Anyone with small children (and older ones too, I'm sure) will be familiar with Julia Donaldson, in particular The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo's Child,Anyone with small children (and older ones too, I'm sure) will be familiar with Julia Donaldson, in particular The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo's Child, which - along with Room on the Broom - have been made into animated films that regularly show on the ABC. My son, at three, enjoys the books but finds the movies too scary - he's still young like that.
Room on the Broom is about a witch with "long ginger hair in a braid down her back" and a cat and a broomstick and cauldron. They're flying through the sky, having a peaceful, calm trip, when the wind snatches off her hat. A dog helps her collect it and in return she offers him a ride. Next she loses the bow from her hair, and a green bird brings it back. It, too, gets "room on the broom". And so on, until the broomstick is heavy and snaps in two. They all fall to the ground, and the witch encounters a big, red, terrifying dragon who wants to eat her. Her new friends save her, she makes a spell for a new broomstick, and off they go again - in style and comfort this time.
I love it when picture book authors work closely with the same illustrator for their books - like Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake, or Mem Fox and Julie Vivas; you start to instantly recognise their books based on the style of drawings, and come to associate the drawings with the author. (From a marketing perspective, it's a perfect way to make an instant connection with buyers as they scan the shelves.) There's also a comfort aspect at play - the same can be said of authors like Alison Lester, who do their own illustrations and also have a distinctive style. Such books tend to stick with you longer.
Room on the Broom has a delightful rhyme that almost sounds like song, or music - any picture book that rhymes like this is a pleasure to read out loud. The story just flows so well, it's fun to read, and pleasurable to the ear. Doesn't stop a kid from interrupting, though!
Over the fields and the forests they flew. The dog wagged his tail and the stormy wind blew. The witch laughed out loud and held on to her hat, But away blew the bow from her braid - just like that!
Julia Donaldson is another children's author I find myself gravitating towards whenever I'm looking for a new picture book - between her, Alison Lester, Mem Fox, Oliver Jeffers and a few others, you're never short of titles to consider! ...more
I hope everyone recognises this book. I had forgotten all about this series until I saw it in Dymocks back in July and was immediately transported bacI hope everyone recognises this book. I had forgotten all about this series until I saw it in Dymocks back in July and was immediately transported back in time to my childhood. I LOVED these books, they were big when I was in, what, prep? Grade 1?
Originally published in 1972, this is the first book and I decided it was a good place to start - I've since added Mog's Missing, Meg's Eggs and a three-in-one volume that includes Mog at the Zoo, Meg's Veg and Meg Up the Creek. They are bold and distinctive and I'm so, so happy they're still in print! Here is the first page, or half of it as they're all double-page spreads that don't fit in my scanner:
Meg, a witch whose spells often backfire in interesting ways, lives with her cat, Mog, and Owl. They creatures of habit and routine who enjoy their breakfasts. Meg has four witch friends: Jess, Bess, Tess and Cress. She has a broomstick and a cauldron and her spells are very ... inventive.
The pages are solid blocks of colour, primary colours mostly, and the text has a distinctive lack of punctuation that you just have to go along with. Dialogue is in the form of speech bubbles, so when you're reading out loud you have to ad lib a bit. There's always a lot to point at in the illustrations and plenty of comments, conjectures and opinions to share as you read it, because the stories imply much but leave a lot of it unsaid. My son loves these books and with their big, bold and unstructured text, it makes for a good book for kids learning to read. Helen Nicoll died a number of years ago but I believe Jan Pieńkowski, who illustrated the books, is still alive. There are 16 books in the series (that I know of, anyway) and each one is similar - and familiar - in terms of style and storyline, yet also distinctively different.
Having the chance to relive the fun of these books through reading them to my three-year-old is an absolute joy. There's something wonderful about sharing a story you loved as a child, with your own child, and watching them enjoy it just as much....more
Oliver Jeffers writes very grown-up picture books, the kind that kids love and that can make adults cry. Okay, so he can make this adult cry - especiaOliver Jeffers writes very grown-up picture books, the kind that kids love and that can make adults cry. Okay, so he can make this adult cry - especially with The Heart and the Bottle.
It's the story of a little girl, "much like any other, whose head was filled with all the curiosities of the world." Her grandfather takes her to the forest, the beach, and listens to her stories and all her many questions. But then one day his armchair is empty.
She puts her heart in a glass bottle so it can't be hurt, and grows up into a young woman who has no curiosity about the world at all. But her heart is safe. Then one day she encounters a little girl, a girl just like she had been, full of questions about the world.
There was a time when the girl would have known how to answer her.
But not now.
Not without her heart.
She decides to get her heart back, but she doesn't know how, she can't remember. She tries all sorts of things. It is the little girl who has an idea, a way - and this answer will, to adult readers at least, represent a profound metaphor that will really make you appreciate the open curiosity and sense of wonder that children naturally possess - and maybe refrain from quashing it.
This book is sad - and poignant - to me for several reasons, all of them powerful and all of them due to the skill and artistry of Oliver Jeffers. With so few words and such beautiful illustrations he can say so much, about the spirit of childhood, about the love between children and those they look up to, about how precious curiosity and appreciating the world is, and that locking away your heart to keep it safe is no way to live. The book shares the joy of wonderment, the joy of listening to children and taking the time to talk to them, and how important it is to let yourself feel, and live, and love and, yes, hurt too, because that's part of life, and if you don't let yourself hurt you're probably not letting yourself love, either.
That's not to say that children don't get a lot out of this book. The best picture books are ones that both adults and children can enjoy - and Jeffers is one of those contemporary picture book writers who is treasured by both. While the stories about the boy and his penguin are a delight to read, and also beautifully illustrated (as is How to Catch a Star and This Moose is Not For You), there's something utterly beautiful and utterly tragic about The Heart in the Bottle that makes it such a powerful story, full of truisms and life, death and coping after the death of a loved one, about growing up and dealing with loneliness. Children can relate, because they are just like that little girl, and they're going to experience the loss of loved ones, especially - sadly - grandparents, who are so looked up to by children. Jeffers presents a gentle and insightful look at love, grief and being alive. A must for every library....more
I absolutely love Alison Lester's picture books, and this one is no exception.
The kids are getting dressed up in costumes behind the green door, whilI absolutely love Alison Lester's picture books, and this one is no exception.
The kids are getting dressed up in costumes behind the green door, while the others wait outside and guess what the next person will dress up as. The cover features a peekaboo hole in the middle (showing a dinosaur), but the inner pages have a big, half-page flap for the door. The pages (of my edition, anyway) are fine and not suitable for very young children (which is a bit of a given - this is a paperback, not a board book).
