Witch Week 2020

Not long now!

Witch Week, the annual celebration of fantasy fiction, begins in under 2 months. Lory @ EmeraldCityBookReview created it to honor Diana Wynne Jones, author of the Dalemark and Chrestomanci series, along with dozens of other fantasy novels and short stories. These days I co-host Witch Week with Chris @ Calmgrove, and we’ve lined up a frightening array of posts for the week between Halloween and Guy Fawkes’ Day.

Our theme this year is GOTHICK, and our guest bloggers will cover nearly 300 years of gloom and doom, including a discussion of our read-along novel, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Pick up a copy and join us for a week of thrills.

Here’s a little something to put you in the mood:

Posted in Fantasy, Gothic, Witch Week | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Hashtag Jane Austen

Twitter has misinformed me. There I was, getting all excited about #AustenInAugust, and it turns out not to be a thing. It was a thing in 2019, but apparently not this year.*

Do I care? Not a fig, for that tiny bit of misinformation led me, via a circuitous route too complex to recall, to this little bit of fan fiction published just as WWI was preparing to change the face of Europe.

Old Friends and New Fancies: An Imaginary Sequel to the Novels of Jane Austen (Sybil G. Brinton, 1914, NYPL e-book) is the likeliest candidate for the prize of First Piece of Jane Austen Fan Fiction. Brinton’s only novel, it gathers major and minor characters from Austen’s six major works, focusing to a greater part on Georgiana Darcy, Kitty Bennet and Mary Crawford, whom Brinton has chosen to place at the center of her marriage plot. Austen herself had said that Kitty eventually married a curate who lived near Pemberley (which Brinton uses), but gave no hints of Georgiana’s and Mary’s fates. That Brinton rehabilitates Mary Crawford initially struck me as odd, but of all the women left unmarried in Austen’s work, she is, in fact, the most attractive and intelligent. In the end, I was relieved that all barriers to her happiness were removed, just as with the others. After all, that is what a marriage plot is about

Most of the familiar characters are there: The Wentworths, Tilneys, Knightleys, Bingleys and Darcys, Edward Ferrars, and Edmund Bertrams are all healthy, still happily married and comfortably settled throughout England. They provide houses — both in the country and in London and Bath — for the others to visit and intermingle, setting up all kinds of possibilities for match-making. The fact that these families all know each other seems a bit far-fetched, given the range of their wealth, but it isn’t strictly impossible. (It makes me want to write a sequel/s that show how each meets the others.)

Knowing Austen’s plots certainly helps in understanding relationships between and among characters, especially as some are only briefly referenced, but isn’t required. Being a Janeite is required, however, in being able to appreciate Brinton’s attempt to model Austen’s style. Here, for instance, is Brinton’s first sentence:

There is one characteristic which may be safely said to belong to nearly all happily-married couples–that of desiring to see equally happy marriages among their young friends; and in some cases, where their wishes are strong and circumstances seem favorable to the exertion of their own efforts, they may even embark upon the perilous but delightful course of helping those persons whose minds are as yet not made up, to form a decision respecting this important crisis in life, and this done, to assist in clearing the way in order that this decision may forthwith be acted upon.

It’s an excellent attempt, although perhaps a bit long and lacking Austen’s spritely tone. Compare it with this:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Note the word seemed, in which Austen suggests that Emma, “handsome, clever, and rich”, may be missing something important to her maturity — something that, perhaps, can only come from being distressed and vexed. Brinton’s sentence, no matter how closely it adheres to Austen’s style, gives no hints of unformed character, nor does it make any satirical statement, as do the starts of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. It lacks that knowledge of human nature that lies behind all of Austen’s prose.

