Tuesday, March 31, 2009

It may prove amusing, after all

Cocaine Blues
When I think of places, I think of detectives. Venice: Brunetti. Paris: Maigret. Sicily: Montalbano. Boston: Homer Kelly. Hong Kong: CF Wong. Moscow: Fandorin. Botswana: Precious Ramotswe. Italy: Zen. And each of these characters, these collections of stories, sound so much more interesting than the people I know in the place I live: Melbourne, a pimple at the ass-end of the world. What's to love about Melbourne, a city choked by traffic and smog, a people gripped with passion for nothing more than the latest plasma television or footy score?

So it was with real gratitude that I discovered Kerry Greenwood's love song to this city. She is the author of a series of mysteries set in the Jazz Age featuring the elegant and opulent Phryne Fisher. Phryne, who is slender of ankle, careless of opinion and quick of wit, has a passion for slinky dresses, fast cars and interesting young men. When she is not indulging these passions, she solves mysteries. On the way she collects eclectic people: a stouthearted maid, Dot; some raving Communist taxi drivers, Bert and Cec; a hearty female doctor, Dr MacMillan; and her exotic lover, Lin Chung.

With her cool head, her allies and her pearl handled gun, she is more than a match for the most vicious of crims walking the city streets - or drinking tea in the leafier suburbs.

Her first novel, Cocaine Blues, sees Phryne returning to Melbourne after years in England. Suffering from ennui, she decides to try being a Lady Detective. 'It may prove amusing, after all,' she reflects. She moves into the Windsor Hotel, and from there begins to investigate whether a young English woman is being poisoned by her Australian husband. In so doing, she also unravels an abortion racket and a cocaine ring, and becomes erotically involved with an aristocratic Russian dancer. This novel is based in the CBD, and as Phryne strolls down Collins Street, shops in the Block Arcade, and steals through the very seedy Lonsdale Street, I fall in love with Melbourne all over again.

The Phryne novels are written with a deft hand by an author who clearly relishes gorgeous dresses and fine dining - and Melbourne - and wants us to relish them too. And she uses some lovely imagery. A cab driver says that a formidable hostess is 'as mean as a dunny rat'. Phryne muses to herself, 'One cannot take much except intelligence and religious convictions into a Turkish bath'. Her lounging robe is an oriental gold and green pattern, 'not to be sprung suddenly on invalids or those of nervous tendencies'. And Phryne drives like a demon. 'She set the car at Spencer Street as she would set a hunting hack at a hedge, and roared out, scattering pedestrians.'

Never pedestrian, always glamorous, these books are a delight.

> Kerry Greenwood Cocaine Blues (first in a series) (Melbourne: Allen & Unwin, 2005) (originally published by McPhee Gribble, 1989).

Thursday, March 19, 2009


I have been thinking about inheritance. Not about dead people's stuff, but about the gifts that are passed down from one generation to the next. On bad days, it feels like my oldest daughter has inherited all my worst aspects: a fierce temper, stubborn independence, a thin skin. And I sigh and wish it could be otherwise. But on good days, I see that my three year old loves to paint, and in her absorption I see my grandfather, a painter. My five year old can run and run, just like her daddy, and read and read, just like her mamma; and she displays all the intuition and empathy of her grandmother.

Inheritance is important to me, because my children's grandmothers died before they were born. I see my kids mourn the loss of something they never knew, and I mourn, too. I want my children to know their grandmothers, not just in stories but more deeply, perhaps even to recognise their qualities in themselves. And so, as they grow older, I have begun looking for stories about inheritance, stories which will teach them that gifts and abilities run through families and bind generations. Carrying on the gifts may not always be straightforward, or easy, but it is possible. Those who die are not wholly lost. Their qualities live on in us, and it is up to us to explore and refine them.

And as I have been thinking about these things, I stumbled across two short stories by Joan Aiken. Among her many other books, Aiken wrote at least a dozen collections of stories for junior readers, those readers in between picture books and adolescent or adult fiction. Although they are aimed at ten year olds, I still find them captivating. I am thrilled when I find another dog eared old book of Aiken's stories; I mete them out one by one so I can go to sleep dreaming of friendly cats and apple trees, princes, mermaids and jumble sales. Aiken's stories interweave the everyday, the whimsical and the downright magical. A rainbow is trapped in a poky London house, and put through the wash. The quintessential suburban family is visited by a unicorn, or the Furies, or a ghostly governess. A young girl carves a harp from a fishbone, and stirs a frozen city with her music. A girl uses a London callbox to call across time and warn against Queen Boadicaea's impending attack.

