Mad March

Here is a snapshot of life in Adelaide – I had the pleasure of a friend from London Book Club visiting last weekend, so was able to share with her all the craziness that is Mad March!

Adelaide Writers’ Week is one of my favourite events – it’s free, held in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Gardens among the trees, and attracts big-name authors and new (to me) discoveries.  It is part of the Adelaide Festival – this year’s highlight for me will be Neil Armfield’s The Secret River, adapted from Kate Grenville’s book and staged in a quarry.  At the same time we have the Fringe (the world’s second-largest annual arts festival).  Then there’s the Adelaide 500 V8 supercar race (don’t mention the road closures) and this weekend is Womadelaide. Whew!

On Saturday I ducked into Writers’ Week to hear Nathan Hill discussing his fabulous novel The Nix.  I’m thrilled to hear that it’s being made into a movie with Meryl Streep. He was super engaging and I love the book so far – funny, with a sense of playfulness that reminds me of (but is easier than) David Foster Wallace.

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Nathan Hill and Steven Gale

We were lucky enough to have a dinner booking at Peel St – having been away last year, I’ve so missed their blend of casual atmosphere and exceptional, fresh food. Heaven!  Then onto the Riverbank Parc Palais for a larger-than-expected frosé.

 

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Cimone, me and Alex on the riverbank (Adelaide Oval behind us).

Sunday and back to Writers’ Week for stories based on true crime, with Graeme Macrae Burnet discussing the Booker-shortlisted His Bloody Project and Hannah Kent with the follow-up to her outstanding debut Burial Rites, The Good People.  Entertaining and articulate, definitely worth the early start (two macchiatos later!).  Graeme Macrae Burnet was signing his book with a fingerprint, so of course I had to break my book ban and buy a copy.

Next up, the Art Gallery of South Australia for the incredible Versus Rodin exhibition.  Leigh Robb has done a beautiful job with her first major exhibition in her new role as Contemporary Curator.  She has juxtaposed the Rodin works with modern paintings and sculpture – by artists such as Sarah Lucas, Antony Gormley and Louise Bourgeouis – on the theme of the human body.  It’s on until 2 July – come and see it!

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‘Finger Churches’ by Dennis Oppenheim

Next up was 2KW for a rooftop drink and tapas (= Sol Sessions).

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2KW Sol Sessions

Then onto a Fringe Show, the fabulous, talented and funny Hugh Sheridan with the California Crooners.  So, so good!  I have been spoilt with live music in the past and some artists cannot be compared (Bruce Springsteen) , but the Crooners gave us such a fun, relaxed night of entertainment – a wonderful show.  We were too busy dancing so my photos are all blurry – but here is the pretty setting on the Torrens, looking back to the Riverbank Palais (see earlier frosé).

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River Torrens, looking south from Adelaide Oval. 

Monday and time to meet another author – the wonderful and engaging Jessie Burton, discussing The Muse – one of my favourite books of 2016.  More coffee needed…

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Alex was departing Monday night so how to fit in all of South Australia’s famous wineries?  Luckily, 10 minutes from the city is Magill Estate, home of one of our most iconic winemakers, Penfolds.  We did a tasting, followed by lunch at the Kitchen – absolutely superb and the Express Lunch is amazing value at $35 for 2 courses plus a glass of wine.  We had duck bao for entree, perfectly roasted, crispy duck leg with pumpkin for main and a chocolate dessert… Mondayitis begone!

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Not my usual Monday lunch: the chocolate dessert at Magill Estate Kitchen, before we demolished it.

And that’s all for one weekend!  Next up: more Festival reports, and why today’s book haul had a Japan theme….

Flash Fiction: The Collection


“There are rules,” he said.

“Rules?” asked the storekeeper. 

They stood in an army disposal store that sold all manner of things. Together they inspected the old printer’s tray.  

“For the collection. They must be found on the beach, for example.”

“A shell collection!”

He frowned.

“Every item must be different. Netting, driftwood, a coin.”

“Found objects.”  The storekeeper was proud of this term, something he had heard an artist say once. 