It’s a brave soul who takes on the burden of writing sequels to Austen, which these days run the gamut from murder mystery (P D James) to romance (Joan Aiken) to horror-parody (Seth Grahame-Smith), not to mention all the modern reworkings for film (Clueless, Bride and Prejudice, etc.). I can understand the allure: Austen’s characters are irresistible. When Brinton brings Jane and Elizabeth’s father, Mr. Bennet, to Pemberley for a short visit, I relished every statement he made concerning Kitty’s frivolity and desire for attention. On being asked for permission to marry Kitty, Mr. Bennet explains to the man,

Let me know when the time comes to wish you joy …, and I will do it, but life is so uncertain that I think for the present I had better refrain. Have you ascertained whether Kitty can cook, make her own gowns, and trim hats? I understand it is a great promoter of married happiness when the wife can do so, and I am not sure whether all my girls have turned their education to such good account.

I wish Mr. Collins had also appeared, and I absolutely longed for Henry Tilney’s teasing wit.

Despite its failings, Old Friends and New Fancies was good entertainment. I generally feel about Austen sequels the way Dr. Johnson felt about women preachers: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” To be honest, Brinton has done surprisingly well with this sequel. I can recommend it to anyone who is not ready for another read-through of Austen’s oeuvre.

*If #AustenInAugust2020 is out there, please let me know!

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Getting over the Don’t-Wants

LA palm trees at dawn, early June 2020

Maybe you’ve never heard the term, but you know the feeling: Low energy, little interest in doing anything that isn’t absolutely essential (cleaning, eating, sleeping), general listlessness.

But stop right there — I don’t deserve anyone’s sympathy. I know I spent three months in paradise, of which I took full advantage. I was able to gratify every don’t-want imaginable, and it was lovely. Don’t want to go for a walk? Fine, guidelines said to stay home anyway. Don’t want to talk to anyone? Fine, staying inside guaranteed a safe social distance from others. Don’t want to cook? Fine, my daughter’s happy to do it. Don’t want to write? Fine, I don’t have my computer anyway. Don’t want to read? (Yes, that happened.) Fine, I can watch all four seasons of The Good Place for the third and then fourth time, or listen to podcasts about The Good Place, or just stare at the sky from the terrace off my bedroom and think about the meaning of The Good Place.

But I had to leave eventually, and after this month at home, I realize again how lucky I’ve been (especially since season 4 of The Good Place isn’t available here. Gah!!!). Also, I realize how much I’ve let slide, and it’s time, at last, to correct that. Kick out the don’t-wants, bring back the action.

NYC sunset, early June 2020

So, with jetlag finally cured, my days have become more productive. I spent the last week of June in an online writer’s workshop, where I got feedback on a MS I’ve been working on for six years. New readers, new inspiration — I’m making some major changes and will submit the revised MS to agents starting in August. Deadlines leave no time for the don’t-wants.

Lory at Emerald City Book Review has inspired me to read something in French. I have Harry Potter 1, as well as Candide and a few other books. I think I can manage to read at least one during July. I just finished a reread of Cornelia Meigs’ Invincible Louisa and have decided to take on the bulk of Louisa May Alcott’s novels, starting with An Old Fashioned Girl. After the first chapter, I can already see an inspiration for L M Montgomery’s Anne Shirley (which I have no way of proving, so I merely note the resemblance).

Then there’s Witch Week to prep for. Chris at Calmgrove and I are lining up some great guest bloggers, who plan to review Gothic novels and short stories from the UK, Italy, and the US. We hope you’ll join us as we celebrate the creepy, spooky, mysterious, fantastic, grotesque, and bizarre worlds created by gothic authors, all in honor of Diana Wynne Jones.

Who are your favorite gothic writers? Even if you don’t join us as a guest blogger, we hope you’ll review something in that genre during Witch Week. Let us know in advance, and we’ll give you a shout out.

Happy reading, everyone, and, as always, stay safe.

Posted in Am reading, Am writing, Gothic, Witch Week | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Farewell to Aotearoa

Moon over Aoraki, over Lake Pukaki

With mixed feelings, I’ll soon be leaving this lovely country. But I’m so grateful for the refuge it has provided my daughter and me.

