Category Archives: Book Club


PeonyPeony by Pearl S. Buck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The appeal of Peony is two-fold. First, it reveals a history of the Jewish diaspora in China–a population I was entirely ignorant of–and second, it was published in 1948, suggesting that Buck wrote at the very time when the atrocities of Nazi Germany’s were revealed to the world. The latter context embeds the book in a conversation about about Jewish identity, a question that was surely uppermost in many people’s minds of the time as they struggled to process such an overwhelming and final expression of hatred towards a religious group.

Peony is a young bondmaid in a wealthy Jewish household in China of the 1800s. She has served David, the only child of the Ezra family, since she was procured as a child, attending to his every need. Now young adults, it was probably inevitable, in such a cloistered environment, that Peony has come to love David as a woman.

If David were more culturally Chinese, this mutual attraction would, perhaps, have easily been admitted; David’s conscience would have allowed him to marry his mother’s choice of a Jewish woman, while taking Peony as a concubine. But David is Jewish, despite his efforts to free himself from the strictures of his heritage that his mother continues to practise.

David’s efforts to reject his religious heritage are complicated, not only by his mother’s religious obeisance, but by news of the slaughter of Jews brought by his merchant father’s partner, along with a caravan of goods from the west. The parallels here to mid-20th century atrocities are clear. David recommits to his religion and so unwittingly introduces a threat in Peony’s mind to her continued service in the household.

The drama of Peony and the Ezra family explores the question of religious identity as it is lived in the face of threats to its integrity: through the dilution of diaspora and assimilation, as well as outright persecution. It explores the personal costs of maintaining that identity in the face of a dwindling community in a largely indifferent culture, particularly in the figures of Madame Ezra and the elderly Rabbi.

Further, and this is what I liked most about the novel, Peony, explores the positions that different religions and cultures afford women. While Peony perceives a threat from David’s proposed marriage to Leah, the daughter of the Rabbi, for Leah, the prospect of her arranged marriage to David comes to be a lifeline out of poverty and servitude to her father and brother. In this light, Peony’s actions seem unkind, perhaps, but then her fears for herself, at this stage, are not unfounded.

I would say there are no winners in these circumstances, but ultimately, Peony does win, to an extent that is better than continued servitude to an entitled, if caring, master. She finds a way to move beyond her indenture to the Ezra household and, indeed, her culture at large, to bloom, as her namesake, for the rest of her years.

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Reviewing Good Reads (including thoughts on The Luminaries)

I’ve been a member of Good Reads for the second time for a month now, and today I received an email from them requesting that I rate their site.

It’s good timing on their part–no doubt, someone has done research into matters of feedback and timing–because I had recently been thinking about the ways that Good Reads has affected my reading.

The first time I joined Good Reads, I attempted to show not only what I was reading at the time but also what I had read in the past.  I soon learned that trying to review every book I had ever read was a fool’s errand. It left no time for reading. And it felt competitive.

I felt inadequate as a by-product of the sense of competitiveness Good Reads engendered in me, so I quit the site and breathed a sigh of relief. If that sounds precious, then I assure you, those feelings emerged at a complex intersection of my personal history of class and capital in sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s understanding of social relations.

Anyway, I rejoined Good Reads with far more modest ambitions. I really just wanted to know how many books I might read in the year ahead.

To this end, Good Reads provides the opportunity to set yourself a reading challenge. I’m not a prolific reader, so I’ve set myself a modest number of 26 books for the year.  A friend noted of the challenge she set herself last year, that while she didn’t meet it, it had the effect of making her sit down and read. I’ve already noticed that Good Reads has  had this effect on my reading habits too, and a sense of purpose about reading is not a bad thing at all.