Image courtesy of the author's website
The rhymes are fun, with enough repetition to get a rhythm going and enough variation to make it continuously interesting and engaging. You can have a lot of fun, reading this book out loud, and doing voices and tones and pitch. Also, if you happen to be stuck for costume ideas, there's some good inspiration here and more than a few home-made costumes in the illustrations.
With Lester's distinctively fresh-looking (and somehow, so very Australian) drawings and fun rhymes, this is a great book for the 3+ crowd. It can work for a daytime read to get your kids excited about dressing up, or a bedtime story (you'll have to see what Rose, the youngest, does behind the green door at the end!). Perfect for boys and girls, this is another gem from Lester....more
When my brother (who is five years younger than me) was little, he had this book - a much earlier edition, of course, with slightly different illustraWhen my brother (who is five years younger than me) was little, he had this book - a much earlier edition, of course, with slightly different illustrations (different compositions, some of the details are different). I loved it, as I loved so many of his picture books, so I was full of excited nostalgia to read it again - and introduce it to my boy.
It's Christmas morning. Morris is a young rabbit with three older siblings: Victor, Rose and Betty. Victor gets a hockey outfit for Christmas. Rose gets a beauty kit, and Betty gets a chemistry set. Morris gets a bear. Victor, Rose and Betty have lots of fun with their presents, and when they've had a turn they switch:
All Christmas day Victor played hockey and Rose made herself beautiful and Betty mixed acids.
And then Betty made herself beautiful and Victor sorted test tubes and Rose played left wing.
And then Victor made himself beautiful and Betty played goalie and Rose invented a new gas.
Morris wants to play, too, but they say he's too young and too little and too silly to play with their things - and no one wants Morris's bear. His parents try to console him but he sulks and won't join them at dinner. While they're eating, Morris notices an overlooked present under the tree. In it is a disappearing bag. Morris climbs in side and disappears. His siblings can't find him anywhere, but when he comes out they all want a turn.
Victor, Rose and Betty all disappear inside the bag, and Morris plays with the hockey gear, the chemistry set and the beauty kit until bedtime.
This is one of my favourite picture books, and I'm so glad it's still in print. It's one that really makes me laugh, with jokes that I got as a kid and still delight me as an adult (I just love the line, "and Rose invented a new gas"; there are others just as funny). As one of the younger kids in my family, I could certainly identify with Morris who has older, more sophisticated siblings who won't let him play with their sophisticated toys. And I could certainly relate to Morris when he sits in the corner, sulking, and then crawls into a bag to disappear.
At its heart, it is of course partly about sharing, and being nice to people. But like all good picture books, it's so much more than basic messaging. The illustrations are really engaging too, not precise or too realistic, but bold and colourful and with a hint of childlike two-dimensional simplicity. I don't want that to sound in the slightest way negative. It's interesting, actually, comparing this contemporary edition with my brother's older version, and seeing how much Wells' illustrations have been fine-tuned and improved. The style is the same, but the lines are more confident and the composition better. Paired with the engaging story, this is truly a delightful book.
Incidentally, I remember back in Toronto on the kids' cartoon channel (what was it called, Treefrog? something like that) there was a cartoon that I didn't like very much, about two rabbit siblings called Ruby and Max. It was only while I was looking up this book that I learned the cartoon is based on other books about those two characters by Rosemary Wells. I should have recognised the style of drawing, but I had forgotten all about this book until I had it in my hands again just recently....more
This was given to Hugh when he was born, a gift from friends of my husband's parents (I only know/remember this because they inscribed the book, sometThis was given to Hugh when he was born, a gift from friends of my husband's parents (I only know/remember this because they inscribed the book, something I wish more people would do when they give books as gifts!), and up until that moment I had completely forgotten all about this story. It came back to me quickly when I saw the distinctive illustrations and read the story again after all these years. I read it quite a lot as a kid, I loved it so. It's a sad story, yet positive too.
First published in 1939, it speaks to the change of eras, the death of the old and the celebration of shiny new things. Mike Mulligan is a construction worker who, along with his steam shovel (a steam-powered excavator) called Mary Anne, has dug canals, and cut through mountains for railways, and levelled hills for highways. He's always been sure that Mary Anne "could dig as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week, but he had never been quite sure that this was true."
But then it gets harder to get new jobs because of "the new gasoline shovels and the new electric shovels and the new Diesel motor shovels" that were taking over. Mike didn't want to sell Mary Anne for junk like all the other steam shovel drivers were dong. "Mike loved Mary Anne. He couldn't do that to her." He had taken good care of her but no one wanted them anymore. Then they hear that the nearby town of Popperville was going to build a new town hall, so they head over and offer their services. Mike makes a deal with one of the selectmen, that if they can dig the cellar in a day they get paid, but if they don't they won't.
Mike and Mary Anne start the next day as the sun is coming up, and they work super fast. As more and more people gather to watch, Mary Anne digs faster and faster. They manage to dig the cellar in a day - a job that would have taken a hundred men a week to do - but then realise that there's no way to get Mary Anne out of the hole she's finished digging. A little boy has a bright idea: why not leave her in the cellar and build the town hall above her? "Let her be the furnace for the new town hall," he says. So that's what they do, and Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne live in the cellar and everyone goes to visit them and tell stories.
Even as a kid I found this story sad, even a bit depressing, though I also loved it and kept coming back to it (I may have been a girl, but I was more interested in cars and tractors and things like that, than dolls - in fact, I had no interest in dolls at all, especially those horrid baby ones that wee when you feed them, I thought that was a useless, boring idea for a doll and I didn't like the way toy companies were trying to make my into a mummy at the age of four! Yes, I really did think that when I was little). Even the illustrations ratchet-up the nostalgia factor, not just because they're 30s style (and the details clearly show that in-between-eras problem, with cars alongside horse-drawn wagons), but because the picture of the town hall being built above Mary Anne and Mike Mulligan looks an awful lot like a prison. Or a cage. Or a museum exhibit. Perhaps the latter, and intentionally so.
There's a lot of text to this story, but two-year-olds can sit through it (prepare to be interrupted by a lot of questions that are hard to answer, though!). Older kids, kindergarten age and older, would get more out of the story but there's lots here for younger ones to enjoy too. Bit too long and involved for the attention span of a kid younger than two though. ...more
I think this book and Seuss's Cat in the Hat are his two most famous books, and I'm pretty sure this is one (maybe the only one) I did read as a kid.
FI think this book and Seuss's Cat in the Hat are his two most famous books, and I'm pretty sure this is one (maybe the only one) I did read as a kid.
For the adult reader (reading aloud to kids, no doubt), it's a repetitive, long, and obvious book: Sam offers some green eggs and ham to his grumpy older friend (who remains nameless), and this friend gets angrier and angrier the more Sam tries to convince him to try them (and you can't blame the angry one: green eggs and ham? Sounds utterly disgusting, like they've gone off or something). Until finally he does try eating it, and discovers that he does like them after all.