To all my readers, I hope you also have found comfort somewhere during these months, in friends and family, in books, in art, or — like me — in the beauty that surrounds us.

Next time you hear from me, I’ll be home again. Safe journeys to all of us.

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More from down under

Some good news: we’ve booked our flights back to NYC, to arrive late afternoon on 03 June. 90 days in New Zealand (60 more than originally planned) have exponentially increased my respect for the people of this country. They know how to treat each other well.

If only …

Nope. I refuse to go down that road. Instead, let me introduce you to an Australian author, one who deserves more attention: Jaclyn Moriarty. If you know of her, it’s most likely through her YA Ashbury/Brookfield series, which includes The Year of Secret Assignments. Perhaps at some other time I’ll review those books, but today here are two that are so far apart in concept that I wouldn’t blame anyone who thought they weren’t penned by the same person.

Unknown-1The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone (2018, NYPL e-book) is MG fantasy-adventure at its best. 10-year-old Bronte, orphaned and living with an aunt, learns that her parents have recently died during a pirate raid. She has never lived with them (they set off on their travels just after she was born), so she isn’t very upset, but in order to inherit their estate, she must visit each of her other 11 aunts to hand-deliver some small gifts, following a precise itinerary (including where to stop for tea and tasty scones). And she has to do this alone, traveling across the realm by coach, ship, foot, and even dragon. Oh, yes, there are dragons, along with Spellbinders and Whisperers and child-snatchers, not to mention those pirates.

A mixture of the third-child trope from fairy tales (how she responds to the people and situations she meets along the way governs her luck) and practically every adventure yarn you can think of (including Sabatini’s Captain Blood), Moriarty’s fantasy delivers a perfect tale with complex plot strands that are all neatly tied up by the end. Early on, Bronte jumps into a raging river to save a baby, building a chain of connections that come into play when she finally has to face the Whispering King.

Moriarty undercuts our expectations of fantasy. For instance, Bronte’s Aunt Sophy is a dragon vet, and explains how to talk to dragons:

… if you want to say “Sleep is the best thing for you, Dragon Sayara, and when you wake, your throat will feel much better,” you make these noises: grrrr eek! eek! bro, grl, brl, and at the same time, you bend, touch your toes, straighten, then punch yourself in the stomach.

The 12 aunts, each with her own special attributes, include ship captains, that dragon vet, a queen, parents, businesswomen, and one who is in love with a mer-man. The variety is mind-boggling.

I can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel.

UnknownMoriarty’s other novel under review here, Gravity is the Thing (2019, NYPL e-book), is for adults and includes no fantasy at all. In it, Abigail (Abi) Sorenson, in her mid-thirties and recently divorced, single mother and cafe owner, is still mourning her brother, Robert, who disappeared the night of her 16th birthday and all these years later no one knows what happened to him.

Meanwhile, through all these years, Abi has been receiving bi-weekly letters from “The Guidebook”, some letters just two or three lines, others much longer, but each setting her a task (physical, mental, or otherwise). The novel begins as she heads off to a weekend retreat, where others on the same mailing list have gathered to “Learn the Truth about The Guidebook.”

The “Truth” is that The Guidebook has been preparing them to fly, without wings or equipment. No joke. And I remind you that this is not a fantasy.

From Abi we learn about her 3-year-old son, Oscar (who ages 2 years over the course of the novel), her divorced parents, her ex-husband and several disappointing, dissatisfying — even abusive — boyfriends, her former career as a lawyer and then decision to open the Happiness Cafe, where she wants to help her clients find happiness, even if only via a great muffin.* The chapters move back and forth in time, quoting occasionally from Abi’s annual “reflections” on The Guidebook (required for submission, but there are three she didn’t send), from The Guidebook itself, and then taking us through the weekly meetings of those who want to learn the Truth.

