In Sight of Stars by Gae Polisner

Sometimes I read YA fiction which takes me back to my own experiences of being teen-aged.  This is one of those novels.  The world is a complex place when we are teen-aged: we don’t (yet) have all the skills we need to make sense of it, and yet we often need to in order to survive.

While this is a novel for older teenagers, it’s also a novel for us (no longer young) adults.  Why?  Because I think it’s important sometimes to return to a version of the world we’ve left behind, to remember how black and white almost everything appeared to us in that world, and consider how the current version  of that world can appear to those currently inhabiting it.

The bad news is that you will need to wait until March 2018 to buy a copy.

‘There was a time when I felt happy and normal.’

Klee Alden is seventeen years old when the world he was comfortable in changes forever. His father, the centre of his universe, dies. He has committed suicide, and it is Klee who finds him. Klee (pronounced Clay) has explored New York City’s museums and art galleries with his father, learned about the lives and loves of great artists, experienced the magic his father could generate.

We meet Klee in a psychiatric hospital for teenagers. And, as we find out why Klee is in hospital, we learn about how his life changed after his father’s death and why Sarah, a girl he met in art class, has become so important to him.

I was deeply moved by this story. There are two main reasons for this. First, I had some experience myself as a teenager in a psychiatric institution and although that experience is over forty years ago, I remember trying (and failing for a long time) to make sense of what was happening. The world had shifted, and my place in it ceased to exist. Secondly, and more importantly, Ms Polisner takes Klee through the journey he needs to make in a way which felt so real (at least to me). Relearning how (and who) to trust, adjusting to medication, realizing that there is usually more than one reality (and certainly more than one view of it). Klee’s struggles are never trivialised, his views are not discounted. But he learns (as we all do if we survive the journey into adulthood) that our knowledge is often incomplete, our interpretations sometimes flawed.

Klee’s journey involves a number of different characters. We see each of them through Klee’s eyes, so our images are sometimes incomplete. I finished the novel hopeful that Klee would find a new ‘happy and normal’. I finished the novel knowing that I would be rereading it again at some stage. Why? Because there are several layers to Klee’s story, and I know that I’ve not yet absorbed them all.

This is Ms Polisner’s fourth published novel. I’ve enjoyed each of the three novels I’ve read (‘The Summer of Letting Go’ is still on my reading list). Ms Polisner has a gift for creating believable characters in challenging situations, the kind of fiction many young adults can relate to.

Note: Note: My thanks to NetGalley and St Martin’s Press for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

‘Skill without imagination is barren. Leonardo knew how to marry observation and imagination, which made him history’s consummate innovator.’

Walter Isaacson writes, in his introduction to this biography:

‘I have embarked on this book because Leonardo da Vinci is the ultimate example of the main theme of my previous biographies: how the ability to make connections across disciplines—arts and sciences, humanities and technology—is a key to innovation, imagination and genius.’

He then, over the next 500+ pages, demonstrates how Leonardo made these connections. I found this book fascinating. Drawing on Leonardo’s notebooks, Walter Isaacson gives the reader a sense of what interested and motivated Leonardo. Leonardo’s curiosity leads him to add ‘Describe the tongue of a woodpecker’ on his to-do list. But this omnivorous curiosity also leads him to miss deadlines, to never finish some commissions, and to work on others for years. He made an art of procrastination.

I’ve seen photographs of both ‘The Last Supper’ and ‘The Mona Lisa’. While I admire the skill demonstrated in those paintings and their beauty, I’m more interested in Leonardo’s explorations of anatomy, and his flying machines. And as I read about Leonardo’s exploration of light, his dissection of cadavers to work out muscle attachment and movement, I began to really appreciate how science informed his art.

In 2014 I was fortunate enough to see an exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci machines in a regional art gallery in Tasmania. This exhibition was created by the Artisans of Florence in collaboration with the Niccolai Group and the Museum of Leonardo da Vinci. I spent hours looking at the 75 exhibits, including many machines constructed from Leonard’s manuscripts and drawings. While some exhibits were static, others invited interaction. At this exhibition, for the first time, I came to appreciate the breadth of Leonardo’s achievements.

