The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham

The Dressmaker by Rosalie HamIt’s a few weeks since I finished reading The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham but it is still on my mind.  It’s a popular kind  of book with me – a straightforward tale of life in a small Australian rural town. The author has let her imagination run wild to include  many variations  of human behavior in her range of characters.

Forced to leave town as a teenager  Myrtle Dunnage, known as Tilly, returns to care for her mother who lives on a rise on the outskirts of town. The teenager has matured and become a dressmaker of couture standard, quite different to the girl who went away.  Gradually some of the town come to use her skills as a dressmaker  but do not welcome her back into the life of the town.

I smiled and  I laughed at a lovely sense of oneupmanship.   I wept when there was a death as I moved through the book.

But then  a sense of unease started to sneak into my feelings.  This book is so deceptive.  It reels you in  with its sense of humour and beautiful clothes while all the time a tragedy of classic proportions is slowly taking shape.

My friends laugh and smile when asked how they enjoyed the book.  They talk of the clothes which Tilly makes. But time has leeched the humour and the clothes from my memory of the book and all I am left with is this feeling of doom.

It is a small town.  Everyone knows everyone.  And they seem unable to face the truth about a tragic accident years earlier. Tilly was blamed  whereas the town needs to take one step further back and look at the bully who was the real cause of the accident. They seemed unable to do that. So much easier to blame the misfit than the son of a “respectable” family.

Tilly cares for her aging mother, she makes beautiful clothes for all who ask her, and she proffers well-founded advice which is rejected.  The tension is building for the townspeople to be humiliated and Tilly’s final act before leaving town has unexpected far-reaching tragic effects.

Am I reading more into it than the author  intended ? Perhaps it is the same for everyone – it is what is inside us that makes us interpret the book in different ways. But I judge a book by what remains with me after the details have leeched away and in this case it was the way the author lulled me into a warm and comfortable feeling, wallowing in the nostalgia of small town life, while all the time the destruction of a town is bubbling away underneath

But then that’s just my opinion.  And what  do I know.  But then I do know that I will be re-reading this book and that I look forward to seeing how the upcoming movie with Kate Winslett will interpret the story and how the reviewers will rave about the clothes  !

 

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Mrs Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

It all happened because I had been ill. The painkillers had been making my brain woolly and I couldn’t concentrate and yet it was so frustrating lying there with only my own thoughts –  books, music and television; nothing could hold my attention. None of the unread books on my mini iPad were in the least interesting.  So I made yet another try at the Library to find something readable to download   The first book my eyes alighted on was Mrs Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children  by Ransom Riggs.

With a name like Mrs Peregrine my muddled thought processes assumed it be be yet another pleasant  offering from Persephone Books.  Such gentle, pleasant books. Sure to be just what the patient needed.  After all, Mrs Buncle’s stories came from Persephone so surely Mrs Peregrine must also be from that stable.  How wrong I could be.

Peregrine 1

The front cover with a levitating girl.

What I found was  schoolboy  Jacob who had long listened to his Grandfather’s tales of escaping from war torn Europe and his life in an orphanage on an island off the Welsh coast.  After his grandfather’s mysterious death  the 16 year old manages to visit the island and finds out about the time loop and the magical people who inhabited his grandfather’s world. It was when I finished that I found out that I had been reading a Young Adult novel. So now I can join the local librarian with teenage children who is a great fan of Young Adult novels.

 

The book evolved from a series of strange old  photos the author had collected

I’m beginning to wonder though how many of the book bloggers I follow actually read just for the pleasure of reading or are just racing ahead to keep up a monthly quota or to fulfill an obligation to review. Does that affect  their enjoyment of reading ? I enjoy reading reviews except for those few who give away so much of the plot that it’s hardly worth reading the book. But while I’m reading I don’t want to have part of me making mental notes of points worth including in a review.  I just want to immerse myself in the book and when finished take the time to stop and smell the roses before diving into the next.  Luckily we are all different.

And so, after an interval of Mrs Peregrine wafting  along behind me, I now remember her Home and its occupants with amusement and affection

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The MiniaturistWell done, Jessie.  There is no two ways about it.  I enjoyed this book.

What is puzzling me is how it came about that I read it.  It turned up at the library one day as something that I had placed a hold on many weeks before.  I had obviously read about it somewhere but I can find no trace of it in the blogs which I read regularly.  So whoever it was who gave me just enough information about the book to make it enticing, I thank you.