The man allowed it. 

“I have seventeen. But my wife wants the kitchen table back.”

The storekeeper counted. “This has eighteen spaces.”

“Another rule: never finish the collection.”

*

This is Friday Flash Fiction. Picture supplied by Claire Fuller. 

 
 

Escapist Books

The last time I looked at the news, there was an earthquake in central Italy and women being stripped on the beach in France.  And my son asking “who is that little boy?” (the 5 year-old devastated Syrian bombing victim).  Even some of the books I’ve read lately have taken an unflinching (brave, and beautifully written) look at war and oppression – I’m looking at you Girl at War and Do Not Say We Have Nothing.  Agh!  We need to escape sometimes: VEEP and Lillehammer are my television souffles, but I do like a good book.  Simon and Thomas of The Readers podcast have read my mind and discussed escapist reads recently.  I was inspired to make a list …

Two rules are at play: 1) it can be as light as light as can be, but must be well-written.  I want to feel inspired by an author smarter than me, not cringe at cliches or clunky phrasing: No 50 Shades of Gray. 2) nothing too challenging. No War and Peace or Narrow Road to the Deep North (both excellent though).

It’s a tricky balance – I have huge respect for authors who manage it. On the other hand, I agree with Thomas – any book that draws you in and entertains you can be a good escape.

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  1. P.G. Wodehouse: fail-safe, timeless, always lifts my spirits.  In the words of Evelyn Waugh, his “idyllic world can never stale”.  Harmless but genius writing.  This article in the New Yorker explains some of the appeal. We visited Sydenham Hill Wood recently and the guide map said “The Pond .. supports dragonflies and newts” – just the word newt made me laugh, conjuring up Gussie Fink-Nottle.  You must read his speech at Market Snodsbury Grammar School, in Right Ho, Jeeves.
  2. Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy): escape to outer space, brilliantly conceived. Funny, masterful, another genius.
  3. A good detective story: Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers for classic English crime.  Recently I’ve discovered Judith Flanders, who does a great a great crime caper (Murder of Magpies).  Boris Akunin has been compared with Sherlock Holmes but has a comic Russian element.  And Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series (starting with Death at La Fenice) blends crime, Venice and food – what’s not to love?  A good setting can be key.  By good I mean not war-torn; ideally a grand hotel by the sea, a bucolic village or a cultural European capital.
  4. Another recent discovery: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner.  I felt like I was holidaying in a resort by the lake (funny, that), breathing crisp mountain air and Edith was in my ear whispering her observations about the guests.  There is some depth and sadness, but it’s treated with a light touch.  The quality of the writing is absorbing enough to block out the read world.
  5. Speaking of mittel-Europe, Stefan Zweig – he wrote during troubling times but he illuminates small incidents, details and characters with a humane sensibility and a reassuring tone – as if someone is simply confiding a story. My favourite is The Royal Game, a novella that takes place on a cruise: short in length, an escapist setting, tick, tick!
  6. 41NEReoBC6L._SX304_BO1,204,203,200_The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjoberg.  Sjoberg collects hoverflies on a remote island in Sweden. Somehow this is one of the most comforting, wise books I have read. I highly recommend it.
  7. Which brings us to Scandinavia: Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book is everything.
  8. Another means of escape is a sweeping story to immerse yourself in.  Some of my favourites are: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (so excited for her next book The Good People due in October); The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. All have a strong sense of place too, so you really can enter into another world. Bliss!
  9. Actual travel, anyone? I love the travel writing of Dickens, and the slim volume On Travel is full of insights and funny scenes, with his sense of theatre and comedy. Edith Wharton’s Cruise of the Vanadis is a beautiful book and cover.jpg.rendition.460.707leisurely escape – relax with a coffee and enjoy the Meditterranean islands and Wharton’s eye for detail. Bill Bryson’s early travel writing is clever and entertaining. And for 1970s New York, the The Andy Warhol Diaries are a revelation: fun and name-droppy to dip in and out of, or a full literature experience with Warhol as the protagonist.
  10. Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: John Wood’s memoir about starting Room to Read is an antidote to the ‘world problems are overwhelming’ blues.  Wood – a self-confessed library nerd and avid reader – is funny, engaging and optimistic. The message: world change starts with educated children.  The good news?  He is on it.