And several of Aiken's stories tackle the theme of inheritance. In 'Moonshine in the Mustard Pot', Deborah visits her Granny. Granny is full of life and vigor. She paints her house in lively colours; she grows her own vegetables; she makes pies and jam; she rides across town on a wobbly old bicycle; she reads the newspaper to her houseplants; she learns a poem a day; she chats to her bees. After Deborah returns home, Granny is hit by a car. Deborah rushes to visit her at the hospital, where Granny tells Deborah to talk to the bees. Deborah goes to the bees, and we are to understand that, in telling them, she comprehends that her Granny is dying and that she is to inherit her grandmother's gifts. The story is very simple, but strong. It is not remotely maudlin: Granny dies; Deborah cries, then gets on with the business of living. It is a good story for any older child, but particularly one who may be facing the death of a beloved grandparent. The story tells them, in effect, that they too may carry on aspects of their grandparents' lives; their grandparents, though sorely missed, will live on in them.

Similarly, in 'The Gift Giving', a child takes on his namesake's gift. When Mark's uncle pipes a special tune during a gift-giving ceremony, blind Grandmother touches gifts and describes their appearance perfectly. After Uncle Mark dies, Grandmother pines so terribly that the younger Mark learns to make a pipe and teaches himself to play; and his cousin Sammle helps to recall the special tune. When the time comes for the next gift-giving ceremony, Mark plays and Grandmother is again able to perceive the gifts placed in her lap. This story is especially beautiful because Mark strives for the gift of music in order to give the gift of insight to his Grandmother; his gift enables the gifts of others.

Each story is part of a collection marked by wit, beauty, whimsy, and a touch of melancholy. Aiken's stories are nourishing stuff. They are by turns beautiful, sobering, or just delightfully ridiculous; and her mixture of the magical and the mundane, the folkloric and the suburban, is unique. Although these books are well and truly out of print, they are worth the time and effort it will take you to find them. Perhaps your public library has them; or perhaps you will be lucky enough to locate second hand copies. Or perhaps, if you ask around, you will inherit them!

> Joan Aiken 'Moonshine in the Mustard Pot' in The Faithless Lollybird and Other Stories (New York: Doubleday, 1978); 'The Gift Giving' in Up the Chimney Down and Other Stories (New York: Harper & Row, 1984).

Monday, March 16, 2009

Serendipity, mostly

I just love books. I love holding them. I love smelling them. I love turning their pages. I love reading them. So you'd think I love new bookshops, right?

Actually, I don't. I find myself so overwhelmed by our society's wealth, by the sheer amount of stuff that is available to us, that I usually can't face a shop full of new books. I shrink in the face of those towering shelves stuffed full, perpetually refilled from boxes and crates which were trucked from factories, perhaps even flown in. I feel sickened by the waste involved; I read somewhere that more than half of all new books manufactured in the US are pulped. I worry about the clean water that has gone into making the paper. I feel manipulated by the beautifully designed covers and gorgeous new editions which are aimed at bibliophiles like me. And, anyway, I'm not that interested in a book which is too easy to find.

So how does someone like me buy books? Second hand, of course! and on instinct. I don't look for books unless I get a particular buzz. When I feel my antennae tingling, I'll pop into an op shop or a used bookstore and comb the shelves. I never know what I'll find, just that something is there waiting for me. And when I see it, I start feeling dizzy. The world whirls, and for a moment there is nothing except me, and The Book. I pick it up. I take it to the counter. I hand over my dollar. I buy it.

Anticlimactically, I take it home and add it to a pile. What? you say. But you just bought it, antennae quivering!

But finding a book doesn't mean it's time to read it yet. It sits on a pile, even a bookshelf, waiting. In our house, a book might wait for years. I know it's there, but until I feel my instinct tingle again, I wait too. There's no point reading a book at the wrong time; I won't engage with it. But when I feel that tingle, that itch to read a particular book, then I know I will be carried away.

