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Archive for the ‘Books I’ve read’ Category

Time away from home on my own is rare these days. In fact it’s more than six years since I spent a night away from home and Stephen. When a friend offered transport to Dunedin I hesitated, then thought “why not?”. It’s good to have a break from my usual routines, and interesting what effort, physical and emotional, is required to make that break.

At home I have regular rituals and activities, which have been carefully chosen and developed over many years. One of those is reading a daily newspaper and doing the puzzles in it. In Dunedin the Press is now simply not available in hard copy. The Otago Daily Times is a possible substitute, with equivalent puzzles, but the news items don’t have the same relevance.

Usually I do 15 minutes exercises each morning, then go to my computer to check emails and blog, and do Wordle. I took my tablet away with me, but had difficulty logging on to the motel WiFi at some times, and I never even thought about Wordle. Digital devices are great for keeping in touch, but a few disconnected days gave me a chance to focus my thoughts elsewhere.

Dunedin building facade

It was wonderful to wake in the morning and know I had two completely free days ahead of me where I could do whatever and whenever I wanted. This seldom happens at home, and when it does there are always domestic tasks I could be doing. Saturday morning I woke at 1am to the sound of rain. At home I would listen to RNZ National through my headphones, careful not to wake Stephen. In Dunedin I could put on the bed-light (and the electric blanket, lacking the warmth of a partner in bed), and read or write. I’m currently reading Juliet Batten’s latest memoir The Persimmon Journal which deals with lockdown, loss, and release, and even mentions me on page 172. Juliet’s story of ageing and dealing with physical deterioration is an inspiring example of the changes we face as we get older.

I think of time away as being on retreat, and when I retreat I like to have a question or theme to consider. The solution or resolution can often come from the subconscious. For these few days my non-urgent focus was on future plans. What might I do differently in the coming year? Last year I joined the University of the Third Age and have relished the stimulation those talks give me. The previous year, through a writing class, I produced and published a small memoir which gave me a sense of achievement. What new activity could I choose for 2023? What have other older people chosen? It would be good to increase my circle of friends, something that seems harder to do as I grow older, especially when people die and/or move elsewhere.

I’ve offered to co-facilitate a Summer Solstice ritual for a spirituality group where I’ve not led before. I’m unsure whether I have the energy to do more in this area, but it is an option, especially as there are others who would share the responsibility.

The commitment of formal volunteer roles doesn’t attract me at present, but I’ve found satisfaction when an opportunity has arisen to perform a Random Act of Kindness. How could I build more of these into my life?

Or maybe I’ll just enjoy having more time to myself, and meeting each day as it comes.

There is so much that I could do
Great to have time and freedom too

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Two mothers have very different views about the need for vaccinations, and the ramifications are far-reaching. The women have a long close friendship although their personalities are not alike, and they each care for the other’s child. The author gives both sides of the vaccination debate, and demonstrates how both mothers are trying to do the very best for their child.

My daughters had all the suggested jabs, and I have too. In the 1980s I knew someone who had a tragic adverse reaction to a pre-travel vaccination, but I know such outcomes are rare. Conflict over vaccination has been topical in Covid times, but most of us believe and follow Health Ministry guidelines.

The characters in this novel are well drawn, and there is suspense.

The main message I took from the book is how easily we can become obsessed by an idea, and how important it is to consider other possibilities. This is an enjoyable book that will make you think.

You can’t expect impunity
if you’ve refused immunity

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This is a beguiling book, full of humour. The narrator, an American woman, loses all her family in the influenza epidemic and inherits enough money to enable her to travel. She becomes part of the inner circle at the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference where Winston Churchill, TE Lawrence, and Gertrude Bell, among others, meet to decide the fate of the Arab world after World War One. The consequences of these decisions are being seen today.

I enjoyed her cynical observations of war, the influenza epidemic, and the tourist attractions of Jerusalem. After excellent descriptions of Egypt’s ancient attractions she notes that Jerusalem appeared to her as an enormous mushroom colony, and that the soil around the Nile is so fertile you could plant a pencil and harvest a book.

Her Dachshund Rosie accompanies her on her travels and the dog’s personality radiates through the book. It’s not a breed that’s ever attracted me but I now feel more sympathetic towards them. When Rosie disgraced herself in a luxury car shared with Winston Churchill which was surrounded by rioters, Winston commented that this was “Quite a common reaction to combat”.

I appreciated the understanding of the difference between a suffragist and a suffragette.

When our heroine had too much to drink, Lawrence supported her when she vomited. “Oh, good Lord,” I gasped, hilarious and horrified as I took the handkerchief Lawrence offered. “I just puked in front of the Uncrowned King of Arabia.”

