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BOOK REVIEW: Enemy: A Daughter’s Story by Ruth Clare

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

THE BLURB (from GoodReads):

'I was born into the war still raging inside my father.'


Ruth Clare's father came back from the war a changed man: a violent and controlling parent and a dominating, aggressive husband. Through a childhood of being constantly on guard, with no one to protect her but herself, Ruth learned to be strong and fierce in the face of fear.

After escaping her difficult upbringing, Ruth went on to have children of her own. The challenges of parenting left her desperate for reassurance that she would not repeat her father's behavior. She met with other veterans and began learning about the effects of conscription, military training and post-traumatic stress disorder. The stories Ruth uncovered left her with surprising empathy for the man who caused her so much pain, and renewed her determination to stop the legacy of war passing down to the next generation. 

Weaving a striking personal narrative with a revelatory exploration about the effects of war, Enemy is a bold, compelling and ultimately triumphant memoir from a hugely impressive new Australian writer.


MY THOUGHTS:


I met Ruth Clare at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival, and was so intrigued by her story I bought her book – a memoir of growing up with a brutal and domineering father who had been damaged by his experiences in the Vietnam war. 


I’ve always been interested in the way violence done to one generation can warp and cripple the generations to follow, and the difficulties in breaking the cycles of harm. Ruth Clare’s memoir is a searing indictment of the shadow cast by the Vietnam war, and a timely reminder of the imperative to learn from the mistakes of the past.


The most poignant aspect of the novel, for me, was the way Ruth Clare’s mother was broken by her husband’s violence … and the fact that Ruth herself was able to survive and heal, and build a new life for herself. 


A powerful and heart-rending memoir, told with grace and empathy.

BOOK REVIEW: Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place by Philip Marsden

Friday, January 06, 2017




Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place – Philip Marsden


THE BLURB (from GoodReads):


Why do we react so strongly to certain places? Why do layers of mythology build up around particular features in the landscape? 


When Philip Marsden moved to a remote creekside farmhouse in Cornwall, the intensity of his response took him aback. It led him to begin exploring these questions, prompting a journey westwards to Land's End through one of the most fascinating regions of Europe.From the Neolithic ritual landscape of Bodmin Moor to the Arthurian traditions of Tintagel, from the mysterious china-clay country to the granite tors and tombs of the far south-west, Marsden assembles a chronology of our shifting attitudes to place. 


In archives, he uncovers the life and work of other 'topophiles' before him - medieval chroniclers and Tudor topographers, eighteenth-century eighteenth-century antiquarians, post-industrial poets and abstract painters. Drawing also on his own travels overseas, Marsden reveals that the shape of the land lies not just at the heart of our history but of man's perennial struggle to belong on this earth.




MY THOUGHTS:
I love books which take a place or a time or a person or a natural phenomenon, and then uses that as a springboard into a wide-ranging meditation on art, history, science, poetry, or any manner of things. And I have always wanted to go to Cornwall.


So I was interested in Rising Ground as soon as I heard about it. 


Philp Marsden has a degree in anthropology and has written a number of books about his travels in Ethiopia and Russia, as well as numerous essays for The Spectator. He was, however, raised in Cornwall and recently bought a farmhouse on a creek there with his wife and children. The book is not a memoir of the renovation of this old house, though some of his personal experiences are woven into the narrative. It is more about ‘topophilia’, a lovely word which means ‘love of place’, and examines some of the little-known but interesting people of the past who have loved Cornwall and studied it and written and painted about it. 


It’s the sort of book that you can pick up and enjoy, then put down and not pick up again for a few weeks, as each chapter is an essay on a particular aspect of Cornwall. I was particularly interested in the chapters on the standing stones and barrows and graves and other ancient monuments, and on the blind-and-deaf Cornish poet Jack Clemo, who I had never heard of before. 


A really interesting read. 

BOOK REVIEW: A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Son’s Search for his Mother – Jeremy Gavron

Thursday, January 05, 2017


THE BLURB (from GoodReads):


It's 1965, and in Primrose Hill, north London, a beautiful young woman has just gassed herself to death, leaving behind a suicide note, two small children, and an about-to-be-published manuscript: The Captive Wife.

