Florence Taylor’s Hats by Robert Freestone and Bronwyn Hanna

Two pieces of advice: this is a serious academic work, not a light by-the-bed biography. The publishers kindly sent me a review copy upon request.

Most history work consists of revision, reassessment of what’s already there. But occasionally the historian has the opportunity to get their hands dirty, digging into the past in order to find clues, sources (not resources), unprocessed data in the field, which then has to be assembled (not reassembled) into a story. In short, one gets to drop all the ‘re’s. It becomes a task of vision and assessment. After history happens, then it is made, as if by an artist moulding clay or organising colours on a palette. The formidable list of sources reflect the work that’s gone into this book.

It’s all rather exciting and it’s onerous, not least because of the responsibility involved. Getting the interviews right because the chance might never offer itself again. Diaries, letters and the like must be found, guarded and interpreted to take their place in the story. The decisions as to what the world will see and how it will see it are yours. How heartbreaking it must have been to discover that a relative had dumped a lot of Taylor’s own collection of her past.

On top of these general concerns, is one that must have been deeply frustrating and disappointing for the authors. It transpires that the output of the architect is largely ephemeral. I hadn’t really thought about this until recently, reading about the work of Yamasaki. Imagine building the Pruitt–Igoe housing project in St. Louis only to see them demolished not so long after, followed by the demise of the Twin Towers in NY. In the case of Taylor, the authors have almost nothing to show for their attempts to seek out extant examples of her work. Adding to this issue is the practice of the work of underlings being appropriated by their seniors, common in so many fields.

Nonetheless, Taylor was prolific in so many ways that there is much referenced in this book. In her life’s work as publisher in the building industry she has left many publications behind which, surprisingly, have turned out to be less transient than bricks and mortar. She weighed into politics, administration, planning, and behind all her activities is the steady beat of her most consistent belief, that of bettering the situation of women. Even her rightwing politics don’t seem as important as her constant fight for equality of women in the work place and at home. She wanted houses designed for women in surrounds which worked for women, which permitted their lives to be easier, and paid work to be possible. Bravo Taylor!

At the time she pulled out of architecture in 1907, after constant battles against the hostile attitudes of the men who made it theirs, she got married and the start of the publishing empire was the combined effort of Florence and her husband. After he died early, that left decades where Florence did it on her own. They’d had no children because of his epilepsy. In fact, I can’t help wondering if the marriage was unconsummated – not something discussed in the book, but surely the authors must have had their questions about this too. In correspondence, interviews etc, they talk of each other as ‘mates’ in a way that seems curiously asexual and they seem close in a decidedly unromantic way, even though poems are written….

When writing such a book, how to organise it is always a dilemma. In this case the authors have chosen a number of themes. This permits the reader to be rather cursory if they please. In my case, although I was looking forward to the chapter dealing with her ideas about town planning, in fact it became evident that if you didn’t know Sydney and weren’t interested in or knowledgable about its planning, the chapter is heavy going. It is, however, important for it to be there. This is a reference book on many levels, not merely a biography. To have a record of what people were talking about, advocating for, at this level of a city’s development, the ideas which were raised, but not taken up, is imperative for a full understanding of that city. And the point should be made that although she was largely ignored at the level of decision making in Sydney, nonetheless some of her big ideas have come to pass.

Like all powerful people, Taylor was difficult and the authors don’t shirk from this. They regularly quote from the unpublished biography Kerwin Maegraith wrote in collaboration, if not collusion, with Taylor late in her life. It’s a disastrous shmaltzy piece of spin – Maegraith’s fame is as a cartoonist, so this may not be a surprise. Freestone and Hanna have put together, in contrast, a warts and all account of a woman who could feud forever – her vitriolic stand agains the Griffins was really something, the more so as they began as friends – or charm the King and Queen of England, as she did upon meeting them.

Taylor is also hard to write about because she’s all over the place. Her ideas change, her loyalties change, little is constant other than her will which she imposes over all she can. She’s indefatiguable, never says die, simply never stops until her body packs up on her completely and she spends the last years of her life more or less solitary. All this, though, from beginnings which did not augur well for her. She was a self-made person if ever there was one and it’s impossible not to respect her incredible rise in fortune.

