Monthly Archives: August 2016

The Fence, Meredith Jaffe

4628453360_335x515“I promise you one thing, young lady. Building a fence is not going to keep the world out and won’t keep your children in. Life’s not that simple.”

I have a thing for fences, ever since a History professor of mine during my undergraduate degree set an essay question about the Arab-Israeli Conflict using Robert Frost’s poem, Mending Wall, which ends so poignantly: “Good fences make good neighbours.” I’ve wondered often about this notion and the concept of personal space and delineation, how fencing something out can sometimes equate to simultaneously fencing yourself in, protection and preservation meets isolation. So it was that this book appealed to me immediately.

Meredith Jaffe has done a marvellous thing in this story. She’s brought two such incredibly diverse characters together in direct opposition to tell her story over the construction of a fence.  This book magnificently describes Australian suburban life, epitomised by Gwen Hill who has lived on Green Valley Avenue since it was first constructed. Her house and garden epitomise everything she loves about the street and the neighbourhood. Here she has grown her family, built friendships, nurtured herself and her husband. And into this warm space comes Francesca Desmarchelliers, Frankie, who is everything that Gwen isn’t. She is city chic and concrete to Gwen’s lush gardens, she is unruly and modern to Gwen’s conservatism and she is desperately trying to save her marriage and her family

What evolves is a wonderful insight into the challenges that neighbours sometimes face, into how we engage each other as people and into the empathy that is required to move successfully through this world.

Jaffe’s novel is a delight! She’ll be speaking on a panel of debut authors with Nathan Besser at the upcoming Sydney Jewish Writers Festival – you won’t want to miss this one!

Advertisements

Man in the Corner, Nathan Besser

BesserI just went on a crazy ride with Nathan Besser in his debut novel, Man in the Corner. Crazy because in this novel Besser has woven together a collection of seemingly random threads to create the kind of fiction that has the mind boggling. I’m not even sure how one describes this genre – it’s kind of a psychological mystery verging on family drama with some crime fiction twists to it. It’s filled with strange twists and some intriguingly scary characters. And the strangest thing is that while reading this twisted tale, you can’t help but feel like its protagonist, poor David, who is apparently stuck in a plot that he can’t seem to escape, victim of a series of crimes which have made him into a criminal.

What appealed to me most about this tale though, was the fact that it was set in Maroubra. I live in Maroubra. The places Besser describes, the streets, the cafes and the vistas, are all places that I know and this made my insight into Besser’s tale even more delightful. I dare say it’s the first Australian fiction that I’ve read and enjoyed in a long, long time.

It is easy to see why Simon Baker loves Besser’s book. It will make an outstanding film. It was a delightfully gripping read, although difficult to review without giving away too much of the plot!

Nathan Besser will be speaking at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival on Sunday August 28th at 4.30pm along with other debut novelists Lexi Landsman and Meredith Jaffe. Don’t miss this exciting opportunity to hear from a new generation of authors!

Saved to Remember, Frank Vajda

It is hard to know what is most awe-inspiring about this book – Vajda’s story of survival or all that he achieved in the years following his liberation. Both narratives are extraordinary.

I read this book as I do most Holocaust memoirs, with a deep breath, stealing myself against what is about to unfold and waiting for the triumph of a magnificent spirit. Vajda’s book fulfilled most of the expectations. It describes his family, the life they lead before the war, their relationships and experiences. It explains in stark detail the war itself, how he survived and most specifically his encounter with Raoul Wallenberg at age 9.

Vajda’s introduction clearly sets out his reasons for writing:

I survived by a series of near misses and coincidences.  Although not being mutilated physically, I became scarred emotionally as a result. Being able to recollect in writing these events and their effect on conditioning my subsequent responses is an opportunity I am grateful for…

… This narrative however is secondary to my prime motive of expressing feelings of sorrow and shame, and, as much as any single person can, trying to prevent the recurrence of circumstances that culminate in racial mass murder.

