Memorable Re-reads

Being grounded for weeks is horribly inconvenient but for me it has also offered the luxury of more time to read. At first it was really hard to concentrate, and I felt I could only read books I’d already read; anything new seemed too challenging. So I began with an old favourite Heat Wave by one of my favourite authors, Penelope Lively.

The central character and narrator is Pauline, a woman in late middle age who is spending the summer in a cottage in England next door to the cottage occupied by her daughter, Teresa, husband Maurice, and their son Luke. This new proximity gives Pauline a vantage point from which to study her daughter’s marriage, and particularly her son-in-law’s behaviour. The tension in this novel grows steadily and with painful realism to an unexpected and quite startling climax. Even reading it for the third time brought me up in goose bumps. Heat Wave is a Penguin Modern Classic.

From Penelope Lively I turned to another English writer, Jessica Francis Kane, whose novel The Report is a brilliant recreation of a true story from World War II London. Drawing on documents relating to the worst civilian disaster of the war, in which 173 men, women and children lost their lives in a crush that developed as they rushed to safety down the steps of the Bethnal Green underground air raid shelter, Jessica Kane has created a sensitive, thoughtful and gripping novel. This book is beautifully written and Kane’s fictional characters through whom the story is told are thoroughly convincing. The Report is published by Portobello Books.

Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River, first published in 1978, was one of the first Australian novels I read when I moved here from England in 1981. This book has always seemed like a true work of art to me. Anderson was awarded the Miles Franklin for Tirra Lirra, a remarkable achievement as the story is told in the voice of an elderly, childless woman, returning to the place of her childhood. Kerryn Goldsworthy wrote a terrific article in the Australian Book Review in 2015, in which she suggests that this, and Helen Garner’s first novel, Monkey Grip, which won the National Book Council Award in the same year, marked a turning point in Australian literature which was heavily male dominated at the time.

It was probably a mistake for me to re-read Nigel Slater’s memoir, Toast, at a time when I couldn’t get to the shops to indulge my taste buds, even so it’s a delightful book and well worth a second read. Nigel Slater is an English food writer, journalist and broadcaster. For many years he has written on food for The Observer. He’s also a brilliant chef and has a delightfully ironic sense of humour. Toast is the story of his childhood relationship to food, his parents, his mother’s woeful cooking and following her death the arrival of his father’s new partner who cooks like a dream. They way he writes about the food of the sixties and seventies is amazingly evocative of the period, and his gentle, but occasionally biting, humour make this a real gem. He is quite tough on the members of his family and this is an honest and thoughtful memoir which provides a picture of childhood which will feel familiar to many in the same age group. Toast is published by Fourth Estate, and there is also a delightful film of the book available on DVD.

Grounded

It’s been a funny year so far – in fact funny is probably the wrong word – dangerous might be better. Yes, it seems to be developing into my year of living dangerously! It began with a fall in late February when I was on my way to a work meeting. I was ambushed by a small variation in floor level and tripped and fell onto my left arm. When I looked up it was into the faces of four horrified students who promptly rescued me. I’d forgotten how humiliating it can feel to fall over in a public place, especially when you can’t immediately scramble to your feet and brush it off with a laugh. The students were lovely and I was eventually restored to a vertical position and taken to the medical centre and then sent for an x-ray.

What seemed at first to be a torn ligament turned out two weeks later to be two fractures, one in my wrist, the other at the base of my thumb. I got that news as I was being admitted to hospital for emergency surgery for something apparently unrelated which developed quite suddenly and was extremely painful.

By the time I left the hospital a week later, I had my wrist and hand in a rigid cast, and needed a nursing service to look after the surgical wound for me for another week. Last week, thankful for the tireless help and support of friends and neighbours, I ventured out into the world again. Someone took me to get my hair cut – always a morale boost – and yesterday a friend took me out for coffee which seemed hugely exciting after being grounded for more than four weeks.

This morning, as I set off for a stroll with Toby I was reflecting on my good fortune in having such wonderful friends and neighbours, and also on the impact of falling at this age and that, despite feeling very much better, I knew I still had some way to go before I’d be fully recovered from the fall and the fractures, the infection that eventually lead to the surgery, the anesethetic, and the huge doses of antibiotics and pain killers. But it was a glorious WA morning: mild, sunny and still. Outside the house I stopped to talk to two women who also had a small dog, and then, in the moment when I went to step off the kerb to cross the road, Toby decided to go in the opposite direction and walked right in front of me. According to Ben, my neighbour, who witnessed this, it was like watching a slow motion movie as I dived over the dog and onto the road, the arm in the cast held high in the air so that I didn’t fall onto it!

