A Map of the Gardens by Gillian Mears

‘Not even the old dog likes Alyssa, the second wife.’

In this collection of eleven short stories published in 2002, Gillian Mears explores illness and death. She also explores transitions through different life phases: the strong become weak, frail as Ms Mears herself did in her battle with multiple sclerosis before her death in 2016.
I read these stories slowly, sure that I was missing aspects of the messages contained within but certain that each story needed to be read more than once. My favourite story, on this first reading, was ‘The Friendship Garden’:

‘The day of the Friendship Garden’s virtual end, Muriel came into the kitchen as if she’d never gone silly.’

Muriel Reilly, suffering from dementia, is blessed with a lucid day. And on that day, with her husband Ron’s help, she removes plants from her garden. These were plants she’d accepted (it was a friendship garden) but no longer enjoyed or perhaps in some cases never liked at all. Muriel’s friendship garden had become a burden, a trap, an overwhelming obligation. How many of us become trapped in similar ways?

My least favourite story was ‘Sad Quarrion’. Dr Pagent Took may love his trees, but it is not enough. I am uncomfortable in his story. He may be trapped, but I feel no empathy for him or his situation. It’s my least favourite story because of the way it makes me feel, not because it is told any less well than the other stories in this collection. Ms Mears had a gift for developing an extraordinary story from what are sometimes quite ordinary situations.

I will reread these stories in future, but not yet. I want to read Ms Mears’s other collections of short stories first, and I’ve yet to read ‘The Mint Lawn’.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2018

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An Uncertain Grace by Krissy Kneen

‘First person is a very narrow and limiting point of view.’

A five-part novel, with five different narrators. The stories are linked: the last narrator, Liv has a role in each part of the novel. Where to begin? This is erotic literature, and sex is prominent and explicitly described. Each character has a different role, along a spectrum of sexual experience and identity. And it’s that exploration of identity, of the limiting expectations of gender that kept me reading. Caspar, in Part 1, experiences sex from the perspective of Liv, with whom he’d had a sexual relationship. It’s a very different perspective from his own. Each part of the novel introduces a different character: a convicted paedophile; a synthetic boy; L who is in transition to a state beyond gender; and Liv. I kept reading, wondering. Wondering about the role of gender, experiences of sex, and just how fictional the world of this novel is. Wondering about possibility, and what makes me uncomfortable and why.

By the end of this novel, Liv is 129 years old. Somehow, that length of life seems entirely possible in Ms Kneen’s world, as does the medical and scientific possibility she introduces. While I found this novel an uncomfortable read in parts, I admire the way in which Ms Kneen invites the reader to think about aspects of sexuality which we generally do not discuss.

‘Maybe I’m too old for all this after all. I don’t know how to tell anyone’s story without gendered pronouns.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2018

Long Bay by Patrick Kennedy

‘Come inside and see for yourself. But when you leave please shut the gate.’

I’ve never been to the prison at Long Bay, but I’ve heard a lot about it. Recently I visited the Corrective Services NSW Museum at Cooma. It’s a fascinating museum which includes some fascinating items, including some of the artefacts from the notorious short-lived Katingal Gaol. So, when I heard that this book had been published, I knew I wanted to read it.

Patrick Kennedy, the author of this history of Long Bay, has several connections with Long Bay. Both of his parents worked as nurses there. He grew up next door to Long Bay, in Austral Street.
This book, full of photographs and diagrams, was written over a period of four years. Mr Kennedy was granted access to most parts of Long Bay, strictly supervised. The book is not just about the buildings, and the many different configurations of the complex, it’s also about some of the people who’ve occupied it. While I found the information about the Forensic Hospital and Katingal most interesting, the stories of Peter Schneidas and Russell ‘Mad Dog’ Cox certainly held my attention. Russell Cox was the only man to escape from Katingal. How did he do it? How was the hacksaw blade he used smuggled in? Mr Kennedy mentions other inmates as well as a number of prison staff, including Prison Officers John Mewburn (murdered by Peter Schneidas in 1979) and Geoffrey Pearce OAM (who succumbed to the AIDS virus in 1997 after being attacked at Silverwater).

‘Beginning as a humane prison, Long Bay evolved into probably Australia’s most infamous prison. The super maximum security Katingal and the gallows at the old State Penitentiary were its most controversial sections.’