A young country girl comes to Amsterdam as the wife of an older man.  It is the 17th century and she enters an established household of husband, stern sister-in-law and a couple of servants.  She comes with no secrets but with her intelligent observant mind she soon becomes aware of the atmosphere of secrets in the house. Over the course of the book the secrets slowly unravel and the bride is gradually absorbed into and becomes a trusted member of  the household.

This is all set among burghers and merchants, Guilds and Church, the wharves and canals of C17th Amsterdam.   There is also a slight tinge of the supernatural  with a miniaturist making tiny models for a miniature house. This merely heightens the tension.  But it is the people in the house who dominate.

Jessie Burton writes beautifully but much as I love my British History it is such a pleasure to get away from Kings, Queens and the aristocracy.  They have been so done to death.

I prefer the stories which move away from the well documented “upper classes” and tell us stories about the remaining  great majority of the people. Books like “Year of Wonders” by Geraldine Brooks and  “Harvest” by Jim Grace, both about villagers dealing with unusual circumstances.  And this time a young bride dealing with unusual circumstances.

Soon after i started reading I started wondering if this debut novel is on one of lists of books being considered for a prize.  I feel it is worthy of being there.

This book is also a good advertisement for telling a story chronologically. None of the annoying habit of leaving a story hanging and  going back in time to give us large swag of explanations instead of just dripping information  into the story as needed..

I’ll say it again, Well done, Jessie  I look forward to your  next book.

 

Tools of the Trade – The Housewife’s Cook Book

Bound for Australia

Once upon a time the head of the family, the husband, went out to work each day to provide for his family while the wife stayed at home and followed her trades  as a  cook, cleaner, laundress, nurse, etc.  And one of the tools she needed for her trade as a cook was a cookery book with detailed instructions on how to put those important meals on the table.

D2 Chas & Vera 1929Vera Tansey married in 1929 and is pictured here a few weeks after her wedding. She had provided herself with an Every Ladies’ Cook-Book by Miss Drake.

Mrs Drake Cookery Book Cover bAs you can see it has been well and truly used by my mother

Lucy Drake who had trained in London had been in charge of cookery classes at Swinburne Technical College in Melbourne.  Her salary when she started in 1914 was 12/6 a week.  The publishers of Everylady’s Journal decided Australia needed a…

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Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

This originated as  a collection of magazine articles by Anne Fadiman about how words and books have been part of her whole existence.   Those who know her might be able to think of her without her words and books but as a reader I can’t.  They are part of her.

Confessions of a common readerIn this series of essays we learn how lucky she was to grow up with a father who delighted in long words and a story he told them about a squiggly little vermicule called Wally who didn’t merely like books, he ate them. 

Wally savored such high-calorie morsels as syzyry, ptarmigan – which tasted terrible, at first, until he threw away the p – and sesquipedalian, which looks as if it means  “long word” and, in fact, it does.

At this point the spell checker on this laptop is throwing a fit.  It doesn’t like the words I have typed. But that’s OK.  It’s just too bad if it doesn’t like my spelling. I trust my own version of English.

We learn about  Anne’s early reading through to the merging of libraries with her husband,  and a bit about  Arctic exploration  with Sir John Franklin and how the guns had been left behind on the ship but a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield included in the luggage.

They may have been incompetent bunglers, but, by God, they were gentlemen,

Her love of sonnets, her brother’s sin of leaving an open book face down on a table, book inscriptions , reading books while in the places where they are set and compulsory proof-reading are just some of the delights she touches on. But it is all words and books, all those thoughts some of us might have but don’t have the ability to translate into words, or at least words that would be of interest to anyone else, which make this such a fascinating read.

For me it was a coffee break book., one chapter at a time.   A book to be sipped, not gulped.   Anne Fadiman is someone you would like to have at the dinner table.  She delights you in this book.

But thinking in general now, how representative of the real person is their writing.  Every now and then you see someone being interviewed in a book show on the television and, though you have thought their book quite brilliant, you find them to be a pompous bore  or or unbelievably egotistical.  Mostly  I prefer to stay in the dream world of the book and and leave the author in a separate world.

This was first published in 1998 but is standing the test of time.

Enjoy…

The Arsonist by Sue Miller

A funny thing happened on the way to the iPad.