“My dear Miss Shanklin,” Lawrence said with a gallantry I have never forgotten, “I was an undergraduate at Oxford. Believe me: I’ve seen worse.”

While this is a work of fiction the author has used historical dialogue wherever this was available. The end of this book was strange, but I could excuse that as I’d enjoyed the rest.

We start to understand at least
some problems of the Middle East

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This memoir was written by a 98-year-old woman. She grew up in New Brighton, and later worked in Wellington, as well as travelling overseas. Margaret was a Hansard Reporter and offers some interesting snippets of Parliamentary history.

What struck me about the book was how many facts the author was uncertain of. It’s understandable that a 98-year-old’s memory may be fragmentary, but I couldn’t help thinking that many of these facts could easily have been researched by an assistant, and that some editing would have been useful. Maybe just writing her story down was what she wanted to do.

Margaret relates how when her grandfather married for a second time he neglected to tell his new wife he had seven children dotted around Christchurch. This reminded me of my grandfather who neglected to tell my grandmother that two sons of his first marriage had come with him to Christchurch from Australia. Many details of places and events in this book are ones that I either remember or remember hearing about, e.g. my mother was also there when Kingsford Smith arrived from his flight across the Tasman.

I was lent this book from the New Brighton Historical Society. It has a copyright notice, and was printed by Printabook who are “self-publishing experts”. There is nothing to say who the publisher is, although it was evidently the author, and there is no ISBN number, which indicates the book was never intended for sale. Christchurch City Libraries hold one copy which is for in-library use only. Some diverting episodes are included, but Margaret’s story failed to enthrall me. I wondered who had thought of the title, which didn’t quite seem to match the book.

When near a hundred years have passed
the anecdotal scope is vast

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This book of autobiographical essays opens with the story of Fiona becoming a widow, and goes on to give the origin of many scenes that appear in her novels. She writes with a wonderful sense of place, deals practically with the changes that come with age, and gives us captivating glimpses of the life of a successful writer.

I liked her statement that everyone has grandparents but not everyone has grandchildren – personally, I have grand-kittens. Parts that especially drew my interest were her description of the way she taught classes to write memoir and the research she did for her book about Jean Batten. Festival sessions with small audiences also appealed. I imagine those small audiences would have had a real treat. It reminded me of the time Stephen was in a play where only two audience members turned up, and they, along with the cast, all went to the pub.

The essay on massage reminded me of wonderful massages I had from a woman who later left Christchurch. It’s some years now since I had a professional massage but it’s a treat I may avail myself of again now that Fiona has brought the idea to mind. She described how the milled rims of her wedding ring have now vanished which reminded me that mine too has lost its milled rims after many years. Fiona’s story of the Pike River Mine and her responsibility to seek justice shows her determination and commitment.

So many different stories, all fascinating and all told with skill and honesty.

She shares the stories of her life
now moving on – no longer wife

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Writing a memoir is an act of resurrection. I was privileged to hear three authors of memoirs speak at a superb session at this year’s WORD festival. The session was titled Whose life is it anyway? and facilitator Victor Roger was engaging and knowledgeable, telling us that he had laughed and cried when reading each of the three books.

I arrived early with time to browse the University Bookshop stall, where they were selling literary t-shirts, buy one, get one free. I was delighted to get a long-sleeved shirt with a quote from Hermione Granger which says When in doubt go to the library. For Stephen, a lifelong Science Fiction fan, I chose one featuring The War of the Worlds by HG Wells.

The three writers on the panel were Ruth Shaw (The Bookseller at the End of the World), Megan Dunn (Things I learned at Art School), and Clementine Ford (How We Love). I’d not read any of these, although two were already on my For Later list (to which the third has now been added). I was surprised that the theatre was only two-thirds full. The session was also being live-streamed, and I guess there are people who are still wary of being out in crowds, even though all the audience was masked.

Megan Dunn, Clementine Ford, Ruth Shaw, Victor Roger

Clementine explained she was wearing a hat because she’d been travelling for ten days and her hair needed attention. She also said her grandmother would have been horrified by this. I’d previously heard Clementine speak on a panel in 2015 where the topic was How to be a feminist. This time she spoke of how we often see our past selves in negative ways, carrying self-doubt inside. To have a relatable story with depth you have to get to know your inner self, ask them to forgive you, and they will, because all they’ve ever wanted is your love.

Megan said: Good girls write memoirs, bad girls don’t have time. Her father had suggested to her that some things are better left unsaid. In 1989 she was 14 years old and her family were living above an old persons’ home, when her uncle killed himself. Some of her writing is therefore about a child absorbing death. Her description of her own mother’s death was incredibly moving. This mother was never supported to reach her potential or be publicly known, and Megan is now honouring her in this book, so that thousands of people know her and cry for her.

