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Friday, February 25, 2011

Take a look at my Style Notes blog

This picture seems to span both my blogs... Marilyn
reads James Joyce
 I’ve decided to hibernate this blog for a while, to concentrate on the other one, which is the continuation of my Style Notes column in Good Weekend magazine.

Here's the link:

I update that every Saturday and if you subscribe (free!) using the button right at the bottom of the blog page, it will land in your e-mailbox every Saturday morning, just like a newspaper landing on the mat.

Mid-week I update it with my new fashion column The Rules, which appears in the Sydney Morning Herald section, Essential Style, and in M magazine, which comes with the Sunday Age.

I’m having so much fun doing it. It’s great to be in charge of my own pictures and add links - and really I love being able to reply instantly to comments.

The Reading List will come back. I’m still keeping notes of what I’m reading and I will update it eventually – it really helps to keep me an active reader, which feeds into my writing.

But for the moment I’m putting all my energy into the other blog, the new column and my upcoming new wing ding website, where all this will be gathered in one place.

There is also the not inconsiderable matter of the three books I’m working on… it’s a full life.

So please take a look at the other blog and I’ll be in touch to let you know when this one is active again, as part of my new improved website.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Freedom by Jonathan Frantzen

Before I had read one word of this book two unusual events had
occurred regarding it.

First, the person I refer to in my ratings system as ‘man pal’ sent me an email out of the blue specifically to rave about it.

Sadly, this beautifully worded thing (he’s a clever old stick, Man Pal) was lost in the great Data Transfer Disaster when I got my new laptop last December, but one phrase from it sticks in my mind: ‘I felt as though it had been written just for me.’

I can’t think of greater praise.

The next thing was when my neighbour, a lovely, bright woman in her early 40s, appeared at my door one day, pink of cheek, shining of eye, and clutching a hardback copy of the book to her chest, which she then thrust at me.

‘I’ve just finished this wonderful book,’ she said. ‘You must read it.’

Of course it had already had rave reviews everywhere, as did Frantzen’s first novel, The Corrections and, as in that case, my initial reaction had been to leave well alone.

I generally avoid any books too hysterically lauded – especially Great American Novels – but after such personal recommendations, from two English intellectuals not given to hyperbole, I felt compelled to read this one.

Did I love it as much as they did? No. Did I find in it some of the most memorable sentences I have read in contemporary literature? Yes.

Here’s an example: ‘….[it] warned him not to mistake the pain of losing her for an active desire to have her.’

Mmmmm, roll that around in your head a bit. So good.

Freedom is the story of a modern American family, tracking the emotional histories of the two lead characters, Patty and Walter Berglund, in a masterfully managed non-linear trail from their very different childhoods to irrevocably entwined later middle age.

The point of view varies between an omniscient narrator, Patty, Walter, their son Joey, and Walter’s best friend from college, Richard – who happens also to be Patty’s One Who Got Away.

So it’s the same old same old angst of American middle-class married life scenario – but it is also much more.

What Frantzen does so brilliantly is to examine the motives and impulses of his characters at a microscopic level, while simultaneously maintaining the context of where they sit in the big picture of planet Earth at the very start of the 21st century.

This is achieved via Walter’s morbid obsession with the impending disaster of overpopulation – the statistics of which kept me awake at night worrying about my daughter’s future – the political class divide between the Herglunds and their less-educated Republican neighbours, and the affect of 9/11 on Joey’s developing moral conscience (or lack thereof).

Frantzen manages to keep this micro/macro view perfectly balanced throughout the arc of the story, without one trivialising or dulling the other. The environmental stuff packs a punch without ever feeling preachy.

But while there is a great deal I admired in the book from almost the first sentence, I didn’t love it so much as appreciate it for the first two thirds, because I didn’t really like any of the characters.

Their flaws and weaknesses are so exquisitely drawn they seem like monsters, with few redeeming qualities. But then there is a fulcrum after which I came to see that they are just humans, like all of us, in our weakness and vanity, just unrelentingly exposed.

Indeed, there were quite a few moments which made me wince with self-recognition.

Once I felt sympathetic towards the characters, I started to love the book and it switched gear from interesting to unputdownable - and like my friend and my neighbour, I found I wanted to seek people out to discuss it with. Particularly the ending.

The question I’ve been asking with spitty excitement at parties recently is: did you find the ending uplifting, or glib? Because I can’t make up my mind.

But what I do know, is that before the end of this reading year is up, I will have added my thoughts about The Corrections to this blog.

Reading satisfaction: 8.75
Un-put-downable-ness: 7
Recommend to best girlfriend: 10
Recommend to mother: 8
Recommend to niece: 9
Recommend to gay best friend: 9
Recommend to man pal: 10 (he recommended to me)
Recommend to Helen Razer: 10
Read on public transport: 10
Unpleasantness:0 (some faecal matter)

Monday, January 10, 2011

How quickly do you read?

I ask about reading speed because feeling I'm slightly ashamed of how long the gaps are getting between new postings on here and I’m wondering if I’m a slow reader.

