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.

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.


Friend of My Youth by Alice Munro

Although academics have made a career from the oeuvre of Alice Munro – AM: Paradox and Parallel; AM: Art and Gender; AM: writing her lives; AM: Mothers and Other Clowns; etc etc etc…. – she does not need to be laboured over. In the case of this book, take short story writer Alan Beard’s five line review. A line for each star. I agree. It’s an especially good collection.

Rather than elaborate unnecessarily on that, I am merely going to note that I more or less found myself on the page in the story ‘Oranges and Apples’. Amongst other things, it’s a story about how a person reads and relates to the rest of the world. I will write it down some time.

Out of Copley Street A Working-Class Boyhood by Geoff Goodfellow

I’m afraid I’m going to undersell this. It’s a wonderful book, indispensably adding to the theme of growing up in Australia.

It’s my second five star book in a row, the first by Helen Garner and now this, with Garner’s words on the cover: ‘a dry, sparkling clarity, a pure tone that hovers on the edge of laughter: these stories are a revelation’.

It is frequently observed that part of Garner’s attraction is the way she writes about Melbourne. One could say the same of Goodfellow about Adelaide, the difference being that she is looking and he is being. It’s his life, not hers.

For me, ten years younger than Goodfellow, raised in an asbestos Housing Trust house in an area full of them, on the outskirts of the city, this was memory lane, but it doesn’t need to be that. I don’t see why anybody wouldn’t be entranced by this collection of a now-gone way of life written with a poet’s understanding of keeping it simple and focussed. It’s a delight to read for its own sake. But it’s also important that we preserve history this way, if only to give life to research like Adelaide Housing and Planning 1946-1959.

It took a few hours to read this, but I will treasure it for a long time to come. A report on his poetry to come.