This is a real labour of love by Freestone and Hanna, one which thoroughly deserves a place in the history of Australia. Could they have made something which was slightly more accessible whilst still being the highly useful work it is? I’d like to think so. The stars I have awarded it are for the content, not the style.


Breaking Glass: A Novel in Two Parts by John Clanchy

Clanchy, a distinguished short story writer has set himself a challenge with his first novel. The two parts referred to in the subtitle are very different from each other. The first takes the form of a writer, writing his own life as a work of fiction under the guise of it being a ‘friend’s story’. His sister hates it. She has no taste, is all I can say. It’s utterly engaging, and that applies even when he gets into the gross details of his bucks’ night. It isn’t at all easy to make those kinds of scenes work. Another aspect I was particularly taken with is the ease with which he writes about sport, without, let me hasten to say, ever being offputting for the reader whose eyes glaze over at the very word. There’s a hilarious scene with his marriage counsellor, which is no doubt informed by having been in that line of work himself.

The second part of the novel could not be more different from the first. Now death, not life is firmly at the centre of affairs and we are in the present, it is the author speaking of himself, not the author speaking of himself through his ‘friend’. The jump is difficult to pull off and I don’t know if Clanchy really manages it. I would dearly love to be able to talk to another person who has read this. I read some of the second part again, trying to get a better sense of it, but it didn’t really help.

How can it be that I am apparently the only person in the world who has read this novel, by an established Australian writer who has won the odd prize? It’s so very disappointing. Reading has become such an undiversified activity, apparently, that not one person on goodreads has read this. The sum interest in it consists of one person’s to-read-list.

I do hope that changes. He’s a massively underrated writer and with the loss today of Peter Temple, bumping Clanchy up the list of Australian writers would do no harm.

The Well by Elizabeth Jolley

So this is great up to a point…the point it finishes. I don’t really understand why writers are allowed to set up a terrific story which is truly hard to put down and then stop rather than end. I know that’s the modern thing to do, but all the same, does that make it art or a cop out? We all know that anything might happen in life. But I don’t see why it isn’t part of the duty of a story teller to tell the story. Not just the beginning and middle, but the end. The whole kit and caboodle.

I’m starting to wonder if it isn’t a critical aspect of the new genre ‘book club’. It’s something to talk about isn’t it? OMG, what did YOU think was going to happen next? Blah blah blah. But I don’t give a rat’s what my friends at ‘book club’ think about how it might have ended IF it had had a darned ending instead of just stopping. I want the author’s take on that. Instead she’s taken the easy way out.

Is that too much to ask? For a story to have an ending? Did it have an ending and I missed it? Opinions sought.


How The Light Gets In by MJ Hyland

I’ve knocked off a lot of good books over the last couple of weeks including David Cohen’s Disappearing off the face of the earth, Per Petterson’s It’s Fine By Me and Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project. Despite this competition, I expected How The Light Gets In to be the star and I have not been disappointed.

Like Gail Jones’ Black Mirror, it’s a first novel by an Australian. The similarities stop there. How the Light Gets In is a perfect novel. Utterly gripping, with a creepy flawed main character who nonetheless engages our sympathies from the start and never loses them, it must be right up there with best first novels ever. It’d make a great movie.

Highly recommended.

Note: surprisingly the author is writing from experience.

Drama of a life less ordinary
By Brigid Delaney
July 19 2003

M.J. Hyland
35, writer
“I’ve never experienced writer’s block. When it’s going really well my body temperature goes up and I’m flushed. I get quite delirious.”

“Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood,” wrote Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes.

Melbourne writer M.J. (Maria) Hyland had a childhood that makes Frank McCourt’s seem lucky. But she says it “is not very interesting” and would prefer to talk about her debut novel, How the Light Gets In. So we steer clear of her early years – for a while.

Set in middle America, How the Light Gets In follows the fortunes of Louise Connor, a genius 16-year-old with a penchant for gin, chain-smoking and Russian literature.

Raised in a housing commission flat in Sydney, she escapes the squalor and poverty of her background on an exchange student program. Her wealthy hosts struggle to understand the behaviour of their wayward charge. She is complex and difficult, captivating and infuriating.