Once again I was very lucky; Ben came running to help me as did several other people who were out for a morning walk. This time I just grazed my knees, elbows and chin, and here I am three hours later sitting in an armchair with my laptop writing this blog post. No real damage but – I feel as though I’ve been hit by a passing truck. Thirty, twenty, possibly even ten years ago I would have got up and carried on with my walk, but at this age I know this is another setback and that things ain’t what they used to be. I hope that in the past few weeks I’ve learned a little patience. I’ve certainly given myself more time to recover, and have not beaten myself up for needing that time. This is new to me. Getting up, getting on with it. Not making a fuss. Minimising pain and anxiety and pretending I am much better than I feel, has always been my response to injury and illness. Not these past weeks though, and not today and for the next few weeks. I have seen the flashing red light of caution and self-care and it has brought me to a halt. It’s forcing me to think again about what it means to be old, and what I need to do in order to take better care of myself in the future. I am done with being tough, done with declaring I’m okay when I am definitely not.

This has been a significant face-to-face with ageing time for me, which is why I decided to write about it. I realise that while for several years now I have been writing about accepting our age, embracing it, making the most of it, being comfortable with it and adjusting to it. I had not, until now, accepted the physical vulnerability of my age. Because my brain keeps bouncing back, and I still find it easy to think in new and challenging ways, and carry on working as both a writer and an academic, I kept expecting my body to do the same thing. Now I know it doesn’t, it can’t and won’t and I need to accept that and know that this too is part of ageing and I must work with it not against it.

Nothing awful has happened to me despite my lack of attention to physical aspects of ageing, but it could and it might. So from now on this will be my year of living slowly and with caution, and being kinder to myself. It may be the biggest challenge yet because it feels so self-indulgent, even feeble. But on the other hand I suspect I may get to like it! After all, being grounded, unable to drive and only able to type one-handed for several weeks has left me more time to read and re-read some wonderful books, so I’ll blog again about luxurious reading in the next few days.

Meanwhile stay well, stay vertical when possible, keep enjoying later life, and join me in having that ‘nice rest’ that my mother advocated from the age of fifty onwards, and clung to for the rest of her life!

Alberto Manguel

I was so excited to see that one of my favourite writers, Alberto Manguel, will be at the Perth Writers Festival later this month. Manguel was born in Argentina and was strongly influenced in his youth by Jorge Luis Borges. He’s a non-fiction writer and essayist, a great thinker and intellectual explorer, who writes so beautifully that really complex or abstract ideas become accessible and engrossing.

Manguel always defines himself as a reader rather than a writer, and he is fascinated by the connections between books and our bodies, libraries, politics, art and intellectual curiosity. His approach to books and reading is of reading as an integral part of life and humanity, and he weaves together anecdotes, fairy and folk tales, mysterious places and landscapes, history and politics with extraordinary wisdom and dexterity. My favourites among his books are A Reader on Reading and The Library at Night, but there are many more to choose from.

I’ve booked tickets for all three of his events and am particularly excited about the session in which he’ll be talking to Philip Adams about curiosity.

Here are a couple of my favourite Alberto Manguel quotes which articulate the way we relate to the world through our own stories, and how each reader reads a book in their own individual way. Both quotes are from A Reader on Reading. 

“We come into the world intent on finding narrative in everything, landscape, the skies, the faces of others, the images and words that our species create.”

“Through ignorance, through faith, through intelligence, through trickery and cunning, through illumination, the reader rewrites the text with the same words of the original but under another heading, re-creating it, as it were, in the very act of bringing it into being.

If you are in Perth check out the Manguel sessions and see if they interest you.

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A Dangerous Innocence

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A Dangerous Innocence by Artemis Cooper

As my life calmed down towards the end of 2016 I was able to start reading some books I’ve been storing up for some time. The first was a recent biography of one of my favourite writers, Elizabeth Jane Howard, whose work I began reading in the late 1950s. My mother had started to introduce me to some of her favourite writers, passing her library books on to me before returning them. Howard’s first novel, The Beautiful Visit, was published in 1950 and I think I must have read it aged 15, in 1959. By that time I’d read many of Mum’s books and had long abandoned novels written for teenage girls.

I was entranced by the story of The Beautiful Visit, which explored the journey of a woman trying to find a place in the world when she had been raised for nothing except marriage. It seemed relevant to my own life and challenged me to think about when I wanted for my future. But I was also fascinated by the novel’s structure, although I couldn’t have articulated that at the time. The story is told in reverse time and recently re-reading it, with some years experience of writing fiction, I still marvel that Howard managed the complexity of that in a first novel.