Like Sylvia Plath, who died in eerily similar circumstances two years earlier just two streets away, Hannah Gavron was a writer. But no-one had ever imagined that she might take her own life. Bright, sophisticated, and swept up in the progressive politics of the 1960s, Hannah was a promising academic and the wife of a rising entrepreneur. Surrounded by success, she seemed to live a gilded life.

But there was another side to Hannah, as Jeremy Gavron's searching memoir of his mother reveals. Piecing together t
he events that led to his mother's suicide when he was just four, he discovers that Hannah's success came at a price, , and that the pressures she faced as she carved out her place in a man's world may have contributed to her death. Searching for the mother who was never talked about as he grew up, he discovers letters, diaries, and photos that paint a picture of a brilliant but complex young woman grappling to find an outlet for her creativity, sexuality, and intelligence.



A Woman on the Edge of Time not only documents the too-short life of an extraordinary woman; it is a searching
examination of the suffocating constrictions in place on intelligent, ambitious women in the middle of the twentieth century.



MY THOUGHTS:


In 1965, in Primrose Hill, London, a beautiful and passionate young woman gasses herself to death, leaving behind two small children and an about-to-be-published manuscript of her life’s work …


The woman is Hannah Gavron, and her death is eerily similar to that of Sylvia Plath who killed herself two years earlier and only two streets away. 


Jeremy Gavron, Hannah’s son, was only four when she died and has no memory of her. She was always an aching presence in his life, however, as absences so often are. He wondered about her, but could never talk about it to his father or his brother. When his brother died, however, Jeremy Gavron was so overwhelmed with pain he realised that he was also grieving for his mother. A few months later, Sylvia Plath’s son Nicholas Hughes committed suicide. The similarities between his own life and that of Nicholas Hughes chilled him, and he set out to try and solve the mystery of his mother’s death. 


A Woman on the Edge of Time is therefore a memoir of a woman the author could not remember, an autobiography which reveals little about the author’s life, a true-life detective story about a death in which the murderer was always known. It is also an utterly brilliant book about a woman who could not break out of the cage of her time.


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT: I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK

BOOK REVIEW: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Thursday, March 31, 2016




THE BLURB (from GoodReads)


A New York Times bestseller

Winner of the Costa Book Award and the Samuel Johnson Prize

When Helen Macdonald's father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer—Helen had been captivated by hawks since childhood—she'd never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk. But in her grief, she saw that the goshawk's fierce and feral temperament mirrored her own. Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of The Once and Future King author T.H. White's chronicle The Goshawk to begin her challenging endeavor. Projecting herself "in the hawk's wild mind to tame her" tested the limits of Macdonald's humanity and changed her life.

Heart-wrenching and humorous, this book is an unflinching account of bereavement and a unique look at the magnetism of an extraordinary beast, with a parallel examination of a legendary writer's eccentric falconry. Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator.


MY THOUGHTS:

A wonderful meditation on grief, nature and hawks.

The author, Helen Macdonald is a naturalist and research scholar at the University of Cambridge. Hawks have fascinated her ever since she was a small child. When her father dies unexpectedly, she decides to train a goshawk, something she has never done before.

Goshawks are one of the biggest of the hawks, and have a notoriously savage temper. They are difficult to train. Helen Macdonald entwines the story of her own challenging journey with that of the author T.H. White, who wrote about his own struggles in a book called Goshawk, published in 1951. T.H. White is better known for his classic children’s fantasy The Sword in the Stone, which has a remarkable scene in it in which the Wart (the boy who became King Arthur) is turned into a hawk.

The result is utterly fascinating. I learned so much about hawks and falconry, and also about the life of T.H. White, which I did not know about before. The language is cool, precise, and beautiful: “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.” 

BOOK REVIEW: WASTED: A Memoir of Anorexia & Bulimia by Marya Hornbacher

Friday, February 05, 2016


THE BLURB:
Why would a talented young woman enter into a torrid affair with hunger, drugs, sex, and death? 

Through five lengthy hospital stays, endless therapy, and the loss of family, friends, jobs, and all sense of what it means to be "normal," Marya Hornbacher lovingly embraced her anorexia and bulimia -- until a particularly horrifying bout with the disease in college put the romance of wasting away to rest forever. 

A vivid, honest, and emotionally wrenching memoir, Wasted is the story of one woman's travels to reality's darker side -- and her decision to find her way back on her own terms. 

