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.

January Short Book Reviews

Bath Tangle – Georgette Heyer. I enjoyed the characters in this novel – the headstrong (of course), beautiful & independent heroine and the contrast to her much quieter, gentler, younger widowed stepmother who, while reticent and shy and loving a very different life from her stepdaughter, is not disapproved of for that; the magnificent and self-aware vulgarity of the fabulous Mrs Floor, who uses her family’s opinion of her to further her own ends; the silly young lovers, the unwise decisions of older couples, people who were once in love realising slowly that the person they thought they remembered has changed, or never existed. Heyer does write characters very well, and although I wish they weren’t all so unmitigatedly beautiful, quite frequently I end up liking them in spite of that.

Regency Buck – Georgette Heyer. I like the setup of this – brother and sister making their way to set up life in London in spite of the advice of their guardian cross paths with an arrogant and offensive young man on their way and arrive in London to find out that he is their guardian. Enjoyable, although not my favourite (possibly because I did not find Judith, for all her capability and enterprise, as much as some of Heyer’s other heroines) and containing the excellent piece of advice that if you cannot be beautiful, you should be odd. I have noted that Georgette Heyer does seem to have a rather low opinion of brothers. They often turn out alright in the end, but they don’t usually seem to be very admirable characters for most of the book.

Life Expectancy – Dean Koontz. Aimee told me to read this because the family of bakers, web designers, and pet-portrait artists, living their eccentric night-time life, beset by crazed clowns and scheming dynasties of trapeze artists, reminded her of my family. And she was quite right – their dinner time conversations were not at all unlike ours. One line contained in the book, prelude to an account of the perils of unrestrained flatulence, was “Grandmother Weena had a relevant story…” and the day after I read that passage to my parents, my grandmother called and, over speaker phone, actually said, “That reminds me of a relevant story…” and began a tale about being discovered on the wrong plane during WWII. But the book reminded me a of Gaiman, in the accounts of small desperately peculiar lives which appear so normal to the characters in the story.

White Tiger – Aravind Adiga. More mainstream/literary than I usually read, but an intriguing and entertaining book and told from within a culture I’m not familiar with, as all of the books I have read about India have been written from a British perspective. Education, class, murder, entrepeneurship and a series of letters dictated late at night to the prime minister of China.

A Company of Swans – Eva Ibbotson. One of Ibbotson’s adult novels, this is the story of Harriet who escapes her dull and loveless family in Cambridge by running away with the ballet to perform in Manaus along the Amazon River. Although it is not my favourite of her books, I enjoyed it, the beauty and melodrama and exotic scenes, and the fact that although the ballet itself is portrayed as very beautiful, the life and effort of the ballerinas is not completely glamorised.  The morality of this, as in other of Ibbotsons books, is a little peculiar – seemingly amoral and then retreating into fairly traditional endings. I haven’t worked out my thoughts about that yet.

Journey to the River Sea – Eva Ibbotson. A gratifying little book, with more depth than some children’s and YA novels I’ve read recently. By depth I don’t mean “layers” or “themes”, just… meat? A book that’s more like stew than soup? Something to sink teeth into? It’s quite charming and very much in the way of A Little Princess or Little Lord Fauntleroy (the latter features directly) and set again along the Amazon River (a year or two before A Company of Swans but written 16 years later) – it has English governesses and boats and wicked relatives and charming Russian families and giant sloths and museums and opera houses in the middle of the jungle and traveling theatre troupes and missing heirs and oppressed orphans. Great fun.

Ella Enchanted – Gail Carson Levine. I’ve only seen the movie once, and a few years ago now, but it put a big block in front of my enjoyment of the book on its own terms. Also, I was trying to read it as a Diana Wynne Jones sort of story and as Aimee pointed out later it is more of an Eva Ibbotson tale, even though it’s in a fairytale setting. I did enjoy it, and I liked the characters much better than in the movie (Ella more put-upon and more capable, Char not at all annoying), but I wanted it to be a little deeper (although that is very likely a hangover from the blithe superficiality of the movie).

My God, It’s a Woman – Nancy Bird. Not an autobiography to read for its literary quality, but one which related a fascinating time and lives. It is not so much an account of Nancy Bird Walton’s life as a survey of the early years of aviation in Australia and around the world and is full of accounts of planes found nose down in Chinese vegetable gardens, of pilots navigating through bushland by telegraph lines (because if you got into trouble you could land on the cleared strip, climb a pole, cut the line and wait for a technician to come and rescue you), of hair-raising landings, of lives and loves lost without a trace over oceans, of thrilling air-races, planes that were known to fly backwards during sandstorms, the forgotten women pilots of WWII, of Thai princesses smuggling persian kittens into the planes of pilots, of pilots lost and found in New Guinea, of the surprise of a farmwife at having two women land in her paddock and come up to the house for morning tea, of heroics and politics and a young woman trying to make a living as a charter pilot in outback Qld and NSW during the 1930s. It did not have an index, which would have helped a lot as the structure of the book is sometimes confusing, but it did have an excellent bibliography which I am tempted to read through.

Tender Morsels – Margo Lanagan. I’m surprised at how controversial this book has been, particularly given the novels of Sheri S Tepper, McKinley, etc. I think a distinction can be drawn between Horrible Books in which Things Happen, and Books in which Horrible Things happen, and this was one of the latter, although unlike some in that camp I would still recommend it (with caution) to those I know who are particularly sensitive to those things. I thought it was a beautiful book, inspired by the strange weirdness of the fairytale of Snow White and Rose Red and spinning that into a weird and poignant story all of its own which reminded me of Tepper’s Beauty in the uncomfortable edges of it and the way Lanagan made something wholly separate from and yet true to the original tale, and of McKinley’s Deerskin in the way the wonder and sorrow and beauty and love grow from something terrible, and (surprisingly) of Diana Wynne Jones or Hayao Miyazaki by the end in the strength of the characters which emerge and the way people must learn to make lives in spite of, and because of, being human and in a broken world.

Also: Ezra, Nehemiah, Matthew, Acts