It's enlivened by the silliness of Sam's suggestions: would you eat them in a box with a fox, or in the dark, or with a goat. The wording does change, going through the various grammatical options: would you, could you, will not, could not, do not like etc. It's a surprisingly entertaining battle of wills and for as obvious as the message is, it's a message that all parents spend a great deal of time and energy getting across to their kids ("Try it! Just try it, how do you know you don't like it until you try it?!"), so it's always nice to have a popular book reinforce it....more
This is an absolute classic, and I'd be surprised if there's anyone in English-speaking countries, at least, who hasn't heard of it, read it and lovedThis is an absolute classic, and I'd be surprised if there's anyone in English-speaking countries, at least, who hasn't heard of it, read it and loved it. First published the year before I was born, in 1978, it's still going strong, with a wonderful rhyming story complemented by luscious illustrations. The text incorporates famous fictional characters - Cinderella, Mother Hubbard, the Wicked Witch, Robin Hood, Jack and Jill etc. - and the pictures add an "I Spy" game to it. Tricky for younger readers perhaps, but in my experience they always find plenty of things to point to in the illustrations to ask "what's that?" ;)
Which means this is a book for various age groups, really. And when you have to read the same books over and over again to a young audience, it's one of the few that I never get tired of re-reading!...more
I remember picking this off the shelf at Chapters rather randomly one day, and deciding to get it mostly because of all the animal noises - I figuredI remember picking this off the shelf at Chapters rather randomly one day, and deciding to get it mostly because of all the animal noises - I figured that would make it more fun for me to read, as well as for the babies.
This is an actual story, told in four-verse rhymes, and the babies really do enjoy it - especially the animals, at this age anyway. It's the story of Little Blue Truck, who's friends with all the animals around, and is so nice that when the big bossy Dump Truck comes along and gets stuck in the mud, he tries to help. But he gets stuck too! But because all the animals like him (it?), they come rushing to help. It has a "lesson" which could be rather corny, but the story's so daggy it comes off as less cheesy than it might have otherwise.
There's a series of these - Pride and Prejudice, Alice in Wonderland, A Christmas Carol, Dracula - but naturally I had to get Jane Eyre. I'm sorry, whThere's a series of these - Pride and Prejudice, Alice in Wonderland, A Christmas Carol, Dracula - but naturally I had to get Jane Eyre. I'm sorry, what's that? This book is for my baby son? Um, yep. Sure. Yeah, course it is.
The book counts from one through to ten, with 1 being "governess" and 10 being "books", but I use the numbers and the pictures to tell a story - there's not much plot, but I start with "Meet Jane, hello Jane! She's a governess. That's like a teacher." and go from there. The kids enjoy the illustrations, especially the page with 7 insects - butterflies, a moth, ladybug, beetle, caterpillar and dragonfly - and we usually count out the named objects in the pictures to practice, too.
The illustrations are bold and simple in general, though the colours are such that it won't appeal to young babies. I like that the colours and drawings complement the gothic atmosphere of the original - if you've seen the series, you'll notice that the illustrations and design of the books mimic that of the real stories. ...more
This is one of my favourite picture books, ever since it first came out, and it's taken me seven years to finally get a copy - but the wait is worth iThis is one of my favourite picture books, ever since it first came out, and it's taken me seven years to finally get a copy - but the wait is worth it.
Wombats are lazy animals - cousin to the koala, which is only awake for about 45 mins a day - and oh so adorable. When I was in Grade 6 I did an assignment on the hairy-nosed wombat, and learnt about their unique defence tactic: like koalas, wombats have a hard plate of bone on their lower back. Koalas use this for sleeping in the fork of branches high up in trees. Wombats use it differently - when threatened by a dingo (the dog breed the Aborigines brought with them many thousands of years ago), the wombat will run for its burrow. The dingo follows, and when it tries to jump on the wombat's back to crush the neck with its jaws, the wombat will lift itself on its powerful, earth-moving legs and crush the dingo between the hard plate of the wombat's back and the roof of the burrow. Pretty cool huh? I was very impressed by this, back in Grade 6, and I've never forgotten it.
Also, and I was hoping to have more info on this for you, my parents once had a "pet" wombat. So much of Diary of a Wombat rings true because of their stories - anyone who's had a "pet" wombat would no doubt agree (I'm sure the author has had one too at some stage). They're not pets like cats and dogs are, they just sort-of adopt you, like the wombat in this story. My parents had theirs - and I don't know what they called it, or how they came to have it, but I think it was a male - long before I was born, when they lived in Thornby Cottage. A couple of stories have always stuck with me: it took an aversion to one of their friends and had to be shut away when she visited; it really would scratch holes right through doors; and it once fell asleep behind a tyre of my uncle's car without anyone knowing it was there - when he backed out he ran over the wombat, but because of that hard plate on its back I was telling you about, it was fine, just got up and waddled away.
So they're real characters, wombats. Diary of a Wombat is written from the wombat's perspective, and is incredibly adorable and funny. Her diary consists of sleeping, eating, scratching, and sleeping some more - until a family of humans moves in and she discovers she can get some tasty food if she bangs on tin rubbish bins. She's also protective of this new family, and valiantly does battle with the flat hairy creature (the doormat) before demanding a reward.
Now I just need to get the next book, Diary of a Baby Wombat. I wouldn't mind getting hold of some of her other books too - I like the sound of Pete the Sheep-Sheep! :D...more
Does anyone else remember this book from their childhood? I read it many times in, oh, grade 1 I think. Maybe Prep. You'd think a book about a mouse dDoes anyone else remember this book from their childhood? I read it many times in, oh, grade 1 I think. Maybe Prep. You'd think a book about a mouse dentist, complete with illustrations of teeth extractions (with blood drops) would be off-putting for a child. Instead, the opposite was true: I was fascinated by the pictures and loved the story. I was browsing one day in the children's section and saw it - I had forgotten all about it but instantly recognised it.
Doctor de Soto is, as I said, the story of a mouse dentist and his assistant wife, Mrs de Soto. He's an excellent dentist, with nimble hands, and extra-large patients like him because, with the help of a winch and his wife, he can hoist himself right into their mouths to work! But "cats and other dangerous animals are not welcome". (Today we would exclaim, "Discrimination!")
When a fox turns up one day, in great pain with a toothache, and begs for Dr de Soto's help, the good dentist decides to accept him as a patient. The fox is grateful, but can't help thinking what a tasty morsel the mice would be. So, before his return visit when the dentist will fit a new gold tooth in the fox's mouth, Dr de Soto and his wife come up with a plan to ensure they won't be eaten.