It is impossible not to be moved by Vajda’s story and by the brave clarity with which he narrates it. However, what impressed me most about Frank Vajda is the brief CV which accompanies his entry on the Booktopia website.

Frank Vajda AM, Officer 1st.cl. Royal Order of Polar Star (Sweden), MD FRCP FRACP, is a consultant neurologist, Professorial Fellow, University of Melbourne, Director of the Australian Pregnancy Register of Antiepileptic Drugs, Past President of Epilepsy Society of Australia, International Ambassador for Epilepsy, Member of the International Pregnancy Register Board, Head of the Free Wallenberg Australian Committee and Founder of Raoul Wallenberg Centre of Clinical Neuropharmacology.

This combined with Vajda’s reference to close friend Jacob Rosenberg whose magnificent poetry is beyond inspiring, led me to further investigate Vajda’s CV which I found online, an impressive 50 page document clearly exposing Vajda as ambitious, dedicated, a gifted physician, and a high achiever. I poured slowly through his CV, marvelling at his contribution to academia and his honours, appointments and long list of qualifications. I was left feeling conflicted for here is a man who has achieved greatness as a neurologist, helped hundreds if not thousands of people through his work and changed the face of neurology through his research and so much of all that he has achieved has come about because of the devastation and tragedy of the Holocaust. So much of who he is seems to come as a direct result of all he lost. How does one reconcile these contradictions? Vajda has done just this by making it his mission to honour those who were lost and to bring recognition and honour to heroes like Raoul Wallenberg who saved so many lives.

In my mind, while Wallenberg is clearly Vajda’s hero, Vajda himself is a hero for telling his story and for bringing so much richness to our world.

Not only should you read Frank’s book because of the light it sheds on this dark period of human history; but you should also make sure that you are present to hear Vajda talk about surviving the Holocaust which he will be doing on a panel at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival on August 28th.

Whisperings in the Blood, Shelley Davidow

download (1)Reading this book was like being taken gently by the hand and walking into the heart of music. Literally. It was beautiful. A song painted in bright colours and then filled with a shower of stars and then softly faded into delicate hues of autumn and spring and heart ache and wonder. I am positively in awe of Davidow’s writing, of the tenderness of her narrative voices and of the layered strands that she has woven together to create this masterpiece. It is difficult not to gush.

This book made me fall in love with my own grandparents, long to hear their voices and particularly to feel the shudder of my grandfather’s own violin. It made me wonder at my own family’s journey across continents to arrive at this grand Antipodes and I ached for all that was lost in that litany of moves.

I don’t want to reveal too much because, as I tell my students, there’s no point trying to retell a story that belongs to someone else. You will never tell is as well as the person who owns the story. So, all I’m going to do is give you the gift of Davidow’s opening few paragraphs. The rest I will leave you to savour when you find this book and sink into it and drown in the story and its people.

The spring of 1913, and a young man from a remote village in Lithuania steals a ride on a train headed for the city. Everything around him as turned the colour of ash, as the cold seeps across the land, pressing any signs of life deep into the ground.

Perhaps it is written in his blood: a special code which will emerge later in someone else, generations into the future, in nightmares and fears; in someone’s inability to breathe. In Vilnius, the frowning buildings as he arrives stop him from breathing.

He has a sense of impending tragedy. Maybe his lack of breath has to do with the act of leaving. And yet who would ache to leave this behind – this wasteland of grief and broken souls? Pogroms and nights of bloodshed and terror will live in him no matter how far he travels. Loss has encoded itself in the flow of his blood, in the beating of his heart – a ghost that will travel through time, through his DNA.

The future is already written, but he cannot read it. He can only sense its weight, its texture, and he has to believe that anything is better than this. As his life flashes by outside a fast-moving train, his past dissolves. The village and the 1800s have disappeared forever. This hours in the wig factory are gone. He hopes he will no longer feel he must apologise for the act of living.

Go. Find this book. Read it. Now. And then book yourself in to hear Shelley Davidow speak at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival.