Monday, 12 January 2015

Seven good books (in my book).

Books have always been magical to me. They open up whole new worlds – adventure, history, drama, love, humour, magic, courage, heroism and spiritualism. They give you an insight into how other people think and act, what their day-to-day lives are or were like, what inspires them and what defeats them. I’ve always used them as a way to switch off and escape from wherever I am or whatever I’m feeling.

Books don’t demand much from you, and are pretty trustworthy and reliable. They aren’t inclined to treat you badly, or disappoint or judge you. And they offer adventure, escapism, excitement and comfort, and teach you all sorts of things.

I took solace in this growing up and into my early 20s, when I wasn’t such a fan of people and a little disillusioned by life in general. The best New Year’s Eve I’ve ever had was when I was about 16. I spent the evening sitting in an armchair at my parents’ house, reading a book from cover to cover with a cup of tea.

However, not many of the books I’ve read really stand out. Well, not the ones that were supposed to. I couldn’t tell you which books I studied in year 12 Literature or throughout my Bachelor of Arts Literature major, or which stories teachers used to inspire us in my Diploma of Arts in Professional Writing and Editing.

When I’ve been swimming lately, I’ve been thinking about some of the books that have stood out. With each lap, I retell their stories or certain scenes in my head, 
and I feel that same sense of escape and wonder that I did when I first read them.

For various reasons, these books have elicited strong feelings in me, and their stories remain with me. Sometimes I’m surprised about what has actually stuck with me. Sometimes I’m a little disappointed (why is it I can remember details in a novel revolving around a cat, but not the names of any of the award-winning, highly acclaimed and influential literature I studied at school or university?).

Here’s a little about seven of these memorable tomes.

1. A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous (AKA Marta Hillers).
This book was originally published anonymously, but the author was identified soon afterwards. If you read this book, you will understand why she tried to remain anonymous. 

This isn’t a pretty or nice book. It’s a rather harrowing and depressing account of Berlin’s occupation by Soviet forces towards the end of World War II. Specifically how nasty and violent the soldiers were to the women and children left behind, the conditions they faced, and what German women did do to survive. It raises all sorts of interesting questions, like how far should someone go to protect themselves, and whether those actions make them strong or weak, good or bad, or just human.

This book left me feeling ever so flat, cranky, sad and disillusioned with the world. Only I didn’t realise the book was making me feel this way until I’d almost finished it. Why do I list it here if it made me feel so horrible? Because I still think about it. It was real and honest and those things happened. They are probably still happening in place we hear about on the news (and in places we don’t hear about on the news). This kind of book gives you an insight into how people think and what they will do to stay alive, and how they rationalize things in extreme circumstances. And it makes you think about what you’d do in the same situation.

2. Stasiland by Anna Funder 
Mainly I love this book because I wanted to be Anna Funder – speaking fluent German and living in Berlin researching history in German, learning about spies and soldiers and government secrets. 

I also love this book for its content. The stories Anna tells 
are fascinating, real-life tales of how people lived behind 
the Berlin Wall and in Germany overall after the war. 
The conditions, risks and restrictions they faced, how 
these things affected their lives, and how they managed 
or overcame them.

Anna interviews people from both sides of the tracks – the Stasi as well as the people (their victims). Again, it raises all sorts of questions about how far people will go to survive in extreme circumstances.

When I first read this book, I was so taken with it that I made a guy I was dating read it. He loved it so much, he read it twice and when we broke up, I had to demand it back. He’d folded the corners to mark his page. If we didn’t split up then, we definitely would have once I’d discovered this fact.

3. After Cleo: Came Jonah by Helen Brown.
This is where things turn a little less high brow. My mum’s friend loaned her this book, and mum loaned it to me. I wasn’t that keen to read it, to be honest. It looked like mainstream, trashy, old lady, girly pulp fiction type drivel to me. But you know what, I couldn’t put it down. And I’m dying to know what happened to the family and their cat.

It’s a biography of sorts, written by a woman who adopts a troubled cat, whose daughter moves overseas to live in a monastery, and who is diagnosed with breast cancer. It sounds quite melodramatic, but it is actually very engaging and beautiful. It considers all kinds of relationships, love, loss, freedom, faith and independence, with a bit of humour and quirkiness. It was easy to read and follow, and light and happy and positive. A genuinely nice book that proves you can't judge 
a book by its cover (ha!).

4. The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas.
My mother-in-law gave me this for my birthday not long after I’d returned from India. It flicks between the past, with a newly wed couple doing their thing in India as missionaries as British rule falls, and the present, with their granddaughter discovering her grandmother’s Kashmir shawl in her dead mother’s drawers and deciding to trace its – and her grandparents – history. Naturally she uncovers a secret and falls in love in the process.

I took me a little to get into it, but after a chapter or two, 
I was hooked. It’s quite a gentle, beautiful story. I was taken with the idea of someone being inspired to drop everything to go overseas because of a beautiful shawl. So spontaneous and irresponsible and adventurous! I also loved the relationships that developed between the characters, past and present, and how the characters themselves grow.