So that's how I find and read new (to me) books. What about books which I have already read, but have given away, or have never owned but absolutely must? Especially those that are out of print? How do I find those books? Then I wait. I lurk. I creep into old bookshops and check if they have this, or that. I mope and sigh, pining for a book. And then one day, joy! After months, usually years, of looking, it turns up. Such delight! It's like being united with an old friend.

(I must admit, the waiting sucks. From time to time, in sheer desperation, I check out an online secondhand bookseller. But while a package in the mail, even one sent to oneself, is gratifying, it certainly isn't the same as finding a book on a shelf. I don't feel an emotional attachment to books bought online; it's just too easy.)

There are books I can't decide whether or not to buy. I'm hooked on Patrick O'Brian's novels, and plan to read and re-read them for the rest of my life. But a friend has the series, as does my public library. Am I happy to keep borrowing these books? Or should I purchase them so I can lend them out to other people too? I might keep an eye out and buy any I find second hand. Then I can slowly build up the series, without having to face a new bookstore, and without feeling completely wanton in my spending.

Quite bluntly, O'Brian's dead, so he doesn't need the royalties. What about living authors, particularly those with a small market (ie Australians)? I feel some responsibility to buy these books new, on the radical assumption that authors have to eat. For a new book, I go to my local independent bookstore and, if they don't stock it, order it in.

I don't buy books from chain stores. I worry about having my information controlled by large conservative corporations; and anyway, the sheer mass of goods is overwhelming. Paradoxically, it's in a small store with handpicked stock that I am more likely to find something nestled against something else that I'm interested in. I've checked out Amazon, and the 'picks' that the machines suggest don't even come close to the cover that catches your eye, the title next to the one you went to get, that serendipitous find.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Living in America

Special Topics in Calamity Physics Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World Divine Inspiration Cobweb
When I was 14, my family moved to Washington, DC. Boy, was that a strange time of my life. I'd always been a bookish introvert in Australia; in the milieu of a typical American high school, I was now bookish, weird and AUSTRALIAN!!! Being invisible was not an option. Witty teenagers would bounce towards me like kangaroos, quoting Crocodile Dundee. Other kids wanted to know whether I had a pet koala, or did I ride a kangaroo to school. Seemingly intelligent adults would tell me how much they loved my country - ever since they saw The Sound of Music. I became so sick of it that I made up a pack of lies about my home; I even managed to convince one kid that I'd never seen a light bulb before.

So it was with a sense of painful recognition that I read Special Topics in Calamity Physics. In this novel, Blue moves to a new school and finds herself completely adrift. Although she pretends to be happy enough spending much of her time alone, Hannah, a teacher, takes Blue under her wing and inserts her into her group of proteges, who are most unwilling to accept her. When Hannah is found hanged, the group falls apart. The story begins with the hanging, then backtracks over the previous year to tell the story leading up to it.

While my experience did not involve death, the novel unfolds a familiar story of adolescent awkwardness, disconnection and cruelty. The adolescent is so often an observer, analysing the actions of themselves and others. This is captured in the novel: we see the story through Blue's eyes, and, like her, we are never quite sure what is going on and even what is real. This gives the novel an authentic voice; like Blue, when I moved countries I was never quite sure whether people were teasing me, or were just ignorant; whether they liked me, and whether I wanted them to; whether I should take on a superior persona, or whether I should grovel to be accepted. Blue goes through all these shifts, and my heart aches for her.

On another note, Blue is the daughter of an academic. The novel is set up as a collegiate reading guide; each chapter is named after and refers to a work of literature, and she peppers her story with allusions and references to other works as well. It makes for interesting reading; and one day I plan to read all the books in her reading guide that I have so far missed.

Another book which takes me back to my adolescence is Sarah Vowell's collection of essays, Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World. Vowell writes for This American Life, and many of these essays appeared first on radio. The subjects are varied: growing up fundamentalist; living around guns; being part Cherokee; loving Frank Sinatra; learning to drive; making mix tapes; going to Disneyland; drinking coffee. Her writing is hilarious and self-deprecating - her essay on fighting insomnia, wherein she moves all her furniture, gives up caffeine and watches a very soporific Jay Leno, is cheerfully ridiculous. And the essay 'Music Lessons' strongly reminds me of my sister's school band. In it, Vowell writes about all the things she inadvertently learned through high school music: Marxism, transvesticism, biology, popularity, carrying heavy instruments, and how to do what you like; in doing so, she evokes the whole high school experience, nemesis and all.

