Rizzoli and Isles

Enormous apologies to Tess (can I call her Tess if I’m a huge fan?). I finished the series ages ago and never blogged about it. Seriously how could that possibly happen??

Gerritsen, you are amazing. Some of these books chilled me to the bone, had me up walking through the house in the wee hours of the morning, turning on lights just to reassure myself that I wasn’t in danger of some insane intruder. I loved it.

Thank you.

Please write more. Pretty please …

I tried your books Keeper of the Bride and Thief of Hearts – both of which I quite liked. But they never stirred my blood in the same way as good ‘ol Rizzoli and Isles.

I’m waiting for more …

A Straight Line to My Heart, Bill Condon

I happened to win a prize at a Bingo fundraising evening. That was over a year ago. The prize was right up my alley – a $50 gift voucher to a cool bookshop: the kind of place I would love to frequent, if only to breathe in the smell of new books. A shop with quiet music piped through hidden speakers. A shop where the atmosphere comes at a premium of books which cost at least 20% more than I know I can get them elsewhere. But it’s an experience and sometimes that’s all that the book-person really needs.

So, I was thrilled to win this voucher and it burned a space in my wallet for almost an entire year. It wasn’t that I didn’t try and spend it. Oh no. At least twice I found myself slowly padding through this plush bookshop, skimming the delicate spines of books and trying to bring myself to spend that $50. But, I just couldn’t. It broke my heart. Each time I found myself vaguely excited about some title I heard a little voice in the back of my head squeak: you can buy two books online for that price! So I didn’t spend it.

And then it hit me. My kids love shopping and they love books. What better treat than to split the $50 between them and allow them each $15 to spend in this yummy bookstore … and it was as though someone had offered them a year’s supply of ice cream. For free. They pranced through this shop, making far too much noise, touching everything, pulling titles off the shelves, skimming them, returning them in the wrong place and all with such glee. It was like those Mastercard advertisements: Priceless.

So each of the kids got a book and I found myself with a few dollars spare on the voucher and a sale table of items to choose from. One caught my eye: A Straight Line To My Heart by Bill Condon.

As you know , I am not a native of the Australian Literary Landscape so I had never heard of Bill Condon… his name sounds a bit familiar but I’m not sure that I can quite place him. I am, however, now a huge huge huge fan. I simply fell in love with this book, truly, madly, deeply.

Condon has a special gift. His characters breathe. They leap off the page and it is as though they are sitting there in the room with you, reclining on your favourite couch, sharing a cuppa and a bikkie. They are real. More real than most people I know and despite their many flaws, they are incredibly endearing. Each character in this book has found a place in my heart and in my mind. They are people I don’t think I will ever forget.

I won’t lie… I related to the protagonist, despite the fact that she comes from a small town, that her mother died shortly after her birth, that she was raised by a single man with a child – all things that are very foreign to my world. I related to her from the first page: “There’s nothing quite as good as folding up into a book and shutting the world outside.” And I read this line at about 1am on the morning after over 40 people had enjoyed a dinner at my home and I had tidied the house, packed everything away, restored order, cleaned the floors and then folded myself into a blanket on the floor with a hot cup of tea and this book. I was Tiffany… or Tiffany was me … I’m not sure which … but it doesn’t matter … I got it: “If I pick the right one I can be beautiful, or fall in love, or live happily ever after. Maybe even all three.”

This was a book for me. When Condon quoted Wuthering Heights I almost cried. “I have twenty-five minutes to wait for my ride home. That’s plenty of time for me to visit an old friend named Wuthering Heights.” How true.

But what really touched me about this book was the tenderness that lay between these characters. How much they all felt. Bull, Reggie, Tiffany, Zoe, Kayla.

What a wonderfully magical book.

 

Ode to Joanne

Ode to Joanne:

I saw you today,
All bold and  empowered
With your once tiny bundle of joy.
You told me to go home and write,
To make sure that I didn’t squander “the gift”.
I said I would.
I lied.
 
