Category Archives: Uncategorized

Garry Disher, The Way It Is Now

And he’s done it again. Not just a gripping story but also a beautifully written one. Disher has a talent. He can capture small town Australia with all of its nuance and tension. His ability to develop complex and layered characters is outstanding and the way that he weaves a story grips me every time. He is simply a great talent and I can’t help but think that he must spend his spare time sitting like a fly on the wall in country police stations, watching interviews and processes, documenting the tilt of a head and the pain on a face or the way suspects move in their chairs. This particular tale has added to it the deep tension between a father and two sons and the mystery of a mother disappeared. The book opens with this and the thread continues to its end. There is also a fragile humanity to these characters which reminded me of my own vulnerability – not just personally but also within the context of my relationships with others and specifically within my own family.

This is a great read for the summer!

Carol Major, The Asparagus Wars

Palpable. That’s the word to describe this memoir. Palpable. And weighted – not weighty or heavy, but weighted in the way that is sits on my heart like a frog might sit proverbially in my throat. I can’t swallow this book away. It’s going to travel with me for a time.

I’ll start with the treasures that this memoir brings.

The letter writing – My dearest daughter, dearest girl and just dearest. What glorious perfection is the structure of this narrative, woven between fragmented recollections and letters, the distant past melting into the not so distant past and all of it swimming against a background of the more distant past. The literal background of battlefields an ideal metaphor for the war raging in Major’s own heart. This structure was perfect. It allowed Major to really bury herself into the heart of the matter, drawing all the strings of her pain together in what is in some way an elegy or a musical tribute to something that cannot be contained. The structure also permitted an honesty that may have been lost in another style.

The places – from Canada to Australia to France and back. Each place captured over the course of the book with tidbits and snippets, a birth, a death, the snow, a battlefield and museum. Trees in cemeteries, yellow flowers and white ants eating away at the foundations – both real and imagined. Major paints each place with such colour and nuance that its visceral – palpable – it unspools slowly captivating. The isolation of the cottage where the letters are written and the death is mourned, it has a smell of this desolation and sorrow, accented by the characters who intrude periodically on the experience. The woman who sells the pickled vegetables, the owner of the cottage, the fleeting love interest. The dead are more real than these vagrants. The dead, the memory of them and the quest to contain what remains.

The insight into government policies relating to disability support – something I didn’t expect to find in this book. The battlefield is not just the fight for survival, but it is the fight for financial support, the fight to maintain one’s dignity and independence to live despite disability rather than to hide and deny. Major’s message is humbling. She repeats her daughter’s words: “Muscular dystrophy shaped me … It’s who I am, and I like who I am. I extend the possibilities of what it means to be human.” We are all shaped by what we experience – both hardship and joy. The way we choose to respond to these things is what makes us unique. Major’s daughter chose her response to illness with clear grace and determination – “Oh, darling” writes Major, “there is so much beauty in that.” And ironically, what penetrates the sorrow of this book is the beauty. And it’s not a fleeting aesthetic beauty. Rather, it’s a deep, penetrating kind of beauty. Something that is rich and magnificent, encapsulated perfectly in unexpected places.

Rhetorical questions – “Where was the frontline?” “Where to begin …?” So much is unanswered which is often the way in grief. How does one make sense of the sorrow? As Major writes: “I am left … in this cold kitchen, still scribbling … The bubble in my throat. The feeling I must hold everything there. I cannot speak, only write these things because it is safe now. You are dead.” And achingly, “What is the larger story of us? Have you got a grasp on that from where you are now? What am I supposed to see? … – as if you are shouting down from the sky.”

The philosophical question that lies in how we classify or clarify our friends or our enemies. What does it mean to be a deserter? Is there a bad soldier? Or a bad person … a bad mother? Even in war, we are connected to our enemies. “As much as I warred with your father, it strikes me now how we were connected. Lillian and me too – because we were so deeply mired in the overwhelming feelings of war. Not better people in what we did but terribly authentic in our exchange.” I couldn’t help but think of the moment elsewhere in the book where Allied troops and German troops congregate on the battlefield and work alongside each other to repair their respective trenches.

