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]

 

A Little Gratitude

In recent years there seems to have been a shift towards the power of gratitude in daily life, of being thankful for what you have rather than the endless pursuit of what you don’t have in your life at this time. It is a deceptively simple idea.

I have read of people using gratitude journals on a daily basis, or at least regularly, to track moments of gratitude in their life. Part of me acknowledged that this could be beneficial in various ways, but still I did nothing about it apart from being a little more mindful about the many good things in my life.

Then about a year ago a friend mentioned that various studies confirmed that one of the best things that you could do for your long-term mental health was to keep a gratitude journal. I made a mental note at the time then moved on to the next thought. It was only during November last year that it floated back up through my mind and I started to keep track of what I was grateful for. Short and sweet, three little things each day. And I’ve kept up the practice.

Off the top of my head, the main sources of gratitude in my life are my family and friends, my dog and my garden. Writing and creativity feature quite a bit too. Sometimes I am surprised at what comes to mind when I pause to think of what has brought me joy during the day. Here is a sample.

  • Watching pelicans paddle past, the almost impossibility of their gravitational pull.
  • The purple blossoms of jacaranda trees.
  • The clever reuse of old buildings as space for creative use (old dairy in Bellingen).
  • For the world having so many books of wonder.
  • For having a heart and feeling, even sad things.
  • Sunset.
  • Arriving home. Instantly better.
  • Watering the garden and finding new flowers.
  • Heavy fog on the way to work – altered perception.
  • Laughing with friends till we cry.
  • Feeling flat but writing anyway.
  • Walking with the start of a story in mind.
  • Smiling at strangers and collecting smiles in return.
  • Hearing kookaburras. Anywhere, anytime.

Do you take stock of little moments of gratitude in your life?

[Photo: a repurposed candle holder in my Mum’s garden]

Blue Mountains Book Settings

There are many upsides to sorting out your book collection. A definite highlight is being reunited with books that captured my attention and took me on a journey that remains vivid, years after reading them.

Amongst the stacks of books, there were some that I’ve put aside into a cluster of stories featuring the Blue Mountains. Here are a few fictional books that come to mind.

The Service of Clouds, Delia Falconer. Set in the early 1900s, this is the story of cloud photographer Harry Kitchings and Eureka Jones, a pharmacist’s assistant. I read it a couple of years before I moved here and think of it often when I catch myself looking upwards to watch clouds moving across the sky. The mural in Katoomba Street near St Hilda’s in honour of photographer Harry Phillips reminds me of it too; it is based on one of his photographs of the Bridal Veil Falls.

Dear You, Kate Llewellyn. This novel of love letters is set in Leura where the author lived for a few years. I read this when I first moved to the mountains, and remember scanning the entries for mentions of snow falling as that was one of my big concerns, being snowed in. It is a story of lust and longing and the everyday and gardens and being aware of the world in which you live.

Miles Off Course, Sulari Gentill. This is the third book in an excellent mystery series set in Australia in the 1930s featuring Rowland Sinclair. Rowly is an unconventional man from a privileged background who has bohemian friends including fellow artists and musicians. They get involved in all sorts of interesting situations which are historically accurate but with contemporary echoes. The series includes various famous and infamous people of the time in cameo roles. This book starts off in the Hydro Majestic where famous entrepreneur and hotelier Mark Foy is seeking Rowly’s input on the plans for his grand tomb which was to be carved into the grounds. This was true: it was incorporated into Foy’s will but it was ruled as not financially feasible by the court and his executors were released from any obligation to complete it.

Ash Island, Barry Maitland. This is the third installment of a trilogy featuring Harry Belltree, a Sydney detective with a troubled past and a complex network of enemies. In this final book, there is a murder early on in Blackheath, with Harry’s estranged wife Jenny the main suspect. But are things really as they seem?

Beware of the Dog, Peter Corris. My liking for Australian detective stories is apparent, and Corris is fondly regarded as The Godfather of Australian crime writing. His main character, Cliff Hardy, entered the literary scene in the 1970s and has been all over the country, and in various parts of the world, in his role as an old-school private investigator. In this installment, Hardy follows a lead up to a remote property past Mt Victoria, and the essence of this mountain village is well depicted. Hardy makes his final fictional appearance this year.

The Palace of Tears, Julian Leatherdale. This multi-generational fictional drama is based on the life of Mark Foy and his family. The author lives locally and has an extensive background in the arts and hotel management. This novel was a popular choice when it was released in time for summer reading a couple of years back and there is an interesting twist at the end. Julian has an article on the excellent Dictionary of Sydney website about the Hydro Majestic here.

