Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

It was a situation where I felt I had to buy a book before I left the shop and the longer I looked, the less likely I felt I would end up with something I wanted. But all of a sudden I stumbled on this Tyler from 2016, which is apparently part of a series where modern writers are commissioned to do a take on a Shakespeare story. On the one hand, I have read all the books written by Tyler except for the one that won a Women’s Literature prize, which I felt obliged to boycott. On the other, I hate The Taming of the Shrew and I could see no good coming from this.

Yes, I thought to myself grimly after ten pages, just as I suspected. A dud if ever there was one. But actually, sticking to it, I quickly came to like it. Not love. And I think it fades towards the end. But not awful, at any rate. I don’t feel like I should have spent the ten bucks on smashed avo instead. High praise indeed.

At its best this is classic Tyler. The caricature of scientists is well done. The scenes where she is working as a teacher’s assistant with little children are as charming as Tyler gets. Indeed, one is left wondering if it is a happy ending that she marries and becomes a one child family botanist when she could give so much joy to so many children.

I’m really undecided overall with this one. Anybody read it? Please tell me what you think!

An Italian Education by Tim Parks

I’m working my way through Tim Parks’ books, this being my third. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as his Italian Life, but the circumstances were invidious as I read the whole thing during several weeks spent at my mother’s bedside in hospital. It’s really hard reading in that environment, it’s all so noisy and there are constant interruptions. Ostensibly it’s about his children growing up in Italy. But is it they, or he, who are receiving the education? Both I suppose. There are some hilarious scenes – when his son takes it upon himself to learn to fish stands out.

On the more sociological side, the extraordinary, and I thought rather repellent, relationship between children and mothers, even adult children and aging mothers is discussed at length. The Madonna statues littering the countryside. Small children refusing homework answers from fathers. ‘I said I wanted mummy to answer’. Fathers might just as well not bother knowing what 7 x 3 equals. And then as adult children sharing beds with mothers. Mothers overprotecting their children in ways that we’d think of as neurotic, but apparently normal there.

There are no families in the way one thinks of Catholic Italy. Apparently one child families are the norm. Tim Parks and his wife are considered crazy by their friends and neighbours as they go ahead with child two.

The portrayals of school life are interesting and funny in a depressing sort of way. There is a nice example of rules, getting around rules, and expanding to how that affects government at a wider level.

I hope I haven’t made this sound dry, it isn’t. I’m looking forward to my next – I still have a few on the shelves.

Careful He Might Hear You by Sumner Locke Elliott

Astonishing work, about which many words have already been written. I don’t really want to add to them other than to point out it’s hard to believe that these rivetting 500 pages are all true. More or less, and closer to more than less, that is.

Here is a link to a 1995 PhD by Sharon Clarke which is the most information we have about his life and work.

Sumner Locke Elliott: Writing Life

There is a movie, which is available on Youtube at the moment. Not sure how to see it otherwise.

Dance of the Happy Shades by Alice Munro


Cleaning up: my goodness, I wrote this in 2014 and didn’t get around to publishing it. 

Sociologically speaking, Munro’s worth her weight in gold. Her stories preserve aspects of social history – mores, language, ways of living, the looks, the smells, the landscape – in a form that goes well beyond what is possible in documented sources. Nor does she need to introduce the drama necessary in movies. She can make things 3D without glasses. Layers of small vignettes that add up to a whole world – her world.

And because it is her world I suppose, her books, I see as I randomly attack them, seem to have a quality that reflects time and age. This set, her first, is preoccupied with the young and adolescent. It reads like a first. Slightly green and rough, they feel like maybe they were harder fought for than later stories, where she has found her exact voice and way. Even so, this first lot is still the same writer through and through. There is a sameness not just of topic and setting, but style which drove me to an impatient boredom in the end. Somehow Munro makes 3D very flat. I didn’t care to finish the last two stories, much as it included the title piece. She’d been writing already for many years by the time this book came out, it covers over a decade in terms of her output, so although it’s a first book, it isn’t a first book the way all those hyped up creations by creative university literary courses are; the writing may be a bit green, but the writer isn’t.

To be fair, as she writes largely of rural communities where her characters speak a very colloquial and uneducated brand of English, maybe green and rough reflects that, rather than her technique. That puts the reader of my edition, at least, in the bind in other ways. Mine is a shockingly proofread book. I have written to Vintage to try to find out more about this. We are talking about stories that were (in the main) published in magazine format, then into a book in 1968. My 2000 edition is a new one by Vintage/Random House.