WHAT I THOUGHT OF THIS BOOK:

First published in 1998, WASTED has recently been reissued with a new Afterword by the author Marya Hornbacher. 

Her eating disorder began at the age of eight and dominated her life from that point onwards, leading her to ever more destructive behaviours until it almost claimed her life. 

She was hospitalised and institutionalised, got better and relapsed, fought new battles, and relapsed again, and slowly and painfully inched her way back to health. 

This is not an easy read – it is raw, brutal, honest, and frightening – but also brilliant, poetic, illuminating and very brave. 


WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THIS VERY THOUGHT PROVOKING MEMOIR?


INTERVIEW: Miranda Richmond Mouillot, author of A Fifty Year's Silence

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Interview with Miranda Richmond Mouillot (first published in Good Reading magazine)



In 1936, two young Jewish students met in a café in Strasbourg. 

In 1940, when the Nazis invaded France, the young man Armand walked three hundred kilometres to find Anna, the beautiful young Romanian he had met that day, who was hiding out in the French Pyrenees. Two years later, they managed to escape France by climbing the Alps in a snowstorm. In Switzerland, as war refugees, they were married.

In 1945, Anna gave birth to a beautiful little girl and Armand worked as a translator at the Nuremberg Trials, giving voice for the first time to the full horrors of the Nazi regime. 

In 1948, the couple bought a tumbledown stone house in a tiny village in the south of France.

In 1953, Anna fled their home with her two children and just a few souvenirs of their life together. She and Armand never spoke again. 

In 2015, Miranda Richmond Mouillot - Armand’s and Anna’s only granddaughter  - published an extraordinary memoir entitled A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War & A Ruined House in France. Although it tells the story of Armand and Anna’s tumultuous love affair and its tragic end, Miranda’s book is as much a meditation on memory, storytelling, and the dark shadow that the Holocaust continues to cast over the descendants of those who survived. It is also the story of how the author fell in love with France, and with the Frenchman who would become her husband. 





Questions: 
Miranda, you wrote in your Author’s Note that you “sought to maintain the vertiginous sense of poetry that their silence provoked in my life.” Could you please expand on this idea? 

Fairy tales and poems are a powerful part of the human experience because they are like little symbolic capsules for carrying big ideas and emotions. They help us to remember and pass on what would otherwise be too vast and complex for us handle. We connect to those little capsules long before we understand them fully because we sense all the meaning packed into them. And I sensed before I could give words to it that grandparents’ silence was like that, a capsule tightly packed with a lifetime of experiences, of love and loss and hope and heartbreak. It was so palpable – and they themselves were such extraordinary people – that it made me alive to that symbolic potential in all things. And when you walk around sensing that symbolic potential in all things, it’s a bit dizzying: you are keenly aware that everything around you contains an infinity of stories. In A Fifty-Year Silence I sought to make the reader aware of that world of infinite memory, not only in my own family, but everywhere.  




Why do you think your grandparents’ tragic love story took such a hold of your imagination? 

For two reasons: first, I think that it was imprinted in me. There’s research showing that the methyl group that gets attached to your genes in certain traumatic situations causes epigenetic changes that are actually passed on from one generation to the next. I literally felt it in my bones. Second, to say my grandparents fascinated me would be an understatement: there was simply no one like them on earth. And they were so beautiful, both as I knew them and in the few pictures we had from when they were young. They were larger than life, more brilliant, difficult, and original than anyone I knew. I wanted to follow them into their originality and find out more. 


Your grandmother had a knack for finding four –leaf clovers, told fortunes with playing cards, and ‘viewed death as an interesting dance step she’d eventually get around to learning.’ She sounds so wonderful! Can you tell me more about her? 

She was wonderful! A brilliant psychiatrist, a staggeringly well-read woman, equally at home in Samarkand and at the supermarket and would strike up a conversation with anyone she met, anywhere she went. She made every part of life into an adventure, loved postmodernist literature, and made catastrophically bad cakes from whatever she had lying around in the refrigerator – squishy kiwis, grated carrots, old raspberry jam. And she was generous – she wasn’t a wealthy woman, but she supported her artist friends, gave to charity, and kept up with old patients long after they’d left treatment. 


Your grandfather cooked elaborate feasts, sent you poetry to read, and had a library of books on the Holocaust. He sounds like such an intelligent and deep-thinking man. Can you please tell us more? 