Instead, I worried through the rest of my shopping,
Chose perfect avocados, bananas, eggs.
Hundreds of eggs.
I packed and upacked the bags,
Baked two cakes while I checked my emails
And sent text messages  and organized
Meals for some people who need
And in the background I listened to a talk
Given by another woman who helps me breathe.
I hustled and bustled and busied and raced,
And in between cakes,
A golden nugget,
A pearl much brighter than all others
Fell and landed neatly on the tip of my tongue,
Now parched and anxious for it is after 1pm
And I am yet to eat or drink or sit.
But the pearl stayed and bloomed and billowed,
While cakes rose and dishes were washed and returned to their places on neat shelves or in cupboards.
I have left a trail of flour on the bench to remind me of that smooth kernel of an idea while I danced into the shower, washed hair, soaped, dried and in my mind composed this Ode to Joanne.
And so, I will write about Grandparents.
Other people’s … perhaps my own … in short vignettes
That idle between shopping and baking and cooking and cleaning.
 
So I saw you today,
And you told me to write.
And now,
I will.
 

Finding Words

It draped in soft folds.
Black fragments of fabric that fell
and swam in deep pools around my thighs.
It cloaked me in some imagined mystery.
Pockets which gaped right where my hands naturally and nervously fluttered,
Buttons sliced me in half, a vertical equator
leaving my breasts stranded far, one from the other.
It was black.
The perfect black cardigan,
Sweeping my shadow with it,
dancing with me.
It had that smell – you know -
the one that clings to woollens and reminds you of Grandma
or Home.
And now, it is gone.
I never saw it leave.
All I have left is the caress of its memory…
and a lasting sense of the cold.
 
Today I wear gray and it is just not the same.
 
But that too is ok.

Rizzoli and Isles, Tess Gerritsen

Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 9.13.50 PMRizzoli and Isles, my new besties, my BFFs, my buddies – and who knew it was a television series?

Tess Gerritsen. What can I say. Last week I dipped my toes into the first Rizzoli and Isles book and this week, yes, seven days later, I am almost finished the sixth book in the series. I’ve digested The Surgeon, The Apprentice, The Sinner, Body Double, Vanish and now The Mephisto Club. And if I told you that I’ve avoided reviewing these books because it means taking time away from the actual act of reading, you would probably scoff, but it’s true. These books have shaken me to the core. I have never read a thriller which actually makes my blood turn cold, makes me pause and want to leap out of bed and check that the front door is locked and there are no intruders lurking.

Gerritsen is a genius. She has a gift, a gift that I will keep buying, over and over and over again.

And now, I have to run, Book 7 is waiting!!

The Ottoman Motel, Christopher Currie

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I can’t for the life of me work out what it was in The Ottoman Motel that captivated me so.

Allow me to explain, I hate Australian fiction. I don’t know why exactly, but it drives me nuts – and I know I’m generalising and that it’s ridiculous to feel this way about a whole body of work … but, I just don’t get it … perhaps I’m unAustralian?

Anyway, I tend to stay away from Australian fiction as a rule so that I don’t have to get riled up about how much I hold it in disdain. So there was no reason for me to read this book, let alone like it! I’m also not really a fan of small-town fiction (if that’s a genre?). Again, I can’t explain it … perhaps it is simply because I can’t relate to that way of life. I don’t know. Whatever it is, there really was absolutely no reason for me to enjoy this book. And enjoy it I did. I read it in one gulp. Sucked it down without pausing. Astonishing really.

And, to make matters more astonishing, I loved it. Let me be more specific: I L.O.V.E.D. IT. Really, truly, absolutely without doubt.

I found this book captivating on every level – the plot was so different, so unexpected and not in the fleeting way that a thriller throws a twist or in the way you find out that the main character has been cheating on his or her spouse. It was unexpected because of the characters, their conviction and the sense of loss which they had all experienced and I was overwhelmed by the way that Currie never led everything to a peaceful denoument, there was no resolution. There was just the idling sense of loss and despair and the knowledge that life would go on and somehow, everything would be ok.

This is one of those books that leaves readers devastated on so many levels, but primarily devastated because it is finished. It left me quite bereft and I will certainly be looking for more from this author.

 

The House of Special Purpose, John Boyne

ImageWell, I’ve already confessed to being a John Boyne fan and I think that this cements it. I simply loved The House of Special Purpose. I think that what I really appreciated about this book was the Russian context. The book is based on the attempted assassination of a senior member of the Russian Imperial family. A peasant boy steps in front of the bullet and is rewarded with a promotion to the equivalence of the Royal Guard. He becomes close to the Royal family and his role is to guard the young prince who is next in line for the throne. Through the course of the book, which is fiction with hints of fact, the revolution breaks out and the Royal family is forced into exile in a remote part of Russia.