Things don’t start well for Random House as one opens the book and there in the author’s biography is this in the opening sentence:

‘…including Open Secrets which one the WH Smith Literary Award.’

Some sort of team at Random House can’t tell the difference between its and it’s. It’s lacks its apostrophe at least nine times on pages 29, 129, 130, 138, 139, 141, and 156. Twice on two of those pages. There is nothing to suggest in the text as a whole that this is artifice on the part of the writer. This meant the person who set the copy, the copy-editor, the proofreader all failed this test for eight-year-olds.

p. 52 fourth line from the bottom it would appear that the word ‘his’ has been included instead of the word ‘this’. ‘Adelaide had said that his woman would probably let us use her front room…’ There is no ‘his’ in the story to make sense of this, so the simple fix is to make it ‘this woman’

p.76 One assumes that ‘promposity’ is supposed to be ‘pomposity’.

p.90 One assumes fom the description of the item of clothing in question that ‘kimona’ is supposed to be ‘kimono’ which is elsewhere correctly spelt.

p.178 ‘on’ should be ‘an’, presumably: She had ‘…a long wary face and on oblique resentful expression’.

I have so far sent two queries to Vintage Press to find out how the proofreading of this book was done. Unfortunately I don’t have other editions to hand to compare.

Update years later: Vintage Press replied asking me to give them a list of the mistakes. I asked for a job. I was not offered a job.

Mallee Boys by Charlie Archbold

I don’t really know why this is called YA, though I gather the author herself markets her books that way. To me, it’s diminished by this and is worth more. The fact that a female Brit could write a story which feels so quintessentially Australian, rural Australian, and male Australian, suggests a great future for Archbold. If the word ‘authentic’ hadn’t been abused so, one could call it that.

Anyway. It’s the tale of two brothers and their father on a Mallee farm. It’s effectively told with a structure where each chapter alternates between one boy’s voice and the other. It brought tears to my eyes despite myself, but be reassured it isn’t some sort of tearjerker. Probably I had onion in my eye at that point.

I just loved this. Bravo Wakefield Press for publishing it – and I do hope that Archbold has many more works up her sleeve. Highly recommended!

Loving Roger by Tim Parks and The Bleeding Tree by Angus Cerini

I want to rant and rail against the system. Loving Roger is a wonderful – let me shout that, WONDERFUL – novella which is, 25 years or so after being written, neither fish nor fowl. Not old enough to be considered for Classic status. Not young enough to be modern. It’s the sort of book not read because its date is wrong.

On top of this, to add injury to insult, Tim Parks is an all rounder. Every bit of it is connected to writing. It isn’t like he does spin bowling and writes novels. No. However, he just won’t specialise and that’s considered plain unseemly now and for some time past. One isn’t allowed to be good at more than one thing. The very hint of it smacks with the suspicion that maybe one isn’t very good at either. Or, in the case of Parks, more.

He’s a teacher of literature. He writes novels. He writes memoir. He translates. He writes important books about translation. As far as I can tell, he’s damn good at all of these. But he must suffer the fate of the all rounder and somehow escape the much higher praise he would have been awarded for any one of these, if only he could have stuck to it and only it.

Grrrrrrr. I regularly get very cross about this!

It’s hard to talk about this book without giving away things that are best left discovered in the reading of. He is amazingly good at doing a female perspective, in the process making many sad-amusing digs at males. This makes me want to reference The Bleeding Tree by Cerini, of which we saw a wonderful production on Saturday night. Both start off with a killing which one might describe as a murder. In each the murderee is male. In neither does one wish to see him as a victim. From that start, Cerini and Parks go in very different directions, but nonetheless they share a point which is to talk about how it transpires that women may do these things. In the process the reader will not have the tiniest sense of sympathy for the blokes. There is nothing to be generalised here, they aren’t ‘people’ doing these deeds, they are ‘women’ and the dead body in each case was up to that point a ‘man’.

The styles of these two pieces are very different. Cerini’s is poetry, very stylised, but this, as one or more reviewer have mentioned, gives an impact which a more natural approach could not produce. He uses ordinary colloquial language as would have really been used by his characters, in his chosen setting. The action is swept along in the rhythm and cadence of the lines. Parks’ story is presented in a very naturalistic and true way. The murderess, who speaks to us from page one, is transparent. Yet at the same time, in that subtle way in which Parks excels, one realises as things go on that something is changing. Or perhaps that despite all that transparency, things were hidden. He has such a good ear, as no doubt a master translator must have.

