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BOOK REVIEW: The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

The Orchid Thief is Susan Orlean’s tale of an amazing obsession. Determined to clone an endangered flower—the rare ghost orchid Polyrrhiza lindenii—a deeply eccentric and oddly attractive man named John Laroche leads Orlean on an unforgettable tour of America’s strange flower-selling subculture, through Florida’s swamps and beyond, along with the Seminoles who help him and the forces of justice who fight him. In the end, Orlean—and the reader—will have more respect for underdog determination and a powerful new definition of passion.


My Thoughts:


I remember when The Orchid Thief came out in 1998, it caused a real buzz. It was a New York Times bestseller, a Barnes and Noble Discover book, a Borders New Voices selection, and an honoree in the American Library Association book-of-the-year selection. It also eventually inspired a movie called Adaption, starring Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean, which must have been a weird and wonderful feeling for the author. It is also credited with beginning – or at least propelling into wide popularity – the genre of narrative non-fiction, in which memoir, biography, travel writing and/or literary journalism is spun together into an engaging and fascinating read.

I love narrative non-fiction, particularly when it has to do with nature, but it is only now that I managed to move The Orchid Thief to the top of my reading pile, perhaps because I am writing a novel about an obsession with Chinese roses.

The Orchid Thief
is the story of a man named John Laroche who is determined to clone an endangered flower - the rare ghost orchid Polyrrhiza lindenii – but is caught stealing one from a swamp in South Florida, along with three Seminole Indians who claim they are the rightful owners because the swamp once belonged to their tribe. John Laroche is highly intelligent and unsettlingly odd. He leads Susan Orlean into a two-year exploration of the world of orchid enthusiasts, and the result is a series of inter-connected essays all focused on some aspect of this delicate and difficult flower.

Susan Orlean’s style is warm, intimate, and humorous. She goes to great lengths to get her stories, trekking deep into the swamps, visiting orchid fairs, and meeting a wide range of funny, eccentric or half-mad characters. Sometimes the essays digress far away from John Laroche and his orchid mania, but they are always interesting and insightful. One of my favourite quotes from the book reads: ‘The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it. There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go. I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility.’

I too believe it is important to care passionately about something. As the sub-title says, this book is as much about beauty and obsession as it is about the orchid thief, and that makes it a fascinating glimpse into human desire.

For another great book about flowers, you might be interested in the novel The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland.

BOOK REVIEW: Teacher by Gabbie Stroud

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

In 2014, Gabrielle Stroud was a very dedicated teacher with over a decade of experience. Months later, she resigned in frustration and despair when she realised that the Naplan-test education model was stopping her from doing the very thing she was best at: teaching individual children according to their needs and talents. Her ground-breaking essay 'Teaching Australia' in the Feb 2016 Griffith Review outlined her experiences and provoked a huge response from former and current teachers around the world. That essay lifted the lid on a scandal that is yet to properly break - that our education system is unfair to our children and destroying their teachers.

In a powerful memoir inspired by her original essay, Gabrielle tells the full story: how she came to teaching, what makes a great teacher, what our kids need from their teachers, and what it was that finally broke her. A brilliant and heart-breaking memoir that cuts to the heart of a vital matter of national importance.


My Thoughts:


I first met Gabbie Stroud when we were on tour together with the Byron Writers Festival. She had written a personal essay for Griffith Review about her decision to quit teaching, which had always been her life vocation. Her essay stirred up a lot of controversy, as more and more teachers began to criticise Australia’s education system. Allen & Unwin asked her if she’d be interested in extending her essay into a book-length memoir, and Teacher is the poignant and powerful result.

All Gabbie Stroud ever wanted to do was teach our children, and inspire them with her own big-hearted warmth, generosity and love of learning.

Instead she found herself broken by a system that cares more for data and demographies than young minds and spirits.

Interweaving her own personal journey towards being a teacher with anecdotes from the classroom, Teacher illuminates the enormous difficulties our teachers face today. Sometimes their students are hungry, bruised, or afraid. Sometimes they are sick, angry, or struggling. Their teacher needs to keep them and their classmates safe and calm, while still trying to instil learning. Teachers are burdened by administrative tasks, curriculum demands, difficult parents, and large numbers of students. They end up exhausted, overwhelmed, and stressed, and often completely burned-out.