It is very much a tale of the small, vulnerable one besting, with wits, the bigger, more powerful one. Outwitting dangerous foes rather than resorting to violence is a common theme in children's books, especially in the 80s it seems. The fox was going to take advantage of the dentist, have his toothache cured and a new gold tooth fitted and then betray him. You could say it is a reflection of capitalist society as much as anything else. But it is also about helping others despite feeling threatened, and not pre-judging.
It all came flooding back as I re-read it, and saw again those familiar illustrations (done by the author). Suddenly, my childhood and my present self were so much closer, almost touching, though memories of the past have been supplanted by new ones. It has new life. Especially as my husband Adam has taken to using "doctor de soto" as an adjective for, well, anything. "I feel very de-sotoed" we'll tell each other, or "It's very doctor de soto" - it means nothing and everything and is a private joke between us. And so a childhood book retains its nostalgia while also taking on a new place in the present!...more
I picked this one up in 2008 and have been meaning to read it again for a while now. It's an amazing picture book, very mature in subject matter, a boI picked this one up in 2008 and have been meaning to read it again for a while now. It's an amazing picture book, very mature in subject matter, a book that you'll need to revisit again and again and ponder endlessly. It's also the type of book I would have absolutely loved as a small child (I love it now, too, of course) - at five, six years of age, The Dark Crystal was my favourite movie and it was a dark, menacing tale with sinister creatures, death, violence and adventure. So don't rush to think this is too dark for children. I've always had the kind of imagination that thrived off the "darker" stuff.
Varmints tells an analogy, or parable, that mirrors our history in a condensed form. There are those who love the hum of bees, the whisper of the wind, the wilderness - and then others arrive, with their tall buildings that "scratched the sky where birds once sang. Those gentle sounds faded and were gone." Every day, more newcomers arrived, the noise grew and grew until they couldn't think ... "So they stopped thinking."
But someone is nurturing a little piece of wilderness, and at the right time takes it to the right place... and that little bit of wilderness grows.
I can't recommend this book enough. It's an analogy for our own industrialisation, and the sacrifices we've made - and the wilderness has made. The prose is light and atmospheric, perfectly complimented by the illustrations that add to the voice of the story - you need both, together, for the full impact. Not every child is going to like this but for those whose imaginations crave deeper, more fantastic stories, this would be perfect for them. ...more
Four years after Cat faked Bones' death and joined the special forces unit that tracks down naughty vampires and kills them, Cat is on top of her gameFour years after Cat faked Bones' death and joined the special forces unit that tracks down naughty vampires and kills them, Cat is on top of her game, lethal and with a reputation among the undead community, but she's not happy. She hasn't managed to forget Bones at all, and when she's sent to kill his sire, Ian, she finds she can't do it. Events escalate into a rescue mission and a showdown, and Cat learns the truth about her boss, Don, and her vampire father.
Even better than the first book, though at first I was a bit worried. Cat seemed so angry and vengeful and I was feeling real sorry for the vampires she was offing. Her anger tones down though when Bones turns up, and then it really sizzles! Gotta love Bones, he's a perfectly balanced romantic hero, with just the right mix of authority, tenderness, power etc., has real feelings and knows when to compromise. I would like to know better exactly why he loves Cat so much, and what Cat feels for him beyond physical attraction. Oh I know she loves him too, but why? Well, even though I thought their relationship progressed quite naturally (especially for a paranormal romance) in the first book, some things needed to be revisited a little.
The pacing is excellent, and there's enough time spent on the characters themselves to keep me satisfied. Exciting and thrilling, I read this in about six hours and I'm very keen on the next book....more
It's 1922 and Nick Carraway is moving from Chicago to the East Coast and a new job in New York City in the "bond business". He finds a house to rent oIt's 1922 and Nick Carraway is moving from Chicago to the East Coast and a new job in New York City in the "bond business". He finds a house to rent on Long Island Sound, on the less fashionable West Egg; his second cousin once removed, Daisy Buchanan, lives on the East Egg with her filthy rich husband, the chauvinist and serial philanderer, Tom. Nick goes to visit them and their young houseguest, Jordan Baker, a professional woman golfer, and learns the reason for all the tension in the house: Tom's latest affair is with the wife of a garage mechanic, Myrtle Wilson, who keeps calling the house (so Daisy believes; it is in fact Mr Wilson, who wants to buy one of Tom's cars).
Nick's neighbour on the West Egg is Jay Gatsby, who lives in a new, gaudy mansion directly across the sound from Daisy's house. Almost every weekend, hordes of people arrive for the biggest party Nick's ever seen. After a few weeks, Nick receives an invitation to join them, and at Gatsby's house he discovers that almost no one actually knows Jay Gatsby - people just turn up, having heard of it from others. It's rarely the same people each time, even. And people repeat the craziest rumours about Mr Gatsby, such as that he killed a man, and speculate wildly about where his immense wealth comes from (most are sure it's nothing legal). When Nick finally meets the great Gatsby, he isn't sure what to think, but he considers himself a tolerant man and tries to suspend judgement.
With Jordan as an intermediary, Nick learns that Gatsby was once a beau of Daisy's before the war, and wants Nick's help in setting up a private meeting where he can see her again. From there, things escalate, someone dies, and the truth about Jay Gatsby changes everything for Nick, who has to decide where his friendship and his loyalties really lie.
Earlier this year I mentioned wanting to re-read this before the new Baz Luhrmann movie came out at Christmas 2012; as I write this I learned that it's been pushed back to May 2013. Shame, I'm really looking forward to seeing it and had hoped to over the Christmas holidays, but I can wait. For sure, Luhrmann is the best director for a new adaptation, with his track record of beautiful cinematography, flamboyant set design and knack for capturing the poignant, quiet moments amid the chaos. The excesses of the period, and Jay Gatsby's life in particular, are brought to life in the film very well, judging by the previews.
As I said, I had read this before, years ago while at uni (not for a course, just for me). It made no real impression on me, sadly, since I've never been able to remember much about it at all, and a book that forgettable must be, surely, rather lame. (Based on a vague memory of reading it the first time, I wrote this when I added the book to my Goodreads library: "Read this years ago while at uni and didn't like it, though I remember there being some lovely bits of prose. Still, I want to re-read it, so I finally picked up a copy. We'll see.") Well I have to wonder, now that I've read it about 13 years later, just what was wrong with me. How could I have forgotten all of this? It was like reading it for the first time - which was great, but the thought did nag at me, that I was rather disappointed in myself. My younger self, anyway. It's certainly true that with many books, when (at what stage in your life) you read a book can go a long way to influencing how much you enjoy it.