It occurs to me only upon reflection that I don’t know Major’s daughter’s name. I flick back through the book, anxious that perhaps I skimmed over some important detail. But all I can see is dearest, darling, dearest, daughter. And the pronoun ‘you’. ‘You’ is everywhere and everything. I want to say ‘of course’ – which is what Major herself says toward the end of the memoir, of course you are nameless because to name you would be to successful contain your everything-ness and that is indeed impossible.

There is so much more to acknowledge and appreciate in this book – the love of carers, the importance of family and connections between people, the value of history, the need to remember, the tangle that is life. All of this and yet what I think is embedded in that stone sitting on my heart is the question of life and living – what is real, what is a dream, how are we supposed to live.

“The life I was living was no more than a dream, a story I’d made up, as fleeting as a spider skating on a pond.”

I find myself wanting to see a spider skating on a pond.

Chris Hammer, Treasure and Dirt

The first thing I did when NSW’s lockdown 2.0 finished was head to a store that sold books. I couldn’t help it. I needed to stand and just look at all the titles and flick through the pages, weighing each tome and wondering what surprises it held inside. I didn’t have much time because there was so much else to do, but I quickly chose seven books, embraced them and raced to the check out. My selection covered multiple genres – some of my favourite authors, a few new ones and some unknowns. Four days has passed since then and I’m worried that seven wasn’t enough … I’ve read two already… devoured them simply as though ‘freedom’ has somehow given me space and time to revel in reading. Which makes no sense at all because the one thing I did lots of during lockdown was read. But there was something truly liberating about being able to handle these books that I had chosen off filled shelves in an open store surrounded by other people also perusing titles.

So, Chris Hammer. What can I say… this was not my first foray into his work. Although I don’t generally enjoy Australian fiction, I loved Hammer’s earlier book Scrublands, appreciating his keen sense of place and his well formed, complex characters. I was quite certain that his newest book, Treasure & Dirt, wouldn’t disappoint.

And of course, it didn’t.

Treasure & Dirt transported me to outback Australia. Despite the repeated descriptions of an arid, barren land, I was never bored. Each new image added something to my appreciation of this grand country. I felt rather than saw the earth. It’s hard to explain but Hammer has a specific way of leading a reader to see the place as a significant character in his narrative. It’s quite striking but I truly feel that I ‘know’ Finnigan’s Gap in the same way that I know the characters Ivan and Nell. I empathise with them equally …

I loved the interplay between the spaces that Hammer presents. We start underground, in the prologue, literally descending into the earth to witness the results of a crime in the bowels of a mine and then we are catapulted to the view from a plane in the sky which seems to be “inviting inscription”, a “great expanse of the interior … where the land is flat and forever, too far inland for the rains to persist.” Through the eyes of our protagonist, a detective called Ivan, this view is reminiscent “of Aboriginal paintings, the land from above, imbued with spirit, replete with hidden meanings, of unspoken significance. For a moment, the magic of it resonates within him, the magnitude.” But then, reminded of his position – “he’s a policeman, not a philosopher” after all – “He shakes off the idea … There is a job to be done. There’s nothing special to be read in the landscape; painting it a different colour doesn’t alter its essential emptiness.” And then in the space in between, on the ground – the heat “is ferocious. The sun is almost directly overhead, pouring its unfiltered energy into the rocks and gravel, with little or no vegetation to diffuse it. Such is its power that the metal framework at the top of the shaft” burns their hands as they move passed the rungs of the ladder.

There is something very powerful about the way these spaces intersect and I’ve had to reconsider the action of the story based upon where it occurs. Hammer has cleverly used place to change the tone of even conversations – their intimacy either heightened or lessened depending upon where they take place. The layers highlight the book’s underlying theme which revolves around secrets, what is plain to see and all that remains hidden or buried.