It’s impossible to represent the joy underlying this very dark book. The shadow of Robert’s disappearance lies over everything, and how this is resolved shows the power of Moriarty’s plotting and careful writing.

Moriarty, in Abi’s voice, attacks the labels rom-com, and chicklit — both of which could accurately be applied to this novel. But because it goes much deeper into Abi’s “rage at a world that cheapens, dismisses [her] need for sex and love,” this novel stands out:

The sneering at the happy ending, the pursed lips intoning: You don’t need a partner! You must be happy with yourself, content to be alone! ¶I don’t want a man to save me; I am happy with myself. Only, this longing for physical contact is real, a shape with dimension, and it’s all on a continuum with longing for closeness, for friendship, connection, for love. It’s a yearning that reaches back to lost best friends, lost brothers, lost birthdays, lost birthday wishes.

The realness of every character in this novel is a big part of what made me so happy I’d read it.

*If you listen to podcasts, Freakonomics’ recent episode, “Reasons to be Cheerful” addresses this very issue.

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Although restrictions have eased a bit, I’m still under lockdown beneath the southern cross¹ (aka “lolling in the Antipodes”). Still doing needlework, still getting out for walks and short bicycle rides, still reading Little Dorrit (as dense as overdone grits so not as easily gobbled as Evelyn Waugh’s early prose; yet I persist).


imagesEleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine  (Gail Honeyman, 2017, NYPL e-book)

Early in this novel, it becomes clear that 31-year-old Eleanor has a tragic past. She is a combination of misanthrope, language police, and brick wall, strongly seasoned with Asperger syndrome. In response to strangers phoning to sell her something, she whispers, “I know where you live” and then hangs up. Figurative language is not in her wheelhouse. (Someone asks her if she’s seeing anyone, and her response is “Yes”, meaning yes, she’s seeing the person she’s conversing with at that moment.) She sneers when she sees her colleagues’ over- and under-use of apostrophes, and she believes it’s weak people who fear solitude:

What they fail to understand is that there’s something very liberating about it; once you realize that you don’t need anyone, you can take care of yourself. That’s the thing: it’s best just to take care of yourself.

This is a story of a damaged soul saved from itself². Eleanor begins the process after developing a crush on a local musician. She decides she needs to spruce up if she wants the musician to notice her, so she opts for a make-over that encompasses hair, clothing, and make-up.

Over time, the make-over expands to include mental as well as physical well-being, and I couldn’t help cheering for Eleanor as she learns more about how to be happy with herself and comfortable with other people. She starts to pull bricks from that wall I mentioned earlier. But there was a point where I noticed myself missing the old rough-edged, literal-minded Eleanor and hoping she could hold on to the part of her that doesn’t like the “gilded cage” of normalcy:

… like the chicken that had laid the eggs for my sandwich, I was more of a free-range creature.

At the end, when the full scale of Eleanor’s tragic past is revealed, I wasn’t surprised. Any careful reader should be able to guess her story. But there’s nothing wrong with an ending that fulfills expectations. Honeyman’s writing doesn’t falter, and there are scenes of pinpoint exactness: the “bronze” of autumn leaves piled along a sidewalk, the utter despair caused by disappointed hopes, the disquieting instants of self-understanding, the comforting scent of a friend, even if they smoke.

Strong writing, unforgettable characters, a satisfying ending — I can’t ask for more.

¹Every time I see the southern cross constellation, this tune from Richard Rogers’ Victory at Sea runs through my mind. My dad was a WWII naval veteran, and he loved this music.

²For similar redemption story, see Ricky Gervais’s After Life, available on Netflix.

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Creative thinking

REMINDER: This was written in February, aka BCEW (before COVID evicerated the world).

I can’t think of many novels about new ideas — about how the thinkers came up with them, rather than the consequences to the world — but here are two that I’ve always enjoyed.