Gabbie Stroud shines a penetrating light on all that is wrong with the Australian education system and how it fails both our children and our teachers. Impossible to read without choking up, this is an eloquent rallying cry for change and should be mandatory reading for all politicians and policy-makers. Luminous and heart-rending.

I was lucky enough to interview Gabbie Stroud for the blog this week, you can read it here.


Please leave a comment!


BOOK REVIEW: The Shepherd's Life by James Rebanks

Monday, April 30, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Some people's lives are entirely their own creations. James Rebanks' isn't. The first son of a shepherd, who was the first son of a shepherd himself, he and his family have lived and worked in and around the Lake District for generations. Their way of life is ordered by the seasons and the work they demand, and has been for hundreds of years. A Viking would understand the work they do: sending the sheep to the fells in the summer and making the hay; the autumn fairs where the flocks are replenished; the gruelling toil of winter when the sheep must be kept alive, and the light-headedness that comes with spring, as the lambs are born and the sheep get ready to return to the fells.


My Thoughts:

James Rebanks’s family have been shepherds in the Lake District for many generations. Growing up on the land, learning his craft at his grandfather’s knee, James has never wanted any other life. His long-ago ancestors would recognise the pattern of his days and seasons, even if they would not understand his Land-Rover or his Twitter feed, for the work of the shepherds on the fells and lake valleys has not changed in centuries. Lambs are born, crows circle, the hay must be harvested, the long snows endured.

A memoir of place as much as of a life, James Rebanks writes with great simplicity and warmth. He is a reader and lover of words as well as a shepherd, and that familiarity with the English language gives his prose a wonderful lilt and rhythm.

Like many people I have always been enchanted by the Lake District because of the great poets and writers that were inspired there – William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome. I made a pilgrimage there a few years ago, and wandered the green hills and tramped through the trees, imagining daffodils dancing and bunny rabbits frisking. I wish I had read this book before I went, as I now have a much deeper and more profound understanding of the landscape – its history, its way of life, and the people who life and work there.

You might also be interested to read my review of A Gift From Brittany: A Memoir of Love and Loss in the French Countryside by Marjorie Price, which I loved.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

BOOK REVIEW: Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

Wednesday, November 15, 2017






The Blurb (From Goodreads):

A charming story of Mozart and his pet starling, along with a natural history of the bird.

On May 27th, 1784, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart met a flirtatious little starling who sang (an improved version of!) the theme from his Piano Concerto Number 17 in G to him. Knowing a kindred spirit when he met one, Mozart wrote "That was wonderful" in his journal and took the bird home to be his pet. For three years Mozart and his family enjoyed the uniquely delightful company of the starling until one fitful April when the bird passed away.

In 2013, Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author of Crow Planet, rescued her own starling, Carmen, who has become a part of her family. In Mozart's Starling, Haupt explores the unlikely bond between one of history's most controversial characters and one of history's most notoriously disliked birds. Part natural history, part story, Mozart's Starling will delight readers as they learn about language, music, and the secret world of starlings.


My Thoughts: 

I picked up this lovely little hardback at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, which claims to be the biggest bookstore in the world. It certainly seemed so to me! I wandered in it for hours and bought far too many books.

Lyanda Lynn Haupt is a naturalist and author with several books about birds under her belt. Mozart’s Starling – her fifth – was inspired by a beguiling anecdote about the 18th century composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The story goes that, in 1784, Mozart encountered a playful little starling in a Viennese shop who sang the theme from his Piano Concerto no. 17 in G major. Charmed, he brought the bird home to be his pet. For the next few years, the starling lived with the Mozart family, inspiring and amusing the famous composer.

Apparently, nowadays, starlings are seen as a nuisance. They gather in great squawking flocks, decimate crops, and fight other birds for food and nesting sites. I didn’t know this when I bought the book. All I knew is that starlings sometimes fly together in vast swirling clouds of motion that have been given the glorious name, a ‘murmuration’. I have always wanted to see a murmuration of starlings (I’ve watched a few on Youtube and they are just astonishing), and I love Mozart’s music, and so I bought the book to discover more.

