Monday, 30 October 2017

Portrait of a Marriage

I stumbled across Penelope Mortimer's The Pumpkin Eater (1962) by accident. Early for a work meeting, I wandered into a discount bookstore - the kind where everything is under $10 - and there I found the Penguin Modern Classic version of this slender novel. Having never heard of the book, nor it's author, I bought it on a whim and found a nook to read while awaiting my appointment.

The novel tells the story of Mrs Armitage, a frequently married woman who has a wealth of children to each of the men she has  wed. Her latest husband Jake is an up-and-coming screen writer who desperately wants to be rid of all the children to boarding school and stop having more. Mrs Armitage is depressed due to her husband's infidelities and their newly acquired wealth which has left her with far too much time on her hands. Her psychiatrist gives her pills and encourages her to avoid pregnancy. Her sessions with the shrink take her back to her blossoming sexuality and her views on love, fertility and marriage.

This is said to be an autobiographical novel, and having read about Penelope Mortimer's life I understand why. Mortimer was married at least twice and had six children to four men. Her last husband was barrister and writer John Mortimer, of Rumpole fame. The book is a telling indictment of their relationship.

I really enjoyed Mortimer's writing style and the humour she infuses in a rather dark tale. She has a way of describing scenes candidly, often with tremendous wit. For example, a scene where Mrs Artimage remembers that as a teenager she read some women's magazines a friend had given her and
"learned many useful facts such as all men are children, all men are emotionally immature, all men dislike hairnets and criticism, all men are unfaithful, must be trusted, need hot breakfasts, want more than they should have and need more than they are given."
Another scene where Mrs Armitage is listening to her husband speak with her psychiatrist, Mortimer describes as:
"There was a short silence. I eased myself farther down the stairs. My heart was pounding again and I felt sick. Eaves-droppers my mother would say, hear what they deserve."
And again, when Mr Armitage returns from abroad, Mortimer writes that the children were awaiting his car:
"Most of them were in the front bedrooms, watching for him; when they saw his car draw up they cateracted down the stairs, swarming over him as he came through the door..."  
The novel was adapted into a film by Harold Pinter, which starred Anne Bancroft, Peter Finch and Maggie Smith. The poster says it all - 'The marriage bed isn't always a bed of roses!' I am keen to track down a copy of the film and see how the novel was translated to the screen, especially given the talented cast.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Into The Wild

In the dense forest of the Giralang Ranges, five co-workers set off on a four day hike. Part of a corporate bonding experience, the excursion was supposed to bring them closer together. But when only four of the women arrived at the rendezvous point, it was clear that something had gone horribly wrong.

Force of Nature (2017) is Jane Harper's second novel, released a year after her wonderful debut The Dry. It features federal police officer Aaron Falk and his partner Carmen Cooper, who have an interest in the matter as the missing woman is the whistleblower on a case they are investigating.

I love the way Harper writes and structures her novel. In alternating chapters between the weekend hike and the search and rescue operation, she slowly unfurls the mystery. The pace quickens as the story builds. Little clues, red herrings and the ominous location create an intriguing mystery. I thought I had figured the ending out quite early, but was delighted to find I was wrong.

Location is key in Harper's novels. In The Dry it was an outback town, dusty from drought. Here, the forest is dense and has a sinister past (evoking Ivan Milat's Belanglo State Forest). It is cold, wet and dark with clouds never lift. As you read, you feel the damp chill in your bones.

My only quibble is that some of the women on the hike were hard to tell apart. On occasion, I would have to stop and go back to figure out which one was which - Bree, Beth, Jill or Lauren. Readers need to pay close attention. All the women were pretty hard to like and have sympathy for. I definitely would not want to work with any of them, and remind me never to go on a corporate retreat.

In my review of The Dry, I said that Falk could become the next Cormoran Strike. With his second outing, I think that is true. He is a flawed detective - like Rebus or Wallander - smart and savvy, yet private and reserved. In the first half of the book we learned very little about Falk, but small insights into his character come out, largely thanks to Carmen's gentle probing. I would have liked more Falk in this novel, to draw him out a bit earlier, but I look forward to the reveal over the course of the series.

Second novels are often awkward and rushed after the success of the first. I didn't feel that in this case. Harper is a really good writer, coming into her stride in this genre. I look forward to the next instalment.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Booker Prize Winner 2017

The 2017 Man Booker prize winner was announced this week. From the thirteen titles on the longlist, to the six on the shortlist, the judges have now chosen the one book that would take home the prize.

American writer George Saunders won for his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, a story focussed on one night when Abraham Lincoln buries his 11 year old son. The graveyard is filled with souls not yet fully transitioned who reside in the bardo between death and rebirth.

The chair of the judges, Lola, Baroness Young said:
"The form and style of this utterly original novel, reveals a witty, intelligent, and deeply moving narrative. This tale of the haunting and haunted souls in the afterlife of Abraham Lincoln’s young son paradoxically creates a vivid and lively evocation of the characters that populate this other world.  Lincoln in the Bardo is both rooted in, and plays with history, and explores the meaning and experience of empathy."
I am so pleased this book won as I expected it would. From the first few pages, I knew there was something remarkable about it. Will write a full review on this novel shortly.

Of interest, this is the second American winner in a row, after the eligibility criteria was changed in 2014 to allow writers from outside the Commonwealth. I imagine with Paul Beatty last year and George Saunders this year, there will be plenty of British writers concerned about the widening pool of talent and wishing it were constrained once more.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

The Insider

It was such a pleasure to read ABC journalist Mark Colvin's Light and Shadow - Memoirs of a Spy's Son (2016). Colvin's memoirs explore his early life with his Australian mother Anne, his British diplomat/spy father John, and his younger sister Zoe. The Cold War was quietly raging and the family moved from post to post - Austria, Malaysia and beyond - while his father worked in espionage, a profession under pressure following the outing of the Cambridge Five Spy Ring.