Evergreen Falls, Kimberley Freeman. I came across this book by chance after listening to an interview with author on So You Want To Be A Writer. This story is set in modern times with historical flashbacks to a singular event in the 1920s which changed the course of the lives of several people. I liked the attention to detail, and the references to an old motel undergoing extensive renovations rang true as the Hydro was brought back from disrepair to its much more fashionable state.

Have you come across any books set in your town?

[Photo: detail from the mural in honour of Harry Phillips, Katoomba]

 

Book Mountains

A perpetual task is sometimes compared to painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge. When you finally finish, it is time to begin again. This is how I feel at times about keeping my growing collection of books in some sort of order. I go through phases of being Very Stern with myself about adding anything, and have tried approaches including ‘one in, one out’ but this never lasts. I wouldn’t say that I’m addicted to buying books, but they do provide me with inordinate joy and satisfaction and it is only when the piles begin to totter that I tend to go through and have a good clean out.

I have started a methodical sorting, the first big clean out since I moved here. Books have left the house in the past four years in spits and spurts, but not quite on this scale. It has been good to group together books by the same author and books of similar themes. The non-fiction books are generally kept separately, and I try to keep my extensive collection of short story books together, although they do seem to flare up in other spots without much encouragement.

A friend’s passing comment about minimalism tripped the current clean out, as it coincided with an end-of-the-year-and-start-of-new-year compulsion to tidy things up a bit. On a show about living with less stuff, there was discussion around emotional attachments to collecting things which is fine if it brings you pleasure, but not so good if it is just for the sake of keeping up with the everyone else. Whilst the books in my life usually aren’t purchased to impress anyone else, quite a few are bought on a whim or are read and are no longer required. Better to let them move on into someone else’s life.

A few years back I won a large box of new books in a competition in a bookshop and I have carted these books with me, reluctant to let them go as they were new. And free! Never mind that the books haven’t been read as they weren’t of interest to me. I did give a few away – it was a large box of books – but now I am finally ready to let the rest of them go. One of them was a beautiful book about a collection of Dior dresses with exquisite drawings and a felt dress on the cover. I’m sure someone else will actually appreciate it, rather than keep it and never open its pages.

How would you manage mountains of books that need sorting?

Scratchings from a writing notebook

I have managed to fill one of my writing notebooks. Well, all except for a few spare lines here and there. I have another book ready to go, but I’m still a bit reluctant to leave this one behind. It has travelled with me for the best part of a year, ready to capture stray thoughts and story ideas and the random bits that have been gathered along the way.

As I flick through the pages, I can see my initial thoughts around starting a blog and snippets stuck in from articles in the local paper that caught my eye. This includes a small poem published in an attempt to reconnect with a fleeting encounter:

The Station Bar across the space, a Sunday night’s caprice of fate, a laugh a dance a kiss would seal, my blighted sleep the feelings real. Explorers falls your lift to home, my spirits sag no name no phone, Monday morning Mudgee calls, my perfidy its just reward. If status quo be mine to keep, your eyes your smile your touch of cheek, forever lost and never found, the universe its secret sound.

Did they ever reconnect? Did he/she read the poem tucked into the personal notices and reply? I’d really like to know.

There are notes from books and articles that I’ve read whilst writing blogs with historical elements. There are random titles for story or blog ideas, some ticked off as I’ve written them. Others remain, ready to prompt me in the future. The pages are dotted with words that I have come across and need to look up, as well as questions to myself such as ‘what is pig iron?’  It’s the crude iron formed from a smelting furnace, shaped into rectangle blocks. Old photos of the Blasting Furnace at Lithgow had scores of the blocks.

Song titles feature quite a bit, as do snippets of lyrics. One favourite is ‘I started out with nothin’, I’ve still got most of it left’ by Seasick Steve. It made me laugh out loud when I heard it one night on the local radio station segment called Random Groove.

Instructions are also littered throughout, reminding me to take care of certain writing matters. There are prompts that I’ve read in different places, as well as snippets of conversation that I’ve heard whilst eavesdropping. This may not seem like much but these glimmers often reemerge in short stories or longer pieces. There are also pages when I’ve written an idea out, sketching the rough format for a piece with imagery that is vivid at the time, but may be lost if not recorded somewhere.

Short stories are there, in their entirety or sometimes just the beginning, or some other part if I’m wrestling with wording and need to slow the writing process down. There are sticky notes and dot points. Lots of dot points.