I won’t give anything away about the plot because the book really is worth reading just for that alone. What I will say is that Hammer has given me a new appreciation of the challenges that many Australians face when trying to work the land. It is something that we can easily forget when living in the city and I think that part of the magic of Hammer’s work is that he pays homage to that in a thoughtful way.

Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

How does one review a book like this? How is it possible to even judge a book written by someone with such deep insight into life and living and living while dying? I don’t think it is. In fact, it’s impossible to be anything but moved by Kalanithi’s gracious manifesto which is on so many levels a love song to his young daughter, to his life, his wife, and all that he will never experience.

So do not consider this a review. Consider this instead a series of reflections about this profound and beautiful memoir.

There is no doubt that Kalanithi was an exceptionally gifted human being. Born in 1977 he graduated from high school as valedictorian, from Stanford with a BA in Literature and MA in History and the Philosophy of Science and Medicine and then – despite the fact that he had the option to pursue a PhD in English literature, he switched to the Yale School of Medicine where he graduated in 2007 cum laude winning a prize for his research on Tourette’s Syndrome. He went on to become a neurosurgeon. All of the depth of this intellectual experience is clearly reflected in Kalanithi’s book which blends art and science into a magnificent reflective tapestry.

In many ways, the book’s title reflects this tapestry – when does breath become air? Does it actually become air? What is air? Breathing is a scientific concern, the result of a biological process that involves the exchange of gasses. You can watch someone breathe. But can you watch breath? What does breath look like? It’s easy to see when it’s cold outside and breath takes on a form … but otherwise, how do we know breath? I wonder about a person’s last breath … the final inhalation and exhalation. I am reminded of my Bobba – my grandmother – whose last breath I watched. She was surrounded by family and my Oupa (grandfather). It was quite beautiful to know that we could all say goodbye. There was a ceremony to it and a sense of release that I think we all – her children and grandchildren – felt. I certainly felt comforted to know that my grandfather wasn’t alone in this moment. He took his last breath alone in a hospital room and I always felt that there was an injustice in that … but it’s another story altogether. Kalanithi takes his last breath before the publication of his memoir and the epilogue is in fact written by his wife Lucy. She commences with a poem by Emily Dickinson which sums up Paul’s attempt to reconcile his reflections about life with his knowledge of science and medicine.

You left me, sweet, two legacies –

A legacy of love

A Heavenly Father would content,

Had he the offer of;

You left me boundaries of pain

Capacious as the sea,

Between eternity and time,

Your consciousness and me.

– Emily Dickinson

Lucy tells us that Paul died surrounded by his family … his daughter, Cady, wasn’t yet one year old. A life lived … but not enough.

Yet, despite the sadness that tints these pages, this is a love story on so many levels. It’s Paul’s love for learning – for literature and words and ideas and thought. It’s his love for the human brain, for science in general, for patients and the impact that his work can have on them. It’s his love for Lucy and her love for him which she describes in an interview after his death as a kind of “forever” love. There is so much to learn here about the value of human connections and the importance of knowledge and passion and commitment to challenging oneself on all levels. Paul teaches us to never be satisfied. To always strive to improve because that is part of what makes life worth living.

Most of all, this is a book about the worth of a life. And here it is impossible to improve upon Paul’s own words:

Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described, hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.

Yet one thing cannot be robbed of her futurity: my daughter, Cady. I hope I’ll live long enough that she has some memory of me. Words have a longevity I do not. I had thought I could leave her a series of letters — but what would they really say? I don’t know what this girl will be like when she is 15; I don’t even know if she’ll take to the nickname we’ve given her. There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.