Spinster, Sylvia Ashton-Warner (1958, Simon and Schuster). In this novel, a fictionalized version of Ashton-Warner’s life as a rural infant-school (the equivalent of today’s “pre-K”) teacher in post-WWII New Zealand, we find the narrator, Miss Anna Verontosov, struggling to teach unruly Maori and Pakeha children who are more inclined to dance, sing, leap — even fight — than to sit quietly as model students. Pressures are intense, never easing up, and Miss V — herself a musician, painter, and writer — bucks against the “normal” teaching methods that would have the children engaged in rote learning devoid of the volcanic emotions and creative zeal that seethe through them. Yet she can’t help feeling guilty about how often she fails to create the “model” classroom, especially when the Inspectors come to visit and evaluate.

At the same time, she must deal with the men in her life: the supportive Head of her school; a much younger fellow teacher who pursues her romantically; a sympathetic new Inspector; the man in England she years ago rejected — often her own emotions overwhelm her, and most mornings she needs a swig of brandy before she can leave her door and walk the few steps to the school.

But something happens, slowly. From the first pages, Miss V is trying to see what she is missing in her teaching, some “key” that will open a door to learning for her students. All along she gives us samples of the children’s writing, brief story-poems of drunken parents, fights, jail, spankings (called “hidings”), nightmares, deaths — but also of kisses, hugs, dancing, joy, love. Finally, she makes the connection. The state-approved books have passages like

Mother went to a shop. I want a cap, she said. I want a cap for John. She saw a brown cap. She saw a blue cap. I like the blue cap, she said.

Her children write passages like

I ran away from my mother and I hid away from my mother I hid in The Shed and I Went home and got a hiding.

The “key” she’d been searching for was there, in her own students’ writing. Their own lives provide the stories they want to read about.

Following Miss V’s progress towards this discovery (which eventually occurs about two-thirds of the way into the novel) is exciting. Ashton-Warner lets us see Miss V’s frustration, anguish, doubts, inklings of something big but not yet graspable. She discusses her ideas with the school Head, the colleague who wants to bed her (she keeps him at bay), the Inspector whom she wishes wanted to bed her, herself — all the time circling closer and closer to the eureka moment. It’s extremely satisfying when she finally gets there, shocking how simple and obvious the new idea is.

Ashton-Warner wasn’t the first to note the lack of diversity in schoolbooks, but she was certainly one of the early exponents of how important diversity is. Her ideas about teaching reading and writing influenced researchers and educators throughout the English-speaking world. Miss Vorontosov, however, didn’t fare so well. Despite the Inspector’s respect for her ideas, he gives her a poor grade as a teacher. In the final pages, we find Miss V back in England, sheltering under the care of Eugene, the man she’d rejected so long ago.

The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin (1987, Penguin Books). Chatwin called this book a “novel”, even though there’s much in it that is non-fictional. The narrator, Bruce (I’ll call the author “Chatwin”), is a writer whose favorite subject is nomads, and he’s in Australia trying to understand the meaning of the Songlines, the Aboriginals’ stories that are like maps that trace routes past hills, gullies, stones and flatlands. He’s in Australia at what seems to be a turning point for the Aboriginals — a movement to protect their lands from white encroachment is growing stronger, with new laws governing procedures for building new roads or other structures in the Outback.

From Alice Springs, Bruce accompanies a lawyer whose task is to check the route of a north-south trucking road. The man (Arkady) wants to be sure the route doesn’t disturb any sacred Aboriginal sites, so he needs to meet with several tribal leaders — there’s no one person who knows it all, and most know only a few hundred square miles of territory. It’s a huge task, but one Arkady obviously relishes.

In the few weeks that Bruce spends with Arkady, he meets dozens of Australians, both white settlers and Aboriginals, most of whom are friendly, some of whom are racist, a few even combative. There are violent meetings, dangerous hikes in the bush, flat tires and other breakdowns, nights under the stars, mosquitoes and flies, bad food, poverty.