A combination of natural history, biography and memoir (one of my favourite genres to read), Mozart’s Starling not only examines the story of Mozart and his pet bird, but also Lyandra Lynn Haupt’s own experiment with raising a baby starling. Cheeky, charming and clever, Carmen sings and whistles her way into Lyandra’s heart, and, I must say, into mine. 


If you enjoy reading about nature, you might also be interested in my review of Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane. 


Please leave a comment and let me know your thoughts. 

BOOK REVIEW: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Wednesday, August 30, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also so much more.

Lab Girl is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands”; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work.

Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with a brilliant, wounded man named Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them from the Midwest across the United States and back again, over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home.

My Thoughts:

A memoir about life as a female boffin, melded with fascinating facts about trees and botany, this is an unusual but very readable book. Both funny and poignant, the book charts Hope Jahren’s journey through the cut-throat world of scientists, and her joy in the secret world of trees. She charts her friendships and love affairs, her battle with bi-polar disorder, her muddles and mistakes, and her profound insights into the natural world. Her writing is at times lyrical, and her enthusiasm for botany is infectious. A clever, quirky, and informative book about why we should love and protect the world’s trees.

You might interested in my review of another non-fiction, beautiful book, The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane.

Please remember to leave a comment - I'm interested in your thoughts!

BOOK REVIEW: Ghost Empire by Richard Fidler

Sunday, June 04, 2017

BLURB:

In 2014, Richard Fidler and his son Joe made a journey to Istanbul. Fired by Richard's passion for the rich history of the dazzling Byzantine Empire - centred around the legendary Constantinople - we are swept into some of the most extraordinary tales in history. The clash of civilizations, the fall of empires, the rise of Christianity, revenge, lust, murder. Turbulent stories from the past are brought vividly to life at the same time as a father navigates the unfolding changes in his relationship with his son.

GHOST EMPIRE is a revelation: a beautifully written ode to a lost civilization, and a warmly observed father-son adventure far from home.

MY THOUGHTS:

I love listening to Richard Fidler on the radio. He is always so warm and funny and curious about people, and he has a knack for drawing out the personal and the unique in every story. I have also been increasingly interested in Constantinople (now known as Istanbul), having read several novels set there in recent years. After hearing Richard speak about his book at the Brisbane Writers Festival last year, I bought a copy and finally read it last month. Normally I read non-fiction slowly over a few weeks, reading several novels in between chapters. But Ghost Empire was so engaging and readable, I whizzed through it in just a few nights.

The book combines the personal memoir of a journey Richard and his son Joe made to Istanbul in 2014, with stories from the city’s long and bloody history. Constantinople was built on the foundations of Byzantium in the early 4th century and became the new capital of the Roman empire in 330 AD. From the mid-5th to the mid-13th century, it was the largest, richest and most powerful city in the world, and the guardian of the most sacred relics of Christianity, the Crown of Thorns and the True Cross. 

For almost a thousand years the city was the centre of extraordinary true tales of greed, murder, violence and betrayals, and Richard entwines these stories with anecdotes from his own life and his life-changing journey with his son. The result is utterly fascinating. 

BOOK REVIEW: The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

Friday, May 12, 2017


Robert Macfarlane was one of my great discoveries in the past couple of years (meaning that I discovered his books, not him!) I’ve been slowly reading my way through his oeuvre and have loved everything he has written so far.

The Wild Places was his second book, and established his style – beautiful, poetic writing that twines together landscape, nature, history, literature, and his own personal journey. Robert sets out to see if there are any genuinely wild places left in Britain, and then writes about what he discovers. One of the chapters – ‘Holloway’ – I had read before as it was expanded and published as an exquisite illustrated book about the lost greenways of Dorset. The other chapters have equally evocative names – ‘Beechwood’, ‘Moor’, ‘Summit’, ‘Grave’, ‘Storm-beach’ and ‘Tor’, for example. It’s the kind of book that you can pick up, read a few chapters, then put down for a while, as each chapter is an essay on a particular place.  His writing is sublime. It feels so effortless, but has all the quick-fire surprise of the perfect metaphor. Just wonderful.