What are your favourite escapist books?

Books and Small Museums

I blame Orhan Pamuk for my love of small museums.  (Of course, I didn’t say that when I had the honour of meeting him last year).

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Meeting Orhan Pamuk, September 2015

Specifically, The Museum of Innocence – a rich, intricate story to immerse yourself in, with textures of Istanbul, layering of details and the human flaws and obsessions of Kemal.  This was my first Pamuk and I’ve since gone back to read all of his books – My Name is Red is another favourite.  It features beautiful works of art in miniature – Pamuk as a former artist and architecture student describes these with intelligence and sincerity, without being over-bearing.

A part of The Museum of Innocence which always resonated was Kemal’s odyssey to find private museums: collections built by individuals and reflecting their idiosyncracies.  These often give an insight into lives on a human scale, rather than seeing objects held by large government institutions.  Pamuk conceived of the novel and a museum (of Kemal’s collection) simultaneously, and has opened the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul.  I saw some exhibits from it at Somerset House this year and dream of visiting it and the city.

So now I think of Orhan Pamuk whenever I visit small museums.  Sir John Soane’s Museum is mentioned in the book and blew me away when I went recently.  It was the house of Sir John Soane, architect, and is meticulous, surprising and a beautifully designed space with a reverence for architecture, Rome, sculptures and the absurd (he had a Monk’s Parlour where he would take guests after dinner, to sit amongst the skulls).

In the Frick Collection in New York, you can wander through Henry Frick’s home and chance upon Hans Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell which, after reading Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel, is like spotting a celebrity.

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In Melbourne I love the Heide Museum of Modern Art, preserved as it was when John and Sunday Reed hosted artists there in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, and with a superb collection of Australian art.  It is wonderful to see the works of Charles Blackman, Joy Hester and Sidney Nolan (to name just a few) in the setting where they were conceived or created.  Emily Bitto’s The Strays (2015 Stella award winner) is inspired by this period; it’s on my shelf at home and high on my must-read list (= the never-ending TBR).

In Denmark in 2014 we took the wrong ferry – yes, we actually drove onto a ferry and discovered at sea 40 minutes later that we were lost – and a catastrophe ensued which was only redeemed by a visit to Finn Juhl’s House just north of Copenhagen.  It is as cosy or hygge as you would imagine and inspiring for any designer or indeed anyone with no design capability (like me) but who wants to live simply and well.

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Lost at sea, 2014

This week as part of our school holiday activities, we visited Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath, recommended by the excellent Richard the Third of London Walks.  It’s rather large for a family home, but houses the private art collection of William Murray (later Lord Mansfield) and is glorious.  All rooms have volunteer guides with interesting tidbits of history – like the time the house was nearly burnt down because of Lord Mansfield’s Catholic background a local publican waylaid the would-be arsonists with drinks.

I have library envy:

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Library at Kenwood House

The ceilings are by Antonio Zucchi.  There are also some works in the next room by Angelica Kauffmann, who was his wife.  In another room I came across The Guitar Player by Vermeer, a Turner hung casually on another wall and watching over them was a Rembrandt self-portrait.

The kids dressed up in the Orangerie and Zoe declared she could happily live there.  That makes two of us!

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Sir George and Lady Zoe

Do you have a favourite small museum?

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien; Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos

I once tutored a Chinese student in English and when I asked him what he thought of 30761967Australia, he said “Most people are nice – there are a few barbarians .”  At the time I thought, wild savages – that’s a colourful way to describe the less civil members of Adelaide society.  I didn’t realise that in China, ‘barbarian’ means ‘foreigner’, someone who has not yet been assimilated into the Chinese culture.

These books brought home to me how much we still don’t understand about China, the truth of the Mao years and what it means to live there today.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a devastating story, beautifully told.  It centers on three characters – Sparrow, Kai and Zhuli – as they grow up during the Cultural Revolution, famine and the Great Leap Forward.  These years are physically tortuous – many are broken by the sheer hardship, work camps and hunger (36 million people starved to death in the great famine).  “There are many stages to hunger” says Comrade Glass Eye.

