because they are invariably corrupt and often ruin results. There is an attractive carelessness in the way women dress, compared to the seriousness with which French women invest it. But Italy is not free: in the tussle between Austria and France, Austria had the upper hand and Italy has been ceded to them. There is talk of independence, but it is only talk; the Italians envy France her freedom from despotism. When it's suggested that Italy would be better off allowing France to protect her, as a man protects his mistress. the Duchess replies that France would not love Italy as she wants to be loved. She's no democrat and she's not interested in liberty, fraternity and equality. She just wants the Italian aristocracy restored to its privileges: "We want to be free. But the liberty I crave is not your ignoble and middle-class liberalism, which would kill all art. I ask," said she, in a tone that thrilled through the box,--"that is to say, I would ask,--that each Italian republic should be resuscitated, with its nobles, its citizens, its special privileges for each caste. I would have the old aristocratic republics once more with their intestine warfare and rivalry that gave birth to the noblest works of art, that created politics, that raised up the great princely houses. The Italians, it seems have the upper hand over the Austrians, when it comes to opera. Balzac indulges himself with some complex discussion about their respective merits, the main point being that Rossini’s opera is Mose (Moses in Egypt) which of course is all about rebelling against oppression, while the Austrians (i.e. Mozart) content themselves with writing operas about a libertine at odds with his victims (i.e. Don Giovanni). As the hymn of the delivered Israelites rings out, the Italians stand and demand an encore, a clear symbol of their resentment of the occupiers. The love story concerns an innocent youth called Emilio, heir to a princedom but no money. He loves Massimilla, wife of the Duke Cataneo who is old and ugly and doesn't want her anyway. He expects her to take a lover, but her religious scruples preclude it, and Emilio is too honourable to succumb to his feelings as well. Alas for him, a mix-up occurs when they go to Venice, separately, and he doesn't get the message that his close friend Vendramin has leased his palazzo to the Duke so that he can entertain Clarina Tinti, the opera singer he's besotted with. (The idea is that the Duke will renovate it, something Emilio doesn't have the money to do. There's a farcical scene where Emilio having gone to bed has left his trousers lying about and when the Duke comes in and sees them he gets in a rage. Clara throws him out for being so rude and promptly seduces Emilio. Emilio is of course wracked by guilt but he doesn't 'fess up, and what’s more, he succumbs more than once. They go to the opera again, and this time the two stars, Clara and Genovese are at odds with each other, Clara singing sublimely, and Genovese braying like a donkey. Clearly some intervention is needed and it’s a French doctor who supplies a cure for both the courting couples that is reminiscent of the switcheroo identity plots of Mozart’s comic operas!