My grandfather’s experiences during the Second World War, and then as an interpreter at the Nuremberg Trial just after, left his confidence in humanity shaken to the core. I don’t think he ever fully trusted another human being again. But he wanted to – he wanted to desperately. And that desperate want drove him on a lifelong intellectual quest for the best and most hopeful of parts of human existence, which he located in two places: in the human capacity to create beauty, and in the human potential for kindness to others. That intersected for him in literature, so he read all the time. (After he retired, when he wasn’t reading, he was volunteering for Amnesty International, seeking justice for writers.) No matter how difficult and tyrannical he was – and he was, he sent back my letters with corrections written on them, wouldn’t let me wear my hair down in his company, and nearly cut off our relationship because I disagreed with him on the Shakespeare authorship question – he threw me the lifeline of literature. 


As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, you describe your childhood as being ‘bafflingly full of terror.’ You kept your shoes by the front door so you could grab them if you had to flee in the night, and always looked out for possible places to hide. I find this evidence of the long shadow cast by the Holocaust deeply moving. Can you tell us some of the stories that engendered this terror in you? 

A lot of those stories are in the book, so I won’t give them away, but I believe the thread connecting them is uprootedness, the possibility of being taken away from your life at any moment, or having to leave it. Of everything you’ve created and grown accustomed to shattered in an instant. One thing that stands out to me is footsteps in the night. My grandparents were nearly arrested many times, but the first time, as far as I can tell, they were lying in the dark morning in the south of France and heard boots on the stairs. There was a pounding at the door, and two French milice officers demanded they rise – to go interpret for them as they arrested my grandparents’ upstairs neighbours, who had grown to be very dear friends. My grandparents had to stand and not only watch, but enunciate the brutal arrest of two people they had grown to love, and were only saved from the same fate by one of the officers, for whom my grandmother had (through a chance encounter) knitted a pair of wool gloves. 


Tell us about the first time you saw your grandparents’ house in the south of France.

I was fifteen, and in boarding school in Geneva, and my grandfather drove me down there one Sunday, with absolutely no explanation as to where we were going or why. The house is in a little medieval hamlet, a tiny fortified village with just two streets. A lazy, half-dry river runs by it and it is dominated by a gigantic rock, some six stories high, with the ruins of a fort on its flat top. When my grandfather propelled me down one of the hamlet’s two narrow streets and showed me the house, it was as if he’d thrown a brick into the still, unruffled pond of my teenage imagination: in an instant, I knew I had to live there. 


You had trouble establishing the truth of your grandparents’ love affair and subsequent marriage. Even the date of their wedding was hard to pin down. Explain some of the challenges you had to overcome in your search for your grandparents’ story.

The main challenge was them! No matter how many times I interviewed them, and how many questions I asked, it was as if they’d lived through the war in parallel, matching universes. They would tell stories about the same times, and the same places, with absolutely no mention of one another. And when I did get them talking about the other, it was like finally grabbing the bar of soap you’ve lost in the bathtub: they’d slip irretrievably off onto another subject before I knew it. Talking to them was also challenging because I loved them so dearly, and knew what suffering they were carrying in them, and how hard it was to for them to talk about. 


You moved to the south of France to life in your grandparents’ long abandoned house. Can you explain some of the emotions behind that choice, and some of the consequences?

I moved there chasing an ideal, in many ways: like many young people starting out to study history, I believed there was a single truth to uncover, and that the house would lead me to it. I also, as many children of refugees and immigrants do, grew up with a sense that I had no real home, and I was chasing the dream of finally finding my home, which I thought was a physical place. Moving there showed me how much more complex life really is – not only was there no clear-cut connection between the house and my grandparents’ love affair (though the complex connection I discovered in its place is just as strong), there was no way I could make this house my home! It wasn’t mine, for one thing, and for another it was nearly uninhabitable. Half its windows had been shattered, one of the doors had rotted nearly away, it was freezing cold and infested with spiders and scorpions. But I moved in anyway (I had no real choice) and learned more about my grandparents’ experiences with hardship than I ever would have in a cushier place. And of course the best consequence of all was meeting my husband – who is my true home. 