But back to Walter Isaacson’s book. It is sadly true that Leonardo’s anatomical work was not published at the time. This meant that others had to rediscover what Leonardo found, which served to lessen his impact on the history of science. The picture I form of Leonardo is of a man capable of great focus, able to observe and document what he saw. He seems to have combined obsessive perfectionism and innovation. What made him so? I think it was a combination of innate ability coupled with an unbounded curiosity.

‘The best way to approach his life is the way he approached the world: filled with a sense of curiosity and an appreciation for its infinite wonders.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Not Just Lucky by Jamila Rizvi

‘Have you ever noticed that really successful women are always lucky?’

When I first joined the paid workforce back in 1974, as a shop assistant in a women’s shoe store, my (male) boss was still complaining that equal pay (granted to women in 1969) forced him to pay women more, even though males were physically stronger.  This physical strength, he told me, would have enabled a male to carry more boxes of shoes up from the basement store room.  When I left the shoe store a few months later to start training as an enrolled nurse, I got to use a lot of physical strength.  Back in those days, there were few males in nursing and very few of the ancillary staff (or equipment) now available to help with the heavy lifting.  By the time I left the paid workforce, in 2009, there were a lot more women in the workforce.  But many of those women were in lower-paid work, were casual or temporary employees and were more likely to have accumulated less superannuation for their eventual retirement.

What has changed in the past 43 years?  Are women better off?  If they are not, what are the barriers to their success?   Have those barriers changed over the last four decades?  I picked up Ms Rizvi’s book to get a perspective on some of these issues questions from a young, articulate woman.

On Page 15, Ms Rizvi writes:

‘What this book is, is a career book that is unashamedly feminist.  One that will help you to help yourself, but also prepare you to help the woman sitting beside you and the woman who dreams of sitting beside you but thinks she never will.  It’s a book that will help you to feel more confident about work without blaming you for being less that confident to begin with.  It’s a book that will help you become brave enough to truly enjoy the success of others and to claim credit for your own.  It’s a book about being more than just lucky.  It’s a book about being brilliant.’

Ms Rizvi acknowledges the benefits bestowed upon her by a comfortable middle-class upbringing, but much of what she has to say is also relevant to women who’ve not enjoyed these benefits.  Women can lack confidence (in themselves, in their abilities, in each other) for many reasons.  And if you don’t believe that you are good enough, then it is difficult to present as if you are.  How do we, as individuals, work through some of the cultural and structural barriers to success?  And, importantly, how do we do this without sacrificing what is important to each of us as individuals?

This book is less about answers than it is about raising awareness about some of the issues.  Ms Rizvi does this by drawing on case studies and on her own experience.  It’s not about changing the system (that might be nice, but it isn’t likely to happen anytime soon).  it’s about working within the system, about being aware of ways in which your own behaviour may serve to undermine what you are trying to achieve.  It’s about surviving and (hopefully) thriving.  It’s also about recognising that women do not always act in the best interests of other women.

While I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in contributing to more effective equality in the workplace, I think it is of most interest to young women who are about to embark (or who have just embarked) on a professional career. It’s important to recognise that there is usually a gap between what workplaces should be like, and how they often actually function.   I think there needs to be more conversation about this gap and its causes.  While effective change needs to involve both men and women, awareness at an individual level is a good starting point.

I found this book easy to read, a good blend of personal experience, practical suggestion and research-based information.  And, on a purely personal level, I enjoyed the anecdote Ms Rizvi related about clothes.  She writes, drawing on her father’s experience in the public service, clothes may not give you power, but they do give you confidence.  I remember the tie to which she refers.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2017

Six degrees of separation, FROM It TO …

I’ve read five of these books (‘It’; ‘The Burial’; ‘Burial Rites’; ‘Independent People’; and ‘Happy Valley’). I like the way Whispering Gums links one to the other, and I’m keen to read the Ian McEwan book (I’ve read others by him, but not this one) and to find Louise Mack. I’d not heard of Louise Mack. Have you read (any/all/some of) these books?