An effect of Good Reads that I’m more ambivalent about is that I tend to read in anticipation of assigning a star rating and perhaps finding something to say to justify that rating. On the one hand, the description attached to each star is different to what I would intuitively assign to them. For example, if I thought a book was ‘okay’, I would assign three stars rather than the two afforded by Good Reads for that description. No doubt, my rating is a hangover of marking essays and assigning grades. 2 out of 5 stars would be a fail in an essay–not having made the half-way mark–whereas three stars is a pass: it’s ‘okay’. I’ve made every effort to adjust my rating system to that of Good Reads, but still, I feel a bit mean assigning a well-loved children’s classic like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe only two stars. Similarly, my three star rating of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites doesn’t quite convey the degree to which I liked it.  I liked it.  It’s better than a passing grade but, for the reasons I outlined in my review, I didn’t really like it enough to indicate that with a four star rating. (I do wish I Good Reads would allow half-star ratings.)

I recently saw an article on Brain Pickings about Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘How should one read a book?’  Woolf asks the reader to ‘banish all … preconceptions when we read ….’ She continues: ‘Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticize at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read.’

Without a doubt, one of the effects of Good Reads for me is that by Woolf’s measure, I do not read well. I approach each book with a critical mindset; I do, indeed, hang back. For example, while reading The Luminaries, upon encountering the descriptions of the characters representing the stellar bodies, I immediately thought of the composition principle  ‘show, don’t tell’. Why, I asked, am I being told how they will act and react in any given situation? Why aren’t I simply witnessing these characters interacting?

Perhaps, at this point, I was closing myself off to the ‘signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences’ that Woolf suggests the author offers the reader, that were being offered by Catton, that I had ignored in my rush to compose my Good Reads review even while I was still reading.

I had finished reading  The Luminaries, when I was directed to a review of Catton’s reviews in the Sydney Review of Books, which pricked my conscience about my reading as much as Woolf’s instruction. Julian Novitz considers the bad reviews of Catton’s novel in view of her conscious and ironic use of 19th century literary devices. He defends Catton against the critics who dismiss her novel as ‘pastiche’ and a ‘creative writing exercise’ arguing for the merit of formal inventiveness. Here, I reflected,  if Catton did tell her reader about her characters, did not show them by way of their daily interactions, then my reaction to her anachronistic storytelling could only be, as Novitz suggests, due to her ‘wry metafictional reflection on the nature of storytelling’.

Novitz’s defence of The Luminaries is convincing on many levels and it makes me want to appreciate the book more, but ultimately, I don’t know that ‘an awareness of the structure working behind it [does deepen] one’s pleasure and absorption’

At my book club, which I read this novel for, the enjoyment of the mystery story of The Luminaries was unanimous. Most felt relieved that such a large novel was so absorbing and thought, at last the Booker had been awarded to a rollicking good story rather than a worthy tome. The astrologically informed structure and 19th century literary devices were peripheral to their conscious pleasure and absorption.

In the end, I enjoyed the story too, even as I admitted the ‘heavily furred and gowned’ critics of Woolf’s essay into my reading. Still,  as I came to understand Novitz’s pleasure in  ‘the structure working behind it’, I couldn’t share in it.  The astrological premise simply didn’t resonate for me.


Despite my reservations about the effects of Good Reads on my reading, I won’t be deleting my account again.  I’m still curious to see how many books I’ll read and it will be nice to have a contained record to review my thoughts on my reading. As well, I enjoy seeing my friend’s ratings and reading their reviews–they’re smart and insightful and I get ideas for things to read. With a bit of effort and some help from Virginia Woolf, I think–I hope–I will, eventually, be a good reader on Good Reads.

Refresh: January

I started my reading year by signing up for things:

I rejoined Good Reads, mostly out of curiosity to know how many books I read.  There was some discussion over at Facebook on my book club’s group page about people’s individual book counts.  Our most prolific reader had a total of eighty-eight, which made the person who had read thirty-six feel very humble in comparison.  I had no idea how many I’d read, but I’m fairly sure it was fewer than thirty. I’ve set myself the very modest goal of reading twenty-six books in their 2014 reading challenge.