But never does Bruce despair. He feels he’s getting closer to understanding nomadism — why it is that some people prefer to wander, carrying their homes with them. At one point, he quotes an Indian proverb: “Life is a bridge. Cross over it, but build no house on it.”

Interspersed with the story of Arkady’s hunt for various Aboriginal leaders are Bruce’s memories of visits to Afghanistan, Iran, India, Arabia, Timbuktu. And then, about half-way through the book, begins a series of excerpts from Bruce’s “Notebooks”, moleskine notebooks in which he has jotted notes, impressions, quotations, questions, and observations. These notebooks were, for me, fascinating — as with Ashton-Warner’s novel, they show a writer’s process of exploring an idea from several angles — literary, cultural, historical, and personal experience, all conglomerated into a whole that is incomplete (Bruce is never able to fully answer his question about why nomadism is a thing) yet comprehensible. I suspect that many of them are copied verbatim from Chatwin’s notebooks.

The notes include brief meditations on Hell, violence, monotheism, Konrad Lorenz, instinct, and so on. (I was reminded  of W G Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, where a fictional Sebald wanders through and around Norfolk, while meditating on sericulture, the Belgian Congo, Roger Casement, and so on.)

Chatwin’s book is strongly flavored with the Australian Outback, giving me what I hope is a correct understanding of what life is like for all who live there, whether in towns like Alice Springs (which Bruce didn’t like) or on remote stations or amidst a group of humpies (basic Aboriginal shelters). The food is sometimes awful, but the sense of unbounded space remarkably freeing for Bruce — until a moment when he understands how close he is to a lonely death in the bush.

Where Ashton-Warner’s novel is full of near idyllic scenery — masses of flowers, cozy fires in rain storms, paved streets and city sidewalks — Chatwin’s presents something harsher, quieter, larger, lonelier. Each book has cruelty, violence, alcoholism, each presents a native culture harmed and irreparably changed by European intruders. But because Chatwin’s writing is stronger (much as I love Ashton-Warner’s book, her narrator is often overwrought), his Australia is realer than Ashton-Warner’s New Zealand. Her book, written 30 years earlier, still has a flavor of the “enlightened colonialist” eager to help the uneducated natives join “civilized” society. Chatwin recognizes the importance of local knowledge, and also recognizes how useless his own abilities are. Anyone could land in Ashton-Warner’s rural New Zealand and thrive. How many of us could do the same in Chatwin’s Australian outback?

Posted in Am reading, Australia, Fiction, New Zealand | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

More from NZ


As requested, a photo of my New Zealand-themed bookmarks. Missing only hems and backing.

Lockdown update #3: No essential change in our situation here, although in a couple of days NZ may move from Level 4 to Level 3. If so, more businesses can open if and only if they can guarantee social distancing requirements for all employees AND all business with customers will be contact-free.

At Level 3, restaurants can offer take-out, so we can mix up our meal menus a bit more. I can cycle to the beach. Perhaps a bookstore will make deliveries. Maybe I can get a jigsaw puzzle! Good news, if it happens. (And, best of all, it means that NZ has not just flattened the curve, but has shown a net decrease in new cases.)

I’m not writing much, but definitely thinking about what kinds of changes I need to make in my dystopian sci-fi work-in-progress — how to take into account this current mess. It fits perfectly, and helps account for one person’s death, but please note that this WIP will not be my pandemic novel.

imagesI’m still making my way through Little Dorrit, but meanwhile I’ve finished Waugh’s Vile Bodies and started A Handful of Dust. Also finished: Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and a Vonnegut short story about assisted suicide, called “2 B R 0 2 B”. Just about right for my current mood.*

I’ve just picked up Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine — just 5 chapters in, and I can’t put it down. I’m forcing a break to write this post, but heading back soon. With a cup of tea.

Keep safe, everyone, and be kind.

