Book Review: The Last Days of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn

When I spotted the front page of the Blue Mountains Gazette last week, I was delighted to see that The Last Days of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn had been longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. There is a link to the interview with the author here.

Shortly after I moved to the mountains, I attended a poetry reading by Mark at the newly opened Blue Mountains Cultural Centre. A poet’s eye and love of language is evident throughout this novel, with a sense of place and mood evident from the opening line of the section titled Morning: ‘Dawn cracks like an egg against the fibro walls of the derelict shack.’ Word choice matters to Ava Langdon, who is described below:

Catching sight of herself in a little wedge of mirror perched on an exposed joist, she stops. Who is that hideous creature? What form dost thou take? Her hair like the thatch from a mattress used for nesting material, with lavender bags under her eyes.

Words are chosen carefully to capture the essence of an eccentric personality living in extremely basic conditions in a shack on the outskirts of a mountain village. There is a blurring between the character’s sense of reality and her very active imagination, interwoven with recollections which at times seem unlikely yet not impossible. The vivid evocations of a familiar landscape appealed to me, and I enjoyed pondering what Katoomba would have looked like decades ago. Ava’s interactions, especially at the post office and tea shop, have stayed with me months after reading the book. I am reminded of her whenever I spot the old post office in Katoomba Street:

The red bricks of the post office are darkening now where a downpipe has leaked over the facade. May as well go in, she thinks, and mounts the steps. The door. The dimness. All that detail.

‘Never fear, I have arrived.’

The door swings shut behind her, light, dark, light, dark. Several people at the counter turn to stare, she who is dressed so extraordinarily, the cravat like a golden goiter spilling down her shirt front, the pinstripes, the braces.

The book is loosely based on the life of Australian writer Eve Langley, who is best known for her novel The Pea Pickers. Like Langley, Langdon is an unorthodox writer who wrote a successful novel but didn’t reach the same heights of success again in her career. The hope, anticipation and despair of a writing life is poignantly portrayed:

And here are her four fibro walls which guard her boxes of rejected manuscripts, each one four hundred pages long and typed on rose-colored paper. Each encapsulating an aspect of her life, the romance of it, the creative force of it.

This is one of those books which once read I want to hang on to, to be able to dip back into and savour again. There is an excellent review of it here.

[Photo: Old Katoomba Post Office]

 

Book Review: The Merry-Go-Round by the Sea by Randolph Stow

Sometimes books live on my peripheral before the time seems right to read them. The Merry-Go-Round by the Sea is one such book. I have glimpsed it over the years on the bookshelves in my Mum’s extensive library, and the title itself became quite evocative and telling in its own way – the image of a merry-go-round conjures up visions of childhood and freedom of a kind. A recent biography of Randolph Stow (Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow by Suzanne Falkiner) was extensively reviewed earlier this year; enough to remind me of an Australian author who I was yet to read. Then I spotted the audio book recently in the Blue Mountains Library online collection and it was available for instant download. The time was right.

The book steps with confidence into the lives of Rob Coram and his family, living in Geraldton, Western Australia, during the Second World War. Nearly six-years-old when the story begins, Rob is curious and direct and emotional with the intensity of a child. It is easy to believe his excitement at visiting the family farm, and it’s touching to see his affection and admiration for his Uncle Rick. The visit coincides with Rick’s twenty-first birthday, and Rick’s departure for war. Rob’s despair and grief is palpable, and throughout Rick’s extensive absence he maintains an avid interest and belief that Rick will return, even when his mother and aunts seem to lose faith.

Family connections form a constant yet changeable backdrop during the war years. Rob, his younger sister Nan, and his mother stay with various parts of the family as the threat of invasion increases then gradually fades. There are reminders of war everywhere, from trenches being dug into tennis courts to the rough justice in the school yard playgrounds. Rob’s father is an absent presence, initially stationed nearby and visible at odd intervals, only to disappear on war service and return in a perpetually distracted and absent state of mind.

The portrayal of Rick’s war imprisonment is devastating without being dramatised. Insights into the relationships formed during impossible times are shown in various guises, including the mateship between Rick and Hughie, a friendship which survives the war years but is tested in peacetime when the challenges of returning to a ‘normal’ life after near death existence are difficult to overcome, for Rick in particular.