BOOK REVIEW: The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller

Saturday, April 15, 2017

BLURB:

The Magician's Book is the story of one reader's long, tumultuous relationship with C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. Enchanted by its fantastic world as a child, prominent critic Laura Miller returns to the series as an adult to uncover the source of these small books' mysterious power by looking at their creator, Clive Staples Lewis. What she discovers is not the familiar, idealized image of the author, but a more interesting and ambiguous truth: Lewis's tragic and troubled childhood, his unconventional love life, and his intense but ultimately doomed friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien.

Finally reclaiming Narnia "for the rest of us," Miller casts the Chronicles as a profoundly literary creation, and the portal to a life-long adventure in books, art, and the imagination.

MY THOUGHTS:

I love books about books, particularly when they weave together a personal story with new insights into a beloved work of literature. The genre is called ‘bibliomemoir’, which is such a great word it makes me want to write one. But which book would I want to write about? 

Like hundreds of thousands of people, when I am asked to name my favourite childhood book, I answer ‘The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe’ by C. S. Lewis. But, much as I’d love to write a bibliomemoir about its profound influence on me and others, I can’t anymore. That’s because this book - The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller – does it so beautifully I could never hope to compare. 

Laura Miller was enchanted by the world of Narnia as a child – as was I and every kindred spirit I know - yet as an adult became aware of the many criticisms levelled against C. S. Lewis. Classism. Racism. Sexism. Ageism. Anachronism. 

So as an adult, she revisits the books and examines them in light of her own life, the life of C.S. Lewis and his friends, and the vast influence – both positive and negative – that Narnia has had on the work of other writers as diverse as Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Franzen and Philip Pullman. 

The result is utterly engrossing and utterly enchanting. It made me want to go and read all the Narnia books again!

BOOK REVIEW: Victoria the Queen by Julia Baird

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

BLURB:

When Victoria was born, in 1819, the world was a very different place. Revolution would begin to threaten many of Europe’s monarchies in the coming decades. In Britain, a generation of royals had indulged their whims at the public’s expense, and republican sentiment was growing. The Industrial Revolution was transforming the landscape, and the British Empire was commanding ever larger tracts of the globe. Born into a world where woman were often powerless, during a century roiling with change, Victoria went on to rule the most powerful country on earth with a decisive hand.

MY THOUGHTS:

I have spent the last two years deeply immersed in Victorian Britain. I have watched dozens of documentaries, and read more than a hundred biographies, memoirs, and histories of the time. Queen Victoria was a constant looming presence, sometimes revered, sometimes reviled. 

I was just finishing the final edit on Beauty in Thorns, my novel set in the mid 19th century, when Julia Baird’s immensely thick biography was published. It seemed a fitting way to finish my investigation of the period and so I paid the hefty $50 purchase price and lugged it home. I expected it to take me a while to finish, but the book is so warmly and engagingly written, and so fascinating, I whizzed through it in a couple of days. 

Described as ‘An intimate biography of the woman who ruled an empire,’ Victoria the Queen busts open many of the myths about both the woman and the era. Victoria was tiny, forthright, and loved sex. She refused to be a mere figurehead, and used her position to promote profound changes in the society in which she lived. For example, she hated cruelty to animals and was instrumental in bringing about anti-vivisectionist laws. Even though she famously said women who marched for female suffrage should be whipped, Queen Victoria was a great example to many women and supported education and job training for girls. And she condemned those around her for their snobbery and racism, and was actively engaged in trying to break down such societal barriers.

It is clear Julia Baird’s research has been impeccable, and there is much in this biography that is fresh and new. However, it is her storytelling skills that really shine.  The crowded streets of London, the stifling atmosphere of the court, the pure air of the lonely Highlands, are all brought vividly to life, as are the people in Victoria’s life – her austere and brilliant husband, Prince Albert, the rough yet tender gilly John Brown, and the many different Prime Ministers who served her. By far, the best biography of Queen Victoria I’ve yet read.

BOOK REVIEW: Rising Ground by Phillip Marsden

Friday, February 10, 2017



BLURB:


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. 



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