Certainly my sister, my nieces and several of my best friends seem to read at warp factor speeds compared to me. They polish off several books in a week, while I’m plodding along behind.

I mean, I don’t move my lips, or drag my finger along the line, but I’m thinking I must read more slowly than I used to.

That’s scary because it means I will be able to fit less books in before I cark it. Really scary.

Or is it a time thing? From my waking moment I am doing one of three things:

1. Being with and looking after my daughter.
2. On my laptop, working or tooling around (which always feeds into work, or that’s how justify it…)
3. Mundane chores of life.

As Coco Chanel so famously said: There is no other time.

(She divided her time between ‘work and love’, rather more glamorously. And being French, when she said ‘love’ she meant vigorous rumpy pumpy.)

Also slowing things up, I’m reading two books in tandem at the moment. I have a day book and a night book, because the day book is so fascinating, I can’t read it at night. The ideas make my brain start break dancing and I just lie there for hours with my eye wide shut.

So at night I’m reading a very long and ‘important’ novel in very short unsatisfactory bursts, which isn’t right at all.

But hopefully when I get back into my proper work schedule, according to the Stephen King method (see my post of January 16, 2010), I will be writing my 2,500 words in the morning and reading in the afternoon. So things should speed up on here.

On the other hand, is reading Formula One fast always the best way? One of my exes reads incredibly slowly. It would take him months to read a novel, but once he’d finished, he never forgot a single thing about it.

One holiday I finished what I was reading almost immediately after we’d got to the beach, and hadn’t put a new one in my bag = total disaster for me.

To stop me freaking out, he told me the entire story of the novel Perfume. Remembering every name and every detail. It was like listening to a talking book.

As I sometimes can’t remember the names of the characters in my own novels, this was pretty amazing to me.

So I think it doesn’t matter how quickly you read, as long as you do.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

I feel I need to apologise to this blog for neglecting it.

It’s not that I don’t love it, I do, but I’ve been rather tied up with the new one for my Style Notes column (see link above).

Then of course there has been Christmas, not a small distraction, but the main reason was that I’ve had the most peculiar run of fails.

I was about three chapters into the marvellous Freedom by Jonathan Frantzen when my Kindle, containing it, was stolen on an Emirates flight.

When I got home I started The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas in old-style physical book form, but when I was a few pages into the second chapter I lost it, somewhere in the house. I don’t know how it happened but I just can’t find it.

Bloody annoying, as those are two very interesting books.

Next I picked up a volume so grippingly interesting I can’t read it at night. The ideas are so stimulating it keeps me awake. And during this crazy time of year, I just haven’t had any reading time in the day.

It was in the small hours of one of the sleepless nights caused by Book X (I don’t want to reveal what it is until I’ve finished it…) when I had moved to my daughter’s bedroom and put her in with dad, so I could toss and turn without keeping them awake, that I picked up The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

The idea was that reading one my daughter’s books would quickly put me to sleep. Well, I picked the wrong one. I found this tale of plucky little girls pitted against nasty grown ups, in a fictional period of English history (the reign of ‘James III’ when wild wolves roamed Yorkshire), as gripping and exciting as I had when I first read it, aged nine.

The wonderfully vivid atmosphere – be it delicious cosiness, or nail-biting tension – and intensely evocative descriptions of place, gave me exactly the same pleasure as they had on my first reading.

Now I’m going to re-read the sequel.

Reading satisfaction: 7
Un-put-downable-ness: 8
Recommend to best girlfriend: 8
Recommend to mother: 10
Recommend to niece: 9
Recommend to gay best friend: 1
Recommend to man pal: 5
Recommend to Helen Razer: 0
Read on public transport: 3
Unpleasantness: 0

Monday, December 6, 2010

Comfort and Joy by India Knight

First of all, a small disclaimer. The wonderful India Knight is not a stranger to me.

We inhabit the same milieu, have a million mutual pals and have come to be, largely over the marvel that is Twitter, friends.

We haven’t been to each other’s houses, which is my definition of a proper friend, but I’m sure we will.

Meanwhile, we would hack our way across a cocktail party to greet each other and I was invited to the glorious launch of this book.

But let’s be quite clear, none of the matey matey stuff has any impact on what I say here. I love this book quite separately from liking its author.

In fact, I have such a girl crush on India’s writing, they are pretty much divided into two people in my head, or I would be too shy to speak to her. India my hilarious Twitter pal and India the amazing writer.

So, to the book. It’s not like her first two novels at all. I loved them both – hilarious romps – this is much more measured. I’m sure India wouldn’t mind me saying it doesn’t have a gasp-making cliff hanger plot. It hardly has a plot at all, but it is an immensely satisfying read.

I’d say it is more in the style of my favourite of her books until this one, The Shops, than the novels. That was an immensely elegant book about that art of shopping, this is a novel about the complex emotional landscape of a modern family, told over three Christmases, but the tone is similar. Sophisticated, yet earthy and real.

You live every emotional moment of it with the main character, Clara, as she observes and analyses the patchwork of ex-husbands and inlaws, half sisters, immediate family, friends, waifs and strays, who make up her Christmas landscape. And at the end, you shed a poignant tear.