These are both short works. Two writers who are able to distil the essence of what needs to be said without any padding. Fifty-five minutes from Cerini. One hundred and fifty-seven pages from Parks. Bravo gentlemen!

Italian Life, a Modern Fable of Loyalty and Betrayal by Tim Parks

Italian Life, a Modern Fable of Loyalty and Betrayal by Tim Parks

On his website Tim Parks insists that much of this novel is made up…and maybe that’s true. On the other hand, you can see why he’d need to say that.

To begin with, the reader is mainly laughing whilst shaking their head. But as the story unfolds, it begins to horrify and you realise that you don’t even know how that happened, the process by which the laughing stopped. The night before I finished it, I had an angry sleep. James’ boss, the Rector, is – put-downable, by which I mean the world would be a much better place without this scumbag. I laid in bed probably feeling about the same as Robert De Niro does the night before he does the scenes where he bashes people’s heads in with whatever sporting equipment he happens to be carrying at the time. BRING IT ON. Memo to PA: cancel my craps game in the morning. I’m playing baseball.

Another way of putting all this is that it’s very hard to believe it’s made up. It could scarcely feel more real. And, as is so often the case when I read literature set in Italy, I see my own childhood, which was quite brutal in parts, on the page. The irony being that my father perpetuated what he had intended to avoid when raising kids. Uggggh.

I have a friend who is Italian working in an Australian university after doing her PhD here. Although she is having a miserable time, as all academics are – the ones who do all the shitwork, not the management academics who take all the money – I do wonder if it is nonetheless a better scene than she’d be experiencing at her level in Italy. I must ask her.

This is my first Tim Parks, he’s a great writer who I suspect is undervalued for the reason we look down on so many talented people today. He is good at more than one thing and declines to specialise. He is a highly regarded translator, a critic of note, a writer of memoir, and last but not least a talented novelist. I’d never heard of him and nor had half a dozen other well and widely read people I asked. I’ve now collected half a dozen more by him from secondhand shops. I’m going to read the lot.

After Method: Mess in Social Science Research by John Law

Addressed particularly to budding academics.

I wonder how revolutionary this book was in 2004 when it first appeared. Even now, in a world where text books and zoom classes teach neat methods for students at university level – eg Neuman’s Social Research Methods, considered a classic, doesn’t mention Law’s work, at least in the two editions I have – it apparently goes against the grain. We have a picture of how scientists to their thing, and no amount of pointing out that they live in messes quite contrary to those expectations, actually sinks through. Consequently, those in the field possibly hampered with the label social ‘scientists’, need to deliver packages which make sense even though they are generally investigating things that don’t.

The book also feels prescient. Everything he says about the mess of reality, the inability to grab it without it slipping away, relates even more to the world of twenty years later when we are all hooked into the internet, with reality being all the murkier as a consequence. This is how he introduces the problem in 2004:

No doubt some things in the world can indeed be made clear and definite. Income distributions, global CO2 emissions, the boundaries of nation states, and terms of trade, these are the kinds of provisionally stable realities that social and natural science deal with more or less effectively. But alongside such phenomena the world is also textured in quite different ways. My argument is that academic methods of inquiry don’t really catch these. So what are the textures they are missing out on?

If we start to make a list then it quickly becomes clear that it is potentially endless. Pains and pleasures, hopes and horrors, intuitions and apprehensions, losses and redemptions, mundanities and visions, angels and demons, things that slip and slide, or appear and disappear, change shape or don’t have much form at all, unpredictabilities, these are just a few of the phenomena that are hardly caught by social science methods. It may be, of course, that they don’t belong to social science at all. But perhaps they do, or partly do, or should do. That, at any rate, is what I want to suggest. Parts of the world are caught in our ethnographies, our histories and our statistics. But other parts are not, or if they are then this is because they have been distorted into clarity. This is the problem I try to tackle. If much of the world is vague, diffuse or unspecific, slippery, emotional, ephemeral, elusive or indistinct, changes like a kaleidoscope, or doesn’t really have much of a pattern at all, then where does this leave social science? How might we catch some of the realities we are currently missing? Can we know them well? Should we know them? Is ‘knowing’ the metaphor that we need? And if it isn’t, then how might we relate to them? These are the issues that I open up in this book.

I am charmed by the idiosyncrasies of composition in this book: it has Interludes, which reminds me of Eugene O’Neill. Again early on, he has this, in a box headed The Pleasures of Reading.

Why do the books fall into two heaps, the novels on the one hand, and the academic volumes on the other? Why do the novels get themselves read at the weekends, or on holidays, or in the ten minutes before falling asleep at night? Why do the work-books get read in the day, at prime times?