My reading count would almost certainly have received a boost in the last months of 2013 after I rejoined the local library.  I’d avoided the library for years after accruing a fine for keeping a copy of American Psycho out until they sent me a bill to replace it.  I returned the book (yes, I did read it), but avoided the library out of shame for at least a decade.  Yes, I knew all about the end-of-year amnesty, but I was too scared to face them.  Anyway, I plucked up my courage and it turns out there was no record of my misdeeds in their system at all. And in the meantime, the ebook has arrived, so I’ve been spending my time happily catching up on the Harry Potter series, both books and films, as well as The Hunger Games series, and a few missed childhood classics, including The Narnia Chronicles.

It’s through the library that I’ve been able to supplement my book club’s first novel of the year, the Man Booker Prize winner for 2013, The Luminaries, with some eye-saving audiobooks for the Australian Women Writers Reading Challenge, which I’ve signed up for again in 2014.  So far, I’ve read and reviewed Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites and I’ve just started listening to Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. 

Actually, neither of these books are part of the official challenge I’ve set myself, which is again focussed on creating audiobooks via Librvox of works in the public domain by Australian women writers. I started the first book for this project, Human Toll,  towards the end of last year, with the intention of completing Barbara Baynton’s catalogue. I have planned to record another two works in addition to that for the AWW2014 challenge, but I haven’t decide which.

I’m looking at anything I read or listen to and review beyond the Librivox recordings as a bonus with respect to the AWW challenge.  I’ve come to the conclusion that just as writers must read to be better writers, then audiobook readers must listen in order to become better readers. It’s with this thought in mind, in addition to the pleasure of the stories themselves, that I’m listening to other audiobooks, taking mental notes of the various factors that make for a good telling of another’s story.

Meanwhile, January is also the Month of Poetry, an event I only became aware of via the tweets of Penni Russon and Anna Ryan Punch. I’m following both of their MOP14 efforts  and attempting to retweet the links to their poems via my @ReadingSheilas account. I’m not sure how I would count these if I included them in the challenge; perhaps, as two anthologies? No matter. As a reader, I look forward to the tweeted announcements of both of these writers. It’s a great way to ease into a new year of reading.

Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson

I’ve finished my recording of The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson.  I decided to record a second version of it for Librivox to take advantage of the fact that it was also  one of my book club’s reads for this year.  I think we were supposed to read it last year as part of our AWW 2012 list, but it got pushed aside because it seemed to be by a male author. So, for the uninitiated, let me begin by clearing up that misunderstanding: Henry Handel Richardson is the pen name of Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson.

The Getting of Wisdom follows Laura Tweedle Rambotham from the eve of her departure to boarding school at the age of twelve to the moment of her leaving that school at sixteen. When we first encounter Laura at home in country Victoria, she seems precocious, bossing her younger siblings and causing her mother no end of frustration with her antics. After she travels to Melbourne to attend school, however, Laura becomes far less assured, both socially and academically, as she struggles to be accepted by her peers and teachers. The Getting of Wisdom is effectively a coming of age story in which Laura’s  trials and tribulations are many.

I first encountered The Getting of Wisdom in my final year of secondary school as an elective book for English.  My teacher recommended it to me and I wrote an essay about it.  I have two memories of The Getting of Wisdom from that time.  The first is the striking final image of the book, and the other is the comment made by my English teacher on reading my essay: ‘Did you read it?’

I recall have quite a lot of difficulty concentrating on The Getting of Wisdom. I’m not sure why, but looking back now, I credit my teacher with a great deal of insight in her recommendation. Reading it again, I felt a lot of empathy with Laura as she struggled to gain her mother’s approval, as she tripped over unfamiliar mores and distinctions in an elevated social environment, as she failed to meet her own expectations of academic success, and as she longed to connect with her peers. Perhaps Laura’s awkwardness is familiar to many, and, to that end, may explain the endurance of Handel Richardson’s story.

