The Pleasures of Reading: 2010
by Lucy Sussex
Books That Made Me Grin
(they surprised and delighted me!)
BABA YAGA LAID AN EGG
Ugrešić was forced to leave her native Croatia, branded as a ‘witch’. Her crime: to protest against nationalism. The result was this book, probably the best in Canongate’s Myths series, which includes Margaret Atwood and Philip Pullman. Here Ugrešić fictionalizes Baba Yaga, the Slavic witch. This powerful and frightening figure lives in a hut with hen’s feet, has iron teeth and a filthy temper. Ugrešić constructs her novel in three parts, all of them examining women’s ageing. She begins with a description of old women, at first invisible, then increasingly sinister. Then comes a poignant section concerning a woman with an increasingly demented mother. Next, three old ladies cause merry havoc at a health spa, which is followed by a semi-academic examination of the BabaYaga legend. All these threads come together in a magnificent conclusion. Ugrešić asks why are old women belittled and regarded as evil, when it is men who have the power for genuine evil in the world?
It is most enjoyable when novelists defy expectations. Fay Weldon might have a long career, but she breaks new ground here. This novel is a metafiction incorporating parts of Weldon’s own life, but also the fantastic. An unnamed writer sits in her Highgate cellar, shepherding her novel towards its ending. She has quite a task, with her characters part of an unusually dysfunctional matrilineage: a grandmother with a dark past, a devout mother, and assorted hetero- and homosexual lovers. To further complicate the mix the title refers to Maori spirits, whose task is to guard the family. They are bossy, but rather stupid, and Weldon imagines them as bats. But having found New Zealand’s national emblem, a kowhai tree, in London, the Kehua will acclimatize. So will the joyous wairua, the Maori ghosts of the unborn. The result is messy, exuberant fun.
(Consistently the best-performing genre, and that includes litfic)
Arnuldur Indridason, trans. Victoria Cribb
Indridason’s Icelandic police procedurals are cool, collected, and unique. Here a trait of the best detective fiction, the linking of the personal and the social, via theme, is displayed. Hypothermia is death by cold, and it affects most of the characters in this story. A woman commits suicide in a lonely holiday house. There are no suspicious circumstances, or are they? The dead woman’s friend thinks there are. She has a tape of a séance that intrigues Detective Erlendur. So he shrugs on his personal baggage once again, and investigates. Slowly the links emerge between a series of cold case disappearances, and a drowning, believed accidental. Could a student prank, a very nasty joke, be a factor in the case? A constant presence in the story is grief, either overpowering, or a intermittent unresolved itch. Erlendur as a child survived a snowstorm in which his brother disappeared; and his detection largely proceeds from the trauma. There are no easy answers here, just a quiet, dogged search all the more powerful for Indridason’s restraint.
Best Ghost Story
Publishers hate it when authors change genres: it supposedly confuses the readership. Usually they insist on a pseudonym. So it is possibly bad timing that soon after English children’s author Michelle Paver won a prestigious literary award, her first adult novel appeared. Dark Matter is published under her own name. It also has gay and horror elements. Most importantly, the book is superb. In the 1930s a British expedition sets off for the Arctic. Its members are young and Oxbridge, with the exception of working-class radio operator Jack. He is left alone on an island over winter, the endless polar night. Jack has his huskies for company; and as he slowly comes to realize, also an evil ghost. Paver writes in the M. R. James mode, in which the horror is all the worst for being suggested rather than splatter. Is Jack going mad from the Artic isolation, or is the ghost after him? Like James, Paver writes of homosocial males, but with greater awareness of social class, and their sexuality. The eerie polar setting is perfect for her, enabling great atmospherics behind the sense of impending doom. Here appear not graphic depictions of blood and guts, but something far more chilling and memorable.
