Archive for September, 2007

Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living

This was fun. Very raunchy, which other reviews of this title seem to ignore. To begin with I thought it was science fiction: the ‘better farming train’ makes its way through 1930’s Australia, laden with scientific experts to teach the farmers how to grow more wheat and their wives how to have more, and fatter, babies. But apparently there really was one. You can read about it in an interview with the author, Carrie Tiffany. There’s a quirkiness about the book and a naivety about the narrator which is quite charming. The events of the story are actually quite tragic, but the lightness of the writing ensures that it isn’t depressing. It’s set in Australia with flashbacks to Yorkshire. Curiously, I read it on a train in Yorkshire. A strange and delightful read.


September 30, 2007 at 5:28 pm 3 comments

The Book of Lost Things

I bought this book a while ago because it has such a fantastic cover. Looking for something relaxing to read while I was in Leeds recently I picked it up and snugggled in. It was scary. A lot scarier than I expected. It’s set against the backdrop of World War II London. It starts off very sadly (and convincingly) as a young boy’s mother is dying, and he thinks he can protect her by performing meaningless rituals, like doing everything in even numbers. It doesn’t work. After she dies, he loses himself more and more in the fairytales which she too had loved. He gets sucked into their world, where everything is going wrong…

When I was reading it, I thought about why I like fairytales so much. I remember reading an essay by C.S. Lewis (or it could have been Tolkien) defending fairytales from being dismissed as escapism. Are we wrong, he asked, to want to escape this world?

The Book of Lost Things asks the same question. And answers: yes and no. I think the end of this book is less convincing than its beginning, but it is interesting none the less. I used to long desperately for fairytales to be true. Now I know they are true, I don’t need them so much. But I like them, I like the lens through which they filter the world. I like the idea of journeys and quests, because if life is a journey, it doesn’t matter if you can’t see what’s waiting round the next corner or over the crest of the hill. You’ll find out when you get there.

September 29, 2007 at 12:19 pm 4 comments

More on Midnite

I just finished it. This is seriously the funniest book I can ever remember reading. I bet the neighbours could hear me laughing through the walls. It’s about Midnite’s adventures as a bushranger, and then some other (typically Australian) things, but I don’t want to give you any more details so as not to spoil the pleasure of reading it for yourself. It’s just so funny and so warm-hearted, I’ve never read anything that’s left me feeling so happy.

I have been trying to read this book for years. A good friend of mine in Adelaide, who put me on to Randolph Stow in the first place, told me she’d lend it to me. But just then her son (who was my age and whom she was rather hoping I’d take a shine to, but we were both too shy) returned from teaching English in Japan. Not only that, but he was terribly sick with some fluey thing, and it was the time of the SARS outbreak, so he was whisked off to hospital as his plane landed and put into quarantine. To cheer him up, my friend lent him Midnite instead. Which is all well and good, except that because he’d touched it while he was quarantined it had to be destroyed!

The next encounter I had with Midnite was in Canberra earlier this year. I was trawling through the manuscripts of National Library, looking for stuff to help with my Phd. Going through the boxes of Randolph Stow manuscripts, I found an original copy of Midnite, written on a typewriter, with little notes scribbled all over it. Incredible. I read a few pages, but there were other, more pressing things to look at.

The past couple of months, I’ve been reading everything by and about Randolph Stow I could get my hands on. But the library didn’t appear to have a copy of Midnite. It wasn’t shelved with his other books, and when you type the title into the catalogue, it doesn’t come up. Haha, but it was hiding there after all! I typed ‘Randolph Stow’ into the keyword search, and there it was, buried in the ‘Stack English’ movable shelves in a deep and remote corner of the library. Only it wasn’t. I looked for it twice, and it wasn’t there – the books stopped way before its call number. I nearly gave up. But third time lucky, and there it was! I don’t know if some industrious librarian replaced a whole half-cabinet of books overnight, or if I have selective blindness. Libraries are mysterious places.

But I found it, and I read it, and now I’m smiling my head off. The man is a genius.

September 22, 2007 at 9:28 pm 2 comments


I have a new favourite Randolph Stow novel. Midnite. Written for children. Hilarious. Mitnite is a young bushranger with a gang of five animals, including, most importantly, a Siamese cat. Who speaks with a Siamese accent. And is much cleverer than him.

Once upon a time, in Western Australia a hundred years ago, a young man lived with his father in a cottage in a forest. The young man was called Midnite. At least, that is what I am going to call him, because that is what he called himself, later on, when he was famous.

His father dies, and he is very sad, so Khat tries to cheer him up.

‘Let’s have dinner,’ said Khat, ‘and then we will talk about money.’
So Midnite went into the kitchen and cooked the dinner, and they ate it on the verandah, so that Gyp and Major and Red Ned and Dora could listen to the conversation.
‘Now,’ said Khat, when he had finished his dinner and was enjoying a saucer of tea, ‘what are your plans?’
‘I have no plans,’ said Midnite, looking sad.
‘If I were you,’ said Khat, ‘I should be a bushranger.’
‘Would you, really?’
‘I should call myself Captain Midnight,’ said Khat, ‘which is a fine name for a bushranger, but I should spell it M-I-D-N-I-T-E.’
‘Why?’ asked Midnite.
‘Because that is more fierce and romantic,’ said Khat. ‘There is nothing romantic about good spelling.’

Hear hear!

September 22, 2007 at 7:59 am Leave a comment

Summer Reading

Now that the summer is ending (mercifully slowly – this weather is lovely!), here’s a quick catch up.

Lian Hearn, The Harsh Cry of the Heron

This is the fourth in a series, and they’ve all been wonderful. Set in a fantasy world reminiscent of medieval Japan, it is evocative and gripping and beautiful, and this book is my favourite yet. Don’t want to give too much away, but it’s just lovely. And she’s an Adelaide writer, hurrah!

Knut Hamsun, Hunger

One of my challenge reads, and more fun than I thought it would be, after the front cover glibly declared that it was one of the most disturbing books in existence. A young Nowegian hovers on the brink of starvation in nineteenth century Oslo, to proud to do much about it. It was disturbing, and the main character was difficult to like (I think this was the point), but I did find myself warming to him towards the end. There’s even the odd medieval reference, as he attempts to write a play set in the Middle Ages. It’s been compared with Dosteovsky, but is a little one dimensional in comparison.

Randolph Stow, Tourmaline

Read the previous post. What can I say? Bruce Clunies Ross says he has the linguistic equivalent of perfect pitch. I agree.

Randolph Stow, Visitants

Not good plane reading, because the perspective and voice switches every page and a half. Disturbing and compelling, and better on a second reading, when you know what’s going on. Set in the Trobriant Islands, it documents a gradual disintegration into madness against a backdrop of cargo cults and reports of alien star-ships.

A. J. Hassall, Strange Country: A Study of Randolph Stow

A thorough summary of everything Stow wrote, but rather bland, and ignores some of the most interesting aspects…

Nick Hornby, How to be Good

This one definitely is good plane reading. Deceptively light hearted, this is an essentially bleak appraisal of married life.

Mormonism for Dummies

I’m not about to convert, but I found this fascinating. Not sure about the regulation underwear, or whether God lives near a distant star, but did like the depiction of Eve as the brave, courageous founder of mortal life.

D.M. Cornish, Monster Blood Tattoo

Another Adelaide writer, who has created a world of monsters and sailing ships where things are not quite as they seem. Great fun. Can’t wait for the rest of the series.

And now on with the term! Stay tuned, posts here might become a little more frequent…

September 14, 2007 at 7:47 pm 2 comments

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