That message is simple: When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

It is easy to see why When Breath Becomes Air was a finalist for the Pullitzer in 2017. It traverses the human experience with such soft empathy that it is impossible not to appreciate both its literary and thematic value. But is also reminds us that we should take nothing for granted. Dr Paul Kalanithi, for all his commitment to learning and medicine and to understanding what makes a life worth living, never actually practised as a neurosurgeon. His diagnosis came toward the end of his 10 years of training for the specialty. What a profound irony that a man so gifted with so much to live for could die just as his life was about to truly begin.

This is a book abounding in wisdom, beautifully crafted and magnificently profound. Dr Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone, writes the prologue to When Breath Becomes Air. He ends it with the following words:

Be ready. Be seated. See what courage sounds like. See how brave it is to reveal yourself in this way. But above all, see what it is to live, to profoundly influence the lives of others after you are gone, by your words… experience this dialogue with my young departed colleague now ageless and extant in memory. Listen to Paul. In the silences between his words, listen to what you have to say back. Therein lies his message. I got it. I hope you experience it, too. It is a gift.

Simply put: Everyone should read this book. Don’t just read it and move on. Instead, read it and carry it in your heart, allow it to remind you to live not just any life, but a life worth living. Work and grow and learn and strive, but don’t do it at the cost of living.

Diana Wichtel, Driving to Treblinka

Diana Wichtel’s story is, unfortunately, not unique. Her father was a Holocaust survivor and she grew up in a house filled with silences and extreme contrast. She an

d her siblings and her mother grappled with the challenge of living with a man who was so clearly bright and brilliant but also tortured and tormented. He spoke seven languages, played musical instruments like the zither, the banjo mandolin and the piano and had a wonderful sense of humour. But he was also sometimes absent. The motif of this contrast runs throughout the book, beginning with the first chapter which is entitled: Daddy Mad Face, Daddy Angel Face. She writes: “The house seemed to doze when my father wasn’t there. When he came home, it woke up and stood to attention.”

I had the enormous pleasure of interviewing Diana as part of the 2019 Shalom | Sydney Jewish Writers Festival. One of the first things that I asked was what it was like to grow up in this type of home. She shared that it wasn’t easy. She conveys this adeptly in the book through the different genres  that she uses to describe her perceptions  and memories of her father – from snippets of his medical records from Brockville Psychiatric Hospital (“Patient married a girl from New Zealand in 1949. They met in Vancouver.”) to his own letters and memories.

Driving to Treblinka traces Diana’s attempt to ‘know’ her father long after he disappears from her life and his death. Her book sets itself up as an attempt to chase the past, to hold it and perhaps undo parts of it. In a way, reading this book reminded me of the documentary The Last Goldfish which the talented Su Goldfish created about her father and all she knew – and didn’t – about his life.

For many children of survivors, there is a delicate challenge when writing their parent’s story of survival. Diana alludes to this challenge when she retells a dream she had of her father sitting by her bed and reaching out to take her hand. In her dream, she asks him: “Is it ok that I’m telling your story?”

Clearly, the process of writing Driving to Treblinka, has allowed Diana to embrace much of what she did not know about her father, to rediscover him and to ensure that he is remembered by her children and grandchildren who were never able to meet him.

Sarah Krasnostein, The Trauma Cleaner

9781925498523 One can generally guarantee that if the lovely people at Text publish a book it’s got to be good and this one certainly proves that point! Some of my favourite Text books of 2018 include Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher, Helen Lewis’ The Dead Still Cry Out, Carlos Ruiz Zafan’s The Labyrinth of the Spirits, Garry Disher’s Kill Shot and Raphael Jerusalmy’s Evacuation.

I can now add Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner to that list.

What’s not to love about this book? Firstly, the author – a writer, researcher, lawyer with a PhD in criminal law. She’s young and gorgeous and clearly so very talented when it comes to crafting intriguing characters and magnificent plots. And she’s Australian!