FEVER: HOW MALARIA HAS RULED HUMANKIND FOR 500,000 YEARS
Good science writing is worth its weight in diamonds, and Shah's is no exception. She examines the disease malaria, an age-old problem. Despite Bill Gates’s money, there is no solution in sight. Malaria is a parasite with the ability to evolve as fast as the AIDS virus. Humans have evolved back, hence the genetic disease of sickle cell anaemia. It actually is protective, in cultures where the disease is endemic. In these societies malaria is regarded on a par with flu, or the cold. Indeed, malaria has helped keep foreigners and exploitation at bay. The real issue, Shah argues, is when white people encounter malaria. That is when the money is spent, as corporations fight to save their foreign experts. America and England actually eradicated malaria decades ago through improved living conditions. There is small chance this feat will occur elsewhere.
(how to get paranoid whilst shopping…)
SLOW DEATH BY RUBBER DUCK: HOW THE TOXIC CHEMISTRY OF EVERYDAY LIFE AFFECTS OUR HEALTH
Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie
University of Queensland Press
Pollution is as old as mankind congregating in cities and generating noxious waste. What is different now is that it is all-pervasive. The products of the chemical industry are worldwide. How much industrial poisons invade our bodies is something Canadian environmentalists Smith and Lourie decided to test. They deliberately exposed themselves to various common but toxic substances: a chemical Supersize Me. After reading this book you will want to eliminate most plastics, scented body products and Teflon from your home. Be afraid, be very afraid.
SHADES OF GREY
Hodder & Stoughton
Fforde is best known for the genial metafiction of the Thursday Next series. Shades of Grey differs by being dystopic, while maintaining Fforde’s essential Englishness. The reader is dumped in a future in which an Apocalypse has occurred, but nobody seems to know what it was. While a new society has emerged, it is rigidly enforced by a very British polite nastiness. Class rules, but based on the limits of colour perception. The characters might have names like Russett and Gamboge, but they are not allegories, being engaging, conniving persons. In this mix, the absurdist becomes credible, and humour shades into the sinister. Fforde also includes something rare in current writing: genuine rebellion. His young hero Edward might begin as a loyal servant of his society, but has a sharp lesson in how it really works. He finds everybody active in minor subversions of the system, with his basic self-interest moving from sheer survival to revolutionary activity. Great stuff.
THE PERFUME RIVER: WRITING FROM VIETNAM
Catherine Cole (ed.)
University of West Australia
Vietnamese literature has a very long history, but little known to the West. Writers find the place inspirational, not least in its keen appreciation of literature. Cole begins her selections with the war against America, and its aftermath. She opens with an extract from Bao Ninh’s bestseller The Sorrows of War. Nam Le follows with a story from The Boat, the most familiar name here. Subsequent authors are less- or unknown to most readers, but are equally as strong. Poetry and prose, occident or orient, all present a portrait of a vibrant nation and its peoples. Standout for me was Pham Thi Hoai’s short stories, where the real and surreal meet. But there is much for most tastes to enjoy here.
(And it went on to win a major award)
TEN HAIL MARYS
University of Queensland Press
The industry that surrounds infertility, the ruthless quest for a baby at all costs, is well known. As this memoir shows, it has existed for decades. Howarth was pregnant at 15, and sent by her grandmother to St Margaret’s Home for unwed mothers. It was essentially a Catholic sweatshop, its product babies. The young mothers were treated like sinners, and worked like slaves before they gave birth. Howarth withstood cruel pressure to relinquish her baby, but refused. Much of her account is given to why. Her background was Aboriginal, her family tending to battlers with a mean streak. She was used to harsh treatment, yet St Margaret’s nigh broke her. She fought the nuns, and took her baby home. Awaiting her was no bed of roses--life continued hard. Ten Hail Marys comprises a powerful memoir, without the self-pity of the ‘misery’ genre. It is a harrowing read.