Then again, another kind of question. How do these different kinds of books get read? Why is it that reading a novel brings pleasure not only for its plot and its characterisation, but also for its use of words? If we reflect on the sheer pleasure of reading a well-crafted novel, one in which the words are carefully chosen, put together just right, then we may ask the question: what is the pleasure in reading an academic book? And how many academic books are really well written at the word-level? At the level of crafting?

How these two kinds of books get read is often, perhaps mostly, very different. If we read novels we read them, often, as an act in itself, for the pleasure of the read, the ‘good read’ of the airport novel, or the crafted text of a Barbara Kingsolver or a Penelope Lively or a J.M. Coetzee. They are pleasures in themselves, intrinsic. Whereas I guess we do not often read an academic book for the pleasure of the read itself, the pleasure, so to speak, of the journey. Rather we read it for the destination, where it will take us, where we will be delivered. We take pleasure, to be sure, in a well-crafted academic book – the ones that come to mind for me are, perhaps, mostly by historians. But the interest is different.

Perhaps, then, the distinction is between means and ends. Novels are ends in themselves, worth reading in their own right. Academic writings are means to other ends. The textures along the way, the actual writing, these are subordinate to those ends. It may be more agreeable to travel first class than third, but in the end we all arrive at the same destination.

What difference would it make if we were instead to apply the criteria that we usually apply to novels (or even more to poetry) to academic writing? Wouldn’t the library shelves empty as the ranks of books disqualified themselves? What would we be left with? And, more importantly, if we had to write our academic pieces as if they were poems, as if every word counted, how would we write differently? How much would we write at all?

Of course we would need to imagine representation in a different way. Poetry and novels wrestle with the materials of language to make things, things that are said to be imaginary. It is the making, the process or the effect of making, that is important. The textures along the way cannot be dissociated from whatever is being made, word by word, whereas academic volumes hasten to describe, to refer to, a reality that lies outside them. They are referential, ostensive. They tell us how it is out there.

How, then, might we imagine an academic way of writing that concerns itself with the quality of its own writing? With the creativity of writing? What would this do to the referent, the out-thereness?

Some on Goodreads criticise him for being verbose and/or long-winded – the book could have been shorter than it was – but it’s always hardest to be the one who does it first. While acknowledging those who go before him, he wants to paint a big picture  a new one, not the nth version of The Scream. It’s easy to empathise that this is a struggle. He isn’t really writing for us, who know the story by now and for whom none of it can be a surprise. He’s writing for hostile academics who may be colleagues, may be enemies and may, most challengingly, be one and the same.

Having to apologise for the very idea of trying to write ‘well’ is part of that. As Binmore explicitly, and others no doubt keeping their disappointment to their chests, have realised, writing well does one no favours in the academic world. Best advice in this regard to budding academics is to get that urge to write well out of your system by writing Mills and Boons anonymously. It will have the bonus of supporting you financially so that you won’t need to rely on food stamps and living out of your car to make up for the exploitative conditions of being a junior academic. Write well in your day job and it will get backs up and create mistrust, the more so if you actually have something to say.

That said, After Method has been cited academically well over six thousand times. Law survived. But will you?

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich

Consider that this horrifying indictment of American capitalism was published in 2002, well before the dehumanising ‘gig’ platforms ripped through whole industries, destroying the conditions, such as they were, of their workers. Consider the setting is prosperity, with more jobs (if they can be called such) available than human beings to fill them.

This book generated much interest in the US – Ehrenreich suggests this is because ‘one of us’, nice white people, faked it for the story. You should read in conjunction with this, Hand to Mouth which is the the same story, but it isn’t a story, it’s the life of a bottom of the pond worker. Ehrenreich provides a foreword.

For more on Nickel and Dimed start with Wiki.

For an on the ground response along the lines of ‘Mr Walmart’s nice’ see Life at Wal-Mart.

And for a you-might-roll-your-eyes-too ‘I did what she did and it was super easy, barely an inconvenience, well on my way to riches in no time at all. Months even’ sort of article, there is this.

Breath by Tim Winton

If only ‘easy to read’ were not a deprecating statement in the world of the literary canon. I very much doubt that this book was easy to write. It’s a book where surfing looms large and yet it isn’t boring, or trite, or trivial. That in itself seems an achievement.

But it isn’t a book about surfing. Nor is it a book about adolescence. Sorry, The Guardian, but it isn’t a ‘coming of age surfing novel’. It’s a book about a man and how he became what he is. It’s very sad, and despite that I found it impossible to put down.