When Mark was old enough, he was sent to Britain to boarding school - a brutal, punishing experience which he describes in great detail. At school Colvin fell in love with reading and music. His memoir is peppered with the soundtrack of his life and the stories that he enjoyed.

While studying English literature at Oxford, Colvin visited his father at his latest posting in Mongolia for summer holidays. Colvin's stories of Mongolia and its nomadic people reminded me of my own travels to Ulan Bator via the Trans-Siberian railway.

Colvin was an old-school reporter, with a solid credo: 'don't make up your mind before you've gathered the facts'. He learned on the job as a cadet covering events that shaped Australia in the 1970s and 1980s like the Dismissal, the Granville train disaster and the Hilton Hotel bombing. He describes the tape recorders, reel-to-real machines, editing suites and difficulties of reporting in the pre-Internet era.

My dad was a journalist and foreign correspondent. Colvin's life as a reporter reminded me so much of my dad, that I felt waves of reminiscence as I was reading. Whether Colvin described his assignment during the Iran hostage crisis, the trial of Klaus Barbie, interviewing Lech Walesa, or events in London in the late 1960s/early 1970s, I thought of the stories my dad had told me of his own experiences in the fourth estate.

After covering the major events of recent decades, Colvin's career as a foreign correspondent was cut short by a rare and devastating illness contracted on assignment in 1994. Later, Colvin became a beloved presenter of PM on Radio National, an advocate for organ donation, and amassed an enviable Twitter following.

My only gripe with this memoir was that it is not long enough. Colvin himself acknowledges that there are many more stories to tell. I wanted to know more about his mother and also about his later life. His wife and children are barely mentioned, indeed they are pretty much absent from this tale, although undoubtedly major influences in his life. His desire for privacy is further evident in the fact that his illness was covered in less than two pages. Colvin had a lot more to say, but unfortunately this memoir will have no sequel.

From time to time I would see Mark Colvin present at events in Sydney. The last time I saw him live was at the 2015 Festival of Dangerous Ideas, when he interviewed the newly released Peter Greste about his year in an Egyptian prison, the decline of journalism as a career, and the vital importance of a free press. I didn't realise how little time he had left with us.

Mark Colvin died on 11 May 2017. I heard about his death from Colvin himself in a beautiful tweet: "It's all been bloody marvellous." That about sums up my feelings after reading his memoir - bloody marvellous!

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Random Reads (5/10/17)

I have read a number of fascinating articles lately which are worth sharing.
  • "The Dying Art of Disagreement" by Bret Stephens, published in the New York Times, is the text of a lecture Stephens delivered in September at the Lowy Institute in Australia. It is a powerful speech and one which I have thought about many times since I read it. Stephens talks about the polarization of viewpoints and the demise of liberal education in which we are taught to have an open mind. He talks about the rise of identity politics and the role of the media in speaking truth. One paragraph that really resonated with me is when Stephens says 
' disagree well, you must first understand well. You have to read deeply, listen carefully, watch closely. You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him the intellectual benefit of the doubt; have sympathy for his motives and participate empathically with his line of reasoning. And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what he has to say.'
  • The Cincinnati Enquirer sent over 60 journalists out into the city to cover a week in the life of its citizens to explore the impact of drugs. The result is an incredible "Seven Days of Heroin: This is what an epidemic looks like" and how one July week resulted in 18 deaths, 180+ overdoses, 200+ incarcerations, and 15 babies born with heroin-related conditions. In this compelling piece we meet the addicts, their distraught family members, the first responders, the police officers and others who are impacted by the heroin epidemic. It is a powerful portrait of a city in crisis and the images are astounding. 
  • I love Joni Mitchell. She is a music pioneer and legend. So I was drawn to an article in The Atlantic by Jack Hamilton called "The Unknowable Joni Mitchell". Hamilton reviews many of the biographies written about the singer and talks about the intimacy of her music. Reading the article reminded me of many of her songs from early albums and encouraged me to put my Joni playlist on repeat. Here is a live performance from 1974 of 'A Case of You', perhaps my favourite Mitchell song.

  • The mass shooting in Las Vegas on 1 October 2017 has produced countless column inches of coverage. It is a horrible, devastating crime that should be a wake up call to the gun loving Americans about the need for restraint. Perhaps I have become numb to the inevitability of the aftermath commentary in which the white perpetrator will be called a lone wolf rather than a homegrown terrorist, his owning a ridiculous amount of semi-automatic weapons is not questioned, and there is no action on gun control. There are plenty of articles covering this story and asking why it is allowed to happen. One of the best is by Roxane Gay's "No More Shootings That Follow The Rules" writing in the New York Times.  Also, Jimmy Kimmel opened his show on Monday 2 October with a moving plea for change which I found really powerful.

  • Finally, there was an interesting piece in the New York Times by John Herman called "What if platforms like Facebook are too big to regulate?" in which he explores the recent eviction of Uber from London and Facebook's attempts to 'strengthen the democratic process'. Many of the  big tech players - Google, Facebook, Twitter - see themselves as democratic tools, giving voice to the disenfranchised and bringing about connectivity and community. These platforms are now part of the modern infrastructure and yet these tools can be used with malicious intent as seen in last year's American election. So should they be regulated? And if so, how? Much to think about...