Best Memoir (Bloke Division)
RAINBOW PIE: A REDNECK MEMOIR
Bageant has a unique angle—he was born Redneck, in rural America. Now he is a middle-class intellectual and an acerbic commentator. He became famous with Deer Hunting with Jesus, an analysis of US conservative poor whites. It was written with a Steinbeck’s compassion and observation. He saw his subjects not as jokes, but the victims of equally rabid capitalism and Evangelical religion. Rainbow Pie continues in this vein, a memoir of his family as typical of their time and class. His grandfather farmed, existing in a subsistence economy where debts were social rather than monetary. He was part of a community, not perfect, but living far better than their urban grandchildren. Capitalism drove the Bageants off their smallholdings and into the cities, to minimum wage jobs: ‘human assets for the big-money boys’. With the loss of land went their roots. They were doomed to a life of consuming, debt, and an anomie only soothed by churches who really worship Mammon. Small wonder the urban Rednecks seethe, fed by media tabloids a diet of paranoia against ‘liberals’ and socialism. Small wonder America is going to hell, says Bageant. A powerful book.
Best Feisty Female (C19th Division)
WILD ROMANCE: THE TRUE STORY OF A VICTORIAN SCANDAL
Theresa Longworth came from a middle-class family, and a yen for adventure took her nursing in the Crimean war. Her encounter with army aristocrat William Yelverton seemed the stuff of romance. The pair married secretly—twice. When Yelverton married another woman Theresa sued for restoration of conjugal rights. Was Yelverton a bigamist cad, or Theresa a schemer intent on becoming a Viscountess? The story became a media sensation. In separate court cases, Theresa’s first marriage was found invalid, the second upheld, only to be struck down in the House of Lords. At issue was class and Theresa’s Catholicism. Less blatant but important was that Theresa did not fit the prevailing Victorian ideal of the submissive female. She lost her case, but as Schama argues in this entertaining book, actually benefited from it. Yelverton was obliged to live out of English society, in exile. Theresa used her celebrity to become first novelist, then travel writer. Ultimately she led a far more interesting life than as an upper-class spouse.
THE WOMAN WHO FELL FROM THE SKY
An extraordinary story is told here: of an American newswoman who took the job of running an English-language paper in Yemen. Steil was a thoroughly modern woman, working in a country whose values were completely alien. Men wore white robes and carried daggers; women were shrouded in black and secluded. She found a great hunger for learning, especially among her female staff, but also no understanding of basic journalism. The only way to survive was to essentially become a member of a third sex, so strange was she to this traditional society. Steil found she loved Yemen and its people, even if the workplace was disrupted by addiction to qat, the local narcotic. It seduced her, and she ended up as the consort of the British ambassador, with a baby. The professional woman became the complete romantic. A fascinating read.
Hanrahan was an Australian printmaker and author of 12 novels. During her lifetime she got published, but not accorded stellar status. And yet she was ferociously talented and hard-working. Her achievement in two fields of art is extraordinary given her background. She began in the working-class, but escaped—via education, and a talent for art that could not be ignored. She went to London on a scholarship, and found a partner who became a devoted supporter. She could be self-obsessed, and her diaries are perhaps the bitchiest ever written in Australia. But, as this strong and detailed biography shows, she had incredible courage. Ultimately she enriched us all with her two bodies of work.
Best Feisty Female (Adventure Division)
THE TROIKA DOLLS
Miranda Darling has previously published a memoir of her model life; and has since commented on anti-terrorism. Now she ventures into the thriller world. The influence of Charles McCarry can be seen in her exotic locales, the suspense and exciting action sequences. Unlike McCarry, the cold war is past, and Darling depicts convincing female characters. Her heroine Stevie is multi-lingual, clever, and works as a risk assessor for an international security firm. Her employment can take her from ‘crusading’ Hollywood stars (very dumb) to the Russian mafia. But while a superwoman in many aspects, she is physically frail and emotionally vulnerable. She might be investigating the kidnap of a Russian banker’s daughter, but she is still nursing a broken heart. As with many thrillers, the momentum keeps the plot from close examination, but Darling can genuinely write.