*Note that all books mentioned are via the NYPL e-book collection. Thank you, NYPL, for this service!

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Lockdown, part 2

{FCF33C37-F75C-44AE-9D2D-915861D5E948}Img400Nearly 3 weeks into Level 4 response in New Zealand: no one has gone crazy. People are still polite, keeping their distance while walking on sidewalks or in parks, and not overshopping in grocery stores.

My AirBnB host delivered a bicycle to us a couple of days ago, and how wonderful it is to glide through the quiet streets. Very little traffic, glorious early fall weather, friendly people, big parks. While pumping up a tiny incline I passed a woman who encouraged me by chanting “Pedal! Pedal!”

Note to self — get back to exercising. No way should a footpath bridge arcing slightly over a 30-meter wide stream require any kind of adjustment in my pedaling.

51DOGmEOJFLOtherwise keeping busy with hand-crafted projects (embroidered NZ-themed bookmarks for readers in my family), reading (1/4 of the way through Little Dorrit, plus finished Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall and Black Mischief). Satire for these crazy times, and surprisingly apt. Black Mischief gives us a remarkably incompetent ruler, and in Decline and Fall we find a truly dreadful English public school. One of its teachers, while in prison, learns something:

… one of the first discoveries of Paul’s captivity was that interest in “news” does not spring from genuine curiosity, but from the desire for completeness. During his long years of freedom he had scarcely allowed a day to pass without reading fairly fully from at least two newspapers, always pressing on with a series of events which never came to an end. Once the series was broken, he had little desire to resume it ….

I’m not exactly “in captivity”, but I certainly understand Paul’s relief at being out of the loop. It’s bliss.

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Have you forgotten something?

Despite being set in two different centuries, nearly 100 years apart, the books in today’s post share one element: a blinkered Euro-centric view of life “down under”. Read on to see what I mean.

In A Town Like Alice (1950, NYPL e-book), Nevil Shute’s novel set during and after WWII (and made into a pretty damn good series back in 1981) comes in essentially two parts: In the first, Jean Paget tells her lawyer, Noel Strachan (the novel’s narrator), about the horrors of being a prisoner of the Japanese during the war. She and the other survivors of a several-hundred-mile march across Malaya — only 17 of the original 30+ women and children captured when the Japanese invaded the Malayan peninsula — finally settle in a village on the eastern shore until the war ends more than 2 years later. Back in England, she inherits a small fortune and decides to use some of her money to build a well for the women back in the Malayan village that harbored her and the others. Then she learns that Joe Harman, an Australian she thought the Japanese had killed, had NOT died, and the second part of her life — and this novel — begins. Already in love, they connect, weather many difficulties (most of which involve a modern Englishwoman adjusting to life in the outback), and settle happily on a station, where Jean uses more of her funds to vitalize the nearest town’s economy.

For an adventure yarn (based on the true story of nearly 80 Dutch civilians marched through Sumatra, with fewer than half surviving), it’s a great book, if you can remain blind to the underlying problems of racism and colonialism, of outsiders (i.e., Europeans) taking over and destroying land inhabited by indigenous peoples (i.e., the Aborigines). Jean Paget easily falls into adopting Joe Harman’s slang, using racist language around her husband’s Aborigine stockmen without any kind of awareness of their presence. She builds an ice-cream shop in the town, setting up a room in the back where the Aborigines can buy treats without mixing with the whites.

Antique botanical print, Acacia, Australian wattle

I don’t blame Jean for her behavior or lack of awareness — I blame Shute. He’s happy to make the point that the women who survived the march were the women most willing to live as Malayan women did — going barefoot, wearing lighter clothing, being subservient to and respectful of not just their Japanese captors but also the Muslim townsmen who they relied on each night of their march for food and shelter — willing, in the end, to work in the rice paddies. Jean, in fact, because she knows some of the language, becomes the group’s de facto leader — the other women, at best, have learned only enough words to give orders to their servants. Yay for some enlightened linguistic/cultural/religious views! But the first thing Jean says, when she first meets Joe Harman after 6 months of marching, is, “It’s such a relief to meet a white man again!”