Whispering Gums

And so we come to December and the last Six Degrees of Separation for the year. For newbies to blogging – because the rest of you surely know by now – this is a meme currently hosted by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest). For information about how the meme works, please click the link on her blog-name. It’s fascinating to see the wild and wonderful paths different bloggers go, all starting with the same book – which, this month is a book I haven’t read (as is more common than not), Stephen King’s It. As always though, I have read all the books I link to.

Stephen King, ItThe reason I haven’t read It is that I’m not a big fan of horror, either to read or see in movies, and It is, I understand, horror. I have enjoyed some movie adaptations of King’s novellas, like The Shawshank Redemption, Stand by…

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In Sunshine or in Shadow by Martin Flanagan

A few days ago I read ‘A Crying in the Wind’, a novel set in Tasmania written by Elizabeth Fleetwood.  I started thinking about other books I have read in which Tasmania features, and was reminded of Martin Flanagan’s memoir ‘In Sunshine or in Shadow’, which I read back in 2015.  Here’s my review of that book.  And yes, I am still homesick for the island I’ve not lived on for over 40 years.
‘All my conscious life, I’ve been looking for those who were here before me.’

Tasmania has a long history.  While the European component is comparatively short, it is full of paradox and puzzle.  While this is Martin Flanagan’s memoir of his relationship with Tasmania, I can relate to a lot of it.  For much of the nineteenth and twentieth century, there were frequently gaps in personal histories, silences about ancestry and revisions of events.  How could so few of us have convict ancestry?  Was it true, as so many of us were taught during the 1960s and earlier, that there were no remaining indigenous Tasmanians?  Why did so many – who had never even seen England – refer to it as home?

Martin Flanagan is the fourth of six children, a Tasmanian of Irish descent.  His father was a teacher in rural Tasmania: in Longford in the northern midlands, and then at Rosebery, a mining town in Tasmania’s west.  These are very different parts of Tasmania, with very different stories.  Or are they?

‘Walking to school one morning behind the silent figure of my father, surrounded by dark mountains of thought, I first experienced the sense of absence that would mark me as surely as any belief in God. Years later, when I read towards the end of her life Truganini was accompanied by a feeling she called ‘big lonely one’, I wondered if the two absences, hers and mine, were somehow related.’

As Martin Flanagan explores his own family history, the history of European settlement in Tasmania and the impacts of that settlement on native species and on Indigenous Tasmanians, it becomes clear that this sense of absence is central.  Where is the truth about the Irish convicts, about Truganini ‘the so-called Last of Her Race’, about the thylacine (the Tasmanian tiger)?  A world and a history has been constructed where silence marks past existence with echoes (at least) in the present.

This is a book which combines biography and history, memoir, opinion and political issues in an exploration of the past and what going home means to Martin Flanagan.  And for others?  If you know nothing about Tasmania, this book will invite you to explore and consider Tasmania’s history.  For me, as an expatriate Tasmanian, it increased my longing to return, to learn more about my own family and about those we displaced.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

A Crying in the Wind by Elizabeth Fleetwood

I picked this novel purely by chance: it was on the new acquisitions list at my library.  Any novel about Tasmania will catch my attention, but not all will hold it in quite the same way as this novel did.

‘By an unwritten agreement, nobody ever spoke of the past.’

Spanning two hundred years and involving four families, Ms Fleetwood divides her story into four parts and writes of a Tasmania that few of us can have a complete understanding of.  I picked the novel up because it is set in Tasmania and because, although I’ve not lived there for over forty years, I still consider it ‘home’.

The four families, introduced in Part One (which opens in 1812) are the Aborigines (starting with ‘Tom’ Kickerterpoller, stolen from his family in 1812), the Fairfield settlers from Scotland (starting with Susannah), the convicts (starting with George Turner) and (much more briefly) the Dutch Dijkstra family, beginning with Katrijin’s dream.

In the subsequent three parts of the novel, the stories of different family members are told.  These stories will involve dispossession and removal for many of the Aborigines, contrasted with the relative prosperity for many of the European settlers. The Turner descendants will be part of the settlement of the North West, and the Dijkstras will seek refuge in Tasmania after being displaced from both Java and Europe.