Best Litfic (short)
READING MADAME BOVARY
Lohrey is one of Australia’s top novelists, with a range that includes the political and the ghostly. She is particularly acute with the small-scale, the domestic world. In Reading Madame Bovary she shows her strength at short-story length. The people depicted here are mostly middle-aged, economically secure, even cultured. They tend to define themselves by material possessions, with a resultant gnawing unease. In ‘Primates’ a woman juggles paid work, children, the household—the familiar stuff of most suburban lives. She copes, yet is aware joy has vanished from her life, until she sees it personified in a zoo monkey. In the title story, perhaps the most polished, a girl snaps out of selfishness by reading Flaubert’s classic. Just in time—for she is on a canal cruise with a boatload of underprivileged children, and her participation is needed. And so it goes. The most typical (and also adept) of these stories comprise slices of life in which a moment of epiphany occurs, usually when the protagonist is about to opt out. These are cool, clear, accomplished tales.
Best Litfic (novel)
Allen & Unwin)
Clarice Beckett (1887¬¬–1935) was an artist unappreciated in her time, but now commanding much posthumous price. This first novel is Thornell’s “imagining of her”. The life of art is hard to write, particularly when there are apparently no huge dramas. Beckett came from a middle-class family, studied art, never married. Much of her life was spent within the domestic realm, particularly when she cared for her elderly parents. In Thornell’s rendering she attracts male interest and is not immune to lovers. But her focus is on her art. Accompanied only by her wheeled painting trolley, Beckett seeks to depict her surroundings. She is less passionate than reflective and contemplative. Nothing much perhaps happens in the narrative, except a life devoted to painting—but that is enough. A book of much beauty.
Best Chicklit (the only genre that consistently looks at modern women’s lives and their problems)
The best-constructed novels are not always the literary ones. Consider Bittersweet. The fourth novel by La’Brooy, it can be loosely classed as chicklit. That term covers a wide area of writing, lightly or darkly covering the matter of modern women’s lives. Some are fluffy; others, like this novel, mix serious messages with the entertainment. Sabrina and Mimi are two sisters, very different, but sharing a complex family past. Sabrina is a soapie actress, Mimi a drifter. When Sabrina needs a gofer as well as a bridesmaid, she hires Mimi—and the sparks start flying. La’Brooy is best with sharp, witty dialogue, but she can be poignant as well. Neither sister is quite what they seem, but both are stubbornly determined to maintain appearances. La’Brooy sends up wedding conventions mercilessly, while still negotiating a happy ending. The sisters reconcile without going gooey. Intelligent fun.
Best Feisty Female (C18th Division)
THE PAPER GARDEN: MRS DELANY BEGINS HER LIFE’S WORK AT 72
What does a modern Canadian poet have in common with the C18th English minor aristocrat who invented collage? In this delightful book, plenty. Peacock encountered the flower art of Mary Delany (1700-88) and fell in love, firstly with the images, and increasingly with their creator them. Most attractive to Peacock is that Delany was a late bloomer. She came from a family with noble connections, but little money. When a drunken squire of 60 proposed to the pretty teenager, she had no choice but to accept. Widowed at 25, she would marry again, this time happily, to a cleric as interested as she in art and gardens. When widowed again she was devastated—until she created a new mode of flower art. As Peacock notes, she had been unintentionally training herself for this moment all her life. Despite her advancing years Delany created nearly 1000 collages. She also left volumes of sprightly letters, and was gifted at friendship. She knew Handel and Swift, and in old age, nearly blind, was ‘adopted’ by King George III and his family. Truly her life was rich, and so was her legacy.