Throughout this, the relationship between Rob and Rick develops, and Rob provides the sometimes brutal insights that children unintentionally make. Rick is direct in speaking of some of his wartime experiences with Rob, disturbing as they are. Rob in turn shares part of the rocky and awkward path towards adolescence with Rick.

The warmth and wit and humour of an extended family who love and mostly support each other is woven throughout the story, including some delightfully eccentric aunts. And then there is the landscape itself, countryside with a changeable beauty tracked by Rob through the seasons. He is saddened when he realises that he is a ‘townie’, wanting instead to be from the land. The harshness of the continent is shown too, but the natural beauty is conveyed with such genuine affection that the sights and sounds are vividly experienced.

By rock pools and creeks the delicate mauve-petalled wild hibiscus opened, and the gold dust of the wattles floated on water. Wild duck were about, and in trees and in fox-holes by water he looked for the nests, staring in at the grey-white eggs, but touching nothing. Climbing a York gum, he was startled when a grey broken-off stump of branch suddenly opened golden eyes at him. He gazed into the angry day-dazzled eyes of the nesting frogmouth and felt that he had witnessed a metamorphosis.

Listening to this book in the lead up to Anzac Day made it more poignant somehow, making me wonder how it was received when it was initially published in 1965. I was sad to finish it, and pleased a couple of days later when I found a copy on my own bookshelves at home. I thought I’d picked it up somewhere in my travels.

There is a comprehensive review of the novel on the ANZ LitLovers LitBlog site here.

Have you discovered a hidden gem in your reading lately?

[Photo: flowering gum]

Book Review: The Dry by Jane Harper

A cursory browse of book reviews about the debut novel by Jane Harper, The Dry, indicated that this was a well-written crime novel set in a fictional town in rural Victoria with a strong sense of place and characterisation. It is all this and more.

Aaron Falk, a Federal Police investigator, returns to his home town of Kiewarra to attend the funeral of his best mate from childhood, Luke Hadler. But the funeral service isn’t just for Luke; it is also for his wife and young son. And according to the police, Luke is responsible for their deaths. Falk’s return to the town to attend the funeral is ensured when he receives a cryptic note from Luke’s father, referring to a secret relating to the reason why Falk and his father were forced to leave the town decades before.

This is a book about secrets, big and small, in a town where everyone either knows everyone else’s secrets or has a theory about what they might be. Falk’s reappearance in the town sparks a spate of attacks, directly and otherwise, as the holders of the biggest secrets become increasingly desperate. There are twists and turns and dead ends and the frustrations of running an informal investigation quickly become apparent. And to make it all the more interesting, Falk isn’t your normal type of detective.

The story is set against the backdrop of the worst drought on record. It is so dry that everything crackles, the heat is so intense and there seems no end to it. The climate is a constant presence in the story.

I listened to this book as read by Steve Shanahan and it was addictive. I found myself arranging pockets of time so I could listen in sections, then during the breaks I was thinking about the characters and what had happened and who might be responsible for the various crimes. The questioning of how well you can really know someone, and how the keeping of a seemingly small secret can have major implications, is cleverly demonstrated.

The portrayal of raw emotions following the deaths is deftly portrayed, from the grief of the parents left behind in a small town to bear the scrutiny of their neighbours, to the anger of memories of earlier incidents. Everyone has an opinion and viewpoints are hard to shift; disdain shows through the pretence of hospitality and there is also blatant narrow-mindedness. But there are moments of humour and mateship too.

This book made me ponder more than once on the role of secrets in each of our narratives, whether intentional or otherwise. I highly recommend it as an engrossing read.

Harper’s website is here, including links to the first chapter, book updates and reviews.

Book Review: Hidden History of the Blue Mountains by Magda Cawthorne

For the last few years, I have been keeping my eye out for local history books based in and around the Blue Mountains. I have managed to find specific books about some of the mountain villages, and some books with a larger scope taking in most if not all of the area from the base of the mountains right through to the Hartley Valley.

If I had a wish list of what I would like to find in a book on the mountains, it would be this:

  • An overview of the mountain ranges to give scope and context;
  • An explanation of the key transport changes – without roads and rail, the mountains would not be a viable place to live;
  • Acknowledgement of the significant role played by fire through the mountains; and
  • A chapter on each of the villages from Lapstone to the Bells Line of Road.