The protagonist in this tale, Sandra Pankhurst, is a troubled individual with a complicated past and a devastating occupation. There are so many layers to Sandra and through her telling, Krasnostein teases them all out. Sandra is not necessarily a likeable character. Indeed, she is so deeply troubled that there is a sorrow that follows her through this book like a shadow. Her harrowing job as a trauma cleaner is perfect to convey her inner turmoil and while there are shocking aspects to this book, they are somehow fitting of the trauma that Sandra has experienced in her life.

It was only when I reached the end of Krasnostein’s book that I realised how well it was crafted. The characters and plot seemed to cover up the literary brilliance until the final pages and I’m not entirely sure what made me suddenly appreciate the literariness of the book. Krasnostein is clearly a master literary craftsman who manages to combine complex and troubling ideas of homelessness, gender bias and identity with empathy and honesty in a way that allows the reader to drown in the story without losing sight of the issues and their poignancy.

Witness, Ariel Burger

61q6GcGNoDLI had the pleasure of meeting Elie Wiesel once, at the New York Times in a large room with enormous picture windows out of which one could see a stretch across the night lights of New York City. It was for a book launch for my cousin’s book about his family, a memoir. I have to confess that I was somewhat awestruck by the venue and the view and the smell of newsprint and of course by everything that Wiesel represented in the world. My cousin introduced me to Wiesel and my memories of him are that he was shorter than I expected for someone who was clearly so great and that his eyes were more penetrating than any I had ever seen. When he looked at me I felt as though he saw straight into the heart of me, into my soul as it were. I was in his presence for less than 5 minutes. I was too in awe to say anything except ‘Lovely to meet you’ and to smile. But  I will never forget the intensity of his gaze. When I heard that Wiesel had passed away I remembered fondly this one fleeting encounter and I counted myself as honoured to have had the opportunity to meet him all those years ago in that big room in the sky with the picture windows.

When I heard that Ariel was writing this book I knew that he had to meet my cousin whose last name is also ironically Berger (different spelling and not related). It is serendipitous that my cousin, Joseph Berger is also writing a book about Wiesel although his is more of a biography. Ariel and Joe spoke. Ariel’s book was published. Joe’s book should be out next year. I jumped to read Ariel’s book and I will similarly jump to read Joe’s.

Witness is quite possibly one of the most special books I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I confess that I wasn’t quite sure what to expect … how was Burger going to share the “lessons from Elie Wiesel’s classroom”? I wasn’t disappointed. This book invoked in me a deep sorrow and sense of loss at the reality that I never got to sit in Wiesel’s classroom, that I never had the privilege of learning from him in the way that Burger so clearly did. The lessons and thoughts that Burger shares in this book are beyond inspiring. They are magnificent and profound and from the first words I was immediately reminded of the intensity of Wiesel’s gaze as I remembered it and of his path through the world as a true witness – a witness not just to tragedy and inconceivable devastation but more importantly, as a teacher and a mentor, a witness to the way that young people’s minds can grow and change as they are challenged to think and rethink their perceptions of the world and of life. In this, Wiesel was clearly a master and Burger was so fortunate to have the extended opportunity of spending so much time at the feet of such a giant.

There is so much wisdom in this book that it is impossible in one reading to do it justice. What I will share is that it is one book that I will not be sharing with friends. I want to read it again and underline the key passages that trouble me or make me smile. I want to make a list of books that Wiesel recommended or used in his teaching and I want to try and capture for myself some of his valuable lessons and find ways to use them in my life. I will be telling my friends to buy their own copies so that they can know the joy with which Wiesel lived and the way he inspired others to similarly find their joy.

This is one of those books that every thinking and feeling human being needs to read. And if you have the chance to meet Ariel Burger make sure you listen intently to all he says. His gaze is not nearly as intense as Wiesel’s – I know because I have had the pleasure of learning with Ariel. Ariel’s gaze is more graceful and less intimidating. What I remember of being in his presence is the way his gaze provides spaces for him to listen. This book stands out as a sign of Burger’s true talent as a thinker and a listener. A witness in his own right.