I loved the way that Boyne used the historical context of the Revolution, Rasputin and Anastasia to construct his narrative. This both captivated and intrigued me and kept me wanting more. If my memory of Russian history serves me, then Boyne’s narrative is remarkably accurate and I found myself recalling Rasputin’s vulgarity and control as I read about his relationship with the Tsarina. While I was repulsed by the excessiveness of the Royal family, I also felt incredibly empathy for all they were trying to achieve – and of course, the central motif in the book is the deep love affair between two main characters.

I can’t recommend this author enough. He is truly remarkable.

Summer at Gaglow, Esther Freud

ImageI quite enjoyed this book for a number of different reasons. Firstly, it was remarkably easy to read considering the setting and the context: The first World War in Germany. I’m not sure what exactly made it so easy to read – perhaps the narrative flow or the characters themselves. The book itself is structured around two separate narrative strands. Firstly there is the 1914 context; a wealthy upper class family with three sisters, living in the lap of luxury, partly in Berlin and partly in their summer home in Gaglow. The frivolity of their existence flutters against the backdrop of pre-War Germany and they are concerned with the typical ‘worries’ of young girls of this period – their gowns, beaus and parties. But beneath this facade is a wonderful subtext of angst which arises in the strained relationship between the girls’ mother and their governess. There was something incredibly malicious and indeed malignant about this dynamic and I found the way that the governess manipulated the girls incredibly intriguing. At the same time, the mother’s inability to maintain any sort of connection with her daughters was similarly interesting. In all, the family dynamic was captivating.

The second narrative strand is a relatively contemporary one, set in London, it features the descendants of this wealthy German family. I didn’t find myself able to form the same connections to these modern families as I did to the original German ancestors. In the initial narrative I was lost in the swirl of events and entertained by the way in which each woman related to the other. While the modern families features a similar type of relationship between sisters, it didn’t have any of the same nuances and I found the girls difficult to know in the same way that I felt I knew the original troupe – Eva, Martha, Bina.

Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the read. Not a perfect book, but it certainly has some wonderful features.

A Train in Winter, Caroline Moorehead

I am really irritated. I wrote this wonderful (clearly I’m biased) blog post about A Train in Winter but didn’t quite get to finish, was interrupted mid sentence and failed to save the post. And it was long and I spent quite some time really pondering what I wanted to say because this is one of those very important books that should be read by many many people. It is one of those books that lingers with you as you read it and then afterward churns in your mind, bits and pieces of the text and its weight popping like bubbles in still air. POP.

I finished reading Moorehead’s book over two weeks ago and it has taken me this time to mull over it, to weigh it like a precious stone, to try and make peace with it. I don’t think I’ve succeeded. It is too dense, too weighty, too intense – perhaps just too important – to be the kind of book that one can read and then shelve and leave in the dust of other books. This book asks to remain.

A Train in Winter tells the story of  “Forty-nine of the 230 French women, thirty-four of them communists, who had left Paris twenty nine months earlier on the Convoi des 31000, had lived to see the end of the war. A hundred and eighty one of their friends and companions had died, of typhus, brutality, starvation, gassing; some had been beaten to death, others had simply given up. Not one who had been over the age of 44, and very few of the youngest, were still alive.”

The women spent two years and three months in German camps where they “witnessed both the worst and the best that life had to offer, cruelty, sadism, brutality, betrayal, thievery, but also generosity and selflessness. Their reserves of strength and character had been pushed to the very far limits of endurance and every notion of humanity had been challenged.

An ambivalence marked them all. They no longer felt themselves to be the same people and, looking back at the young women they had once been, full of hope and confidence and excitement, they marvelled at how innocent and trusting they had been. There was no innocence left, in any of them; and they would not find it again.”

I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed this book. From the outset I found it challenging and at times I had to force myself to continue, to plough through the forests of political context and the brief snippets of introduction to the lives of the various characters who litter its pages. But there was no doubt in my mind, from the very first words of this tome, that this is a book that every human being should read, must read.