From the perspective of having recorded a few books by Australian women writers for Librivox now, The Getting of Wisdom is the most approachable for a contemporary audience. No doubt this is due to Handel Richardson’s clear admiration for Henrik Ibsen‘s realism, evident in Laura’s encounter with  A Doll’s House  as part of her covert reading in the principal’s drawing room during her piano practice.  While Laura isn’t that enamoured of Ibsen’s work, only choosing it because its title promised an altogether different kind of story, her comments provide some insight into Handel Richardson’s philosophy of writing:

… it was all about the oddest, yet the most commonplace people. It seemed to her amazingly unreal—how these people spoke and behaved—she had never known anyone like them; and yet again so true, in the way it dragged in everyday happenings, so petty in its rendering of petty things, that it bewildered and repelled her: why, some one might just as well write a book about Mother or Sarah! Her young, romantic soul rose in arms against this, its first bluff contact with realism, against such a dispiriting sobriety of outlook. Something within her wanted to cry out in protest as she read—for read she did, on three successive days, with an interest she could not explain. And that was not all. It was worse that the people in this book—the extraordinary person who was married, and had children, and yet ate biscuits out of a bag and said she didn’t; the man who called her his lark and his squirrel—as if any man ever did call his wife such names!—all these people seemed eternally to be meaning something different from what they said; something that was for ever eluding her. It was most irritating.

Writing amidst a lingering tradition of nineteenth century romanticism then,  Handel Richardson offers a portrait  of a girl on the cusp of womanhood. The Getting of Wisdom does not offer the  ‘miracle’  of Laura’s preferred choice of literature, but squarely faces the ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ of growing up–in a way that continues to resonate.

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore was my book club’s read for May.

I didn’t go, because at first I couldn’t decide whether to go to the Brisbane launch of a book by someone I know from the golden age of blogging (c 2005-2008) or stick to book club when I hadn’t finished the book. In the end, it was terrible weather so I talked myself out of going anywhere.

When something like this happens, I don’t always finish reading the book, but after a few days, I did take up The Lighthouse again.

It’s appeal, I decided, was its existentialism.

The main character, Futh (his surname; we never learn his first), goes on a self-directed walking tour of Germany in the wake of the disintegration of his marriage. He last visited Germany as a boy with his father following the disintegration of his parents’ marriage.

The other key character is Ester, the proprietress of a German hotel, Hellhaus (Lighthouse), who is jealously guarded by her withholding husband.

I enjoyed Moore’s unadorned prose, her ordinary characters and their everyday dissatisfactions. I felt flickers of Kundera brilliance. (I don’t know if it’s helpful for anyone to make such comparisons, but those were my thoughts.)

It’s been a day since I finished The Lighthouse and those flickers haven’t taken hold, however. It’s all to do with the ending–a couple of details leading up to it–about which I’ll say nothing here.

But as always, if you’re curious about the ending and want or need  it explained to you, the internet provides. Just start typing ‘The Lighthouse Aliso…’ into Google and you’ll get ‘ending explained’ as a suggested option. Clearly a popular search.

Happy New Year!

I thought I’d begin the year with a round up of my reading so far and the announcement of a reading resolution or two.

In the first instance, I’ve signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge again in 2013. I was going to continue doing the Librivox recordings and writing about them here anyway, but what fun to do it in company!  A couple of people have expressed an interest in listening to the stories from ‘The Detective’s Album’ by Mary Fortune that I’m currently recording—unfinished business from AWW2012—for their own AWW2013 challenge, so there’s continued incentive to finish that sooner rather than later.

There has, however, been something of a pause in finishing that recording. Christmas, marking, and noisy garden machinery are some of the reasons for the delay, but now I’m working on reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies for my January book club, so that too has diverted my attention. At this point, I’m finding that having watched The Tudors has helped enormously with keeping track of all the characters and intrigue. I do think that The Tudors is quite an extraordinary television achievement, which is in accordance with the critical assessment of Mantel’s work. It’s certainly a hell of a story, irrespective of execution. (No, I didn’t mean that pun. Initially.)