For such a slim novel, there is a lot of interesting stuff crammed in here. My copy was one I'd picked up secondhand, and I hadn't realised when I got it that there were notes and marking throughout, in pencil, from some student - I absolutely hate it when people do that, because their own comments keep intruding and getting in the way. It's like watching a movie at the cinema with someone sitting near you who keeps making comments, interrupting your own enjoyment and your own thoughts. I started rubbing them out after a while, but you can never really get rid of them (I plan on getting a new copy, only there are so many editions available, which one should I get?). The person was clearly focused on writing an essay about class consciousness and the American dream, with notes like this: "The book is largely about social class and the failure of the American dream" and "Myrtle's apt. a parody of Gatsby's house and social class" and "Daisy is the embodiment of the American dream for Gatsby." Which is a perfectly fine argument (remember, the key to studying English is this: you can argue anything you like, as long as you can back it up), but this other person's voice kept interrupting my own train of thought, and the path my own mind was on in its own interpretation. The direction my mind was going, as I read this, was a little beyond classism and the attainment of the American Dream - clearly a theme, but a bit of a cliche - to this main word: Illusion.
Throughout the novel, the main theme that encompasses all others is "illusion". The illusion of wealth and happiness, the illusion of grandeur, the illusion of happiness, the illusion that Jay Gatsby lives for - and not just him, though his is the one that drives the plot forward. Everyone in this book is suffering from a case of pretending, of putting on an act, of being someone they're not - or maintaining the illusion of what they want people to see. The illusion of Jay Gatsby is the strongest, because he has the farthest to go - from humble origins to the kind of man he thinks Daisy wants, and then around again in a circle to the illusion of Daisy as a young girl, the Daisy he's been chasing after all these years.
As I went over to say good-bye I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby's face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness. Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams - not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusions. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man can store up in his ghostly heart. [pp.92-3]
Jay Gatsby isn't even Jay Gatsby, and his wealth isn't the old money of those from the East Egg, but dodgy new money, spent vulgarly in an attempt to raise himself up. From his fake "old sport" affectation to his fake Oxford education, the truth about Jay Gatsby is something only Nick Carraway learns about - everyone else sees an illusion, either the one Gatsby wanted them to see or one they've created themselves. (It reminds me of the double illusion of Victor Victoria, in which Julie Andrews pretends to be a man pretending to be a woman, called Count Victor, and it works because everyone thinks he's a fake - as in, not a real count. No one ever realises that he is really a she, because they're too busy looking at the illusion in the magician's right hand, to see the one in his left. Love that movie, by the way.)
I suppose he'd had the name ready for a long time, even then [at age seventeen]. His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people - his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God - a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that - and he must be about His Father's business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end. [p.95]
It is not just Jay Gatsby and the circle of people Nick Carraway spends so much time with during this period, but pretty much everyone else Nick encounters. It speaks to a bigger illusion: the illusion of the American Dream - something you can say easily in this day and age, with hindsight and presentism, but that doesn't undermine its illusory quality. Everyone was chasing something, and America was one of those places where it all seemed obtainable - and where the success stories, like Gatsby's, only seemed to reinforce the illusion.
Dressed up in white flannels I went over to his lawn a little after seven, and wandered around rather ill at ease among swirls and eddies of people I didn't know - though here and there was a face I had noticed on the commuting train. I was immediately struck by the number of young Englishmen dotted about; all well dressed, all looking a little hungry, and all talking in low, ernest voices to solid and prosperous Americans. I was sure that they were selling something: bonds or insurance or automobiles. They were at least agonizingly aware of the easy money in the vicinity and convinced that it was theirs for a few words in the right key. [p.43]
The theme of illusion is strong with the Buchanan's and their friend Jordan Baker; Jordan maintains the illusion of the quintessential 20s socialite and professional woman, who drives badly and dangerously (the illusion of immortality) and who cheats at golf - because the illusion of success is more important than sportsmanship or honour. The more Nick comes to know these people, the less he likes them, until at the end when they fail at the most basic level of human decency (attending a funeral for someone they knew), he gives up on them completely. The sense that everything is fake is tangible, and makes everything sour in Nick's mouth. At the end, the only person he still feels respect for is Gatsby - though the cynical part of me wonders if that would have soured too, if he'd known him longer or under different circumstances.
As a final nod to the theme I'm going with here of illusion, is this scene between Gatsby and Nick:
He wanted nothing less of Daisy than that she should go to Tom and say: 'I never loved you.' After she had obliterated four years with that sentence they could decide upon the more practical measures to be taken. One of them was that, after she was free, they were to go back to Louisville and be married from her house - just as if it were five years ago. 'And she doesn't understand,' he said. 'She used to be able to understand. We'd sit for hours--' He broke off and began to walk up and down a desolate path of fruit rinds and discarded favors and crushed flowers. 'I wouldn't ask too much of her,' I ventured. 'You can't repeat the past.' 'Can't repeat the past?' he cried incredulously. 'Why of course you can!' He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand. 'I'm going to fix everything just the way it was before,' he said, nodding determinedly. 'She'll see.' He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was ... [pp.105-6]
(Don't you just love that parallel between Gatsby's feelings and the "desolate path of ... discarded favors and crushed flowers"?)
One of the exceptional things about this novel is the sense of atmosphere, time and place that Fitzgerald evokes, and captures in fine detail. Throughout the story, there's this neat balance between realism and embellishment for the sake of literary drama, and the realism in particular seems so effortless, so natural and present, that while you're reading it you can, sometimes, forget you're not living in the 1920s yourself.
I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night, and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness. At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others - poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner - young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life. [p.57]
It was perhaps Nick's affinity with the loneliness that goes hand-in-hand with the new growth of big cities and anonymous desk jobs, that gave him the empathy - or at least the sympathy - towards Jay Gatsby. While at the very beginning of the novel, Nick refers to himself as a tolerant person, he is of course just as judgemental as everyone else. And it was hard to keep up with who he liked or disliked - after the car accident, when Gatsby cares only for Daisy, Nick seems to feel only contempt for him. How or why it changed, I didn't quite grasp - perhaps on another re-read that would become clear.
There is so much to discuss with this novel. Unlike my experience reading his unfinished The Love of the Last Tycoon, or even his exceptional but depressing Tender is the Night, I had a thoroughly positive experience reading The Great Gatsby, from my enjoyment of the overall plot and characters, to the quite wonderful prose and the deeper themes inherent in the story. Fitzgerald's success lies primarily with keeping this book so much shorter than his others - I may have enjoyed Tender... more if it had been this short and concise. There's no waffling or flowery descriptions; everything seems precisely written, for a purpose. I don't expect great things from novels that are lauded as landmark fiction, classics that are much beloved: I don't like a book just because everyone else does. I make a book work for me. And I like a book that makes me work just as hard, if not harder. The Great Gatsby is one of those rare books that is deceptively simple, telling a surprisingly plain story that - not disguises, but reveals, a great deal about a culture and a psyche and a way of life. Fitzgerald shows just how much you can achieve when you keep things short and simple, and how great talent can hide within plain writing. (I am slightly hungover right now, so please excuse my inability to capture quite what I mean. This'll have to do, for now.) ...more
In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks. But this is not a fairy-tale. This is about REAL
In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks. But this is not a fairy-tale. This is about REAL WITCHES. The most important thing you should know about REAL WITCHES is this. Listen very carefully. Never forget what is coming next.