In a perfect world, this information would be presented in an interesting, easily accessible fashion with appropriate references, key timelines and fabulous photos. Images are really important in helping to define the essence of the villages, particularly as for many people most of the villages are merely signs or points along the Great Western Highway when the speed limit drops and you have to slow down, again. There would also be an index so I can locate whatever specific place I need to find at any given time.

When I came across a tweet from a local bookshop that they were holding copies of the newly released Hidden History of the Blue Mountains by Magda Cawthorne, I knew it was the book for me. Even sight unseen it promised to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge about many of the villages, along with over 500 photos. It is all that I hoped for and more – check out the website to get a glimpse here.

The book provides an overview of how each village came about. For example, near Wentworth Falls there was another village called Brasfort which was incorporated into Wentworth Falls in 1895. I was aware that Wentworth Falls had been known previously as Weatherboard, but it was interesting to know how this name came about. The beautiful lake at Wentworth Falls was originally dammed to provide water for steam trains. There are many historical stories and snippets to pique interest as well, including the life and death of Mary James at Twenty Mile Hollow (Woodford), and the tragic fate of her eldest daughter whose body was found on the Victoria Pass. The ghost of Caroline Jones was said to haunt the area, and there is a poem by Henry Lawson called ‘The Ghost at the Second Bridge‘ about a spectral encounter.

I have barely scratched the surface but that is one of the joys of a book like this. It is perfect for dipping into, or reading chapters on villages of particular interest. The further reading section will encourage the expansion of my book collection and there is a stack of websites to explore. It is a fabulous read for anyone with an interest in the Blue Mountains.

Have you been lucky enough to find a dream book on an area you are interested in?

[Photo: mountain views near Leura/Katoomba]

Book Review: Quiet by Susan Cain

The full title of this book is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It has been out for a while now (first released in 2012) and it was one of those books which seemed to hover on the edge of my awareness until I began to think that maybe I should read it. After all, I am a self-labelled introvert.

I’m not sure what I expected when I began to read this book, but it felt like a continual surprise in the way that I kept reading of habits or mannerisms that related to an introverted temperament. Examples include the ability to mix with others and enjoy it, but knowing that after a while there is an overwhelming urge to retreat into a quiet place for some alone time. I have thought of it for years as hauling up the drawbridge when I get home: I can be sociable and polite and even a little extroverted at times, but only for so long. Too much time with other people and I start to get irritable, wondering why they need to be so loud, to talk so much – is there anything that they think and don’t say? Of course, this is an exaggeration and I love being around vibrant people, but I know that for my sanity I need my quiet time too.

The book builds progressively along the classic definitions of introversion and extroversion from their popularisation by Carl Jung in his book Psychological Types, and there are many academic studies cited which provide insights into why introverts are the way they are. There are interesting interviews with academics and introverts, and the author lays bare some of her own habits and mannerisms. Cain’s approach to public speaking includes a how-to guide for introverts, and the way in which she was able to overcome the worst of her fears was illuminating. You can see her in action on her TED talk here.

It is more than introversion in the individual that is under consideration here. The cult of personality in the United States from the turn of the twentieth century is outlined. Who hasn’t heard of Dale Carnegie’s tome, How to Win Friends and Influence People? Carnegie embarked on his journey of self-improvement and discovery after struggling with public speaking for years. Over the decades, the traits of confidence and self-assertion became increasingly admired. Signs of introversion in children were deemed as unfortunate, and something that should be overcome. Cain’s own parents were very supportive of her quiet temperament, but the book is full of examples of people who feel as though they are struggling against the norm simply because their natural inclination is towards introversion.

Introversion is put under the spotlight in a global context, and there are cultural differences in the way introversion is viewed. The contributions made by introverts are acknowledged: the book commences with the story of Rosa Parks, the introvert who quietly stood up for her rights and played an integral part in the civil rights movement in the 1950s. There is emphasis on how to create environments that foster the contributions that introverts can make, and how powerful it can be when introverts and extroverts play to each other’s strengths.

For me this book was an ongoing revelation, meticulously researched and well written. I found that I had to – and wanted to – read it slowly, to absorb the ideas presented, to take the time to think slightly differently about things I had previously accepted without question. My own style of thinking and behaviour made more sense. The accompanying sense of relief that what I thought was a bit quirky in myself was relatively normal for an introverted temperament was significant and powerful. I am so glad that I finally read it, and will be dipping back into it again as needed.

What have you read recently that has changed your self-perception?

[Photo: there was a power failure whilst writing this post – thank goodness for candles!]