Meanwhile, on other fronts, I’ve been listening to Australia Felix by Henry Handel Richardson aka Ethel Florence while I’ve been out walking. I thought I’d listen to this as a prelude to doing a recording of The Getting of Wisdom. I noted in a couple of tweets that one of the people from book club had nominated to read The Getting of Wisdom, irrespective of the AWW2013 challenge, which we’re not doing as a book club this year (if the Mantel choice didn’t give it away). In a desperate ploy to get someone I know to listen to one of my recordings, I thought I’d make a solo recording of it for the Librivox catalogue. I figure if there are six versions (and another forthcoming!) of Pride and Prejudice, then two of The Getting of Wisdom is downright restrained. Anyway, I’ll write a bit later about Australia Felixsince I’ll count that as one of my AWW2013 books.

I’ve also decided to count towards the challenge a series of poems that Penni Russon is writing over at her blog, Eglantine’s Cakefor  the month of January as part of her participation in the Month of Poetry 2013 challenge. I’ll just read them rather than reviewing them, however. Partly because I’m not qualified to review poetry—it seems to take a special kind of sensibility and knowledge that I’m not sure I have—but also because, as social media has enabled relationships that might otherwise not exist, we’ve followed one another on Twitter for some years now. Now, that’s not to say I would write a negative review–I think her poems are wonderful (‘exquisite’ I believe I tweeted)—but perhaps I’m not the most impartial judge. A-a-and I think I’m about to go down a rabbit hole of self-justification and embarrassing apologies, so I’ll stop.

The whole conundrum makes me wonder about people who review professionally. Can they avoid reviewing the work of someone they know? How do they distance themselves? Or isn’t that necessary?

Another thing that’s occurred to me while writing this is about the presence of poetry in the AWW challenge. I haven’t really thought about this before now. I’ll investigate.

Alright, that’s it from me. Here’s to a happy new year of reading ahead! *raises glass*

Ghosts and Myths

I’m preempting tomorrow’s meeting of the BookWorms by posting about the first chapter of Delia Falconer’s Sydney here tonight. The trouble is, as I approach the end of the first chapter, ‘Ghosting’, after the foreword, I am cross and annoyed and just want to get through the next three pages, at which point I sincerely hope something, either the approach or my attitude, will change, otherwise I may not make it through the rest of the book.

The gist of my negative response to Sydney thus far is not so much that it asserts an ineffable insecurity,  melancholy, and edginess to Sydney’s character, but that this quality is available only to the born and bred Sydney-sider while everyone else is mistakenly convinced of its good-looks and brashness.  Or at least I think that’s the gist of my difficulty; the first chapter is constantly shifting in a way that perhaps is meant to allude to the ghosts of its title, but feels to me like an attempt to evade scrutiny of the claims it makes for Sydney (as well, indeed, as an exercise in myth-making that Sydney, especially, doesn’t need).

Whenever I think of Sydney and now perhaps Sydney, I recall a phrase in a poem by Yu Ouyang: ‘…self-centred Sydney…’ (When I first read that I felt a bolt of recognition.) Following that line of thought, I also recall a critical piece on Yu’s work which noted the way he sought to deflect criticism of his work within his work, leaving the critical reader no way to engage with his writing without confirming the author’s worst predictions. So, in this instance, as someone who has only visited Sydney, any criticism I make is only confirmation of my outsider status, of failing to ‘get’ the authentic Sydney.

I want to question some of Falconer’s assertions about the uniqueness of Sydney’s character as it arises from the violence of European settlement.  Yes, such displacement will leave its mark, but doesn’t that legacy belong everywhere Europeans arrived and subjugated indigenous populations? Just as Falconer admits that jacarandas bloom elsewhere in Australia, then other cities have  secret emotional lives, bursts of wild life in urban areas,  and underground streams buried in feats of colonial engineering. It’s as though Falconer is making claims for Sydney that are effectively about Australia without taking her eyes off the harbour she admits is over-celebrated. Self-centred Sydney, indeed.

I will press on.

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