A Slurry of Thrillers …

I’ve treated myself to indulging in a slurry of great thrillers over the last few weeks – perfect books for the beach or for that winter’s day when you need to crawl under the covers and drown in a great story. Rather than devote a post to each of them, I’m summarising them here!

John Grisham, King of Torts

61HVddL4TxLI have no idea how this book escaped me when it was first published in 2003. I read it in one day. All 486 pages of it. I couldn’t put it down. Literally. It was fast paced and gripping and filled with a wonderful array of characters. I quite liked the level of intrigue although it wasn’t too brain busting which was exactly what I needed.

Interestingly, this book seemed to me to be somewhat of a return to Grisham’s traditional model of writing – it read like the early Grisham books that I loved. This was good.

My only criticism is that the ending was perhaps too neat.

Nonetheless, a great summer read.

Mary Kubica, Every Last Lie

Nick is dead and Clara is left to work out whether he died by his own hand or whether someone killed him. This was a fascinating insight into the mania that can grip someone when they are immersed by grief and the terrible consequences of a life built on lies and deception. Every Last Lie is a well written book with solid characters – I particularly liked Maisie, Clara and Nick’s young daughter. The sub-plot of Clara’s parents and their challenges was a nice shift and provided some unexpected relief from the intensity of Clara’s tragedy.

I had a few irritations while reading this book – but they didn’t stop me from reading through to the end!

Sandra Brown, Low Pressure

13507011Sandra Brown writes a book that is guaranteed to be exciting, fast paced, filled with the perfect balance of intrigue, deception and family drama – along with a bit of spice just to keep readers interested.

Meet Bellamy (the name was distracting). She is terrified of storms. Her fear stems from a tragedy which occurred at a family picnic when a sudden storm left her sister dead. Numerous people are brought in for questioning when it is discovered that Susan, Bellamy’s sister, wasn’t killed by the tornado but was murdered.

Bellamy spends her life living in the shadow of this tragedy and as an adult, adopts a pseudonym and writes the story which has haunted her for so long. Unfortunately, her identity is discovered and Bellamy and her family are thrown back in to the spotlight. Thus starts the journey that Bellamy has to take back to the scene of the crime and back to the people who were suspects all those years ago.

Karen Dionne, The Marsh King’s Daughter

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Dionne’s book is one of the Read Hot Reads at my local library. And what a read it is!! Dionne has crafted an intriguing and gripping tale that was simply impossible to put down. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this book and I’m not going to spoil any part of it by providing details! This is a great read for anyone who loves a good thriller.

The Secret, Katerina Diamond

downloadThe Secret is Katerina Diamond’s second book. I didn’t read the first but I’m definitely going to – if it’s anything like this one I won’t be disappointed.

I think Diamond achieved a great balance of character development, intrigue and pace in this thriller. I wasn’t certain at the outset that she would manage to juggle the elements, but it didn’t take long for me to fall in to the plot and to become gripped by the flow of events. I didn’t expect the twist and while others have criticised the ending, I wasn’t bothered by it and I found the ambiguity of the relationship between DS Grey and criminal Dean Kinkaid fascinating and definitely worth following.

I’ll be looking out for more books from Katerina Diamond.

Angela Clarke, Follow Me

27853619Well this was a surprise! One of those quick grabs from the library that grips you and throws you into a tail spin of delight. What a clever plot from Angela Clarke with a series of supremely unusual characters and a great secret between long lost friends!

Meet Freddie, a wannabe journalist who is really a waitress just waiting for her big break, living on the sofa in a share flat in London. She bumps into her old friend, Nasreen, who happens to be a cop and after following her stumbles across a murder that unfolds on social media with hundreds of thousands of people following along.

Not only was this a well written thriller with wonderfully developed characters, but it also had me thinking deeply about how easy it is to find things out about other people, how transparent the internet makes our lives and how vulnerable we really are because of the virtual world.

A great and surprising read!