Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser

If you have a neat row of Lonely Planet titles on your bookshelf – their bright blue spines and bold white lettering proclaiming exotic locations – then you ought to read Michelle de Kretser’s novel, Questions of Travel. Anyone who has sought an ‘authentic experience’, ‘immersed themselves’ in the culture of another country or thought they were ‘off the beaten track’ is likely to squirm –

“…the fraudulence of souvenirs that suggested pleasure while commemorating flight.”

“France – well, France had always been blighted by the necessary evil of the French. But if only Laura had seen Bangkok before the smog/ Hong Kong before the Chinese/ Switzerland before the Alps/ the planet before the Flood.” Continue reading

Conrad & Eleanor by Jane Rogers

Sometimes you get more ‘enjoyment’ thinking about a book after you’ve finished it, rather than while you’re actually reading it. I use the word ‘enjoyment’ loosely because the post-book thinking I’ve done about Conrad & Eleanor by Jane Rogers has been about how irritating the characters were rather than what was intended (reflections on a dying marriage).

The story is moral-thriller. Conrad and Eleanor have been married for decades. Both are scientists yet Conrad is more interested in their four children than his work, while ambitious Eleanor is focused on her career. When Conrad fails to return from a conference in Munich, Eleanor begins to speculate as to why – her affairs? His jealousy over her career success? His discovery of their daughter Cara’s parentage? Meanwhile, Conrad finds himself in Italy, on the run from a crazed animal rights activist. He has lots of time to think. It’s a hot mess. Continue reading

Two autobiographies by Drew

“I had my first drink at age nine, began smoking marijuana at ten and at twelve took up cocaine.” 

Drew Barrymore’s legal emancipation from her mother at age 14, her self-driven ‘rebranding’ as teen-seductress, and her multiple engagements and three short marriages were still to come. So it should make for some wild reading, right? Actually, not really. Continue reading

Two books about the Holocaust

Fairly sure I said something about not reading much about the Holocaust in the last decade or so because I overdid it in the eighties and nineties… Anyway, seems that went out the window when I read The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman and The Toy Maker by Liam Pieper, one after the other.

The books are similar in many ways – both tell the story of an Australian man living in the present alongside the story of a Holocaust survivor; both are set in the ‘Canada’ barracks at Auschwitz–Birkenau and examine the role of the Sonderkommando; both have themes of good versus evil, penance, and the measure of crime; both show that there are lessons in history.

“History can provide comfort in difficult or even turbulent and traumatic times. It shows us what our species has been through before and that we survived. It can help to know we’ve made it through more than one dark age. And history is vitally important because perhaps as much as, if not more than biology, the past owns us and however much we think we can, we cannot escape it. If you only knew how close you are to people who seem so far from you… it would astonish you.” (Perlman)

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These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper

Stories about people in apartment buildings are a bit like stories about groups of school mates for me – you invariably have a mixed bunch of characters who are tied together because they have one (physical) thing in a common – a building. I generally quite like these stories, which is why I picked up Fran Cooper’s These Dividing Walls (the very pretty cover also swayed me).

These Dividing Walls is about a particular apartment building in Paris. It’s described beautifully, just as I imagine the quintessential apartment building in Paris to be – a courtyard, heavy wooden doors, flower boxes, winding staircases, a garret room at the top and, the pièce de résistance, a bookshop at the bottom. Continue reading

The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak

Five thoughts about The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak –

01. It’s full of glorious eighties details (so beautifully accurate that I’m wondering if it’s a tiny bit autobiographical…?).

We played marathon games of Risk and Monopoly that dragged on for days and always ended with one angry loser flipping the board off the table. We argued about music and movies; we had passionate debates over who would win in a brawl: Rocky Balboa or Freddy Krueger? Bruce Springsteen or Billy Joel? Magnum P.I. or T. J. Hooker or MacGyver?*

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The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke

In Maxine Beneba Clarke’s twitter bio, she says “I try to write beautifully, about ugly things.” And that’s precisely what she does.

The Hate Race is a stunning, devastating, and powerful memoir. Clarke tells of her ‘typical’ Australian childhood – there was just one major difference between her and the rest of her classmates – she has brown skin.

The most striking thing about The Hate Race is how similar Clarke and my childhoods were. And also how very, very different. Continue reading

Poum and Alexandre: A Paris Memoir by Catherine de Saint Phalle

Poum and Alexandre by Catherine de Saint Phalle is a curious book. It’s a memoir, focused on Saint Phalle’s Parisian childhood with her unconventional parents, Marie-Antoinette (Poum) and Alexandre –

“The patterns of the eccentrics are often rigid. My parents have many idiosyncrasies and any new ones become instant habits. Theirs is a disciplined madness.”

The book reads like a fairy tale. Told through the eyes of eight-year-old Saint Phalle, her stories are studded with references to Greek mythology, The Odyssey, the Magna Carta, visits to Givenchy, the Napoleonic Wars and the French Resistance.

“He talks the whole time about Alexander the Great, Constantine, Caesar, Julian the Apostate. He tells me of palaces and forests, galloping  horses and raped women. His voice gathers momentum and his hands seize javelins and slave girls. He canters up hills where we stare at burning cities.” Continue reading