Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Room at the Top

This is a re-read for me, but I'm struggling to find books on my shelf for the Aussie Author Challenge. I first read this book in 2010, after seeing Heath Ducker speak at a breakfast seminar at the National Family Law Conference in Canberra. Heath didn't bring any of his books with him, so I went out and bought the book at lunch time. I was lucky enough to see him in a lecture later that afternoon, though I hadn't expected he would attend any of the lectures, since he's not a family lawyer. So, I think I embarrassed him, by running up to him and asking him to sign the book. I don't care - whatever it takes!

Heath was a good speaker, for a young man. He was engaging and honest. Inspired by his speech, I read his book really quickly, the first time. It left me feeling like I was ignited with compassionate energy to do something for those less fortunate. I contacted Youth Insearch, which had helped Heath so much in his life, and got a very ambivalent response. It wasn't encouraging. I got the pattern to knit the love wraps, and did a few of those. Then I moved to Sydney and got caught up with the craziness of just trying to survive in this fast-paced city.
   The book flows really well. It follows Heath through his early years, through his battles, and then through his achievements as a young man. He grew up in 'abject poverty, in a dilapidated government house with shattered windows and holes in the floor through which weeds climbed. He lived with his single mother and nine siblings, conceived with many different fathers. Most days they had nothing to eat but breakfast cereal. Just when it seemed things wouldn't get worse, Heath was sexually abused by the father of his closest friend.' He ended up as a young lawyer at a top-tier law firm in Sydney, though I think he now works in a government department.
   As I said, I raced through it when I read it first.
   On the second read, I took my time. I knew where it was going, so I reflected on the messages a bit more. I also don't think that the book conveys Heath's real voice. It uses some fairly emotive language, and I think it is written with some deep insight and reflection that may not have been possible without some heavy editing.
   I do think it's the best book Australian true story, after Kinglake-350, that I have read.
  This time, rather than leaving me with an intense desire to do something straight away, I have been more reflective myself. A lot of what Heath believes in - in a supportive community, and committed individuals providing special services - I don't think I can achieve whilst living in Sydney. I have no sense of community at all, here. That's part of the reason why my husband and I have decided to move back to the country in the coming months. Working in a small firm, actually doing grass-roots law, I will be helping individuals with real problems. Currently, I have no effect on anyone's lives whatsoever. I am not practicing the kind of law that I want, at the moment. I will be returning to doing family law, to representing children in child protection matters, to representing criminals in petty crimes, and representing families on the death of their loved ones. I can't wait. I will be a member of a small community, and I will participate and aim to make the community a better place. I hope that I will eventually participate in the Aunties and Uncles program that Heath found so useful, but if not, I may be able to do some short-term foster care or respite care for needy kids.
   Everyone should read this, if you have any concern for the decline of community and society.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Shifting Fog

As part of the Australian Women Writers' Challenge, I read The Shifting Fog by Kate Morton this month. There was no hint of an Australian theme in this novel - I had thought it would be about one of the grand settlers households in country New South Wales. Instead, it was about an old English manor with all its tradition.

The style jumps around a little in this book. Some of it is written as a film script. Some of it is written like a letter. Most of it is narrated by Grace in the first person, but sometimes it is hard to tell whether she is in the present (1999) or in the past.
   The story starts on the eve of a glittering society party in the roaring 20s (1924), by the lake of a grand English country house, a young poet takes his life. The only witnesses, sisters Hannah and Emmeline Hartford, will never speak to each other again.
   Grace Bradley, 98, one-time housemaid of Riverton Manor, is visited by a young director making a film about the poet's suicide. Ghosts awaken and memories, long consigned to the dark reaches of Grace's mind, begin to sneak back through the cracks. A shocking secret threatens to emerge; something history has forgotten but Grace never could.
   Then Grace starts telling the story from the beginning, further back before the war, when the sisters were still children, and she had just been employed at Riverton.
   Although the story was quite tragic in many aspects, because the main focus was Grace, I found it very uplifting. She kept a secret that wasn't hers, because of the duty she felt for the family she worked for. However, the novel unwraps lots of little secrets about Grace's life, and also about the connections between characters that aren't evident at first. I thought that everything tied together very neatly, and I think that love won in the end. It was very hopeful.
   The first world war was a catalyst for enormous social and cultural changes. I was really interested to see how those changes affected a large manor house, and those downstairs in particular. I had never thought of it before. I was so intrigued that I bought and watched the first two series of Downton Abbey straight away, to preserve the feeling of the upstairs/downstairs relationships and interactions.
   I am really looking forward to reading more Kate Morton novels.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Great Gatsby

I think a lot of people think that they know the story of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but in fact they don't. I thought it was about an eccentric old rice guy taking a young hopeful under his wing, with a lot of extravagance and an element of magic. I had the image of the circus ringmaster in my head.
   It's nothing like that.
   It's a love story, and a tragedy. It's a short moment in time that has left a great impact on the main character and narrator. It unfolded because of an accident and a mistaken identity. And Gatsby himself is a young man.

