Spring Reading Tag

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How to use the extra hours of light

This is really a Booktube thing (I came across it on Victoria’s wonderful channel, Eve’s Alexandria), but I don’t have a Booktube channel, because I cannot even contemplate a) my hair and un-made-up face on video; I can handle photography because it allows for posing, and b) audio of my ridiculous speaking voice with its wandering accent. So I have hijacked this tag—because I fancy doing something a bit frivolous and non-review-related—and turned it into a normal, twentieth-century blog post. Forgive!

  1. What books are you most excited to read over the next few months?

WELL. I have a pile of proofs for the next three months, so I’ll have to select a few to highlight. I’m incredibly excited about the genre-bending The Fact of a Body, a combination of true crime and narrative non-fiction/personal essay by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, and about Queer City, Peter Ackroyd’s history of LGBTQIA London. I’m also eagerly anticipating Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir The Hate Race, which if it’s anything like her story collection Foreign Soil will be amazing, and Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi, a definitive history of anti-Black thought in America. Non-proof-wise, I need to read George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo stat, and I have the second Slough House book by Mick Herron (Dead Lions), China Miéville’s The City and the City, and Richard Powers’s The Time of Our Singing, all lined up.

2. What book most makes you think of Spring, for whatever reason?

Obviously, The Enchanted April—what’s more spring-like than rediscovering love and happiness in a coastal castle in Italy? Less obviously, Anna Karenina, which I’ve read two or three times, always in the spring. (The big Russians are impossible for me to get through without the incentive of light evenings.)

3. The days are getting longer – what is the longest book you’ve read?

Probably The Faerie Queene, or The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (aka The New Arcadia, which is a good deal longer than The Old Arcadia.) I can’t check the latter’s page count, but the former is 1,248 pages of densely printed early modern allegorical poetry. Plus endnotes.

4. What books would you recommend to brighten someone’s day?

I always, always recommend I Capture the Castle for questions like this, because it’s lovely and tender and detailed and eccentric and you don’t have to work hard to get into it. But I’d also say The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett—so short, so adorable—and, if cheering up is essential, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, which may be the funniest book I’ve ever read. If Toole isn’t your style, Bill Bryson might do: I love A Walk In the Woods, where Bryson tries to walk the Appalachian Trail, and The Lost Continent, charting a Great American Road Trip, with equal affection. And there are the Adrian Mole books by Sue Townsend: equal contenders with Toole for funniest books in English.

5. Spring brings new life in nature – think up a book that doesn’t exist but you wish it did. (eg by a favourite author, on a certain theme or issue etc)

Victoria already mentioned the third book in Hilary Mantel’s series focusing on Thomas Cromwell; to that I’ll add a sequel to Nicola Griffith’s Hild, a lush, detailed novel about the girl who became Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, of which we were promised a second volume some years ago. Also, a book I’ve already declared I’m going to write myself, about parenthood, where the mum is a brilliant but detached theoretical physicist and the dad struggles to find self-fulfilment and identity after becoming a father. (Spoilers: he eventually opens his own yoga studio.)

6. Spring is also a time of growth – how has your reading changed over the years?

Obviously, the answer to this depends on how far back I go. My reading records span nearly a decade—it was June 2007 when I started writing down the title and author of each book I completed—and two things strike me about that stretch of time. One is that I read with much greater direction now; when I was fourteen, I basically wandered around picking up things that looked interesting or that I thought I ought to read, which meant I covered swathes of 18th, 19th and 20th century fiction, but missed a lot of stuff that wasn’t high-profile (though I did read Tobias Smollett, which almost no one does.) These days, while I don’t project my reading terribly far into the future, I have a sense of what I’m interested in at the moment, and tailor my book acquisitions to help me build a picture of a field or a genre or a time period. The second thing is that my speed of reading has increased. In high school I could finish around twelve books a month; in university that dropped because of coursework, which led to a lot of bitty reading (individual articles or essays instead of whole monographs); at present, less than four months into the year, I’ve read nearly sixty books. I think, also, I’m now using the critical skills developed at university to engage with contemporary texts, which I didn’t do much before—I had some sense that a book needed to be Old or A Classic for me to use those tools on it, which strikes me now as kind of a sweet but callow attitude.