Tasmania itself provides another story: of changed land use, of attempts to try to make the land respond to European demands.  Some of these attempts work, others don’t and there is a brooding undertone for those who are sensitive.   Consider this, from one of the more powerful passages in the novel:

‘.. and that awful crying in the wind that apparently nobody else could hear.’

“I hear it”, said Marner. “It’s the cry of the wounded and dispossessed, it’s the groan of nature destroyed for greed, the wailing of the animals driven out and the broken song of the birds shot for no reason, the sadness of those who don’t count, and those whose dignity was trampled on.  It’s the tears of the broken hearts and it’s the cry of those who didn’t love when they could have.”

I kept reading.  I know this crying in the wind more as a feeling of unease in some places.

I enjoyed this novel, recognised some history (especially as it relates to the settlement of the North-West coast region where I was born), learned more about the dispossession of the Aborigines, and wondered about the impact of the past two hundred years.

If you like family sagas, if Tasmania is part of your life or intrigues you because of its beauty, its contrasts and (or) its history, you may enjoy this novel as much as I did.  I loved the way in which Ms Fleetwood wove her characters into the history.  Real or representative, the characters bring the story to life.

I finished the novel wondering what the next chapter would be, both for the characters and Tasmania.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2017

Mirror Sydney by Vanessa Berry

‘Cities are made up of histories and memories as much as they are made up of their physical environments.’

This book is based on Vanessa Berry’s blog Mirror Sydney  which she has been working on for the past five years.  I discovered the blog after reading this book: it is fabulous.  But back to the book.  In a series of thoughtful anecdotes, accompanied by hand-drawn maps, Ms Berry explores different aspects of Sydney.  There are overlooked places, and odd places.  There are amusement parks (many of which are now defunct); there are time-capsule stores (such as Ligne Noire in Parramatta Road); there’s the memorial (in Kurnell, built in 1870) to Captain Cook’s landing; there’s reference to a coal mine on the Balmain peninsula. As Ms Berry writes:

‘Cities are ever-changing entities, but in Sydney’s drive towards reinvention there was this time something especially rapacious about the rate and scale of change.  The city as I knew it was being overwritten as fast as I could chronicle it.’

There are glimpses into previous plans for the rail network, to the disused platforms 26 and 27 at Central Station, to the plans for Westconnex.

I also enjoyed Ms Berry’s journey through the arcades in the outer suburbs of Sydney, with her reference to Walter Bejamin’s ‘Arcades Project’.  There may have been romance in Benjamin’s Parisian arcades, but there is little romance in the more utilitarian arcades visited in outer Sydney. And yet, the history is interesting even where there are questions unanswered.  What has dictated the shape of a roof?  Whose initials appear above the entry to a shop?  What dreams were represented in some of the arcade names, or stores?

I’m on more familiar ground along Parramatta Road.  My husband has told me of Parramatta Road when he grew up in Leichhardt during the 1950s and 1960s.  My own first visit was in 1970, but I’ve been there frequently enough to witness some of the changes.

‘There are a number of time-capsule stores along Parramatta Road.  There is the never open but fully stocked Ligne Noire perfumerie, like a corner-store version of the Mary-Celeste, the ship discovered in the Atlantic Ocean abandoned with everything onboard intact.’

Ms Berry’s journeys through Sydney, across the Cumberland Plain and towards the Blue Mountains, are about history.  The journeys show changes in land use, and document (in their own way) dispossession.  Dispossession?  Yes.  And not just of the original inhabitants.  As land use in Sydney has changed during the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, people in search of affordable housing are having to move further and further from the city centre.  Many of the low-income housing options once available are being developed into much higher cost housing.

I enjoyed reading this book.  To me, it is an invitation to think about the places depicted, about the multiple factors that shape the city of Sydney, as well as the contrasts between beauty and ugliness.

Ms Berry writes:

‘What I hope for is that the places in Mirror Sydney, at the moments at which I encountered them, will remain in collective memory, as a record of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century Sydney.  This version of the city, an uneven landscape of harmonious and discordant places, deserves this careful scrutiny, for it is a complex city that folds many times and memories within it.’

I agree.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2017