Living in the States wasn't just about high school. We belonged to a large inner city church, radically different to any church I had attended previously. The sanctuary was built on Gothic lines, with vast stone columns, ornate carvings and slippery slate floors. Robe-wearing acolytes, musicians and preachers processed down the centre aisle. The church ran an adults' choir, a children's choir, and a handbell choir, and we were expected to participate in at least one of them. The organ was magnificent, and I can still remember the thrill of hearing the organist blast glory to the skies. Every year or two, the church would perform Handel's Messiah or similar, and choirs and musicians from around the city would descend on the church for hours of rehearsal. Choir directors would wave their hands in the air, shepherding lost sopranos, and music filled the space.

The church was more than formal worship and music. Homeless men slept on the steps and participated in church life. The church buildings were multi-story, and, as well as the church offices, housed an elementary school, a child care centre and a small library. Security guards and cleaning staff were ever present; and the buildings even had their own engineer. Church members were forever ducking in for projects, meetings, or to wrangle. As might be expected in a political city, church politics were a complex and constant part of life.

Jane Langton's Divine Inspiration, based in a similar church in Boston, could have been written about our church. This murder mystery, featuring Homer Kelly, stars church organists and building engineers; hopeless secretaries and hen-pecked ministers; a choir and musicians preparing to perform Bach's Magnificat; a child care centre, wealthy benefactors, and church politics galore. And it is also about the city of Boston, which, like Washington, has extreme wealth and dire poverty forever rubbing shoulders. It begins when the protaganist, Alan Starr, finds a young boy crawling up the church steps. The boy's mother is missing, and it is up to Alan and Homer Kelly to find her.

Like all Langton's Homer Kelly mysteries, and Pessl's Special Topics, Divine Inspiration draws from particular themes. Each section begins with a piece from Bach's Magnificat, and each chapter with a quote from Martin Luther. It adds to the richness and dimensions of the novel. Overall, it's great fun, a wonderful book to read in a few big gulps.

Thinking about my DC church recalls the members of the church. To a young Australian teenager, having grown up in a suburb of plumbers and builders and nurses, many of them were very exotic indeed. Members included an African ambassador whose government had been deposed and who was now stranded in the States; a man who was instrumental in introducing those yellow school buses across America; the most senior journalist at the White House; a paymaster at the CIA; an engineer at NASA; an advisor to the President; members of the Cosmos Club; people who wrote books; people who had maids, and lived in five storey houses, and went away to the mountains every summer; people who worked in New York and lived in Washington; and of course the homeless guys.

And, quietly mingling, were various intelligence agents. One man would disappear periodically, then reappear some months later. We'd ask him where he'd been. I can't tell you, he'd say, then he'd quickly change the subject. This same man would regularly stop his car to make calls from public phone boxes (he'd say his mobile phone didn't work), and would drop in on colonels in forts around Washington when he was taking us out to lunch. Questions were cut short, and it was all very odd.

Reading Cobweb, by Neal Stephenson and Frederick George (originally published under the pen name of Stephen Bury), takes me right back. It's a prescient thriller set alternately in the Midwest and in Washington. The premise of the story is that terrorists use American training and equipment to plan an attack on American soil - this was written in 1997, well before 9/11. A local deputy sheriff, Clyde Banks, picks up on what might, or might not, be happening, even as DC-based policy makers are trying to close down any investigation. On the one hand, the book is a real nail biter as Clyde tries to work out what is going on. On the other, it's a fascinating satire on American intelligence agencies as low level operatives are controlled and muffled by policy makers on high. Throw in some high grade wrestling, a young mother serving in Iraq, gloriously drunken Russian smugglers, a young Mormon CIA analyst, and a few murders, and you have a highly entertaining read.

> Marisha Pessl Special Topics in Calamity Physics; Sarah Vowell Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World; Jane Langton Divine Inspiration; Neal Stephenson & Frederick George Cobweb.