Best True Crime
Lindsay Simpson and Jennifer Cooke
In 2003, on the Barrier Reef, an American couple’s honeymoon ended in a tragic diving accident. Or was it? Gabe Watson was a certified rescue diver, surely ideal to be his wife Tina’s ‘dive buddy’. Instead, she died minutes into her dive, abandoned and sinking to the ocean floor. In this book the authors maintain a narrative that could have foundered under the complexities of dive technology. How could Tina asphyxiate with a full air tank? A strength of the writing is its empathy—behind the legalities is a human story. The case ended in Australia with Gabe Watson pleading guilty to manslaughter. Back in the US, there is agitation for another trial, and the death penalty. Honeymoon Dive is a gripping, disturbing book about the dangers of the sea, and the worse dangers from our fellow humans.
(I met the author and she said it was the nicest review she’d ever had. I went all fangirl in response…)
IF YOU CAN’T STAND THE HEAT
Judy Horacek is one of Australia’s best cartoonists, and should be a worldwide phenomenon. She brightens the day, with wit and intelligence. This latest collection includes some old preoccupations, and new pretensions to merrily deflate. A typical Horacek heroine (spiky hair, colourful sack dress) is handed high heels and a corset. The instruction is ‘Backlash is the new black’, and the reply is ‘Seriously?’ Elsewhere the nuclear industry gets a good kicking, and an ice canary melts in its cage. Indeed the cartoons here on the subject of climate change and its deniers are among her sharpest and saddest. Elsewhere pure whimsy reigns. Mermaids count sheep in snorkels and pajamas throw hissy fits. The twisted takes on Christmas should gladden anyone who has ever cried: ‘Humbug!’
Most Inspiring Read
HALF THE SKY: HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD
Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
The title refers to a Chinese proverb: women hold up half the sky. Yet, as this book notes, they are not accordingly valued. In many countries, women are routinely mutilated, enslaved and treated like second-class citizens. Indeed the authors claim that more women have been killed for their gender in the last fifty years than the total of men in twentieth-century wars. They also believe that gender equality will be the chief moral challenge of our times. Thus they issue a call for positive action here, focusing on areas such as education, contraception, maternal mortality. The book alternates the grim—honour killing—with positive stories. The situation of women in much of the world may be dire, yet many are working for positive change. Repeatedly the authors emphasize that to impose Western values, from the top down, does not work. Rather the successes come from consultation, and empowering the women concerned. There are some surprises here: Third World sweatshops actually improve the lot of women, and give them more income. Or cable television soaps have provided positive role models in India. The book ends with four positive steps to take in ten minutes. Inspiring.
Best Science Fiction
THE DERVISH HOUSE
McDonald is distinctive in reflecting changing political paradigms, writing not of the old colonial powers, but 21st-century India, or Brazil. The Dervish House considers near future Istanbul. The focus is on the human, the experiences of a motley group of neighbours. A terrorist attack opens proceedings, and from that moment the pace is relentless. Political terror is not new here; the real danger comes from a nasty marriage of theocracy and technology, where belief is induced rather than enforced. The novel looks back at Turkey’s complex past, and also its future. It encompasses the biggest and most important ideas: economics, nanoscience, and the adaptation to a new climate. There are imaginative coups, as when a stockmarket coup is conducted in the virtual world. The dominant feature is zest, with an intense sense of place: Istanbul is depicted so strongly as to function as a character itself. An outstanding novel by any criteria.
Lucy Sussex was born in New Zealand in 1957. She has degrees in English and Librarianship from Monash University, and is a freelance researcher, editor and writer. She has published widely, writing anything from literary criticism to horror and detective stories. In addition she is a literary archaeologist, rediscovering and republishing the nineteenth-century Australian crime writers Mary Fortune and Ellen Davitt. Her short story, `My Lady Tongue' won a Ditmar (Australian Science Fiction Achievement Award) in 1988. In 1994 she was a judge for the international Tiptree award, which honours speculative fiction exploring notions of gender. Her first adult novel, The Scarlet Rider, is about biography, Victorian detective fiction, voodoo and a ghost. Aqueduct Press published her collection, Absolute Uncertainty, in 2006.