August Short Book Reviews (and two thoughts thereon)

The Hidden Art of Homemaking – Edith Schaefer: I’ve seen one edition titled simply The Hidden Art because the original title is the worst thing about the book. It limits both audience and scope. The book is about the right, duty and the joy of using inclinations or talents in little ways every day. It has chapters on music, art, cooking, reading, writing – and argues graciously and appealingly for the beautification of life and the world in little ways, using desires and gifts to make wherever you are home, for everyone. It was written in the ‘70s and although that shows (hanging mobiles, anyone?), it is one of the few books written by a Christian woman I have read that wasn’t about being married and having children. She writes about people living alone, married, in share houses, in flats and tents, staying in hotels or student accommodation, pursuing careers and giving them up, building things with their hands and their minds, being of service without being servile. It speaks about people who have only inclination as well as those who have talent. Nor was it focussed solely on the self or on other people – one of the lines I liked best was how “you are the environment in which other people live.” It was simple and broad-reaching and lovely and I find myself remembering and applying little things.

A Civil Contract – Georgette Heyer: One of her regencies, but not a comedy and not entirely ‘romantic’, it is a novel about a marriage of convenience between two people of very different backgrounds, and about learning to be content with a situation which is less than ideal, and yet far more practical and real than the ideal. I’m not sure entirely how successful it was – I find myself liking it for the themes it attempted rather than the success of the execution. Don’t read it expecting one of her mad, break-neck, light, melodramatic tales, but it was pleasant enough, and different and a little sad.

Flying Nurse – Robin Miller: A cheerful, eventful autobiography by the ‘Sugar Bird Lady’. Robin Miller trained as a nurse before obtaining her pilots licence, and this is an account of her early flight experience, of ferry flights from Europe and America, unusual patients, the early days of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, adventures in Western Australia and the air. She has an ear for anecdotes and for the small adventures that other authors tend to glide over, such as what provisions are made for relief on long solo flights. It was full of laughs, but also a fascinating portrait of a time and woman who although in a ‘man’s job’ refused to make concessions on that basis and undertook aircraft maintenance in short dresses, delivered babies midflight, talked rooms full of deeply suspicious miners into taking a pink medication served on sugar lumps, and who loved the huge isolated, conflicted, changing areas that she served. Robin Miller – Wikipedia. Royal Flying Doctor Service – Wikipedia.

Beasts in my Bed – Jacquie Durrell: Jacquie Durrell was the first wife of Gerald Durrell (author of My Family and other Animals among many other things – September 2008 review). This picks up with their first meeting, their hasty marriage, the painfully-written, immensely successful books (Gerald did not consider himself a writer), travelling in Africa, South America and Australia, travelling by ship with menageries, starting a zoo, beginning to make wildlife documentaries for television. It lacks the effortlessness and beautiful detail of Gerald’s own writing (although he keeps a running commentary in the footnotes), but it is interesting and light-hearted.

Two Thoughts

Book Chains: I’ve been rabbiting on to people about how I love accidental chains of books (it has to be at least semi-accidental, otherwise it’s a course of study). Flying Nurse, a garage sale acquisition, features in the longest so far: I read Nancy Bird’s autobiography My God, it’s a Woman earlier this year (January review); she talks about someone called the ‘Sugar Bird Lady’ and had her first flying lesson with Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and was married by John Flynn who founded the Royal Flying Doctor Service; I picked up The Southern Cross Story (March review) which was by Kingsford Smith, and happened to be bundled with HC Miller’s Early Birds about early Australian aviation (also in the March review); reading Flying Nurse I realised the author was not only HC Miller’s daughter, but she was also the Sugar Bird Lady (she flew the polio vaccine, which was given on sugar lumps, around Western Australia) and flew for the RFDS; I then discovered that her mother was Mary Durack Miller who wrote the Australian classic Kings in Grass Castles about the Durack family; while telling my sister this, I flipped through the book and found out it had either been signed by or belonged to Mary Durack Miller. 
Wikipedia: Robin Miller; Nancy Bird; Kingsford Smith; John Flynn; HC Miller; Dame Mary Durack.