When Hyland sent the book’s first five chapters unsolicited to Edinburgh super-publisher Jamie Byng (who discovered Yann Martel’s Booker-winning Life of Pi), she was an unknown Australian first-timer. After demanding the rest of the novel, Byng rang her back and said, “I want to meet Lou.”

Hyland makes it clear she is not Lou – even though she went on an exchange student program to America from which she was expelled for underage drinking. ‘I’d been drinking since I was 13,” says Hyland. “I was just a regular teenager who drank. Suddenly I was in Idaho and I couldn’t smoke, drink or hitchhike.”

It’s too easy to suggest that the book is mere autobiography, particularly when her early life contains the material for a dozen novels. Melbourne-based Hyland, 35, was born in London to Irish parents. When she was two they arrived in Australia on an assisted passage. Crippled by poverty, the family lived in “sheds, people’s backyards and caravan parks” around Liverpool and Cabramatta. Her father was “a hopeless alcoholic” and gambler who “was pissed all through my childhood”.

Unable to secure a lucky break in the lucky country, the family moved back to Ireland when she was four, and lived in a notorious Dublin housing estate where “the lifts were full of vomit and urine. It stank. It was an intensely rough place.”

New schools and new housing estates came every few years. Hyland recalls the family being “deeply impoverished”, though she enjoyed the “constant change” and “interesting people”.

It was only when she made one “really good school friend’ that she felt sad about leaving. She was 11 and it was back to Australia. The decision to return was made by her father when he came home one day – full of drink-fuelled hope and optimism – thinking this time it would work.

The boat docked at Fremantle and the family moved into a nearby migrant hostel. Hyland remembers living with “interesting people from Singapore and China”, taking a special bus into school each day with other migrant kids and having “gruel for breakfast”. Less tolerable was the heat – the kind of white, blinding heat peculiar to Western Australia that the pale Irish girl instantly loathed.

The family moved frequently in Fremantle before her father, on another bender, decided to pack them in a car and drive across the Nullarbor to Melbourne. They were “homeless migrants” but for Hyland it was “all pretty normal – not alarming. I liked all the drama.”

Hyland thinks it made her a writer, although her childhood was largely without books. She reckons that she read less than a dozen books before she was 13 and those she did were “mostly Enid Blyton”.

The family stayed in Melbourne – but not together. Hyland is estranged from her brother, now back in Dublin, and she says her father recently served time for armed robbery.

“He went into a 7-Eleven holding a sign saying it was a hold-up,” she says. “I don’t think he had a weapon. He’s not aggressive, but he’s got a gambling and alcohol problem.” She doesn’t feel she ever knew him, only glimpsing the man he might have been. “He was pissed all the time so I didn’t really know what he was like.”

Her mother was the strong one. Stricken by polio as a child, she was hospitalised from six to 16, “but she kept the family going. She worked as a secretary all her life. She’s an incredibly strong person.” Hyland struggled academically before being accepted as an exchange student in America at 16. The host family had a “house full of books” and the experience gave her the resolve “not to end up like my father”.

Back in Melbourne, she began elocution lessons to straighten our her accent and got a series of part-time jobs. She excelled at school and gained a place to study law at Melbourne University. After graduating she was offered a job with a prestigious law firm. However, despite the drama in her early life she describes it as “the pinnacle of misery” and “the worst year of my life”. She resigned but continued working in law.

While she did that, she helped found a literary magazine, Nocturnal Submissions, which she ran for eight years until 1997. But she is not sure if it was time well spent. “A lot of [the writing] was vile – utterly execrable. Too many people use writing as a confessional. Reading it does not leave you with the energy to write.”

Hyland now teaches creative writing at Melbourne University and is working on a second novel. She doesn’t have to practise law. Still, she says with some regret that her legal practising certificate recently expired: “Law gave me some structure … all these rules and internal disciplines.” But writing is satisfying in a more primal way. “I’ve never experienced writer’s block,” she says. “When it’s going really well my body temperature goes up and I’m literally flushed. I get quite delirious.”