What Moorehead has accomplished in this one text is mammoth. With amazing dexterity and patience, she has woven a tapestry of France during the Second World War, of the political climate, the people who dared to think differently and speak out and the machinations of the Nazi war machine. And, she has done it all without focusing on ‘the Jewish Question’. The combination of all these elements results in a text that seethes with the tension of the period and I think the absence of a Jewish focus makes this text even more powerful. This is not to imply that Moorehead belittles or diminishes the significance of what happened to the Jews of Europe under Hitler; rather by presenting the experiences of these women, her book creates a more complete picture of what was going evolving beneath the facade of French society during this period.

While the background of France and the War was interesting to read, what was more intriguing was the final segment of the book which shed light on the post-war period, the ‘Return’ and the French responses to this return of refugees and prisoners of war:

“Working day and night under an avalanche of papers, prosecutors considered untainted by the occupation assembled dossiers on 311,000 suspected collaborators and presented them to various courts of justice. A large number of documents was conveniently found to have mysteriously disappeared. Sixty thousand cases were shelved. Of the rest, just over three quarters of those charged were found guilty. Seven hundred and sixty-four people were executed and 46,145 sentenced to ‘national degradation’ which meant that they lost voting rights, were banned from membership of a union and from a number of professions and that they forfeited medals, decorations, honours and pensions.”

While I have grown up with the number 6 million firmly etched in my consciousness, I found myself appalled to read about the sheer volume involved in the Nazi enterprise. Why had I not really comprehended the extent of this before? Why had I not learned more about those who escaped appropriate punishment?

“And there was no always sufficient evidence to convict the clearly guilty. In the dock, in courts all over Europe, those charged argued that they had only obeyed orders, that they had been under duress themselves and that they were victims of mistaken identity.

On trial in Warsaw, Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, struck the court by the calm with which he described the gas chambers, explaining, with technical precision, the process of asphyxiation and how roughly a third of the people died at once, while the others ‘staggered about and began to scream and struggle for air’.”

There was one episode in the book which captured the absurdity of the situation: “Cecile, returning to the 11th arrondissement in Paris, was approached by the policeman she knew had given her away. He put out his hand and smiled. She turned her back on him.” To think that people thought that things would simply return to the way they had been …

And all of these women were heroes: “Marie-Claude was the only survivor of the Convoi des 31000 to be called as witness at Nuremberg. She appeared on the 44th day of the trial, on Monday, 28 January 1946. Dignified and articular, her fair hair wound in a plait around her head, she described, in firm, clear sentences, what she had seen and experienced in Birkenau and Ravensbruck. She answered questions about her arrest in paris, her friends and colleagues shot by the Germans, her months in La Sante prison; then she talked about the journey from Romainville to Auschwitz, the roll calls, the brutality of the guards, the gas chambers. She used the word nous, us, because she was speaking, she said, not just for herself but for the 229 women deported with her. She talked about Alice Viterbo, the singer with only one leg, who had fallen in ‘the race’ and begged Danielle to give her poison before she was driven away to her death…. Later she would say that, sitting in the witness box, looking across at Goring, Bormann, Donitz and von Ribbentrop, she thought to herself: ‘Look at me, because in my eyes you will see hundreds of thousands of eyes staring at you, and in my voice you will hear hundreds of thousands of voices accusing you.’”

The integrity of these women clearly illustrated by Cecile’s response to this event:

“When, the following year, Israel proposed to confer on her a medal as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, she refused to accept it, saying that everything that she had done in Auschwitz and Ravensbruck was only natural, logical and born of a ‘moral obligation’.”

And then how to comprehend the reality of a return when these half people made their way back to their homes to try and re-assemble their lives:

“What all the women found almost hardest was how to find the words to describe what they had been through. Having imagined telling their families exactly what it had been like, they now fell silent. Often as it turned out, the families did not really want to hear: the stories were too unbearable to listen to.”

Many of them felt as though they had never returned at all:

“Charlotte arrived back in Paris with the feeling that she had indeed survived, not as herself, but as a ghost, floating in a world that in some way did not exist.”