I had downloaded Sue Rimingtons “Close Call” from my local library.  It had been sitting there for a couple of days and I was looking forward to it.  So I tapped the icon to open it and had a moment of confusion.  Something was wrong.  I closed the book then re-opened it with the same result.  The header said I was to read the book of my choice but the content was different.  And so it was page after page.  Somehow the wrong book had downloaded with the right header.  See what I mean.

sue miller - the arsonist

It was out of library hours so I couldn’t do anything about the mistake so I started to read this unsolicited book and got a pleasant surprise.  The Arsonist by Sue Miller turned out to be a well told and interesting story.

There is a well blended mixture of aid workers in Africa, life in a small country American community, retirement, Alzheimer’s, an arsonist at work, producing a small town newspaper, the divisions which occur in a town over local issues, and of course, a love story to tie all threads together.

I found it quite seamless as it moved from setting to setting with different combinations of characters.  There was never any confusion as to the people being written about and that to me is one of the most important skills that an author can have.  To use as few words as possible when introducing a character but words so well chosen that you immediately have a mental image of the person

In one of the threads the character who is showing signs of Alzheimer’s Disease is very believable, gradually showing more signs of the progression of the illness.  The author mentions Philip Larkins’ poem “The Old Fools”.  I found it interesting how she just casually wove the name into the story.  I wonder if it was her way of saying, Hey Reader, it’s time you learnt a bit more about this subject.  It wasn’t until I had finished the book that  I decided to check this out .found a whole Bibliography of Alzheimer’s in Poetry.

Larkin begins …..

What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It's more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can't remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there's really been no change,
And they've always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching the light move? If they don't (and they can't), it's strange;
			Why aren't they screaming?

Some writers think that Larkin is showing compassion.  I fail to see it.  I find him incredibly cruel.  When our children are growing we take great pride in every little step that takes them closer to adulthood.  We are patient with them (well most of the time) and respect the fact that they are going through a learning experience.. And  I hope most of us show respect and compassion to those who are going through what might be thought of as a rather disorganized reverse procedure,  where both mind and body  start losing the physical and mental skills learned so long ago.

I say Well Done, Sue Miller.  I haven’t read  any of your books before but I would definitely like to read more.  Meanwhile the Library is still trying to work out what happened to my book of choice.

A lazy Sunday in Winter

Somehow I was in the mood for being a bit lazy today.  The winter is gradually getting colder but I am warm and snug.  The low sun streaming in the windows has been  alternating with bursts of noisy rain..

After a few chores by lunchtime I was ready to finish reading Maggie O’Farrell;s Instructions for a Heatwave.  How inappropriate has it been reading about London in the midst the 1976 drought, the parched and cracked lawns,  the effect it had on people, particularly Irish born Gretta  Riordan, her three adult children and their worry about the  husband and father who inexplicably has gone missing.

It’s an interesting story about the irritations between various family members,  their problems and misunderstandings.  There is a build up of tensions as various snippets of the family’s background and secrets come to light to help solve the mystery.. As in most novels to my mind there is a slight exaggeration or dramatization of the characters compared to what I would expect in real life but it is a very believable story.  I enjoyed it more than the only other Farrell novel that I have read, The Hand that First Held Mine.

Then by chance this afternoon I watched the 1966 movie of Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451, a clunky old movie which I found quite riveting.  I had read this book early in its life and had seen the movie before.  I was very much a Ray Bradbury fan, seeing how ordinary people would cope with a strangely changing society.  But after so long just the overall impression remained,  not much in the way of detail.

It was quite distressing seeing all those familiar books being burnt, cover after cover in the flames, always enough time to appreciate the book which was being burnt. It can happen.  It has happened.  And the censorship of books is a small example of the  book burning. mentality.  I am old enough to have read Lady Chatterley’s Lover from a copy sold from under the counter by an obliging bookseller.  And it is quite embarrassing to look at the list of books which used to be banned in Australia, a list full of well known and respected authors.

But attitudes change.  Mainly it is the political influence which moulds  the censorship ideas. These days printed books on pornography, suicide and  anything which encourages terrorism comes under close scrutiny in Australia.  Less easy to police though is the internet.

As reading is always associated with coffee for me, today’s coffee came from a newly acquired Nespresso machine.  It makes a beautiful coffee but my main complaint is with the bully boys who control the sale of the coffee capsules to make my coffee.  To shop online I am quite happy to supply my name and address and credit card details but this firm is unbelievable, the amount of information they extracted from me before they would send me a single capsule.  What control.. What manipulation.   What the heck does it matter where I had bought the machine .  What if it had been a present and I didn’tknow its source, would they have refused to send me coffee capsules ?  I’m surprised they didn’t ask my bra size and shoe size !

Instructions for a Heatwave