In the intervening years I’ve read all Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novels and some of her other work, including her autobiography, Slipstream, (2002). In that book I was amazed to discover the many parallels in the fiction and Howard’s own life. Childhood abuse, a stifling early marriage, thwarted ambition, and disastrous relationships with unsuitable men, all find their place in this novelist’s work, making her books involving, credible and so relevant to those of us who can see our own mistakes in her fiction and her life. This latest biography by Artemis Cooper, reinforces and adds to those links and I was once again gasping with recognition at these connections and at Howard’s skill in exploring these aspects of her life through fiction.

I have loved all her books, particularly the The Cazalet Chronicle, a series of five novels of the life of a large and rambling family which begins with The Light Years published in 1990 and commencing the narrative in 1937, and ends with the fifth volume, All Change, published in 2013, the year before Howard’s death aged 90.

Artemis Cooper is a sophisticated and sensitive biographer and in A Dangerous Innocence, she provides a warm and insightful picture of one of England’s best loved novelists of the 20th century, and a woman who battled endlessly with her own demons to find love in her own life and to bring the complexities of love in the lives of her characters to her readers. Don’t be mislead; Elizabeth Jane Howard never wrote trite love stories, but she explores the love of families, couples, children, siblings and, the love of life and the challenges of loss and disappointment and unfulfilled dreams, in truly engrossing fiction, which does not shy from the tough, often brutal realities of the ordinary life. To read this biography and be reminded again of the parallels with her own experience has sent me back to the novels to read them this time with even greater fascination, and satisfaction.

If you’ve never read any of Howard’s work I strongly recommend giving it a go. A Dangerous Innocence, by Artemis Cooper also provides a fascinating insight into upper middle class life, in England in the second half of the 20th century, and the impact of writers such as Laurie Lee, Cecil Day-Lewis, Arthur Kostler and Sybille Bedford in Howard’s life, as well as her tempestuous marriage to Kingsley Amis, and her influence on the young Martin Amis, who claims that it was she who oversaw his education and made him a writer.

I loved this book.

Writing the Dream

I’m delighted to be able to tell you about a terrific new book for anyone who is an aspiring writer. Writing the Dream, recently published by Serenity Press, here in Western Australia, is packed full of valuable advice, useful tips, and the inspiring personal experiences of 24 writers who have achieved their dreams of publication.

There is great advice from Deborah Burrows and Anna Jacobs on writing historical fiction. Crime writer Felicity Young writes about her efforts to get started as a wriwriting-the-dream-v4ter. Natasha Lester whose third novel, was published earlier this year and became a best seller, describes the challenge of changing from literary to popular fiction, and the cliff hanging process of finding a publisher. And Sara Foster has valuable advice on place, setting, character and much more.  These are just a few of the diverse group of authors who have contributed to making this book an absolute gem for aspiring writers.

Writing the Dream combines sound and practical advice with the encouragement of personal stories from writers who made their own writing dreams come true. If you are on a writing journey this is the book for you, or perhaps a great gift for a friend who needs some shot-in-the-arm advice and encouragement.

Many congratulations to the dynamic Monique Mulligan and Katherine McDermott of Serenity Press for creating this great resource for writers.

Writing the Dream is available directly from Serenity Press and other online bookstores e.g. Amazon, Booktopia, Book Depository and so on. It will be available in selected bookstores in 2017. For now, it’s best to order online – RRP is $26.99.

 

Competition Winners

We had a HUGE response to the readers competition – thank you to everyone who entered.

WE HAVE TWO WINNERS! I’m delighted to be able to tell you that the winners of the book bundles are Trish Nankivell and Marilyn Sanderson. Congratulations to both of you. I hope you enjoy the books, they are already on their way to you.

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Readers’ Competition

book-bundleWould you like to win a bundle of books for yourself or your friends? Summer is such a great time for reading so I hope you’ll like this competition. I’ll be giving away a bundle of four of my books to each of two winners. You can see which books in the photo. With Christmas and the holiday season looming, you could tick some presents off your list, or line up your summer reading – all in one fell swoop!

To enter the competition all you need to do is opt to follow my blog. That means you will receive my latest blog postings directly into your email inbox. To do that you need to go to my website www.lizbyrski.com and enter your email in the “Follow blog by email” field at the foot of any webpage, and click the “follow me” button.

If you already follow my blog, then go to the Contact page on my website, and fill out the form, putting the words “Christmas Competition” into the comment field.

Two winners will be chosen by random and contacted by email. The books will be posted to the winners.

The competition closes at 5pm on Monday 12 December. Good luck!