Despite the enormous sorrow that litters the pages of this book, what I learned from reading it was the magnificence of the power of friendship, how it can inspire a person to survive against all odds, how important it is to help us feel human and I think that it is this that haunts me:

“They learnt, they would say, the full meaning of friendship, a commitment to each other that went far deeper than individual liking or disliking; and they now felt wiser, in some indefinable way, because they had understood the depths to which human beings can sink and equally the heights to which it is possible to rise … And they would agree that there were times when the past and the memory of the camps was more real to them than the world about them … Charlotte longed for the first year of return to end, so that she would no longer be able to say to herself: ‘a year ago, at this time…’”

I’ve always thought that people who write about the Holocaust – both survivors and others  - do so in order to ensure that people never forget while at the same time trying themselves to forget. How does humanity move on after a Holocaust like this – how do people become human again? It is impossible to fathom.

“In Charlotte’s “book Auschwitz and After, she spoke of having two selves, an Auschwitz self, and an after-Auschwitz self, like a snake shedding its skin in order to gain a new one; always, she feared that the skin might grow thin, crack and that the camps would get hold of her again. Only, unlike a snake’s skin, her skin of Auschwitz memory, so deeply etched that she could forget no part of it, did not disappear. ‘I live,’ she wrote, ‘alongside it. Auschwitz is there, unalterable, precise, but enveloped in the skin of memory.’

There were thus two kinds of memory: the now, which she called ‘ordinary’ memory, and the ‘me or then’ which was la memoire profonde, deep memory, the memory of the senses. The first allowed her to see Auschwitz as part of a narrative, something that had happened and ended, and it made going on possible. The second condemned her to feel that Auschwitz was never, and would never be, over. The thinking, ordinary memory allowed her to transmit the facts; the feeling memory enabled her to convey a glimpse of the unimaginable anguish that accompanied them. Like Paul Celan and Primo Levi, she used careful, stark words, beautifully balanced and without embellishment, in order to touch the reader by appealing to the senses. She wanted, she would say, to carry her readers into Auschwitz with her, to make it as real for them as it had been, and would always be, for her.”

I count myself as lucky – I have never known such tragedy. I have never had to contemplate the true enormity of this experience and I have never feared for my freedom. I live in comparative luxury, with ‘first world problems’ and I try and never forget to be grateful for these small things.

“Mado, who was 22 when she had been sent to Birkenau, told Charlotte that when her first baby was born after the war, she was overwhelmed by a feeling of immense happiness, but that almost at once she was invaded by ghosts of the women who had died without knowing this particular delight. ‘The silky water of my joy,’ she explained, ‘changed to the sticky mud, sooty snow, fetid marshes.’

Then she went on: ‘The life we wanted to find again, when we used to say ‘if I return’ was to have been large, majestic, full of colour. Isn’t it our fault that the life we resumed proved so tasteless, shabby, trivial, thieving, that our hopes were mutilated, our best intentions destroyed?’… So she had decided not to talk any more about Auschwitz. ‘Looking at me, one would think that I’m alive … I’m not alive. I died in Auschwitz, but no one knows it.’”

The Absolutist, John Boyne

Well, it’s official. I am a huge John Boyne fan. I don’t follow many authors but Boyne has joined my special club and I am in awe of his ability. This book did not disappoint. I was gripped from the outset: “Seated opposite me in the railway carriage, the elderly lady in the fox-fur shawl was recalling some of the murders that she had committed over the years.” I read this, expecting the book to unfold as a thriller, took a deep breath, anticipating the regular formula to unravel as I read through the text. So, I was duly surprised when it eventuated that said “elderly lady” was an author, and the murders to which she was referring were from books that she had written.

But this, of course, had absolutely nothing at all to do with the book itself. Instead I was quickly introduced to the narrator, one Tristan Sadler. A young man with a treacherous secret and a sordid history of experience during the Great War in France.

The book follows Sadler, alternating between his recollection of his time as a soldier and his attempt to come to terms, in the present, with the consequences of actions that he took while in combat, in France. I found that the mix of these two times – present and past – worked extremely effectively and allowed Boyne to truly explore the weight of Sadler’s conscience (or lack thereof).

Not only does this book present an excellent insight into conditions at the Front, but it also allows readers to properly appreciate the complexities of those left on the Homefront, specifically women who were waging their own battle to gain the right to vote and to be allowed a “room of one’s own”, to use Woolf’s turn of phrase. I was particularly moved by Boyne’s ability to convey the horrors of war and the insanity which follows such depravity. He uses this background with great flair to explore the twist that is Sadler’s cross to bear throughout his life.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book.