As a writer, Hyland prefers to be known by her initials to escape the constraints of gender. She is also ambivalent about nationality, for her childhood has left her with a wanderer’s heart. “I might live in Manhattan or Edinburgh or Cardiff,” she says. “I think of myself as without nationality.”

How the Light Gets In, by M.J. Hyland, is published by Penguin, $22.95.

Best Australian Essays 2004 has a piece by Hyland in it, also about her life, and you can see it online here.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

This has been reviewed a gadzillion times in the press and online. A few notes….

It doesn’t surprise me, having read a little of the background of this once I finished the book, that it was intended as a screenplay. It is sloppy as a novel and, as many have mentioned, once it moves to NY, the story really becomes a corny romance.

However, I am surprised to see it is considered chicklit, it deserves better. It is hilarious from that fabulous start: ‘I may have found a solution to the Wife Problem.’ I can see why it’s described as that old-fashioned thing, a screwball comedy.

It is impossible to write a book like this without having to endure the moral considerations. Is it okay to write about weird people if one isn’t weird (perhaps the author is?)?. Is it a politically correct portrayal of Aspergers if the person does have Aspergers? Some people who deal with it at close quarters say yes, others no. I don’t really understand why books (etc) have to be scrutinised in this way, why characters have to be labelled, why they have to receive approval. This is a book about a weird guy. He is inadvertently funny. As the story develops it may be that he plays up on that on purpose, making him advertently funny. The situations are funny. They are described in funny ways. The author’s had fun. Probably his lucky proofreader had fun too.

The darn thing’s funny, really funny, most of the time. That should be enough.  It’s enough for me.


The spoiler: Disappearing off the face of the earth by David Cohen part two

I had a friend in Geneva who went from close to cutting me off when she read my review of The Sea, The Sea, The Sea (repeated to taste) by Iris Murdoch. She was a Murdoch fan. She was deeply hurt by a review which made fun of her idol. Although at the time I thought she was an idiot, the fact is that books we love hold a place in our heart which overtake rationality. I love this book, and it pains me to think that there are people out there who don’t get it.

When I wrote my review of this a few days ago, I was reluctant to give anything away that would cause one to know too much of the book prior to reading it. However, I can see that this has led to not enough information in some respects. So, this is the spoiler and the upgrade, since I gave this four stars at the time, whilst wishing I could give it five.

More than one nimwit has read this book thinking that they ‘got’ the twist early on and that therefore this book has failed. But this book is not meant to have a twist. The point of the book is that it is about a person with schizophrenia. He doesn’t know that – but can he know it? Can the part of him that we are barracking for, the part telling the story, understand what is happening and therefore do something about it?

Much as the book may be comic, it has this disarmingly sad fundament. We are hoping the best for a serial killer, who is so ordinary he could be anybody. The author has produced a dysfuntional serial killer we can all love and relate to in no different a way from relating to the family in The Castle.

It is possible that only Australians will get that. We are particularly tolerant and have a sense of humour which permits this book to be what it is. But I encourage non-Australians to read it and attempt to enter the spirit of the exercise. If, however, you are wanting a book that has a clever twist that you don’t get until the very end – or at all – then this book is not for you.

Disappearing off the face of the earth by David Cohen part one

I write a spoiler sort of review of this here.

I think it’s safe to say, having read this over the course of a day, that it’s the perfect easy read. An equal mix of suspense, pathos, great characters and humour including laugh out loud precise comic timing. On top of which it’s splendidly Australian.

Over the last months, having followed the experiences of a friend with a book in the Australian best seller lists for the unusually long period of a couple of months, it has become evident to me in a more real way than previously that it’s a cut-throat world out there for the author. Once your book drops off the lists and that happens almost immediately post publication, it becomes near impossible to get a copy. Perhaps this is a reason to be thankful for the large online booksellers and databases.

What chance does this give a book such as this of big success? Approximately zero. But what a shame. I don’t want to talk about the story, it’s to be left to the reader to find that out. I can, however, give this four stars, which from me is high praise indeed.

My best guess is that sometime in the future, and I’m afraid that will be about thirty years, that this will become one of those little revived classics that clever people on goodreads write about knowingly.

Well, come on goodreaders. Beat the rush. Be different. Read it now!