The book must have been pretty well written, because I can still see many of the scenes in my mind – the Irish fields, Swiss mountain ranges, and Indian houseboats, gardens, villages, mountain crossings and rabid dogs. An imaginary visual feast, if you like.

5. Shadow of the Moon by MM Kaye.
Now, this is a sweeping, melodramatic saga if ever there was one. This book is one of my mum’s favourites – I have no idea how many times she’s read it or how many copies of it she’s owned. I was skeptical when she gave it to me and told me to read it. But it was worth every one of those 800-odd pages.

Shadow of the Moon follows a family over several generations as they are involved with and affected by the British rule of India and India’s ultimate fight for independence. It features several love stories, with a good dose of honour, heroism, adventure, sex, violence and family drama thrown in. It also features some good, strong female characters.

This fictional tale references real events and details well how life would have been 
during that tumultuous, nasty period. It makes you appreciate how lucky 
we have it, really.

6. The Island House by Posie Graeme Evans
Another novel with chapters that alternate between past and present, and featuring another woman embarking on another adventure. This woman inherits the only house on a remote Scottish island from her estranged archaeologist father. She packs up her life in Sydney, hops on a plane and boat, and takes up residence there, hoping to write her thesis in peace. Unfortunately, her dad had been digging on the island and disturbed some troubled, love lorn Viking-era spirits in the process, so she has to clean up his mess.

This is no great piece of literature, but it’s catchy and easy to read. There’s some historical detail, a little romance, mystery, self-discovery, beautiful scenery, and a nice story tying it together. These are key ingredients for any good book in my view. But what really stuck with me was the historical part of the story, the description of the harsh and uncertain life the people lived at the time, and the role of religion, faith and family in day-to-day life. It also must have been pretty exciting for the woman to reconnect with her father and his work, albeit posthumously, and to explore the island’s history, solve a mystery and rediscover her passion for archeology. And all while falling in love. What more can you ask for?

7. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
This is an award-winning fictional retelling of factual events – the execution of a woman found guilty of murder in Iceland. It’s dark, and a bit twisted and gruesome in parts. Sometimes it’s a little irritating and slow, and sometimes you want it to slow down to try to delay or stop the execution (especially as Hannah implies the woman is innocent). It took me a few chapters to get into the book, but this woman’s story, her life and death, keeps popping into my mind.

I watched a documentary on this novel and Hannah Kent. Her description of researching and writing this story was haunting. It was like she was possessed by the main character, guided by her spirit. I’ve also been to Iceland, and through Hannah’s writing, I could see the stark, icy landscape and glaciers, the cottages spotted around the mountains. I could smell the earth, animals and musty rooms, and feel the icy winds, rain and fire. I could also feel the woman’s fear, longing, frustration, isolation, resignation, and love for her man and the family who took her in at the end. How do you forget something like that?

Want more?

An honourable mention goes to these authors. 

·       Tim Winton. Excluding his most recent work (Eyrie), you can’t really go wrong with Tim. I don’t know if it was Scission or A minimum of two (both collections of short stories) that hooked me, but I discovered him when I was about 15. I love his early work the most. I still think about the woman lying on the grass, trying to tan away the silvery stretch marks from her pregnancy, and the man taking his toddler son for a wee and the ammonia smell of it.

·       Tim Richards. I’ve probably read Duckness (a collection of short stories) three times (and I don’t usually read a book more than once). It was quirky and easy to read. Other than that, I’m not sure why I liked it so much, but I really did. His other fiction books are also pretty good.


  1. I also would like to be Anna Funder (have you read All that I am?). You have given me a few ideas for books to put on the never ending pile - i had heard of Burial Rites and meant to pick it up so thanks for the kick in the butt. I also love books about Germany before and during WW2 (love is probably the wrong word really?) so A woman in Berlin sounds like it might be good.

    I generally read large wordy non fiction titles about Australian History. However they are generally not train friendly so i will also read classics (reading Dickens Bleak House at the moment), favourite award winners (love Geraldine Brooks and in recent years Hilary Mantel) and the occasional "popular" title (reading Gone Girl at the moment too).

    You have given me an idea for my blog (which no one is allowed to read at the moment!) which unsurprisingly has a bookish bent.

    Happy reading!!!

    1. Ooh my first comment! :)

      How cool is Anna Funder?! Yes, I have also read 'All that I am'. It was quite good, but not as good as 'Stasiland', in my expert opinion. I know what you mean - perhaps 'intrigued by' or 'captivated by' is the right wording?

      I enjoyed Geraldine Brooks' 'People of the book'. Haven't read any Hilary Mantel (that I remember) or 'Gone girl' (was thinking about seeing the movie). Will check them out :)

      You're a better bookworm than me! I don't know that I could bring myself to read a big non-fiction tome about Australian history. And I tried reading some of the classics when I was younger, but got bored quickly (perhaps I should try again - I enjoyed my recent foray into watching period dramas).

      Keep us posted about your blog! I'm intrigued!