The futility of these camps struck me again. Equally cruel and absurd were the criticisms and self-censorship; the repetition of Mao’s slogans, which becomes mindless.  Ordinary people live in fear of being denounced as counter-revolutionary, not knowing what the Party will pick on next.  Zhuli cuts her hair short because a long braid might be vain. A woman is yanked out of the queue for oil:

” ‘It must be her clothing,’ thought Zhuli dully, that had attracted the fury of the Red Guards.”

The backwardness of shutting the schools and universities still shocks me. Sparrow, Kai and Zhuli are musicians, and as their passion for playing and composing music is gradually snuffed out and driven inward, you have a real sense of how the party stifled creativity: books were burnt, instruments destroyed.

Music pervades the book nonetheless; it may inspire you to listen to Bach, Shostakovich or Prokofiev anew.  Thien draws attention to the gaps within the music: characters in the story disappear, some return; the Book of Records is told in fragments, hidden and shared.  The music evokes lives interrupted, dreams crushed, but a strange beauty too.

The Party shut down certain renowned composers deemed ‘Western’ or ‘bourgeouis’.  But it also affects the young students, who learn not to trust their own thoughts: they second-guess everything and default to the ‘correct’ music. Worse, the Party changed its dictates so the sands shifted.

“Now the class turned their attention to the playwright, Wu, and the poet, Guo.  Both men, once celebrated, had been discovered to be enemies of the people.”

(The same fate befell Ai Wei Wei’s father, the poet Ai Qing.)

This leads to a constant, unsettling state of fear.  We experience this sense of unease through Kai, a pragmatic and adaptible character. When he is with Zhuli:

“He had switched gears as smoothly as a bird circling, as unequivocally as a madman.”

Ordinary citizens had to denounce friends and family to protect themselves.  In a heart-wrenching scene, against the backdrop of the family’s fierce love for one another, Zhuli’s cousin must denounce her on a poster.

“Da Shan smudged the ink, and his father threw out the poster and made him do it again.”

The Party turned its own people against one another.  There is a chilling scene where He Lutong, president of the Shanghai Conservatory, is beaten on live television.  He dares to resist, crying “Shame on you for lying!” and the screens go blank.

From the 1960s to Age of Ambition, and Evan Osnos offers a modern example: a historic meeting between the Chinese and Taiwanese presidents, where the Chinese speech was broadcast but when it was Taiwan’s turn to speak, the screen went black.

18490568Age of Ambition takes us into modern China with Osnos, who lived there for 8 years from 2006 to 2014.  We meet wonderful characters: among them, brave Hu Shuli the news editor, a Crazy English teacher and Ai Wei Wei, an artist who, like Andy Warhol, has become famous  not for his art alone but for his knack of distilling events into a work with mass appeal.

Osnos finds people searching for faith since Mao’s death.  There is a focus on economic growth and some nostalgia for a communal spirit – shown tragically when two-year-old Fui Wei is run over in the market and people walk past her.

The unspoken bargain is that people will postpone idealism as long as life keeps improving.  There is massive corruption, but the young generation has turned a blind eye, although this is shaken by major events such as the Sichuan earthquake, milk poisoning and high-speed train crash.  There is censorship, the notorious “Great Firewall”, but blogger Han Han says to let the culture be more vibrant and the media be more open – he does not seek democracy.

Osnos refers to Havel’s Charter 77 (it inspired Liu Xiaobo’s Charter 08).  The key to life under a Communist party was to have a double life: “the willingness to say one thing in public and another in private.”

In Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the Professor reads from Guo Moruo’s translation of Faust:

“In me there are two souls, alas, and their / Division tears my life in two.”

After reading Thien’s poignant book, I have more sympathy both for those in China agitating for democracy and those who do not seek another revolution.  I can only admire the pragmatism and resilience of those who survive and the courage of those who resist.

But what do I know – I’m just a barbarian.