Ruth said she was able to draw on lots of diaries and letters, but recalling the emotions was tricky. She often imagined the person she was writing about standing beside her, together with those who would become her readers. After being raped she became pregnant at 17, and found her mother’s reaction difficult to understand, but her mother later explained the difficulty of living in a small community among the families of the perpetrators.

Megan pointed out there are many lonely people in the world, and suggested one way to combat loneliness is to buy these books.

Clementine said that if you know someone you can be a witness to their life, and that is an important form of love. She recommended the film Beaches as an example of this. Clementine would like to write about her father, who re-married after her mother died. She hopes he will die before his second wife does so she can write the book and that woman can read it.

When questioned about censoring what you’ve written Ruth said she had changed the names of her four husbands and son, to protect their privacy.

All the authors were amazingly open about their stories, and I had tears in my eyes on several occasions. This was a stimulating and very worthwhile session, and I look forward to the pleasure of reading each of their books. Have you read these memoirs?

Their stories came right from the heart
there’s more to read – a further part

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Any genealogist would find the beginning of this book delightfully intriguing. I was fascinated to follow the author’s family research, including his use of databases which are available on the internet, and I can relate to his obsession with the quest to discover more. His emotion on making contact with previously unknown relatives reminded me of similar experiences I have had.

When I read of the amazing amount of family correspondence Richard discovered in various archives I felt envious. He describes being a kind of time-travelling commuter, secretly shuffling back and forth between the present day and the world of his eighteenth century family.

Detective biography is the perfect label for this book. The author gives details of how his ancestors gained wealth through their slaves in the West Indies, and how shocking he found this. His descriptions of the transport and sale of slaves are harrowing. I thought smugly of my own Rout ancestors who were abolitionists.

I admit I skipped through many of the pages which dealt with British politics, the financial crisis of 1772, and the American Revolution, where an earlier Richard Atkinson supplied the Royal Navy and troops with rum and other provisions.

For me, the personal anecdotes were more engaging that the wider political and war details, though I admired the thorough research and the many illustrations. It was moving to read of the moment when Richard touched the hair of his Great-great-great-great Aunt. His commentary on DNA testing was interesting especially when he found so many distant cousins were of West African ancestry.

This book would be enjoyed by anyone curious about British colonial history, but there is a special attraction for family historians.

A decade is the time it took
to research and to write this book

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This is a monumental work of fiction, that is totally believable. It often reads like a biography, and includes many interwoven stories. The main one is about Marian Graves, who triumphed over all kinds of obstacles to become a woman flyer in the first half of the 20th century. Another story is about a Hollywood starlet who is to play the part of Marian in a film 50 years later. At first I found the movement between the two stories disconcerting, but they slowly drew me in and eventually melded together into a satisfying whole – a great circle, perhaps.

The Great Circle of the title is a flight around the earth, encompassing both north and south poles, which Marian plans to take. All the characters drew me in, especially Marian’s brother, and those involved in World War Two. There are loves lost and found throughout, and I came to feel resentful when the story returned to the present day.

At 589 pages this is a substantial book, and towards the end I had to read it sitting up because it was too lopsidedly heavy to read lying in bed as I usually do.

The detail is meticulously researched, to the extent that I began to wonder whether in fact Marian was an actual person. If you enjoy historical books about strong woman characters, you will like this one.

Beginning from a shipwrecked berth
she planned to fly all round the earth

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This book took me straight into the heart of Nigeria, at least the part of Nigeria that is in London. I’m always attracted to books set in that city, but this is a very different London, where a group of three Nigerian women share friendship, food, and fun. When a fourth woman joins their group strange things start to happen.

The book moves at a fast pace, and I finished it in a couple of evenings. There were interesting insights into the lives of part-Nigerian women, but I got annoyed with the way they interacted with each other, and with their men. A Guardian review recommended that this was one of the best recent crime thrillers, but it was a bit light for me. While there was a mystery it was well smothered. Still, it’s interesting to read about another culture, and there was enough to keep me engaged.

Wahala translates in to trouble
when someone new enters their bubble

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This book was not for me. It came well-recommended, with an Australian setting, and an author born and living in Aotearoa. I was well prepared to enjoy it, but somehow my brain just couldn’t encompass the fantasy. Perhaps that’s a sign of ageing?

The lack of speech marks gave reading it an added hindrance, and I gave up at page 22. I wonder who else has read it, and what did you think?

This book was simply not for me
I did not like the fantasy

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