7. We’re a couple of months into the new year – how’s your reading going?

See above—really well! It could be the best year since records began. The vast majority of what I’ve read, too, has been very good. I’ve encountered a lot of authors for the first time who’ve convinced me I have to read more of their work: Mick Herron, Joanna Kavenna, Rick Bass, Kei Miller, Colson Whitehead. I’ve read a lot of debut authors who have impressed me: Laura Kaye, Daniel Magariel, Danielle Dutton. I’ve had an amazing time shadowing the Baileys Prize. It’s all going swimmingly so far.

8. Any plans you’re looking forward to over the next few months?

Not especially—I haven’t signed up for any challenges or clubs. But I’m excited to read through the backlists of some of the authors I’ve just discovered. And I would like to do a bit better with reading the older books on our sitting room shelves which come from the Chaos’s grandparents’ house: I’ve quite a substantial reading gap in the shape of C20 men (William Golding, Robertson Davies, C.P. Snow, Laurence Durrell), which they could help with. Plus the collection includes Japanese lit, science, and poetry, all of which looks interesting too.

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Q&A with Shirley Barrett, author of Rush Oh!

Shirley Barrett is an Australian screenwriter and film director whose work has won multiple prizes, including the Camera d’Or at Cannes, the Queensland Premier’s Prize, and the West Australian Premier’s Prize. Rush Oh!, her first novel, is a story of whaling, rural life, and first love, set on the west coast of Australia in the early years of the twentieth century. I reviewed it here, and was hugely impressed by its balance of a light comedic voice with serious personal and political material. Its depiction of the mutual respect between a whaling crew and a pod of killer whales made it stand out–and it’s all based on a true story.

I was lucky enough to be able to ask Shirley some questions about Rush Oh!, and she kindly answered them below.

 

 

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George Davidson with the body of “Old Tom”, leader of the Eden killer whales

How did you first come across the story of the Eden killer whales?

It’s such a long time ago that I barely remember, but I think I learned about them at the Australian Natural History Museum, here in Sydney. I love an animal story, and I liked the way the whalers had given them all names, identifying them by their dorsal fins.  So I went down to Eden (about six hours south of Sydney) to find out more. Eden is very proud of its unique whaling history, and there is a lovely little museum in which Tom’s skeleton is the centrepiece. He is surprisingly huge, and has what looks suspiciously like a rope groove on one of his back teeth, which is possibly from his high jinks towing fishing boats out to sea and hanging off the whale line.

 The book is especially impressive to me because of the way it engages with Aboriginal Australians. As part of the whaling crew, they’re treated equally and with respect, but as a potential husband for Louisa, Darcy is considered completely off the cards. Did it surprise you to find that race relations in 1908 were so inconsistent? Or is that artistic license?

White Australia has a terrible record in regard to its treatment of the indigenous people, and the only surprising thing really is that the Aboriginal whalers do seem to have been treated well by the Davidson family, and certainly they worked closely together for many years.  But to be honest, there’s so little documented material on the Aboriginal whalers that no one really knows for sure. Certainly particular Aboriginal whale men returned every season to work for the Davidsons. As for Darcy running off with Louisa, it seems that would have been extremely unusual.  While there were many documented marriages between white men and Aboriginal women, the reverse was very seldom seen (or at least, documented) at the time. It seems to have been considered much more scandalous – and perhaps consequently hushed up.

Mary’s voice is marvelous: evocative of her era without being too stilted. It reminded me of the technique used in the recent remake of True Grit (removing all contractions, and doing very little else, so that the language sounds more formal and old-fashioned but not silly.) How did you find or develop that voice for her?  