It is, with great humour and style, an uncompromising appraisal of the ongoing emotional cost of modern marriage – and breaks up – to all involved.

But in the end it is a glorious Christmas carol to the wonderful gift that is family, be they ever so dysfunctional.

A comfort and joy, indeed.

Reading satisfaction: 8
Un-put-downable-ness: 8
Recommend to best girlfriend: 10
Recommend to mother: 10
Recommend to niece: 10
Recommend to gay best friend: 10
Recommend to man pal: 9
Recommend to Helen Razer: 9
Read on public transport: 10
Unpleasantness: 0

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

Gosh, so sorry I’ve left this blog alone for so long.

Between my book tour and all the hoo ha over the end of my column and then starting my new Style Notes blog, I just haven’t had time.

Ah yes, the new blog. If you haven’t seen it yet, please do have a look. It’s at

The idea is that I will post a Style Notes to it each week and if you subscribe (the little button is right at the bottom of the blog), it will land in your in tray each Saturday morning, just like a newspaper plopping through your letterbox.

But obviously better, because it’s free and doesn’t use paper.

Although if you do have any elderly rels or neighbours who used to enjoy my column in that magazine, whatever it was called, and who aren’t on line, do please print out the new online version and give it to them.

I’m also doing an added extra post from the archives mid-week as well, and if you subscribe, that will also just turn up. The miracles of the interweb. I love it more each day.

Especially as I already have subscribers from America, Singapore, Switzerland, Qatar, UK and other farflung spots and none of them could get my column before.

It’s all good.

Now, back to books. The other reason I haven’t blogged on here for ages was that I couldn’t write about the last two books I read because the lovely Jennifer Byrnes invited me to appear on the Christmas special of First Tuesday Book Club, while I was in Sydney last month, and I didn’t want to spoil the show by revealing my thoughts on here.

It has now aired (rather cheekily, considering the first Tuesday of its title isn’t until next week, but whatever…) so for those who didn’t see it here’s what I thought of Carey’s latest.


I love, respect and worship Peter Carey’s writing with an unhealthy fervour (except for the one set in Singapore which I just didn’t get at all). True History of the Kelly Gang is one of my top ten books of all time. Possibly top five actually.

And I can now reveal that I wrote the voice of Theo in my latest book without using any commas, as an homage to the master. There isn’t a single comma in the whole of the Kelly Gang and I wanted to see if I could do it and have it still make sense. I hope I pulled it off.

This book charts the lives of two 18th century men – Parrot, the son of an English printer and Oliver, a French artistocrat – as they career around the world (there are journeys to Australia, as well as the America of the title). The chapters alternate the two voices.

It’s fast-paced, ridiculously broad in its scope and very funny. It’s really a study of the rise of democracy, via a compare and contrast of post-revolutionary France and early independent America, but it’s also a marvellous romp. There’s also some very sexy sex in it. Beautifully done.

But what I really loved about it was its flaws. It’s incredibly flawed. The plot hinges on the most outrageous coincidences – I counted five – and the side trip to Australia, with Joseph Banks, was completely unnecessary, but all of that just made me like it more.

I felt about it, just as I did with Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow: the flaws make it all the more alive and interesting. They make you feel somehow very connected to the great artist at work. And I do believe Peter Cary is a great artist. There are sentences in this book, of such glorious perfection they made me squeal with delight.

It was also the first book I read on my tragically lost Kindle *sobs*. About which more, next time.

PS If you live in Australia I think you can watch the First Tuesday Book Club Christmas special on the ABC iPlayer thingo.

Reading satisfaction: 9.5
Un-put-downable-ness: 8.5
Recommend to best girlfriend: 9
Recommend to mother: 8
Recommend to niece: 9
Recommend to gay best friend: 9
Recommend to man pal: 10
Recommend to Helen Razer: 10
Read on public transport: on a Kindle 10, in hardback 0, in paperback 10
Unpleasantness: 0

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Thank you

I’m sure there must be a quick way to reply personally to each comment that is left on this blog, but I’ve never been able to find it.

Which is a big fat bore because I would so like to thank each of you separately for the lovely, heart warming, very personal and supportive messages you left beneath my last post. (Cue bugles.)

I keep expecting the morning to dawn – or more like the 4 am high anxiety breathless wake up – when I am consumed with depression over the ending of the column, but so far the black dog has stayed in its kennel.

I’m sure it’s your warm messages that have helped me avoid it.

You hear in the news people going through personal tragedies, saying how cards and notes from strangers keep them going, and now I understand what they mean.

On the scale of what life can throw at you, this is an irritating – and hopefully temporary - career reversal, not a life crisis, and your support has helped me to keep it in that perspective. If it doesn’t sound too cheesy, I feel cocooned in a big fluffy cloud of kindness.

Thank you all so much.

And if anyone can enlighten me how to reply instantly to individual blog comments, please tell.

PS I have added these images in the spirit of that most optimistic of songs 'My Favourite Things'.