REAL WITCHES dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women. They live in ordinary houses and they work in ORDINARY JOBS.
That is why they are so hard to catch." [p.7]
So begins Roald Dahl's classic tale of a boy and his grandmother and their terrifying run-in with the witches of England - and The Grand High Witch herself. Orphaned at seven years of age, our unnamed narrator now lives with his grandmother, who is quite the expert on witches. Now, the witches of Roald Dahl's imagination are evil, children-hating women who aren't even human. They have claws on their hands, are bald, have extra-large nostrils for sniffing out children, and no toes on their feet. They dress up as lovely ladies and trick children into getting close to them, only to turn them into slugs or rodents or chicken, or make them disappear entirely. Their main goal in life, it seems, is to eradicate the world of children.
When the boy and his grandmother spend the summer holiday at a hotel in Bournemouth, on the coast, in order for the "bracing sea air" to help his grandmother recover from pneumonia, he finds himself eavesdropping on a meeting of all of England's witches and The Grand High Witch, who has hatched an evil plan to rid England of all the "revolting little children" in one go, by turning them into mice with poisoned sweets. What can one little boy do to stop two hundred evil witches? Or maybe the question is, what can one little mouse do to stop them?
Illustrated, as always, by the amazing Quentin Blake (whenever I see his work, I think "Roald Dahl", and whenever I see Roald Dahl, I think "Quentin Blake" - the two are just a perfect match for each other and sooooo iconic), The Witches is a terrifying and exhilarating story that, when I first read it in about grade 4/aged 8, became a firm favourite of mine and stayed that way. Re-reading it now, so many years later, it came back so clearly, the story is like an old friend (I read it many times as a kid).
It's interesting that, when I was a kid, the plot didn't strike me as at all implausible - I don't mean the witches, but their plan is rather nonsensical. It certainly does now! When you read it as a kid, you're so there in the story, it becomes larger-than-life, and very real. Not that you start believing that grown-up women could actually be witches - kids can always tell the difference between imagination and reality, but they love to get drawn into a fantasy world.
It's also interesting that we never learn the narrator's name, and also interesting that his parents were from Norway and moved to England: Dahl's parents were also from Norway before emigrating to Wales, and I love the homage he pays to his roots with the boy's cigar-smoking Norwegian grandmother and the stories she tells about fishing in Norway.
There's a great line in the book towards the end, where the narrator says: "It doesn't matter who you are or what you look like so long as somebody loves you." (p.197) It always makes me feel so warm, because it puts things into perspective. I'm not about to say what The Witches is really about, thematically or morally or otherwise, because I think ever reader will take something different from a story, but the love between Grandmamma and her grandson, considering what happens, is so special. To have someone love and support you no matter what - and they make such a great team! She doesn't have anything much in common with my Nanna, who used to look after me a fair bit when I was little, but they did have that in common, so I always felt like Grandmamma was a fictional extension of my own Nanna, and thus strengthened the bond between us.
The Witches isn't as weird and wacky as, say, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or The BFG, but it's more weird and wacky than Danny The Champion of the World. It's probably along the lines of Matilda, which I've yet to re-read, or The Magic Finger (likewise). So I couldn't say whether The Witches is a good place to start if you've never read any Dahl, but it is a ripper of a story from this beloved children's author!...more
This is a re-read for me, only I can't remember if I've read it once, twice or how many times before. At least twice, I think, but so long ago that itThis is a re-read for me, only I can't remember if I've read it once, twice or how many times before. At least twice, I think, but so long ago that it was like reading it for the first time. I just had this urge to read it again, I can't explain it but I'm glad I did.
I probably don't need to describe the plot, I'm sure everyone knows it by now. I actually never studied this book at school or uni, so I've never delved into it and explored the themes or anything. Some people seem to find it, or elements of it, offensive to modern-day sensibilities, such as the absorption of certain characters in 'catching' a man and getting married. To be honest, I think one of the reasons why Austen's books are still so popular is because of their familiarity (as well as their sense of humour, the clash of characters, and that age-old quest for love): plenty of people are preoccupied with exactly the same things today. The 'meat market' is still there - in the form of pubs, clubs and other 'dos rather than balls. Language and costumes may have changed, but just look at that ridiculous tv show "The Bachelor" - it's catchphrase could easily be "A single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Though, cynically, they're more like Wickham - again, a very familiar character.
Back to the humour for a moment. The wit in the dialogue always makes me chuckle, even when the lines are so well-known I see them coming. There is a dry amusement between the lines when describing the interactions between characters, the way they dance around each other. The skill with which characters like Darcy and Mr. Collins are written is supurb, and even though they are rarely described you get a clear sense of their figure etc. - and personality - through the way they speak. Austen manages in a few well-chosen words to capture an entire scene or personality.
It's so nice to go back to the source and read the original text after watching the series and the more recent movie so many times. There were things, little details, that I had forgotten or barely noticed before, which pleasantly surprised me. Most of all, it confirmed my opinion that the recent movie is an excellent adaptation of a long, detailed book, and easily my favourite. (I've seen the much older series as well, the one where Darcy walks around like he has a stick up his bum. Compared to that, Collin Firth's Darcy was a breath of fresh air.)
I wonder, too, if we can go back to this non-formulaic structure of a love story. How many movies have you seen that are, in structure and basic plot, exactly the same? A few British movies have managed to play around with it a bit, like Bridget Jones's Diary, Love Actually and Four Weddings and a Funeral. What keeps my attention with P&P - and what no doubt makes it a tricky book to capture on film - is the life-like, everyday-ness of the plot, the turns you can't predict unless you're already familiar with the story, that feeling like it really happened because it doesn't feel contrived at all - that kind of structure makes an old book like P&P feel fresher than the latest romantic-comedy release.
At least, that's the way it is for me. I can understand why some people don't like the story at all, or are disinterested. Personally, I appreciated the book much more this time round, at 28, than I did when I first read it just before the BBC series came out in the mid-90s, when I was 16. I got more out of it, and understood the language much better - though there are still a few lines (at one point even an entire paragraph) whose meaning eludes me. I'll get there, cause this ain't the last time I'll read the book that's for sure.
Now I need to re-read the others and see if my opinion has changed any...