I was thinking of moving the unfinished or incomplete bits over to my new book but I think it would be best to leave it as is, and return to the old book for inspiration when I need it.

How do you keep track of ideas that you gather along the way?

[Photo of one of the many wonderful miniature paintings in the Secret Lane in Lithgow]

A Friend for All Seasons

Recently I was able to catch up with one of my oldest friends, LJ. We met in primary school playing handball, or KP as it was known in our school. Throughout the decades we have remained in touch although our lives have taken various tangents and we now live in different states.

One of our ways of keeping in contact has been through correspondence. This ranges from postcards to lengthy letters, often on exquisite stationery and sent with a stack of photos to keep each other up to date with what matters most. If you have ever received a stylish envelope holding several folded pages of news, observations and updates, you will know the joy that it brings.

LJ has surprised me several times with carefully chosen books. When I moved to the mountains she gave me a copy of In The Service of Clouds by Delia Falconer, the perfect introduction to living under dynamic, cloud-studded skies. In a nod to our continuing correspondence, she also sent me Women of Letters, a wide-ranging collection of heartfelt letters filled with humour and honesty.

Our long friendship means that we know habits and mannerisms, not only of each other, but of families and friends. We can commiserate and share stories of work place triumphs and challenges, along with the wisdom that comes with getting a little older. It also means that the back story is already there; we can communicate in shorthand, regardless of how long it is between catch ups. When we do connect there is a crossfire of ideas and stories, as well as sharing lists of books, music, podcasts and movies that each other might enjoy.

There are many attributes that I admire in LJ, including intelligence, compassion, humour and integrity. She has a keen sense of the absurd and doesn’t take everything too seriously. She has been there for me whenever I have needed her, as well as when I have been unable to see that I needed a friend. I know how lucky I am to have someone like her in my life.

Do you have a friend for all seasons?

[Photo: old tile spotted in a pub at Strathfield]

 

 

 

How many books on writing are too many?

I cannot remember a time in my life when I didn’t have a fortress of books. It has only been through a gradual embrace of the electronic age that I have stopped leaving home without at least one book. What if I was stuck somewhere for more than a minute without something to read? Unthinkable. It is a relief now to carry a stack of them on my phone.

Lately I’ve been doing a half-hearted tidy of my books. They are sprinkled throughout most rooms with elaborate stacks on the shelves of a hallway mirror, and the coffee table needs a regular decluttering as it is the first point of call for all new books. But the piles are getting unwieldy and some sorting is now overdue.

I did go through a phase when I stopped buying books on writing as bookshelves were already groaning under the weight of various tomes. But a few crept in, then a couple more, and it’s time to revisit and see if there are any that aren’t earning their keep.

The reference books are non-negotiable. There are several dictionaries and thesauruses, including a centenary edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary as there are times when I want to look up an older meaning of a word. There are style manuals, dictionaries of phrase and fable, and books on reading like a writer. I have a couple of editions of Pears Cyclopaedia – one old one new – again for the contrast in words and life in general over time. There are books on writing mysteries as I love to read them and have started a novel on this genre, as well as books containing a plethora of writing prompts.

So far all I’ve managed to do is shuffle spaces and create enough room to accommodate my existing collection, spread across several shelves, as there isn’t anything I’m prepared to cast aside as yet. They contain a wealth of knowledge and conflicting viewpoints and often contradictory information but there is a comfort in knowing they are there. If I had to choose five to keep, the current winners would be:

1. Macquarie Dictionary, concise edition. I love the mix of dictionary entries and encyclopedic information touching on Australian life.

2. Macquarie Thesaurus, also concise. I do prefer to have a couple of backup thesauruses though, as I often know what I’m looking for and won’t stop until I find the word that is taunting me from the sidelines of my vocabulary.

3. A Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves. The joyful mix of daily writing prompts, tips on writing and general guidance on how to have a more creative and fulfilling life.

4. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. The ritual of the daily pages has been an important aspect of creativity for me in recent years, but the book covers so much more than that. I revisit the exercises from time to time to see how I’m travelling in a creative sense.

5. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. The encouragement to write past the initial barricade of self-criticism and doubt has stayed with me, years after reading this book. When I start a new project, sometimes it is only Natalie’s voice encouraging me to write through the dross that helps me get to the glimmers of gold. And I’m not hearing things – the book is also available in an audio version.

What books encourage your creativity?

[Photo: apples ripe for picking]