Thank you! Mary’s voice came to me so easily and effortlessly that after I finished Rush Oh! I feared I’d never be able to write in any other voice. Perhaps because Rush Oh! existed as a feature film script first (see below), Mary was already a fully fleshed-out character in my mind before I had to commit to writing a first-person narrative.

You made your name as a screenwriter; would you ever consider adapting Rush Oh! into a miniseries? (I’d watch it…)

 Rush Oh! started out as a feature film script – a much more bare-bones version of the story that culminated in the Plain and Fancy Dress Ball. I tried for years to get producers interested, but all those whaling scenes would have to be computer-generated, of course, so it would be horribly expensive – certainly much more than the usual budgets of Australian films. In the end, I gave up, but I loved the world so much, I decided to have a crack at it as a novel, never having written a novel before. But yes, it would be lovely if a nice producer with access to vast pots of money wanted to turn it into something…

Do you know (or have your own private suspicions about) what/who John Beck really is? 

 That’s a good question!  I think I am as mystified as Mary as to who he was and what his intentions were… certainly I feel reluctant to commit to any one particular version, even just for myself! I’d come across the story of ‘The Missing Clergyman’ in the Eden newspapers of the time (Mary refers to this story in the book), and I loved the idea that this Methodist minister just took off with another woman, and sent his wife a telegram from Suva announcing that he’d drowned!  I suppose I especially loved the idea that it was so easy – apparently – to “shape shift” at that time, perhaps especially in Australia – just change your identity and start out as someone else…  Who knows? Perhaps John Beck has returned to the Church and is the new minister that Mary is about to meet over cheese and celery sandwiches [at the end of the book]…

The relationship between George Davidson and Old Tom is one of my favourites in the book (“He’s a good fish is Tom”! Preserving and polishing his skeleton! It’s wonderful.) How many of these details came from contemporary sources, and how many did you invent?

I really tried not to embellish anything about the killer whales because the story is amazing enough as it is. Tom was very, very well loved in Eden (the obituary and poem written in his honour are all straight from the Eden newspapers of the time). There are many newspaper accounts of his exploits, and he does seem to have been a bit of a scallywag – towing hapless fishermen about the bay, hanging off the whale line so he could be dragged about by the whale, jumping out of the water and crushing George’s hand in his teeth! Tom kept returning to Eden even when whaling had stopped and the other killers had stopped coming, and his body washed up in Twofold Bay when he died, by then a very old killer whale. There was definitely a feeling in the town that Tom’s death marked the end of an era, and needed to be commemorated somehow.  George stripped down the carcase and preserved his skeleton, and funds were raised within the town to build the museum that houses his skeleton. (The photo above is of George on Tom’s carcase.)

 How did you approach the challenge of writing fiction based on a true story? How do you decide what to leave in, what to keep out, even just how to consolidate all of the information from the primary sources?

I made a decision early on that I would keep the character of George Davidson because I wanted to use actual newspaper accounts within the book, and George of course is frequently mentioned. But I invented a whole new set of offspring for him so I could be unconstrained and write the sort of exuberant romp that I wanted the story to be. The actual story of the Davidsons is very rich and very interesting but much sadder – there was a good deal of tragedy, and I didn’t want to venture there. So I was aware of taking a huge liberty, and I was very nervous about the reaction of the Davidson descendants, some of whom still live in the area. They have never made any kind of formal response, but I get the feeling they are not too thrilled about it – and I can’t really blame them. But I tried only to be respectful of George in my writing, and I hope that as some kind of compensation, the book brings more attention to him, the Davidsons, and the killer whale story in general.

What are you working on now?

I work as a television director/scriptwriter, so mostly I have been doing that! I am itching to stop and get back to novel-writing, because I had the loveliest time writing Rush Oh! and I miss it.  But I have just finished a horror novella, which was fun – of course then when I finished, I realise there’s not much of a market for novellas, so now I’m not really sure what to do with it! 

Rush Oh! is published in the UK on 4 February, by Virago Books. You can read my (glowing) review of it here.