When Hungry, Eat, Joanne Fedler

ImageWe all know that when it comes to writing, Fedler has a gift. It’s a gift that comes in a large box and when you peel away the wrapping, you realise that it’s the kind of gift that gives endlessly, that unfolds slowly over time, that touches you in places you didn’t know existed. This is what makes Fedler one of THOSE kinds of writers. You know the type I mean, a writer to envy, with passion that pulses in the shallow surface below her words; a writer who means what she says and says what she means and then dresses it up as though the words are going to the Oscars or some equally brazen event where people sparkle and someone talented like my beautiful cousin Gita Bass does their make up.

I read this book in one sitting, punctuated by about 7 hours of sleep which struck when I seriously couldn’t hold off any longer – and I tried, really I did. 

There was so much about this book that made me tingle. Clearly I related to Fedler’s story: my parents decided we were going to immigrate when I was about 14 years old and my brother and I were so angry with them that we didn’t speak to them for quite some time. I remember feeling as though they had stolen something primal from me and for a very long time it felt that way. So I empathised with the essence of Fedler’s story because it too was my story, and the story of so many people I know.

Fedler’s honesty in this book took my breath away. She writes so frankly about her family and herself that I felt at times as though I had crawled into her skin and was walking with her, a mile in her shoes so to speak. I still can’t shake the notion that if I bumped into her Granny Bee in Heaven I would know her simply by her gait, perched on high heels, immaculate with an egg lifter balanced against perfectly manicured nails. 

But at the same time I feel as though Fedler is somewhat of an enigma. She writes what could be described as popular fiction but with a flair of magnitude that is simply breath taking. Her books are filled with awe inspiring words of wisdom:

“I don’t believe God punishes sin … Personally, I prefer ‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch’. You can call the bill that arrives in the post ‘punishment’ or ‘karma’, but you still have to pay it.

I don’t know if God answers prayers or creates miracles. For my part … I have always spoken to God easily, but that could just be me… I also believe that if we pray for the ‘right’ things, like insight, wisdom and strength to deal with the problems and crises of our lives, then our prayers will surely be answered. Praying to win the Lotto or for a Mercedes hatchback is putting a call through to the wrong department. Isn’t that Santa Claus’s jurisdiction?”

 

How true. That we should all pray for the strength to live through all that God sends us and Fedler’s prayers have clearly been answered. 

I could continue waxing lyrical about the various achievements of this book. I could explain to you the mammoth contribution that Fedler made to the position of many women in South Africa, I could tell you of her battle with food, the trials of her moving across the world with her small family, trying to recreate a life for herself and for them while battling her own demons. I could tell you about her love for her family, her parents, grandparents, her intense passion for her Jewish identity. But that would all be for naught. I will simply say: READ THIS BOOK. Stop everything, go to the nearest library, bookstore, website, friend and READ THIS BOOK. Beg, borrow or steal it. But read it. You will not be sorry. I certainly wasn’t.

A Book Binging Bonanza

Some people binge on food. They eat until they are going to burst and then just when they think they can’t fit another slice of anything into their already exploding belly, they eat some more. They stop just before they vomit and then they sit and percolate until there is the tiniest vacuum and they jump in for more. Some people struggle with this type of relationship with food. It is mostly beyond my ability to comprehend, mostly, but not entirely.

While the foodies are wiping grease and marshmallow clouds off their lips with the backs of their sleeves, I am doing the same with a book … although it’s different. I know people who sneak chocolate, hide it down the side of their couches, eat it while no one is looking in quite furtive bits. I sneak books. I confess. I do, I always have and I probably always will.

When I know I should be sleeping, when my brain is so exhausted from processing information that I am sure it is going to spontaneously combust, I can still muster the power to consume another page, a sentence, just a few more words. If you really want to drive me crazy, interrupt me in the middle of a book. Any book. If you see my eyes glaze over with love, my posture bending into the words on the page, you know I am gone, as though some Italian Romeo has swept me off my feet and sprinkled star dust in my eyes, whisked me off to some other planet when there is only soft pillows and mountains and mountains of words on pages.

So it is with much joy that I can announce that this week has been a book binging bonanza of the most brilliant kind. It started with Condon’s beauty which I reviewed here and I can hardly believe that that romance was so brief and over only a few short days ago. It continued with an unlikely find: Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes by Per Petterson and the grand finale was Fedler’s monumental and intensely emotional roller coaster, When Hungry, Eat.

Confession: I have no idea who Per Petterson is, where he lives, what he does when he isn’t writing lovely books like Ashes in My Mouth, and I don’t think I care. All I know is that when I last visited the library (love the library), I was desperate to immerse myself for half an hour in between the pages of a million new possibilities but there was no air conditioning and while I’m committed, I’m not entirely insane. So I raced through the aisles anxiously grabbing at things instead of pacing myself and perusing leisurely. I came home with a haphazard assortment and Petterson’s little gem was in the pile.

ImageWhat can I tell you about this book? To start with it is quirky – in size and in subject matter and even, at times, in tone. It is only 120 pages and measures about a small hand span in size (I am small and it’s my hand that is spanning its height). The first chapter is entitled: “A Man Without Shoes”. I love the way Petterson introduces readers to his protagonist -

“Dad had a face that Arvid loved to watch, and at the same time made him nervous as it wasn’t just a face but also a rock in the forest with its furrows and hollows, at least if he squinted when he looked. Of course you can be a bit unsettled if you look at your dad and suddenly there is a large rock where his head used to be.”

- and it’s a translation! Seriously this man is a genius! Our young narrator continues: “But most of the time Dad was just Dad, someone that Arvid liked and dared to touch.”

This book is about a lot of things, but mostly, what struck me was the purity of Arvid’s relationship with his father. The adoration with which he could watch his Dad’s body move beneath his blue shirt, the intense attachment he felt to his family and the enormous volume of things that he just didn’t understand.

I loved everything about this book. It’s simplicity, the way it so resembled the landscape which formed its backdrop – a simple lack, large wooden houses, a barn – and the enormous weight of events like the death of a grandfather which teeter on the edge of a little boy’s notion of his world. I loved the way Arvid called his neighbour ‘FATSO’ in a rage of anger, which was true, because he was fat and everyone else called him Fatso, although not to his face, and I loved even more the fact that Fatso forgave him the way he couldn’t forgive himself, the way that he told Arvid it was ok it he wanted to keep using the nomenclature, and then, suddenly, it no longer tasted so good. There was so much to love about this book …

except the ending. I didn’t like the end. It left me … I’m not sure of the right word … unfulfilled. It could well be that this was Petterson’s motive, a captivating insight into the lives of ordinary people which are really incredibly mundane and uneventful. Perhaps. But the interjection of the reference to the war in the final page and Arvid’s placating ‘I know, I know’ didn’t ring true for me.

Despite this, I really loved this book. I read passages repeatedly to myself, playing the words over and over, I felt with Arvid, his fear, his wonder, his love.

Petterson is a magnificent story teller and I found myself reading this book and wishing that my writing could be more like his.

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

Image

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.