Writing and Nonfiction: I’ve been wondering lately about that divide – indistinct but definite – between non fiction which is merely interesting, and non fiction which rises above a mere recount of events and becomes… a story on its own terms, I suppose. It’s something to do with texture and richness, the techniques (but not the sole preserve) of fiction writers – not necessarily of ‘plot’ as it is known at any given point in time, but colour and scent and thought and flavour. Gerald Durrell’s My Family and other Animals (review) is so rich you can close your eyes and see Corfu, the haze of bees, the olive trees, the ocean, the crumbling villa, the antics of the animals, the hysteria of the household. Jacquie Durrell’s writing contained interesting accounts of endearing animals and intriguing people (I did like seeing the glimpses of Gerald’s family through the eyes of another!), but it was always just an account. Isabella Bird makes you intensely aware of the miseries of being cold and damp and fleabitten in Japan (October 2008 review), of the sensation and sights and smells of standing on the rim of a lake of lava at night in Hawaii. Dickens, except when observing the small comedies of shipboard life, gives an account of America that is intellectually interesting, but not compelling on another level. M. M. Kaye’s The Sun in the Morning is richly coloured as a box of paints, while A King’s Story is the most desperately dull piece of writing I have persevered with only because I knew it was meant to be interesting (he was at war! he crossed Australia in a train that turned over! he fell in love and caused a constitutional crisis – how do you make that dull?). I read a biography of L. M. Montgomery that was awful, but blessedly short, and am reading one of Yeo Thomas that feels like an espionage thriller (although I wish the author would translate the French quotes more often). So… no conclusions yet, just observations.

September Short Book Reviews

History of the Kings of England (Historia Regum Britanniae)- Geoffrey of Monmouth. A 12th-century imaginative, odd, half-familiar, largely invented, entertaining account of Britain from its settlement by Brutus and other Trojans, through a variety of kings – including Arthur and his relatives – and queens and mighty men (some of whom liked to pick up giants, run to the coast and throw them into the sea), adventures and invasions and attacks on Rome, with a detour into the prophecies of Merlin. Such a very different world and view not just of history but of the writing of it.

My Family and other Animals – Gerald Durrell. In 1935, ten-year-old Gerald Durrell and his eccentric family (their relaxed, harried mother, the sensitive writer Larry, gun-mad Leslie and vague, romantic Margo) moved to Corfu, where for five years Gerald grew up in a very haphazard fashion among the people and animals and olive groves. Often I read a book and don’t want it to end, but also really want to know what happens at the end, so rush to get there. I did not want to find out what happened at the end of this book – I just wanted it to keep on doing what it was doing, indefinitely. Such a laid back, (sometimes hysterically) funny, gentle memoir, full of bizarre and lovely stories and descriptions that are always so accurate I could *see* the sea wrinkling around the coastline, or the haze of bees under the olive trees, or the erratic voyages of the family. The book is available in Popular Penguins so you should be able to pick it up for under $10 (Australian), and the 2005 BBC movie (I haven’t seen the miniseries) – though not on the same scale – is very true to the feeling of the book and stars the wonderful Imelda Staunton (as in Dolores Umbridge), among others.

Rapunzel’s Revenge – Hale, Hale and Hale. A short graphic novel retelling of Rapunzel in a fantasy Wild West. Sweet (at times a little too sweet) and fun, but with an edge of tales wilder than fairy tales: folk tales and tall tales and legends of the West. There was more multi-ethnicity in it than I’m used to in fairytales, which was a pleasant surprise (a bit like watching British shows after American ones: not perfect but better) and although I found the art more cartoony than my tastes usually run to, it definitely grew on me. There is an interview with Shannon Hale (on whom I already looked with favour as she had written a novel of my favourite fairy tale, The Goose Girl) by Karen Healey on Girls Read Comics which is the reason I tracked the book down, and I am glad I did.

The Grand Sophy – Georgette Heyer. I like Georgette Heyer regencies: so irrepressible and fun and even if they end in a romance, not romances at all but funny novels full of wit and misunderstandings and vengeance and mistaken identities and carriage races and duels and highwaymen. This was an excellent example, with the poor orphaned cousin come to stay with family in London turning out to be the tremendously confident, independent, capable and irrepressible Sophy, who sets about rearranging everyone’s lives to her satisfaction. It has a wonderful ending, too – a proper, Diana Wynne Jones style, everyone-in-the-cast-descending-at-once, maelstrom, chaotic ending. With escaping ducklings. And a whippet.