The Penguin version that I read had about 50 pages of analysis by way of introduction. I think it was somewhat over-analysed as a study on American class and society (old money v new money/east v west).
   I think it was a doomed love story. Gatsby wanted to amass wealth to try to prove his worth to the wealthy woman that he loved. He didn't think he would have a chance with her unless he was rich. He probably didn't, because she was a materialistic snob. In any event, when she discovered that his money was from bootlegging, it wasn't good enough for her then either. In another way, it was a doomed love because Gatsby only loved her whilst she was unobtainable - he yearned from a distance. When she was sitting in his house with him, or at his party, she wasn't what he imagined her to be.
   Nick Carraway, the narrator, is very disillusioned by the end of the story, even tainting his story-telling on the way through. He is sick and tired of the snobbery, the materialism, the shallow and the false. He is disgusted by a lot of what he sees. He has become a cynic, and I think he's given up on believing in the good of people.

Friday, July 20, 2012

July Prompt - A Classics Challenge

This month, November's Autumn has suggested that we choose one of the classics that we have read recently that has left a lasting impression.

My most recent classic was Madam Bovary. The lasting impression, other than the selfish, shallow, materialistic and immature character of Madam Bovary herself, the biggest impression in this book is the agonisingly slow suicide. It's about the longest lasting and drawn out suicide in literature, I think.

This is not really as I picture Madam Bovary, because she had dark hair and was probably stunning, even as she was dying. 'She rolled her head with a gentle, anguished movement, trying to open her jaws all the while as though she had a heavy weight on her tongue. At eight o'clock the vomiting began again ... she began to groan, feebly at first. A violent shudder went through her shoulders, she turned whiter than the sheet she was clutching in her fingers. Her wavering pulse could hardly be felt at all now ... drops of sweat stood on her blue-veined face, which looked as if it had been petrified by exposure to some metallic vapour. Her teeth chattered, her pupils were dilated, her eyes stared vaguely about her ... little by little her groans grew louder. A muffled scream broke from her ... she was seized with convulsions ...' This goes on for 12 pages!
I've said it before: this story was certainly not what I was expecting!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


Reading to achieve challenges that I have signed up for is certainly pushing me to read what I wouldn't ordinarily read - which is good! I want to read as broadly as I can. Last week, I raced through Scarecrow by Matthew Reilly, as part of the Aussie Author Challenge.

This book is fast paced. It is over 400 pages, yet it has short chapters, short paragraphs and short sentences. It races past.
   The story was action packed. It reads like an American blockbuster playing in your head. Completely unbelievable, but a glorious indulgence. The blurb even reads like a film preview voice-over:

It is the greatest bounty hunt in history.
Fifteen names.
There are 15 targets, the finest warriors in the world - 
commandos, spies, terrorists. And they must all be dead by 12 noon, today.
The price on their heads: almost $20 million each.
One hero.
Among the names on the target list, one stands out.
An enigmatic Marine named Shane Schofield, call-sign: Scarecrow.
No limits.
And so Schofield is plunged into a headlong race around the world,
pursued by a fearsome collection of international bounty hunters -
including the 'Black Knight', a notoriously ruthless hunter who seems intent on eliminating only Schofield.
The race is on and the pace is frantic as Schofield fights for survival,
in the process unveiling a vast international conspiracy and the terrible reason why he cannot,
under any circumstances, be allowed to live ...
He led his men into hell in ICE STATION.
He protected the President against all odds in AREA 7.
This time it's different.
Because this time SCARECROW is the target!

It is not the type of book that I could read all the time, but it was fun. Don't read this is you want an emotional connection with the characters - (SPOILER ALERT) Matthew Reilly cannot even create an emotional response when the hero's girlfriend dies. But enjoy it for what it is - escapism.