Fremantle Press Afternoon Tea

It was great to be a part of the Fremantle Press Great Big Book Club Afternoon Tea, at the Fremantle Esplanade Hotel a couple of weeks ago. It was part of the Press’s 40th Anniversary Celebrations and ran in co-operation with Better Reading.bookclub095

I’ve long been a fan of the Press as well as being published by them. Remember Me and In Love and War, are both published by them and also, last year, a collection called Purple Prose which I co-edited with my friend and colleague Rachel Robertson.

Better Reading is a great organisation which supports and encourages writers and readers, bringing them together on its website and Facebook and reviewing new titles. Cheryl Akle who runs Better Reading was in town for the event and also met with some WA authors and recorded short interviews with us for the Facebook Page. I chatted to her in the WA State Library and you can find that interview on their Facebook page. You’ll need to scroll back to 14 October to find it.

Lots of interviews with other writers are there too including Natasha Lester, Brooke Davis, Sara Foster, Ron Eliot and David Whish Wilson. And the Better Reading site itself is a great source of reading ideas, events, news and information.

Ron and David were also at the Afternoon Tea, talking with William Yeoman about their books and reading excerpts. I read a short piece from In Love and War and it was great to catch up with members of book clubs from around WA who had come to the event. I also enjoyed hearing excerpts from books that I haven’t yet read: Deb Fitzpatrick’s The Break is now on my reading list as is Brigid Lowry’s Still Life with Teapot. The excerpt Brigid read that afternoon was hilarious. I’m looking forward to the Fremantle Press 40th Anniversary Party next week and to the announcement of the Hungerford Award winner for 2016.

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Fremantle Press 40th Anniversary

I’m really looking forward to celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Fremantle Press at the Great Big Book Club High Tea. It’s going to be a terrific afternoon of celebrations at The Fremantle Esplanade on Sunday 16th October. For me it’s a chance to catch up with fellow writers whom I haven’t seen for ages, and hopefully to meet lots of readers.

The Big Book Club event is already sold old, but there is another terrific event in store a few weeks later on Wednesday 2nd November. It’s the celebration to announce the winner of the 2016 City of Fremantle TAG Hungerford Award. The award celebrates the life and work of much loved WA writer, the late Tom Hungerford, with a prize of $12,000 and a publishing contract with Fremantle Press.

I am pleased to be doing a reading along with other Fremantle Press authors such as Kim Scott, Dennis Haskell, Ambelin Kwaymullina, Craig Silvey, Stephen Kinnane, Sabrina Hahn and James Foley. Throw in some music by Dave Warner and Anna Gare and the Jam Tarts and it’s likely to be a wonderful event! This is almost fully booked as well so you will need to move fast if you are interested.

I’m not surprised that so many people want to come along to celebrate this anniversary. The Press does really valuable work in discovering and publishing new and talented Western Australian writers, as well as continuing to publish some of us who have been around for years. And it’s been a crucial starting point for so many of WA’s finest writers: Elizabeth Jolley, Joan London, Gail Jones, Kim Scott, Craig Silvey, Diane Wolfer, and many more. Fremantle Press is a treasured feature on the WA cultural landscape and is known for the quality of its publishing throughout Australia and internationally. They are also great people to work with.

My own association with the Press goes back to the year 2000 when they published my memoir Remember Me, and last year In Love and War: Nursing Heroes, and Purple Prose, an anthology of women’s writing about the colour purple, which I edited with my friend and colleague, Rachel Robertson.

Tickets for the Hungerford Award Celebration are free – just book by following this link.

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Creative Conversations

Only a week to go to our terrific literary event Creative Conversations on Saturday 10 September. It’s our first big event at the China Australia Writing Centre at Curtin University, held in partnership with ABC Radio National. Creative Conversations brings together writers, activists, poets, novelists, journalists and readers in conversations about the experience and the craft of writing across cultures.

The event involves four discussion panels and with such a talented line-up on each one, it promises to be interesting and stimulating day.

  • Panel OneThe Novel Through Time, features Miles Franklin winner Kim Scott, Tan Zheng and Alison Lumsden.
  • Panel TwoThe Power and the Passion: Writing from the Heart, features poets Lucy Dougan, Nicholas B Wong, memoirist Rachel Robertson and short story writer Isabelle Li.
  • Panel Three – What is it About Crime, features justice expert He Jiahong and crime novelists Leigh Straw and David Whish-Wilson.
  • Panel FourMaking Waves: Writing that Challenges the Establishment, features historian Frank Bongiorno, journalist Wendy Bacon and justice expert He Jiahong.

The tickets are selling fast, so book now. Hope to see you on the day. Click here to book your ticket.

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