One aspect of the book which I found utterly heart-wrenching was the scenes in which you explore your grandfather’s work as a translator at the famous Nazi trials at Nuremberg. On one occasion, he broke down while translating Hermann Göring, Hitler’s second-in-command. What kind of scars did this experience leave on your grandfather?

Interpreting is usually thought of as highly intellectual work; certainly it requires a great deal of knowledge and quick thinking. But it is also intensely physical: the voices of the people you are interpreting enter your body through your ears, they vibrate into you, travel through your brain, and then you perform the work of transforming it into another language, and vibrate it back out into the world with your vocal cords. My grandfather once said to a journalist that he felt as if he had been a black box into which all the Trial disappeared, which he carried with him without being able to see inside it – and which I know tortured him and weighed on his soul for the rest of his life. 




What happened to your grandparents’ ruined stone house in the south of France?

It’s still there, still in the family, and I still hope to one day fix it up and live there. But who knows what life will bring? 

REVIEW: PICNIC IN PROVENCE by Elizabeth Bard

Monday, December 14, 2015





THE BLURB

The bestselling author of Lunch in Paris takes us on another delicious journey, this time to the heart of Provence. 


Ten years ago, New Yorker Elizabeth Bard followed a handsome Frenchman up a spiral staircase to a love nest in the heart of Paris. Now, with a baby on the way and the world's flakiest croissant around the corner, Elizabeth is sure she's found her "forever place." But life has other plans. 


On a last romantic jaunt before the baby arrives, the couple take a trip to the tiny Provencal village of Céreste. A chance encounter leads them to the wartime home of a famous poet, a tale of a buried manuscript and a garden full of heirloom roses. Under the spell of the house and its unique history, in less time than it takes to flip a crepe, Elizabeth and Gwendal decide to move-lock, stock and Le Creuset-to the French countryside.


When the couple and their newborn son arrive in Provence, they discover a land of blue skies, lavender fields and peaches that taste like sunshine. Seduced by the local ingredients, they begin a new adventure as culinary entrepreneurs, starting their own artisanal ice cream shop and experimenting with flavors like saffron, sheep's milk yogurt and fruity olive oil. 


Filled with enticing recipes for stuffed zucchini flowers, fig tart and honey & thyme ice cream, Picnic in Provence is the story of everything that happens after the happily ever after: an American learning the tricks of French motherhood, a family finding a new professional passion, and a cook's initiation into classic Provencal cuisine. With wit, humor and scoop of wild strawberry sorbet, Bard reminds us that life-in and out of the kitchen-is a rendez-vous with the unexpected.





WHAT I THOUGHT:

Picnic In Provence is a memoir of a Jewish American princess who marries a Frenchman, and moves to Provence to make honey & thyme ice-cream, among other wonderful dishes. Charming , romantic and poignant, this book is full of delicious-sounding recipes and lots of wry observations on the cultural differences between the two countries (fast food, wearing sweatpants in public, and the like). It made me want to move to Provence and cook stuffed zucchini flowers and fig tarts drizzled with lavender honey, always the sign of a good food memoir. I’ve since cooked quite a few of the recipes – délicieux!

Alors , qu'avez-vous pensé ?




REVIEW: Holloway by Robert McFarlane

Friday, November 06, 2015

Holloway
by Robert Macfarlane, Dan Richards, Stanley Donwood (Illustrations)


The Blurb:
Holloway - a hollow way, a sunken path. A route that centuries of foot-fall, hoof-hit, wheel-roll and rain-run have harrowed deep down into bedrock.

In July 2005, Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin travelled to explore the holloways of South Dorset's sandstone. They found their way into a landscape of shadows, spectres & great strangeness.

Six years later, after Deakin's early death, Macfarlane returned to the holloway with the artist Stanley Donwood and writer Dan Richards. The book is about those journeys and that landscape.




My Thoughts:


It is difficult to know how to describe this exquisite little book. It is only 33 pages long, and some of those pages are filled with delicate black-and-white drawings of trees. It’s a memoir of a camping trip inspired by a book I’ve never heard of, it’s a extended poem about the sunken holloways of Dorset – those deep, mysterious tunnels between tree-roots that were once roads, goat-tracks, and field-paths – and it's a celebration of nature, friendship, and language. I’ve read it three times now, and find new delights each time. It was so beautiful, so marvellous, I have gone and bought several more of Robert Macfarlane’s books since, hoping for more enchantment.


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT, I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK


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