A Note On This Edition: This edition is part of a reproduction series of late 19th-century editions. The covers are, of course, new, but the text inside is printed on lovely thick paper, and like the Sandstone editions of books like Jane Eyre, the font etc. is a much older style. P&P is complete with spaces between words and semicolons etc., and illustrations by Hugh Thomson that are often quite funny. There is no ISBN for this book, you can't buy it in a shop. I actually got these from Doubleday bookclub years ago....more
This month, June, marks the start of the Obernewtyn Chronicles Reading Marathon! Each month we are reading a book in the series, though predictably thThis month, June, marks the start of the Obernewtyn Chronicles Reading Marathon! Each month we are reading a book in the series, though predictably the release date for the final book, The Red Queen, has been pushed back to next year - no surprises there. I decided to go ahead with the read-along anyway, because it has literally been YEARS since I last read them and there's so much going on that I had forgotten about, I've been itching to start from the beginning again.
Forgive my daggy 1993 second edition pictured here, it is the least attractive cover of them all (I believe it has gone through about five covers by now, a new one each time a new book is released) - bear with me and I'll try and convince you how awesome this book, and the series, really is.
Some time in our future, we nearly destroyed the world. After the Great White, and the Chaos, only the farmlands were untouched by the poison that ruined so much else. The farmers rallied against the influx of refugees fleeing the cities, banding together and forming a Council that meted out death to the incomers. To further cement their growing hold on the land and its survivors, they gave power to a fledgling religion, the Herder Faction, which decreed that the creator, Lud, had sent the Great White as punishment for the wickedness of the Beforetimers, their machines and books and meddling. Such things were outlawed. People who spoke out against the Council or the Herders were labelled Seditioners and either sent to Council Farms or burnt.
Such was the fate of Elspeth Gordie's parents. Now she and her older brother, Jes, are Orphans, living in a home in Kinraide. Their future is uncertain, they have no friends, and because of Elspeth's growing mutant mental powers, she has become estranged from her brother who seeks favour with the Herder Faction. If anyone were to find out that she is a Misfit - one of those "deformed" by the taint of the world - she would be sentenced and possibly burned, and Jes' hopes of being independent, a free man, would be ruined.
On a routine trip to collect the highly toxic substance called Whitestick, a task given to Orphans because they are dispensable, Elspeth falls into a stream and strikes her head on a rock. The headaches she experiences are less because of the fall and more to do with a premonition coming upon her, but the excuse serves. Only when a woman from the mountain keep of Obernewtyn arrives, looking for Misfits who the Master of Obernewtyn can practice his cures on, does Elspeth feel in danger. Caught out by the woman, Madame Vega, she is denounced as a Misfit - though she uses her power to make it known that tainted water from her fall is the cause of her Dreaming, not a genetic or hereditary mutation that would cause her brother to be suspected of it too.
Sentenced to Obernewtyn, a place far away in the mountains rife with rumour and a gothic reputation, Elspeth feels for once strangely free. To be finally "caught" and labelled Misfit, something she has always worked hard and struggled to avoid, is like sloughing off an old skin. But the Orphan way to avoid being friendly with others and to always hold your own counsel is harder to do away with. It takes weeks for two boys at Obernewtyn to befriend Elspeth, a loner and a secretive one at that. Matthew and Dameon have their own Misfit abilities: like Elspeth, Matthew is telepathic and can "farseek" - mentally reach out over distance, though he is not as strong as she is. Dameon, a blind boy and the son of a Councilman, is Empathetic, able to feel the emotions of others.
Making friends for the first time in her life, Elspeth is far from relaxed at Obernewtyn: the farm overseer, Rushton, seems to openly dislike Elspeth for no apparent reason; Madame Vega has yet to return from her tour of the Lowlands, collecting Orphans, but in her absence a favoured twelve-year-old boy with an angelic face, Ariel, rules the roost with his haughty arrogance and sly cruelty. A girl about Elspeth's age, Selmar, wanders the halls of Obernewtyn with a vacant look on her pale face; touching her mind, Elspeth discovers she is mentally broken and half-derranged.
Through her new friendship with Matthew and Dameon, they start to piece the puzzle together: that the Master of Obernewtyn is collecting Misfits for some terrible purpose, that they are searching for something dangerous. And it is not long before Elspeth realises that she is the one they are looking for, the one strong enough to unlock the secrets they are after. Knowing that it could only be a matter of time before she too is taken away every night and turned into another brain-dead Selmar, her thoughts turn to flight. Only no one has ever escaped Obernewtyn and lived.
I first read this book in primary school - when I was in, what, grade 5 or 6. So, a couple of years after it came out in 1987 I think. I used to scour the school library's shelves every week, looking for something new to read. Most of the books were old paperbacks from the 70s and early 80s; new books were less common, since funding was so pitiful. But this book, with its unusual cover, jumped out at me. And when I started reading it, I was instantly hooked. It became one of my favourite books ever, alongside Thunderwith and a couple of others that held places close to my heart. These were books that touched me personally, that felt like friends, that seemed to have been written for me alone. Like I was waiting all my life for them. That's what reading Obernewtyn the first time felt like, like being reunited with someone dear to you. Like it was a key that made things click into place for you. You never know what book will do that to you, and it doesn't mean that it will do that for anyone else, but when you come across such a book they leave a lasting impression.
I've since read this book about five or six times now, and it never grows old or stale. It always has the same magic. Now, my edition has some typos, some missing punctuation, and at one point an important piece of dialogue comes after Elspeth's thoughts on it (page 186), but I expect they've been cleaned up in the later editions and I can never hold such things against a beloved book or such an awesome story.
For this is just the beginning. From here it gets ever so complex and stunningly original. You never know where Carmody's imagination will take you, but it always comes together beautifully. When this book first came out in 1987, you didn't really get Fantasy books about kids with mind powers, or even that much in the way of post-apocalyptic fiction (U.S. publishers today would blindly label this "dystopian" but while there is a repressive regime, it's not really about that. It's much more fantasy than anything else). For all the fantasy I've read in my life, this series is still original.
Part of it is Elspeth. She is always a loner at heart, restless, not wanting to be cooped up or stationary. She is always secretive by nature, holding her innermost thoughts and desires close. In this book she learns, to her surprise, that it is rude to read the thoughts of other people, especially if they are Misfits like her. Having always believed she is the only one to have such powers, and that she needed to do whatever it took to survive, she never had any qualms before.