OK, I get it. The book is set in the 1940s and 1950s, when racial issues weren’t a concern for white people in Australia and New Zealand. I suspect that Shute himself, having just moved to Australia, wasn’t interested in the Aborigine’s POV — he had a great story to tell, and he tells it well. I just wish there’d been even a tiny nod of recognition that Joe and Jean, and even Noel Strachan, were doing well at the expense of others.

Lady Barker’s Station Life in New Zealand (1883/1987, Viking Penguin) is a series of letters, written between September 1865 and November 1868 (and then later edited by Lady Barker for publication). The letters tell of her 3 years on a sheep station in New Zealand’s South Island, about 30 miles west of Christchurch. It’s astonishing to think of life on a sheep station in New Zealand, less than 50 years after the first British settlers had arrived. So new were the British settlements that Lady Barker considers herself one of the “pioneers”, and often writes admiringly of how well her fellow Brits have settled into Christchurch and the stations across the Canterbury plains.

Her life isn’t easy — she and her husband have to deal with floods, fires, a blizzard that kills nearly all their stock and nearly starves the members of her household, the death of an infant, illnesses, loneliness, inept servants, bad food, and non-existent roads. Every trip involves crossing at least one river (sometimes the same river several times), so to travel means to be wet throughout the day. The upside is every settler is a good neighbor — doors are always open, and even the most isolated shepherd will stoke his fire, boil up a pot of tea, and offer you his bed for the night if you show up at dusk, wet and tired.

But again I say — what about the Maori? Lady Barker hardly mentions the native New Zealanders, whose presence she first notes, briefly, just outside of Christchurch as she and her husband travel to their new home. She describes them, not flatteringly, and then refers to “some reserved lands near Kaiapoi where they have a very thriving settlement, living in perfect peace and good-will with their white neighbours.” Really? At just about the same time, on the North Island the Maori are at war with the white settlers.

And then there’s the environment. Wekas (native birds) are hunted relentlessly, because they make it impossible for pheasant and partridge to survive (the English must have their shooting parties!). Two years later, as Lady Barker is lounging near a lake, she yelps with pain: a weka has just poked her with its beak. I cheered for the bird.

She notes that totara trees are becoming rare across Canterbury, as settlers use them for fence posts, furniture, construction. Entire houses are built of kauri wood (by the early 1900s, this tree was reduced through logging to less than 10% of its original population). Sheep outnumber people, and graze relentlessly.

Illustration of C. scoparius from Köhler’s Medicinal Plants (1887)

In The Bone People, Hulme’s protagonist worries about the Europeanization of New Zealand. Paul Theroux, in The Happy Isles of Oceania (1992), begins with a brief visit to New Zealand. He notes that the Maori set the environmental degradation in motion when they arrived on New Zealand more than 1000 years ago — introducing dogs and rats to the island (before this, there were no meat-eating animals outside of birds), as well as hunting many of the birds to extinction. The islands’ “natural balance was disturbed,” he writes;        “[t]he arrival of these predators produced the ecological equivalent of Original Sin.” White settlers brought additional problems: first rabbits, and then stoats and weasels to hunt the rabbits, and then deer and elk. Not to mention plants! Theroux writes, “no growing things are hated more than the rampant gorse and broom planted by sentimental and homesick Scots.”

Funny. When Lady Barker mentioned how grateful she was to see broom’s yellow blossoms on the New Zealand hillsides in the spring, I’d been thinking, how sweet. Now I know that this plant is an invasive species in NZ, crowding out native plants and changing the local ecology. Ah well.

Posted in Adventure, Am reading, Australia, Fiction, Historical fiction, History, New Zealand, Travel | Tagged , , | 2 Comments