This book provides a fascinating history of Long Bay. It includes a number of firsthand accounts as well as a comprehensive history of the Long Bay complex.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Public Art in the ACT

I went searching for some information about pieces of public art in the ACT after a friend asked me about ‘Ainslie’s Sheep‘.  I discovered that there is a lot more public art in the ACT than I’ve seen, and I also discovered that some of the art I’ve seen isn’t what I thought it was.  For example:  Moth Ascending the Capital   does not look like a Bogong Moth bursting into flight to me.

One of my favourite pieces is: Winds of Light  which I walk past when I walk around Lake Ginninderra.  I also like The Owl

For those interested, here’s a list  ACT Public Art

Do you have a favourite piece?  What do you like, and why?

The Suitcase Baby by Tanya Bretherton

‘The suitcase washed up on the North Shore in the early hours of Saturday morning, 17 November 1923.’

When opened, the suitcase reveals the body of a dead infant. A baby girl. This baby was just one of many infants (abandoned or dead) turning up all over Sydney: in the Harbour, on trains, in other places. But the difference between this baby and so many others is that her mother was tracked down and tried for murder. In this book, Ms Brotherton writes about this specific case and the trial of Sarah Boyd (the baby’s mother) and her friend Jean Olliver for the baby’s murder.

No, it is not fiction. This is a true story and represents a social tragedy. If Sarah Boyd had not been identified, her daughter would have been just another statistic of infanticide. Because Sarah was identified, tried and found guilty, the focus was on her crime. Should part of that focus have also been on what led Sarah to murder her daughter? Would it have made any difference? I suspect it was much easier to condemn Sarah for her actions than it was to try to understand how murdering her daughter could seem to be the best solution to the situation Sarah found herself in.

I found this a difficult book to read. Made more difficult because the story is complex, because the murdered baby was not the only victim, and because I find it difficult to move beyond an abhorrence of infanticide. And while I was thinking about Sarah Boyd’s poverty, her desire to belong and to have her own place in society I was reminded of how hypocritical society can be. Sarah Boyd was unfortunate on so many levels. There were very few options available to her, and while that does not justify the murder of her baby it does make it possible to understand why she felt she had no other choice.

What can I say about this book? Ms Bretherton has presented this complex, difficult case well. It’s more than the story of Sarah Boyd and her daughter, it’s a focus on the contradictions of life in the 1920s. Beneath the frenetic glitter and apparent glamour of the 1920s, many struggled in poverty. And pregnant, unmarried women often had both poverty and prejudice to contend with.

I finished this book, wondering about how Sarah Boyd’s life ultimately ended. Sarah had a son as well, Jimmie, born before her daughter. Jimmie was also a victim in this tragic case. I wonder, too, how much society has progressed in the last century.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2018

Marrickville Mona Lisa

I love these wanderings and musings …

On an upstairs window of a long-closed shop on Marrickville Road is the fading painted sign for the Mona Lisa Photographic Studio. Its cracked silver lettering makes me think of a logo on a 1950s powder compact, silver letters on a pink plastic case. I imagine that the interior of the photography studio might continue in this powdery style: white carpet, chairs with spindly, gold-painted frames and fluffy pink upholstery, gladioli in a tall glass vase.

At street level, in a stripe above the entrance, are more signs, some in Greek, others in English: another for the Mona Lisa, and one for Finix Discount House, with an illustration of an ascending golden phoenix to accompany it. I peer inside. The two showcase windows to either side of the door are empty, but further back inside the store is a pile of leftover objects: chairs, debris, bedspreads compressed into squares and…

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Top Ten Tuesday: Bookish Worlds I’d Never Want To Live In

Which worlds would you not like to live in?

She Reads Novels

The topic for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl is: Bookish Worlds I’d Want to/Never Want to Live In. I decided to focus on the second option and list ten of the most unpleasant or unappealing settings from books previously reviewed on my blog…and here they are:

1. The Republic of Gilead (The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood)

From my review: “In this new dystopian society, women no longer have any of the rights or freedoms they had before; they’re not allowed to work, not allowed to have their own bank accounts, not even allowed to read in case reading leads them into temptation.”

2. The room (Room by Emma Donoghue)

From my review: “The story is narrated by Jack, a five-year-old boy who has spent his whole life living with his mother in a converted shed measuring eleven foot square…

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