My mind was reeling with the things he had said. In one moment he had changed my life. Not only were there others like me, but there were people who had different sorts of abilities. Surely that would mean we were not isolated Misfits. I realized I had been rude taking a thought from [Matthew's] mind. It was different when they did not know. I would have to be more considerate. I knew then that I had decided to trust the boy and his blind companion. In one sense I had no choice, but my sudden desire not to invade the thoughts of another person was new, and told me that I had accepted something I had previously thought impossible. I was no longer alone. [pp.100-101]
She is about fourteen or fifteen in this book (her older brother Jes, we know, is sixteen), but thinks like a much more mature person. Considering all she's been through in her life, and how suspicion and finger-pointing leads all Orphans to keep their own counsel and grow up fast, it's not surprising. For all that Elspeth changes and grows over the course of the novels and the years, these traits remain with her and mean that her relationship with Rushton is one you'll need a lot of patience to see through - it moves slowly.
Oh Rushton. Another great character who never really has large roles in the books, but tends to steal your attention away whenever he's present. I always had a thing for him, as a teenager, and that never really died. Feeling the chemistry brewing between him and Elspeth over the years (it certainly felt like years and years because each book took such a long time to come out!!), the slow-burning anticipation of something more was enough to keep you reading, let alone all the other qualities of the story.
If you're a fan of Young Adult fantasy, post-apocalyptic fiction, dystopian fiction, science fiction or any good genre fiction really, you absolutely have to try Obernewtyn. The book does bear the subtle marks of a first novel, and one originally written when Carmody was 14 - no matter how many times you re-write and edit a first book, it tends to read less smoothly than later works. This is the introduction book to the series, the "setting the scene" book: if the concept and the characters do not draw you in as thoroughly as they do me, you should still read on: every book is better than the one before it. My favourite series from my favourite author, I am of course incredibly biased. But for good reason. Come discover the magic for yourself.
If you have read or are reading Obernewtyn, feel free to stop by the read-along post and join in the discussion....more
**spoiler alert** After getting a hefty insurance cheque because he wagered his wife would have twins (one is still born), Holland buys an almost tree**spoiler alert** After getting a hefty insurance cheque because he wagered his wife would have twins (one is still born), Holland buys an almost treeless property in western New South Wales. His wife has passed away; he has only his little girl, Ellen.
He's no farmer. He starts planting eucalyptus trees on the farm and it soon turns into a hobby, then an obsession. Holland, son of a baker and a boiled-lolly-maker, becomes a "leading expert in the field", and has managed to get a specimen of all the species, and got them to grow.
As Ellen grows up, she becomes stunningly beautiful, her face "speckled" with freckles, moles, so that the eye wanders all over. She gets more and more attention from the lads in town, until Holland makes a decision. The man who can name every tree on the property will win his daughter's hand in marriage.
So begins an amusing charade of suitors failing to get past the first few trees, up until Mr Cave, who names them all. Meanwhile, an unnamed man courts Ellen amongst the trees with stories woven in and inspired by the names of the different trees, and in doing so names them all before Mr Cave.
This is a book of stories within stories, as well as snippets of information, facts, history, and cultural conundrums. One of my favourite stories is about the green grocer in Carlton who makes pictures out of fruit to attract the attention of a pretty but vain woman.
A lot of the stories have connections to people in the town - some made up, some maybe not - and it's almost like a puzzle to figure them out.
Ellen is a slightly disappointing character, almost as if Bail doesn't know how to write female characters, or doens't understand them enough to really flesh them out. The men were so neatly, perfectly described with some simple brush strokes, the short-comings in Ellen were made noticeable by comparison. The ending, too, was not quite as satisfying as it could have been, though it works and fits with the rest of the book.
It is set some time after the Second World War, I think in the 40s or 50s though it doesn't actually say, and so can get away with the main concept, plus some others. I don't think this story could be transferred so well into our current time.
One of the more provoking scenes is where Ellen, coming upon her only tree, E. Maidenii, she finds a nail driven into the trunk. You can guess her feelings there. Then she hears Mr Cave and her father approaching, and hides, only to see them start pissing against the trunk of her tree. Great imagery and symbolism there!
I love this book, regardless of any flaws. It will forever be one of my utmost favourites. But not everyone gets what I get out of it, so I feel the need for a personal kind of context.
I never truly appreciated my native country until I started studying some of our literature at uni. I did two courses focusing on Australian literature, and by the time I graduated (for the second time, as these things are done there) at the end of 2001, I was in hopelessly, helplessly, head-over-heels in gut-clenching love with the land.
When, the following year, I left and went to Japan to teach English for nearly three years, I would suddenly smell the shearing shed on my parents' farm, in the middle of the supermarket. (My boss tells me, whenever I mention smelling something that "isn't there" that I probably have a brain tumour - I call him an alarmist.) I missed the smell of Australia so much, the smell of the land, where all the trees, the plants, the grass, the soil, has such a distinct smell. In Japan, nothing smelt, which means you can smell 3-day-old exhaust fumes, the grime coating the walls of buildings, the smell of ramen and yakiniku and, strangely, snow - but never the trees or plants, because they didn't smell. My first cherry blossom time, I went up to a tree and sniffed the blossoms, expecting the same sweet scent as my mother's specimen in her big, beautiful garden. Nothing. I was supremely disappointed.
I recommended Eucalyptus to my book club and, almost unanimously, they agreed on it. I hadn't read it in several years, but it all came back as I delved in once more. The trees are my favourite characters. Skimming through the reviews on Amazon, written by Americans mostly, I noticed they all said "yes it uses trees as a tool to construct the stories, but that's not important" and "trees don't interest me, but that's not what this is about." (I'm paraphrasing here, don't hit me.)
I beg to differ. The trees are everything in Eucalyptus. You could almost say it's a book about trees disguised as a fairy tale, but I don't think that's the case either. The trees figure prominently, as characters not as background. All the different species, described not just visually but with personality too. The gum trees are described as selfish, offering little shade, and unsympathetic. After reading that the first time, I saw eucalypts in a whole new way.
In the midlands of Tasmania, which you drive through to get to Hobart from the north where my parents' farm is, you can see a quite unique, oddly disturbing but very memorable scene: round, hilly, very yellow, dry farmland, bare but for the grey skeletons of eucalypts, their silvery arms reaching out like a scarecrow, completely leafless. As a child, this view disturbed me, and I still don't know if the Midlands has always been like that or if it is the resutl of excessive farming, as in so many other places. I suspect the latter. In it's own way, it is stunning, beautiful, the stark colours, the dead trees still standing like grave markers, their branches lined with large crows and magpies and kookaburras. The dusty yellow grass, like a dry carpet, cropped short by sheep.
The book is full of beautiful imagery, using words to tell multiple layers of a story, like bark on a tree. I was so surprised and disappointed to find that the people in the bookclub didn't like it and were confused, thinking that Australia was just desert. They had no idea there were trees, bush (forest) and even grass!
For me, I can smell Australia when I read this book - not just the country, but the suburbs of Sydney and other places. I am transported home by this book....more